Five Areas of Discipleship

There are a lot of different ways we can talk about how one follows the Way of Jesus, but my favorite is this one.

Jesus says that there are two Great Commandments: Love God, and love our neighbors. But we love not only as individuals (showing devotion and serving others), but also as a church as a whole (worshiping in a community and doing justice in society).

So, small groups have often talked about making a covenant to pursue these four areas, often called “works of piety” and “works of mercy,” loving God and loving neighbors.

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But there is a fifth area that often gets neglected among mainline Protestant churches: witness. Evangelism, which literally means “spreading the Good News,” touches all four of those areas.

The word “witness” means both observing and telling. In worship, we both observe what God is doing among us and tell about it. In devotion, we draw our attention to what God is teaching us and how God is growing us; we look for answers to prayer. In service and justice, we both tell the story of God’s liberating love and live it out by helping others. All of that stuff is “witness.” Adding this fifth area reminds us of the importance of learning to talk about the grace we see active in our lives and the world around us. We are not just telling the Good News—we’re being the Good News.

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Adding “witness” also reminds us that both observing and telling are part of what we do as followers of the Way of Jesus. We name grace when we see it. We connect current events and our modern life stories to the stories of the Bible and our faith history. Witness is how we live our public and private life, the way we embody the gospel and speak it with our mouths. Witness is our existential relationship, our “way of being in the world.”

This is also why followers of Jesus need a church. Witness is part of how you live an authentic life in community. Most of us tend to favor one expression of faith: I can go off on a mountain and pray and feel spiritual in nature (devotion). I can serve others and feel good about the good work I’m doing (compassion). I can be an advocate or activist and hold right opinions (justice). I can raise my hands in worship and try to glide through life on a spiritual high (worship). I can even tell others about Jesus without knowing intimately what that grace looks like in my own life. Any of these areas isolated from the others can become toxic. But a church helps us balance them and bring them into focus. Witnessing means all of us, together, making worship, devotion, compassion, and justice an integral part of our identity.

Growing in Discipleship: Witness

Jesus gave us the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor.

John Wesley built his Three General Rules of Methodism on this Great Commandment. He expanded “love your neighbor” into two rules: do no harm, and do good. The third rule was “to attend upon the ordinances of God,” which basically means to do worshipy kinds of things: prayer, fasting, study, and so on.

In our culture, I think we need to elaborate the Great Commandment again, because we have a tendency to think in individualistic terms. A Christian does not exist in isolation. We are baptized not only into a faith, but a faith community. We hold each other accountable to grow in grace together. When Jesus says “You are the light of the world,” he uses the second person plural form of “you.” It should really be “Y’all are the light of the world.”

Covenant Discipleship groups have often talked about four ways we love God and neighbor, both as individuals and as a community: Worship, devotion, compassion, and justice.

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To these I like to add a fifth area: Witness.

“Witness” is a loaded word in Christian culture, though, because most people think of it as being primarily about evangelism. I like to point out that there are two meanings to the word “witness.” The first means to observe. The second means to tell.

This fifth area of discipleship is really about loving ourselves, or taking time to experience God’s love for ourselves. How has God been at work in your life before you were ever aware of it? How has God been working to save you and make you holier? How has God grown you in grace? What talents, gifts, passions, and experiences has God given you to shape you into the person you are?

If you can observe this kind of stuff for yourself, if you can know yourself better and how you fit into God’s project of salvage for the world, then you can also tell other people about it and invite them into the same mission. This is what many Christians understand as evangelism, but I think we often put the cart before the horse. Sharing good news emerges from our own experience of God’s grace, and witnessing that means learning to be aware of how God is already at work.

All of these areas overlap each other—worship blends into our daily life and how we serve others, our work of justice blends into how we conduct ourselves toward God. Witness touches everything we do, both as individuals and as a community. It shapes how we share hospitality with others and how we communicate the Good News.

This is our discipleship model at Saint Junia. It’s actually really simple: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

Why It Would Be Really, Really, Really Stupid to Eliminate Charitable Deductions for Churches

I’ve seen and heard quite a few comments from folks recently about the possibility of eliminating the charitable tax deduction as a way of balancing the federal budget. My secular friends of both conservative and liberal persuasions, and a few of my liberal religious friends often complain that a lot of church energy is spent not on helping the poor, but on providing country-club services for their members. They point to celebrity preachers who have made “ministry” into a big business.

