The Church Formed by the Power of the Word

Fleming Rutledge (an Episcopal priest in New York) is one of the brightest, best biblical preachers whom I know. She has written some wonderful books of sermons and has been an astute critic of some of my preaching. In her essay “A New Liberalism of the Word,” Fleming suggests that the core problem with much of today’s preaching is theological in nature. (Perhaps, at the core, this is always the most significant challenge of preaching in any age – to keep our talk in the pulpit as talk about God in Jesus Christ.)

Fleming says that our theological problem as preachers, “can be precisely identified in the words of Jesus to the Sadducees: ‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’ Jesus’ point against the Sadducees is that the power of God is able to create an entirely new reality that transcends all human categories.” Rutledge notes that the scriptures and the power of God are inextricably related. The scriptures mediate the power of God, a power that has in it the potential to transform and make new. The word is the unique, God-ordained vehicle for God’s transforming power. To know God’s word, to stand and speak God’s word, is to know the miraculous way God uses the word to raise up the church in every age.

Preaching is powerful when it is biblical, when it takes the biblical witness with primary seriousness, when it is first interested, not in the limits of the hearers, or in our felt needs and cares, but in what God, in power, wishes to say to us, how the Holy Spirit, in power, wants to transform us. Nothing can create the church, nothing can raise up a new generation of Christians, we believe, other than the originating, fecund, life-giving power of the word.

Let us meditate on that as we gather in our churches and submit to the Word this Sunday.

Will Willimon

(Fleming’s essay is found in Loving God with Our Minds, ed. Michael Welker and Cynthia Jarvis; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004, p. 252.)

P.S. This month Abingdon Press publishes Undone by Easter, my newest book on preaching. It’s a study of the way that preaching keeps fresh by working with God’s time.

Advertisements

Christians as Consumers or Disciples?

Tony Robinson’s book, What’s Theology Got to Do with It? has some good insights on the theological basis of the church, insights that can help our efforts at congregational renewal in the Wesleyan spirit. This week I continue with some of Tony’s insights that I have found helpful.

Lutheran pastor Michael Foss argues that the central challenge facing many congregations today is to shift their dominant paradigm from being cultures of membership to cultures of discipleship. When Foss describes what he means by a culture of membership, he turns to the model of the now-ubiquitous health club. Writes Foss:

I don’t want to push the analogy too far, but for the sake of illustration, let’s think of the membership model of church as similar to the membership model of the modern health club. One becomes a member of a health club by paying dues (in a church, the monthly or weekly offering). Having paid their dues, the members expect the services of the club to be at their disposal. Exercise equipment, weight room, aerobics classes, an indoor track, swimming pool—all there for them, with a trained staff to see that they benefit by them. Members may bring a guest on occasion, but only those who pay their dues have a right to the use of the facilities and the attention of the staff. There is no need to belabor the point. Many who sit in the pews on Sundays have come to think of church membership in ways analogous to how the fitness crowd views membership in a health club.3

Foss argues that this understanding has misplaced the true purpose of the church and distorted its nature. The point is not membership. The church does not have clients, members, or consumers of goods and services. The point is discipleship. The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ, who are his disciples. Rather than buying into a consumer model of the church, where the customer is king and the church simply meets customers’ needs, the church does more; the church redefines our true needs. The church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ. It unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.

Nevertheless, perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumers of various goods and services, the membership ethos is hard to break. I have noticed, for example, that in many congregations, when a new group gathers for the first time, the default option for introductions tends to take the form of name and number of years of membership. Length of tenure provides some useful information, and there is much to be said for loyalty and commitment, but something else often seems to be going on during such a ritual. A pecking order is established based on length of membership and an insider-outsider dynamic is suggested.
Indeed, as Foss notes, “The membership model identifies who is in and who is out. No wonder those outside the church consistently say that church people are more judgmental than others.”4

One Sunday when I was free from my pastoral responsibilities, I went to visit this small church. I parked on a nearby side street and walked to the front door, which was closed. I pulled on the door and found it would not open. It was locked. The Sunday service was to begin. I knocked on the door. After a while, an older member of the congregation pushed the door open and invited me in, saying, “We usually don’t open this door; everyone knows to come in through the back door.” Well, this arrangement was very cozy and friendly if you were part of the “everyone” who made up the aging and shrinking cohort of the congregation. If not, you hardly felt welcomed. The message was clear: members only. However, and here’s the crucial point, the congregation’s members were oblivious to the message of the locked front door as well as to the implications of their confidence that “everyone knows to come in through the back door.”

Congregations and clergy seemingly have often misconstrued or misunderstood the closing scene in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain and charges them with the Great Commission: “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” (Matt. 28:19-20). Somehow it seems we have heard Jesus say, “Go therefore, and make members . . .”

While at times in the past, clergy or other church leaders may have had so much power and authority that they have been indifferent to the needs, desires, and opinions of church members, I am not advocating this stance as the antidote to religious consumerism. Yet perhaps we have swung in the other direction. Yes, congregational leaders must take seriously the experience of congregational members, but the church is not driven simply by people’s needs and wants. It is driven by God’s dream and purposes for creation.

Will Willimon

Church Renewal as Theological Recovery

Tony Robinson has long been a good friend of mine. He published a book awhile back that gives a wonderfully theological take on church renewal. (What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church, Anthony B. Robinson, Alban Institute, 2006).

