The Search for a New Center
About four years ago, when visiting one of our Central Texas Conference Churches, I sat in the back row. At the close of the service, a young lady sitting next to me walked up and professed her faith in Christ for the very first time and joined the church. Months later, her fiancé did the same thing (and now serves as lead of the security team). The next year, the pastor married them in a beautiful and sacred worship celebration. Later, the young woman felt led to begin a grief-recovery/bible study group for women that filled up quickly and continued strong with 40-plus women regularly attending – that was, until COVID-19 hit.
While sharing the above story with me, the couple’s pastor wrote: “All of the women carried different struggles – from loss of spouse, to loss of child, to miscarriage, to domestic violence. It was a beautiful thing to watch as God brought healing through fellowship and connection.”
This year, the couple rejoiced in the birth of a beautiful baby girl and called asking the pastor how soon she could be baptized. “We have talked and prayed about this decision and we feel it is of utmost importance to stand in front of God and our church and vow to raise her in the faith, alongside our community of faith,” they explained. “This is something we don’t want to put off.”
Clarity of Purpose (or Mission) Involves an Anchored Center
Watching and listening to this story of Christ-centered transformation, I am in awe of the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst. This conversion story represents the heart of our Wildly Important Goal (the WIG) of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In this narrative, we are also offered a glimpse of a different church for a different world. There is a reawakening of the critical nature of conversion to Christ and an anchoring of life for herself, her husband and their family together, in the ancient core witness of the Christian faith.
As we move Forward to a New Spring in the life of our church and our world, I believe we are a United Methodist Church struggling in search of a new or renewed center. Recently, the Council of Bishops (COB) had a “Zoom” learning retreat with Bob Johansen, the noted leader of the Institute for the Future. (Together the COB read his book Full Spectrum Thinking along with a number of other seminal writings about the future of our different world.) Retired Brigadier General Ray Bailey, a retired clergy person in the Central Texas Conference and former Deputy General Secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, shared with us Johansen’s earlier work Leaders Make the Future. A quote from Mr. Johansen sticks in my mind. “Essentially, our organizations have become too complex to manage with hierarchies.” (Bob Johansen, Broader Spectrums: New Applications for the Future, p. 109)
In his lecture, Johansen pointed to the critical nature of a core center or anchored purpose. He referenced his work with new senior Army generals by noting “the Army now practices what they call ‘commander’s intent,’ ‘mission command,’ or ‘flexive command.” For us, as a church and as congregational leaders, this translates into to clarity of purpose/mission with flexibility in strategy. Clarity of purpose (or mission) involves an anchored center.
An Emphasis on the Holy Trinity and a Deep Commitment to Justice and Inclusion
The swirling winds of change, the cultural and political divisions, the quest for something more and something better rolls around on the inside of so many of us like a persistent heartburn. It all points to the searching/longing for a new center. Louis Markos has written that our compass is broken as a society and culture
"We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism. The first ‘ism’ has robbed us of any transcendent standard against which we can measure our thoughts, our words, and our deeds; the second has emptied our lives of any higher meaning, purpose, or direction. Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough." (Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, p. 9)
A different church for this different world will, by necessity, reclaim the historic biblical and theological center of the Christian faith – what is called “orthodoxy” (right belief). We live with a desperate need to go back to the foundation and source of the Christian faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s historic lecture before his imprisonment by the Nazi Gestapo, Christ at the Center, call to us about the heart of the Christian Church and Wesleyan branch of the church universal.
The great theologian Tom Oden wrote of the latter half of his professorship at Drew Theological Seminary, “The decisive question was whether the secularization process could be reversed and transcended by a rediscovery of classic Christian faith. That had occurred many times before in Christian history, and I knew the Spirit had plenty of time. But did the seminaries? I decided to stay in the church that had baptized me as long as its doctrinal confession and constitutional guarantees remained intact.” (A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas C. Oden, Pg. 263)
Blink and imagine for a moment that the great issues that currently threaten to tear the United Methodist Church apart are miraculously solved. Regardless of where you stand on the theological and ideological spectrum, the issues of reclaiming the center of the Christ still commands our urgent attention. In a wonderful series of sermons at Arborlawn UMC, Pastor Chris Mesa wove together orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopraxy (right actions) and orthopathy (right experience … some call this orthocardia – right heart) under the banner of Wesley’s understanding of the Christian faith.
Ask yourself, prayerfully consider, is the central focus on God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit or on justice and inclusion? Both are desperately needed. Let me say that again so there can be no doubt, both are desperately needed. Forgive me, but I desire to so emphasize this is a both/and (as opposed to an either/or!) that I wish to state this a third time.
Both an emphasis on the Holy Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit saving and sending – and an ongoing deep commitment to justice and inclusion are desperately needed! But, and it is a huge but, the crucial issue before us is which focus is the foundational source of our belief and actions. Remember, clarity of purpose and mission involves an anchored center.
God’s Purposes Must Triumph
I write to simply maintain that we must keep the focus, the mission, our clarity of purpose anchored in core biblical and theological convictions. If we do so, we will inevitably be faithfully involved in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. If the quest for social justice and inclusion is the center of our mission and purpose – however noble, holy and well-intended such a commitment – we will inevitably drift away from divine allegiance, guidance and leadership into a squabbling pursuit of our own devises and desires. Put more bluntly, God’s purposes must triumph over our desires. This is no easy thing for any of us regardless of our theological or political stance.
Step back and ask yourself, when is the last time you heard a sermon on your salvation? When is the last time, you were challenged to explicitly give your life to Christ the Lord/leader of your life above and beyond your own transitory preferences? Alan Hirsch, in his book he authored with Mark Nelson Reframation, reminds us that in this different world, an understanding of salvation is more than simply dealing with guilt over sin. He highlights three aspects in today’s culture – salvation related to guilt or shame or liberation. All three are historically a part of the Christian doctrine of atonement or soteriology (the “way” of salvation). Furthermore, the early Christian Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explicitly refused to limit salvation to simply one element or aspect of life (i.e. sin as related only to guilt) but lifted, as the center of orthodoxy, the greater understanding of core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation, sin, salvation, the church, etc. A really great place for United Methodists to reclaim the center of the Christian faith is by reading and examining our “Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶104)
I cannot help but remember a conversation with a Perkins School of Theology professor (who was/is emphatically on the side of focus on justice and inclusion over and above doctrinal orthodoxy). He commented to me that almost every sermon at his local church ended with a call to commitment to get involve in some form of a social justice call. He paused in the telling, looked at me, and remarked, “…most of these young women and men are struggling with careers and raising a family. Almost all of them are already actively apart of some form of service and justice as volunteers. Many of them are on the edge of being worn out. I wonder how much of what they hear on Sunday morning is really good news?”
We must together move to recover our foundation and sources through the God who meets us in the incarnation and walks with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The renewed search for our center is something in which we desperately need to engage, because the salvation a spiritually starving world longs for with hurting hope lies in the confession that Jesus is Lord.
In the closing devotional of this week’s Council of Bishops meeting, Bishop Sharma Lewis (Virginia Conference) preached on a text from Colossians 3.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-17)
May it be so for us as we search for and reclaim the center of the Christian faith.