I love the church! But I love my little tribe more.

Nancy Gibbs gave a wonderful speech which was adapted for TIME magazine titled How we Deserted Common Ground. The piece is directed to journalists but is worth reading because she is a very good writer and her insights are always helpful.

In Gibbs' article she cites Yale Law professor Dan Kahan who said, "What people 'believe' about global warming doesn't' reflect what they know, it expresses who they are." Clearly this is not limited to global warming. To make the case, Gibbs also cites a southern Democratic Senator who said the debate over gun control is "about who you are and who you aren't." 

When we are more concerned about our personal brand, our ratings, number of likes, and retweets, every issue is not about the issue but a proxy discussion for how we desire to be seen. It stands to reason that the debates in the United Methodist Church are also about "who you are and who you aren't." 

And therein lies the difficulty of the situation we are in. We are so insecure of who we are in Christ that we have to constantly define ourselves as something else. "We are orthodox Wesleyan." "We are the prophetic voices of God." We are arguing with others in order to show them who we are, all the while unaware that who we really feel we need to convince is is our own tribe.

A large reason we continue to be entrenched is because if we give the impression that we are not 100% with our tribe then we risk our tribe abandoning us. And hell hath no fury as a tribe who eats their own for not being pure enough for the tribe. So in order to avoid being cannibalized by our own tribe, we take steps to prove our tribal devotion which moves us farther away other non-tribe members. 

This is why we all have words and ideas that we don't like to use. Conservatives do not like to identify themselves as social justice advocates (even though they they are) because even as they believe in social justice they don't want to give the impression they are liberal. And Liberals don't want to talk about how they are orthodox (even thought they are) because to do so means they could give the impression they are conservative. 

Much of the arguing in the church that divides us farther apart is rooted in efforts to convince our own tribe of who we are. And there is no greater devotion to the little tribe than being willing to break the larger Church for the sake of the little tribe.

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How to Shrink Your Church - by Tim Suttle

A few days ago, the recently retired Rev. Mike Slaughter tweeted this little article (gem) from 2011. 

In the event you did not read the article in full, the author is a pastor named Tim Suttle. His main argument is stated in the opening paragraph:

Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance -- to be a bigger church. I'm absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.

Rev. Suttle argues that the drive to get larger churches is fueled by two sources: Sentimentality and pragmatism.

He defines sentimentality as: "tell me something that will make me feel better".

There are many seminarians who have a ton of conversation about the creeping sentimentality in a church. The sentimentality is very real conversation that needs to happen, but my interests reside in the conversation about pragmatism.

He defines pragmatism as "tell me something that will work".

The emphasis on the pragmatic is something that has come into the mind of anyone who has taken a class and thought, "why do I need to know this? I will never use this in my life!" While seminaries and church leadership work to diminish sentimentality in the church, these same bodies work to elevate pragmatic.

For instance, every preaching class I have ever taken or any church leader that I have head speak about preaching there is an emphasis on the practical. Every sermon needs a "take away" or a "life application" for the people. The assumption is that unless the preacher can give a practical application of the sermon then the sermon is severely lacking. Preachers need to speak to people's heads (teach), heart (inspire) and hands (action). 

Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash

If pragmatism continues to be idolized in the preaching moment then the proclamation of the Gospel will devolve into a Jesus-sheen TED Talk. Or even worse, preaching will move from a symbiotic relationship to a co-dependent one. Where preacher and congregation are less interested in the difficult process of dying to ourselves and more interested in weekly Christian life hacks.

I encourage you to read the Suttle article which lays all this out much better.

Uniting Methodists - Wheat and Weeds

The United Methodist Church is facing the reality of becoming a monoculture denomination. (Monoculture in the church is something that I have touched on before below are a few links to previous posts for reference).

A monoculture denomination is a denomination that is really good at making one type of thing. This efficiency means a monoculutre denomination may be able to grow in numbers, but like all other monocultures, it is very susceptible to sickness and unhealth. Nonetheless, when there is a lower "yield" than previous years and the numbers do not look good, monocultures are very attractive.

Jesus had a little parable about the kingdom of God and buried within it we can see the resistance Jesus has for the monoculture church. 

