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.

We Are More ©

On May 10th the United Methodist General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon. Quadrennially (every four years) General Conference meets as the highest ruling body of The United Methodist Church. General Conference alone can speak for the whole church. At General Conference the Discipline (book of church law) is adopted for the next quadrenniam. The worship is inspiring. The speakers are challenging. The debates are invigorating.

All too often debate over a controversial issue drowns out much of the meaningful substance of the greater ministry taking place in and through the United Methodist Church worldwide. It is no secret that once again much of the debate and argument will be focused on issues regarding ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (currently not allowed in United Methodist Church law) and performance of same gender weddings by United Methodist Church clergy (also currently prohibited by church law). Other controversial issues regarding resolutions addressing a vast array of issues clamor for attention.

As I attend General Conference (bishops preside but do not vote, much like at Annual Conference), I am reminded of Bishop J. Chess Lovern’s marvelous statement. “Great churches wrestle with great issues.” [A personal aside: Bishop Lovern ordained me an elder in the United Methodist Church May 31, 1978.] In the midst of our public debates it is easy to forget that the foundation of ministry is faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the making of disciples for the transformation of the world.

The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (Central Texas is a part of the South Central Jurisdiction and I am one of the afore mentioned bishops) along with their Conference Communication Directors (Vance Morton for Central Texas) have gotten together to share the incredible good news and faithfulness of the church and Conferences of the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve entitled the campaign We Are More in order to remind one and all that we are more than an attention grabbing headline and heated debate. In faithfulness to Christ we are about life transformation and the transformation of society.

I strongly urge readers of my blog to follow the #WeAreMore campaign launched by SCJ Bishops. Together we have produced a series of compelling faith-based stories from around the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The campaign is designed to connect people and proclaim that #WeAreMore when united through Jesus Christ. Click the logo to the right to read more about the campaign or visit ctcumc.org/WeAreMore to check out the faith stories already posted and/or to submit one of your own.

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 4

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part IV: Convicted Hope

But, I started the talk the way I did out of deeply held convictions. We are not just an Easter people; we are an Easter church!  There are signs of new life all around.  The Lord God really is doing something new!  McGrath is right: “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity.”

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

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

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

Embracing a full blown, unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us.  The way ahead is difficult.  It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful.  We are duly challenged.  Is Jesus Lord of our lives including our professional work?  Is this His church or a human institution?  Make no mistake: the way is strewn with obstacles, but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.  Do you remember that marvelous interchange which takes place between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 3

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

Allow me for a moment to hit the pause button here to make a couple of strong assertions. First, whatever your position on same gender marriage & ordination, a decision should not be made on the grounds of losing or gaining members! I cannot say this strongly enough.  We should do what we best understand to be biblically and theologically faithful.  The advice to Timothy is well embraced.  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Secondly, you know better than I that our current warfare over gender ordination and marriage is the presenting issue where the far deeper issues of theology and practice meet. What is really at stake is what it means to be a biblically faithful church and individual disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Pointedly we are wrestling with deeper issues of authority; how do Christians relate most faithfully to the culture and the future of the Wesleyan orthodoxy in America.  I find myself constantly reminded of the phrase “he (or she) who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.”

Third, we must cherish unity and simultaneously NOT make unity a cardinal cause or our highest value. I do not understand how a church which began by breaking away from the Church of England can claim unity as our highest institutional value. Please hear me carefully.  We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity but unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value.  Please allow me to stress this last.  We should pray for and work towards unity.  Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value!  No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless.  It will not.  It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!

Peering through the murk and fog, allow me to hit the play button again and make some observations.

