“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.

 

More than a Metaphorical Aside: The Good News We Dare Proclaim! ©

“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

tombHow simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel.  A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often.  I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.

He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic.  Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock.  Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor.  Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis.  He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.

I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.

As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship.  Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one.  Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level.  Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here.  In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”

A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant.  Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden, p. 159).

There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.”  The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross.  Death is real.  Tragedies happen.  Evil stalks the earth.  The cross brings us to the tomb.

We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places.  In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands.  Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did!  The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning!  The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death.  The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope.  This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.

Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly.  It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside.  It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny.  It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness).  Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ.  Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word.  It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark.  The dawn breaks on His rising.

The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9).  He is with us in triumphant glory.  In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle.  He meets us and is with us!

Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!

A WITNESS IN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK ©

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.”

Thus opens the full text of the famous Celtic prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate. There is more, much more, to the prayer but the opening lines anchor Patrick not in mythology but far more importantly in Christian theology.  St. Patrick’s Day is more than a day to celebrate all things green.  We do well to honor St. Patrick as a giant of a Christian leader, missionary, evangelist and bishop.  Even more, in celebration of the life and ministry of St. Patrick, we remember in order that we might learn and recommit ourselves to this same great mission in the name of Christ.

His story is a compelling witness to the Christ as Lord of his life and to his love in Christ through the Holy Spirit even for those who mistreated and harmed him.

Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past life expectancy in the 5th century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel.  Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches, and he ordained perhaps 1,000 priests.  “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions.  He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery.  Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 23).

I invite the reader to pause with me and deeply consider Patrick’s witness. In doing so I am reminded that he sought to honor and serve Christ in all he did, with the fullness of his very life!  Patrick’s return to Ireland was courageous.  His witness to Christ was electric.  His sharing of the Christ’s saving grace was bracing.  He offered a new possibility, a new way of living in and through Christ that converted a land.

George Hunter’s brilliant book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again closes with the profound insight learned from St. Patrick.  “The supreme key to reach the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially.  The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their heat to the God who understands them”  (George Hunter, The Cesaint_patrickltic Way of Evangelism, p. 121).

We who live in a land more pagan than Christian need to learn again from this great man. We are called like he was to share a witness of Christ for a people spiritually starving, living in a druidic darkness of fear, bombarded by religious quackery, and overdosing on confectionary falsehood.  We need to offer God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The claim laid upon Patrick is laid upon us by the Lord.

A brilliant teacher and communicator of the gospel, Patrick used the ever-present native plant, the shamrock, as a symbol of the holy Trinity. Each leaf witnessed to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a prayer which comes, legend has it, from the breastplate of St. Patrick.  I read it first in the old Book of Worship for the United Methodist Church.  I use prayer regularly, and I invite the reader to pray the prayer as well:

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me.
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger” (Taken from The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church, 1964 edition, p. 244).

Trust the Tradition ©

Last Tuesday I took an unusual trip. In one sense, it was a journey that had been decades in the making.  In another sense I had the appointment on my calendar for about three months and my drive to Oklahoma City took about four hours.

Tuesday, March 8th, I drove to Oklahoma City to spend the afternoon with the eminent retired theology professor (Emeritus) from Drew Divinity School Dr. Thomas Oden.  Tom Oden was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in New Jersey from 1980 until his retirement in 2004. After retiring he continued to teach and write at Drew in the status as Professor Emeritus. My first introduction to Dr. Oden came in seminary classes at Perkins School of Theology, SMU in 1973. I still have Dr. Oden’s book The Intensive Small Group Experience which Professor Dick Murray (a revered Professor of Christian Education) assigned as a required reading for class. Later that year, I read Dr. Oden’s Kerygma and Counseling; Toward a covenant ontology for secular psychotherapy. But for me, his watershed work was book entitled Agenda for Theology which was later edited and updated and reissued as After Modernity…What?. In an ecumenical clergy lunch study group in Harlingen, Texas, I encountered my own path for learning and understanding the Christian faith over the coming decades.

