The Family Advent Wreath

While serving at Asbury United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Rev. Monte Marshall and I regularly put together an Advent Devotional Booklet. At the beginning of each week in the devotional booklet we wrote a short, lectionary based liturgy to use with a Family Advent Wreath candle lighting liturgy. Devotionals for each day of the week were written by various members of the congregation.

In our family, the lighting of the Advent and the sharing of the accompany liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grow and having children of their own, this still a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. Each Friday in Advent I will offer another week’s liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. Bishop Mike Lowry

The Second Sunday of Advent

(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)

Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11 

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light two candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light two candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. God’s outpouring of love calls us to prepare ourselves with love for others as we celebrate the coming of the Savior into our lives and the world. We prepare for Christ’s birth through acts of love and kindness towards others, especially the poor and lost.”

Read:   Mark 1:-8

Sing: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,

                And ransom captive Israel,

                That mourns in lonely exile here,

                Until the Son of God appears.

                Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee,

                O Israel!

Prayer: “Lord God, You call us to prepare the way for the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord. May the love which you pour out upon us so fill us with love that your love overflows our lives on to others, especially those forgotten, neglected and rejected. Help us to be so involved with loving others in your name that we make straight your way in the desert. In the hungry, sick, poor, lonely, imprisoned, and stranger may we see you present with us. Fill our lives with your Spirit of love and sharing during this time that we may so prepare for your coming birth by sharing and loving others. Amen.”

 

 

Recovering Doctrinal Greatness Through Advent/Christmas Hymns ©

Even when announced and printed in the bulletin, as I turn in my hymnal to #211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211), the words from this great hymn slip in on me and catch me by surprise. They manage to be at once both a caress and a jolt. I suspect that there is no greater Advent hymn than this one. The music is sublime, the words poetic, and the theology arresting in its greatness.

A footnote in The United Methodist Hymnal tells us that it comes from the 9th century. It adds that the original verses were in Latin. A modest amount of internet digging reveals that it has roots even deeper than that. Wikipedia notes that it probably came originally from a series of “plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.” More, so much more, than just a catchy tune, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” plunges us into the depth of Christian doctrine.

Consider the first verse:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Springing from the biblical texts of Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”) and Matthew 1:23 (Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. [Emmanuel means “God with us.”]), the song not only captures our longing for a Savior but denotes our exile from our proper home with God. It does all this through adherence to the Hebrew Text (Old Testament) and the historical reality of the Babylonian exile. Taken as a whole the longing evokes a theological awareness of how lost we are without a Savior.

Thus in a few short verses this great hymn shatters any self-help notions of personal salvation. We too are Israel; we too are lost and stand in need of a Savior.

Look at verse three:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The words of this version of the hymn in verse three were translated by H. S. Coffin in 1916. The emphasis is on our need for divine help and for the “ordering” of all things, both far and near. The very concept of biblical wisdom is a gift from the Holy Spirit. The verse faces without flinching how disorderly our world is. Have you read the headlines or watched the news lately?

As in all the verses, the refrain brings us back to the great promise of salvation. We who live in a disordered world desperately needing wisdom from on high searching for the path of knowledge move towards a Bethlehem stable with joy. Emmanuel, God with us, will come to us. In the chaos of our day and time, this is surely the greatest news we can ever receive!

With news of North Korea conducting missile tests, the ever-continuing war in the Middle East, and violence in our own cities, the seventh verse almost demands to be sung.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We are in the midst of international strife, whether the nations (including our own) realize it or not. Christ is the deepest desire of our hearts and minds. As the Prince of Peace approaches, rightly we pray for and work towards peace; “bind all people in one heart and mind!”

Notice too as you sing, how the verse bids us lay down sin both individually and collectively. “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease.” The version of this verse contained in The United Methodist Hymnal offers a slightly different rendering: “From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.” It recognizes and offers our highest allegiance to the creator God who comes to us in the baby, Emmanuel, God is with us! Notice how the seventh verse spills forth in a prayer, “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

There is more, much more to said and shared, but I invite us to not only sing the hymns of Advent/Christmas but also to take the time to dwell in deep reflection on the wisdom and doctrinal greatness of the words. In the music, sung, chanted and prayed, God speaks to us once again.

