From The Huffington Post: Churches Need to Take Care of Business

Will Willimon, Professor of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School and a United Methodist Bishop, retired
Originally posted: 11/12/2015 4:07 pm EST Updated: 11/12/2015 4:59
American churches have been languishing in an “attendance recession.”  Fewer Americans go to church.  Now, from the Pew Research Center, comes word that Americans who identify with a specific religion declined six percent in the past seven years. Belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have dropped since 2007.
Curiously, there has been an increase in those who said religion was “very important” — defined as weekly reading of Scripture, participating in a small group and regularly talking about their faith. Pew’s research shows that more than 6 in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and 1 in 5 pray daily. As Martin Marty, University of Chicago historian, put it years ago, contemporary Americans are “believers but not joiners.” Pew has now documented a growing “deinstitutionalization” of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

I’m a thoroughly institutionalized, liberal, mainline Protestant leader – United Methodist. Be warned – I’m a prejudiced observer of American religious life and the world’s judgment upon my church.

While the reasons for church decline are many, a major reason is: too many churches have not taken care of business.

Over the past few decades a score of sociologists of religion like Wade Clark Roof, Penny Marler, and Donald Miller have noted that “mainline” (now sidelined), “liberal” (or, as it now prefers to be called, “progressive”) churches decline because they neglect the intellectual purposes of the Christian faith. Churches are in the business of meaning-making and meaning-bestowing. As Jack Carroll put it in his church book, As One with Authority, congregations help people “reflect on and interpret their lives in light of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ.” That’s the one thing churches do that’s not done by any other institution.

Too many congregations in my denomination act as if we were in a 1950’s culture that’s still at least vestigially Christian; the culture serves as a prop for the church. Being Christian is synonymous with being a thoughtful, caring, sensitive American, only nicer. People become Christian by drinking the water, breathing the air, and being lucky enough to be born in America.

Not much thinking required to make sense from a peculiarly Christian point of view when everybody is already Christian, sort of.

So, having forsaken the task of meaning-making, many liberal, mainline churches attempt to justify themselves by flailing around, searching for something socially acceptable to do with themselves. They form therapy groups, work with a few homeless, dispense advice to Congress, or urge people to get out and vote.

A church I know just spent eight sermons on sex. Alas, people who want to hear a Methodist preacher talk sex are few.

Sometime ago media observer Mark Silk noted that newspapers run only ten stories about the church, tropes that are repeated again and again. A favorite is “Suburban Church Helps the Homeless,” another is, “Church Makes Backpacks for Needy Kids.”

It’s as if these news stories say, “We all agree that the church is out of date and irrelevant but, Surprise! Here’s a church that is actually doing something useful!”

The Pew data suggest that for many Americans the line between church and Rotary has become thin. (At least Rotary meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch.)

My late friend, novelist Reynolds Price, explained that he left church in the Sixties not only because it was racially segregated but also because it had forgotten what people need most.

“I’d go to church,” Reynolds said, “and they would ask me to coach kids’ basketball, help in the church kitchen, or attend a fellowship supper. Church is supposed to be where God lives. If a church doesn’t make the outrageous assertion that God is a Jew from Nazareth who rose from the dead and makes our lives much more difficult and demanding, it’s intellectually uninteresting.”

As a former church member said recently, “At my church we get advice from the pulpit — how to have a happier marriage, how to have a purpose-driven life, how to vote. Sometimes it’s good advice, but it’s no different than I would have gotten from my daily Huffington Post.” (ouch) “Why bother with all the church baggage when there’s nothing said that fundamentally challenges who I am and where I’m headed?”

There’s ample evidence that Americans need help thinking truthfully about our lives. At its best the church helps us think sub specie aeternitatis (Spinoza), under the guise of eternity, looking through the lens of God. That’s the most useful thing we can do for this society, though the church’s value is not merely in its social utility. Church is where we go to talk about sin and death and God, and dare consider the possibility that more is going on in us and the world than we can adequately comprehend with our socially acceptable, governmentally subsidized modes of explanation.

For decades I was Dean of Duke University Chapel. In order to prepare for my annual graduation sermon I gathered a focus group of graduating students, asking them, “What are some hot topics for your generation?” They half-heartedly suggested a list.

Then one said, “Graduation weekend, we are bound to get lots of advice, ’cause that’s what old guys like to force on people like us. We’ll be hammered by platitudes from psychology, economics, and politics.

