“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3
This Advent season comes as many around United Methodism are trying to start again. There have been congregational surveys, areas of focus and a Call to Action report. In my local Annual Conference we have had conversations with Bishop and Cabinet, Congregational Profiles, and Quarterly Reports. In the congregation that I serve we have been discerning how to go about our mission in the midst of a rural community, shrinking budgets, and changing appointive practices.
All of this at once has caused a surge of conversation over coffee, at church council meetings, and certainly in the blogosphere. Some have called it “navel-gazing,” others have concerns that many of the proposals deal with symptoms and do not get at the real causes. I am one of those that believes that our lack of parallel discipleship structures explains why we are here, while acknowledging that there are many other factors including a changing cultural landscape.
Like those in first century Judea, many in the church today, and not just United Methodists, are looking for a savior. I wonder if we are looking for the right signs in the right places?
The disciples of John had been well steeped in the message of one that was to come. They had heard that John, their leader, was a preparer. They knew he could baptize them with water but that there was another coming who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) You could say that they were well trained to wait and to identify the one who was to come.
John himself had baptized Jesus and had said to him “I need to be baptized by you.” (Matthew 3:14) But now he found himself in prison and hearing reports, he now wondered if Jesus was really the one. Jesus did not stay in the wilderness, did not baptize people, did not dress as a prophet of old, in some real ways Jesus did not behave like the Messiah that John might have expected.
Jesus invites these disciples to hear and see the fruits of his ministry and determine from it if he was the one: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:5) The measurements of effectiveness are not how many are doing this work, instead is the work itself, God’s mission incarnate in our world.
Maybe we have been measuring the wrong things. We have focused our attention on numbers of people, in membership, in worship, in active mission. Unfortunately none of these activities in and of themselves does a disciple make. In fact, I’m not sure that discipleship should be the end goal.
We want disciples because discipleship is the pathway for God’s missional activity in the world. We want to form disciples in the way of that mission. The mission of God is the mission of love, peace, & justice for all the created order.
The prophet Isaiah says it this way:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
So disciples become “highway makers” for the created order to find freedom from its exile. This way of life does not come easy, it takes formation, deep rootedness is what it means to be human, who God is, and the importance of communal life and action. This is more than pew sitting, more than potluck eating, more than bible studying, or praying before meals. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes a covenant community.
Maybe this process that we are going through as denominations, conferences, and local churches will be the catalyst for conversations and actions that move us towards God’s mission in the world. My prayer is that we do not loose sight of the powerful witness of this mission and settle for institutional survival. I want my own eyes opened to the places where healing, reconciling, feeding, and good news are already on their way and where needed. Most of all as a pastor I want to lead people into that mission – disciples who see and hear clearly the call of Christ.
May this season of Advent open our ears to hear and our eyes to see our hurting world. May the Spirit of Christ convict us of our need for communal discipleship so that all of creation might be transformed!