In this post, what I’d like to do and is riff a little on Imbi’s post from yesterday—one prompted in part by conversation with our now 21-year-old daughter, Kaili. (Happy Birthday, Kaili!)
Kaili has been reading books by J.I. Packer and John Stott on catechesis and discipleship, respectively. In her discussion with her mother, she said the word that is most important to her in this, is the word “transformation.”
Pres. Obama campaigned under the rubric of “Change You Can Believe In.” It’s truly questionable how successful he has been, and I guess our American cousins will decide that later in 2012. But I’d like to talk about “change you should be able to believe in.”
One of the standard rejoinders from mega-church pastors to any critique is to mention the size of their church and the number of people they have baptized. To them the sign of the effectiveness of their ministry is simply in the numbers and the numbers baptized. (Note that in the UK Interview by Justin Brierley, Pastor Mark makes a point of mentioning the size of “his church” and the size of Acts 29.)
And now I’ll probably offend a large number of people when I question this kind of reporting.
Allow me to chase a rabbit for a moment or two. Certain organizations, fraternities, clubs, etc have weird initiation rites that one must perform before one can join them. Otherwise intelligent people are willing to swear blood-curdling oaths or perform silly or even danagerous actions in order to join… to belong. The need to belong, wired into the human psyche, will often allow us to suspend our better judgment while swearing oaths or performing meaningless actions in an effort to join a community.
What can this possibly have to do with “change you should be able to believe in”? Especially in light of baptisms.
I’d like to posit that for many people getting baptized is simply their initiation into fellowship with other people. They have a natural longing for community and baptism is their initiation rite into that community. It may be done for spiritual reasons. But in mega-churches where there is little to no emphasis on discipleship, baptism is simply your way in.
Let me say that I hold the sacrament of baptism in high regard. But I confess that I don’t see that this “high regard” is particularly the case in many Celebrity–Driven, consumer-focused mega-churches.
So, when I hear of the great numbers being baptized in North America mega-churches I ask this question, “Where is the fruit?” Is it simply in bringing more members into the mega-church – more butts to fill up the pews or comfy theatre seating.
John Wesley said, “The Church changes the world not by making converts but by making disciples.” He was known for rigorously examining people to discover whether they had really become believers. It could take up to two years of intense discipleship before Wesleyans actually accepted a person’s conversion. And though I come from a line of Wesleyan preachers on my mother’s side, and identify myself as predominantly Arminian in my theology, I’m not suggesting this kind of rigour.
There must be more than simple crossing a line from darkness to light and then sitting just past that line for the rest of one’s days.
I am suggesting that we should and must have an expectation of real transformation in the lives of new believers. This doesn’t happen by having them sit on their butts in comfortable pews listening to sermons on Sunday morning and, perhaps, occasionally on Wednesday evening. It happens with older-in-the-faith believers walking alongside younger-in-the-faith believers —teaching them the historicity of the faith, the power of prayer, the longing for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, what the fruits of the spirit are, compelling them to read the Scriptures and become like the Bereans who Paul lauded, and to learn to be makers of discipler themselves. (Note that the older and younger references are not meant to suggest chronology but rather people who have been Christians longer than the new believer.)
Let me point you to a post from Andrew Jones earlier this month, Practices of a new Jesus movement. And what are those practices; Bible study, open houses, fringe focus, simple habits, good business practices, a system for rehabilitation, native flavor, daily rhythm, not outreach TO others but outreach WITH others, something for the whole family and prayer — with the ministries characterized by Grace. Andrew says,
…they were wonderfully generous. Being poor, they made many rich. Including our family who were treated like royalty. We left with our backpacks filled with gifts and our hearts filled with a sense of overwhelming debt of gratitude.
Also, the intentionality of the movement was focused on impacting people’s lives with the gospel and NOT on creating community or starting churches which they saw as a natural outgrowth.
Sitting in pews, staring forward (or off into space) is not high on the list of the new Jesus movement – where the fastest growth of the Church is taking place in the world. Make a point of reading Andrew’s post.