Relative Change or Real Change for the UMC?

In teaching Wesleyan theology I have come to describe justifying grace as the point at which we experience relative change, a straightening out of our relationship to God through Christ. I have described sanctifying grace as real change when we actually become like Christ. Our faith matrix as Wesleyans is best described as a house. Prevenient grace is the steps to the house. Repentance is the porch of the house. The doorway into the house is justifying grace. The whole house is sanctifying grace. We’re not people who want others or ourselves to stay on the steps, the porch, or at the doorway. For Wesley and our denomination we want people to experience the grand house of holiness – personal and social holiness that transforms the world and us.

As we ponder the Call to Action we need to remember our theology no matter if we’re liberal, moderate, or conservative. Pardon the use of labels, but name tags are on my mind as I just got back from the National BMCR meeting and am about to fly out to a Connectional Table meeting. We like to wear name tags at these meetings. Name tags tell other people who we are, and they’re also a reminder to us as to who we are. As hectic as life gets that’s a nice fringe benefit. I usually don’t care for name tags. I like being anonymous. On a trip a few years ago to Christ UMC in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, a group of us large church United Methodist ministers were on hand to survey how that church does its ministry. We went to all four worship services taking in each service’s nuance. They wanted us to sit together down front with name tags. I wanted to sit unobtrusively in the balcony without a name tag. I thought it would better help me accurately gauge the congregation and the services. People treat you differently if they know who you are. Sometimes I would rather get lost in the crowd and observe.

Simon Peter tried that tactic after Jesus was arrested. In the courtyard of the High Priest’s home Peter tried to hide the fact that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He didn’t want to stand out. Simon Peter didn’t want anyone to associate him with Galilee or anyone from there. He ended up preserving his secret identity by denying Jesus three times. He kept his secret but almost lost his soul. We need to remember who we are and Whose we are however much we like to be secret agents for God. A church member was asked why he didn’t witness for Jesus more. His reply, “I’m in the secret service!” Sure, it is better to do good deeds without fanfare or calling attention to ourselves, but sometimes we let Jesus down by not giving Christ the credit that he’s due for the things that God does through us.

If we want the Call to Action to work we better get/understand who we are and do something with that knowledge. I’m going to dare call it an age-old term that’s loaded with baggage for many – “witnessing.” Craig Bird describes witnessing in his article, “Gearing Up for God.” He writes: “Ancient Rome: Two strangers meet along a dusty road. Miles pass in pleasant conversation. Obscure references to religious ideas slip into the dialogue. The men sense a spiritual kinship but are wary of expressing it. After all, Christianity is a criminal offense punishable by death. They stop to rest. The discussion rambles from the latest war news to the price of bread and the hijinks of the Roman Senate. The younger of the two pushes his walking stick through the dust as he talks, tracing half an oval. The older man glances at the mark, then into the eyes of his new acquaintance, and quickly around to see who else might be paying attention. Then with his own staff, he draws a mirror image, connecting with the first line at one end but intersecting it at the other. “He is risen!” he exclaims. “He is risen indeed!” comes the reply.

Modern Rome: Two American tourists meet while waiting to clear customs. One wears a $50 pullover knit shirt. The logo replicates what the ancient Christians drew in the dirt – an emblem of a fish. The other sports a baseball cap with a four-letter acronym on the crown: WWJD? “Nice shirt,” says one. “Great hat,” says the other. What a difference a few centuries make. The cost attached to that original Christian icon was severe. Display the fish symbol, and the culture could demand you pay with your life. In the 21st century, the cost of Christian symbols is more ambiguous. Christian gear – clothes, jewelry, bumper stickers and related merchandise – generates an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of those purchases is more difficult to peg.

Some evangelicals say “Christian wear” is an effective witnessing tool. Others say it does more harm than good, particularly when the actions of Christians contradict their T-shirts. Some things haven’t changed over the centuries. Now, as then, Christian symbols remain a means of identifying “friendlies.” But what was once a furtive code for a persecuted religious minority is now a spiritual fashion statement. While early Christians contemplated, often in the dank darkness of the underground tombs of Rome, how to live faithfully the example of Jesus, today’s believers, especially evangelicals, are apt to broadcast that intention on brightly colored bracelets and T-shirts asking, “What Would Jesus Do?”’ I think a better idea is putting our money where our mouth is, our faith into action, and our love into good works more than words! But if we don’t tell people the Reason (Jesus) why we do good works then we might as well be Rotarians. I’ve been in Rotary and their “Four-Way Test” is pretty darn good. Jesus is even better.

As I ponder the Call to Action and the proposed restructuring of the United Methodist Church I am more and more fearful that we are rearranging deck chairs and not emphasizing Jesus enough as the why. There’s much good to be sure in the proposals, but a structural solution to a spiritual problem only gets us so far. Repentance and revival are needed to grow our church. We have to call on the Lord! Metrics may help us gauge how well we’re doing. Developing new missions and ministries, small groups, better leaders, and relevancy to younger people are great strategies to be sure, but the word everyone is avoiding is “evangelism.” We have to shed our anonymity and get right with God while we dare to speak to people about God’s marvelous grace in Jesus. That’s a call to action that will do much more good in turning our church around. If we want people to know Christ we have got to invite them from the steps into the house!

8 thoughts on “Relative Change or Real Change for the UMC?

  1. Tim: I have been reading your blog with great interest. This morning you struck a chord that had a recurring melody in my ministry. I agree that too often proposals to “reform” or “re-energize” the United Methodist Church look good on paper but have little to do with what is going on / or not going on in the hearts of those we serve as pastors. We can moved the deck chairs around, give them new names, but the people who sit in those chairs (the members of our congregations) are not fooled or changed. I believe that no “human change” will do it. What we need are people who are truly aware of their spiritual heritage which began with the gift of God’s spirit. Thanks for your comments and insights.

  2. Tim: Great blog. I also use the steps/porch/door/house metaphor. After 25+ years of preaching/teaching in United Methodist churches, I’ve come to the conclusion that a vast majority of members entered the house without somehow using the steps/porch/door. They were plopped right into the house and urged to do things and adopt values that appeared “faithful” or “religious.” In doing so, they were robbed of the recognition of prevenient grace, the experience of repentance not as sorrow but as a new direction and the change in relationship with God in Christ found in justifying grace.

  3. Reblogged this on The Pilgrim and commented:
    I grew up Methodist, and they are in many ways the younger brother (sister) of the Episcopal Church. In recent years partially because of my move back to Anglicanism I’ve also moved closer to the faith of my childhood, and like the Episcopal Church you can see them wrestling with their identity too.

  4. AMEN TIM! I AM PRAYING THAT YOU WILL BECOME A BISHOP! The Methodist church and all christian churches need your an leadership at this time.I also wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your article on ST. VALENTINE.


  5. I agree with your assessment that one cannot apply a “structural solution to a spiritual problem.” I too believe that our numerical problems have everything to do with our spiritual problems. Our future is dependent upon a renewed spiritual vigor that is nothing short of contagious! Thanks for your thoughts!

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