Encountering Jesus on the Journey ©

In the church, we make much of the journey to Bethlehem. The tale is framed by the simple phrasing of verse 4 in Luke’s second chapter: “Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.” (Luke 2:4) What is often forgotten is the bookend of this epic journey found in Matthew 2: “When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’ Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt.” (Matthew 2:13-14)

The story closes with a paragraph rarely preached from our pulpits.

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:19-23)

Approaching the joy Advent (the coming of the Christ-child) and the festive time of our Christmas celebrations, it is hard, if not painful, to remember that the holy child starts his life as a Christmas refugee, as migrant living in strange lands.

The Council of Bishops (COB) of the United Methodist Church has called on UMCs to observe Global Migration Sunday on Dec. 3, though churches may choose to observe it on another Sunday if they prefer. I join with my fellow bishops in asking the churches of the Central Texas Conference to pause to recall the tragedy of global migration in our time.

I am also quite conscious that many churches already have extensive Advent plans set in motion.  As such, if you wish, it would be appropriate for a congregation to remember Global Migration at some other time. Such a time of remembrance, prayer, learning and commitment should not be lost in the hectic pace of other activities. I specifically request that every church in the Central Texas Conference make time to observe Global Migration Sunday between now and the end of May 2018.

Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, wrote a letter to the United Methodist Church as a whole (one we shared in a banner headline on the CTC website on October 18th) in which he reminded us that…

“From Asia and Europe to Africa and the Americas, the plight of more than 65 million men, women and children forced to leave their homes and migrate to places unknown calls all Christians to remember what God requires of us.

Wars, natural disasters, persecution, economic hardships and growing violence around the world are the major root causes of the unprecedented global migration we witness with grave concern today. As if these deadly forces were not enough, migrants also face myriad problems including hazardous travel, cultural barriers and the physical and emotional costs of arriving in strange lands where they are not always welcome and they often face persecution.

For most of these migrants, the decision to flee their homeland comes as a last resort effort to live. We are reminded of Joseph and Mary as they sought to save their lives and especially the life of the Christ child as they fled to Africa to escape the wrath of King Herod, who (threatened by the birth of Jesus) ordered the massacre of children (Matthew 2:13‑14).”

We who journey to a Bethlehem stable are called to go with baby Jesus all the way. We too are called to join the Savior in the journey of migration. For most of us, following the Christ does not mean leaving home, let alone flee persecution. For this blessing, we should appropriately thank God. We are fortunate and blessed to live in a freedom! With this blessing, we should appropriately join the Lord in serving the refugee. Remember what the adult Jesus, who himself had been a refugee, said, “When you welcome the sojourner, you welcome me.” (Matthew 25:35)

Whenever you choose to observe Global Migration Sunday, I recommend that you visit umcmigration.org/resources and review the wide array of video, multi-media, presentation, digital and worship resources in several different languages.

The Migrant (from UMCMigration.org) from Central Texas Conference UMC on Vimeo.

Settling for Less ©

 I drove down to Kerrville, Texas for our family Thanksgiving gathering wearing my “Chicago Cubs World Series Champions 2017” jersey. That’s right; the shirt read “2017” not “2016.” It was a gift from Howard Martin back in early September at the celebration of First UMC Stephenville’s 100th anniversary. At the time, the Cubs were in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals over who would win the Central Division of the National League.

The last time any team repeated as a World Series Champion was back in 2000 when the New York Yankees won for the third straight time. Between 2010 and 2014 the San Francisco Giants won every other year but never two years in a row. The theory is that, with the addition of first the Division Playoff Series, then the League Championship Series added to the World Series, teams that get into the World Series have roughly played a month more than the rest of the teams. The extra time playing especially at a hyper elite level takes a toll on the pitchers especially. Statistically there is usually a distinct drop-off (since the addition of the League Championship Series) in the pitching performance of World Series teams the following year.

