THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 4

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART IV – “A Time for Courageous Leadership”

Leadership development for both lay and clergy remains and must remain a top priority. To this end two years ago we brought in Dr. Kevin Walters to buttress our development of a new generation of lay leaders.  The Vital Leadership Academy as noted is already making a difference. Soon Dr. Walters along with our Lay Leadership Council will be rolling out a new Lay Servant Ministry program.  We are indebted to our Lay Leader Kim Simpson for her pioneering efforts along with Dr. Walters.

Mr. Jeff Roper has been hired as the Associate Director for Leadership Development freeing Dr. Georgia Adamson to focus on the task of Assistant to the Bishop.  It is my hope that you as a Conference will approve the splitting of those two positions, which was the original intent in the Exodus Project at its inception.  We did not do so because of budget considerations.  I am pleased and proud to say that we are now able to add the position of Leadership Development on a half-time basis in a way that is budget neutral; that is to say, it will not increase our apportionment one dollar.  [This action was approved.]

Jeff brings a wealth of superb senior leadership to us from Alcon Labs. Already he is helping us to develop a system of clergy leadership development which we call LASP.  LASP stands for Learning Agility Sustained Performance. This will enable us to significantly retool as we engage the post-Christendom environment we live in.

Concomitant with the LASP system of clergy training and assessment is what we are tentatively calling SPKP which stands for Sustained Performance Kingdom Potential. It is potentially a way of helping churches assess the degree they are will to step up to higher mission and ministry to which the sovereign Lord is calling them and us together to engage in.  Laity let me put this plainly.  We cannot hold clergy accountable unless churches are themselves open to such accountability.

It will take us awhile to figure all this out. We will go through field testing and pilot project in some districts.  It will be threatening to all of us.  Changes will need to be made.  But it also has the courageous possibility to help us step into the brave new world of church the Lord is calling us to.

There is a famous speech taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which addresses to our situation.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.”[1]

These are tough times for the church. There is no way around it.  It is harder to be a pastor today than at any time in my 41 years in ministry (thirty of which have been spent as a pastor of a local church).  Easy answers do not apply.  Complexity is the nature of the situation.  It takes nerve to stand for Christ in today’s environment.  Courage is not a nice bonus in a pastor but a necessity.  Lay leadership demands discernment and uncommon wisdom linked with the fortitude to navigate the storm.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of Christian 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.”[2]

It is not Demosthenes speaking to us[3]; still less Shakespeare. It is Jesus, the sovereign Lord of the both the church and universe.  More importantly it is Christ himself who calls and commands. Do you recall the verse I opened this address with?  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[4]

Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! So it is, so it is. Fear not! It’s time to march!

 

[1]               Brutus; Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene 3
[2]               Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278
[3]               “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”
[4]               Acts 1:8

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 3

 Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART III – “The Sinews of Methodism and the Recovery of Evangelism”

A second element in focusing on local congregations coincides with the importance of small group development. The key is that it is not just any old small group but much more specifically about small groups that develop spiritual depth and muscle.  The central element to the rise of early Methodism was class meetings (small groups) that watched “over one another in love.”

I don’t care if we call them life groups or discovery groups or reunion groups or the original Methodist class meeting or the even more original initial Christian small group experience put together by Jesus the and 12 apostles. What we need to do is rediscover their essence and get intensely insistent on re-engaging this central component of the original Methodist movement.  The Christian church from bible times onward has never sustained discipleship growth without such an emphasis. Consider these two comments taken from Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting,

  • Never omit meeting your Class or Band … These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. – John Wesley[1]
  • We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry. – Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798 Doctrines and Discipline[2]

Dr. Watson goes on to comment, “I am worried that our approach to Christian discipleship is too often like a person who prepares to run a marathon by buying shoes without actually running in them. Please don’t misunderstand me; just as good running shoes are essential for long-distance running, the Bible and the church are essential for discipleship. Discipleship, however, is about a way of life, not only the life of the mind. Disciples follow Jesus. They are sent out in ministry by Jesus. They heal the sick. The feed the poor. They tell people about Jesus and what he has done.”[3]  We will hear more from him next year.

