What’s Your Next Step?
Having read Jason Vickers’ book Minding the Good Ground: A Theology of Church Renewal, I’m continuing to ponder next steps. Here is a second installment of those thoughts. You can read the first installment, A Death Embrace, here.
Selfishly, one of the things I appreciated about Jason’s book is that it confirmed my own thoughts. From my perspective, historically the church has not always held together the relationship between the personal and the corporate in a holistic fashion, which (again from my perspective) has in turn undermined evangelism in significant ways. Nicholas Perrin is on target when he say’s that many Christians are conditioned to read Scripture as God’s saving Word to them as individuals rather than God’s saving word to the church. He goes on to say that this kind of understanding has led to ‘a notion that views the church as little more than a loose association of the equivalents of Jesus’ Facebook friends.’*
Over the years, much evangelistic activity has focused on the person as an isolated entity, as though that was the entire focus of Jesus’ message. But that’s somewhat of a distortion. In Christian faith the personal and the communal don’t cancel each other out, they’re bound together, with each reinforcing the other.
That’s why Jason’s critique of the idea of the church as the ‘community of the already saved’ is so important. But it’s not so easy to swallow. Where I grew up, we’d say Jason’s gone to meddlin’.
But I can’t think of a more important word at this juncture. Salvation is not simply a private transaction between an individual and Jesus. Sin is not just about transgressing divine laws. Atonement is not merely the juridical event of pardon. And (thankfully) the church is not a ‘waiting room for heaven’ or ‘a good place to get something to eat and make a few new friends while we wait to be called home to glory,’ or even ‘a good place to come together for civic involvement or…political caucusing.’**
What is at stake, especially for evangelism, is the recognition that salvation is dramatically more far-reaching and comprehensive than a simple private transaction. Sin is deeper and more complex than the breaking of a few commandments. Atonement is far more sweeping and transformative than the receipt of pardon. And (thankfully) the church is instrumental in all of it – the very context of the Holy Spirit’s activity and the chosen vehicle through which God works for radical transformation.
But convincing folks of all that can seem like a really hard sell these days – especially in the United Methodist Church. And it’s not just because many of us think of the church as an afterthought when it comes to salvation.
One of my seminary professors, George Lindbeck talked about the importance of church doctrine to the formation of communal identity. He said that ‘Church doctrines are communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question…they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.’ Think about the Quakers, for instance. If I’m a Quaker, but I oppose pacifism, I’m not going to be viewed as a good Quaker, because that’s not what a member of the Society of Friends should be. Lindbeck says that if you don’t draw that conclusion, then it’s most likely because ‘the belief has ceased to be communally formative.’*** The belief may still be a formal or official one, but it’s no longer operational.
That’s the heart of our current crisis in the UMC. Not only have we forgotten that the church is instrumental to salvation, it may also very well be that the doctrinal heritage of the UMC is no longer communally formative (at least in the US). If that’s the case, then (sadly) we really aren’t much more than a loose association of Jesus’ Facebook friends.
*Nicholas Perrin, ‘Jesus Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet’, in N. Perrin and R. Hays (eds.), Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 100, 102
**Jason Vickers, Minding the Good Ground: A Theology of Church Renewal (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 83
***George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age , (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 60