Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?

 

Jesus Christ is Risen! An Examination of Creeds and Confessions

As we celebrate Easter we are all reminded afresh about what lies at the heart of Christian faith; namely, that Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, triumphing over evil, sin and death.  St. Paul declares that if Jesus Christ is not risen we are still in our sins and our preaching is useless (I Cor. 15:12-20).  This is why it is so important that Christians regularly confess the historic creeds of the faith (Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).  These creeds remind us of the heart of the Christian faith. I am amazed at the quiet disappearance of Creeds in many worship services today.

To see the value of a creed we must first understand the difference between a creed and a confession of faith.  A creed is a historic declaration of the faith which unites all Christians throughout the world and across the annals of time. It is, if I can use the word, an ecumenical statement, i.e. it is for the whole “house of faith.”  A confession of faith, on the other hand, may emphasize certain beliefs that a particular group of Christians want to emphasize but does not unite the whole house of faith.

Take, for example, the collections at the back of the United Methodist hymnal.  The UMC hymnal has nine “confessions” all under the general heading “Affirmations of Faith.”  What follows, more precisely, are the two creeds (Nicene and Apostles), four confessions of faith (United Church of Canada, Korean Methodist church, a Modern affirmation and the World Methodist Social Affirmation), and, finally, there are three affirmations from three passages of Scripture (from Romans 8, Colossians 1 and I Timothy).  It is rather unfortunate that no explanation is given as to the vital differences between these.

The United Church of Canada statement has a rather vague statement of the incarnation, is not explicitly Trinitarian, and totally omits the ascension of Jesus Christ.  The Korean Methodist church statement boldly confesses that Jesus Christ is the “redeemer and savior of the world” but curiously omits the crucifixion of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the ascension of Christ.  It would be hard to reconstruct the meta-narrative of the New Testament if one only had the Korean Methodist Church statement. The Modern Affirmation likewise omits the crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension of Christ.  The World Methodist Social Affirmation confuses the two uses of the word “confession.”  It begins as a “confession” meaning a declaration of faith, but then drifts into a “confession”  about how we have not lived up to the truth of the gospel through our sin, violation of human dignity, exploitation of people, etc.  It is, of course, a good thing to confess our sins publicly (see earlier blogs on this point), but a confession of faith is supposed to be about what He has done, not what we have not done.  The Scriptural affirmations are, of course, wonderful and should be used in public worship.  We need more Scripture read, not less.

Thus, my word of advice on this collection at the back of the United Methodist Hymnal is that United Methodist churches should politely avoid using any of the four confessions in public worship.  They are simply too weak theologically to sustain the faith of the church and they do not unite us with the church throughout the world and back in time. Instead, we should include as a normal component of worship a creed, Nicene or Apostles, or a Scriptural affirmation (Romans 8, Colossians 1, or 1Timothy).

When does a church cease to be Christian? Timothy C. Tennent

I have always appreciated the wonderful way in which historic Christianity is able to simultaneously embrace universality and particularity.  One the one hand, the great truths of the faith are embraced and proclaimed by all major Christian bodies.  The kerygma can be heard and recognized in movements as varied as house-church movements in China, African Independent Churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  This is known as the great semper ubique ab omnibus – the faith which is confessed and proclaimed “always, everywhere by everyone.”  On the other hand, the Christian church is marked by amazing particularity.  There are beliefs, practices and emphases which are peculiar to Quakers or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and so forth.   Often, we tend to emphasize our differences more than our catholicity.  There are quite a few unresolved tensions in the faith which tend to be reflected in various ways by Christian movements, but this should not obscure the great unanimity of Christian proclamation.  The fact that all branches of the church have embraced the Nicene Creed, for example, reflects a deep and abiding sensus communis of the church which must be acknowledged before we discuss the particularities of being a Methodist, Lutheran or a Baptist.  It is this deep unity which is so important to recognize.  We simply do not have the authority to adopt any theological position and continue to call ourselves an expression of the Christian faith.  This is why we have the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It represents the boundaries which define and mark out Christian identity.   If you study church history you will begin to hear that great shared resonance throughout the history of the church which has always affirmed the centrality of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the great saving power of the Christian gospel.  When the church strays from that – as it has done many times – the church begins to lose its power and it begins to wither and die.  Over time, God faithfully raises up better hearers of the gospel and the church is renewed once again.  This process has happened time and time again in the history of the church.

It is true, of course, that the church has not always been in unanimity as to the best way to defend the boundaries of the Church.  Some churches have tended to defend the common experience of being a Christian and living the Christian life in the midst of the world.  Other times, the church has tended to defend the institutional character of the church.  In other places it is the sacraments which must be protected, and serve as the historic link back to Christ and the original apostles.  Still other times, the church has focused on isolated doctrinal expressions.  However, we must not confuse the outposts which defend the borders (whether experiential or doctrinal or institutional or sacramental) with the core itself.  Despite the differences in how the church stays connected to the head, there is unanimity on the common worship of Jesus Christ and His Headship as defined by the Council of Nicea.  Thus, any expression of the church which ceases to worship Jesus Christ and identify Christ as its head as reflected in Nicean Christology has crossed the boundaries and ceases to be the true church.

One of the most important responsibilities of Christian leaders, whether pastors or superintendents or bishops is to make certain that the churches under their care are, in fact, expressions of Christian identity.  This is why it is so distressing to visit the website of St. Paul UMC in Denver.  Their website identifies the “church” as a “United Methodist, Reconciling, and Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community.”  Their “statement of faith” proclaims such affirmations as “We believe that love and compassion are the essence of Spirit,” and “We nurture the Sacred within us all.”

It is clear from many of the statements on the website that the members of this group have abandoned Nicea and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  From my perspective, they are perfectly free to meet together and believe or not believe whatever they want.  However, they must have the courage to remove the phrases “United Methodist” and “Christian” from their name, website and public identity.  Of course, St. Paul UMC is not an isolated situation.  This is merely an example of dozens of such groups across the country who have abandoned Nicea but persistently want to hang on to their identity as “Christian.”

I can only echo the words of Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist, who remarked, “If they are so taken by Buddhism, why do they hang on to Christianity?”