  1. We have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church.
  2. The anti-intuitionalism combined with a culture embracing a “free church” model makes church discipline and leadership increasingly problematic. Take the cultural mix of churches insisting on the right to choose their own pastor (I’m talking United Methodist now!), pick & choose apportionments, and decide for themselves what part of The Discipline they will abide by. Now mix in the growing number of acts of disobedience to church law (which is much greater than simple disputes over same gender marriage), many of which are endorsed by episcopal leadership. Stir this concoction, seasoning with a clergy culture that resists any form of accountability and a Council of Bishops that is absolutely unable to really lead. It takes no genius to assert that “the center will not hold.”
  3. We are in more financial trouble than we realize. As Lovett Weems has amply demonstrated, finances are a trailing indicator. In 2012 for the first time there was a reduction in General Church appointments (which we prefer in the Central Texas Conference to call “Connectional Mission Giving”). The General Secretaries Table has already suggested a modest ($12 million) reduction in apportionments for the next quadrennium. Now salt and pepper this with two things: a) there is significant discussion about the need for a much greater reduction, possibly as high as a $100 million reduction freeing resources for impactful local missions and ministry; and b) Some of our better financial leadership as a denomination have already held a national conference on right sizing the United Methodist Churches financial structure.
  4. As we are currently constituted, we don’t really need all the seminaries we have. Furthermore, MEF (Methodist Education Funds) which go to both official UMC seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry will come under increasing scrutiny. Connect this with the anti-institutional spirit of the age, and the pressure to return all the money to Conferences for their own scholarship use will grow. It almost goes without saying that a splintering church will find it even more difficult to fund seminaries. With regard to the growing issue of orthodoxy, the question is being asked seminaries, do your preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)? Are you preparing students to pastor United Methodist Congregations with faithfulness and fruitfulness? Which leads naturally to the next point…
  5. We are in a local church leadership crisis of immense proportion. Bishops and Cabinets simply do not have enough competent clergy to appoint. This is intensified by the wave of baby-boomers retiring and conversely mitigated somewhat by the number of fulltime appointments being lost every year due to a declining church.
  6. The guaranteed appointment in its current form is a dodo bird. Regardless of Judicial Council rulings, the guaranteed appointment in its current form (again, a huge and careful qualifier) cannot be financially sustained. Boards of Ministries are struggling with a radically different way to understand the ordination process, the role of higher education, the importance of mentoring and need for jobs.
  7. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not option. 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.
  8. The deeper theological crisis which has been the backdrop of this whole talk of this gathering itself, continually asks us to consider the “big tent” conception of the church as over against the disciplined, truly disciplined (and discipling) movement for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I realize that this recitation can feel unmitigatingly depressing. I actually stand before you excited and hopeful.  I can be hopeful not in a winsome denial of reality (which is everywhere present in the United Methodist Church) but because of the gospel itself.  We do see in a mirror dimly. We must begin to face the future unflinchingly.  The United Methodist Church as currently constituted will not survive regardless of decisions at this General Conference over same gender issues.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part I: “I am Doing a New Thing!”

It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion.

He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service.

At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.”

However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.”

“I am doing a new thing!”

 I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.

Counterintuitively, while the dam 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 spring 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.”

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.”  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 orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence.

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, causing 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.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.

Consider some of the antidotal evidence:

  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • 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.]
  • 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.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers 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 evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. 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. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). 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 inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, 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) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.

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.

Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.)

Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.”

The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

A Significant Denominational Report on Congregational Vitality

The United Methodist Church has been engaged in a committed emphasis on building vital congregations who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference has been the lead bishop in this crucial venture along with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team.  With Bishop Schol’s permission, I am sharing his 2014 Vitality Report as a “guest blog.”  In the next blog, I will write more specifically about the Central Texas Conference vitality measures and how they help us shape the narrative of ministry and mission in the name of the risen Christ.   Bishop Mike Lowry

[Note: Due to reporting procedures by various congregations and Annual Conferences, the statistical data for 2015 is not yet available.  As always, it is important to understand that “metrics” only tell half the story.  The crucial addition piece of information consists of the narrative of contextual ministry taking place in the name of Jesus Christ.]

 2014 Vitality Report

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement. Highly vital congregations are in every geographic region of the U.S. and are of all sizes and ethnicity. Vital Congregations is a broad based movement within the church that is making disciples and transforming the world.

The UMC began to measure vitality in the U.S. in 2010 and the latest 2014 vitality indicators show we are ahead of 2010 by 8 percentage points. We have made important progress in growing congregational vitality. Ultimately Vital Congregations is about changed lives and transformed communities.

There are hopeful signs and we still have challenges maintaining congregational vitality. Between 2013 and 2014, the latest vitality indicators show a 5 percentage point decrease in the percentage of highly Vital Congregations. But in 2014, three of the five markers of vitality increased.

Increased the percentage of worshipers in small groups from 59% to 61%

  1. Increased the percentage of worshipers engaged in hands on mission from 38% to 48%
  2. Increased the average percentage of a congregation’s giving to mission from 15% to 18%
  3. Number of worshipers to make one profession of faith went from 22 to 23 (this is actually a decline because a lower number is preferable in this measure)
  4. Percentage of congregations growing in worship attendance decreased from 31% to 30%

While we can celebrate that we have made important progress between 2010 and 2014 in the percentage of Highly Vital Congregations and that three of the five markers of vitality increased during 2014, we also need to face into the challenge of the decrease in vitality between 2013 and 2014 largely driven by decreases in professions of faith and worship attendance.

