Monday, July 24, 2006

Invitation to Discipleship

In the church I serve, one of the last parts of the late worship service is called the "Invitation to Christian Discipleship". What we usually mean by that is "Invitation to Church Membership". As we sing the last hymn we invite anyone who wants to join the church forward. It's a pseudo-alter call, I guess.

I can't help but wondering if we're accidentally doing something of a disservice to people by calling the invitation to church membership the "Invitation to Christian Discipleship". I certainly believe that participation in the life of a community of faith is part of being a disciple. Furthermore I believe that the act of formalizing one's covenant with such a community, symbolized in the act of formally becoming a member, is an important part of being a disciple. But I wonder if we unintentionally imply that discipleship and membership are the same thing by doing it this way in worship.

This is the same basic argument I have with my evangelical friends. I think that too often evangelicals get caught up in trying to get as many converts as possible that they stop there and don't follow through. Just like a call to church membership, invitations to one defining moment of conversion seem way too focused on beefing up our numbers. Creating believers or members is an easy process. Creating disciples is something else altogether.

Discipleship involves relationships. A relationship with God and relationships with other people. Discipleship involves a lot of trial and error. Disciples take two steps forward and one step back because they path they are trying to follow is no less than the trail blazed by Jesus, which is incredibly difficult to follow. It's not like a normal road, with one definite path. There are many paths Jesus leads disciples down, and the path that works for one person is entirely wrong for another.

Making disciples is not glamorous. It doesn't yield impressive statistics and its measure of success is not easily measured. It takes hard work, patience, and a bit of faith. Being a disciple and helping others to be disciples is messy, and it's not for everybody.

When we invite people forward to "become disciples" in worship, maybe we should include a disclaimer that people should not undertake this journey lightly. Becoming a member of the church means signing on the dotted line and making a nominal commitment. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means throwing your whole life into chaos, clinging to the hope that all of this mess is one day going to make sense.

When you become a member you hear, "Welcome to the club."

When you become a disciple you hear, "Welcome to the journey..."

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Spiritual but not religious?

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

That's a phrase we hear a lot now and I'll admit, I'm not a fan of it. Not that I'm a proponent of blind adherence to a doctrinal system or that I'm against personal spiritual quests. Far from it. I've just heard this phrase used too many times and found my BS-meter going off quite loudly.

I once went to a presentation given by the father of a student killed in the Columbine HS massacre back in 1999. He talked about his faith and his church and I really enjoyed the presentation. But then he closed with (exact quotes): "I don't consider myself a religious person, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. So if you'd like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, pray this prayer with me..." C'mon. You're not just talking about spirituality here, you're talking about religion, too. Be honest about it.

There's a couple presuppositions that go into the "religious but not spiritual" statement that I think go largely unexamined. First is the presupposition that religion is bad. Why? Why is religion such a bad thing? I think we're still operating with a colloquial definition of religion that is basically borrowed from Martin Luther's scathing (and generally correct) critiques of the abuse of papal power in the sixteenth century.

Religion is only a bad thing if we let it be. Being religious does not have to mean that one unquestioningly accepts everything that one's tradition teaches. Being religious does not necessarily make one a fanatic who would strap a bomb to their chest to go blow infidels to the hell to which they're already going.

Being religious can and should mean that one has committed to a relationship with a religious tradition. Like any relationship, there are things that one likes and things that one dislikes about the partner in the relationship. One's annoyance (and occasional anger) at the partner's flaws is outweighed by the love one has for the partner. One is committed to work through these issues and compromise to find a point at which both can be happy. Being religious in the best sense means that you should, in fact, have points of disagreement with your tradition.

The other largely unexamined presupposition is the meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is largely an individual undertaking. One's spirituality largely concerns the emotions and beliefs that one has. Spirituality is the realm of intimacy with the divine. These are great things but we can't stop there.

For one thing, where does one get all these lovely ideas about God that aids one's spirituality? From a religious tradition, of course! Religious traditions are the vehicles by which one generation passes on religious and spiritual knowledge to the next generation. That generation makes its own contributions and passes the whole package on to the next generation.

If I may shamelessly borrow a phrase from Jim Wallis, God is personal, but never private.

If one was only religious but had no element of spirituality then one would not truly be encountering God, they would only have a relationship with a doctrinal system. (Sidenote: I believe this is the exact problem with Christian fundamentalism, but that will be the subject of another blog posting)

Conversely, if one is spiritual but has no engagement with a religious tradition or community then one's view of God will only be as big as themselves. If, instead, one engages with a community, one gets not only the insights of their individual spiritual pursuits, but has the opportunity to have them challenged and enriched by the spiritual experiences of others. We are able to accomplish more as a community than we could as a group of individuals who never engaged the great spiritual questions together. In a religious community the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

I consider myself a spiritual person. I am also unapologetically religious. For it is in the meeting of both religion and spirituality that we truly encounter God.