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. Pattie put in the photo I texted you late last week. 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, he 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.

VOLUME II: The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation  ©

In my last blog, I noted that I had been recently asked to review and write a publication “blurb” for two new books, Scripture and the Life of God by Dr. David Watson, Dean at United Theological Seminary and The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Professors Scott Kisker (United Theology Seminary) and Kevin Watson (Candler School of Theology). The Band Meeting is, in a sense, Volume II in a rediscovery of the classic Methodist system of developing deep discipleship. Professor Watson’s book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience is what I consider “Volume I” of a two-volume set on recovery the life of deep discipleship (sanctification) in The United Methodist Church. Members of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) will recall that Dr. Kevin Watson spoke to the CTC on Class Meetings last June.

Beneath the fold, almost under the radar of the current controversies sweeping The United Methodist Church around same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI individuals, is a quiet steady revival of small group discipleship. This is one significant area where most people can unite together across the theological spectrum.

The Band Meeting is an essential text for the recovery of deep discipleship in The United Methodist Church. I recommend it strongly to those who are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord. Page after page challenges us both theologically and practically to embrace transformational holiness (in Christ) through the structure of reawakened Band meetings. “We write this book,” state the authors, “with the assumption that many Christians not only want deeper community but that they are also nagged by a sense that their discipleship is incomplete or lacking” (p. 8). The first half of the book offers a highly readable, excellent theological, biblical and historical foundation for Band Meetings. The second half shares concrete practical steps for starting and nurturing a Band Meeting. Together in these pages offer an opportunity to reclaim the essence of the Wesleyan movement in transformative discipleship. The authors close with the passionate conviction, “We are convinced that the band meeting continues to be a relevant and essential practice for people who are desperate to experience all that God has for their lives” (p. 159).

Early in their book, the authors offer a brief quote from Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us” (Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, New York: Riverhead Books, 2011; 101; taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 7). The quote speaks not just to the life of deeper discipleship but to the deepest desires of all human beings. The Class Meeting is a critical need in the life of church. To be serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (as opposed to just making members of the church or casual acquaintances of Jesus) requires spiritual growth and training in faithful obedience to Christ. The watch-word of early Methodists in the Class Meeting was “watching over one another in love.”

The Band Meeting takes the Class Meeting to a deeper, even scary, level of walking with Christ. It involves genuine confession of sin in a way that risks vulnerability and results in the kind of spiritual growth which is truly called sanctification. Kisker and Watson write, “Sanctification is not a ‘climb, climb up sunshine mountain, heavenly breezes blow,’ as the old children’s song goes. It is a journey down and in, to deeper levels of self-knowledge, to greater dependency on the cross of Christ. It is exploring the closets of our souls we have locked, opening them, and allowing in God’s light. It is scary sometimes to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). We cannot, and were not intended, to do this work on our own. We need a band of brothers or sisters” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 118). Furthermore the early Methodists understood that “discipleship meant discipline. Early Methodists understood that fellowship exists among disciples, and without discipline there is no real fellowship” (p. 73).

What The Band Meeting does so effectively is connect core theological doctrines that are shared across the theological spectrum (doctrines of sin, salvation and sanctification) together and then provide us with a tested practical way of living in deep discipleship. This book and band meetings offer us a concrete step forward in walking with Christ. By way of illustration consider the following quote:

“Could it be that the problem facing the church is much larger and more significant than has typically been realized? Maybe the simplest way to put it is that we are all addicts. Some of us are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some of us are addicted to pornography. Some of us are addicted to gossip, or lying, or television, or social media, or being right, or achieving. They list could go on. Most of us are probably addicted to multiple things. Our common trait is that we are all addicted to the ways of sin and death. We are addicted to a false gospel of sin management (managing death) instead of connecting with life” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 9).