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There are two main reasons, from an economic perspective, why eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions to religious organizations would be a bad idea.

First, churches have an enormous positive economic impact on their communities. It has been referred to as the “halo effect.” The researchers in the linked article gauge the average net economic contribution of churches to their local communities at anywhere from two to six times their annual budgets. In other words, every dollar you give to a church is creating more than a dollar of value. This is due in part to the way that churches multiply their ministry by the volunteer power of their constituents.

There are few other organizations that can compare to this kind of value multiplication. Cities who grant tax breaks for a new Wal-Mart often find that the economic effect is negative. Local churches (and, I would guess, other religious organizations) are a much better investment. (I think it’s debatable whether or not this kind of deduction should count as a subsidy, but that’s another topic).

Second, the people affected most by this deduction would be the poor—not only because it would hurt ministry to them, but because the poor are more generous. People at the lowest end of the income scale give an average of 4% of their income to ministries that directly benefit their communities. Upper-middle-class and rich folks give only around 3%. (There are both psychological and social reasons for the stinginess of the wealthy). I recognize that most of the poor and middle-class are already receiving the maximum tax deduction allowed, but these giving patterns in poorer communities reflect the kind of civic engagement and social responsibility that people like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich (none of whom tithed last year, while insisting that churches, not government, should take care of the poor) talk about all the time. Why would we signal that we no longer wanted to encourage this kind of engagement?

Every fundraising expert I know talks about the importance of motivating a community to give—not just individuals. When a community takes on a big task (a building, a mission trip, an event sponsorship), the first big gift sets the tone and pace for the entire giving effort. It takes a lot of $50 gifts to match the first $5000 gift. We’re not just talking about the giving of individuals. We’re influencing the giving patterns of communities.

From a political perspective, there are two reasons I find all of this rather irksome. The first is that this is yet another way that people are proposing we avoid taxing the wealthiest people in the country at rates equivalent to the rest of us. The second is that this rhetoric is a favorite argument by people who disagree with the way churches “meddle” in politics. People have made these same anti-church arguments when the church got involved in civil rights, child labor legislation, women’s suffrage, and so on. They do not make the same arguments for other organizations: the humane society, environmental clubs, public health charities, higher education, and arts charities can lobby for legislation for animal rights, environmental protection, and public funding for education and the arts with minimal public outcry. It is fine for them to spend money on “evangelizing” and recruiting more members.

From a historical and theological perspective, I know some of my religious colleagues find this kind of reasoning about the economic value of churches rather crass. They like thinking of the church as the “Body of Christ” but not in terms of corporations (from corpus, “body”). The church had no 501(c)3 status in the Roman Empire, where it spread like wildfire, just as it has no privileged status in modern China, where it has thrived underground. That’s fine. I will concede the point that my giving should not be tied to some kind of tax benefit, that tithing should be a way of life for anyone, religious or not, who wants to be part of something larger than themselves.

But if we’re going to talk about budgets and priorities, then let’s actually think about the kind of place we want to live instead of just grasping at every possible source of revenue. When households face a financial crisis, short-sighted people first eliminate their charitable giving and later think about things like their cable bill. Those who understand that budgets are about priorities and character make sure that giving, saving, and spending are all part of their plan. Prioritizing giving helps us recognize how much we already have.

This Old House: DIY Soul Improvement

New home owners tend to buy a lot of stuff to fix up their new digs, which helps the economy. My spousal unit gave me an early Christmas gift: a cordless drill-driver. Now I’m helping to drive the economic recovery by making lots of visits to hardware stores.

It has been fun taking on home improvement projects. I built a headboard for our bed out of pieces from an old pipe organ. I put up some display shelves in our dining room that are made from 100 year-old floor joists. I tore down an old plaster ceiling in a closet, replaced it with drywall, patched and painted the plaster walls, and installed some shelves. We also painted a chess board on a cafe table for our living room.

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Our house will be 100 years old this year. It has some standard old-house issues: drafty sash windows, doors that won’t close, lead residue in the soil, and so on, but the previous owners made a lot of wonderful improvements and took good care of it. Regardless, when you buy a house, you commit to an unspecified series of home improvement projects. Even in a new house, there will always be something that needs fixing.

Last week, my friend Bill Morgan preached a sermon that referenced John Wesley’s house metaphor about salvation. Wesley said that prevenient grace, the grace that comes before we’re even aware of God, is like the porch of a house. Justifying grace, when we commit to enter a new life of faith, is like the threshold. Sanctifying grace, the process of God shaping us and growing us in love, is like the house itself.

