Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Texas Tintern Abbey ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It Only About the Number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why an Emphasis of Christ at the Center?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

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

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

by Kenda Creasy Dean, pg 14

 

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

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

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Escaping the Stranglehold of Fear ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … I ask myself, whence the fear?

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

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

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

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

The Vatican and Christian Unity ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECOMMENDED! Scripture and the Life of God ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HURRICANE RESPONSE: Great Faithfulness in the Face of Disaster ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORSHIP AND THE WIG ©

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

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

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

Consider the truth:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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