The third element of our relentless focus on mission through a focus on the local church is the continuing nascent recovery of the evangelism impulse. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not optional.  It is biblical and practical.  We won’t be here if don’t!  Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology.  Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate.  If we evangelize, more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.

One of the issues is that generations of clergy were taught how to do pastoral care but not how to engage in evangelism. Gil Rendle’s comment sticks in my mind, “I was taught how to change people’s affiliation not how to change their lives.”  If we are honest, real evangelism is foreign to most clergy and often scary.  We tend to hide behind a theology that says the Holy Spirit does the converting, we don’t.  This is true as far as it goes but fails to recognize that the Holy Spirit often intends to use us as instruments for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  The word evangelism itself means “tactics for sharing the good news” of Jesus Christ.  Our failure to engage in evangelism is largely driven by fear, work avoidance and at times masks our theological poverty.  It is time, well past time, to learn again how to engage in a core work of the gospel.

To that end, on September 19th of 2016 at Whites Chapel UMC we will be holding an evangelism summit.  The Evangelism Summit is intended to offer a short course on evangelism for clergy but all (laity emphatically included) are invited.  We have placed the Summit on a Monday in the 10 to 4 time period to enable clergy to attend.  We have some of the best thinkers and practitioners in the field coming to share with us including Dr. Olu Brown, Lead Pastor of Impact UMC in Atlanta and author of Zero to Eighty: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth, Dr. Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology and author of The Logic of Evangelism, and Dr. George Hunter, the first McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, retired Dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of many books on evangelism notably including The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

Clergy, only three times in the past eight years as your Bishop have I asked you to make attendance at an event a priority in your life. I am asking you now for a fourth time.  I ask you, I will go so far as to plead with you, do not miss this event.  Laity, especially those of you on Pastor-Parish Relations Committees, I ask that you help clear your pastor’s schedule so that she or he may attend.  I invite you to come along too!

Pastor Roger Ross in his new Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith reports the following 7 ways to share the faith from the original Methodist movement:

  1. Be Devoted to Prayer
  2. Go Where the People Are
  3. Speak Plain Truth
  4. Use the Music of the Culture
  5. Place Everyone in a Small Group for Spiritual Growth
  6. Give the Ministry to the Laity
  7. Use Mass Communication to Get the Word Out

 He adds:  Why Not Now?[4]

 

[1]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 19
[2]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 53
[3]               Watson, IBID, p. 60
[4]               Roger Ross, Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 2

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART II – “A Relentless Focus on the Mission”

As we move into a new quadrennium the pathway before us is clear. We must retain a relentless focus on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[1]  The big three will remain the big three.

  1. Christ Centered
  2. Focused on the local Church
  3. Development of a new generation of lay and clergy leadership.

Retaining a deep Christ-centered emphasis, understanding that we live in the embrace of God as the first person of the Trinity, our next step is to embrace the fullness of our great Trinitarian doctrine and heritage with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Our mantra is the Holy Trinity; God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I intend to deliberately help us widen our understanding and sense of the Holy Spirit as God active in our midst this very day!  I intend to do this without giving an inch on being Christ-centered.  The two naturally go together!  I love the way our conference teacher, Alan Hirsch, puts it in his book The Forgotten Ways:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”[2]

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church calls the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[3]  I remember when we received the Towers-Watson report in the Council of Bishops back in 2010. Fred Miller, a world renowned expert in institutional leadership, growth and change who led the exhaustive study of the United Methodist Church, made the first key recommendation that there be a 10 year intense focus on the local congregation.  Under questioning by the bishops after presenting the report, he admitted that they would have recommend a 30 year focus on the local church if they thought we could stick with it.  This is that important.  It’s about the local church!  The local church doesn’t exist for the Conference Center.  The Conference Center exists for the local church.

To this end, strategically we will continue the focus on congregational transformation as represented by the Center of Evangelism and Church growth through transformational efforts like the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) as well as other transformation ministries such as Holy Conversations, individual consultants and the like. As a part of this emphasis, we will continue to lift up the stories – the narratives if you will – of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of individuals and congregations.  Consider this one, taken from the recent (and continuing) WeAreMore emphasis.

