Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The End or a By-Product?

Awhile back, I wrote about being a “hyphenated,” a term I picked up from Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence. According to Tickle, massive changes in media the past 30 years are causing American Christians to live in much closer “subjective proximity” than ever before. One result: some of the old divisions are dissolving and people are collecting around new convictions, hence the gathering center. Mainline denominations especially need to pay close attention to this phenomenon.

Denominational boundaries are not just doctrinal and organizational. They, too, are subjective. Precisely at this point I start to feel anxious. I am deeply interested in church renewal, but just what is the church I’m trying to help renew? United Methodism? Not exactly. Quite a few of my students are not United Methodist and I’m as interested in them as I am my denominational compatriots. I am also privileged to participate in a study/reflection group made up of a wide range of scholars and practitioners from Wesleyan, Holiness and Pentecostal backgrounds. We are kindred spirits even though, historically at least, we have been denominational rivals.

At the same time, I care almost desperately for the health of United Methodism. She has a great and important legacy that could be fresh and relevant, stepping into some gaps in doctrine and practice not adequately noticed by other traditions. Her vast organization could be terrifically fruitful in bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the lost and marginalized. And by the way, who is more marginalized than the rural under-class? And where are many United Methodist congregations?

So, I’m facing my own quandary. I’m not interested in re-inventing the wheel and sometimes I think some Emergents are trying to do just that. Neither do I want to get trapped in the denominational paradigm. What do I do? What do you do?

We tend to personalize and individualize this comment of Jesus, so let me paraphrase it this way: Those who try to spare their (denominational) lives will lose them. Those who lose their (denominational) lives for the sake of the Kingdom will find them.

Denominational health is a by-product (not the aim) of Kingdom-driven ministry. Can we tell the difference?

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February 23, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thank You, Tony

We just finished Builders in Ministry Week at Southwestern College.  It is our third annual and we’re excited about how this event is developing.  (Next year, it’s scheduled for February 23-25.  I hope you’ll consider coming.)

Our featured speaker this year was Tony Jones, author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.  As usual, he provoked some stimulating conversation.

My takeaway from Tony’s time with us: (1) Emergents are really sensitive about how power is exercised in the church. To pick just one topic where power implications surfaced, Tony made what some would say are pretty extreme statements about ordination. Because they take the priesthood of all believers so seriously, Solomon’s Porch, the congregation to which Tony belongs in Minneapolis doesn’t ordain, or, more precisesly, they’ll ordain anybody. Reason? They don’t believe that anyone in the church should be invested with such sacerdotal power, so they subvert the notion of “clergy” with their views and practices on ordination.

(2) Emergents are very concerned about ingrained assumptions in both traditional denominational churches as well as independent evangelical churches. Since every ministry has to be thoroughly rooted in its context, assumptions about who does what and why (see #1, for example) must not go unexamined. Everything must be thought about, even the kind of seating arrangement you have in worship.

(3) Emergents are exceedingly nervous about cookie-cutter anything, so don’t go copying them. Solomon’s Porch has become famous because of their approach to discipleship. But the last thing that Tony (or Doug Pagitt or any of the Solomon’s Porchers – be careful how you read that word!) wants is for the rest of us to do church the way Solomon’s Porch does church. Maybe one of the biggest mistakes of modernism is the fixation we have on copying somebody’s method. I think the Emergent leaders are telling us, “Don’t do church the way we do. Do church the way God is calling you to do church in your community!

For these reasons, I say, thank you, Tony. I’d still like to pick a few bones with you, but, for now, thanks.

(For another view of Tony’s time at Southwestern College, see “A Long Obedience,” ashleealley.blogspot.com.)

February 21, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Competing Interests, Shared Vision

For a long time, I’ve fretted over our United Methodist denominational divisions.  We suffer from competing interests.  In part, they are regional, geographical and cultural, but the ones we most often discuss are theological.  

Those theological differences, when you start to probe, are hard to pin down. We use labels (“conservative,” “liberal”) that are threadbare, past usefulness, like the heels of an old pair of socks that we know we should throw away but can’t quite bring ourselves to do.  Like that old pair of socks, our competing interests are rubbing us raw.  

Competing interests within an organization have to do with control of decision-making channels and resources, financial and human.  We want a certain something to happen, so we maneuver to get our hands on the levers.  We pit ourselves against each other.  We campaign.  

I understand that, to a large degree, competing intersts are largely unavoidable.  But they only work for Christians if we share a vision, if there is something that we fully recognize as grounding us in something bigger and more important than my group’s particular concerns.

