Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Word About Numbers

Bishop Will Willimon challenged us to say, in light of the Acts of the Apostles, that numbers (of conversions, people in pews, etc.) don't really matter. I don't know who is saying numbers don't matter, but I did what he asked us to do. I reflected on why Luke, who wrote the narrative, would have included numbers in the story of the church's expansion, in Acts.

I believe they are not unimportant in the larger story but they are, by themselves, not very meaningful. These instances are recounted, like the conversions of former persecutors (Saul) and Roman officials like Cornelius, to teach that your persecutors or occupying military officer might just become your brother or sister if you are faithful in your witness. And about numbers: the more people who see following Jesus not just dangerous, but also possible and workable, the more likely others will accept the invitation to join in. In a sense, numbers do attract more numbers.

That, in my opinion has little to do with reporting of numbers, paid attendance or actual, as we do it today, whether at the ballgame or the pew. Those are business figures. Are our numbers incidental or unimportant? To be PC, absolutely not. In a way that matters to the UMC and those employed by it, numbers are important. Is that the main message of Acts, or of Jesus' parables of growth, or, for that matter, the ministry of John Wesley, as the Bishop maintains? It would seem that a variety of responses can be reasonably argued.

But saying we need more numbers when the UMC has had generational membership losses is not prophetic exhortation- it's simply more empty reporting of the previous day's weather.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is the Disciple Making Mantra Working?

We have an impressive apparatus for making disciples of Jesus. It aligns with our mission statement quite nicely! How's that workin' for ya?

If it's possible, drop that latest disciple making toy. Consider the spiritual struggle to completely follow Jesus, your Light and your Salvation. Remember the folks that Jesus loved and taught, among them a rich young man (Mark 10:21-22)? He knew what Jesus was about, but he was not free to follow him.

The hard work of following Jesus "unreservedly," as Henri Nouwen put it in The Road to Daybreak, sometimes flouts our best efforts at invitation. As he wrote, "In the past I wanted to know where to go. Now I knew where to go, but didn't really want to." If someone like Henri Nouwen could write these words, and share his own struggle to follow Jesus even more fully, why isn't there more honesty about following Jesus- the kind that comes from the depths of our being? Is it about trying to sell something we ourselves are not buying?

I'm not sure we can be honest about discipleship if we're not on the journey ourselves, attending to our spiritual life and sharing it. Nouwen chose the venue of the journal as well as books, lectures, and finally, his own ministry with the disabled. But honesty requires being on journey in the first place.

We prefer a position of strength. I envision myself with no unsavory givens, that is, no weighty baggage. Implicit in most "grids" I've seen is the assumption of being "fixed." People may decide that this discipleship stuff is not for them- unless they can find a way to look good, to hide the messiness of their existence. It doesn't even enter our minds that our true vocation is always connected to the struggle to be whole, grounded in our own brokenness and healing.

Churches large and small tend to make "following Jesus" into "copying Jesus." We neglect our true self and our true life in the Holy Spirit. We try our best to schlep up somehow, on our own, a life as Jesus lived and taught. But it's communion with God, receiving Christ into ourselves that leads to the fruit of the Spirit, not the other way around. In valuing the result over the Source, we obscure the gift that makes discipleship possible.

Belonging in Christian community trumps any kind of assembly-line process. What we find pleasing about any scheme is that we think we can fit bunches of people into it and thereby churn more "disciples" out of it. But patience, gentleness, and love is not necessarily the fruit of such efforts to impose our form of discipleship on others.

Basically we put too much trust in disciple-making. We want it manageable, measurable, even easier, without risk. What then? Without a master plan, we're left with a simplicity with all it's beauty and breadth and depth: our desire to receive Jesus, to be formed by Holy Spirit, and willingness to stay on the journey with others. May your spirit be refreshed with the gift of curiosity and wonder and joy.

Oldies but Goodies