The point was recently made that there are to many complaint type posts about the church and not enough posts about diversifying the culture of the church, or encouraging people to get into the mission field. The point is good, and because of that, I will indeed make this a post about how the church can accomplish those two important things. Undoubtedly there will be those who disagree, it is social media after all, but valid questions and concerns deserve answers, so here we go.
The two things we are talking about may seem separate, but in our tradition they actually end up being tied together for the purposes of our discussion at any rate and, perhaps surprisingly to some, the answer is not new, but rather lies at the beginnings of Methodism and it’s traditions. I am, of course, referring to what we describe as our Distinctive Wesleyan Emphasis. First we need to realize and give credit to the grace that goes before us, that is to say what we call prevenient grace, not fight against it, and encourage and instruct others to do the same. The UMC website has this to say on the matter:
We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our “first slight transient conviction” of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.
We simply must understand this and do all in our power to aid the understandings of others. This is the beginning of faith and is the beginning of all that we do for the faith. Without this and without a proper understanding of this, then our efforts do not start on a solid foundation.
The next thing that we, as a church, can do to accomplish the goals of more in the mission field and more diversity in our church, is to ensure that we are justified. By this of course, I mean to ensure that we have surrounded ourselves in God’s Justifying grace as we go forward. As “Teachers as Spiritual Leaders and Theologians” (PDF) says, ”
God’s grace alone brings us into relationship with God. There are no hoops through which we have to jump in order to please God and to be loved by God. God has acted in Jesus Christ. We need only to respond in faith.
That faith of course is the faith in the Jesus Christ that the church has been founded by. That faith includes proper teaching on who Jesus is, basic understandings of our beliefs of the Bible, of God, the Holy Spirit, etc. Those things are easily found in our articles of religion and should be taught to those exploring, or new to the Methodist faith. A crucial part of the process of Justification is conversion and we need to be sure that we are, as Nicodemus was instructed, to be born anew. Whether that happens as an aha instant or a gradual process is not important, what matters is that it happens. The conversion results naturally in repentance, that is the turning away from those activities rooted in sin and toward actions that reflect God’s love.
The United Methodist Member’s Handbook by George E. Koehler says it well:
Justification is also a time of repentance — turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love. In this conversion we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation through the Holy Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
The next step toward the goals is to be justified by God through Christ. That begins the journey toward a more diverse collection in the church as to more people in the mission field. How you ask? Because of this justification, and what comes naturally after it, we are indeed beginning the process of being made one body, that is to say the body of Christ.
Another thing that we, as a church, can do to increase our diversity and to encourage others to get out into the mission field is to start teaching what we believe sanctification is and then encouraging those who have claimed Christ to move along that path. With that, we also need to ensure that we too are walking that path toward what Wesley understood as Christian perfection. For more on what Christian perfection is, read here. Some call this process of sanctification holiness, so the two terms, in this sense, should be seen as interchangeable when I use them in this particular posting. “Through God’s sanctifying grace, we grow and mature in our ability to live as Jesus lived. As we pray, study the Scriptures, fast, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love neighbor. Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our outer actions and behavior, are aligned with God’s will and testify to our union with God.” (From “Teachers as Spiritual Leaders and Theologians”)
How does this lead to diversity? Well, let’s think small picture for a second. To often we are concerned with the big picture. We are lobbying for those causes which we think will genuinely help, but missing the point entirely. We can talk big picture all day, we can go and lobby for this or that law and this or that policy, but if we are not looking at our own communities, we have missed the point. If you are campaigning for a minimum wage hike, but don’t notice the person in front of you at the grocer who is putting items back because he or she can not pay, then you are missing it. Something so simple as picking up that tab is the type of thing that begins to transform communities. If you are bemoaning the race relations in the country, picketing and being at every rally, but not active and involved in the sections of your town which are poor, economically impoverished, and actually at the front line of those issues of race, then you have missed the point. Communities don’t change because of large governmental policy, they change because the people in them do. We have made community to big quite honestly…so big that you and I as individuals can not change it. If you want to change Washington DC, start in your neighborhood and understand it will eventually reach there. Think about it, that model worked for the Apostles pretty well. If we believe that Christ is indeed the example, then the process of sanctification in essential to our diversity and also to our ability and willingness to change our communities.
So there you have it, how do we accomplish the goal? With the same Wesleyan distinctive influences we have always had, but often ignored. It may seem overly simple or outdated, but it works. Acknowledge the prevenient grace, engage fully in being justified, and follow the ongoing path of being sanctified. Then encourage others to do the same. Start in the church because we desperately need it, then move outward toward your communities. Start with your neighbor or the guy across the street. Think small. Work small. Don’t get caught up in those things to big for you to do anything about. That is not to say that you should not care, not vote, etc. but simply to say that your activism is much better served in a two block radius of your home than in some national cause that will have limited effect anyway. Don’t advocate for things and for places where you will not go. If you believe that poverty is a scourge and that it unfairly impacts minority neighborhoods, then go be present in minority neighborhoods and make it better. If you believe that minorities are disproportionately targeted by police for searches etc. then go into those neighborhoods and change it. It can work. It will work. It does work. How do we become more diverse? How do we get more people into the mission field? By the distinctive things that make up the peculiar people called Methodist as those are what led us to be formed in the first place. Those are the things that lead naturally toward the goal.