Thursday, February 21, 2019

Nobody Expects Their Heart to Be Strangely Warmed

This is not a post about General Conference.  At this relatively crucial moment in our history, you might think I'd be writing about it.  It's just not where my mind has been lately.  But I have been thinking about the mission of the United Methodist Church, which is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Close second: "Strangely warming hearts since 1738."
I think that's a winner of a mission statement, which I guess is fortunate since I'm not only a United Methodist (for at least a few more days!) but also on staff at a United Methodist church.  It seems straightforward enough, as long as you don't overthink it.

Spoiler alert: I overthink everything.

Used effectively, mission statements are handy things because they guide your decision-making.  I can, in day-to-day operation, consider questions and choices based on a simple metric: which choice moves us in the direction of the mission statement?

That said, mission statements can also be misunderstood or even abused.  Most good mission statements are intended to tell us what an organization is trying to do...but not exactly how it is trying to do it.  Look back at the mission of the UMC.  Make disciples.  Transform the world.  How?  Well that's up to us to interpret, isn't it?  And it's in the interpretation that we run into trouble.  What's the best way to make disciples anyway?  Do we threaten?  Cajole?  Bend to our will?  I'm not trying to be funny. Churches have tried all of those...and worse.

Image result for spanish inquisition
Much. Worse.
And what about transforming the world?  Does that mean we make it into what we want it to be?  And while we're at it, does it even mean we, as individuals or even as the Church have our sights set on the...whole world?

One of the reasons the church has declined has been the revelation that it had become very inwardly-focused.  We came to rely on a society that supported church with its presence all the time.  As that societal commitment waned (another article: why did it wane), churches began to decline and lose influence.  In a state of crisis, people inside the church began to see that the inward focus at the expense of the world around them was problematic for a couple of reasons: first, it meant people were leaving, which devastated the bottom line.  Second (and I'd like to believe more important, but sometimes I wonder), it meant we were failing to follow the instructions of Jesus Himself.  "Go," He said.  Maybe we were going to foreign countries, but we weren't going down the street.  And even when we did, we put on blinders and ignored local hunger and pain and injustice.

Maybe worse, we assumed if the people we passed on the street really wanted help, they'd come to us to get it.

Churches began to react.  They started looking outside.  They started trying to figure out how to provide better for their communities.  Well, many of them did.  The ones that didn't continued to decline.  The ones that did improved.  Success!!!  Mission became the model.  Consistent with the gospel, yes.  And as anyone who has ever served in mission knows, it is rewarding for the servant too.  It seemed like we had turned this mess around and were finally headed in the right direction.

Strengths are weaknesses, though, and weaknesses are strengths.  The strength of looking outside the church can become weakness if we fail to heed the gospel call to care for each other--inside the church.  In the church today, this will sound like absolute heresy, but I'm starting to wonder if we need to pay a little more attention to the body than we do.  After all, there are countless organizations who seek to serve the public good.  Is the church not called to be much more than that?  Jesus said people would know we are His disciples if we have love for each other, not just love for the lowly.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory calls of Christ requires balance--being aware of who we are as the body of Christ, both for each other and for the world without.

What if we could achieve that balance?  What if we loved each other in community and, as a community, had compassion and care for those in need?  I imagine  two likely results.  I imagine people would see our genuine care and desire to be a part of such a family.  I imagine our little corner of the world might be transformed.  And if our corner is transformed, maybe other corners--even the world--will follow.

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