The Difference Between Movement and Church (Purpose)

Methodism started as a movement, not a church.  John Wesley never wanted it to become another church, but to remain a movement (the “situation on the ground” forced it to go a different direction, but that’s another post entirely).  If Wesley had been a part of the Roman Catholic Church (i.e. if the Church of England didn’t exist), he probably would have started a new Religious Order that combined elements of the Franciscans and Dominicans and had a bunch of poor, wandering preachers.

The purpose of the Methodists was to spread Scriptural holiness across the land.  With this singular intent and reason for being, Methodism moved throughout England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland to America, the Caribbean, Continental Europe and beyond–all within Wesley’s lifetime!  Methodists knew the reason for their being a unique group within the Church, and everything they did was to fulfill that reason and purpose.  It was the singular direction in which they went.

Today, many of our congregations have no clue what their purpose is.  If you ask them the classic question in church health discussions, “If your congregation disappeared tomorrow, would anyone in the community notice it’s absence?” the answer is an uncomfortable silence.  With the baggage of buildings and the histories attached to them (who gave what and how it needs to be up-kept and preserved) and the programming that conventional wisdom says is necessary to a functioning church, there is still little thought to the purpose of the congregation.

Sure, the church growth movement and modern leadership principles have taught many pastors and congregations to have a mission and vision statement and to organize all the church’s activities around those statements, but rarely do we look at the bigger picture of how our congregations fit in to the fabric of the entire community in which we reside.

Too many "purposes" can get confusing.  Which way is north on this sign, anyway?

Too many “purposes” can get confusing. Which way is north on this sign, anyway?

Do we need to duplicate resources and programs with other churches in our cities and towns?  Do we need to duplicate ministries that others are doing excellently in the name of Christ?  Are we really in competition with the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the Catholics?

In the early days of Methodism, there were Methodists who were members of all the various Christian groups there were.  They all spoke of the same faith with a slightly different emphasis.  It was like having a group of people that speak the same language with a different accent.  There were different Christian accents in Methodism.  The point was not to be one more among many Christian groups, but to spread Scriptural holiness among all the groups.  No matter the group or the accent, through Methodism, they all moved in the same direction with the same purpose.

Perhaps we could borrow some of that attitude from the early days and once again have a singular purpose that is not in competition with other groups.

What If We Have It Backwards?

I have been in ministry for fourteen years now and every year I have dealt with the issue of how to treat the American civil holidays of Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day in the church.  I know some colleagues who do not allow any mention of America in their services so as not to confuse the civil calendar with the church.  I also know some colleagues who unabashedly make these services as patriotic as possible, all the while thanking God for a country like America that would protect, defend and preserve the church.

I know there is a lot to be said for living in a country where we have true freedom of religion.  All we have to do is look at what is happening in Communist countries or Islamic countries to see what life without freedom of religion is like.  And yet, something is not quite right.

The Church has existed for 2000 years.  America has been around for 238 years.  Obviously, the Church did not need America to defend her throughout most of its history.  So what if we actually have it backwards?  What if it is not that America defends the Church, but that it has been the Church that has kept America?

Abraham_Lincoln_O-115_by_Gardner,_1865Now I know there are some that might read that statement as a radical call for a church-run theocracy.  Believe me, that is the furthest thing from my mind (for which branch of the church would be the one to call the shots, and who in that branch would be able to determine when it might get things wrong?).  Any time the Church has exercised political power it ultimately eroded the life of the Church.

Rather, when we have a strong Church, that means we have strong Christians.  And when we have strong Christians, we have a group of people who love their neighbors as themselves.  When we have people who love neighbors as themselves, we have people who look out for one another and make sure the needs of each other are met.

This might seem like a Pollyanna-ish vision of what a strong Church would be, as many people have seen the Church as mean, hurtful, and judgmental, and one of their biggest fears is that of a strong Church.  Just imagine what those hypocrites would do with real power.  But that’s just the point.  For the Church, real power is found in serving, not dictating.  It is in self-sacrificial behavior and lifestyles, not furthering our own agendas.

Perhaps as the Church, we should take some time to reacquaint ourselves with what it means to be a follower of the one who gave himself up for the whole world.  Perhaps we should remind ourselves that we are supposed to be recognized as his followers by our love for one another.  Perhaps we should remember that we have been called to live a life that puts the needs of others before ourselves.  If we can do this, then maybe we will convert ourselves once again.

And if our country could be filled up with people who truly live and love in this way, then perhaps our best days will still be yet to come.

A Confession

Really?  Does this seem like a welcoming message?

Really? Does this seem like a welcoming message?