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share some of Tony’s insights on the theological purposes of the church.

It concerns me that the literature on what it takes to create healthy congregations includes a great deal on systems theory, leadership studies, conflict management… but little that is explicitly theological or biblical in nature. By and large, it seems that congregational health is not considered to have much to do with either the core convictions of the Christian faith, theology, or the Bible. In particular, little attention is paid to ecclesiology—the theology of church. In fact, Christian conviction about the church often seems to be missing entirely. This lack, I believe, should be central to our efforts as we work to build healthy congregations for the future.

Theologian Ellen Charry, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts the matter directly: “I am increasingly realizing that a number of our ministerial students have no ecclesiology to speak of. For them the church is a voluntary not-for-profit organization run like a local franchise.”1 This is perhaps understandable given the pervasiveness of the consumer economy, including churches that compete in the free-market of spirituality in North America. … If our efforts to be and build congregations do not rest on a core of Christian conviction about what the church is, we tend to go to default options from the culture. The church becomes an entertainment experience with audience ratings, a purveyor of spiritual goods and services, a religious club for people who share the same worldview and experiences, a coalition united around a set of causes or sociopolitical agendas, or simply a gathering place where people ha ve their individual spiritual experiences. The biblical sense of the church as a people or body is lost.

Consider, for example, the “congregation” (in this case, I use the word advisedly) that gathers around the compelling personal presence of one preacher and leader. A number of such charismatic leaders operate in North America. Some are televised. Many are not. Some do wonderful things. Some use and abuse their members or participants. In all cases, though, the attention of the faithful is centered on the dynamic leader. When something happens to that person—a mental breakdown or accusations of sexual harassment or financial malfeasance, for instance—the church usually goes from boom to bust in short order. When the charismatic founder dies, “the ministry,” as it is often referred to, simply dies also. The church is the ministry of that one person. Usually, in such instances, there has been no real church. There has been a charismatic leader and his or her followers. This is but one of the common disto rtions of church today. Lacking core Christian conviction about this thing called church, distortions and pseudo churches flourish, although only for a time. Established and more traditional congregations that lack a sufficient ecclesiology often lose their sense of identity and purpose.

The very word ecclesiology provides clues to its importance in understanding what it truly means to be a church or congregation. It comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “a people called” and “the visible assembly.” Church is not the building in which people meet, nor is it the leader. It is people gathered into community in response to God’s call in Jesus Christ. Church happens, as Jesus said, where “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20).

Churches, like other organizations, develop their structures, systems, and rituals for governance and continuity. These can be quite important, for they sustain common life and work, but such structures are in the end provisional. In Paul’s words, they are “clay jars,” not to be confused with the “extraordinary power [that] belongs to God” (2 Cor. 4:7). The church belongs to and owes its existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God’s purposes.

The owner is God. Thus, the church is not simply a consumer-driven entity that exists to meet the religious needs of those who come to it. Churches may meet people’s needs, but they must do more than that. At least potentially, they transform people by drawing them into a larger purpose and identity. “Once you were not a people,” writes Peter, “but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:10).

As the exodus event transformed the Hebrew people into a people called and set apart by God, so the new exodus, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, calls and sets apart a people of God, the church. This people owe its being to God. The people of God are called to be faithful to this creating, redeeming, and sustaining God. And, as Israel itself was blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, so the people of God—the church—also are called by God to be a blessing to others. God calls the church not to receive special favors or protection but to carry out a unique vocation: service to God and to the world God loves.

Will Willimon

Lessons Learned in Saving Sumatanga

The past three months have been remarkable. Beginning with Director Bob Murray’s emotional appeal, we have saved a beloved ministry that showed every sign of dying. Our churches have raised an unprecedented half a million dollars in gifts in three months. Sumatanga is being reorganized. This beloved camp now has a future. This is a very different result for us. Here’s what I have learned:

  • People respond to the truth. A frequent response to Bob’s speech at Conference was, “I had no idea Sumatanga was in so much trouble.” For too long the Trustees tried to struggle alone with Sumatanga’s problems. Transparency and facing hard realities are essential, especially in the church. Our people show that they are eager to respond when they know the truth.
  • Preserving the past is no substitute for adaptation to the future. We cannot save the old Sumatanga. Change or die. We can only see the present crisis as an invitation from a living God to serve the present age, to pray for creativity and fresh courage. Rather than be bound by the many management mistakes and poor decisions of the past, Bob Murray spoke to us all in ordering us (in his speech to Annual Conference), “Get over it!”
  • People are the key. The arrival of Bob Murray, the innovations produced by Bart Styes, the new team they have assembled, the day that Mike Byrne became chair of the Board made everything possible. The best way to change an organization is to change the leadership. Furthermore, Sumatanga knows that their future is not in getting more money from the churches but in getting more Christians at the camp. As Bob says, Sumatanga is in the hospitality ministry. If Sumatanga keeps focused on servant ministry to people, its future is assured. It’s such a temptation for the church to forget that we serve God and our neighbor; we don’t preserve buildings and institutions.

Thank you for giving Sumatanga a future. Over the years, God has used Sumatanga for some extraordinary acts of vocation, revelation, and renewal. By God’s grace, and your generosity, Sumatanga’s ministry continues.

William H. Willimon

Later this month some of us will gather at Sumatanga to celebrate a wonderful grant that we have obtained this summer from an anonymous Foundation. The good news continues!