Math and Mission

One of the great gurus of church and conference vitality is Dr. Gil Rendle.  Gil serves as Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  He is the convener and guide for the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) Bishops Conclave (a bishops’ learning group) as well as working with a group of Cabinet members from across the state.  He is the author of a number of significant works including Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (which I have highly recommended in the past) and his newest, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics.

Last June I was invited by Dr. Rendle to write a brief recommendation of the book.  I wrote the following:

math of missionDoing the Math of Mission is a seminal work that merits a deep embrace by struggling mainline Protestants.  Rendle challenges us to move beyond counting to measuring purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Diamonds of insight are found on almost every page.  For instance, “Perhaps the most effective outcome is one that ‘offends’ in its clarity” (p. 30). The critical shift of focus from inputs to measurable outcomes, which reflect clarity of purpose, offers specific and concrete guidance to any congregational leader (lay and clergy alike) or any judicatory executive.  Framed in a sound theology, Doing the Math of Mission provides critical material to build a bridge to the future of God’s preference of the Church.

Currently we (as both a Conference and as the larger United Methodist Church) are wrestling with issues that swirl around accountability (for both churches and clergy), metrics, outcomes and fruitfulness.  These critical issues will not and should not go away.  I have repeatedly insisted that metrics must be yoked to what I like to call the narrative.  Narrative is the story of fruitfulness in its widest context.  At its root the issues of faithfulness and fruitfulness intersect at the junction of just-whose-church-is-this.

Biblically speaking, we must always insist that this is not our church – either Conference, laity or clergy – but in fact the Lord’s church.  It is, we are together, the body of Christ!  Math really goes with mission!  Thus, it is a joy to strongly recommend and urge the reading of Gil’s insightful book – Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics.

While I am on the subject of mission, tomorrow Jolynn and I leave with a Central Texas Conference mission team to Kenya.  Many churches in the Central Texas Conference have had long-term mission relationships with the Methodist Church of Kenya.  It should be an insightful and exciting time of learning.  I hope to blog about the trip in the unfolding 2 week period.

This is truly a part of our purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

For All the Saints: Bob, Blessing and Baptism

Today, Thursday, September 11, 2014, I went to the funeral service for one of saints of the Central Texas Conference, Robert H. Briles, Sr., “Bob.”  Such occasions always lead me to reflect on life; its meaning and fragility.  Bob went from being a young boy raised on a farm near Milford, Texas to being a soldier in combat in Korea to a committed pastor pouring his life out in service to Christ and His church. Those leading the service spoke with eloquence but the greater eloquence was Bob’s life and witness.

The great words of the hymn For All the Saints echoed through me:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Driving back from First UMC in Weatherford over to White’s Chapel for the continuation of the High Octane Preaching Class, I could not help but reflect on the juxtaposition of celebrating the resurrection life of a saint like Bob Briles and the rise of a new generation of preachers as represented in the High Octane Preaching Class.  In the realm of the Lord’s kingdom building rule, together we are all a part of the ongoing never-ending witness to Christ’s rule and reign.

This coming Sunday I will participate in another act of worship which extends that great cause of our Lord.  I will be out at Newcastle United Methodist Church and have the joy of sharing in the baptism of Josiah Ray.

The three actions connect in my mind à from the service of Death and Resurrection for Bob Briles, a saint of the church to à the blessing of teaching the High Octane Preaching Class with John McKellar to à the celebration of Christian baptism with the Ray’s and the faithful of Newcastle UMC.  Bob … blessing … baptism; all point to the truth that we are enlisted together in a great cause, the cause of Christ.

It is the words of a later verse of For All the Saints that lingers deep in my being:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

As I drive along, I think I can hear the hymn and words echoing in my life.  They are still on my ear as a gift from God.  Bob, blessing, and baptism; they all connect with the work of God’s grace through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  In the midst of all the activities that engage us, I celebrate being a part of the cause of Christ!

