In a recent article for the Alban Institute titled “Teaching the Tradition”, Cassandra Carkuff Williams, National Coordinator for Discipleship Resources for the American Baptist Church makes the following argument:
“The power of human relationships offers a mere glimpse of the capacity of relationship with God in Jesus to transform us. Jesus promised us “an Advocate, the Spirit of truth,” who abides with us and in us (John 14:15–17). This indwelling Spirit makes possible a transformation of self that affects all of our other relationships. Our primary vocation to be in relationship with God, which was redeemed for us by Jesus, makes possible restoration and renewal.”
Any time I come across someone making a claim about our primary vocation, my hermeneutic of suspicion goes on high alert. My concern is largely around how so many presume a kind of religious authority that deems to know what is best for another, often with a claim that God has given the message to the messenger. Rarely do I hear such messages delivered with humility or with an inkling of doubt; instead, they often come with a confidence born on the shoulders of the kind of self-righteousness that has chased so many wonderful people away from our churches.
Williams cites what I expect will turn out to be one such incident when she overhears at an ecumenical youth event someone coercing a young person into saying “the magic words” of salvation, the formula that once spoken, guarantees the person eternal life. She remembers the young evangelist saying, “’Even if you don’t believe it’s true, just do me a favor and say the prayer with me. If it’s not true, you haven’t lost anything. It if turns out to be true, then you’ll be saved, and when you die you will go to heaven.’”
Williams continues, “Reducing Christianity to a matter of final destination is manipulative, of course, but this approach also suggests that how we live out the faith in our earthly lives is of secondary importance. Most readers would likely agree that the practice of repeating particular words—irrespective of belief and regardless of desire for relationship with God—as a guarantee of going to heaven is pure magic. The question for those of us who reject this and other magical approaches is, what do we do instead?”
Her answer is relationship. Not in a simplistic sense, but in the rich, longitudinal sense that is inherent in discipleship, the kind of bonds that are born through a shared experience of the Spirit living and dwelling in communities.
So I’m left with (at least) two troubling questions. First, data shows that pastorates on average 5-7 years. If the first three years are spent establishing relationships, how much can be accomplished over the next 2-4? How much is relationship the responsibility of the congregation while the function of the pastor is resource, nurture and challenge those relationships? Second, with new media making our relational networks much broader but perhaps much shallower, how might congregations positions themselves as perhaps the only commons left in our societies where such relational nurture and challenge is possible (aside from schools)? What does it mean to be a digitally enriched Body of Christ? How can we use the tools available to us today not to replace the old relational forms but to extend and deepen them? Can we imagine a dialectical relationship between new and old ways of being rather than a traditionalist or supercessionist future? In many ways, these relational waters are no less difficult than the racial, economic, sexual, and age-related challenges we are spend lots of prayer, energy, and ink addressing.
Perhaps our best response begins with the ancient call: Come, Holy Spirit, come.