Saturday, January 6, 2018

Discipleship plan

I recently happened upon a plan for discipleship from the United Methodist church in the US. It perfectly demonstrates a big problem with church in the US today. I’m not talking about the bad arguments for god or fundamentalist handbooks telling you to watch out for your children turning gay. I’m talking about churches that want to be active in their communities, working for peace and justice and helping people who need food, shelter and clothing. The kind of things we want non-profit community organizations to be doing. The kind of things that reflect universal human values.

You may already know where things like this go. You could skip to the end. I try to bridge the gap between humanist values and expressions of faith like this. But if you’re not familiar with what goes on in church planning meetings, read on.

The workbook attempted to help leaders find new members and new ways to motivate the congregation to do good things. Like most workbooks of this nature, it wasted a lot of words, but that’s not what was really wrong with it. The problem was, when it finally got to saying what the underlying motivation should be, it didn’t say anything. It addressed this as a potential problem then solved it with Bible verses. It said you can’t just tell people “because god said so”, then it said, “because god said so”. Like this:

 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28 NIV)

This is known as The Great Commission. Not really a difficult choice for a passage in a pamphlet about mission statements. And, just to be sure you know the leadership is on board, he cuts and pastes from the 2016 Book of Discipline (the book the Methodists vote on to restate their theology in modern terms) "The mission of the UMC is: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

He focuses here was on the word “go”, saying “Methodists are a going church”. There is some tradition to that, some historical evidence. There are Methodist hospitals. There are community support groups. Their international aid arm functions more like a non-profit than a missionary group. They do actually help people build infrastructure and become self-supported. They were chosen by the Gates Foundation for one of the largest secular/church collaborations ever.So, I’m not saying they don’t do things, but I think it has more to do with them having the resources, not some magic that has roots in the 1st century.

He suggests the “Why, How, What” approach. I was first introduced to this by my sales training from Apple computers. You’re supposed to start with the “why”, but he goes straight to “what”. A couple pages later, he shows the outward growing circle from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”. You would be better off just reading that book.

I can see why he thought this workbook needed to be made. He sees the problem. He shows the numbers. 80% of the people who are Methodists were born into a family of Methodists and raised in the church. It’s hard to get members any other way. The early church offered something new and once it had established a base it helped that a person could travel from Jerusalem to Rome and find that community. But what the church offers can be found in so many other ways now, that is no longer an advantage.

He continues with quotes, this time from the founder of the denomination, John Wesley. It is from his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation” that is just as vacuous, but it is responded to by the pamphlet writer as if it is the way the truth the light. I’ll spare you that one.

I can see how he gets the problem he is up against. After a half page about children asking “why” and parent’s responding “because”, he says, “So why is it that when we ask, Why do we make disciples? we often respond, Because Jesus said so? … ultimately it is not a good “why.” But this is exactly what he has been doing, giving you “not good whys”. When he gets to suggestions for how to write your own mission statement, he comes up with an example like this, “A disciple is one who knows Christ, is growing in Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ.”

What I can’t tell by reading it is; what did the author of this think? As he was compiling it, I can see how he was motivated. He knows what experiences he has had, but it can be a challenge to translate that motivation into a workbook. At some point, he needed to find Bible verses that describe the feelings of joy in fellowship that he experienced and express them in a way that inspires others. I can relate, because I tried to do that.

When I did, I found there just wasn’t anything there, unless I believed it was there. The feelings I had of community were more due to the people I was in relationship with than my relationship with a text or a worldwide organization or with a holy spirit. This is why you will often hear people talk of their local church when they are defending the idea of church. You might begin by asking them what motivates them, and asking if they believe in what the Pope says or whomever their leaders are. When they realize they are not completely in line with their own denomination’s theology, they will switch to saying that you need to come to their church and experience their community, and then you will see. That’s fine. I understand the sentiment, but it’s true of any organization that is accomplishing anything worthwhile. You don’t need a god to get that.

When I look at things like this, I often wonder what doubts are arising in the people writing it. Are they, as I once did, realizing that it is a struggle to find just what Jesus was talking about? Are they even further along, seeing that he was talking about blood sacrifices and ultimate battles of good vs evil that have not survived modern rational thought and scientific inquiry? Or, do they believe that if 3 wise men followed a star to a virgin birth, then there must be something to all this and it’s not for them to question?