Now link the above assertion that we engage in “sin management” and are addicted to our sins with the deeper Wesleyan way of intentional relational transformation. Our society is awash in the hersey of “spiritual but not religious.” Wesley will have none of such nonsense. Professors Kisker and Watson challenge us to take the next step. John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and other early leaders of Methodism held members to this standard because they were convinced that we need each other in order to come to faith in Jesus and keep growing in faith. This is what Wesley meant by the now popular (and frequently misused) phrase “social holiness.” Wesley only used the phrase “social holiness” one time in all his published writings. It occurred in the 1739 preface to a collection of hymns and poems. In the preface, Wesley critiqued the desert monastic tradition as a way to argue against similar excesses in his own day. He was adamant that we need each other in order to experience the kind of life that Jesus intends for us to have. Wesley displayed the kind of pointed logic he used when he was most passionate as he wrote:

“Directly opposite to [desert monasticism] is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 13).

There is more to be said, much more to be said. In this profound and easy to read book we are offered a significant next step into life with Christ which takes us beyond the class meeting. Please, don’t try this without first being a part of a class meeting. Yet at the same time, I urge the reader to buy this book and challenge us in our small groups and Sunday School classes to inhale its essence. “The band meeting is a catalyst for profound change because it is a place where we bring into the open what has been intentionally and carefully hidden. . .. Praise Jesus, the Holy Spirit is giving people the courage and desperation necessary to move into the light and receive forgiveness, freedom, healing, and power over the ways of sin and death” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 160).

RECOMMENDED! Scripture and the Life of God ©

Periodically, I am asked read a book pre-publication and write a brief promotional blurb for the book. I have had the pleasure of doing this for a number of books including (but not limited to) Leadership Directions from Moses by Olu Brown, A Missionary Mindset by Doug Ruffle, and Go: The Church’s Main Purpose by George Hunter. Recently I had the further distinct privilege of endorsing two new books:  Scripture and the Life of God by Dr. David Watson, Dean at United Theological Seminary and The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Professors Scott Kisker (United Theology Seminary) and Kevin Watson (Candler School of Theology). Both books are outstanding and well worth reading!

By way of endorsement for Dr. Watson’s book I wrote: “Scripture and the Life of God goes way beyond being one more informational book on reading Scripture. This book is transformational! Whether a pastor, a long-time discipled Christian, or a novice to the faith, all will be offered a fresh and exciting adventure into the transformational presence and power of God through Holy Scripture. I cannot recommend it highly enough!”

Dean Watson is a New Testament scholar who writes for the church as a whole. Pastors and Sunday School classes alike will benefit from reading Scripture and the Life of God. The book is written with Study Questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate group discussion. The author does not duck issues of biblical inspiration. Rather he insightfully takes us beyond commonplace considerations to a deeper level of meaning. Consider the following: “Yet in adopting one theory or another, we should remember that the meaningfulness of Scripture does not depend on a particular understanding of inspiration. It depends upon God. God is alive, and God reaches out to us in and through the words of the Bible. Therefore, we search the Scriptures. We pray over them. We listen to them in worship. We sing their words. Ultimately, we are formed by God’s work through them into the people we are meant to be. We have become participants in the divine nature” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 15).

Allow me to offer a couple of other excerpts to whet the reader’s appetite:

“In this book, I want to argue a singular point: the Bible is a form of divine communication meant to lead us more fully into the life of God. Put in theological terms, we might say that through the Bible we receive divine revelation, the purpose of which is soteriological. In other words, the purpose of God’s Word is salvation for the world. John Wesley believed that Scripture shows us ‘the way to heaven –  how to land safe on that happy shore. …Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.’ Or to put in in yet another way, God speaks to us through the Bible and leads us into salvation. God loves us and wishes us to return that love. When we do, we enter more fully into the divine life. The Bible is a ‘book of meeting.’ It draws us ever more deeply into a relationship with the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. In light of this, our first posture toward the Bible should be one of gratitude, not criticism”(Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. xviii).

“Reading in community is an act of humility. None of us has all the answers. None of us is a perfect interpreter of the Bible. A particularly unique understanding of a passage of Scripture is not likely a very good one. We are fellow travelers on the pathway into the life of God. The biblical scholar James Sanders wrote that we should consider ourselves to be pilgrims: ‘The model of the believing community … is that of a pilgrim folk en route through the ambiguities of present reality to the threshold of truth.’ In this life, we simply will not reach our final destination. We won’t know it all. We will never apprehend the whole truth about God. We will not fully understand all that God has done for us. For our entire Christian lives, we are moving more deeply into the life of God” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 50).