Along with this emphasis, we now have solid research that indicates that a congregation (including the pastor(s) and key lay leaders) who can articulate a clear coherent path to discipleship is significantly more fruitful in all five major areas of congregational vitality (worship attendance, professions of faith, small group development, missional outreach with the poor and those in need, and extravagant generosity through Connectional Mission Giving and second mile offerings). Bethesda, Acton and First Fort Worth are three examples in the North District alone.

The first time I read about seeing a clearly articulated path to discipleship put out by a congregation was at a workshop at Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Arizona. They were public about pointing back to Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church.  In that book Warren outlines the baseball diamond approach to discipleship used at Saddleback Community Church.  First base was worship attendance.  Second base was bible study and prayer. Third base was mission involvement with the poor and those in need.  Home plate was sharing the faith evangelistically with others.

To my current regret, I and others dissed their approach. We critically noted that few people follow a rigid linear approach to discipleship formation.  Some start with Bible study; others are hooked first through mission work at home or abroad.  There seemed to be as many approaches as there are people to approach.  You know what?  We were both right and terribly wrong.  Discipleship formation is not linear.  One size emphatically does not fit all!  People are unique – duh!  And yet!  The clear delineation of a path is crucial to learning and growth in discipleship.

It reminds me of my son playing T-ball at age 5. One of the kids knocked the ball off the T and headed to third base.  Our left fielder was too busy picking dandelions to pick up the ball.  One of Nathan’s buddies hit ball and took off into center field!  (I have no idea why!)  Nathan only seemed to care about getting the promised snow cone at the end of the game (win or lose).  I can remember sitting in the bleachers in a three piece suit (having come from conducting a funeral service at a nearby cemetery) in the heat of a humid Corpus Christi, Texas summer with the Gulf of Mexico on my left and the T-ball field in front of me laughing so hard I almost fell out of the bleachers.  But you know what, the kids learned baseball.

Something similar happens when a clearly defined path to discipleship is articulated. We’ve discovered that a clearly articulated path to discipleship, even if overly simplified, is vastly superior to the alternative of being unable to cogently and briefly (in an elevator speech) summarize the elements of you and your church’s path to discipleship.  Even the kids that ran to third base and center field were at least engaged and learning baseball.  By way of analogy we need to trust the laity to figure it out and adapt.  They will learn.  Think of the insightful brilliance of the missional slogan Texas Wesleyan University has adopted – Smaller. Smarter.  It tells you all you need to know.  If you come to TWU you will get a quality education in a small classroom environment geared to your learning.

Therefore, I am publically instructing every District Superintendent to ask every pastor and every church council at their Charge Conference or some other appropriate local congregational setting to articulate and share their specific path to discipleship along with the strategic steps to move people forward in their discipleship development. If you don’t have one, your DS will work with you to come up with one.  Furthermore, I will ask every DS to report those strategic paths to discipleship at the Cabinet Inventory prior to our beginning the appointment process next February.  (Hear me carefully, if you don’t know or are not sure, ask!  We will pour gallons of help into the engine of your congregation’s disciple making system if you ask.  We work with the coalition of the willing!  You will not be abandoned but aided; however, you have to ask.  Accountability will be expected by all involved, which includes us at the Conference office.)  We need to think this through and more importantly pray this through. Together we will learn!

 

[1]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91
[2]               Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 86
[3]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91

THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

Responding to the Violence in Orlando

The news of another terrorist shooting and the tragic deaths of so many in the Pulse Nightclub rocks all of us with its senseless hate-filled violence. It addresses us all on so many levels – unchecked gun violence (examples are many: Sandy Hook, a Colorado movie theater, Columbine High School, etc.), the ISIS terrorism campaign that reaches around the world: Paris to Indonesia to the United States and back again, the horrors of the Syrian/ISIS civil war, ongoing prejudice against those in the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on.

The biblical cry of grief and pain goes up once again.

“I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:1-2)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, both the tragedy of gun violence and violence and prejudice directed at a specific groups (the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Ethnic violence of any kind, etc.) must be addressed more successfully. Internet nurturing of hatred and violence is an evil that must, in some as-of-yet-unknown fashion, be addressed.