With that as backdrop, I confess that I wasn’t too disappointed that the Cubs didn’t win the World Series this year. In fact, I was proud that they won the Central Division and the Division Playoff Series. Even more, I was delighted that the Astros won the World Series. After all they have been through, our neighbors down South needed a big win! I was quite willing to settle for less this year after last year’s championship.

It was a conversation with Dr. Clifton Howard (Assistant to the Bishop) that got me thinking differently. Casually I commented to him that I wondered why I was willing to settle for less. I opined that if it had been a year ago, I would have been deeply disappointed. But, the year after a championship it was okay to settle for less. Clifton challenged me by asking me to think about that spiritually. Would I be willing to settle for less in terms of missional outreach to the poor or professions of faith? He added, “Churches that grow tend to be churches that don’t settle.”

As I mulled all this over while driving, Oswald Chambers famous devotional classic “My Utmost for His Highest” came to mind. 

I think I have read his great classic of Christian spiritual guidance and devotion three times in my life (including one year as a Bishop). There is the line from the movie As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson says, “You make me want to be a better man.” The Christian faith does more than that for me, for us all. It actually makes us better people. Chambers’ book serves as a great devotional guide to help me be a better man, a true Christ-follower.

In less than a week Advent is upon us. This season of the Christian year calls us to prepare for the coming of the Savior. (Advent means literally “coming” – out of the Latin.) I have written before about how the season of Advent, and especially Christmas Eve worship, is special time when non- or nominal Christians are unusually open to the hearing the gospel of God’s saving presence with us in the person of Jesus the Christ.

I write to invite us as a church and as individual Christians not to settle for less. Use this time as a special opportunity to reach out to those eager and receptively open to hear the gospel. Offer the love of God by deeds of justice and mercy but don’t stop there; don’t settle for less. Fuse word and deed with a worship that offers new life in Christ.

As a basic first step, make sure that your website prominently shares worship times and especially the time of your Christmas eve service. Make sure greeters and ushers are prepared to offer truly radical hospitality in welcoming. Don’t miss the opportunity to register attendance for both members and visitors that all might share in grace-filled follow up.

One of the ways the infant Christ-child is referred to by the theological fathers and mothers of the faith is as a baby where Word and deed are one. Think about it. In Christ and Christ alone, Word and deed are one. During this Advent season follow the model of his life witness. Don’t settle for less. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). Share the gospel, the good news of a God who loves so lavishly that the Lord of all life comes to us in the person of a helpless baby. Let John 1:14 infuse your living as an individual; let it saturate your witness, actions and sharing as a church.

“The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

As I write, I am finishing a week of work at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The COB (all United Methodist Bishops around the world, both active and retired) met Sunday night through Wednesday noon. The Active Bishops Learning Retreat lasted from Wednesday afternoon through Friday noon. We have worshipped and prayed together greatly! The experience has been exhausting (emotionally, spiritually, and physically).

In the midst of this, the activities of the world continue. As a person who was elected out of (what is now) the Rio Texas Conference and was a pastor in San Antonio not far from Sutherland Springs, the tragedy of the church shootings has settled deeply in my heart. Across both the U.S. and the world, violence is never far from us. I find myself praying for a spirit of peace (the Holy Spirit!) in both my heart and our larger world. I commend to myself and all who read this blog the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace….”

While our Council work dealt with a variety of subjects including building vital congregations and ecumenical relations, the main focus of our time together was on the interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). The CoWF was established at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon to help the Church discern a way forward around the issues of allowing Methodist clergy to perform same-gender weddings and the ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.” At our just concluded COB meeting, representatives from the CoWF presented some very preliminary ideas (or sketches) on possible ways to move beyond the impasse which threatens The United Methodist Church with schism.