On another critical subject, we received a letter from Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal Area which includes Russia and Ukraine.  He writes in part, “The United Methodist Church in Ukraine continues its ministry in the time of war, suffering and much uncertainty   in   the   country.   We   have   two   churches   in   the   Eastern   Ukraine   -­‐    in   Lugansk   and Krasnoarmeisk near Donetsk. The bombing of Lugansk was felt by many of our United Methodist people. One bomb fell in the garden of the neighboring house next to our church building. The neighbor suffered and the windows of our church was broken. The congregation in Lugansk which consists of 65 people became refugees and left the city. Only three elderly members of Lugansk UMC decided to stay in the city. 10 members of Lugansk UMC moved to Chelyabinsk region where they are given shelter and small job to survive. I am grateful to our UMC in Satka (Chelyabinsk region, Russia) who helps this group of 10 physically and spiritually. Especially I am grateful to this group of 10 who want  to  start  a  new  church  in  the  midst  of  difficult  situation.  They find comfort in God and in fellowship with our brothers and sisters from Satka.”

Bishop Khegay continued, “Our UMC in Eurasia is very grateful to UMCOR for providing help to Ukrainian refugees in Sochi region and to members of Lugansk UMC who became refugees (documented and undocumented) within Ukraine and Russia. Our members of UMC in Sochi minister to refugees from Ukraine who come to Sochi region in the Southern Russia. ….”

Bishop Khegay closes, “Rev. John Calhoon, GBGM missionary, and Rev. Vladimir Khabriko coordinate our ministries in Kiev, Ukraine helping refugees from Crimea. Again, we are grateful to UMCOR for providing help so quickly when so many people are now in need of food and shelter.  As people called Methodists we move as the Spirit moves us to be where suffering people are, to comfort those who need help, to bring food and water, and to start new churches as God leads us. Thank you for your prayers and support!”

I ask that we keep the people of Ukraine and Russian in our prayers and especially Bishop Khegay and the United Methodists of that embattle region of the world.

Six Critical Questions

For the past year and a half, the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference has been working with the Lencioni organization (The Table Group) in assimilating and implementing lessons from Lencioni’s bestselling book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.  We have been seeking to do so in a manner that integrates such thinking with scriptural guidance and theological fidelity to the Wesleyan understanding of faithfulness.  (Many of you might be aware that Patrick Lencioni is a very active practicing Roman Catholic and engages in such work with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  Our consultant, David Simpson, is a very active Southern Baptist layman and is likewise committed to integrating the insights of organizational health with Christian theology and practice.)

In our recent Cabinet retreat we examined six critical questions.

1)      Why do we exist?  (Mission)
2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
3)      What do we do?
4)      How will we succeed?
5)      What is most important right now?
6)      Who must do what?

Our focus was in particular on questions two and five.  In a spirit of transparency and an invitation to join in reflection, I offer the following notes of our work.

1)      Why do we exist?
To energize and equip local churches to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
i.  Missional (service)
ii.  Christ-like community (worship, lifting up Christ, inclusive)
iii. Engaging, grace-filled, witness [Evangelism] (new people new places, resurrection Jesus, reaching outside the walls)

3)      What do we do?

4)      How will we succeed? (Strategic Anchors; the anchors offer guidance for decision making. We are establishing a “word-smithing” team to refine wording and communication of our strategic anchors.)
- Christ at the Center
- Focus on the Local Church
- Leadership Development

5)      What is most important right now?
1
.      Increasing the number of vital congregations (the current Thematic goal) with five “Defining Objectives” (as follows):
i.     HCI (point guard = Gary Lindley)
ii.    Personal Evangelism & Witness (point guard = Carol Woods)
iii.    30 new church in Risking Taking Mission with the Poor (point guard = Randy Wild)
iv.    Maintain and grow the number of 126+ (average worship attendance) churches (point guard = Bob Holloway)
v.    Lay and clergy leadership development & recruitment (point guard = Georgia Adamson)

We committed to having at least a monthly check-in conversation where we are pointing to these five.  I named “point guards” (drivers or champions) for each of the five defining objectives.

Additionally we outlined some actions steps (some of which are already in process)

Action steps for #5 re Evangelism/Witness:
1.  Bob will visit with Board of Ministry with regard to candidates qualifying for ordination having the ability to tell their personal story of salvation.  Individual DS’s will convey this concern to District Committees on Ministry.
2.  Establish a “Task Force on Conference Evangelism” strategy – Bishop and Carol
3.  The Cabinet will share with each other who they are evangelizing.