I have to confess, I love reading stupid church signs.  My wife says I can be obnoxious about it because I usually have a snarky comment about them.  This probably points to some deeper spiritual issue with which I have yet to deal in my growth in sanctification, and I will probably get over this fascination at some point in the future.  But right now I really like reading them.

I remember years ago, when I was serving a church in Kentucky, one of the local congregations, which was doing a very good job of reaching out into the community, put up a sign that read Whatever your question, Jesus is the answer.  Now I know theologically what they were trying to say: we all have a God-shaped hole in our souls and only Jesus Christ, God incarnate, can fill it.  However, my mind immediately went to the question Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?  Totally irreverent, I know.  But how many people came up with even more irreverent questions because of that sign?  The world may never know.


Because easy spelling is the main reason to choose religions!

Yesterday, as I was coming home from a leadership training event sponsored by my Conference, I passed a sign on the interstate that read: Where will you spend eternity?  Jesus has the answer.  My first thought to that was, Then why are you asking me?  If Jesus has the answer, why don’t you ask him?  Again, theologically, the sign makes a point: Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead.  It is a hallmark of the Christian faith.

Both of those signs are based upon solid Christian truth, but if I didn’t already know that truth, how in the world would I ever understand the signs?  Like I wrote above, my comments about stupid signs can be snarky, but I know what the signs are trying to say.  Imagine what people come up with for responses to them when they don’t know the Christian message behind them.

Since the church is losing ground in the public square in America, perhaps we should use our signs as opportunities not to be cute or trite or judgmental.  We’ve done that in the past and it hasn’t worked.  Perhaps we should simply use our signs to proclaim good news to people:

Jesus loves you, no matter what.

God wants to hear from you.  Just talk.

Christ can save you from yourself.

Jesus overcame injustice.  He understands your life.

You are not alone.

God made you.  Nothing you have done would surprise him.

In Jesus there is true freedom.


And why would anyone want to go here unless they love getting hurt?

To Lead or Not To Lead

Leadership-headerI worked with a guy in a church once who thought he was a great leader.  He read all the books from leadership gurus (Christian and secular) and was always trying to implement the next greatest time management system or leadership paradigm.  He once offered me all of his materials and notes from a John Maxwell seminar he attended a few years earlier because he “was beyond all this now.”

The problem, though, was that he was not a leader.  First of all, arrogance never leads.  It is one thing to be confident in one’s own abilities, but outright arrogance is an immediate turn-off to those whom we are supposed to lead.

Second, for all his leadership knowledge (and I am using the term loosely here–knowing vocabulary from books is one thing, knowing how to implement it is quite another), he was a very poor communicator.  He would have a big picture idea that was never truly communicated, and then would end up taking over or micromanaging in the extreme to get the job done because no one else understood the same idea.

Third, he never looked around to see if the people around him were actually following him.  Someone once said that if a leader is not bringing people along with the vision and has no one following him, he is simply taking a walk.  This man was talking a walk quite a bit.

Finally, for all his understanding of leadership and organizational principles, he never inspired the people around him to follow him.  He expected people to follow him.  After all, he was the leader.  It never occurred to him that he needed to encourage people, inspire people, and work with people to make sure they had the same vision, and then move forward.

When leading in the church, God does indeed raise up leaders.  God does give some visions for the future.  But we function as a body together.  There must be consensus among the body that the vision is actually God-given, and not something that came from somewhere else (pride, ego, devil, etc.).  And if it is a God-given vision, God will include others in on the vision and provide the people with the gifts and graces to accomplish that vision.  (For all his autocratic tendencies, even Francis Asbury understood this aspect of leadership.  He was appointed by John Wesley to lead all the Methodists in America, but Asbury would not accept the appointment until all the preachers who would be under him voted to elect him to that position.  He wanted the preachers to voice their approval of the vision and would not exercise his authority until they did.)

Then it is up to the leader not to dictate how things should happen, or worse take over when it doesn’t happen exactly how the leader thinks it ought to go, but rather it is up to the leader to consistently reinforce the vision and share the vision with those around him or her.  Since the vision is from God, and the people with the abilities to accomplish it are from God, the leader becomes a bulletin board for God.  Every time the people see the leader, they are reminded of what God has called them to do, just as every time we pass a bulletin board we see announcements and flyers and are reminded of what is going on in the community.

Leaders are successful, then, when they see the vision, communicate the vision to others, and reinforce the vision for the sake of the kingdom.

Struggling With Time

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I am a student of history, church history specifically.  I have a PhD in historical theology.  I love reading about what happened in the past.  That is why this particular quotation from B.T. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, hits me so hard:

We have been raising monuments to the victories of our fathers, when we ought to have been achieving still greater conquests.

How often is this true in the lives of our congregations?  So many look to the past and remember some golden time when everything was great.  They romanticize an earlier period in their lives and think, “If only it could be like that again, we would convert the city!”

How often is this true in our own lives?  How often do we remember how Christ delivered us from some sin or vice…and leave it at that?  How many of us have wonderful testimonies that read as if they had been completed years ago, even though we are still alive today (and by implication ought to have ongoing testimonies)?

I think of God’s advice to Joshua right before the beginning of the conquest of the Holy Land.

Moses my servant is dead.  Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.

This is verse two of the first chapter!  The past is over.  Move forward.  What happens from here will be a continuation of what has been, but it will be different and better!

I think this is why Jesus said to his Apostles in John 14:12

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.

Jesus did not want his followers only looking back at the wonderful time they had with him during his earthly ministry.  He wanted them to know that the future was going to be even better.  It would be a continuation of his ministry because it would be facilitated by his Holy Spirit, living and working in his Apostles, but it would be better, greater, than what went on before.

And yet we seem to forget that we are called to continually move forward.  It is easier to raise monuments than it is to live our lives in a monumental way.  It is easy to look back on the success of our movement and forget that we are currently a part of the movement today.  The past is known and is easier to handle than the future.  Perhaps this is why Jesus’ last words recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew are:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

These are words of comfort and encouragement.  Jesus knows his followers can be frightened of what is going to take place in the future.  He knows we have a proclivity for self-preservation and that the call to deny ourselves is a daily struggle.  He knows it is easier for us to tout the successes of our ancestors than live into the story that he is still writing about the history of his Church.  He knows.  And he wants us to move forward.

May our lives be ones future generations read about as Christ’s story continues to unfold in the world.

The Christian Life According to the Allman Brothers

One of my favorite songs is Ramblin’ Man by the Allman Brothers.  It’s a great tune.  The lyrics are pretty good, too.

I like the song because I really enjoy songs about journeys (I like songs by Journey, too, but that would be for another post.)  Songs like these tell a lot about life, because we all are on a journey.  Life is one continual journey from birth through life through death to life.  It never stops.

And yet, sometimes it seems in churches, where the never-ending concept of the journey of life ought to be lifted up the most, we speak of life in terms of destination: “I found Jesus” or “When I get to heaven…”

Dr. Steve Harper, retired Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary (and who blogs at Oboedire), once wrote, “We prefer a terminology of ‘finding’ Jesus, rather than ‘following him.’  We opt for plans with arrivals built into them instead of invitations with journeys at their heart.”

Our life in Christ is a life of following Jesus.  It is no coincidence that Jesus said he was “The Way” and that the movement was originally called “The Way.”  Jesus is taking all of creation on a journey, and he has invited us to join him on that journey.

This has radical implications for our spiritual lives.  There is never a point when we can say we have “arrived” at a destination.  Even the major points of the journey, salvation and sanctification, are themselves merely entry points to deeper sections of the journey rather than destinations to stop and stay.  Our God is infinite and he invites us to spiritually travel with him.  It will be an infinite journey.  For some it is a physical journey as well (think missionaries), but for all it is a spiritual journey.

So when I hear very well-meaning Christians speak of their salvation or their relationship with Christ as a destination (and one for which they are eternally grateful for their arrival), I have the Allman Brothers run through my head.  There is always more to the journey.  It is always time for leavin’ in order to go further on the spiritual  journey with Jesus.  We never remain spiritually stuck in the same place in our relationship with Christ if at all possible.  I just hope you understand, in God’s economy, it is completely appropriate to be a Ramblin’ Man.

You Gotta Pop the Question

For all of our programming and creating worship services at our churches, for all of our discipleship resources and utilizing the means of grace in our lives, without one little thing it can go to waste.  We have to ask the question:

Will you come to church with me?

Often times our church members (and ministers) do everything they can to make inroads into a community and truly live a Christian life.  They volunteer at food banks and elementary schools.  They smile at everyone they meet while they are out and about.  They even talk about Christ with people when the opportunity arises.  But they fail to do the next logical thing: ask people to come to church with them.

It is as if we are afraid of rejection or of offending others, so we leave off right where we need to make an effort the most.  If we do not invite people to church, how are they to know that we would actually like to have them there?

John Wesley, when he was giving advice to his preachers, said, “You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most. Observe: It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.”

While this is directed to preachers, we can apply the same line of thought to everyone.  The reason the Church exists is for the sake of others.  We have nothing to do but save souls.  One absolutely main component to this is to invite people to church.