Sometimes saving what you love means stepping away from it. Maybe a long way away.
Even when it comes to church.
From Athanasius to Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian history is filled with those who spent time away from the dominant church of their day in order to find or protect true faith. Luther is included on that list. So are the Wesleys.
Their patron saint is Anthony the Great.
Anthony’s life provides an alternate ending to the story of the rich man who, when asked by Jesus to give away everything, went away sad. Faced with what he felt was the same question, Anthony dispensed with his considerable wealth and set out for the farthest reaches of the desert.
His search for perfect communion with God came at a critical time for the Christian church. Anthony’s life included the last great wave of state-sanctioned persecution, the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, and the early battles for the soul of Christianity after its incorporation into the Roman Empire.
Although the stories surrounding Anthony are mostly anecdotal, his impact was widespread. His retreat to the desert influenced thousands of people to eschew the relative comforts of normal life for the asceticism of the desert. Some pursued a kind of spiritual martyrdom, others a deeper connection with God. Still others left to flee the perceived corruption of the church by its new involvement with the state.
Whatever the reason, these early generations of Christian monks stepped away from one life to follow a decidedly more difficult path. They rejected ease and empire for the sake of sacrificial discipleship. Their reward was spiritual enlightenment for themselves and perspective for the larger church.
What does any of this mean to our current generation of earth-dwelling Christians?
Even though our time doesn’t threaten us (at least not overtly) with becoming tools for government control, we American churches face our own threat of incorporation into the cult of the consumer. And the danger goes beyond VBS trinkets or Christian merchandizing.
The bigger danger is in our application of the culture of the consumer to the church. We expect our pastors to grow churches and our churches to grow programs, with the hope that the result will be more people with more money to do more of what we term ministry.
That’s only a tiny piece of what following Jesus is all about, and we know it. But the pressures to conform to the culture of the consumer is so great and the anxiety surrounding the United Methodist Church’s decline so pronounced that we plunge headlong into the quest for more nonetheless.
Our motives are good, perhaps. The church—particularly the Methodist branch of it—has meant a lot to us. It has conveyed to us the love of God and the beauty of God’s people. We want others to love the church too, and we want the church to not only survive, but thrive.
If that’s going to happen, however, we may need to walk away. Now more than ever.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that we should quit holding church services or even curb our church attendance, at least when it comes to worship. We need to meet together, to encourage one another, to pray and give and celebrate.
But we also need to resist the pressure to frame our concept of church around attendance figures or building projects or even mission inputs. We need to reject any definition of church that doesn’t include Jesus’ calls to give all we have to follow him.
Like Anthony reminds us, following Jesus begins not with a quest for abundance, but with a relinquishment of what we do have—including our desire to save the church that has loved us, and that we love as well.
We United Methodists have a clear example to draw from in our own history. The Wesleys’ quest for a more faithful life began with practices that hearken back to the early monastics: discipline, fasting, Scripture study, care for the poor, devotion to religion of both head and heart.
That quest ultimately led to the Methodist movement, but it was birthed at a price. John Wesley felt the scorn and abandonment of the Anglican Church, as well as the anxiety of the Methodists in America setting off on a path he could not guide from across the ocean. It cost him thousands of miles of travel and a rejection of the comforts available to him.
It all started with a step away—not from the path of Jesus, but from the assumptions the dominant culture made about that path. Wesley sensed there was something his church was missing. He went out to find it.
It’s no secret that something is missing for many of us when it comes to church today. We church leaders have tried just about everything we know to do to create that missing piece.
But the next movement of God among us will not be man-made, much less managed, any more than those who followed Anthony to the desert or Wesley to the coal mines were managed.
Rather, the next movement will emerge from those who have taken time to step back from the frantic work of religious entrepreneurism to consider where God might be leading, and how we might best follow.
Regardless of where we have to go, or what it costs to get there.
The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.