Action steps for #5 re Leadership Development:
1.  Continued Recruitment (Georgia)
2.  Laity teaching module for local church (Kim Simpson and Kevin Walters are currently work on this project in conjunction with Georgia Adamson.)
3.  Rewriting HCI curriculum (Gary)
4.  Develop 10+ lay supply (part-time) preachers (Don)
5.  Improving acculturation of newly ordained clergy for the first five years
6.  Leadership succession planning (Bishop)

6)      Who must do what?
There is much thinking and praying that remains to be done to fully complete this work.  And, in a larger sense, it is ongoing work which is never really finished but always in various stages of beginning and refining.  Nonetheless, with Mr. Wesley we celebrate that the “best of all is that God is with us” (Matthew 28:16-20).

LISTENING TO FERGUSON

During the past week I have been out in Colorado (Grand Lake, near the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park) on vacation with my wife and some friends.  During that, I intentionally exercised a “media fast.”  Upon returning home, we reconnected to hear the news of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri.

As we watch, listen and learn, the situation and people of Ferguson have much to teach us.  The need for racial justice remains large.  The capacity for misunderstanding is huge.  Amid the cacophony of sounds and images coming from Ferguson, we need to sift through the noise and see Christ.  God is calling us to engage in faithful healing.

One of the very best pieces of writing on the situation in Ferguson comes from Bishop Robert Schnase (United Methodist Bishop of the Missouri Conference).  In particular Bishop Schnase highlights the Christ-revealing work of Rev. Willis Johnson and others.  I share Bishop Schnase’s letter with his permission and strongly urge the reader to follow both links back to source and listen to the reports.

Dear friends,

 People have asked about what The United Methodist Church is doing in response to the events in recent days in Ferguson, Missouri, and so I’d like to lift up a few significant points of engagement and offerings of ministry.

 The Missouri Conference launched a new church start in Ferguson two years ago after identifying the community as underserved by The United Methodist Church.   Wellspring United Methodist Church is located two blocks from the area seen frequently on television news in recent days.  The congregation has offered services of prayer and reconciliation and provided meeting space for community and church leaders.  Under the leadership of Rev. Willis Johnson, the church has been on the forefront of efforts to ease tensions, offer consolation and prayer for those who grieve, and to seek the truth about the events that led to the death of Michael Brown.

Let me strongly suggest that you listen to the following National Public Radio interview with Rev. Willis Johnson for the program All Things Considered.   The interview and the accompanying photograph are powerful, and they bear witness to the courage and faith of United Methodists on the front lines as they engage issues of race, anger, fear, and a longing for reconciliation.

 http://www.npr.org/2014/08/14/340422502/ferguson-pastor-this-is-not-a-race-issue-this-is-a-human-issue

 I would also draw your attention to the article by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service.  Her article highlights the involvement of other United Methodist Churches in the St. Louis area and from across Missouri that have reached out with volunteers to help with educational ministries for children and youth during the time that the Ferguson schools have been closed.   The Missouri Conference Office of Mission, Service, and Justice has also offered support and volunteers to help with such basic tasks as clean up and support for those businesses that have been looted or suffered damage.   Heather’s article can be found at:

 http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-leaders-strive-to-be-peacemakers-in-ferguson

 United Methodist voices, including that of the Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (an active United Methodist himself), have sought to de-escalate rather than to intensify, to work toward peace and justice rather than to avoid, blame, or ignore.

 We continue to hold in our prayers all those who have most personally and painfully been affected by the violence, and we continue to look for opportunities to serve and to bring a ministry of healing to a community that has been deeply hurt. . . .

 Yours in Christ,

 Robert Schnase
Bishop, Missouri Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church

There are important lessons to learn in listening to Ferguson.  I invite us to join in our prayers and then take the next step in service and ministry as the Holy Spirit leads us.

That’s Path 1

At the recent meeting of the Path 1 Advisory Board in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rev. Martin Lee the new church developer for the Northern Illinois Conference shared a story of the start of a new church in Brookfield, Illinois (in the Chicago metropolitan area).  The old First United Methodist Church of Brookfield had been closed and sold to the public library.  The congregation had dwindled and could not maintain the old facility.  There was not parking and attempts at outreach had not succeeded.

After a season of having no United Methodist Church in Brookfield, the Conference decided to go back into the area and plant a new church.  An effective new church developer was appointed and soon a new church was discipling people in the area.  With help from the Conference New Church development office and sacrifice on the part of the new people, they were soon able to purchase land for a new church.

