Grace is the Best Incentive

Christian Hype | Church Hype | United Methodist ReporterSome months ago, I received repeated “invitations” to register college students for a church “leadership” event. As the sponsoring organization counted down days prior to the gathering, a boatload of “incentives” was offered. There were potential prizes for those who registered early, discounts, and even points for joining the online discussion during the weekend. So I decided to ask my undergraduate student friends. What did they think of this approach?

We devoted a class period in my “Christian Social Ethics” course to the issue. What did this strategy say about the church? About leadership? About assumptions regarding young adults? The general consensus was summed up this way: “They sound really desperate to reach us.” Another added, “Not only that – it seems so artificial. Meaningful participation does not always guarantee reward, at least not like this.” While many in the room appreciated the effort, most concluded that the deeper purposes of the event were going to be lost in the hype, and they were over hype. In order to take a weekend away from academic commitments, there must be something more.

I have misgivings about addressing this phenomenon, but it must be confronted. We realize the need to try new ways of being for others. We acknowledge that the gift of technology, when properly construed, can help us love folk. But we run the risk of making the medium the message, and the message itself is too good to lose. Yes, it is important to try new techniques, new avenues in order to reach those outside institutional life. However we should admit that many chose to stay outside because those on the inside operate according to the same principles that dominate our culture: manipulation, control, conditional acceptance, and the use of others to serve agendas. If someone meets the love of God because of trendy “incentives” that’s a good thing, but I have serious doubts. Those who don’t come stay away for a reason, and I can’t blame them at all. They want something real.

For years the church has wallowed in anxiety and despair (along with shame and blame) because we did not resemble [fill in the blank]. Typically we saw it as failing to be like the Japanese auto industry (1990s Total Quality Management) or Silicon Valley (the new century). Never mind that Silicon Valley and all of its lionized “innovation” have given us gentrified discrimination throughout the Bay Area, along with other celebrations of self-absorption contrary to the gospel. Yeah, let’s be like that. The world needs more “cutting edge” cutthroats.

Sorry. I’m not buying it.

This does not mean that those of us who remain unpersuaded think the church should accept complacency. Absolutely not. New approaches to sharing the gospel are absolutely necessary. But they should be new approaches to sharing the gospel, not self-congratulatory selling out. How we go about offering grace will take many forms, and it is messy work. I used to think that I should not express my instincts on these matters because I could not offer a packaged alternative. Not anymore. We may stumble toward new ways of being the church, but I will risk the bruises, as long as I can focus on the God of unconditional love, the Jesus of the Cross and Resurrection, the unanticipated promptings of the Spirit.

During Holy Week, I invited my student friend – the one who named our desperation to reach her – to a worship service. She could not make it, but somehow we talked briefly about baptism. She wanted to explore the possibility of being baptized. I told her that I would enjoy that conversation. A few days ago she stopped by and surprised me. Yes, she wanted to be baptized. But more than that, she had talked to her parents, and they wondered if I would plan for their baptism, too. I was not expecting that request, but I look forward to meeting them. When we stick to the countercultural dynamics of love – real love – amazing things happen.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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George Nixon ShulerChris Momany, UMR ColumnistRichard Hicks Recent comment authors
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George Nixon Shuler

Agreed. Let Joel Osteen and similar “success gospel” salesmen do these things if they want to but we don’t have to.

Richard Hicks

The older I get the more I like haiku or haiku-like short pieces. Better Rumi than Shakespeare. If you can’t get the gist said in 140 characters – – CUT!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Meaning . . .

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