The report from the CoWF presented three rough sketches or preliminary models for consideration and feedback from the COB:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline (BOD) language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third model sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one COB while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

I want to stress that what the Commission presented to the bishops was nowhere near their final product. These are sketches, or outlines, or very rough models that might well shape more detailed pictures. Furthermore, we (both the Bishops and the Church as a whole through its General Conference delegates) are not limited to these three sketches or models. That’s why I feel the term “sketches” is so apropos. The Commission still has a long way to go before they will be ready to present their final models. I invite thoughtful reflection and offer – along with my colleague bishops – a couple of questions for reflection, dialogue and spiritual discernment.

  1. Based on the description, how would you build a church from one or more of these sketches?
  2. How does that sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

I would like to underscore that there was common agreement that the mission of the church is paramount!  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). Intensive and intense dialogue is being held about underlying theology. It is important to note that the CoWF itself dealt with the issue of foundational theology and doctrine in its recent progress report. Click here or the image above to see the full report.  I also want to reiterate and highlight the last two points from the COB about the various models or sketches. Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church. Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

Here are some “talking points” the bishops of the church have agreed to commonly share with the leaders and local churches. Please feel free to use them whenever you are asked about how the church is progressing through this issue.

  • The Mission of God through the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides everything.
  • The values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission undergird the work we are sharing and leading.
  • The Commission serves the Council, preparing the COB to fulfill its service to the General Conference in making a recommendation for a way forward.
  • To best serve the Council, the Commission did not express a preference of a model.
  • In the same way, the Council withholds a preference in order to allow the bishops to engage their conferences in teaching and dialogue.
  • The values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.
  • The Commission shared three sketches of models with the Council. The CoWF is aware that we are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement.
  • It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as the process continues.

We are in a season of prayer, dialogue and spiritual discernment. It is important that we resist the temptation to rush to judgment or seek premature closure. The COB will be meeting in late February to review some follow up work from the CoWF based on our preliminary feedback as a Council of Bishops. In the meantime, I join my fellow bishops in calling on all United Methodists to engage in honest, meaningful and respectful conversations regarding this issue and/or any of the political, religious and justice issues of our day.

Bishop Ough, in a pastoral letter to the UMC released at the conclusion of our meeting, reminded all that the United Methodist Church is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture as well as Christ’s call on our lives. In the letter – which I recommend to you (click here to access) – we are prompted to recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Ephesus to …”to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 CEB)

To read the official release from the COB on our work with the Commission on a Way Forward, go to ctcumc.org/episcopalannouncements. In all things I urge us together to embrace the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

A Texas Tintern Abbey ©

William Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“ drifted back into my mind through my musing at the close of a recent trip. Sunday, October 29th, Jolynn and I had the joy of sharing with Ferris Heights United Methodist Church on the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their founding. After sharing in worship and a fellowship dinner, we gazed through the document history of Ferris Heights. There were pictures of a full sanctuary and pastors sharing children’s sermons surrounded by a forest of youngsters.

This was the fourth anniversary or otherwise special celebration I have preached at this fall. Each is a time of rejoicing, remembering and recommitting to the ministry of our Lord. Almost always there is a special history room or display. The pictures explode with a different time in the life of the church, a time when sanctuaries were full and children abundant. But such is not usually the case today. Oh, there are notable exceptions to be sure, but inhaling the historic pictures reminds me that the time of Christian cultural dominance is over.

As I age, some of the pictures now represent times in which I was just starting out as a pastor. One that overlapped my ministry was on display at First UMC, Stephenville. (We were there for the celebration of their 100th anniversary.) It pictured a pastor surrounded by a large youth choir dressed smartly in beautiful choir robes. Viewing the glory of a bygone era brought back good memories.

Thus in my musing on Sunday driving home, I could not help but think I have had a Texas encounter with Tintern Abbey this fall. Wordsworth’s famous words cascaded over me.

