Today we feature a guest blog by Bishop Robert Schnase, episcopal leader of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Bishop is responding to a lead question provided by Hacking Christianity.
Just Say Yes!
Bishop Robert Schnase
Thank you, Jeremy, for inviting me to post a guest blog as part of a Blog Tour to introduce my newest book, Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry. Here’s the question you sent me:
“Young adults want to change the world. Our task is to show them that they can change the world through the Church. In an increasingly secular society, we will have to consider that people may want to effect change but they are not part of the church community. To become truly missional, it seems we might have to decide how to allow the culture to use the church. How can we inspire “Yes” and provide a rapid-response adaptive culture with people who are not known to us, who have not been part of the discipling process, but have a passion to change the world?”
Beyond the Question…
Each time I fly to Central America, the plane is filled with students setting out to change the world. Biology students work to save the rain forests, teachers-in-training lead classes in rural villages, pre-meds set up summer clinics, and economics majors study the efficacy of microfinance projects for the poor. I think this is all great! There is no shortage of altruistic impulses among the young. But as you point out, Jeremy, most of these students do not use theological language or the structures of the church to understand or channel their impulses.
Similarly, I can’t help but notice the decline in denominational bookstores and the closing of Christian booksellers. And yet, during the 30 years that I’ve been writing, the Religion and Spirituality section of secular bookstores has grown from a few shelves to entire rows, even though church participation continues to decline in nearly every region of the country. Curiosity about the spiritual life and interest in spirituality among younger generations is strong.
For me, our task as Christian leaders is larger than to show people outside the congregation that they can change the world through the Church. We should resist squeezing them into our mold and we should not feel defeated if they don’t adapt to our way of doing things. To wait for them to serve the needs of people the way we do it in the church is like waiting for the young woman who serves me my Starbucks in the morning to drop her taste in hip-hop in favor of the organ music arranged from 18th century Wesleyan hymnody that I like. If I’m going to respect the world she inhabits, I have to get over the naïve and egocentric belief that one day she’ll come to her senses and like the things I like.
Beyond the Church Walls…
I want to reframe your question. In addition to exploring how we invite the culture to use the church as you suggest, I think we can become better at using those aspects of our culture that foster spiritual insight and serving human need for the purposes of the church. Instead of focusing on how we get them out there to come in here to work with us on our projects, we might focus on how we get more of us in here to go out there to work alongside them on projects that improve the community and world.
When I was a local church pastor, the congregation I served excelled in hands-on service projects, including building and renovating homes for the poor, international construction and educational projects in Mexico and Central America, ministries for families with an Alzheimer’s parent, literacy work with children, the support of medical clinics, etc. These ministries relied on the volunteer leadership of church members, and yet these programs attracted many people who had no involvement with the congregation. People who had no interest in our worship or bible studies showed up to help us help others. We said Yes to anyone who helped, so long as they abided by a few basic guidelines we had for the protection of people, such as adhering to safe sanctuary practices when working with children and vulnerable adults..
Many churches flourish with such projects, including many who invite the whole community to join them by giving a weekend of service. These programs go by different names, and some use specialized program materials, such as The Church has Left the Building. These help congregations do what you suggested, Jeremy. They invite people to change the world through the Church.
But some churches go even further. They also send teams from the church to join with community-wide projects initiated by non-church organizations—to build houses, provide shelter for the homeless, clean up rivers, or support public schools. I hope churches say Yes to more of these forms of service and engagement.
Two communities seeking faith and action…
The conversation about how we engage those outside the church in service ministries reminds me of the emerging church notion from several years ago that highlighted the change in how people are drawn to follow Christ. In generations past, the path by which people came to faith was “belief, behavior, and belonging.” We entered church life with professions of faith, then adopted the practices of worship and service, and then eventually discovered a sense of belonging in a congregation. Now, we enter communities of faith through “belonging, behavior, belief.” We feel embraced and accepted, then we begin to work in service and ministry. At some point while serving alongside followers of Christ, we discover that we really do believe in this person Jesus and the God he reveals to us! Sharing in common practices of service provides the link to involving people in ministry. People discover their need for grace in the experiencing of it in a serving community.
Imagine that our ministry requires us to work with two different ecologies, two different forms of spiritual yearning and altruistic impulse, two differing forms of communal spiritual practice and service. Let’s lay aside simple distinctions that divide people into the categories churched and unchurched. Instead, let’s imagine that many more people than attend our congregations consider themselves spiritual and perhaps even identify as theistic or nominally Christian. After all, many more people than those in our congregations are reading all those books on spirituality and wanting to change the world!
Unsticking the first community…
The first community comprises people who desire explicit affiliation and who place a premium on communal experience. They receive and understand and offer spirituality best through congregations, public worship, and they value the identifiable expression of belonging that we call membership in a church, an institution that preceded them and that will continue beyond them. They embrace our explicit Christian theological language for organizing experience and spiritual exploration.
This first community is the church as we’ve known it, the congregations we love and serve. We’ve been trained to lead and sustain such communities, and we derive our spiritual support from such affiliations. But many of these congregations are stuck, restrained, hampered by their own paralyzing processes and negative attitudes. They operate with a default of No toward new ideas and even toward new people. The concepts of Just Say Yes! help these churches get unstuck. Just Say Yes! oils the rusty machinery so that we can do our work better, more effectively. Just Say Yes improves our systems, lends clarity, reminds us of our purpose, and helps us do a better job at fulfilling the mission of Christ through the church.
…to Say Yes! alongside the second community
The second ecology comprises those people around us who consider themselves spiritual but who do not trust or do not know the institutional church. Their allegiance (if they identify as Christian) is to Christ but they avoid institutions. They appreciate community, but prefer less static, more fluid commitments, and so they gladly join a team to build Habitat for Humanity home. They enjoy TED talks, The Moth, the Civil Conversations Project, block parties, and Good People Dinners. They are open to the exploration of spiritual truths, but not in the church. They prefer loosely configured communities, movements, house churches, and discussing spiritual truths and offering mutual support in settings outside traditional sanctuaries, such as coffee shops, bars, and community centers. They join with others on the streets of Ferguson or outside the jail cell where Sandra Bland died in Texas. Their following of Christ is not discernable by support of the institution or attendance at worship, but by time given in serving their neighbor or joining a cause.
Just Say Yes! invites us to be more generous in our support and more permission giving to these creative and experimental forms of Christian expression that make better inroads into the culture than traditional churches do. How do we say Yes to people, especially younger people, who are rediscovering the purpose of the church while escaping the structure of the church? How do we encourage them in their callings, maybe before they are comfortable with words like callings? How do we say Yes to fresh expressions that feel foreign and uncomfortable to us, and in areas we feel less competent to lead?
Ministry straddling both tracks
These two forms of expression make ministry remarkably difficult today. And yet, we’re called to do ministry down both tracks—improving and strengthening the work of the body of Christ in congregations while also fostering creativity and cooperative work with those desiring to change the world and yearning for the spiritual life outside the church. We will fail at both if our congregations operate with a default of No.
Our Wesleyan theology of grace perfectly prepares us for ministry down both tracks. It gives us language to describe the growth in grace that comes to those who consciously cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their own sanctification by participating in the practices of a faith community. And it provides a way for us to perceive how God is at work in people long before they are consciously aware of God’s presence.
Thank you, Jeremy, for the conversation. And thank you for your support of Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry. Later this month, additional downloadable resources will be available to help local congregations unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a 7-session devotional guide.
Yours in Christ,
Thoughts? Thanks to the good Bishop for responding well to our question and for empowering churches of all sizes to say Yes! to more missional and experimental opportunities.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book.