Even more, hate-driven acts of violence against member of the LGBTQ community is against the moral precepts of all civilized people and especially an offense to those who profess to be Christ followers. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear:  “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 161F, p. 111).

I echo Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter (in slight paraphrase to fit our Central Texas Conference setting): “I am lifting up the clergy and laity who will lead worship in our Central Texas Conference churches. May you announce God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s desire for nonviolence through Jesus Christ, who is our peace.

“And as United Methodists [Church and especially in the Central Texas Conference] . . . along with my fellow bishops and especially Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, “I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God’s beloved children.” (Bishop Ken Carter Jr., The full text of Bishop Carter’s statement can be found at here.)

In last Tuesday night’s (June 7th) ordination sermon, I said, “Fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those of another religion, race or nation is not the Christian faith.  We ought to be ashamed that it is so represented by some in public life.”  I would add to that what should have been in the original sermon, namely that “fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those” of an alternative sexual preference is not the Christian faith!  Violence is not the way of Christ.  Christians are to be in the world but not of it! (See 1 Peter 2:11.)

May we lift all who are affected by this tragedy, especially members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando and the people of the city of Orlando as a whole in our prayers. Along with our prayers, may we actively seek ways to faithfully embrace all of God’s children and spread the Kingdom gospel of Christ’s peace and love to all.

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Statement to the Clergy Executive Session

of the Central Texas Conference Of the United Methodist Church
Shared with Opening Plenary Session of the 2016 Central Texas Conference, June 6, 2016

As most, if not all of you are aware, the recently concluded General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon adopted a statement of action put forth by the Council of Bishops entitled “An Offering of a Way Forward.”  Among other things, it establishes a Commission to seek a way forward for the United Methodist Church which upholds the unity of the church amid our deep diversity and disagreement over issues of human sexuality.  Furthermore the statement calls for a Called General Conference sometime in the next quadrennium to receive the Commission’s report and act on possible recommendations.

Near the end of the adopted report is the following statement by the Council of Bishops: “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

It has been erroneously reported that this involves a moratorium on complaints and charges related to the presiding over same gender wedding. This is not so.  Please carefully understand the operative sentence.  “WE [the Bishops of the United Methodist Church] will uphold the Discipline.”  Should you choose to violate the Disciplinary provisions on same gender weddings, a complaint will be brought against you and if necessary charges will be filed.  Church law in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church has not been suspended. I will seek to live in grace pursuing meaningful just resolutions, but such just resolutions will be significant and have consequences.  I will up hold The Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

I ask all of us, lay and clergy alike, to pray for the church as a whole and all individuals affected (both those in favor of a change and those opposed). Together may we explore ways to “live in grace with one another.”

I commend to you strongly the We Are More campaign initiated by the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (including myself) and the Communication Directors of the member Conferences (including our own Vance Morton).  We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore website and social media properties and the outstanding, life changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

Council of Bishops Letter to the Church ©

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Members of the Council of Bishops delayed their leaving Portland, Ore. following the end General Conference 2016 by a day and came together to work on issues referred to us by the General Conference. In major part, we worked to share a common understanding with regard to the adoption of “An Offering for a Way Forward” – a statement from the Council of Bishops on Human Sexuality, which establishes a Commission on Human Sexuality based on action by the 2016 General Conference. You can read this statement at ctcumc.org/COB-awayforward.

It is important to faithfully consider the contents of the statement from the Council of Bishops, which was adopted by General Conference. My colleague, Bishop Scott Jones, resident bishop of the Great Plains Conference UMC, has written a useful summary, which I share with his permission below.

