Knew that I would make it if I tried…” Recognize the song from Jesus Christ Superstar? I (Julie Ryan) was asked to offer my reflections about the event set aside for spiritual enrichment at Synod Assembly 2000. Who could possibly oppose encouraging one another to deepen commitment, or open up to new ways of thinking and practicing our faith? Yet the language of the day raised some questions for me. In the spirit of the event, I offer them for further conversation.
Our life in God is one of paradox: we are at once sinners and saints, bound yet free, daily dying in the waters of baptism and being raised to new life. Does our language reflect this dimension of mystery? How can we take care not to flatten paradox into false and divisive distinctions? The risk is there as we hear “disciples,” not “members”; “thriving ministries,” not “mere shells”; “gifts” not “credentials”; “ministry teams,” not “committees” (items in quotation marks being direct quotes from Pastor Foss). Each form is a pair where one component is clearly to be preferred over the other.
We will want to exercise care when assigning people to categories. How do we guard against favoring those with one particular set of religious qualities or experiences? “No one should be called [to a position of leadership] who isn’t first a disciple” makes me wonder: who is a disciple; when is discipleship attained; and who decides? We all can go through our directories and identify a continuum from the extraordinarily active to the utterly inactive. For good administrative reasons we tally the baptized and keep track of the numbers of “confirmed / communing / contributing” members. But can we honestly imagine going through our congregational directory and categorizing some people as “disciples” and others as only “members”? Do we want through our terminology to drive a wedge between following Jesus as a disciple and belonging to the church which is his body on earth? Of course we want to encourage people to grow in faith and to participate in the life of their faith communities. But theologically, do we want to make anything other than baptism decisive for belonging to Christ? How can we be conscientious about not confusing administrative categories with sacred realities – or letting certain people’s conspicuous good works or subjective experience obscure the primacy of the grace of God?
Sometimes it seems permissible to dismiss groups of people with terms that we’d never dream of applying to individuals. Take “thriving ministries” vs. “mere shells.” (Even if someone were demented or brain dead, would you really call them that?) We know how different it feels to be in a community that’s flourishing rather than one that’s dispirited. It can be a lot more fun to be around young, active people than to spend time with lonely, vulnerable, or resistant ones at the margins. How do we honor the actual people to whom we are sent? What is the relationship between outward success and ministry? (We are the refuse of the world….dying; yet, behold, we live…) Is the individual or congregation undergoing the cross of failure in the world’s eyes irrelevant or worth less… worthless? How does our Lutheran theology of the cross inform our approach to different seasons in the lives of congregations and individuals? How do we recognize value and dignity in the process of dying? How do we discern God’s presence and power in weakness and hiddenness? What about the potential that God sees (unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth…) and we cannot? Consider the 99 year-old shut-in who writes a check sufficient to replace the church’s broken boiler, or the elderly whose ministry of prayer sustains dozens beyond themselves. How do we speak of the ways God works with impossibility – and raises the dead? What of the Holy Spirit, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the church?
Another currently popular distinction is that between “maintenance” and “mission.” Of course maintenance isn’t the ultimate goal for our communities of faith – but neither should it be a term of derogation. A systems view of the human body reminds us how vital a role maintenance plays in fostering good health. Research continues to demonstrate the importance of lifestyle – or easily overlooked day-to-day acts like flossing or cutting down on saturated fats. Moreover, in periods of crisis, “mere maintenance” can be a victory. This holds for groups as well.
Interestingly, maintenance has been identified with caring for others. Nursing, or nurturing, just isn’t as exciting and sexy as the proverbial Power Surge! Could there be a gender subtext beneath these evaluations? How much do we think of real ministry – or mission – in terms of racking up numbers? Scoring?
How do we open the way to something new without disparaging the alternatives? We don’t want to live in the past, but surely there is a way to honor what we have received from it. “[Back then] nobody ever heard about vision” strains credibility. It further implies that we who have vision are superior to the benighted nobodies from yesteryear, who have nothing to teach us. “Blow up your committees and create ministry teams” sounds like a line from Dilbert, confusing organizational novelty with profundity. While restructuring may well be desirable, what about the attitude that we can just nuke whatever went before? Organizational technique is necessary but it’s not our mission. How much do we really want to use language which suggests that the church is primarily a corporate or commercial enterprise marketing a product? What becomes of transcendence, and awe?
Finally, how do we link our conversations about discipleship with the sacraments of the church? These gifts of God for the people of God are like daily bread, nourishing us in subtle and not immediately perceptible ways. They’re low-tech. They’re readily available. They’re like the seed growing, the farmer knows not how: we can’t control or measure their direct outcome. And we have the promise that Christ is truly present in them. Participating in the liturgy transforms us. Augustine tells the Body of Christ, “Receive what you are; become what you receive.” If we are serious about maturing in the life of faith, we will want to return again and again to the living waters and the breaking of the bread. Only if it is centered on Word and Sacrament, only if it honors the time-tested witness of the whole people of God, will our exploration of discipleship have lasting power.