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Here…
On the best portion of a good man’s life;
In his little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love…
(William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” selected verses)

The sense of what William Shakespeare called a “sweet sorrow” surrounds my reflections; yet as my colleague Mike Ramsdell puts it, “the truth is your friend.” The truth is that the day of abundance in worship attendance and a surplus of young children is largely over. In a wider cultural sense the sun has set on the church of the 1980s and ’90s.

I am increasingly convinced that we have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church. Rediscovering how to evangelistically engage modern secular culture is not an option if we wish to survive. New forms of ministry must abound. It was former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki who pointedly stated, “If you dislike change, You’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Yet it is here, in the midst of radical change amid the institutional life of the church which we have grown up with, that I am most excited and hopeful. Looking over what once was, the Lord brought me to a vision of the new future. A man stood up at Ferris Heights and shared what they were doing in Karios Prison Ministry. Such ministry was and is transformative in the way of Christ. Truly God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is even now birthing a renewed, deeper Christianity.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278).

Embracing a full blown unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us. The way ahead is difficult. It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful. We are duly challenged. Is Jesus Lord of our lives, including our professional work? Is this his church or a human institution? Make no mistake, the way is strewn with obstacles but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.

Is It Only About the Number?

Recently Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth wrote a concise article which was printed in the Smith Center online newsletter. It is an outstanding summary about why numbers matter (each number represents a person Christ died for!) and how each number has a narrative behind it. Rev. Ramsdell takes the significant next step to show how numerical growth enriches church vitality in faithfulness and fruitfulness. With his permission, I am offering this excellent article as a guest post.

A small church that I served back in the 80’s had become stagnate and unhealthy, and God blessed us with new members right away. One member volunteered as our Choir Director, another volunteered as our Education Director, and another led the Finance Committee. They and their families changed the culture of the church far more than anything I could have made happen. Growth changed the church and helped create a growth culture that I enjoyed for nine years. Our first Sunday, four kids came for the children’s sermon and two were ours. The last year we were there almost 100 children came for the Easter children’s message where I gave them ARISE balloons as a celebration of the resurrection.

The question is sometimes asked in church circles, “Is it only about the numbers? I think almost all of us automatically say no, like numbers are somehow bad. Yet numbers are basically neutral, unless they represent a value; as in a child being baptized, someone connecting with a hope giving, life enriching, soul saving church family, or even those three members back in the 80’s who partnered with me for years in ministry. In a church each number represents someone in worship, someone professing their faith, or someone uniting officially with the church family which represents the highest of value, someone that God loves and Jesus gave His life for. It’s why the church exists. Every number represents someone. Each number has a narrative behind it that God, church pastors and leaders should highly value. I value numbers because they reflect people, and everyone matters to God.

  • Healthy churches grow
  • Growth creates positive culture change for churches
  • Declining churches eventually become unhealthy

In my experience, new people in a church constantly changed the conversation from inward to outward. The people created positive momentum, added energy, brought excitement and motivated myself and all our pastors. New people need to be discipled so discipleship becomes central. New people come because they have expectations, needs, hopes and dreams that might be different than the existing congregation’s and this requires change for the church. New people bring fresh gifts and ideas into the church. New people change the dynamic of stagnated classes, static worship services, dried up missions and ministries, and the traditions that long term members often get comfortable with. New people want to be involved, do ministry, connect with missions so their presence causes all of this to become more vital with a greater impact. New people connect with parts of the community where existing members did not, and this increased the reach of Christ into places we had not yet reached. New people are the life blood of a healthy church.

It’s not just that we must change the culture to create growth, but that growth changes the culture. When growth stops long term, stable decline will ensue and all that goes with it. Churches that decline in attendance for too long will eventually become unhealthy. They will focus on money, the building, the traditions that they love, each other, resist change, and blame the pastor.

Tweaking things very seldom grows a church; it’s the new that does.

If you have not yet registered for the Creating New Faith Communities Workshop this Saturday, Oct. 28th, from 9:00 – 4:00, please know that you are still welcome. This event is for our 100 New Faith Communities Initiative that kicks off January 1st.