“Please read the statement carefully, and study it closely. It has many important sections about prayer, continuing conversation, and the unity we have in Christ. At the same time, there have been social media statements, which are based on misunderstandings of the document. The following key points will help you understand what it does and does not say:

  • We [The United Methodist Council of Bishops] are committed to the unity of The United Methodist Church and will seek to strengthen it.
  • We will lead the church in every part of the world in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance.
  • We are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other, rather than separation from one another.
  • We have heard that some believe there is “contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate language concerning human sexuality in the Book of Discipline.” However, no agreement about the truth or falsity of this claim has been reached, either by the Council of Bishops or by the General Conference.
  • The Council of Bishops will form a commission to study all of the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. The subject has been referred to this commission, which will be named sometime between now and Nov. 2, 2016.
  • The Council of Bishops may choose to call a special session of the General Conference before 2020 to deal with recommendations of the commission. No decision has been made about whether this is a wise use of the church’s money and time.
  • The Council of Bishops will have conversations about how the church can best live in grace with one another, including discussion about ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm.
  • The bishops will uphold the discipline of the Church while these conversations continue.
  • All provisions of the 2012 Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality will remain in force until a General Conference changes them.”

We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore web site and social media properties and the outstanding, life-changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally the Bishops have shared an open letter to the church which can be found at ctcumc.org/COBGC16letter.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

A Strong Witness from Lay Leaders ©

Friday, May 13th, the Laity Address was given at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.  Listening to Lay Leaders from Upper New York, Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, Zimbabwe, and the Great Plains Conference, delegates and observers heard a strong call to engage in evangelistically sharing Christ and the Christian faith.  It was a remarkably clear challenge to re-engage in explicitly sharing salvation in Christ.

Consider a variety of notable quotes:

  • “Our ongoing challenge comes from the need to embrace all that discipleship entails.”
  • “Discipleship is not just about helping out when we have the time or energy, it is about offering Christ.”
  • “Hold true to the foundational commitments to Jesus.”
  • “Engaging others means being willing to step out of our comfort zones to make Christ known to others.”

I invite readers of this blog to take the time to listen to the Laity Address by clicking here.

Amid the continuing spiritually uplifting worship and the bright lights of witness like that offered Friday by the Laity, the various committees of General Conference continue to struggle with their work. There are great continued calls to love all!  Who can disagree with the great need to love and to reach out in love?  We are called by Christ himself to love God and love our neighbor.  Yet, there is much debated about what it properly means to love.  The call is to love people but not necessarily the practices they engage in.  This debate focuses around the issue of how to respond to issues around LGBTQ life expressions.

I continue to be struck by how wide the worldwide witness we have is. A subtheme behind our arguments about rules, practices and church law is perhaps the wider issue of how we live together as a worldwide church.  At times it feels like almost anything said or written is going to offend someone.  Prayers are needed as we struggle with the twined calls to love and holiness.

Report from General Conference ©

The quadrennial gathering of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church began Tuesday afternoon. The opening worship was inspirational.  With over 40% of the delegates coming from outside the United States, the diverse international flavor and multi-lingual character of the greater church is everywhere present.  Gone is the day when we can think of ourselves in purely a North American/US context.  This is a very good thing; a true work of the Lord giving evidence of the Witness to Christ reaching around the world (Acts 1:8)!

The worship services have been spiritually uplifting and soul life-giving. The content of our worship has been strongly Christ-centered — so much so that it has been a noticeable change and has pointed theological focus.  It is here, in effusive worship and praise, that the heart is sent soaring. This morning’s (May 12, 2016) opening worship included a deeply moving contemporary song with the following chorus:

“More like you, Jesus, more like you
Fill my heart with your desire
To be more like you.”

It was followed by the traditional hymn, “Lead Me Lord.” Sharing in the singing I found myself convicted of the need to be open to the Lord’s manner of relating and way of serving.  I do not think I was alone.

Almost as if we are riding a rollercoaster, we have swung from the highs of worship and prayer to the lows of a protracted squabble over the rules of the General Conference. The lack of trust across the spectrum is everywhere evident.  It is difficult to reconcile the wild swings of mood and relationship.

Amidst the deep lack of trust and intense wrangling over rules, Bishop Gregory Palmer’s Episcopal Address (the formal speech by a bishop on behalf of the entire Council of Bishops to the church) stood in a great witness to the church as a whole in all of its wide and wild variety. It was a powerful and holy address.  If you read or listen to one thing over the long length of General Conference, read or listen to Bishop Palmer’s address on behalf of the Council of Bishops.  You will be blessed by doing so.  A link is provided here.

Page 1 of 5012345»102030...Last »