Dr. Watson closes by reminding the reader of a well known story of St. Augustine, which speaks into my life, our lives together, the life of the church and, I believe, has a word desperately needed for our times. “We started this book with a story about Augustine, the great theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries whose spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, is among the classic works of Christian literature. He would come to be called ‘Saint Augustine,’ an iconic figure after whom churches, schools, and cities would be named. Before he was any of these things, though, he was simply a man who came to understand that he needed to know God more deeply than he did. When he heard the voice of a child calling, ‘Pick up and read,’ he took it as a sign that God was leading him into the next step of his journey with Christ. He was obedient. He picked up his copy of Paul’s letter, he read, and he was transformed. Scripture was the vehicle that God used to lead Augustine across a crucial threshold in his life of faith” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 113).

It is my hope that Pastors and Sunday School classes across the Central Texas Conference will use this book, Scripture and the Life of God, to help us better understand and more fully delve into the book which matters most – the Bible. John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan revival and the Methodist Church, speaking of the Bible wrote: “I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!” Scripture and the Life of God does just that! It helps us embrace the Holy Scriptures on a more meaningful level.

HURRICANE RESPONSE: Great Faithfulness in the Face of Disaster ©

The Apostle Paul famously called for a special offering for the Jerusalem Church and Christians suffering in hard times during a famine in the 40s A.D. Those words of almost two thousand years ago are easily echoed today in response to the great faithfulness of the churches of the Central Texas Conference in offerings for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. They will give honor to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone” (2 Corinthians 9:11b-13).

From the depths of my heart I want to express a gratitude to the members and churches of the Central Texas Conference.  A preliminary report from our Conference Treasurer is that some 120 churches (some with repeated donations) have responded today with a total amount of money currently at $244,665.04.  In addition, a number of churches and individuals have given directly and are not being included in this amount.  We are still receiving money for Hurricane Relief and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) on a regular basis so the final amount should be a good bit higher. To all, God bless you for your great faithfulness in the face of disaster. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we reached the 100% of Central Texas Conference churches responding!

Disaster Response Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference, Rev. Ginger Watson, shared a report last Sunday afternoon (September 24th) at the regular meeting of the CTC Connectional Table. Some notes from that report are:

  • We have small depots for supplies at First Hillsboro, Tenth Street Taylor, Lifepoint and Comanche UMCs.
  • A Genesis UMC member with a trailer loaded with over 100 flood buckets, 500 hygiene kits and diapers to take those desperately need items to Conroe.  When he arrived, the warehouse was completely empty.  His load of supplies was an answered prayer.
  • Leah and Stan Gregory with others delivered similar loads of supplies to those in South Texas (the Rio Texas Conference) at Kerrville.  Many other similar loads have headed into recovery areas. Rev. Watson estimates that we have provided well over 1,000 flood buckets along with several thousand hygiene kits. 300 more flood buckets head south this week!
  • Trained ERT (Early Response Teams) have come from a dozen churches across the conference. Over 150 additional CTC members have received critical and necessary training as ERTs.
  • Genesis, Polytechnic UMC and a number of other churches have provided greatly needed bedding on an emergency basis.  Volunteers from First Hurst and White’s Chapel have also provided Ministry Safe childcare volunteers to work with evacuee children.

The list goes on and on! For all of it and more yet to come, I thank you. Your faithfulness is a blessing to many. Ginger Watson (our Disaster Relief Coordinator) reports that “our primary focus is on the Rio Texas Conference (which includes the areas of Rockport and Aransas Pass) because of their extreme need and lack of support.”  She adds, “We have now shifted our emphasis on flood buckets and hygiene kits to mold remediation products. Our plan is to take completed buckets and kits to the Sager Brown Depot in Louisiana so that they can be deployed to Harvey or Irma relief, as needed.”

God bless and keep you for your great faithfulness in response to disaster brought on by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma!

WORSHIP AND THE WIG ©

John Wesley is purported to have said that “worship is the first and primary duty of the Christian.”  This crucial act of biblical discipleship is clear. In his decisive interchange with the woman at the well, Jesus says, “But the time is coming – and is here! – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24). The great 100th Psalm is explicit: “Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth!  Serve the LORD with celebration! Come before him with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 100:1-2). The writer of Hebrews admonishes us, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).

