By Stephen Rankin
The United Methodist Church, after significant collective soul-searching, has developed a list of markers for vital congregations.
1. People engaging in energetic, Spirit-filled worship
2. People professing faith in Christ
3. People growing in their faith (usually through small groups)
4. People engaged in mission
5. People supporting this mission financially.
This list captures essential practices, but it also makes me think of perhaps the deepest, most pressing, concern that haunted John Wesley: formal, conventional, outward religion. Every one of these markers can be quantified. They’re good markers, but the temptation to focus on what we can easily observe always lurks close by. If we see growing numbers, for example, we quickly assume that all the necessary inward work is happening and we can feel satisfaction. If we succumb, we will have missed the point.
In Discourse II on the Sermon on the Mount, Mr. Wesley offers this characteristic observation about conventional versus vital religion: “The religion of the world implies three things: (1.) The doing no harm, the abstaining from outward sin…(2.) The doing good, the relieving the poor; the being charitable, as it is called: (3.) The using the means of grace; at least the going to church and to the Lord’s Supper. He [sic] in whom these three marks are found is termed by the world a religious [read Christian] man. But will this satisfy him who hungers after God? No: It is not food for the soul.”
Study that list. It’s kind of scary isn’t it? Every one of our vital congregations markers can fit nicely within Wesley’s worry.
They don’t have to, of course. But unless we ask probing questions about what is happening in the lives of people through the practices associated with these markers, we will not achieve our goals.
Along with the markers for vital congregations, we need markers for vital Christians. In addition to people attending energetic, Spirit-filled worship, what do we think God is doing through the worship in the worshippers? It’s great to have a bunch of people in small groups, but what is happening in them through this experience?
We need to develop some markers for vital Christians as well as vital congregations.
All this makes me think about another of our goals: reaching younger and more diverse people. Young people typically don’t care much for formal religion. It is one of the reasons “spiritual, but not religious” has caught on among them, why an increasing percentage (by some estimates as many as 1/3) claim no religious identity.
It has become almost a parlor game to blame the church for this situation. I think too much has been made of the hypocritical, ignorant Christian portrait to explain fully what is going on in our world. But I do believe that we still pay insufficient attention to the quality of Christian discipleship that our congregations demonstrate.
What if, then, in addition to the markers for vital congregations, leaders began asking what vital Christians look like within those United Methodist congregations? What kind of Christian do we expect to become as God works graciously in us?
These questions drive us back to sources that describe – to steal the title of a Watchman Nee book – the normal Christian life. Precisely here, Mr. Wesley has something to offer. I commend pastoral and denominational leaders prayerfully, reflectively to work through once again the Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount. We could do far worse.
Stephen Rankin is the chaplain at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the author of Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life (Wipf and Stock).