Monday, March 29, 2010

Government and Ministry

All of the discussion about the recent health care bill reminds me that Christian ministry and government often operate the same way: leaders plan things to fix problems.

For both entities, this top-down system works to varying degrees. Sometimes people are actually helped through the resulting programs, and sometimes expanding, bureaucratic operations exacerbate the very problems they aim to fix. Here are a few examples of how church ministry follows this pattern:

People feel unnoticed because their church congregation is so large.
Solution: We will put greeters at the door to say hello to people when they enter the building.
Resulting Problem: The responsibility to show kindness shifts from all believers to a designated person with an assigned task.

Many Christians feel lonely or depressed.
Solution: We will offer professional counseling services through our staff.
Resulting Problem: The Christian’s responsibility to help bear the burdens of his brothers and sisters moves to a professional with an assigned task.

Problem: Children are not being nurtured in the gospel by their parents and families.
Solution: We will build a solid children’s ministry where kids receive the nurturing care and instruction in the faith that they do not receive at home.
Resulting problem: Family life is further segmented by adding to the schedule another night away from home. Christian parents have the opportunity to easily pass their responsibility of modeling Christ-like faith off to children’s ministers.

Problem: Christian singles feel lonely and misplaced.
Solution: We will start a singles ministry with a singles pastor who can take concern for their spiritual well-being and plan activities for them.
Resulting Problem: Singles are further misplaced and turned into their own group because the believing community is not encouraged to show love by inviting them into their own families. 

Problem: There are poor people in our community.
Solution: We will start a benevolence ministry.
Resulting Problem: Many people donate to the ministry and feel justified, but the responsibility of actually helping and being with needy people shifts to a few volunteers or staff. Furthermore, recipients of this ministry will most likely feel that they have been given sympathy, not love.  

In all these ways, people in Christian ministry, just like people in government, plan things to fix problems. As the “answers” are being carried out, we centralize character qualities that all Christians should embody, and we formalize responsibilities that all Christians should share. The end result is a church of Christians (or a nation of citizens) who are convinced that something better is needed but don’t seem capable of living their own lives according to the principles that would bring that change about.

In the end, people do not look to a plan or program for help, encouragement, and love; they look to other people. It is the duty of the whole church, therefore, to ensure that before there are programs, there are people in whom Christ and his truth dwell richly. The work starts small, as a saint lays down his life for one son or daughter of God at a time. And the foundation of this work must be Christ-like love, not a desire to fix problems.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Follow Me as I Follow Christ

How can the body of Christ better produce people of Christ-like substance? Of all the perennial questions the church asks itself, this one has received a lot of attention lately. There is no shortage of recent books outlining people's disillusion with their church experience, especially young people. Some of those criticisms are valid and some are not. Yet no one can deny the ongoing longing, from inside and outside the church, for followers of Jesus whose lives line up to the example of their Master.

In the book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon provide insight into this question. In short, their answer is discipleship. While they write with the public ethic of the church in mind, we must apply their reasoning to daily, interpersonal conduct as well. The next couple of paragraphs give their basic line of thought.

People of all ages and cultures operate on assumed values they do not even realize they have. One of the values built in to many modern democracies is traced back to Kant's notion that there is no need to imitate moral people in order to become moral. Rather, Kant argued, all anybody needs to do to achieve morality is to think clearly for him or herself.

Of course, this assumption directly contradicts Christian discipleship, which calls us to learn appropriate belief and conduct by following the teaching and example of another. Part of pastoral ministry, the authors say, is to therefore counteract this ingrained mode of thinking by recognizing mature Christians and challenging others to imitate them. “In sermons, in teaching, in pastoral care and administration, pastors practice ethics by lifting up specific historical examples, saints, for the rest of us to emulate”(109).

I agree with this point and take it a step further. All Christians must aspire to be like the apostle Paul, who without hesitation calls others to imitate himself as he imitates Christ (I Cor. 11:1). Peter encourages elders in a similar manner in I Peter chapter five: “Shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but eagerly, not for shameful gain, but willingly, as God would have you, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

Instead of taking truth from the architects of worldly systems, disciples learn the truth of Christ in the Scriptures and speak it to one another each day. Instead of settling for human patterns of interaction, they recognize that they need one another because in Christ they are members of one another. Disciples seek not only to follow mature believers , but also to be examples by allowing others into their lives. They live in humility through mutual confession of sins. As sons and daughters of God the Father, they walk in divine love and invite others to walk with them. This is discipleship, and it is vital for producing the kind of people for which the world hungers.