In a recent sermon, I shared a classic definition of worship from Archbishop William Temple. As bombs dropped over London and night after night the Nazi bombers released their load of destruction, William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching from the mighty St. Paul’s Cathedral, gave his famous definition of worship. “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God. All this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions – adoration.”  The context is of great significance. In the midst of a great world war, worship was seen as central to the life of faith.

As we have moved through the Exodus Project (for 7 years now), we have asked ourselves “what is the one thing that would make the greatest difference in the life of faithful discipleship and in the life of our churches?”  The answer is simple and basic; the one foundational activity that makes a huge difference across the board is an increase in average worship attendance.

Consider the truth:

  • An increase in average worship attendance means more people engaged in outreach mission of justice and mercy for the hungry, hurting and homeless.
  • An increase in average worship attendance has a direct correlation to an increase in giving thus enabling both basic discipleship development and greater outreach for others.
  • An increase in average worship attendance usually means a church is reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people with the gospel.
  • An increase in average worship attendance develops a greater commitment to the whole gospel.

The great centrality of holy worship in the life of discipleship has led us to the WIG. WIG means the Wildly Important Goal. At our last Annual Conference, we introduced the WIG as a percent of market share. United Methodists have roughly 1% of the populace in the geographical area composing the Central Texas Conference worshipping in our churches. The goal we adopted as a Conference was to increase our market share in worship attendance as a percent of the population to 1.25 percent by 2026. This is a huge increase, especially considering that we expect the population of our Conference area to grow 15% by 2026. Recently Lovett Weems (founding Director for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Center and now Senior Consultant) shared with me that this is one of the most audacious and significant goals he has seen any Conference in the United States set in many years.

Figuring out the market share goal of any one local church is not a matter of simply calculating 1.25% of the population within a 5-mile drive radius. Figuring out market share (a way of thinking about worship mission share) involves first, knowing your market (mission) area. Is it 5 miles or a 15-minute drive or a geographical county or a few zip codes?  The local church (not the District or Conference) will establish its own best understanding of their mission field and market area.

Secondly figuring out market share necessitates knowing what your current market share is as a congregation. Again, the local church (not the District or Conference) will establish its own best understanding of their mission field and market area. Using Mission Insite (a detailed demographic analysis which may be accessed free of charge), a church can then calculate its current market share. The market share will differ wildly from church to church. For some churches the current market share of average worship attendance will be above the Conference average. (I looked at two recently that were at 3% and one at 6%.)  Others will be below 1%. (I looked at one that at .5% and another at less than .5 %). Typically market share will be higher in small towns and lower in cities.

Local church leadership together with the pastor (not by the pastor alone!!) will establish a measurable goal for the next year. Those goals should include an increase in worship attendance (whether market share or a simple numeric goal) as well as an increase in Professions of Faith. Together we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

 

How to set goals – by Jaime McGlothlin from Valley Mills / Cayote

 

 

 

The Hunger Among Us ©

Recently a friend pointed me back to an article written a number of years ago about The Beatles and spiritual hunger.  In their meteoric rise from obscurity to fame, The Beatles quickly discovered that fame and fortune were not everything it was cracked up to be. “At a later time in Lennon’s life he addictively found himself watching popu­lar television preachers in search of answers. It was reported that Lennon sent a fascinating letter to the Rev. Oral Roberts in 1972, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the fa­mous lyrics ‘money can’t buy me love’ and sent a donation.”
“It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness,” read the letter to Roberts. “I don’t want to keep on with drugs…. Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”

In the midst of a thoughtful and lengthy response, Roberts wrote, “What I want to say … is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'”

Despite the letters exchanged between the rock star and the TV preacher, Len­non’s restless journey eventually led him to embrace philosophies and beliefs that were all over the map.

“You could rattle human authority by growing your hair long, but you couldn’t conquer your inner demons in the same way,” observed [author Steve] Turner [in his book, The Gospel According to the Beatles]. “To ‘change your head,’ as John referred to it in [the song] ‘Revolution,’ required something much more radical” (Steve Beard, “Summer of Love,” Good News, May/June 2017, p. 9).

