It was my privilege to preach the Coastal Plains Area Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest this past weekend. The Assembly was hosted by Memorial Drive Christian Church, the congregation I served for nearly 10 years from the middle of the 1980’s to the middle of the 1990’s. I had been away from Houston for nearly 20 years, and so it was a wonderful opportunity for me to see some old friends and to renew ties with people and a part of the church for which I have a real fondness.
The theme of the Area Assembly was “Ours the Journey” based on hymn #458 in the Chalice Hymnal. Its refrain says –
God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar.
We your people, ours the journey now and ever…
Based on this core Biblical idea that the life of faith, individually and congregationally, is always a journey, I preached Hebrews 12:12-24 and called my sermon “Getting Some ‘Movement’ Back in Our ‘Movement.’”
I began my message by talking about an old friend from my Houston days, the late Wes Seeliger, and his book Western Theology. In this clever book Wes argued that there are two kinds people who embrace two very different visions of life. “Settlers” see life as a possession that has to be carefully guarded. “Pioneers” are people who see life as a wild, fantastic gift. And when these two types go to church, well, Wes said it results in two very different kinds of theology.
In “Settler” Theology the church is a courthouse – the symbol of security, the structure of law and order. But in “Pioneer” Theology the church is a covered wagon. It’s a house on wheels, always on the move. It bears the marks of life, and it’s where the action is.
In “Settler” Theology God is like the mayor. The guys in the black hats fear him. The guys in white hats count on him to keep things under control. But hardly anyone ever sees him. But in “Pioneer” Theology God is like the trail boss. He’s rough and ready, full of life. He lives and fights with his men. He’s always around, and he’s always ready to get down into the mud to help push any wagon that gets bogged down.
In “Settler” Theology Jesus is the sheriff. He works for the mayor, enforcing the rules. He’s in charge of the jail and decides who gets thrown in. But in “Pioneer” Theology Jesus is the scout. He rides out ahead of the wagon train to figure out which way the pioneers who are following behind him should go. He lives all the dangers and hardships of the trail. He never asks the pioneers to go anywhere he hasn’t already been, or to do anything he hasn’t already done.
In “Settler” Theology faith is about trusting in the safety of the town, obeying its laws, paying your taxes, believing that the mayor is in the courthouse and keeping your nose clean. But in “Pioneer” Theology faith is the spirit of adventure, the lure of the road, the longing to see what’s over the next hill and around the next corner, the readiness to move out and risk everything on the trail.
And then, after this quick review of Wes’ categories, I asked the question: “So, which are we — settlers or pioneers?” This question brought me to the heart of my message, and it’s a message that I feel strongly enough about that I have decided to share it here in this week’s blog as a way of thinking out loud about what it will take for a congregation like Northway and a denomination like the Disciples of Christ to become a missional church again.
There’s no question that we started out as pioneers. Originally the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) thought of itself and spoke of itself as a “movement.” Born on the American frontier, we weren’t interested in the safety and familiarity of the established church with all of its doctrines carefully defined and all of its old divisions firmly entrenched. No, we felt the Spirit of God blowing in a new direction, to a different place, and our founders courageously moved out into that future. So what happened to us?
Would anybody looking at the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) today call us a “movement”? Probably not. And the sad thing is that we chose this outcome. We did this to ourselves. As Ronald Osborne put it in his devastating assessment of the state of our church back in 1989, in our “misguided quest for status,” in our desperate desire to be part of the club of “mainline” denominations in America, we “downplayed” all of the distinctive emphases of our spiritual tradition, the very things that gave us our sense of unique identity and purpose, and we have been in decline ever since (293).
To quote what Scott Kisker, the professor of evangelism at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C., said of his own United Methodist denomination –
Our mainline identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health. When we became “mainline,” we stopped being Methodist in all but name… Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions also now known as “mainline.” Like the Israelites under the judges, we wanted to be like the other nations. We no longer wanted to be an odd, somewhat disreputable people. And we have begun to reap the consequences. (13)
And be content with the status quo. This is not a hymn of the “settler” church. No, this is the anthem of a “pioneer” church. It’s a call for the church to get off of its duff and to get moving again. And so is that text from Hebrews chapter 12 that we heard read just a moment ago.