Competing interests work against two necessary virtues that shared vision require: humility and trust.  Humility requires that I listen openly and empathetically to people with whom I know I disagree.  It means that I resist the temptation to dismiss their concerns by impugning their motives.  It means that I believe (trust) and assume their integrity.  Maybe more basically, it means that I recognize we’re on the same team.  How often do you hear coaches and players talk about trusting their teammates?  

I fear that we have neither humility nor trust in United Methodism broadly. Competing interests are winning out over shared vision.  Some might argue that our mission statement: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is a shared vision.  I don’t think so.  I think it’s a slogan General Conference delegates could agree to as a cover for already-well-established agendas.   

I sound cynical.  I’m not.  I’m looking for the shared vision.

February 12, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , | Leave a comment

I Think I’m a Hyphenated

As a member of a so-called mainline denomination, I have been experiencing – on behalf of (United Methodist ) Mother Church – something like a reverse vicarious identity crisis.  It’s really not cool to be a mainliner these days.  To rip off an old country song, I’m United Methodist after United Methodist was cool. 

I’m keenly interested in doing whatever I can to help us United Methodists embody and live for the Kingdom of God.  I’ve listened to and participated in many conversations that started out to be “dialogues” about how we very divided United Methodists (yes, we recognize the oxymoron) can make peace with each other and make a difference in the world.  The talks don’t turn out that way.  We wind up fighting about who’s going to get to control denominational resources and power structures.  

And we’re all frustrated by it.  Truthfully, we’ve been sincerely about the Kingdom…in our minds, anyway, all along.  We just don’t agree on what the Kingdom looks like.  It’s so easy to get headed down some tangential path in those conversations about working together for the sake of the mission. People who have been down in the denominational trenches for awhile know all about how fine the line is between seeking and working for the Kingdom and degenerating into mere church politics.

And along comes “Emergent:” “Emergent Christianity,” “Emergent Conversation,” “Emerging Worship,” “Emergent Village.”  Gosh, just when we’re feeling bad about our denominational divisions, a spate of books comes along to tell us that we’re practically out of the game altogether.  Thank God for Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence, which helps some of us mainliners figure out who we are in this new day.  

Tickle says that about every 500 years the church does a wholesale housecleaning and argues that we’re going through one right now. (Denominations, beware!)  Toward the end of the book, she offers a very helpful schematic of various groups and how they fit the Emergent picture; hence the “hyphenateds.”

“Hyphenateds” are mainline (Protestant) Christians who operate in an “Emergent” way within their own denominations.  They have no plans to leave Mother Church, but they also don’t want business as usual, nor do they care about denominational preservation.  They want their ministries really to count for the mission of God.  

It can be a fine line to walk, but I’m trying to walk it.  I feel God has called me to stay within this beloved denomination, but I don’t want to spend a minute propping up a worn-out bureaucracy.  Thus, I think I’m a hyphenated.  What are you?

February 10, 2009 Posted by | The Church | , , , | 4 Comments

The Point of the Story?

A couple of times recently, I’ve listened to “what the Bible says” conversations that have left me scratching my head. Today’s Sunday School lesson (written by a well-known author/pastor) dealt with personal affliction and God’s glory and used an excerpt from John 9, the story of Jesus healing the man blind from birth.  The aim of the lesson: to teach about how God is glorified and how we can grow, even (and especially) through affliction.   

The author made particular reference to John 9:3, which gives Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question about whether this man was a sinner or his parents (since he had been blind from birth).  Jesus’ response: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Our author followed with his interpretation: “The point of the story, then, is how the blind man’s affliction revealed God’s glory.”

No.  That’s not the point of this story!  It’s really about spiritual blindness and faith.  As the story continues, after the man’s healing, he is interrogated by the Pharisees about whether Jesus was a sinner. Ultimately, they boot him from synagogue fellowship and the story ends with Jesus’ word: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  He aims directly at the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  

You see why I’m bugged by using that verse to talk about affliction?  If I don’t read the rest of the story, I miss the whole point!  I’m worried, then, about how people read or hear the Bible, once they’ve “learned” some principle in this way.  It makes me think of how often we miss the point because we already “know” the point.

Preachers and teachers, we are most to blame.  Too much  “biblical preaching/teaching clouds biblical truth with “applications” that draw people away from the Bible’s own claims.

There is much in the scriptures that teaches about affliction without resorting to ripping off other parts.  Job is about affliction, especially undeserved.  A number of the Psalms speak about affliction.  James teaches about affliction.  Not John.  

Preachers and teachers work against spiritual growth when we treat the Bible this way.  I fully concede that I’m saying nothing new, but I don’t think we’re paying sufficient attention to the problem.  We who are responsible for guiding people spiritually mislead them by distraction, when we already have our topic and carelessly grab for proof texts for support.  It makes me think of another verse: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters…”  Have I gotten the point of this story right?

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality | 1 Comment