Our largest gain in U.S. vitality was in 2012, the year every conference and most congregations set goals for the five markers of vitality – new disciples, worship attendance, mission giving, mission engagement and small groups.

We can also celebrate the progress we made in 2014 in three of the markers of vitality – small groups, mission engagement and mission giving. I believe that as we continue to grow in these areas, we will begin to experience healthier increases by more congregations in worship attendance and professions of faith.

Below is a conference by conference look at vitality and also how vitality is measured.

Thank you for all you are doing to lead congregations toward health and vitality. God is doing life changing ministry through The United Methodist Church and your leadership is making a difference.

Keep the faith!

John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey

 

US Conference Vital Signs 2010 Highly Vital Congregations 2014 Highly Vital Congregations Vitality increase/ decrease between 2010 and 2014 Vitality increase/decrease between 2013 and 2014 Number of worshipers to make 1 profession of faith or restored % of  worshippers who are in adult Christian formation groups % of worshipers involved in a mission experience % of local church spending going to mission % of congregations growing
US TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -5 23 61% 48% 18% 30%
                   
NORTH CENTRAL TOTAL 12% 20% 8 -5 26 54% 44% 18% 27%
DAKOTAS 9% 15% 6 -4 27 37% 20% 19% 42%
DETROIT 9% 22% 13 -9 21 48% 43% 16% 25%
EAST OHIO 10% 21% 11 -1 26 55% 32% 18% 25%
ILLINOIS GRT RIVERS 11% 17% 6 -5 29 46% 27% 19% 25%
INDIANA 15% 21% 6 -13 30 60% 37% 16% 23%
IOWA 13% 15% 2 -4 23 46% 42% 19% 30%
MINNESOTA 12% 15% 3 -7 22 48% 40% 18% 25%
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 15% 21% 6 -9 20 49% 50% 16% 25%
WEST MICHIGAN 12% 21% 9 -6 30 55% 33% 18% 25%
WEST OHIO 14% 28% 14 -2 26 57% 67% 20% 32%
WISCONSIN 8% 21% 13 -3 18 49% 33% 16% 23%
                 
NORTHEASTERN TOTAL 11% 21% 10 -5 23 49% 37% 17% 31%
BALTIMORE-WASH 22% 35% 13 -4 17 56% 96% 19% 33%
EASTERN PENN 7% 17% 10 -9 21 56% 34% 12% 30%
GREATER NEW JERSY 16% 32% 16 -3 18 61% 42% 18% 33%
NEW ENGLAND 9% 19% 10 -6 21 46% 32% 14% 26%
NEW YORK 7% 20% 13 -5 13 48% 24% 15% 27%
PENINSULA-DELAWARE 16% 23% 7 -3 23 46% 32% 17% 33%
SUSQUEHANNA 8% 21% 13 -7 27 49% 32% 17% 30%
UPPER NEW YORK 7% 17% 10 -3 24 40% 28% 14% 32%
WEST VIRGINIA 10% 16% 6 -6 37 48% 24% 26% 33%
WESTERN PENN 8% 16% 8 -8 26 47% 21% 16% 29%
                   
SOUTH CENTRAL TOTAL 17% 26% 9 -6 21 69% 60% 19% 32%
ARKANSAS 12% 24% 12 -4 24 61% 56% 19% 29%
CENTRAL TEXAS 22% 29% 7 -2 21 91% 63% 18% 34%
GREAT PLAINS 15% 21% 7 -7 20 59% 64% 14% 31%
LOUISIANA 24% 24% 10 -7 24 64% 67% 30% 37%
MISSOURI 16% 28% 12 -5 23 58% 68% 18% 33%
NEW MEXICO 15% 26% 11 -6 28 58% 45% 14% 24%
NORTH TEXAS 32% 35% 3 1 16 83% 88% 21% 30%
NORTHWEST TEXAS 10% 27% 17 -6 19 90% 55% 16% 30%
OKLAHOMA 24% 26% 2 -1 23 75% 50% 23% 28%
OKLAHOMA INDIAN MIS 27% 37% 10 -4 12 46% 12% 18% 45%
RIO GRANDE 10% 13% 3 -12 25 36% 4% 16% 32%
SOUTHWEST TEXAS 33% 26% -7 -14 19 71% 51% 20% 34%
TEXAS 27% 25% -2 -10 20 89% 49% 20% 34%
                   