Now, I happen to believe that what the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote to his first century audience is exactly what we Disciples — a stalled and declining church — need to hear to help us get up and get going again. These verses tell us how we can get some “movement” back in our “Movement.” The author of Hebrews told his audience that what he was writing to them was “a word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22). The book of Hebrews is not some detached doctrinal treatise. No, it’s a passionate appeal.
The 12th chapter begins with the vivid image of the Christians to which the letter of Hebrews was written on a field of athletic competition surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” in the stands surrounding them and cheering them on (12:1). Throughout the book of Hebrews the Christians to whom it was written have been reminded by its author that they are on a long journey, they are in a difficult race, and that they should not get discouraged and think about giving up just because it’s so hard.
We think that the book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christian in Rome who had just had their very first brush with persecution. Suddenly it was dangerous for them to be Christians, and so they were having some second thoughts about the commitments they had made. Wouldn’t it just be easier, and certainly less painful, if they just shed their Christianity, retreated back into their previously held Judaism, and thereby avoided all the trouble? The book of Hebrews was written to encourage these believers to hang in there, not to give into their fears, not to give up the fight.
In Hebrews 12:3 our author exhorted his readers not to “grow weary and lose heart.” This is the whole point of the book of Hebrews; this is why it’s called a “word of exhortation.” And where we started our reading of Hebrews chapter 12 this afternoon, at verse 12, we hear this very same kind of encouragement – “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble.” It’s because our hands are weak these days as a denomination, and our knees are feeble as congregations, that what the author of Hebrews had to say to his first century audience has a particular relevancy and urgency to us sitting here in an Area Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Because it’s hard for us as a church these days, it’s easy for us to think about quitting; to “grow weary and lose heart.” But “Don’t!” the author of Hebrews shouts to us from the stands. “Keep going… keep trying… don’t give up!” And this is more than just “rah-rah.”
We don’t need another pep talk. We’ve had our fill of motivational exercises. We’ve already worked our way through all of the easy answers — all of the promised quick-fixes, all of the sure-fire programs that dangle the glittering possibility of numerical success and restored status. Panaceas hold little attraction for us anymore; we’re way past that. No, now we’re desperate, and Stephen Olford argued that this is the only place where God can actually work –
It is my conviction that we are never going to have revival until God has brought the church of Jesus Christ to the point of desperation. As long as Christian people can trust religious organization, material wealth, popular preaching, shallow evangelistic crusades and promotion drives, there will never be revival. But when confidence in the flesh is smashed, and the church comes to the realization of her desperate wretchedness, blindness and nakedness before God, then and only then will God break in.
The exhortation that the author of Hebrews issued to his first century audience of disheartened believers was not an exercise in flimflam. He wasn’t just blowing smoke in an effort to bolster their flagging spirits and keep them on their feet for a little while longer. No, what the author of Hebrews did was the equivalent to what happened in the Gospel of John right after the feeding of the 5,000 and the Bread of Life discourse (John 6).
When Jesus told the crowd that was following Him that they were going to have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to get the gift of eternal life that He was offering (6:53-58), John tells us that crowd, finding this to be a “difficult statement,” began to abandon Him (6:60; 66). The party was over; the show was through. The limelight of His popularity was beginning to fade. And so Jesus asked his closest persona friends, the twelve, if they were going to leave Him too? (6:67) “But where would we go Lord?” Peter answered. “Who else has the words of eternal life?” (6:68).
Diogenes Allen, the professor of philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, says that he sometimes finds himself in a conversation with a bright young University student who has quit church and wants to know if he, a high-powered seminary professor, can offer any compelling reasons why he should rethink this decision. And Diogenes says he always answers the same way, “Well, there’s one that I can think of — you should be in church because Christianity is true.” And that’s what Peter told Jesus when the tide of public acclaim had gone out on Him. “Where else can we go?” Peter told Him. “You have the words of eternal life!” And this is the same thing that the author Hebrews told his discouraged audience of believers.