I am convinced and convicted that we live in a time and culture seeking something greater, something more, than what we have.  Society-wide, we have a desperate search for meaning and truth which often exists just below the thin soil of American hedonism.  Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma force people to confront this truth.  They challenge us by making us face what matters most.

There is a deep spiritual hunger among us.  We all need wisdom and guidance.  Faithful and fruitful churches understand this truth. It is a cry we hear behind the words spoken by someone who says “I don’t go to church, but I’m very spiritual.” It ricochets around this county. It reverberates in conversations held across social networks. It is part of the background noise of our searching society.

Great churches live out of this focused center. They understand that people are not seeking an institution but a relationship with God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The focused center we are called to live out of is the same one that captivated the struggling conflicted early Christian church. Thus, the Apostle Paul wrote the small struggling house church in metropolitan Corinth his second letter of instructions. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own” (II Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message).

Bishop Will Willimon writes: “There may be religions that begin with long walks in the woods, communing with nature, getting close to trees. There may be religions that begin by delving into the recesses of a person’s ego, rummaging around in the psyche. Christianity is not one of them” (William Willimon, Peculiar Speech, p. 19). It is about an encounter with Jesus, the God/Man. It is the divine answer to the hunger within, around and among us. This focused center brings us to faith – faith as trusting obedience that encounters Christ in our everyday lives through our following Him. It is no more nor less than the way of the cross. This is the true path of salvation. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #10 (C)

Amazing Grace!

Few Christian doctrines have overtaken The United Methodist Church as the doctrine of grace.  One could almost argue that the song “Amazing Grace” has become the unofficial anthem of the church. The words ring out:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
(“Amazing Grace,” Hymn No. 378, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal)

For John Wesley, an understanding of grace was and is always tied to a doctrine of salvation and more explicitly to an understanding of justification. Two of Wesley’s favorite texts for preaching were: 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” And, Ephesians 2:8-10 – “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.  Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Thus Wesley writes in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Ephesians 2:8, “Grace, without any respect to human worthiness, confers this glorious gift. Faith, with an empty hand, and without any pretense to personal desert, receives the heavenly blessing.” Wesley’s footnote on 1 Corinthians 1:30 reads, “out of His grace and mercy.”

A simple definition of grace might be the radically free and wholly unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness. Father Roger Haight, S.J. has written one of the best books I have ever read on the subject (I read it for my doctoral work back in 1983) entitled The Experience and Language of Grace. Tracing the connect of the word from the Latin gratia back to the Greek charis, which is the word the New Testament uses, he writes that the word charis of several Hebrew words which convey “meanings reducible to three main ideas: condescending love, conciliatory compassion and fidelity. As a result,” says Father Haight, “the word grace has the special connotation of everything that pertains to a gift of love; it is totally gratuitous or unmerited and underserved” (Roger Haight, S.J., The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 6).

I love the old acrostic for Grace.
God’s
Riches
At
Christ’s
Expense

The claiming or reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way will always have an understanding of grace tied to a doctrine of salvation at its center. Most of us find it easy and comforting to apply grace to ourselves, our loved ones, and our church. Where we choke is on applying a doctrine of grace to someone we consider obviously underserving. But then that is the Christian dilemma. The claim of the faith, rising out of a proper understanding of the infection we call sin, is that all of us are underserving.

The second place we choke on a doctrine of grace lies in our modern rendering of grace as something cheap or easily given. Grace is, to be sure, radically free but it is never cheap or easy. Our own experience should tell us this much.

The words of the famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer both a caution and frame for our usage of the great doctrine of grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . . .

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 45-46)

Responding to Harvey ©

Prayers, Patience, Donations and Cleaning Kits Needed in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

With so many of you, Jolynn and I have watched the news of Hurricane Harvey (#HurricaneHarvey) with deep interest. For us, it is very personal. We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for 13 years (while I was Sr. Pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church). We have friends up and down the coast. We have lived through a couple of hurricane evacuations and know the drill on boarding up the house. I have been in (and preached in) the communities of both Rockport and Aransas Pass. Our son went to Rice University, which has sustained a lot of damage and on the news we saw flooded streets in Houston near where he used to live.

