online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 3

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At the end of chapter 2, Dean brings up the key issue that differentiates Christianity from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–the key thing we need to remember and practice in order to combat MTD: “Goodness belongs to God, Jesus calls us to be holy.” (p39) Holiness is much more life-changing, requires more commitment, and leads us to self-sacrificing love not just to niceness that papers over the reality of shallow relationships and faith. Niceness does not go far enough–only love goes so far as to lay down one’s life. A God who loves, and who calls us to love, is (in the words of Aslan) “not a tame lion.”

So in chapter 3 we hear about a religious tradition that has very high expectations, very high standards, intense education, and intentional transmission of the faith tradition. We may not agree with their theology or their social stances or their worldview, but we do have to admit that they are doing something right when it comes to passing on their faith. So what can we learn from the Mormons?

Every morning, Mormon high schoolers go to “seminary” before school. It starts at dawn, is taught by a parent, and includes learning their scriptures, learning and practicing the morals and the lifestyle expected of Mormons, talking about their faith, journaling about their journey, and learning to share their faith with others. It teaches students their particular God-story, their place in the story, and gives them tools to live it out in the world while looking forward in hope. These tools allow them to take their faith into their lives–it’s not just a set of beliefs, it’s a way of life. (The way Christianity has been until the last 75 years or so!)

Most Monday evenings, Mormon families have family-night. There are no church activities scheduled for Monday nights, and families often decline other extra-curricular activities that take place on Monday evenings. Instead the family eats together, prays together, studies together, and plays together. There’s church-wide home-curriculum for these evenings, to help families talk about their faith and their values and their lives (and futures) as Mormons. Faith is practiced at home (not just on Monday nights, one assumes, but even if it is just once a week that’s more than many of us manage!), and the church is seen as an extension of the family. The extended family of the church feels free to check in with one another, to ask hard questions, to discipline or to offer feedback, to care for each other both physically and spiritually. In other words, the community of faith has several layers, all of which reinforce the faith as a way of life.

Learning together, being accountable to one another, and having a community of faith that helps you figure out how to use the tools faith gives for living in the world are huge parts of the Mormon life. Can we as Christians learn anything from these methods? How might we adapt them for our context and faith tradition?

When we talk about Christian formation, or spiritual formation, the “form” is Christ–we are being formed together into Christ’s body, learning to imitate him, to follow him, to be made ever more in his likeness. The Holy Spirit moves through the methods and tools we use and makes them into vehicles of grace…assuming, that is, that we use methods and tools! If we just assume it will happen by magic, or by simple occasional exposure to church, or without any intentional effort on our part, we will likely find ourselves disappointed, and will end up only reinforcing the idea that faith and community is optional, something we do when it’s convenient, because it’s nice, but not anything worth time or effort or our lives.

Do Mormons get everything right? No, obviously. Every tradition has room for improvement. We obviously don’t want to end up in a situation where people do not feel free to ask questions, where we close off avenues of inquiry because they threaten our worldview, or where we only associate with those who think/believe/act like us. These create the same shallow faith problem as MTD does, just in a different way. The issue is not of creating a closed society parallel to the one we live in. The issue is of learning, teaching, and being able to both articulate and live our faith.  As Dean says near the end of the chapter, “The goal of Christian formation is not church membership, but more perfect love of God and neighbor. Jesus did not call people to come to church; he called people to follow him.” (p60) This doesn’t mean that church community isn’t important–it does mean that the trappings of church (programs and whatnot) are not the point–they are a means to an end. How does what we do at church help us to follow Christ? How do our worship, our education, our family life, our prayer life, our youth groups, our fellowship activities help us as we seek to become more Christlike, to follow Jesus more closely, to love God and our neighbor and our enemy more and more, to be holy as God has called us to be? What tools can we use to further this goal?

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