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Courage to be Christian

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Chapter Seven of Change the World begins with these words: "At the heart of every decision we make about the future and purpose of the church is a choice between courage and compliance." Author Michael Slaughter challenges readers to determine their willingness to act boldly, meet challenges, and leave comfort zones in response to Christ's call. The message is clear: It takes courage to be Christian.

Reaction is Weakness

While attending seminary in the 80s, I listened as a guest from South Africa spoke to our class. During this time, apartheid was still in effect there. In the context of describing the challenges facing people trying to dismantle apartheid in that volatile climate, the speaker said three words I'll never forget: "Reaction is weakness."

When you live in response mode, it means someone else is dictating terms and initiating the course of action. My personal metaphor of perpetual reaction is that of a football team that plays only defense for the entire game.

"Fear," in Slaughter's words, "is an irrational emotion." As I write, the combination of our country's current economic struggle and post-9/11 security concerns, have heightened anxiety nationwide. How should the church act during these times? First, the church must keep reminding itself of the reasons the church exists.

Three or Four Questions You Must Answer

In Leading Beyond the Walls , Pastor Adam Hamilton offers a set of questions that every church should answer. Here are the first three:

  1. Why do people need Christ?
  2. Why do people need the church?
  3. Why do people need this particular church?

The first question, "Why do people need Christ?" is a crucial one for each Christ follower in our local churches to answer. Work to get people to articulate personal and practical answers -- not parroted, canned quotes from someone else's writings. Here is a way to drive the point home. Ask additional questions, like the following, to provide a framework for responding:

  1. Who is Jesus Christ?
  2. What happens when a person allows Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit into his or her life?
  3. What difference has Christ made in your life?
  4. How would your life be different if you were not exercising personal faith in Jesus Christ?
  5. Why do we need what Jesus offers? (Hamilton offers a helpful suggestion to aid understanding of the human condition: Read the newspaper, watch the news, watch people, understand yourself; then answer the question.)

These basic questions may help start discussions that get people thinking about what difference Christ has made in their lives and in the lives of others. Without confident answers to these questions, the church has little hope of being relevant to unchurched people.

Provoked to Love

The second question, "Why do people need the church?" underscores the importance of the corporate function of the local church. We may begin answering this question by voicing major theological concepts: Christians are Christ's continuing presence on earth and compose the collective Temple of the Holy Spirit. But what can we say in plain, practical terms that might speak to the average person? This is where the corporate function of the local church should be highlighted:

  1. 1 Hebrews 10:24-25 begins with these words, "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds." From its earliest depiction in the book of Acts, the church has historically been a faith community in which Christians live out their faith -- together. The notion that "iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17) applies to the Christian journey. We work out our faith together, learning how to love, share, and serve -- together.
  2. We can do more together than we can apart. In light of our connectional system, this is something that United Methodists should be able to promote wholeheartedly.
  3. God has given spiritual gifts to each believer. The gifts are not for personal gain, but to serve and help others.
  4. The church is the place where we gather to study God's word, learn spiritual practices, and grow in spiritual maturity. People make progress faster when they work together. Statistically, married men are healthier than single men, and people lose weight more effectively when they join organizations such as Weight Watchers. Likewise, people grow in their Christian maturity when they intentionally walk with other Christian disciples.

What's Your Reputation?

As a former congregational development director, I received this helpful advice: "Before consulting with a church, do a 'windshield tour' of the community. Notice the ministry opportunities. If you have time, walk the neighborhood and ask people what they know about the church in question." In short, the advice provided a way to determine what type of reputation the church had in the community.

The third question, "Why do people need this particular church?" helps a local congregation identify its distinctive beliefs and ministry offerings. What is distinctive about Methodist beliefs? Here you can talk about Wesley's concepts of grace, personal piety and social holiness, the General Rules, connectional ministries, and more. Then focus on what your local church offers that other churches do not.

If you are a small church, you could name the tangible benefits you offer. Your list might include: the speedy response to needs possible in a small church, the high percentage of involvement, and the down-to-earth, accepting atmosphere.

Pastoral care is another distinctive to explore. What type of pastoral care does your church offer? Does your church provide ministry to the community in any way?

Working through these types of questions will remind us why the church and our particular local church is needed.

The Fourth Question

The fourth question Hamilton asks is, "To whom does our church belong?" After sharing a litany noting the people who do not own the church, Hamilton states the obvious: The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He then presses readers to consider the following implication of this fact. The driving mission of every local church must be to do the things that Jesus wants us to do -- nothing less.

Answering these questions honestly will take courage, but courage is part of the Christian legacy we should be willing to further.

Next Steps

  1. Read Chapter Seven of Change the World by Michael Slaughter.
  2. In a small group, read and discuss the questions for reflection at the end of Chapter Seven.
  3. Consider ways to engage the congregation in answering the three questions mentioned in Leading Beyond the Walls by Adam Hamilton Here are some options:
    1. Invite leaders in your church to read Chapter Two of Leading Beyond the Walls and to answer the three questions. Discuss their responses at a gathering for leaders.
    2. Design a preaching series around the three questions. Invite the church to read Leading Beyond the Walls during or following the series.
    3. Include the three questions in some current Christian education experience: new members or new Christians class, Sunday school, Bible study, VBS, men's, women's, or youth retreat, youth lock in, and so on.
    4. Include the three questions in your leadership training process.
  4. Learn more about some ministry offered through the United Methodist connectional system and participate through volunteer service or financial giving.

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