Even weeds have beauty

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ - Matt. 13: 24-30

Every side of the denomination feels like they are the wheat and others are the weeds. You know the arguments made by different field workers of today:

  • Traditionalists argue that Progressives are sowing seeds of disobedience and seek to uproot the entire orthodox tradition.
  • Progressives argue that Traditionalists are sowing seeds of contempt and seek to uproot justice for the sake of compliance.
  • Non-Compatibleists on both sides argue that those in the are sowing seeds of fear and seek to uproot the whole church for the sake of a Pollyannan idea of unity that is lukewarm at best. 
  • Compatibleists argue that the extremes are sowing seeds of anger and are determined to uproot the entire church out of their self-righteous peacocking. 

The reality is we all are convinced that we are the wheat and others are the weeds. We all are convinced that we are good enough at this thing called Christianity that we can remove the weeds without harming the wheat. 

Jesus says otherwise. 

Jesus reminds us all that we are not very good at all at discerning wheat from weeds and even if we could, we are so inept that we do much more harm than we realize.

I read this parable in part as a caution against the attraction to a monoculture denomination. In our efforts to be as faithful as possible (growing only wheat) we will always find things/people we believe are not faithful (weeds). The Uniting Methodists stand with those who heed the call of the master and, despite our frustration, let the wheat and the weeds grow together. The Uniting Methodist stand with the humble servants who were confronted with their own limitations. The Uniting Methodists stand with those who trust that the Master is okay with wheat and weeds in the field.

If we cannot live with the weeds in God's field, then perhaps our anger/frustration is less about the weeds and more about our own lack of faithful discipleship.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Holiness not Purity

During the course of the Uniting Methodist Conference, author David N. Field, lead the group by lecturing from some of the material of his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity

One of the key points Mr. Field unpacked was the role of holiness in the Wesleyan theological framework. For the sake of brevity in this post I wanted to highlight one major clarification about holiness in the Wesleyan tradition. 

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Growing up I was told that holiness was meant to mean "that which is set apart". So holy things are things that are set apart for a special use. The Bible is holy and Sabbath is holy. Objects and places can be holy, but so can God. And since God is holy, God is "up there" separated from us. There are spirits but there is only one Holy Spirit, which is a part of God but we talked about the Holy Spirit as though it was separated from God in some way. The things that are holy are the things that are set apart and to be treated with reverence. It was not too far off the mark that holiness was just another word for complete and pure.

When we conflate holiness with completeness and purity then we are off the mark. Holiness in the Wesleyan tradition is not an adjective that describes an object, but a verb that describes the Christian life. The holy life is not a pure life but a life that is driven by love. Thus the holy one is the one who moves toward others. When holiness is seen as something that is set apart so in order to avoid contamination, we confuse holiness with purity. 

To quote Field's book:

Holiness is that which distinguishes the Christian community from the broader society. Paradoxically, when the core of holiness is love, then that which is to be the primary distinguishing marker of the Christian community is that which directs the Christians, as individuals, and the church, as a community, away from themselves toward God and others. 

Or more acutely: "Holiness can only exist and grow in the context of relationship with other people" and "we can only grow in holiness as we interact with diverse people." 

And so sitting in the Uniting Methodist Conference it was made even more clear that when we call for a personal holiness and/or a social holiness we are often talking about a personal purity and/or social purity. 

Traditionalists tend to elevate personal holiness, which is great. However, when we talk about personal holiness it sounds a lot like personal purity. Personal holiness means you read your Bible and attend worship but you also don't cuss, smoke, chew drink, have pre-marital sex, etc. If you read your Bible all day long but then cuss while you have a drink at night, your personal holiness (read: purity) is at stake.

Progressives tend to elevate social holiness, which is great as well. However, when we talk about social holiness it sounds a lot like social purity. Social holiness means you march in the streets and advocate for the marginalized, but if you step out of line on a liberal platform you are cannibalized (just google examples of "liberals cannibalizing liberals" for endless examples). If you march all day for equal treatment but then support a candidate who is pro-life your social holiness (read: purity) is at stake.

When the Church confuses holiness as purity then we really all have lost our way as a Church. Holiness is a verb. Purity is adjective. 

Christians live verbs not adjectives.