There is a joke that United Methodist pastor’s tell. “There is a bird loose in the Sanctuary. How do I get it to leave? The answer can be multiple choice. “Ask it to become a member of the church? Ask it to serve on a committee. Ask it to sign a pledge card.” There are probably more. But you get the idea. The answer is not really about birds. It is about people. And it is not about just any people either. It is about professing Christians. Every congregation can tell a similar story. Someone came for several weeks as faithful as anyone could be. When they (or the kids) were baptized and joined the church (or the kids were confirmed) we never saw them in church again. Somehow we tend to blame those people for doing what they intended to do. We have not really wrestled with why they expect to get away with it.
Pastors grouse about how church members are happy to sit in the pews on a few Sundays a month or attend an entertaining event. I remember once when a Pastor-Parish Chair came to me and asked why I was not participating in “the activities of the church.” I asked what he was talking about. It seems there was grumbling about my not attending the various outings of the old folks which were nothing but entertaining themselves. My reply, “the Bible studies they always skip are activities of the church. Sunday worship is an activity of the church many of those same people miss. Serving the meals to shut-ins on Saturday mornings are missed by many of them too.” Unfortunately, I lost the argument by the chairperson conceding I was right. I am not sure how that happened.
I learned it was neither that one church nor the denomination that had this problem. It is a problem that came from outside the church. Recently, some of my more conservative colleagues learned of the following quote, “You cannot claim God as your Father without the Church being your Mother.” The quote comes from St. Cyril of Alexandria and was referenced against heretics. Remember my friends who admired this quote are Protestants and often of the evangelical school. The quote they admired was tantamount to the Roman Catholic statement “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The United Methodist clergy who supported the statement from St. Cyril were looking at it in the way I described in the previous paragraph. It surprises many when we look at our modern evangelist/revivalists that we can see the roots of the problem.
The evangelists of the previous generations like to use a phrase Billy Graham used to the new converts. “Find a Bible believing church.” The only word in that imperative statement that does not need definition is the indefinite article. Every other word there needs defining for a newly converted person. Revivalism and Evangelistic crusades became a cancer causing substance to the churches. “Be saved. Make Jesus your personal savior. Walk with Jesus. Have a personal relationship with Jesus,” all were the slogans of evangelistic crusades. If a person said, “I want that.” They were often told they now had salvation in Jesus with little to no further instruction. In order to cover up this failure, the people were given the understanding that being once justified, God was obligated to let them into Heaven one day. They essentially had their tickets punched by the Great Conductor and forever had a place on the train. Church history demonstrates this attitude is a near constant. “Getting to Heaven” takes the place of wanting a true connection to the Creator.
The tragedy is that many of the persons asking for salvation and wanting “to walk with Jesus” were sincere in their first commitment but were let down when the revival packed up and moved to the next town. Methodists know in our history that such revivals in the old days meant there would be an organization of a class or society where people would begin working together toward being disciples of Jesus – ones who followed and then walked along side of Jesus. For them and as John Wesley understood ancient Christianity, Jesus was not merely Savior but Lord as well and that Christ was not his surname but an office he held in the Church itself. When we acknowledge this truth, we understand why being a disciple of Jesus is the greatest job we can have in this world.
Outside the church are many people who merely wish for the church to do their own will and not that of God. John makes this clear when Jesus warns against thieves who will not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climb the wall to steal. They are indeed ravenous wolves whose tactics and intentions are far from those of the true shepherd the anointed One who calls us to Him. The leaders of the churches should expel the hateful teachings of the wolves who are in charge of “ministries” and mistakenly called “pastors” (shepherds) who are merely the mouthpieces of the interests of this world. Who are they? They are the ones who take photo ops with the people in power. They are the ones talking about the Bible and never revealing the Gospel message. They are staging large performances and hypnotising people with false assurances and promises Jesus never made. They appear as Angels of Light and spew out human teachings and doctrines to keep the powers comfortable and destroy the souls of the poor. We can know them by their works.
The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is that mercy and redemption and celebration are available to those who will accept and participate in it. The Gospel is for those who are willing to let the One who came in the form of a servant show them how to serve. The Gospel is for those who know they need a Savior and salvation, a Shepherd and a pasture to be fed, and clear water to sustain the Resurrection Life they will be given.