Real Discipleship in a Consumer Church: Dallas Willard on the Renovation of the Church

fullsizeoutput_abdI am entering a period of deep reflection on what it means to be a pastor and what it means to be the church. I am asking questions that I have considered for years but now approach with a deeper sense of urgency and attention. I find myself wondering over and over again: what are we doing here in the North American church and does any of it matter?

My questions are leading me again into self-reflection and searching on topics such as holiness, discipleship, our amazing capacity for self-deception, North American evangelicalism, and superficial, consumer Christianity. I am re-reading many resources, and one I returned to this morning was Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken’s Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation. Here is an excerpt from the foreword to that book by Dallas Willard. I believe it is worth pondering his words for some time.

How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed? In other words, if we have gathered people into congregations by appeasing their appetites and desires, how can we help them deal with the fact that their problems in life and character – even “in church” – are primarily caused by living to get what they want? How can the cross and self-denial become the central fact in a prosperous, consumer culture? How can discipleship to Jesus – in a sense recognizable in the Bible, with the spiritual transformation it brings – be the mode of operation in a thriving North American congregation?

The dynamics of outward success in a church are rooted in the motivational forces of the pastors and the leaders. They have to change before anything else does. The pastors must themselves become disciples (in the New Testament sense), genuinely becoming in their concrete existence, their life and relationships, what we see repeatedly in well-known biblical passages. It is personal ambition that drives the machinery of “success” in the church context, which is what comes out in the many dimensions of character failure that are now all too familiar. Often church members are caught up in their desire to be associated with a “successful” church. Among the treasures expressed in this book is, “Christian leaders are more ready to be candid about sexual lust than ambition.” But lust fulfilled is only one dimension of the deeper drive to have my way. The deeper root of consumerism in the church context is sensuality.

When that root has been cut in the individual life, then genuine ambition for God, and pride in the cross, can flourish (Galatians 6:14). The power of God can flow through transformed character into a world desperate for it. Success is redefined by the spread of kingdom presence throughout the community. Church growth is not just more Christians but bigger Christians, flush with Christ’s character.

The authors came to grips with major issues for practice – for what we actually must do if we intend to make the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 into the mission statement of our group. First, we must intend to do that, and must lead our people into that intention. And our central message – our “gospel” – must be one that has a natural tendency to produce disciples of Jesus, not just avid consumers of religious goods and services. Disciples are self-starters in kingdom living, on the road with Jesus day in and day out. The gospel of life now in the present kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 4:17) will produce disciples. And then we organize our “meetings,” of whatever kind, around that intention and that message. We set the meetings up in a way that intelligently develops disciples and fosters their progressive transformation into Christ-likeness from the inside. Careful attention to the Spirit. the Bible and how experience actually moves individuals and groups will enable us to do this. It has been done repeatedly in Christian history, and can be done now. Outwardly, in fact, our operation may not look much different than it does now. But its content, its goal and its outcome will most assuredly bring the people involved into a path of contemporary holiness that looks at Matthew 5-7, 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:1-17, and says: “Of course. That’s us.” Grace with training in fellowship will bring us there.

5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

This past week, I spoke at Kaleo, our Thursday night young adults gathering at Eastbrook, overviewing 1 Corinthians. I shared a quotation on dealing with disillusionment within the church from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. Here are 5 must-read statements on  the Church from Bonhoeffer:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

Weekend Wanderer: 22 September 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

 

melani mcalister“Look Outside America for Fresh Insight on American Evangelicals” – “Melani McAlister, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, wants to tell a broader story by looking outside American borders. Studying American evangelical missionary and humanitarian activity in Egypt, South Africa, Congo, and South Sudan, she says, reveals a movement that has always seen itself as part of a global communion. In her book, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, McAlister applies this international lens to the past half-century of American evangelical history.”

 

puerto rico maria“The State of the Puerto Rican Church, One Year After Maria” – Gadiel Ríos reports on the challenges to the church in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and how this disaster is entirely changing the way churches do ministry. ” The church in Puerto Rico and the spiritual lives of its citizens have not been spared of all of this pain and desolation, but their story is still one of grace and love overcoming loss and suffering.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 10.19.57 AM“Leave no dark corner: China is building a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, ‘social credit’ will bring privileges — for others, punishment” – If you like dystopian literature or film, Matthew Carney’s exploration of China’s in-depth digital tracking of its citizenry may intrigue you. But it also may disturb you. As others have noted, privacy may be a thing of the past, but it reaches a very new level when one’s government agenda includes this: “a vast network of 200 million CCTV cameras across China ensures there’s no dark corner in which to hide.”