Do they at least believe that a man who spoke of peace, and then acted peacefully, even when given the death penalty, actually caused a significant shift in the history of the world? Do they believe the thoughts of this one man are more important than the few people who wrote them down as well as the thoughts of everyone who has read them and thought about them and built on them and expanded on them and interpreted them? Do they believe that the changes in theology over the ages are explained by God slowly revealing his truth, or is it us discovering the truths of nature and adjusting theology to fit them?

In a sense, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because we can arrive at the same place without answering them. We can all agree that we should educate our children in the history of thought and culture as well as the amazing details of how things work. We all need food and air and water and there is just this one planet where we can get those. We can be in constant battle over those resources or figure out how to cooperate and make them available to more of us. You can address all those questions with universal ideas like “love your neighbor” and a maybe a few more technical details.

In another sense, the answer to whether or not Jesus caused anything matters very much. It changes our focus. If Jesus can affect our lives directly, we should know that. If the fate of our eternal soul is in jeopardy, we should know that. If not, it’s a distraction. It might be a good inspiring story that helps us remember to reach out and touch the sick and bring them into the community, but reading those same stories over and over again takes time away from doing the work.

If, to get people motivated to work with us, we need to frighten them with hell or convince them there is something unseen that has consequences, or promise there are supernatural forces available to them, then maybe the problem is with the work we are asking them to do, not the motivation for doing it. If the work is good, but they are not inspired by the child who’s teeth are straightened or eyes are corrected or who learns a trade and goes on to help another village somewhere, then maybe we need to help them understand how helping others helps all of us.

After 30 pages, he finally gets to a list of actual things to do. Most of them are lifted straight from Matthew 25; feed the hungry, visit the sick. He also lists “works of Piety”, like public worship and fasting and reading God’s word. Brief phrases like this are all the Bible has to offer as far as I can tell.

There isn’t a passage that spells it out in simple terms, but I think the message from the early gospels is that we only have each other. It is a story of people who want to get rid of the temple culture that required constant sacrifices. They were written at a time when leadership was partnering with the ones who had conquered them and were oppressing them. In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus says the Sabbath is made for man, and in Romans 13:8-10 Paul says the new law is the law of love. That’s inspiration enough for me.

New Year 2018

I know some of you might find this surprising coming from me, but looking back over this last year, the world is actually pretty awesome. I know about the bad things, you know I do. I argue for change all the time. I want things to be better. That’s why I speak up. I considered moving to a cabin in the woods a long time ago, but I decided it’s better to stay engaged with the world.

I fight because I can. I have accumulated advantages from previous generations and I paid my dues to show that I return value for what I have. Life isn’t fair so that formula doesn’t work for everyone. As we found out this year, a lot of women didn’t have that choice. If they had spoken up, their careers would have been over and we would have never heard of them. Some of them lived long enough to see justice. They are preceded by many who did not.

I know the word “divided” has come up a lot this year. As if generations were always on the same page before, or North/South and East/West are some never before known demographics that have been discovered. But we don’t fight the same kind of wars over these like we use to. We respect boundaries and cultures. We don’t pillage. We vote. We don’t conquer. Not everywhere in the world of course, but a least in the US that means no matter where you are, you’re going to bump into someone who didn’t vote the way you did. You can argue with them if you want, or you could celebrate that our children are healthy and are getting an education despite those differences. Maybe we should make sure that happens first, then get back to arguing about a policy that only affects people who have more than 10 million dollars in the bank.

This idea that people with slightly different values than us are tearing apart the fabric of society is very old. It used to be that you were sacrificing the wrong things on the wrong altar. More recently it’s about how wealth is distributed and how ownership is claimed. It has become less of an academic exercise and more of a spectacle. As it becomes more of a farce, the easier it is for the looters to walk off with whatever they want. It’s not a secret conspiracy, they do it right out in the open.

Meanwhile, we keep making progress. We see farther into space which means seeing back in time. We understand our bodies and minds better. We can read things from thousands of years ago that very few people, even those from the time they were written, have ever read. We see connections between keeping our hair in place and ripping a hole in the protective layer on the edge of space. We take corrective actions before we kill ourselves. Hopefully.

In case you didn’t get the reference: