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Beyond Indifferentism

I have been in a variety of meetings lately with institutions on whose Boards I sit by virtue of being a Bishop in The United Methodist Church. These include universities, hospitals, foundations and ministries. These various organizations are impressive in their outreach and impact. They often represent true excellence in education, medicine, community service and the like. These organizations are an outgrowth of The United Methodist Church and its ministry legacy. Delve into their history and you discover that they were initially founded as an explicit expression of Christian mission. Theologically speaking, most of these organizations are an expression of what early Methodists called holiness of heart and life. The technical theological term is sanctification. The biblical grounding comes directly out of the Great Commandment (love of God and love of neighbor). As a United Methodist, I am proud and pleased. The various organizations came into being during the time of “Christendom.” (Christendom is a term used to describe the time in which the culture itself was generally Christian, or in some cases Jewish. This was not meant in an intolerant way. It was simply an unconscious reflection of the cultural climate.) Terms like “faith” and “spiritual” had an unspoken assumption that they referred to the Christian faith. Today with the end of Christendom, organizations use terms like “faith” or “spiritual” without reference to the Christian faith. The motive is a good one. It is an intentional way of reflecting interfaith respect, dialogue, and cooperation. The assumption is that people of goodwill share common faith convictions about God and the nature of God. The more practiced result is that “faith” and “spirituality” are references to a vague common deism. Organizations (some, many, most?) give evidence of mission drift. They started as reflections of the Christian faith with a Christological center. They now often reflect a vague sense of cultural goodwill. When asked to define faith, one institutional executive said, “ties to our belief in a certain set of values that tie to a certain set of faith – that’s compassion. The essence comes from Christianity.” No one doubts or debates that they (the various organizations and institutions) are (and are to be) open to all. Virtually all understand that this should not be an opportunity for proselytism. Yet any mention of an explicit Christian witness is greeted with horror. Many organizational representatives can’t imagine an explicitly Christ witness that is not exclusive or intrusive. A significant number of Christian board members are offended by the axiomatic implication that an explicit Christian witness is by definition either exclusive or offensive. They point to the distinction between openness and spiritual indifferentism. The question that hangs in the air is – to what degree are they still Christian? To what degree do they truly reflect and represent Christ and His church? How can a witness to and of Christ be offered that is neither offensive nor a theological surrender to vague and content-less platitudes?