While not the same, my theological journey parallels Dr. Oden’s. He has been a mentor along the way.  For me the trial has led from the sweeping theological fads of the late 20th century (Bultman, Tillich, process theology, etc.) into the great consensual tradition of historic Christian Orthodoxy.  I am currently reading Dr. Oden’s latest book The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundation. Published by Abingdon Press in preparation for General Conference, it can be purchased through Cokesbury beginning in April. I recommend it highly.  It challenges so much of the casual misguided theological assumptions of our time.

As I have stated often in sermons and speeches, 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 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 need to think and pray our way beyond where we are now and back to a theology that is genuinely orthodox, healthily open (that is to say both orthodox and non-rigid) and truly Wesleyan.  For me, Tom Oden has been such a guide in his rediscovery of orthodoxy and African Christianity.

As we neared the end of our time visiting together in his study, I asked him what message he most wanted to impart to me. He reply, almost softly, thoughtfully, “trust the Tradition.”  And then he went on, “The one thing I have learned is to trust the Tradition.  To trust the consensus of the ancient Christian writes as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

I found myself deeply moved as he spoke. “Trust the Tradition.”  The great theological concept of Tradition is one of the four pillars of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (along with Scripture, Reason, and Experience).  Unfortunately we often reduce the term to tradition(s) – lower case and with an “s” added.  Such a stunted understanding of a great theological concept imperials our full understanding of our faith and doctrine (which drives the practice of faith, orthopraxy = right action) leaving us spiritually and theologically warped and diminished.

Tradition, as properly understood as a theological concept and a pillar of the quadrilateral, is not a small “t” but a capital “T” existing alongside a capital “T” for Truth. Tradition is not mere history.  It is the great consensual reflection of the Christian faith that has been handed down from the earliest Christian writing (including but not limited to Scripture) and great Ecumenical Councils (think of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed found in our hymnal).  Significantly, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012 holds just such a high view of Tradition.  Listen for the witness of the Church.  “The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life.  Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christian live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.  As such, tradition transcends the story of particular traditions.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, p. 83)

In our conversation and in my reading, I was being invited to “recapture the resonance of a consensual orthodoxy, the harmony of voices celebrating the apostolic testimony to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in scripture and understood best by African interpreters of the faith.” As I listened I could not help but think of the old true quote, “He [or she] who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.” (Note: I think the quote comes from C. S. Lewis but am not sure.)

Dr. Oden went on, “… Listen carefully to the voice of conscience. Conscience is a gift of the Spirit.”  He paused and then carefully explained in answer to my probing that conscience and Scripture go together.  “Conscience is not a feeling.  It is moral judgment.” He said.

We drew our time to a close with him urging a regular discipline of prayer and devotion. Appropriately we closed in prayer.  As I headed to the car his words echoed through rugged trail of my thoughts.  “Trust the Tradition.”  I heard the Holy Spirit communicating to me through a person of faith.

Our Gnawing Hunger and the Class Meeting ©

I readily confess that this blog is only half formed and invite the perceptive reader to engage in wrestling the intersection of our gnawing hunger and the call to spiritually walk with Christ. Allow me the space and grace to interconnect some of my thinking and mediation.

As I watch the craziness that is the current American race for presidential nominations in both parties, I cannot help but think that they reflect a deep anxiousness and gnawing spiritual hunger that has infected us as a civil populace. As the waning value system of an old (and previously) entrenched church culture passes from the scene, the vacuum left eats at our souls as both a church and a nation.  We know that the current level of political discourse and national dialog (or true lack thereof) is toxic and yet are unable to extricate ourselves from it.  (As a sidebar, this meets the definition of original sin for all – all means all! – concerned.)

And yet our better natures cry for something more. The Lord calls us repeatedly to live in love and charity with all in need.  The unmitigated teaching of Jesus challenges us to trust the Lord.  “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!  Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well’” (Luke 12, 22, 27-31).