“Talk about God. That’s not only what you are most qualified to do but also what scares us shitless. I’m not sure I believe that God exists, but it’s weird that you think he does. I hope you’ll have enough guts to try to change the conversation.”

I hope that guy, who graduated years ago, has found a church that knows how to stick to the main business of the church. If not, I’m sure he’s part of a growing number of those who look at the lives of many mainline Protestant churches, yawn, and ask, “Why bother?”

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Ministry Matters™ | The Wesleys, holiness and life in the Spirit

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John and Charles Wesley sought to renew the Church of England by having Christians take seriously that they were called to live holy lives. The Wesleys stressed that every Christian should be sanctified. Sanctification is the term used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit to free our lives from sin. Accordingly John and Charles sought to discover modes of life — holiness — that would aid Christians in their desire to be freed from sin and on the way to salvation.

Because John and Charles Wesley were so earnest and organized in their desire for holiness, they often were subject to derision and ridicule. At Oxford those who gathered around John Wesley were given the nickname Holy Club. Methodist was originally a name meant to ridicule Wesley for being too “methodical” in his understanding of how Christians should live. Methodists were labeled by many in the Church of England as “enthusiasts.” That was not a compliment; an enthusiast was thought to have a dangerously emotional, nonintellectual understanding of the faith.

Yet John and Charles Wesley were convinced that holiness was what it meant to be a Christian. Influenced by Eastern Christian theologians, John Wesley appropriated their accounts of “divinization” into his idea of “perfection.” There is no stronger expression of this emphasis on holiness than Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:

Finish, then, thy new creation; 
pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation 
perfectly restored in thee; 
changed from glory into glory, 
till in heaven we take our place, 
till we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

We are so familiar with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” that the extraordinary claims of this hymn can be missed. Was Charles Wesley serious when he asked God to make us “pure and spotless”? He was quite serious. Like his brother, John, Charles desired for himself and for all Christians that as far as possible we lead lives free of sin. Each of us should want to be the “humble dwelling” in which the Spirit makes a home. Accordingly Charles Wesley hoped that we might in this life “serve thee as thy hosts above,” which implies that the communion the saints enjoy in heaven is possible here on earth below.

One of the words John Wesley used to describe the holiness characteristic of the Christian life was perfection. He did not think that Christians could be free of ignorance or mistakes, but he did think that through the work of Christ made present by the Holy Spirit, Christians could be freed from “outward sins.” According to Wesley, “the fullness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is brought unto men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.”

Note the last line of Charles Wesley’s hymn — “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.” To be sanctified is not to try very hard to achieve some impossible ideal. That misconception of holiness can lead to narcissistic self-righteousness or to perpetual guilt. “To be made perfect” from a Wesleyan perspective is to be caught up so completely in the life of the Holy Spirit you are not burdened by constant self-doubt. To be sanctified is to be drawn into a way of life so compelling that our worry that we may not be doing enough for God is lost. The saints never try to be saints; it just turns out that way as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

That many people doubt perfection is possible Wesley attributed to mistaken ideas about the Holy Spirit’s perfecting work. Wesley argued that in scripture perfection is “pure love reigning alone in our heart and life.” Perfection so understood means our hearts are so filled with love that all our words and actions are accordingly governed. Yet Wesley warned that simply to “feel” we are free from sin is inadequate. We should never believe that the work of love is finished “till there is added the testimony of the Spirit, witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.”

Wesley understood justification and sanctification to be intertwined; you could not have one without the other. For Wesley justification names what Christ has done for us in gaining pardon from God for our sins. Yet at the very moment of justification, sanctification begins. According to Wesley, real change is worked in us by the Holy Spirit:

We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” [cf. Rom. 5:5], producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God, expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the “earthly, sensual, devilish mind” into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus” [cf. Phil. 2:5].

Wesley’s extravagant sanctificationist claims may sound as if he has a too-sanguine view of human nature. Is it realistic of Wesley to claim that our spirits are so sweepingly transformed that all “love of the world” is expelled from us?

John Wesley had a robust, orthodox view of human depravity and sinfulness. But he had an even more exuberant assessment of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives warped by sin. Grace for Wesley meant not some saccharine view of human nature (God says, “I love you just the way you are; promise me you won’t change a thing”). Wesleyan grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working in us to give us lives we could not have had without the Spirit’s work.

