So I internalized them, repeated them, and practiced them in church work.
But some of that early wisdom I simply don’t believe anymore. Sometimes, experience changed my views. Other times, fresh readings of Scripture did the same. And more often, fresh readings of Scripture confirmed what I was already learning through experience.
So here they are: five things I just don’t believe anymore.
5. Home Visitation Is The Key To Effective Ministry. In my first conversation I ever had with my first District Superintendent in Methodism, he said, “Here’s my three point sermon for being a good pastor. 1. Visit your people. 2. Visit your people. 3. Visit your people.” It was evidently a good sermon because I still remember it 23 years later and because I followed the advice with diligence. And I still love home visitation and suspect I do a good deal more of it than many pastors who get to serve a church of Good Shepherd’s size and style. But: it’s still not the most important thing that I do. What’s is? Clear, consistent proclamation of the gospel which we preachers have received and on which our congregations take their stand.
4. You Have To Be Ordained To Give A Benediction. A seminary professor of mine — whom in all other respects I revere and admire — told a class I attended: “until you have that sign of ordination given to you, you don’t have the authority to offer a benediction.” And I actually believed it! For awhile. Now? Please. The church life of the New Testament is all about demolishing walls between types of people, including the professional and the volunteer in ministry. The sad fact of Christian history is that generations of early and medieval church leaders quickly put walls back up that their New Testament forbears had gone to such lengths to tear down. Come to think of it, there is very little in Scripture that connects ordination with baptism or communion, either (see #1, below).
3. Don’t Preach About Money. I got this advice from otherwise loving people within my first month at the first church I ever served. If you’ve been part of Home, you know that not only do I preach about money, but I love doing it. More people need to know — and need to know urgently — that in giving to God they will never miss what wasn’t theirs to begin with.
2. Don’t Change Anything Your First Year At A New Church. I believed this one so much that I have repeated it more than once to colleagues. Now I realize that such defensiveness wastes some of the built in goodwill that comes from in a new ministry assignment.
1. God Does The Baptizing. In seminary and beyond, I heard teaching on the subject of infant baptism that grounded the practice in the confidence that “God does the baptizing.” The logic goes something like this: “The reason we Methodists can baptize babies is because we put the emphasis on God in the sacraments. The reason Baptists don’t is because they think sacraments are more about people.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Makes our tribe a bit more erudite and theological than our immersion-happy brethren. You can baptize an infant because even though the baby doesn’t know what’s happening, he or she now has a divine, moist seal of approval. I was taught it, I believed it, I spoke it, and that settled it. My own children (now 23 & 20) were even baptized as infants.
Here’s the problem: God doesn’t baptize. God saves. We respond by getting baptized.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we read the words or even intuit the concept that God baptizes.
Whether it’s Peter’s emphatic “Repent and be baptized” in Acts 2:38 or the wandering Ephesians who get re-baptized in Acts 19:1-7 or even Paul’s subtle yet unmistakable picture of baptism-by-immersion in Romans 6:3-5, the New Testament is consistent and clear: people choose their own baptism. They come to faith and then to make that faith public, they get wet.
It’s not complicated, it’s not a spiritual birthmark, it’s not a naming ceremony, it’s not even the New Testament equivalent of circumcision. It’s death to the old life and resurrection to the new. And babies don’t have old lives to die to.
And . . . best of all the practices I’ve learned from some of our non-denominational friends . . . in the context of a church gathering parents can baptize their own children and friends can do the same for folks they have led to faith.
That may not be very Methodist but it sure is contagious.