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Understanding Orthodoxy

My August 12th Wilderness Way column sparked a number of responses and questions about the meaning of orthodox Christian belief. They raised questions relative to what I meant by theologically orthodox. While that is a long and deep subject, in general, orthodoxy in United Methodism is defined by the Articles of Religion and the Doctrinal Standards, as found in our Book of Discipline. You might wish to look at Paragraphs 1-199 in the 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

In a larger sense, our understanding of orthodoxy comes historically from the Anglican Church in England and reaches back to the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly those of Nicene (325 A. D.) and Chalcedon (451). Dr. Justo Gonzalez in Believers offers a marvelous understanding of orthodoxy.  He uses the image of a baseball diamond and says that the church through its great ecumenical councils has established “foul” lines. There is a great deal of room to roam between left field and right field, but there are clear foul lines.

The doctrine of the Trinity provides a concrete example. However we understand the Holy Trinity, those who hold to Christian orthodoxy are clearly Trinitarian: God as Father, Creator; God as Son, through the person and work of Jesus Christ (“His only Son, our Lord”) and God as Spirit, through the Holy Spirit present with us always to both comfort and challenge. Unitarian beliefs are clearly outside the foul lines. That does not necessarily imply that someone who is theologically unitarian is going to Hell or anything of the like.  It simply indicates that Unitarian belief is not orthodox Christianity. Another concrete example of orthodox theology would be the use of Holy Scripture as both source and norm for the Christian faith.  Holy Scripture is inspired by God (There is great room for debate as to what precisely “inspired by God” means. It does not necessarily imply a rigid fundamentalism.)  The orthodox understanding of scripture is that it is the canon, the rule of faith. Thus, when someone adds a new book to the Bible, or an additional “bible” (such as the Book of Mormon), such an addition is clearly is not orthodox Christianity.

As we wrestle with the concept of what is and is not orthodox as a church, our understanding is dynamic. Our context and culture may cloud our understanding of the truth.  Even more than dynamic, it is led by the Spirit. The ancient hymn catches the essence correctly, “new occasions teach new duties” (Once to Every Man and Nation, vs. 3).  Through all the vicissitudes of time and culture we have a foundation to hold to – the orthodox Christian faith as defined in the great ecumenical councils and promulgated through Holy Scripture.  Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a part in informing our best understanding of the Christian faith.

Allow me to recommend a number of books that are worth reading on this subject. Dr. William Abraham’s Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia (an even deeper study is his outstanding Canon and Criteria in Christian Theology), Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Albert C. Outler’s Theology and the Wesleyan Spirit, and William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved?. In our church life, an excellent extended study on theology that delves fairly into the whole concept of an orthodoxy that is both open and generous is the study The Christian Believer”(referenced above as simply Believers).  It follows the Disciple Bible Study model of readings and reflections.

Spiritual Vitality & Attendance

It has been a busy week getting back into the flow of ministry after time out for vacation and the School for Congregational Development.  While gone I had the opportunity to engage in some stimulating reading:  Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins, Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini, and The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (audio book) by Dallas Willard.  I will try to share some information on later blogs.

Going through my email I got the chance to catch up on some other writings.  The work that Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr does out of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership is consistently excellent.  Recently he passed on some new findings about American Congregations based on the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership out of the Hartford Seminary foundation.  The report’s author is David Roozen, a noted researcher in the field.  I thought you might like a taste.

Some of the factors associated with growth in spiritual vitality and attendance are: 
   

 

  • Changing a congregation’s style of worship or adding a new service tends to improve attendance, and there is a clear affinity found between contemporary worship and higher attendance. However, the quality of the worship appears to be more important than the style.
  • Congregations that have a clear identity and purpose tend to grow in attendance and spiritual vitality. This is true of churches that see themselves as more conservative than other churches and those that see themselves as more liberal than other churches.
  • There is rising interest in youth ministry. While not strongly associated with attendance growth, a strong relationship was found between youth ministry programs and increasing spiritual vitality of the congregation.
  • While no one method of contacting guests seems to work better than others, the number of different methods a congregation uses to connect with newcomers is highly associated with attendance growth.
  • Member involvement in reaching new members is tied strongly to growth in attendance and spiritual vitality. This connection is more important with Oldline Protestant churches than any others.
  • Contacting members who stop attending makes a positive difference in churches that average 300 or more in worship. However, large churches are the least likely to make such contacts.
  • Creating strong interpersonal bonds and purposefulness are two factors that decrease the likelihood of conflict.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between spiritual vitality and financial health. Increasing financial health leads to greater giving to mission.

