Consider this provocative thought:
Supremely, early Methodism was driven by the conviction that it is not a Christian movement’s main business to protect the gospel from the pagans and barbarians; the gospel is entrusted to us for the sake of the pagans and barbarians. Furthermore, Methodists believe that it is not a local church’s main business to nurture the members, important as that is; the church’s main business is to make the new life of faith a live option for all the people who do not even know what we are talking about. (George Hunter III,The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement [Abingdon 2012])
We don’t much use the terms “pagans” and “barbarians” these days to refer to our neighbors and friends. And yet the definition of pagan is simply one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods. That seems to me an apt description of our culture.
The latest Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life research reports that the number of people who describe themselves as having little or no religious affiliation continues to grow. Even more startling is that fully one third of those under the age of 30 claim no religion. And our love of material goods? Just check the number of advertisement inserts in your Sunday paper for an indication of that.
Do we care? Many pastors and congregational leaders say they’d rather have a few radically committed disciples than hundreds of nominal Christians. Certainly, going deep is important, and nominal Christianity is nothing to brag about.
But I can’t help but think that God has a different view. How do I draw that conclusion? From the Christmas story.
John 3:16 proclaims that God sent Jesus to the world—the entire world—so that all people might not die but live.
And when Jesus came into the world, to whom was he sent first? People considered pagans and barbarians—some unrefined shepherds and magi from another spiritual, but not monotheistic, tradition.
Jesus continued that practice throughout his ministry. He mostly critiqued the religious establishment, those who considered themselves the exemplary faithful, and he hung out with the outcasts—tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the broken, and the excluded.
Why? Because they needed the good news. Society had written them off. In many ways they had accepted a life of “less than” because they could not imagine more. Jesus spoke hope and possibility into their lives. In believing, they turned from no faith or nominal faith and followed the way of Jesus into a new life.
A congregation that has deeply committed followers of Jesus will reach out to hundreds of non-Christians or nominal Christians. It will be not an either/or, but both/and. They will do it because once you have discovered the new life of faith and how it is a real option for life, you want to share it and your heart breaks for those who have not yet discovered how true and real it can be.
Here is my challenge to us. We will be spending a lot of energy this month designing heartwarming and beautiful worship services, children’s pageants, and choir cantatas that will be attended mostly by the already convinced. I love Christmas Eve worship as much as anybody, but if our message is really for those who are outside the Christian community, we need to focus on being bearers of good news to those to whom God sends us: the least, the lost, the left out.
What we will do about that this Advent?
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church