Look at Hebrews 12:22 – “You have come to Mount Zion.” “To” is the crucial preposition of promise in our text this afternoon. It’s the hinge on which the whole argument turns. The reason why the Christians to whom he wrote the book of Hebrews should not give up the faith, its author argued, was because of what Christianity delivered. Hebrews 12:22-24 is not just the high-water mark of the book of Hebrews; it’s one of the high-water marks of the entire New Testament. Here in just three short verses we are given one of the most comprehensive descriptions to be found anywhere in Scripture about what is ours because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ –
§ Heaven is not just a promised future destination for us, it’s a present reality. We are already in the New Jerusalem, in the presence of the Living God.
§ The angels in glory dance over our presence in the city of God and sing with joy about our place in the heavenly courts, and serve us in countless hidden ways here and now.
§ We belong to God’s forever family.
§ We have no fear of judgment; there is no condemnation.
§ We live and die and then live again in the hope of resurrection.
§ We are Jesus Christ’s best friends; we have an intimate and affectionate relationship with Him.
§ And we have a complete and final solution to the problem of sin and a way to repair all of the damage that it’s done.
“Don’t give up, don’t turn back,” the author of Hebrews told his wavering readers, because all of these things are yours as Christians. “You already hold them in your hands. They are yours to enjoy, and they are what you have to share with others.”
Back when the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was a “Movement,” there was some real clarity about our mission. We knew where we were trying to go and we had a pretty good idea about how we we’re going to get there. We cared about unity – we call it “inclusiveness” today. But this wasn’t what originally gave our “Movement” its “movement.” No, unity was just a tactic; a way of getting us further down the road toward that desired destination. And we cared deeply about the Bible, specifically the New Testament. We wanted to know what it said in order to more faithfully put it into practice. But as important as this was, not even this is what originally gave our “Movement” its “movement.” No, the return to the teachings of the New Testament was just a strategy; a plan of action that we consciously undertook as a way of advancing our progress toward that bigger goal.
What originally gave our “Movement” its “movement” was the conviction that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was something that people really needed in their lives. And what convinced them that this was the case was their very own experience with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their own lives. They themselves knew its truth. They themselves had experienced its power. They themselves were enjoying its benefits. Our “Movement” originally got its “movement” from their passionate desire to make this Gospel known to others. When the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was a “Movement,” it was a “Gospel Movement.” And if there is going to be any “movement” in our “Movement” again, it will only be because we have decided to become a “Gospel Movement” again. And that’s not a decision that’s going to get made because of the persuasiveness of some arguments that have been addressed to one’s head, but rather, it’s a decision that’s going to get made when our hearts have been touched again by the power the Gospel and all of its benefits.
I believe that the “movement” most needed today by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a movement by each congregation and every member back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And then, with a new awareness of and appreciation for all of the Gospel’s benefits, there needs to be a movement by each congregation and member back out into the world to share that Gospel and to offer its benefits to others.
If here today, in this Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Coastal Plains Area of the Southwest Region, a commitment was made to these two movements – a movement back to the Gospel, followed by a movement into the world with that Gospel – I believe that “Ours the Journey” would not just be another song in the hymnal. It would become the soundtrack of a Pioneer church that was finally on the move again.
Kisker, Scott. Mainline or Methodist? – Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission. Discipleship Resources. 2008.
Osborne, Ronald E. “The Irony of the 20th Century Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): Making it to the Mainline Just at the Time of its Disestablishment.” Mid-Stream. July 1989. (293-312).
Seeliger, Wes. Western Theology. Forum House. 1973.
In my next few postings I want to probe some of these ideas further. In a couple of weeks I am scheduled to share the keynoting responsibilities for the Tri-Area Christian Men’s Fellowship Retreat over in Athens with my spiritual hero Feliberto Pereira on the theme of “The Church has left the Building: Now What?” and my preparations for this event together with the work that is being done by our “Church Unique” Planning Team has begun to galvanize some ideas that I am beginning to see as being absolutely foundational to our congregational and denominational future, and I’d like to start bouncing them around with you. DBS+