Add to this teaching the Apostle Paul’s admonition in the closing part of Philippians. “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks” (Philippians 4:6).  Stir with the faithful need to pray and trust.  The outcome I submit is what we long for – a sense of peace amid the storms of change that swirl around us.

We instinctively know that we cannot get there on our own. Solitary spirituality can only take us so far.  The biblical admonitions to be together the body of Christ speak deep in the thunder of our times.  It is here I suspect that the Wesleyan Way of life following Christ has something to offer.

In my ongoing reading of Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, I think God is guiding me and our larger church but to its essential structure. Dr. Watson quotes Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798, Doctrines and Discipline:

“We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.”

Then he adds, “A common method (joining every Methodist to a class meeting) and a common message (the necessity of repentance, faith, and holiness) were at the center of Methodism during its periods of most explosive growth” (The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience by Kevin M. Watson, pg. 53).

There is much here to wrestle with and piece together. More later…

A Time for Prayer ©

This Sunday night, February 28, at 9:45 p.m., I will pause for a special set-aside 15 minutes of prayer for the upcoming General Conference meeting of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon in May. I invite others to join with me and with the Central Texas Conference in taking an opportunity to pause and be in special prayer for General Conference. The need is great.

As I prepare for my own time of prayer, I recall that powerful scene in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles which opens with the disciples being instructed by the risen Lord, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Stunned, they watch the ascension of Jesus. “While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven’”(Acts 1:10-11).  What do they do next?  It is amazingly instructive.  They returned to Jerusalem had a prayer meeting!  They didn’t argue about strategy.  They didn’t battle over doctrine.  To be sure those important tasks would come later.  They first prayed!  “All were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

My friend and colleague Bishop William Willimon has written: “The response of the disciples to the instruction, reproof, and the promise is exemplary.  They gathered to pray (Acts 1:12-14).  In an activist age one might expect the disciples to undertake some more ‘useful’ activity.  They are told to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (1:8) and their first response is prayer.  The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort.  Disciples have been told that the promised kingdom is a gift to be given in God’s own time and that the promised Spirit is also by God’s grace.  Their mission requires more than even their earnest striving” (Bishop William Willimon, Acts, p. 21).  So too, does ours.  Our mission, to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, requires fervent prayer.  I invite you to join with me in such prayer.

By way of background, the United Methodist Church’s ultimate governing body is the General Conference. It meets every 4 years to establish church direction and polity (which means governance and law). General Conference alone has the ability to speak for world-wide United Methodist Church. The delegates are ½ clergy and ½ laity with representatives elected by their home Conferences on a proportional basis. Appropriately, this year’s General Conference meeting (which opens May 10th) gathers together under the banner of “Therefore Go! Pray.”

It is no secret that The United Methodist Church is wrestling with a deeper division over central issues of faith, doctrine and ministry. The obvious presenting issue swirls around same gender marriage (which the United States Supreme Court has recently ruled a constitutional right) and ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (gay and lesbian). However, it is critically important to understand that far deeper division of faith and doctrine impact our disunity. One of the various renewal groups has gone so far as to assert that the unity of the church is hanging by a thread.

In response to perceived struggles and divisions, the Council of Bishops voted to ask the Residential Bishops (active bishops) to lead their Annual Conference(s) in a 24 hour Prayer Vigil on a designated day between January 1 and the opening of General Conference. I took this specific request to the Conference Core Team and to the Cabinet. We selected February 28th, this coming Sunday, as our day to be in specific prayer. Dr. Bob Holloway, District Superintendent of the East District, agreed to put together a team from Central Texas to guide our response. They have developed a guided Taize-style prayer resource which is posted at www.ctcumc.org/GC16-prayervigil .

