Friday, November 18, 2011

The Revelation Churches Suffering from Identity Crisis

You could probably make the case that five out of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation suffered from an identity crisis.  Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea had forgotten their source and they had lost their spark.  Pergamum and Thyatira had an even bigger problem-they were not really sure what they believed in!  Because of that they had a pretty open "anything goes" policy and it was robbing them of their vitality.  Pergamum's problem was laid out in Revelation 2:14-15 (NRSV)
" have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.  So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
Thyatira had a very similar issue, we are told about in Revelation 2:20 (NRSV)
" tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols." 
These two churches were still doing work and trying to act faithfully, but they both had a teaching issue.  They believed, but it was unclear exactly what they believed.  They were guilty of trying to "add to the word" something that was not meant to be a part of the message in the first place.  In verse 16, Pergamum is told to repent.  And verse 21 says that Jezebel was given time to repent, but she refuses.  Egads!  Their "value added" message is about to become a big problem if they don't address the issue!  These two churches illustrate WHY it is so important to make sure that those who are teaching in church, are properly teaching.  It also illustrates why it is so important to be very clear about what the church believes and why.  It is important to have a plan!

If you ask someone in the Catholic faith what the church believes, they can tell you.  Even a "nominal" Catholic can articulate church belief!  They may not agree with it, but they can clearly tell what the church's position is on a particular practice or belief.  As for United Methodists, for many years, it really depended on the particular church that you attended.  In recent history, this has been a bit of a problem that went unrecognized.  I think there was a bit of belief that people would eventually pick it up, through osmosis.  Assuming that someone will understand and naturally "get it" on their own is just a bad idea and fortunately, leaders in the church recognize that this is an issue and are becoming more intentional about teaching.

There have been individuals over the years who started the ball rolling, but I have to say that I think Bishop Schnase (who happens to be my Bishop) picked up the momentum when he published his book "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations".  One of his chapters focuses on Intentional Faith Development and he provides examples of what that might look like.  Reverend Bob Farr (who also happens to be a leader in the Missouri Conference) touched on this topic in his book "Renovate or Die" in his chapter called "Disciple with Clear Steps".  But I have to say, where I really made the connection and saw this fleshed out in a very practical, workable way was at Church of the Resurrection's Leadership Institute.   Adam Hamilton and his staff took the time to explain their process of Discipleship-in detail!

Teaching individuals about the Bible, about what the church believes and why we believe it truly matters!  The goal is to make Disciples.  The reality is, not everyone is at the same place at the same time.  There is a learning curve and it is important to plan a process to teach members and bring them deeper in to the process of Discipleship.  I'll use myself as an example.  Where I am now in my faith walk, is not the same as where I was five years ago, or ten years ago, or twenty years ago.  Things that might have thrown me for a loop twenty years ago will not have the same effect on me now.  It didn't happen overnight!  It was a process of asking questions, getting answers, reading, praying and going through some challenges over the years.  I was blessed to have some wonderful teachers and mentors through the years but had I not had that support system, I'm not sure where I would be today!

Adam Hamilton used a "Discipleship Pyramid" to explain the process of Intentional Faith Development.  At the base of the Pyramid are the 40% who say "of course I'm a Christian".  Further up the Pyramid are the 30% who say "I have a ways to go".  Above that comes the 20% who are deeply devoted  and then, the final step on the Discipleship path, the 10% who are deeply committed Disciples.  The top two groups have become capable of "feeding themselves" and the top 10% are consistently capable of living out the 3 H's (head, heart, hands).  For those of you unfamiliar with the 3-H concept let me quote COR's definition of deeply committed Christians and their definition of what Discipleship is:
"Deeply committed Christians are: followers of Christ who are theologically informed (head); spiritually transformed (heart); and living out their faith in the world (hands).  Discipleship is: the lifelong process of personal inward transformation in the context of Christian community that finds its best expression in the world serving others and sharing Christ."
Schnase says in "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" (pg. 62):
"Churches that practice Intentional Faith Development offer high quality learning experiences that help people understand Scripture, faith and life in the supportive nurture of caring relationships."
Rev. Farr in his book "Renovate or Die" drives home the point as to why it is important to plan a path.  In chapter 8 he says:
"During my time in ministry, most congregations have gone from allowing new members (who come up after the last hymn or who send over their transfer letters from another church) to join to making folks attend membership classes of some sort before they can join.  The reason for this thinking is that it will stop the new membership dropout syndrome, only to have us later discover that well over half of the people who attended the membership classes drop out after six months anyway....We hesitate in the United Methodist Church to set up paths and steps because we want to let everyone be individuals...But no path and no direction means we will achieve nothing and go nowhere." 
He goes on further in the chapter and offers this sage piece of advice:
"Decide what the end picture needs to look like and build a step process backward to the beginning." 
If we do not put some thought into planning out a faith journey path we could, as a church, end up like the first three churches that lost their spark or, we could end up like the two churches, who allowed teaching that did not line up with church belief.   This is an identity crisis that can be avoided with a little thoughtful planning and it can save a congregation from a lot of headache further down the road!  We have a belief system and we have an identity.  Feel free to preach it and teach it!  You'll be glad you did!  And your members will thank you as well!

And you thought Revelation was just a book of prophetic visions without a practical application for today!  Surprise!

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