A free download of the report can be found at http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/research-based-products-congregational-leadership.

Back to the Future

 

Tuesday, May 25th, I had the privilege of joining an ecumenical group for a Conversation with Leaders of the China Christian Council.  Brite Divinity School graciously hosted the gathering along with the Tarrant Area Community of Churches.  As I listened to the Rev. Gao Feng (President of the Christian Council – representing the registered Protestant Churches), I could not help but think that we have much to learn or more accurately relearn.

Rev. Gao’s group purports to represent some 20 million Protestant Christians in China.  Their group is “registered” with the government.  There are other “unregistered” protestant Christian gatherings in China.  By all accounts the 20 million figure is low.  In fact, a more accurate number may be closer to 40 million.  The Christian movement is growing rapidly in China.

Repeatedly I was struck the reference to the Christian Church in China as “post-denominational.”  There is an affiliation but it is a loose one.  One of the Brite professors present who had more detailed knowledge than I said that it was a relationship more like what we might have with the National Council of Churches.  The Christian Church in China reported 3,700 pastors (1,000 of which are female).  You do the math.  By my rough count that means there was one pastor for every 5,405 active(!) lay persons.  They reported 55,000 churches and “meeting points” (many of which are house fellowships).  That means each ordained clergy had 14.85 churches or meeting places they were responsible for!

Behind all this is obviously a vibrant movemental sense of the Holy Spirit at work.  Lay leadership in ministry is common and vital to the movement.  Much of the preaching is done by lay leaders guiding house fellowships.  (The leaders insisted in not calling them house churches because as they put it “there is only one church.”)  Instead of focusing on church buildings, most of the members worship in homes.

Hit the pause button and ask, “Where have I seen this before?”  Here are three quick answers: 1) The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, 2) The Celtic missionary movement from Ireland in the 5th – 7th centuries, and 3) The early Methodist movement.

It’s time to go back to the future!  We need to loosen our structure and allow ministry to flourish as a lay movement under the power of the Holy Spirit once again.

The Hedgehog Concept

Last summer I read Jim Collins newest book How the Mighty Fall. It was a fascinating reprise to his marvelous earlier works Built to Last and Good to Great (including the added monograph Good to Great for Social Sectors). Recently I had the opportunity to revisit this work with others. In Collins’ work he talks about the “Hedgehog Principle.” In a summary he writes: “Greatness comes about by a series of good decisions consistent with a simple, coherent concept – a ‘hedgehog’. The hedgehog concept is an operating model that reflects understanding of three intersecting circles: what you can be the best in the world at, what you are deeply passionate about, and what best drives your economic or resource engine.” (Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall, p. 181)

I am mindful that churches are very different from businesses. Our mission is biblically and theologically defined. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit cannot be over estimated. At the same time (and not in contradiction), business models are helpful tools. They can guide the clarity of our thinking about our divinely called mission.

Bearing the above in mind, I am convinced that a significant question to ask is – what is our Hedgehog Concept? This applies to churches and conferences. It is also important to separate what we think our current Hedgehog Concept is versus what our Hedgehog Concept ought to be (reality verses aspiration). While I wrestle with both, I think at our best Methodism has lived with some version (you can argue about exact phrasing until the cows come home!) of the following Hedgehog Concept.

1. We are best at being (originally) at intentional Christian discipleship development (hence the name Methodist coming from being “methodical” about discipleship growth and development).
2. Our passion is to transform people and the world.
3. Our economic or resource engine (meaning more than just where does the money comes from but rather what drives our best development and transformational efforts) is the local church.

Now the big question is how big is the gap between reality and aspiration?

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