Bill extended the metaphor a bit and talked about moving into an old house. and part of his message was that this old house always needs work. There is always a room that is messy, or a leak that needs fixing, or something that needs painting. Some of us may need major foundation work. But all of us need repair.

After the sermon, I thought about the word salvage that is hidden in the word “salvation,” the idea that God is on a major salvage operation in our lives and our world. I thought about how Jesus was a builder who probably worked contracting jobs in Sepphoris, and I had a picture of Jesus showing up at our house, like Norm Abrams from This Old House, saying “Today we’re going to work on your contempt issues. We’re going to have to do a lot of sanding to get down to the original grain, but there’s some beautiful stuff under here if we can just scrape off some of this accumulated gunk.” After some work he says, “Ah, see here? You’ve got some self-loathing down here rotting out these supports. You need to get rid of that or the contempt will come back.”

I thought about Jesus walking through the rooms of my life, tool belt hung at his side. He takes a look at a project I’ve done myself. He whistles. “Well, no offense, buddy, but this is something you need some professional work on. You can’t just spackel over this.” I anxiously ask him to take a look at another problem spot and he says, “Aww, no, this isn’t a big problem. We can take care of this.”

Some people will claim that sanctifying grace is all about just turning it over to the master builder because we can’t do anything on our own. Do-it-yourself soul improvement only gets you so far, because we have a tendency to think we can tinker our way to some kind of spiritual enlightenment, but the reality is that we’ve mortgaged our soul to the forces of death and domination. The salvage we need is not just cosmetic, but a total purchase-and-renovation. While I think this is true, I also think part of the joy of sanctifying grace is the invitation to participate with the master builder, to learn by watching, then doing. We “work out our own salvation” because God’s salvage operation requires different things for different people. I think God’s intention in our salvage is that we put in some sweat equity and take responsibility for our spiritual growth. Growing in grace has to be intentional.

“Do it yourself” doesn’t mean “do it alone.” It means joining a community of people who admit they all need work. Thankfully, we have a master builder who invites us to be apprentices and puts into us a passion for salvage work.

I imagine asking the master builder what I need to do. He chews a toothpick thoughtfully. “Well,” he says, “every job is different. Every soul has its quirks, and sometimes you can’t really tell what it’s going to require until you roll up your sleeves and get started.”

How to Love

I’m not sure who came up with this illustration, but I really like the way it helps me understand what Christian individuals and communities are supposed to do.

Jesus says that two commandments are the greatest of all: Love God, and love your neighbor. You place those commandments at the top and bottom of a Y axis.

The X-axis is the part most people forget: We act not just as individuals, but as larger communities. This diagram helps us break out of our American tendency to think that every human activity boils down to the individual. So the left side of the axis is what we do as a church community (public), and the right side is what we do as individuals or smaller groups (private).

The way we act in love toward God as a community is worship. We gather together to pray, sing, read and interpret scripture, and offer our praise and attention to God. The way we act in love as individuals or small groups is devotion. We do some of the same activities like prayer and reading, but we also study, fast, and practice stewardship of our time and money.

Moving clockwise around the image, the next act of love is toward our neighbors individually. This area is sometimes labeled “charity” or “kindness,” and it includes all the ways we behave toward others, like practicing hospitality or helping people in poverty.

The way we love our neighbors as communities is the part that seems to generate the most controversy in churches today. The phrase “social justice” has become a political litmus test. Being human means being part of social groups and structures: families, work groups, organizations, genders, ethnic groups. A feral human being, cut off from others, is not a “natural” human being. As Christians we are part of an even larger organism called “the church” that transcends all of these social boundaries, and this corporate creature has an impact on society that can be good or evil. If we ignore how we behave toward others as a larger group, then we are likely perpetuating evil. Justice means restoring just relationships between all people and groups of people.

Usually when I’ve seen this illustration used it leaves off the part I’ve added in the middle: Witness. I put it in the middle not because it is most important, but because it overlaps all of the spiritual disciplines and connects public and private, God and neighbor. Witness means both seeing and saying what God is up to in the world. It includes what Christians usually call “evangelism,” which means telling the Good News, but also being a living witness in the world, what Jesus called letting “your light shine before others.”

The United Methodist Discipline describes the mission of every church as “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” but our new church will think about making disciples in this way. This is how we join God in the renewal of all things: publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor: worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.