Archive - September, 2016

Statement from the United Methodist Bishops of Texas

In response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent press release regarding Texas’ intention to withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program , the United Methodist bishops in the state of Texas have issued the following statement. You will notice in our signing of this statement that each bishop is listed by Episcopal Area. Please know that the Fort Worth Area (of which I am the bishop) includes all of the Central Texas Conference; the Northwest Texas Area is the Northwest Texas Conference; the Houston Area includes all of the Texas Annual Conference; the Dallas Area is the North Texas Conference; and the San Antonio Area includes all of the Rio Texas Conference.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

As bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas we join with other faith leaders in our state to encourage Governor Greg Abbott to seek a pathway that will affirm the worth of all humankind.  

As Christians and as Texans our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward newcomers. Those values lead us to welcome refugees to our state. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times but as Christians, we rely on Jesus Christ to overcome our fear of those who may be different. 

The United Methodist Church in our Social Principles states, “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God…. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.” 

We ask for God’s blessing on those who will step in to serve in the absence of our state’s participation in the resettlement effort, for they are truly being the hands and feet of Christ. 

Bishop Earl Bledsoe, Northwest Texas Area
Bishop Scott Jones, Houston Area
Bishop Michael Lowry, Fort Worth Area
Bishop Michael McKee, Dallas Area
Bishop Robert Schnase, San Antonio Area

Learnings and Sharings ©

This has been a great week of learnings and sharings around the Conference. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, we held our annual Fall Cabinet Retreat at Stillwater Lodge. As a part of our work together, we focused on team building, caught up on a myriad of details and calendar items that need to be coordinated, and engaged in an exercise designed to surface potential new DSs or Executive Center Directors. (Dr. Georgia Adamson, Dr. Bob Holloway and Rev. Gary Lindley all retire at Annual Conference in 2017.) It is always my hope that the incoming members of the Cabinet are selected by mid-January so they may participate in the Cabinet Inventory Retreat in February.

 Friday night, the Core Team shared dinner with the Cabinet and met all day Saturday to look at strategic directions we will focus on in the upcoming year. Those strategic directions will continue to center around “The Big Three.” 1. Christ at the Center in Radical Discipleship; 2. Focus on the Local Church; 3. Lay and Clergy Leadership Development. It was not only a fascinating time of sharing but also a time of reviewing where we are as a Conference in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor of preaching at Polytechnic United Methodist Church on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University. Together with a large crowd, we celebrated the end of the 125 year anniversary of Texas Wesleyan and the beginning of the 125th year of Polytechnic Church. In the early annals of the Christian faith, Tertullian asked “What has Jerusalem [meaning the center of religious life] got to do with Athens [meaning the center of philosophy and learning]?” Then and now, the answer is “Everything!” To quote Wesley, “Let us [continue] the two so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.”

 Monday morning was a time of fabulous learning. The Evangelism Summit was held at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church with its usual stellar hospitality and phenomenal worship leadership. Those great events alone blessed us all immeasurably. Addresses by Dr. William Abraham and Dr. George Hunter on the foundation of evangelism shaped a theology built around the kingdom of God and allegiance to Christ.

 Dr. Abraham reminded us at the heart of the gospel is the arrival of God in Jesus Christ. In particular he emphasized three crucial practices: preaching; catechesis (or Christian formation); and church planting. His focus was on our need to make or build disciples of Christ through a combination of teaching & preaching around the kingdom of God.  I could not help but to recall the sharing of a friend recently who commented that Jesus Christ didn’t come to give good advice but to bring good news.

 Dr. George Hunter followed Dr. Abraham with a deeply thoughtful lesson outlining the strategy for evangelism and giving concrete ways we move forward in the sharing of the faith and its connection with our greater work. Dr. Hunter built his lecture around the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi and how people become new Christians, noting that it takes place around a process with a chain of experiences. His witness moves us far beyond any mythical one shot conversion story but rather, in practical applicable terms, shared the holiness of conversations (many conversations!) and relationship in leading people to the faith.

 Rev. Olu Brown, lead pastor of Impact Church – one of the fastest growing new church starts in all of Methodism – built on Dr. Hunter’s insights with an intensely practical emphasis on building relationships through things like radical hospitality and witness of bringing the church to where people are. It was fascinating to hear him talk about holding various meetings, including Finance Committee, in a local restaurant and bar as a point of Christian witness and faith sharing. Our own Leah Hidde-Gregory brought a great day to a close with her talk on evangelistic Covenant Group formation, in particular the impact on clergy in sacramental groups on the local church. I believe this is a fundamental and primary way we recover an understanding of building ourselves as disciples even as we share the faith with others. The early Methodist movement emphasized the class meeting, and Rev. Hidde-Gregory’s work with sacramental groups calls us back in a profound way to the heart of the Methodist movement.