The land was in a core urban environment and quite expensive.  The purchase required some form of zoning approval because it would be removed from the city’s tax role.  Rev. Lee along with the new church pastor/planter went to the hearing.  The room was packed with people opposing the sale and removal of the land from the tax rolls.  A restaurant owner led the charge to deny the church the land.  (A decision is still pending.)

Karl Sokol, the new pastor/planter, got involved in the community including the business community.  He reached out and made friends.  One of his new friends was the obdurate restaurant owner.  As they visited Greg shared his need for space to worship.  The restaurateur learned that the time they wanted to meet at was when his restaurant was closed so he offered his restaurant as a place for them to worship.

Soon there were worshipping in the very restaurant that had tried to block their entrance into the community.  The owner would periodically peek in to see how they were doing.  After a while, instead of just looking in occasionally the restaurant owner was sitting down and staying.  Gradually he lingered to help.  And now, he has been baptized, confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and joined the church.  His life has been transformed by Christ and the community of the faithful.  (By the way, the name of the new church is Compassion UMC.  The restaurant owner and now member of Compassion UMC has changed his position on the sale 180 degrees.)

In sharing the story, Rev. Lee finished by saying, “and that is Path 1.”

Path1 is formally, institutionally, a branch of the work of the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.  It works to establish new churches is a part of the crucial focus area “New Places for New People.”  (The other major part of the “New Places for New People” Focus Area is building vital congregations in existing churches.)  The Path 1 Team works with Conferences and local churches to reach new people for Jesus Christ.

This is our Connection Mission Giving (apportionment) dollars at work.  It is at work in transformation in the name of Christ.  Rev. Lee was reminding us that it comes down to the transformation of an individual life.  Bottom line, Path 1 is ultimately about conversion and life transformation.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we are intimately linked with Path 1 through the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.  Currently Rev. Jennifer Pick is serving as our second Path 1 intern in new church development.  She is appointed to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield.  Rev. Shane Reyna, who served as our first intern at White’s Chapel, is now building a new faith community in the northeast corner of the Conference called 1709 United Methodist Church.  Through the Path 1 LMPN (Lay Missioner Planting Network), Teresa Sims (a lay person) is starting a Hispanic community at Wesley UMC in Arlington.

Path 1 is a Spirit led, life transforming work of God, offering Christ to all. That’s Path 1.

Writing and On the Road Again

For five blissful days I had the opportunity to outline and then begin writing on a possible book about the church as it moves to a new future.  A rough draft (or part) of the introduction goes something like this:

As the waters of secularity recede, a chaotic wasteland lies around us.  And yet, even as church after church closes, the label “wasteland” seems at once appropriate and wildly inappropriate.  There are pockets left where churches can function within an old style Christendom mode. There are places of new exciting ministry emerging that open our eyes to a work of God unfolding among us and around us.

Gil Rendle notes that our struggles of the past couple of decades have not been wasted.  We have been learning.  It is the contention of this book [hopefully this will become part of a book] is that at the heart of our struggle are issues of theology and missional purpose.  We have forgotten the essence of what we are to be about.  As good as our current emphasis on social engagement through deeds of love, justice and mercy (and it is a good! but seriously incomplete emphasis), we need to reclaim, recover and re-appropriate the essential good news of Jesus Christ if we are to complete our exodus journey to a new land.  At its heart, our own reformation is a theological and spiritual pilgrimage of the first order.

Back in November of 2006 General John Abizaid appeared before the Senate Arm Services Committee to defend the then failing strategy of turning the war in Iraq over to Iraqis.  Then Senator Hillary Clinton sharply noted in an exchange while questioning General Abizaid on the strategy, “General, hope is not a strategy.”  Senator Clinton was right.  Shortly thereafter under the leadership of General Petraeus, a new strategy known as “the surge” was adopted.

So too however was General Abizaid in his response to Senator Clinton.  “With regard to hope not being a method, Senator, I agree with you, and I would also say that despair is not a method.”  The General continued, “This has been a very hard and difficult process, and over the length of time, we have learned some hard lessons.”

Today neither hope nor despair may count as faithful and sufficient strategies.  Hope alone is not the implementation of the necessary theological, spiritual and practical journey that the post-Christian church must take.  To be sure, any faithful strategy will involve hope, but it will also involve a deep embrace of core doctrines and practices of the Christian faith that have been too long forgotten or ignored.  Despair is, on the face, unfaithful to the Christian gospel.  We are people of the cross and the resurrection.  History is His (Christ’s) story!