Wesleyan sanctification is a “gradual process” that begins as soon as we are “born again.” As Jesus told Nicodemus, the “Spirit blows wherever it wishes” (John 3:8), making us as if we were newborn, dead to sin and alive to God. We should, therefore, desire “entire sanctification”; that is, we should want freedom from pride, self-will, anger, and unbelief. We should want to “go on toward perfection” (Heb 6:1 NRSV) so that love takes over our lives, excluding the hold sin has over us. To be sanctified is to have a kind of “spiritual light” in the soul supplying an evidence of “things unseen.” Faith, for Wesley, was the assurance that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same dynamic of cross and resurrection that characterized the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus characterizes us.


This article is an excerpt from The Holy Spirit by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press

Source: Ministry Matters™ | The Wesleys, holiness and life in the Spirit

How Odd of God–

How-Odd-of-GodMy book, How Odd of God, is my attempt to show the relevance of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election for today’s preachers. Here is an excerpt from that book that gives you an indication of the encouragement and critique I hope to give contemporary preachers:

1. God is the primary agent of preaching. (see earlier post)

2. Our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God. (See earlier post)

3. Talk about the gospel tends to produce conflict.

We preachers like to think of ourselves as reconcilers and peacemakers. Many of our sermons seem designed to lessen the tension that is produced when a biblical text is dropped upon a defensive congregation. Even to stand and say, after an outrageous text has been read, “I have three things I want to say about today’s text,” is to risk defusing the explosive encounter between God’s chosen people and God’s chosen word.

Too bad for our self-image as peacemakers; we must preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. The good news of God’s gracious election is bad news for our cherished idolatries and self-deceptive ideals. God is not a dim, distant, unknowable, alien force hiding in heaven.[ii] God is a Jew from Nazareth who was tortured to death by a consortium of government and religious leaders, rejected by those whom he came to save, and then went right back to them.

Pastoral care for the congregation through our preaching is not enough. Faithful proclamation can never be merely parochial because God isn’t. Christian speech is public heralding rather than insider conversation, missional rather than congregational. Any congregation that is merely a warm-hearted group of caring friends who is not actively, daringly crossing cultural, racial, ideological, national boundaries (mission) is not faithful. Thus Newbigin speaks of the congregation as the “hermeneutic of the gospel,” God’s means of interpreting to the world the visible, public truth of what the world looks like when the Lamb rules. The congregation is God’s self-presentation.[iii] Pastors cannot hunker down with the few faithful handed to us by hard working pastors of a previous generation, those sweet older saints who have enough free time to hang out at church; election is inducement to mission.

My theory is that there is much conflict and quarreling in many congregations because they talk only to themselves. Boredom (and an uneasy sense that church is meant to be more than this cozy club) fosters congregational contentiousness. The conflict that validates a church as Christ’s is not that of squabbling, miffed church members but the conflict between Christ and the world.

A church that is not restlessly probing the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, not regularly surprised by the expansive reach of God’s saving actions is a church trying to be the elect of God without living the truth of election. God elects the church for the purpose of embodying God’s gracious intent beyond the bounds of the church. Others may be enemies of our country or adversaries of the American way of life, but God is not their enemy.

To criminals imprisoned in the Basel jail, Barth preached that the first Christian community was composed on Golgotha:

“They crucified him with the criminals.” Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company? . . . Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested . . . , locked up and sentenced. . . . And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken . . . a point of no return for them as for him. There remained only the shameful, pain stricken present and the future of their approaching death. . . .

They crucified him with the criminals. . . . This was the first Christian fellowship, … To live by this promise is to be a Christian community. The two criminals were the first certain Christian community.[iv]
Criminals hanging out with Jesus are the new normal, the first church. God has called us together into a new family that cannot live except as a growing family.

Barth tells Christians that conflict comes with the territory; we cannot avoid the disturbance by “retreat into an island of inwardness.”[v] Better that there be conflict in the congregation because it has been abruptly confronted with truth than for conflict to be in the preacher who is desperate to speak about Jesus without anyone discomforted. The “general religious self-consciousness” alleged by Schleiermacher’s apologetics (beware, contemporary “spirituality”![vi]) fails to do justice to the contradictions (and conflict) between Christian and worldly thought. Christian preaching is “the aggressor.”[vii]
[i] Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns), 2016.

[ii] “We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence. . . . But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 186).

[iii] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM Press, 1953).

[iv] Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, 76–77.

[v] Ibid., 616.

[vi] The oddity of divine election means that preachers “cannot translate the truth and reality of the divine command into a necessary element of [humanity’s] spiritual life” ( Ibid., 522).

[vii] Ibid., 521.