Press on the upward way

Steps to lift a church from a valley of trial

Jul 30, 2018 by

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Because church life has its ups and downs, we can be sure that some who study Mennonite Church USA’s new Pathways curriculum are looking for traction to higher ground. Whether they’ve felt moderate stress or suffered major adversity, those going through times of trial will read their own congregation’s experience into the study guide.

What’s more, since the denomination itself has weathered turmoil in recent years, it’s natural to read Pathways with an eye toward resolving conflicts and restoring relationships.

It’s not a question of whether there’s sin to confess and brokenness to mend. It’s a matter of how severe the pain is and how close to home it hits.

Any time is right for a church-renewal effort, which is how MC USA describes its two-year Journey Forward process, of which Pathways is a part. In trying times, a jump-start of faith is even more urgent.

Here, then, inspired by the first three sessions of Pathways, are steps toward lifting a community of faith from a valley of despair — or simply giving it a push uphill.

  • First, acknowledge a simple truth: God loves us. Unconditionally. When a rich young man came to Jesus with questions about what God required, the man declared he had kept all of the most important commandments since he was a boy. Mark 10:21 describes Jesus’ reaction: “He looked at him and loved him.” The young man had been striving hard to earn God’s favor. But Jesus offered a new kind of relationship with God, based on unearned love. Accepting this love is the starting point for the journey’s next steps: “Confessing the truth of our own be­lovedness allows us to honestly confess ways we fail to experience and extend God’s love,” the Pathways writers say.
  • Tell the truth about sin, and repent. Making peace with God and each other “requires an ongoing, honest reckoning with sin,” Pathways advises. There simply is no easy way out. Facing our sins honestly, in front of others, is one of the hardest things to do. After all, we have a reputation to uphold. Yet truth-telling and repentance are necessary when we are “confronted with the misuses of power in our lives, communities and institutions,” Pathways suggests. Sexual abuse is one misuse of power being brought into the light of truth more often today. Longstanding denial of the problem magnifies the difficulty of truth-telling. But there is no other way to be set free from the power of sin.
  • Forgive each other, but understand that grace comes with a cost. The 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that grace is costly because the price of following Jesus might be a person’s life — or a change so radical that one’s life will never be the same. When congregations confront sexual abuse or other sins that cause trauma, they learn another reason that grace is costly: Sin’s consequences exist apart from forgiveness. God can remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. But neither God’s nor humans’ forgiveness can erase the long-term damage that certain sins, like sexual abuse, may cause. Rigorous accountability is a cost that a community of faith bears together. It does not indicate a lack of forgiveness. Rather, it ensures safety for the vulnerable and enables the hope of restoration for the offender. It is costly grace.

One goal of Journey Forward is to “experience transformation.” Those climbing out of a low point in church life desire positive change with special intensity.


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