Meanwhile, I am back on the road again.  We drove in from Angel Fire on Sunday evening and went right over to First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth to hear Rev. Ray Simpson, the spiritual retreat director at Lindisfarne, England (Holy Isle).  It was an engaging presentation of the spiritual hunger and renewal taking place currently all around us.

After ½ a day’s work in the office, I flew out Monday night for Charlotte, North Carolina.  Currently I am presiding over two days of meetings for the Path 1 Team of the Board of Discipleship.  Path 1 is the name which refers to new church development as a key path to engaging a secular culture with the gospel.  Those who attended the breakout session led by Rev. Candace Lewis at our Annual Conference will recall that she is the Director of Path 1, our denomination’s new church development efforts.  It is outstanding, creative, engaging ministry which reaches deep into a post-Christian culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In my opinion Path 1 is one of the bright spots in The United Methodist Church.

Thursday I will address the Network of New Church Developers – an informal group of Conference staff in charge of new church development.  Currently, Rev. Gary Lindley from the Central Texas Conference is a part of the group.  Before I was elected bishop I was a part of this informal but vital network from the Southwest Texas Conference.  I’ve been asked to share what I have learned now that I have served as a bishop for 6 years.  As a friend of mine put it, “what have you learned now that you’ve gone over to the dark side?”  With apologies to Darth Vader, it should be a fun time!

I fly home on Thursday afternoon and fly back out on Friday morning for a week vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado (the western end of Rocky Mountain National Park).  While I love what I am doing right now, a week of rest in the Rockies with Jolynn and some dear friends sounds wonderful!

A Writing Retreat

This coming Monday afternoon, I will be leaving on a 5 day “writing retreat.”  I have been working off and on to write a book on what direction the church (especially the United Methodist branch of the Church Universal) should take.  I have started and written different chapters about five or six different times.  I guess I think in sermonic size because much of what I want in the book I have shared in sermonic form.  Yet, I find it difficult to sit down and write the book out in full.  Hence the retreat is a working attempt to still life and focus on what I think needs to be said.

As I look back over notes that stretch before I was elected to the episcopacy, there are a number of titles I have proposed for this “book.”  At one point I came up with the title The Wilderness Way. (Quite separately and after I had outlined this tentative work and written pieces of some chapter, Gil Rendle wrote his great book Journey in the Wilderness.  If you have not read it, I commend it to you strongly!) Chapters partly written include – Faith-walking into an Uncertain Future, Into the Unknown, Go to Deep Waters, The Wilderness Way, Rediscovering Evangelism and Perseverance.

Another tentative title was Back to the Future.  Taking the title from the infamous movie of the same name starring Michael J. Fox, the essential thesis was that we need to go back to go forward.  We need to rediscover the lessons of the original Christians in The Acts of the Apostles (which is the actual title of what we call simply Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament), learn from the Wesleyan revival and especially from the work of the first Methodists in America, and conduct an examination of the some current explosive examples of “movemental Christianity” such the church in China.  My tentative chapter titles include things like – Into the Wilderness, Back to the Future, Answering the Why, Evangelism Embraced, The Church to Come, and Who Trusts in God? – Providential Leading (Borrowing from Albert C. Outler’s book of that title).

More recently my draft work has been tentatively entitled simply The Way.  The earliest Christians were called “followers of the way” (Acts 18 & 19; Acts 24).  Over the last few years I have preached a number of sermons on the “The Way of Christ.”  A recent series was on 1) Followers of the Way, 2) The Way of Salvation, 3) The Way of a Slave, and 4) Shepherds of the Way.

My latest tentative title is The Way: Our Designs’ or God’s Preferences.  The outline goes something like this.

Intro
Issues
The theological wasteland
Jesus at the Center — one among many or The One
Rejecting Schleiermacher & reclaiming revelation
Becoming again a distinctive people
Elements
Genuinely orthodox
Truly Wesleyan
Passionately missional
Unashamedly evangelistic

As you can see, I have a lot of work to do!  I find myself repeatedly coming back to a theme I first lifted up in a speech to the United Methodist Publishing House Board in 2006 and later put in article form for an article published in The Circuit Rider just prior to the 2008 General Conference.  Whatever else we are about we must be: 1) Genuinely orthodox, 2) Truly Wesleyan, 3) Passionately missional and 4) Unashamedly evangelistic.  I am convinced that The Way meaning the Way of the Lord before us necessitates a deep recovery of a core Wesleyan theology and spirituality as a first order of business.  Only from a firm foundation of orthodoxy with Christ at the center can we truly walk in the Way of the Lord.