Requests have gone out in all districts calling us to pray for General Conference and the unity of the church. You may sign up for a time slot by going to http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c084fa9ad2aa7fd0-therefore. Here at the Conference Service Center, we have teamed up with the South District to cover a portion of the 24-hour period. I signed up for the 9:45 p.m. time slot. Whenever you are led to make time to pray this Sunday, I ask that you join with me in praying for the Central Texas Conference Delegates (listed at the end of this blog) and for the General Conference as a whole. May the Holy Spirit truly guide our deliberations and actions. “Not our will, but thy will O Lord be done!”

The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church Delegates and reserves to General and Jurisdictional Conference:

General – Tim Bruster (clergy) Tom Harkrider (lay), John McKellar (clergy), Kim Simpson (lay), Clifton Howard (clergy), Steve McIver (lay), Brenda Wier (clergy), Darlene Alfred (lay)

Jurisdictional (and General alternates) – Tom Robbins (clergy), Ethan Gregory (lay), Chris Hayes (clergy), Darcy Deupree (lay), Jim Conner (clergy), Kylie Campbell (lay), Debra Crumpton (clergy), Kevin Gregory (lay)

Alternates (to Jurisdictional) – Louis Carr (clergy), Mary Percifield (lay), Mary Spradlin (clergy), Marianne Brown (lay), Jason Valendy (clergy), Kathy Ezell (lay)

 

The Cross Connection ©

Here we are partway through Lent and I find myself coming back time and time again to what I like to call the cross connection – that is the way we are connected to the Lord at the foot of the cross. After all, whatever you think of the cross, it is a strange symbol for a faith that lifts up the triumphant love of God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The cross connection reunites us with the greatness of God. Here, at the foot of the cross, the relationship between Creator and creature is restored.  It is here, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus says “come, come back into a balanced life with me.”  The cross connection works in some basic ways.

First, it secures salvation. A faithful and righteous God cannot and will not glance away from sin and evil in dreamy irresponsible indulgence.  At the cross Christ suffers for our sin.  In classic theology this is called substitutionary atonement.  The word atonement can be understood if you just break it down into its parts – at-one-ment.  It means to be at one, reconnected, with God.  A restoration of the relationship with God through God’s self-sacrificial love.  God’s greater love breaks the great rebellion by stepping forward to pay the price.

Second, it places life back in balance demanding that we radically trust God and rely on the greatness of God. Think of the connection in this way.  It orders our priorities.  Life as it was meant to be moves in a relationship with God and in relation to those we love.  Through the cross connection those are first order things and the rest of the stuff – what we wear and eat and drink and all the paraphernalia of human accomplishment or lack thereof – follows in its proper subservient place.  It works when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, [when we do so] … all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Third, it invites us to follow this Christ in picking up our cross in love for others. The cross  connection calls us to greater service following Christ.  This is our crowing joy and obedience in living.

Posted on the wall of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site was the following written by an unknown author:

I said, “God I hurt.”
And God said, “I know.”

I said, “God, I cry a lot.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you tears.”

I said, “God, I am so depressed.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you sunshine.”

I said, “God, life is so hard.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you loved ones.”

I said, “God, my loved one died.”
And God said, “So did mine.”

I said, “God, it is such a loss.”
And God said, “I saw mine nailed to a cross.”

I said, “God, but your loved one lives.”
And God said, “So does yours.”

I said, “God, where are they now?”
And God said, “Mine is on My right and yours is in the Light.”

I said, “God, it hurts.”
And God said, “I know.”

It is at the foot of the cross, through the cross connection, that life comes back into its proper focus. Sheila Walsh, in her marvelous recording Hope, offers us this great truth in her song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean.”

“On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers
Poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”
(Sheila Walsh, Hope, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” verse 2)
May the cross connection lead us deeper into Lent.

A Message for Lent

Bishop Mike Lowry shares his annual Lenten message of hope and challenges all to pick up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ to Jerusalem and beyond. To view the message via the Central Texas Conference website, go to ctcumc.org/LentMessage2016. You may also view or download the video to show at your church, small group or wherever on the CTCUMC Vimeo Page.