 

beth moore“The Tiny Blond Bible Teacher Taking on the Evangelical Political Machine” – Emma Green interviews evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore about her recent venture into tense conversations within evangelicalism about politics. “On a chilly Texas evening recently, Moore and I sat in rocking chairs on her porch. It was the first time she had invited a reporter to visit her home, on the outskirts of Houston. Moore, who is 61, was the consummate hostess, fussing about feeding me and making sure I was warm enough beside the mesquite-wood fire. But as we settled into conversation, her demeanor changed. She fixed her perfectly mascaraed eyes on me. ‘The old way is over,’ she said. ‘The stakes are too high now.'”

 

webRNS-Abuse-Research-46-091818“Survey shows more pastors preach about abuse in #MeToo age” – “Half of Protestant pastors say they preach to their churches about domestic and sexual violence, an increase from four years ago, when only a third said they raised the issue, a new survey shows. LifeWay Research took a detailed look at Protestant clergy’s attitudes toward abuse and harassment and what they’ve done about it, surveying 1,000 pastors by phone during the summer of 2018 as the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements dominated the news.”

 

Gettys3“Towards a Deeper Song: Why Keith and Kristyn Getty Are Helping the Church to Sing (Again)” – “Often credited with re-inventing the traditional hymn-form, they are passionate about the importance of congregational singing and how we learn truth through song. This year alone, their journey has taken them from the Global Hymn Sing to the UK Houses of Parliament and recently to their own Sing! Conference in Nashville. A few days before the conference, Keith shared more about Getty Music’s vision and why we must never stop singing.”

 

iraqi-refugees“Evangelical Leaders Denounce Trump Administration Refugee Cap, Call for Increase” – “National leaders from the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter asking the Trump administration to admit more refugees…The announced new cap is even lower than this year’s historic low of 45,000 for this FY 2018, and the U.S. is on track to take in fewer than 22,000 refugees this fiscal year, also a record low.” This statement was fashioned by conservative evangelicals, including Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, President of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who says: “America has long been a beacon of freedom and safety for those fleeing persecution, including many persecuted for their Christian faith, but the proposed cap of just 30,000 refugees would mean stepping back from our historic role of global leadership. We can both be a secure nation and a compassionate nation, leading the world in resettling the most vulnerable refugees who have been identified and vetted abroad and ensuring due process for those who reach our country to request asylum.”

 

closed“Let’s bring back the Sabbath as a radical act against ‘total work’William R. Black, a professor of history and religion, offers an interesting critique of our fast-paced, work-oriented culture. He writes: “We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.”

 

Bill Hybels“Here’s Who Willow Creek Chose to Investigate Bill Hybels” – This past week Willow Creek Community Church announced the leadership of the investigative team looking at the allegations against Bill Hybels reported earlier this year. “The new Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group (IAG) is co-chaired by Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita and current ambassador of The Wesleyan Church, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The other two members are Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College and a professor of psychology, and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois.”

 

failure“6 Warning Signs You’re Risking A Moral Failure – And How To Avoid A Fall” – On that note, over at the Vanderbloemen Search Group’s blog, Jay Mitchell writes for those in ministry about six warning signs that may lead you into a moral failure. He follows that with three suggestions about how to safeguard yourself against such a failure. In the current climate of moral failures, both inside the church and outside the church, ministers cannot fail to pay attention to this topic.

 

blue“The Bible described it as the perfect, pure blue. And then for nearly 2,000 years, everyone forgot what it looked like” – This is not your typical exploration of Scripture. “Forty-nine times the Bible mentions a perfect, pure blue, a color so magnificent and transcendent that it was all but impossible to describe. Yet, for most of the last 2,000 years, nobody has known exactly what ‘biblical blue’ — called tekhelet in Hebrew — actually looked like or how it could be re-created.” [Thanks to Micah Mattix for sharing this in the Daily Prufrock.]

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Making a Daniel: Alan Jacobs on counter-cultural catechesis

daniel-in-the-lions-den-briton-riviere.jpgIn light of my recent exploration of the book of Daniel at Eastbrook Church (see “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith), Alan Jacobs’ blog post earlier this week seemed well-timed for me. Jacobs interacts with Adrian Vermeule’s review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, in which Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. He writes:

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable to carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

I appreciate Jacobs’ suggestion of a counter-catechesis but empathisize with his questions of “who will do that?” and “how will they do it?” As I suggested in my first message in our series from Daniel, “Faith in Exile,” we must give attention to the role enculturation and socialization in our faith and discipleship. The counter-catechesis that he suggests is something that goes so much deeper than most of us realize. The book of Daniel seems to be a perfect primer on this, combining both the narratives of exile faith (chs. 1-6) and the visions of an apocalyptic imagination (chs. 7-12) as two halves of the necessary aspects of living as a people transformed at the deeper level of social imaginaries for more meaningful engagement with the culture around. This helps us to develop a different grammar flowing from a different imagination.

Somehow, we must live in the tension of our double identity as “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20) who also “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).