Archive - December, 2010

It Starts With a Baby

Recently I finished reading Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches.  I highly recommend it.  It is deep in its insightfulness about the journey we are on in the United Methodist Church.

Near the close of his book, Dr. Rendle writes about the United Methodist Church recovering and reorienting around a common purpose and identity.  Reframing purpose and identity is really the overarching theme of his book.  He challenges us to move beyond restrictive legislation and enforced conformity.  He writes: “Instead the center needs to be a story sufficiently strong to make others want to tell it, a purpose sufficiently important and difficult to make others want to pursue it, and an identity clear enough to make others want to live it.”  (p. 137)

Our story starts with a baby.  It starts simply, movingly.  “He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:5-7).

Somehow we have come too easily to casually accept the awesomely wonderful action of God in our midst.  Luther says, “The gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel. . . . Then come to Him. . . . You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair.  Trust Him!  Trust Him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. . . . Now overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you but come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.”

May you know the joy of the Savior’s birth.

  I will resume writing This Focused Center on January 4, 2011.

Christmas Eve Hospitality

The number 1 attended worship service by non- or nominal Christians is Christmas Eve.  Put differently, many of those who attend Christmas Eve worship are not active Christ followers.  A pastor and church have a (literally!) God-given wonderful opportunity to share the gospel.  Theologically speaking, this is a time to share the great doctrine of the incarnation – God with us in human form, in the person of a baby no less.  It is prime time evangelism.

 One of my concerns about Christmas Eve is that many churches and pastors appear to operate from the opposite assumption.  We seem to plan Christmas Eve worship and preach as if only active Christians who know the lingo and liturgy are present.  To be sure, active Christians are present in great abundance.  They make up a clear, overwhelming majority.  But, the opportunity to share the gospel of God’s love in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be missed.  Indeed, long time Christians will benefit from hearing the gospel again as well.

 Last Christmas it snowed and the roads iced over on Christmas Eve.  Services had to be canceled.  It was difficult to tell when and if a church would be holding Christmas Eve services.  We had friends visiting from out of town that we were planning on taking to a Christmas Eve service.  The service we had intended to go to was canceled and so I started to look for a different church.

 Seven or eight calls later, I discovered that only one church had updated its recording.  Most phone recorded messages never even mentioned Christian Eve worship (let alone any changes because of the weather)!  By then my curiosity was up.  I got on line and went cruising through the Central Texas Conference looking for web-site listings of Christmas Eve worship.  What I found, or rather what I did not find(!), was disturbing.  Few churches listed this worship opportunity prominently and a significant number (I checked about 15 sites) failed to list Christmas Eve worship at all!

 Hospitality (without even being radical hospitality) begins by letting people, especially non Christian people, know about the opportunity to greet the new born Savior in praise and celebration on the eve of His birth!  Invite.  Invite using the web and the phone. At least prominently share the times of worship!  Invite especially with personal invitations to family, friends, neighbors and strangers.  Come, let us praise Him, Christ the Lord!

Route 122 Group

Recently I learned about a group of church developers who are wrestling on a deep level with the issues of congregational transformation.  Interestingly, they named themselves the Route 122 Group.  The group name is a reference to Paragraph 122 in The Book of Discipline of the UMC 2010 (pg. 88).  It reads:

¶ 122. The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission—We make disciples as we:

  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing;
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.

The Route 122 Group came up with the following core process for church transformation.


Provide a Process at the Conference level that engages the following 8 key elements:

  1. Focus on Transforming Grace of Jesus Christ.
  2. Apostolic Leadership
  3. Conference alignment on missional focus
  4. Continuous lay and clergy learning and collaboration
  5. Independent assessment of congregation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities including relationship with the mission field
  6. Ongoing coaching for missional performance
  7. Accountable action plan
  8. Openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit

(From Route 122 Group, transforming churches meeting Nov 29-30)

New Readings

I am engaged in some reading that has both stimulated and reinforced much of my current reflection.  As a part of my devotional life, I am reading Bishop Will Willimon’s new book Why Jesus?  It contains the fresh (that is, seen from a different angle) reflection on Jesus that is common to Bishop Willimon.  I will be sharing it with friends who have doubts about the place and role of Jesus (including some beloved agnostics and atheists).

The other book that I am almost finished reading is Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches by Gil Rendle.  It will become a part of our collective reading in 2011 as a Cabinet.  For those familiar with Gil’s work, the book will represent a restatement and fleshing out of many of the themes he has shared in his speaking.  Whether as a deepening and clarification or new information, it is extremely worthwhile reading!  (For those readers not familiar with Dr. Gil Rendle, he is Senior Consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation and serves as a consultant for many denominations and conferences – including the Central Texas Conference – on change and engagement in the new post-Christendom world.)

Like my Wilderness Way columns, Gil employs the exodus imagery for what the church is going through.  In the opening chapter he notes a number of helpful and hopeful insights:

  • He is hopeful.  “I do not despair of the fundamental connection between God and the people.” (p. 2)
  • He is encouraging.  “Above all else the wilderness is a place to learn.” (p. 2)
  • He is insightful.  “We have been here before. We are a people of the original Exodus and Exile.” (p. 3)
  • He is practical.  “Being able to see the normal and natural within our communities as living systems in the midst of change allows anxiety to transform into energy and worry to turn into hope.” (p.11)

As I am reading, I find myself in Nashville, Tennessee. In approximately 2 hours I will convene a meeting of leading practitioners in church transformation (renewal and revitalization) as a part of the Council of Bishop’s Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People ~ new and existing congregations).  As we (the UMC as a whole) lean into a new future, we are seeking to live Romans 12:1-2 as a people transformed by God’s grace and God’s purpose as revealed in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is an exciting time!  It is also a challenging time!