So, it is in a very personal way, we (both Jolynn and I) ask you to join with so many others in praying for the people of the Texas Gulf Coast and especially those hit hard by flooding from Harvey both in Texas and Louisiana. I also want to call you to pray earnestly and often for the health and safety of all dealing with this historic flooding – both those directly affected as well as all of the first responders who have come from all across Texas and several other states to assist in rescue efforts.

As our prayers continue for all of those who have had their world swept away, as well as those who are still in danger from this unprecedented and still developing weather event, may we respond with concrete actions of love and service. In answer to our prayers, the Lord will give us guidance on how best to respond with support for relief and recovery efforts both in the short- and long-term.

In time of disaster, it is well for us to remember the promise of the risen Christ. “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20)  It is at times like this that the great commandment of Jesus moves us beyond mere sentiment into action. “This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39) Our Lord, who was renowned for his love and service to others, (all others, regardless of race, creed, orientation, political affiliation, nationality, etc.!) calls us to service in deeds of love for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

I’d also like to echo the calls for patience and financial support that have been posted on our conference website (ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey ) and delivered via our Mission Support and Disaster Relief communications. I know that the yearning to help is burning within each of us. However, right now, and most likely for several weeks to come, the best way we can respond is to pray and give to the UMCOR Hurricane Harvey Advance #901670 through your local church or online at umcor.org.

For those who would called to support the relief and recovery efforts beyond financial donations, UMCOR has put out a call for Cleaning Buckets and Hygiene Kits. Many local congregations in the Central Texas Conference have such efforts underway. If you are so called, start by checking with your local church and your district office for such efforts. After you have completed your buckets and/or kits, please contact Sheryl Crumrine (sherylcrumrine@ctcumc.org/ 817-877-5222) at the Central Texas Conference Service Center (CTCSC) for information on how to get them to where they are most needed.

Another way our conference will assist in the immediate response efforts is to host those who have had to flee their homes due to flooding and wind damage. Authorities estimate as many as 30,000 people will need shelter and many of those have already come into our conference seeking refuge. We have learned that Killeen FUMC is currently hosting seven people and is prepared to help as many as 100 at a time. If your church is already providing shelter or has the ability to do so, please email Sheryl Crumrine at sheryl@ctcumc.org so that the CTCSC Disaster Response team can best assist you in these efforts.

Our conference ERT teams are ready and standing by to assist as soon as they are called upon. However, the tragic truth is that this storm is far from over and much more rain and flooding is still expected in the Greater Houston area and throughout southeast Texas. The areas most impacted are still in active rescue mode where preventing the loss of life being the primary focus right now. It is important to wait and pray until the storm is over, the immediate danger has passed, the damage can be assessed and the immediate needs identified.

This is going to be a very long recovery process, most likely, several years. We have been engaged in the long haul for recovery and healing through our Conference office of Disaster Response headed by Rev. Ginger Watson. There will be much to do and plenty of opportunities to help in the months and years to come.

As I write this, our Conference is not in active disaster mode as there is no flooding or other emergencies to report from within the Central Texas Conference. However, that could change as the rain continues, so we will continue to watch our South District counties closely. Our Disaster Response team remains in regular contact with UMCOR and state of Texas authorities.

The Disaster Response team along with our Communications & IT department and others are in regular contact with our partners in Texas Conference and the Río Texas Conference. Both conferences are posting regular updates on their conference Facebook pages (Texas Conference Facebook, Rio Texas Conference Facebook) and watch ctcumc.org/HurricanHarvey for the latest updates from our Disaster Response team.

We will have more information about the specific needs of people in the coastal region and how best to work with our partners in the Texas Conference and Rio Texas Conference as soon as those are available. Vance Morton and our communications team at the Conference Center will continue to share information out as soon as we have it.  Meanwhile, please continue to monitor the situation through our Conference website ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey for updates.

The Lord will guide our best and most prayer filled efforts to help our brothers and sisters suffering from Hurricane Harvey.  For now, may we respond with prayer, cleaning buckets, hygiene kits and financial support to UMCOR Advance #901670 through our local churches or the Central Texas Conference directly.

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