12 Steps of Church Transformation: Step 3 — Surrender

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

One of the interesting things about the 12 steps is the recognition that recognizing our powerlessness and insanity and believing that God has the power to transform us doesn’t necessarily mean that we automatically take the third step — surrendering our will and lives over to God’s care. In a very real sense the first two steps represent the loading and cocking of the gun, but it’s only when we pull the trigger that we truly find ourselves on the past to transformation. Pulling the trigger in AA circles is making the decision to give up and let God really take control.

This may be surprising, but in fact it shouldn’t be, for the 2012 General Conference of the UMC in Tampa demonstrated pretty clearly the difficulty in taking that step. We did a good job of acknowledging that we have a problem in the UMC as a church — there were any number of reports that recognized that fact. We proclaimed our belief in God at the worship times each night. However, in spite of all the talk about change we really didn’t want to turn this whole endeavor over to God because we really weren’t comfortable with the possibility that God might turn the basket on its head and do something completely out of the ordinary. The legislation brought forth seemed radical to some ears, but in fact it was based in the same beliefs — that we have the power and ability to structure and program our way out of decline. We like the idea of God being in control, but we weren’t willing to surrender the very nature of our church that that control.

Surrender is hard — especially in a Western culture which wants to see surrender as a character flaw. And yet surrender is at the heart of Christian faith and practice, and our Wesleyan theology as well. The word surrender is derived from an old French word surrendre, with the prefix sur meaning “over”and the suffix rendre meaning “give back.”

To surrender literally means to give back to God that which was God’s in the first place — in our case, a movement of people who were seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus in tangible and radical ways through communities of mutual accountability and support in faith. Over time, as is true with all groups, those communities became institutionalized in the desire to maintain their character into the future . . . which means that we humans attempted to create structures and practices which would allow the movements to retain their core identity but which have the potential of becoming calcified and rigid. Over time, the power of the institution can easily push out the original impetus for the group, and in our case creates a belief that we can control and fix this thing.

To surrender in our case is to decide that we are really serious about letting God take control . . . and willing to embrace the implications of that decision. It may mean that our boards and agencies function less as professional corporations and more like monastic communities, focused on prayer and carrying out specific tasks for the good of God’s work among the people called Methodist. It means putting prayer at the center of our communal life rather than simply tacking it on to the beginning and ending of a meeting. It means being open to having our entire way of being blown up by a God who wants our love and obedience rather than our temples and altars of gold.

Understand that surrender is the beginning of a process of transformation, not the ending. In American Christianity we tend to represent folks “giving their lives to Jesus” as the ultimate transformative step. But the 12 steps recognized that this is just another step on the journey to healing and wholeness — that is, a step as we move on to perfection in the love of Jesus Christ. It’s an important one, for it represents the boundary between the believing steps and the action steps — but it isn’t the final word. There is more to come.

As one author has written:

If we decide, or make up our own mind, to turn our will and our life over to the care of God as we understand God, that decision ALONE will not turn it over. We will have to take the actions necessary to turn it over. The first three Steps are designed to bring us to the point where we become WILLING to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a Higher Power, Steps Four through Nine are HOW we turn our will and our life over, by removing the blocks that prevent us from actually doing so; and the last three Steps are how we KEEP our will and our lives turned over to God indefinitely. After a period of time though, our ego (or self-will) begins to reassert itself again; and because of our “human-ness”, we fall short in maintaining perfect spiritual focus in all of our thoughts and activities. That is why , even if we have worked the first nine Steps to the best of our ability once and are living in Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve, we will still need to eventually go back to Step One and begin the Steps cycle again and again for deeper awakenings and further growth in other areas where we have God blocked off that we may not be currently aware of.

It’s time for us in our congregations or as denomination to make a decision. Do we really believe that we can’t control our lives and that God can and wants to transform us? It’s time for us to pray a corporate version of the “sinner’s prayer” in which we sit before God and relinquish control.

We have the words to do so. Brother John Wesley gave them to us:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

Might we TRULY believe these words and let them be the guide to life that will make us whole.

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