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Ministry happens through relationships, not arguments

Not quite forty years ago, I was Ricky Jones’ youth director. Ricky is now the senior pastor of Riveroaks Presbyterian Church in Tulsa (time flies!). He had the quote of the week one day: “We find faith through relationship with joyful, flawed but honest loving Christians. Not through arguments, information, or books.”

Coming upon forty years of doing ministry outdoors, in churches, in bars and breweries, on the street, and in mission fields local and abroad, I must say that I concur with Ricky. Arguments today are akin to pistol duels, information can easily become disinformation, and we must be careful with books (even Bible commentaries). As one former professor warned me, “Any idiot could have written that.”

It was through relationships that Jesus organized and made disciples. It was through relationships that the Apostle Paul ministered and wrote to early Christian churches and communities. It was also Paul who reminded us that institutions (including churches) can often be poor witnesses for the faith. The Church in general, denominations, and local churches have not always had a good history or track record.

Our distrust of institutions has come honestly and has extended to our government and other national and local institutions. We do not see such institutions living in harmony as the goal – we see and hear dissonance. We witness leaders who are elected or appointed practice such dissonance and yearn for statesmen and stateswomen to run for office, yet realize the present environment discourages such people from offering themselves. We have created such by avoiding relationships, and by resolving not to work at having them. We denigrate “the other.” We don’t always practice good relationships, and good relationships take practice.

My own Methodist history models how relationships could and should be fostered amidst great disagreement. Two huge figures in England and early Methodism in America were John Wesley and George Whitefield. They disagreed. They debated. Vehemently. They argued over grace. Predestination. Universal redemption. Wesley leaned toward the Arminian. Whitefield leaned toward Calvinism. And yet while they argued, disagreed, and wrote back and forth – there was never a claim of discrimination, of being morally bankrupt, there were no taking of cheap shots and denigration. They both labored to teach and preach, to take mission and discipleship to a people that were hungry and desperate for it (and still are). When George Whitefield died, John Wesley – of all people – was asked to preach his funeral. If you read that sermon, it is clear: Wesley loved Whitefield. He closed his sermon by imploring those who had gathered in November of 1770: “Let the fire of thy love all on every heart! And because we love thee, let us love one another with love stronger than death. Take away from us all anger, and wrath and bitterness; all clamour and evil speaking. Let thy spirit rest upon us, that from this hour, we may be kind to each other, tender hearted: Forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven us!”

It is very tempting to give in to schism, to divest, disrupt, demonize, and divide, instead of making relationships in a hurting world so in need of healing. Our communities must NOT give-in to such temptations. The New Testament word koinonia translates as fellowship, community, communion, interaction, and association. That’s not just a good word for Christians, it’s a good word for communities. Communities thrive when they practice good relationships. WE thrive when we practice good relationships.

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