Appointment Making ©

This week we concluded Inventory in the Central Texas Conference. This is a yearly exercise which Bishops and their Cabinets go through.  The Cabinet Inventory Retreat is a time of assessing where the Conference stands on retirements, new people needing an appointment (especially new seminary graduates), and requests from pastor Parish Relations Committees and from pastors.  It is a time of looking at the whole in terms of Conference and church pastoral needs and then beginning to make appointments for the new Conference year.

Looking at requests from Pastor-Parish Relations Committees who are expecting a change in pastors – when they are asked what is most important in terms of ability in a new pastor preaching is listed in first place virtually every time. (In 7/1/2 years as a bishop I can only remember two occasions when preaching was not listed first!  On those occasions it was listed second.)

When I first entered ministry in The United Methodist Church, the conventional wisdom shared with young pastors was: stay close to God and close to your congregation and you will do well.  A high premium (very high!) was paid to happiness, quiet and conflict avoidance.

In truth, staying close to God and each other are very, very good things! We need, all of us, lay and clergy alike!, to stay close to God.  We should stay close in love and care to each other in our congregations.  After all, the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, a very colony of heaven here on earth.  Biblical admonitions abound.  Just reflect for a moment on passages like Philippians 2:1-5 or I Corinthians 12.

But wait! Hit the pause button and ask what is wrong with this picture?  If we stay close to God (a very, very good thing!) and stay close to each other in the congregation (again a very, very good thing!), who is left out?  The hungry, hurting and homeless, whether spiritually or physically or both, are left out.  Those far from God (and from the body of Christ, the church) are left out.  The great spiritual and social issues contained in the Lord’s Prayer – “on earth as it is in heaven” – are left out.  With the best of intentions the gospel and the church were focused inward on the already churched.  An emphasis on the Great Commandment to love God and love the neighbor (every accessible human being we may reach, Luke 10) was unconsciously a lower priority.  And emphasis on the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all peoples” baptizing and teaching obedience to the way of Christ (Matthew 28) was unconsciously given a low priority.  Risk-taking mission and transformation-focused evangelism were often (not always!) neglected.

Unfortunately in the church we tend to binary thinking. We tend to advocate an inward focus or an outward focus.  We tend to be consumed with taking care of each other or with an outward passion for justice and mercy.  With our Lord it is not an either/or.  Jesus consistently rejected simple binary thinking.  He nurtured love and taught the earliest followers at the very same time he commanded them to reach out.  Put John 21:15-19 together with Matthew 28:16-20 and the fullness of the gospel emerges.

By the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the last few decades have led to a refocusing on the inclusion of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in ministry and life of congregations. The rejection of binary thinking and the inclusion of a greater gospel vision has led to increased need (demand?) for pastors who can lead and for lay leaders who will join with them in offering leadership.  This truth shone clear as the Cabinet engaged in our yearly Inventory Retreat and began appointment making.

As I reflected on the conversations and feedback from local churches, pastors and the Cabinet, it occurred to me that the list of qualities we (the Central Texas Cabinet) lifted up in consideration for District Superintendents applied to congregational appointments, which means both (!!!) congregations and clergy as well.

In my blog of November 5, 2015 “Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership” I shared as list of non-negotiables that the Cabinet came up with for consideration. It began with the rhetorical question:  What are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

These are central core characteristics which provide a foundation for appointment making. I emphasize again – they apply to both congregations and clergy. This core characteristics “fit” with what I like to call the “big 3” which will continue to drive our ministry together as a conference.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

Each church, each pastor is unique; a gift from God in and of themselves. Narrative and context differ widely.  One size doesn’t fit all.  The importance of long tenure and a fruit-bearing match of congregation and clergy continues.  Deep prayer and careful discernment ultimately drive appointment making.  God is with us in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Page 1 of 4812345»102030...Last »