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Monday, May 30, 2011

Call to Action NOT Call to Mission

I remember being graded for my first sermon in my preaching class at Asbury Seminary. It was unnerving to say the least, but yet I felt good about what I wanted to say. I felt so good about what I wanted to say, that I had my sermon planned out even before I found a Scriptural passage to preach from. One of the primary lessons our preaching professor taught us was that the power of our sermons were found in the lessons gleaned exegetically from the biblical text itself, even more so than our delivery or tricks of the trade we might pick up. Still, I felt so confident in the points in my sermon that I started with them and then found a text to support them. I thought I had covered up for my exegetical transgressions, but somehow my professor immediately identified it and I was nailed. I quickly learned that planning out a sermon before exegeting the biblical text from which the sermon is to be based reduces the transformative power of a sermon to mere human persuasion that can be easily discarded.

Sadly, the lesson I learned in seminary long ago is one yet to be learned by those who wrote the Call to Action. While containing some good ideas (and others decidedly not good at all such as charging fees for ministries like justice), the Call to Action contains almost no theological or biblical basis. It is a poor sermon with almost no chance at transformation.

And this is why I am somewhat stunned by the silence of the leaders in our church for their total lack of critique of the Call to Action's complete failure to have any accompanying biblical or theological basis for its recommendations. For followers of Jesus who came into the world to transform the world, any call to action must be inherently missional. Even naming something a “Call to Action” innately means that that action has meaning and purpose. For Christians, that purpose must be first and foremost shaped by Scripture for it to be missional in nature. How can something be missional if there is no adjoining biblical or theological basis? The Call to Action does have purpose, but there seems to be no apparent attempt for that purpose to be biblically shaped or formed.

Even more, as an Asbury Seminary alum twice over, I am alarmed that so many individuals and groups in the church who constantly complain about a perceived neglect of the authority of Scripture in United Methodist churches and among church leadership, have offered no critique to a call to action that neglects a responsible biblical exegesis as its foundation. Why is that? Could it be that these individuals and organizations have a greater dislike of boards and agencies that the Call to Action seems to be focused on minimizing and want to see their dissolution, more than they care about actual biblical fidelity in the Church?

I have heard from several people that the one thing they agree with from the Call to Action is the call for reducing the size of boards and agencies. I have even heard from prominent people in the church who question whether agencies such as the one I work at should exist at all if we are not first and foremost engaged in the work of the Kingdom of God. My response to whether agencies and boards in the United Methodist Church should exist unless they are essentially missional? I totally and wholeheartedly agree. When an institution exists to protect its own existence, then that institution has ceased to be missional and deserves to be downsized and probably even eliminated. We exist not to protect ourselves. We exist by God’s grace to join in God’s mission to transform the world.

The Call to Action has resonated among so many, despite its complete lack of biblical or theological basis because, many people reason, at least it is doing something. But doing anything is not better than doing nothing. Doing the right thing should be what we hold ourselves and our leaders to, but in the blind haste by some to do anything we are in danger of recklessness principally because this call to action has not been shaped by Scripture. Moreover, we are in danger of action without missional purpose. And wouldn’t engagement in action without missional purpose bring us right back to where we are right now? Again, doing anything is not better than doing nothing. We must be missional and for that to occur, we must take seriously the task of shaping any kind of call to action by the narratives of Scripture.

Biblical missiology does not just happen, but the Call to Action and those who actively and silently endorse it seem to believe it does. I would hope that those individuals and organizations who call the church back to biblical fidelity would follow through on their call to the Church to return to adherence to Scripture as the basis for all of our action. The Bible is replete with stories and teachings that speak to where we are as a Church right now. Yet, we are acting as if the Bible is irrelevant to the challenges the United Methodist Church faces.

I once again restate my full agreement with those who believe that any group, agency, board, or even local church for that matter that is not entirely focused on God’s mission to transform the world should be either downsized or eliminated entirely. If we actually allow Scripture to have real authority in our lives and in the life of the United Methodist Church, then even a cursory reading of Scripture would easily teach us that working for justice is right at the heart of Christian faithfulness.

If General Conference takes seriously the pervasive biblical call for the church to engage in justice on behalf of the vulnerable, then the work of those who mobilize United Methodists on issues of justice will not only be preserved, but will be dramatically expanded. And if we eliminate all that does not lead us into transformative mission, then the Call to Action might well be the first thing to go. We need sermons with more than popular suggestions. We need sermons that transform us and send us out into the world to witness to God’s love, justice, grace and mercy. And those sermons always begin with the biblical text. The Call to Action was a good first try, but it fails to lead us into transforming the world. I suggest we toss it out and begin first with God’s Scripture instead. From there, we can better hear and follow God’s missional call to transform the world.

6 comments:

  1. Dang your good. Great Article Bill even though I have no idea what the Call to Action is. This is so applicable to anything.

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  2. Hey, Bill. I've just finished an analysis of the Call to Action for work with Hispanic Ministries (http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.5792195/k.BDBE/Call_to_Action_Reordering_the_Life_of_the_Church.htm) Another possible weakness is that the survey that did was focused internally, which also leaves a blind spot on the question of ministry.

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  3. I once was asked to teach a Jr. High Sunday School class using PC-USA literature. In 12 weeks, the material used exactly 14 Bible verses, mostly out of context.

    Growing up in the UMC, and then being clergy for a short while, I noticed that the 1970's liberal literature assumed Biblical knowledge that was decidedly gone by the mid 1980's.

    And after, why bother with the Bible, since various UMC (and PC-USA) votes now affirm that we know better anyway?

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  4. Sadly, there have been some who have talked about biblical and theological relevance, but those calls go unheard. It's hard for leaders to distinguish legitimate critique from those who are going to resist change just because it's change. Here are a couple of articles I wrote nearly 5 years ago when this transition was happening in my own conference.
    Striving for excellence, missing the real mark
    Clergy fruitfulness is part of faithfulness

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  5. I agree that the worst way to respond to the misdirection of the Call to Action is just to resist. we don't need to go towards the Call to Action, but we also do not need to stand still. We need to go towards a deeper incarnation among the most poor and vulnerable to advocate for their rights from that position. That can give us a true call to missional action.

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  6. Great observation. I wrote an analysis of the CTA in March (2012) for Polity class with Bishop Jack Tuell. I didn't even start at the Biblical point! I started at the Book of Discipline. Now I feel that I missed the most important point. Although the CTA does say its mission is to enable the annual conference and the local church to Go and Make Disciples. I think it is totally inward focused and neglects discipling in the wider world context and definitely doesn't allow for prophetic, justice-oriented voices. Ack, so much to say that irritated me when I read it. >eyes crossed<.

    Shalom,
    Terri Stewart

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