SOUTHEASTERN TOTAL 15% 23% 8 -4 25 64% 50% 19% 31%
ALABAMA-W. FLORIDA 15% 19% 4 -1 24 73% 41% 17% 36%
FLORIDA 13% 27% 14 -5 20 56% 36% 17% 30%
HOLSTON 22% 23% 1 -2 32 64% 59% 19% 31%
KENTUCKY 16% 18% 2 -10 28 57% 26% 18% 32%
MEMPHIS 9% 25% 16 -5 29 64% 54% 19% 34%
MISSISSIPPI 9% 22% 13 -5 34 62% 24% 20% 32%
NORTH ALABAMA 22% 17% -5 -7 25 68% 48% 17% 30%
NORTH CAROLINA 16% 26% 10 7 25 63% 50% 24% 33%
NORTH GEORGIA 14% 29% 15 -4 20 69% 76% 18% 32%
RED BIRD MISSIONARY 19% 27% 8 -10 23 51% 37% 11% 27%
SOUTH CAROLINA 15% 23% 8 -8 29 67% 36% 18% 30%
SOUTH GEORGIA 14% 18% 4 -7 28 69% 22% 18% 32%
TENNESSEE 16% 24% 8 -5 25 67% 41% 22% 38%
VIRGINIA 16% 25% 9 1 24 58% 66% 25% 29%
WESTERN N CAROLINA 22% 24% 2 -1 26 67% 63% 14% 28%
                   
WESTERN TOTAL 20% 26% 6 -5 22 61% 45% 15% 30%
ALASKA 18% 30% 12 -3 20 48% 65% 19% 43%
CALIFORNIA-NEVADA 21% 25% 4 3 22 62% 51% 12% 24%
CALIFORNIA-PACIF 24% 28% 4 -9 21 55% 30% 15% 37%
DESERT SOUTHWEST 23% 36% 13 -1 19 52% 48% 20% 33%
OREGON-IDAHO 11% 18% 7 -4 31 57% 41% 17% 26%
PACIFIC NORTHWEST 20% 26% 6 -10 25 56% 41% 20% 27%
ROCKY MOUNTAIN 23% 32% 9 -7 19 84% 71% 14% 37%
YELLOWSTONE 21% 14% -7 -7 26 59% 47% 15% 26%

Highly Vital Congregation Measures

Below are the specific measures used to identify highly vital congregations. To be considered as a highly vital congregation, a church must be in the top 25% of all congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25% in any one of the areas. Each specific measure is important as a highly vital congregation may not be as fruitful in every area but is fruitful in most of the areas.

Growth

  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase worship attendance by 4% over five years. The average worship attendance change for all US churches is -7%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations increase the number of professions of faith by 82% over five years. The average change in the number of professions of faith for all US churches is    -11%.

Involvement

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 106% of their worship attendance involved in a small group or some ongoing study opportunity. This number may seem inaccurate but it is this high because the average worship attendance does not include some people who go to small groups like children in Sunday school or youth in youth group.  The average for all US churches in 71% of the worship attendance in small groups.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 9% of their worship attendance who are young adults involved in study groups that include Bible study, Sunday school and other groups for learning. The average for all US churches is 5%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 56% of their total professing members in average worship attendance. The average for all US churches is 51%.

Engaged

  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 20% of their worship attendance engaged in a volunteer in mission ministry. The average for the US is 8%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations have 6% of their worship attendance that join by profession of faith or are restored in a given year. This does not include confirmands. The average for US churches is 2%.

Giving

  • US highly vital congregations give 100% of their apportionments for the most current year.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow mission giving by 12% over five years. The average for all US churches is -15%.
  • On average, US highly vital congregations grow non capital spending by 22% over five years. The average for all US churches is 2% over five years.

 Growing Vitality

Congregations fruitful in these areas have transformational stories and are engaging in four key areas of ministry.

  1. Ministry – vital congregations offer effective and abundant opportunities for children and youth ministry, small groups, and missional outreach in the community and the world.
  2. Pastoral Leadership – Pastors who use their influence to help congregations set and achieve significant goals, inspire the congregation through preaching, serve in an appointment effectively and for a longer period of time, and coach and mentor laity to lead effectively.
  3. Lay Leadership – Laity who demonstrate a vital and active personal faith, develop and grow in their leadership effectiveness, and rotate out of leadership positions so that more people have the opportunity to serve.
  4. Worship – Vital churches offer a mix of worship services appropriate to their context, tend to use topical sermon series, for mid-large size congregations they use contemporary music in contemporary worship and use multimedia in contemporary worship.

Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers. Highly vital congregations grow and support disciples and leaders through worship, small groups, lay and clergy leadership development and ministry and mission engagement.

 

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