I ask your prayers for my writing project.

 

 

 

Faith, Hope and Clarity – and the Greatest of These is Clarity

When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”

There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.

And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).

A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.

“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2014/03/30/remembering-the-source-of-aldersgate/; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).

Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).

Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!

Lessons from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas

I am nearing the end of Michael Green’s book Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today.  While the first edition was published over 20 years ago (1993) and the second edition was republished 12 years ago, I find its relevance increasing for our time.  As we push deeper into a post-Christendom America (not necessarily a bad thing), there are lessons we need to apply from those first Christians.

At one point in the book, Professor Green (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University) details the shift of the center of Christian leadership from the mother church in Jerusalem (i.e. the church of Pentecost) to Antioch.  The Church at Jerusalem was originally known for its missionary (both evangelistic and missional outreach in love, justice and mercy) zeal.  Dr. Green comments:  “The Jerusalem church members were remarkable for their apostolic doctrine, their willingness to sacrifice, their outstanding unity, their social concern, their prayers both informally and in the liturgy of the temple.  Spiritual gifts were clearly in evidence.  Evangelism flourished.  Large numbers became followers of Jesus” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

Through the second half of the Book of Acts, the Jerusalem church fades and Antioch takes center stage.  Scholars note a number of reasons for the decline of the Jerusalem church.  Foremost among them was a fading of the evangelistic and missional (love/justice/mercy) zeal they first had.  Slowly Antioch replaced Jerusalem.  If you read the Book of Acts carefully, you will realize that it is from Antioch that the great missionary journeys were launched.

Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Jerusalem church began well but failed to fulfill God’s number one priority, world mission.  [By world mission he means a very Wesleyan understanding of evangelism/conversion growth and missional outreach in love/justice/mercy.]  The torch was passed to Antioch, which had a blazing zeal for mission, and Jerusalem thereafter shrank into insignificance.   No doubt there were contributory reasons for their decline, but the most crucial one was their satisfaction with their own church life and failure in missionary commitment.  They are a serious warning to us.  Even the most flourishing church can be eclipsed and become an irrelevance if it fails to maintain the outward orientation that Christ laid upon his followers” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

I read the words and sat back in my seat.  The correlation to our day and time is plain to see.  It is so tempting to fold back in on ourselves taking care of those we know and love.  There is nothing wrong and much right and good about excellence in the pastoral care of church members.  And yet, churches that make pastoral care their greatest priority inevitably lose their great calling to outreach and in the end deliver impoverished and inadequate pastoral care because of the failure.  This is all counter intuitive and yet empirically, experientially, and biblically true.

My reading drove me back to an earlier book that I had read back in 2005 when I was the Senior Pastor of University United Methodist Church in San Antonio – Reggie McNeil’s The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.  McNeil shared the following story and commentary:

“In the summer of 2002, the country spent several anxious days concerned about the fate of nine mine workers trapped in a mine in Pennsylvania.  Rescue efforts involved several innovative strategies, including pumping heated air down the shaft.  As the workers emerged from their ordeal, so did the story of their survival.  One key element was their decision to huddle together to stay warm and touch one another in the cold darkness of the collapsed mine.

“The church in North America far too often resembles these miners.  Feeling trapped in the collapse of the church culture, club members are huddling together in the dark and praying for God to rescue them from the mess they are in.  This is the refuge mentality that pervades the mentality of many congregations and church leaders.  Instead, the church needs to adopt the role of the rescue workers on the surface.  They refused to quite, worked 24/7, and were willing to go to plan B or whatever it took to effect a rescue.

“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in His redemptive efforts to save the world.  People all around us are in darkness.  They are going to die unless someone finds a way to save them.  Trouble is, the church is sleeping on the job.  Too many of us have forgotten why we showed up for work.

“Even worse, many of us never have known” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, pp. 18-19).

The lessons move from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas.  Let those with ears hear and those with eyes see; may we see and hear.  Even more, may we obey the call of Christ!

Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.”

Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts.

A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare.

I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40).

I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated.

“Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4).

We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.

Page 1 of 3712345»102030...Last »