Rev. Mike Ramsdell
Executive Director, Smith Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
God give us success!  Psalm 118:25

 

Why an Emphasis of Christ at the Center?

The words of the great hymn ring out in many a church.

The church’s one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation, by water and the Word;
from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
(“The Church’s One Foundation,” No. 545, The United Methodist Hymnal)

The words center us at a focal point of the Christian faith. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann comments, “At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross” (Jurgen Moltmann, taken from A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight, pg. 61).

Since coming to the Central Texas Conference over 9 years ago, I have operated out of a deep conviction born in prayer and consultation that three core values for our ministry tower above all other aspirants for our attention. We call them simply the Big Three:

1. Christ at the Center
2.  A Focus on the Local Church
3.  Lay and Clergy Leadership Development

Periodically I am challenged by the Christological emphasis being of first importance. Typically the question comes in the form of a skeptical query, “Why Christ? Why not God or Jesus?” Often it is followed by an argument tinged with defiance that the center should be on God in order to indicate the full breath of the Holy Trinity or on Jesus (with a concurrent implicit emphasis on the Lord’s humanity).

The challenge poses a reasonable question, but I believe it flounders in the context of the early 21st century United Methodist Church. An emphasis on God alone without a specific reference to the Trinity leads us into a closet Unitarianism. An emphasis on Jesus without a similar emphasis on Christ denies the redemptive work of the totality of Jesus as the Christ, the Lord and Savior of all. (It is worth noting that the issue of a creeping Unitarianism affects mostly the old “mainline” protestant church. Many on the so-called “evangelical” side of the church/denomination equation, including most Independent Bible churches, suffer from exactly the opposite malady.)

Interestingly enough, the skeptical query almost always (with rare exception) comes from clergy. I submit that they reflect a theological emphasis that has mistakenly led us away from the core center of the Christian faith. Put more bluntly the deeper struggle over theological orthodoxy in The United Methodist Church today centers around the need to more fully embrace a robust Christology. We are in danger of being a Unitarian United Methodist Church, which emphasizes Jesus’ mercy and justice ministry at the expense of the Lord’s redeeming work on the cross.

Make no mistake, we rightly should lift up Christ’s great teaching of mercy and justice. The Great Commandment to love God and the neighbor is to be ever before us ardently engaging in ministries of love, justice and mercy. My pause, which leads me back to a deeper emphasis on Christ at the Center, is that in the process of so emphasizing the human work of Jesus and the importance of the Godhead, we in The United Methodist Church have subtly descended into a cultural version of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

1.      A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

by Kenda Creasy Dean, pg 14

 

3.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

Irenaeus, a church Father from the 2nd century, insisted on what we would call a “high” Christology while firmly anchoring creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. “But following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”  Scot McKnight goes on to comment, “The implication of this observation shapes the entirety of what we mean by the atonement: God identifies with us in the incarnation. Without identification, without incarnation, there is not atonement” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, pg. 54).

It is significant that the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers welded together a high Christology with a passion for ministry to the last, the least and the lost. They had a saying, springing from the writings of theologians like Irenaeus, that went, “He became like us that we might be like him.”

In a recent dialog between the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and members of the faculty and administration of Perkins School of Theology, conversation around the United Methodist need to embrace a stronger Christology struck a deep nerve. Professor Rebecca Miles followed up on the conversation by sharing her concern in a series of email exchanges (used with permission). She commented, “You bet, Bishop. Is it is clear that I don’t think this (i.e. a weak understanding of Christ and Christology) is just a Perkins problem but a problem of our church generally.” She added in a later email, “Let’s talk about Christology! [Emphasis hers.] I am also concerned about the lack of Christology or the presence of an anemic or unformed Christology in our pastors (laity too). . . . I wonder if there might be a way to link this effort to jointly sponsored Central Texas Conference/Perkins preparation for commissioning.”

