The Transformation of the World?

The Transformation of the World? September 28, 2010

United Methodists will be familiar with one of our efforts at corporate branding: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World.”

I’d like to offer a few comments. They don’t reflect the full complexity of our history, nor are they my definitive view. I do hope they will get us to think more about what we are really trying to do as a church.

At my home church we had a sermon based on upon it. The focus of that sermon was pretty simple: the church could transform the world if it had more of its members’ money, and that good discipleship would be to give more money (not to mention time as volunteers for church programs).

While this slogan sounds good, and the ministries for which the church was soliciting support are good, there are some serious problems with this slogan about making disciples for the transformation of the world. One is that nowhere in the gospels, or indeed the New Testament, does it suggest that Christian disciples can or should transform the world. This idea that Christians can be good enough and numerous enough to transform the world is a conceit that belongs to Christian imperialism at its worst. It is rooted in the founding of what became Christendom with the conversion of Rome and carries on today with efforts to create Christian nations. Yes, I know that Christians are to be salt and leaven and light: things which in small quantity can have a big effect. Yet surely in the context of the essentially eschatological mindset of the New Testament these were not seen by Jesus as transforming the world toward something like the Reign of God. Rather, they made present in the world an effective witness to the nearness of that Reign and Jesus as the Christ so that people were ready for the advent of God’s Reign when God chose to transform the world. (An aside, one might consider for a sermon series the very different ways that salt, leaven, and light function as agents.)

Does being an effective witness require that we engage in social transformation? Well we certainly don’t find this in the New Testament. The focus is on the transformation of individual lives and small communities of believers. That leaves the question of whether in different social circumstances more ambitious goals should be undertaken.

But the idea of transforming the world isn’t the biggest problem in the slogan. It is rather, the close link between making disciples and undertaking world transformation. The specific scripture referent in this slogan is the end of the book of Matthew where Jesus calls his disciples and commands them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Note first of all that United Methodists have dropped the part of the command that is of little interest (baptizing) for their (unmentioned) real first love of social transformation. That aside, this command by Jesus to make disciples is not without content. Indeed, the meaning of discipleship is what Jesus taught throughout the book of Matthew, beginning explicitly with the Sermon on the Mount. If we want to know what Jesus meant by the command, “Make disciples” we simply look at what Jesus taught and commanded in the book of Matthew. Clearly being a disciple means more than having an emotional experience and making a declaration of loyalty or faith.

Indeed, becoming a disciple, as it turns out, is extremely difficult. It pretty much takes all the serious self-discipline, study, and prayer that the average person can muster for quite a few decades to even become relatively close to being a disciple as described in Matthew. My observation of United Methodist churches is that the great majority of members (myself included) are still very far from living up to the name “disciple.” This doesn’t mean we are not saved. Salvation doesn’t hinge on the quality  of our discipleship. (Thank God) It just means that we’re not yet really disciples of Jesus.

And if we aren’t really disciples can we seriously contemplate transforming the world? When we have not even transformed our own lives (with God’s help) or families, or churches, do we seriously think we are somehow going to change unjust social structures driven by the powerful forces of human sin? Let’s get real. Churches as fellowships of people seeking to become disciples can do some good things in their communities. They can help a few people to achieve a better life. They can intervene in specific cases on behalf of justice. But we are not going to transform the world, and to presume to do so both distracts us from the serious hard work of becoming disciples, and reveals a presumptuous pride in our own ability as churches to do what belongs to God alone.

No, I’m not arguing for a purely privatized religious faith divorced from the problems of the world. I’m just pointing out that engaging the world with the gospel (which we are called to do) isn’t the same thing as transforming the world (which we cannot do.) Your thoughts?

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