Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beware Institutional Prosperity Gospel

Last night I attended the Bowen Lecture Series at Memphis Theological where Dr. Mitzi Minor spoke on Paul’s Anti-Prosperity Gospel for the Corinthians. Dr. Minor is a New Testament scholar and recently published a commentary on Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth. The focus of last night’s discussion was Paul’s rejection of “triumphalism.” Paul reminds us that the purpose of discipleship is not personal gain, but God’s glory. If we count anything as gain in service to God then we have missed the boat.

This means that authentic discipleship can, and usually does, look like failure by worldly standards. We are to focus only on allowing the fragrance of God’s love to flow through us and not to keep score of what we have or accomplish. If we prosper, okay. If we suffer that’s all the better, because God is glorified in our suffering. God is glorified when we focus our efforts on God, regardless of any worldly measure of glory, success, or prosperity that might come from the fruit of our efforts. If our efforts bear fruit, it is God’s fruit, not our glory.

All this made me think about the Call to Action and the movement in United Methodist Conferences to use Church Reporting Dashboards and other analytical tools in an effort to measure church effectiveness. We’re treading a thin line here, getting very close to an Institutional form of Prosperity Gospel where we glory in membership numbers, small group attendance, and number of church ministries. How can we presume to take these numbers and create an analytical tool that quantifies church effectiveness? I say we can’t, chiefly because church effectiveness cannot be quantified, with any tool. When we try to do that, we glory in our efforts and results rather than in God.

I keep thinking of John 6: 25-70. Jesus challenges His disciples Hebrew sensibilities by telling them they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Many, most, of the disciples abandon Jesus because of this teaching. If Jesus were a United Methodist Elder serving a local church, how would the Bishop and District Superintendent respond to His teaching and the results of that teaching?

I don’t think anything can stop this numbers focused movement. Too much of Western Culture has crept into the Methodist Church’s thinking and understanding of effectiveness. That alone is a dangerous thing. If we’re not very careful and very attentive we can do more harm than good. The problem with that is that when we make bad decisions that harm the Church, we risk pushing people away from Christ.

Our culture tells us to count what we value. We are called to value what our culture doesn’t count.

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