Dr. Miles closed with an invitation, which I commend to the laity of the Central Texas Conference. “Regarding laity (especially lay church professionals), we are hosting a course in UM Studies in January with Whitfield, Miles and Campbell teaching. For me, Wesleyan theology is one way to get at the key Christological issues and also to counter the rampant Calvinist theology among our laity (or simple theological apathy). Here is a link to the event. I hope all of you will consider sharing this:  https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/PublicPrograms/UM-Studies-Course

I close with a quote from the great missionary evangelist and theologian E. Stanley Jones:

Christianity is Christ…. We do not begin with God, for if you do you do not begin with God but with your ideas of God, which are not God. We do not begin with man, for if you do you begin with the problems of man. And if you begin with a problem you will probably end with a problem, and in the process you will probably become a problem…. We don’t begin with God, and we don’t begin with man, we begin with God-Man and from Him we work out to God, and from Him we work down to man. In His light we see life – all life. For He is the revelation of God and man – the revelation of what God is and what man can become – he can become Christlike.

 

Escaping the Stranglehold of Fear ©

Somewhere in my wanderings and travels this past summer I ran into a powerful new song, “No Longer Slaves“ (written by written by Brian Johnson, Jonathan David Helser, Joel Case and put out by Bethel Music). The lyrics are:

You unravel me, with a melody
You surround me with a song
Of deliverance, from my enemies
Till all my fears are gone

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

From my mother’s womb
You have chosen me
Love has called my name
I’ve been born again, into your family
Your blood flows through my veins

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

I am surrounded by the arms of the Father
I am surrounded by songs of deliverance
We’ll be liberated from our bondage
We’re the sons and the daughters
Let us sing our freedom

ohh. ohh. ohh.
(https://bethelmusic.com/chords-and-lyrics/we-will-not-be-shaken-no-longer-slaves/)

I confess that I cannot get the haunting melody and deeply comforting words out of my head. There are even mornings when I wake with the song in my heart and mind. The throbbing choral response settles into my being. “I’m no longer a slave to fear/ I am a child of God.”  I find I ask myself, why does this song so deeply speak to me at this time in my life?

Recently, I heard a speaker share a conversation with a group of young United Methodist clergy. As they talked about the future of our denomination and the possibility of schism over controversial issues, the fear in the room seemed palatable. Frustrated, she finally bluntly addressed the fears over loss of security and jobs. She reports saying something like this: “Look, I only know two jobs that have guaranteed employment. One is Supreme Court Justices and that’s not us!  The second is Methodist preachers! Why are we so fearful?” She went on to put the issue (appointment) in a biblical and theological context. With God, we no longer need to let fear rule our lives. The speaker closed with an exclamation/exhortation along the lines of, “Come on, suck it up and get some courage.”

So … I ask myself, whence the fear?

Yet the more I reflect on the piercing issue of fear, the more I am convinced that fear has a stranglehold on parts of my life, much of the church and great swaths of American society. The mistaken fear has a stranglehold on us in a variety of ways. Run the list of things to be afraid of through your mind. Chances are that various wider issues come too easily to the forefront – terrorism, mass shootings like the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, disease (think of the threat of Ebola), economic uncertainty, immigration, etc. Add to this the inherent instability of modern living on a relationship basis (divorce, the opioid crisis, etc.), the political incivility of our times, and the lack of a secure moral footing. Taken as a whole, the question is how can we not help being afraid?

To this wider sense of fear, the Christian faith offers a powerful countervailing proclamation. Our Lord conquered the cross. We serve a risen savior. Writing to the embattled infant church of Rom, the Apostle Paul reminds them (and us!) “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, ‘Abba, Father'” (Romans 8:15). The Psalmist teaches us, “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The Lord is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be frightened of anything?” (Psalm 27:1).

I have my own conviction that, in the chaos of our times, the pace of change is overwhelming us (both individually and collectively). Put differently, we live life at a pace of activity and engagement that is unsustainable. The various perceived threats caused by change are more than we adequately have time to process and handle. All of this leads to a resulting stranglehold of fear (sometimes consciously but more often unconsciously) taking hold of us.

The melody with which God in Christ through the Holy Spirit surrounds us is one of deliverance. It is worth noting that the witness in song doesn’t dismiss the reality of fear. “You surround me with a song/ Of deliverance, from my enemies/ Till all my fears are gone” goes the song. Through Christ we no longer need be enslaved by our fears. Fear’s stranglehold is broken. The cardinal, crowning affirmation is extended to all! “I am a child of God.” We are children of God. We are liberated from our bondage by the Lord God. This truly is good news!

The Vatican and Christian Unity ©

I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)

Saturday, October 30th, I found myself with a group from the Central Texas Conference sitting in worship at the 5 p.m. Mass at the Vatican. As we faced the great high altar, to our immediate left was a Choir from CTCUMC. The Choir was built around the core of the tremendous White’s Chapel Choir. Shauna LaCroix Fuller, the Executive Director of Music and Worship Ministries at White’s Chapel led our witness in song. In a dramatically different and truly ecumenical way, we worshipped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. As we worshipped in St. Peter’s Basilica, I found myself both swelling with pride at the magnificent witness of our choir and humbling giving thanks that the great cause of Christian unity is being slowly advanced.

Monday morning I had a private meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Michael Olson, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, had graciously set up our meeting. Additionally, I had been briefed in advance by United Methodist Bishop Michael Watson, the Ecumenical Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, in preparation for our time together. We had almost an hour and a half of delightful in-depth conversation on the issues surrounding Christian Unity, especially as they related to United Methodists and the Catholic Church.

Nearing the end of our conversation, I asked Bishop Farrell what message he would like me to take back and share with the pastors and churches of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. With his graceful urging I pass on the essence (as best as I remember) of Bishop Farrell’s comments. He began by noting (for the second time) that we (both our churches) have had a hard time translating the good work being done on a higher ecclesiastical level to the pews. He was deeply committed to the notion that bishops and other church leaders need to communicate our ecumenical commitments to our priests/pastors and congregations better. Then he proceeded to enumerate four keys elements he wished communicated.

  1. “Please communicate to your people how serious we are about Christian unity.”  His gracious and open conversation moved far beyond the merely superficial. Bishop Farrell explicitly referenced John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for unity for a purpose: “so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
  2. “We need to learn from each other!”  Bishop Farrell exhibited a wide and deep grasp of insights that he believes the Catholic Church is learning from sharing in dialogue with other Christian communities and noted specifically some of the insights he believes the Catholic Church offers us as United Methodists and Protestants. He re-emphasized that that we have much to teach each other. I could not agree more!  Openness to real dialogue at a deep level will benefit all of us and most emphatically the greater Christian witness to a non-believing world.
  3. Speaking of the formal dialog between the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, he highlighted the problem that, from his perspective, Protestant denominations have drifted from their own core documents and this made it very difficult for Catholics to engage in a deeper dialog. I am compelled to say that I strongly agree with Bishop Farrell’s sense of a drift from our founding principles and documents. We, United Methodist, will better participate and assist the larger learning of the universal worldwide Christian movement by more clearly adhering to and offering up what makes us distinct. Bishop Farrell noted the Wesley doctrine of holiness (sanctification) as something he believes we have to offer the entire church.
  4. Bishop Farrell raised the wider issue of what is call “ecclesiology,” the order and governance of the church. In particular, he discussed the role of bishops (biblically the term means “overseer”) and the faithful continuity of our shared global witness for Jesus as Lord. Here too, I found myself in general agreement. With the rise of the “Independent Bible Church” in American culture, the biblical office of bishop (which is among other things, the locus of Christian unity) is deeply challenged.

There is more, much more, to my blessed time with Bishop Farrell. Allow me to close by sharing his conviction that the greater ecumenical ministry must be pursed with vigor on the local level –  congregation to congregation, pastor to priest, bishop to bishop, etc. God is truly with us in this effort. May the great prayer of Christ guide us – that we all may be one so that the world may believe.

Page 1 of 5912345»102030...Last »