 Today finds me heading to Franklin, TN for a three day continuing education conference at the New Room. I was blessed in going last year to a place that was free of political talk about the future of the United Methodist Church and focused instead on missional outreach in love, justice and mercy combined with deep spirituality and evangelistic faith sharing. It should be a joy to attend this year as well. After all these activities, I have saved a week of vacation, centered around my wife’s birthday (the number shall remain sacrosanct!), and designed to spend my time chasing Simon, who knows me not as “bishop” but as “Papa.” He is the middle of three precious grandchildren Jolynn and I have been blessed with.

 Also today I am announcing today that Rev. Allen Goss has graciously agreed to fill in as Interim Executive Director for the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth as Gary Lindley heals from injuries sustained in a terrible car accident. We give thanks to Allen for his willingness to step into this crucial leadership role on a part-time basis. His experience as a previous Director for Church Growth and Development for the Central Texas Conference make him the ideal person to lead in the interim. We also continue to pray for and look forward to the day Gary can return to the job full-time. He is dearly missed!

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation

Last Fall Bishop Ken Carter, The Florida Conference, wrote a series of blogs on “Fresh Expressions of the Church.”  Taken as a whole they are outstanding and well worth reading.  As a part of my own recent writing about deeper discipleship centered on allegiance to Christ, I reprint, with his permission, the 9th of those blogs entitled Discipleship as Spiritual Formation and Mentoring: The Heart of Fresh Expressions of Church.” – Bishop Mike Lowry

The Bishop’s Blog

(Ninth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”)

If we are listening to God’s call in the present moment, in increasingly non-churched and de-churched environments, we may discover that we are being led back to a fundamental experience—an encounter with the living Jesus. We encounter him in the gospels, even as he is anticipated in the Old Testament and as his message is embodied and proclaimed in the later writings of the New Testament. The encounter is always one that calls us into deeper relationship, which we call discipleship.

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation
So how do we become a disciple of Jesus?

Becoming a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a cumulative process. It involves small steps and giant leaps of faith. It is like swimming against the stream and riding the rapids. It is unconscious and intentional. It is planned and spontaneous. It is work and at the same time a gift.

1.  As a cumulative process, discipleship is a daily spiritual practice: reading scripture, sending a tweet about a passage of scripture or a God-sighting, memorizing a verse, offering an intercession, acting with kindness, writing in a journal.
2.  Discipleship is also a weekly activity: an hour of worshipping God, a meal with a mentor or with friends, reflecting deeply on the neighborhood as a context for mission, encouraging a small group of Facebook friends, contributing money to God’s mission.  Note: While the Christian life may begin as an individual search, it can only be sustained and supported through participation in a small group, where we are loved, blessed and held accountable. The contribution of the Fresh Expressions movement is that these groups are not confined within our local churches, although they may happen there—this is the “mixed ecology.” And, as we have noted, this is deeply embedded in the practices of the early Wesleyan Christian movement (class meetings and band meetings).
3.  Discipleship as a sustained habit might include monthly experiences:  a day of silence and prayer and deeper scripture reading, meeting with a spiritual director, reading a book/spiritual classic, a deeper act of service in the community, serving in a leadership role.
4.  And discipleship as a more reflective and long term way of life might include annual practices: an extended pilgrimage or retreat, a mission trip, an evaluation of financial giving to God’s mission.
5.  Discipleship is a lifelong process; in Eugene Peterson’s language, it is a “long obedience in the same direction.” It will help to document your spiritual formation; for some, there are life-changing events, and for others, the process is more gradual and even generational. In the Wesleyan tradition we have called this sanctification.

The Bible itself can be read in this way:

  • it is the journey of God’s people from slavery to freedom;
  • the passage of Jesus from baptism and wilderness to suffering, death and into resurrection;
  • the experience of the disciples who follow Jesus, listen to his teaching, witness his death and resurrection, receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and are sent into all the world.

For the non-churched (nones), the language of becoming a disciple is entering a new world of practices, habits and relationships. For the de-churched (dones), the path of discipleship requires a detachment from negative experiences of church in the past and a turning toward the gift of new forms of church. And for leaders, lay and clergy, there is the essential and lifelong basic work of spiritual formation. At our best, we will be most effective and faithful as we accompany each other into the future that God is preparing for us.

Making Disciples as Mentoring
Once we are on the path of being a disciple, we soon discover that we are also called to invite others into this way of life. Thus, we want a simple method for making disciples or mentoring friends to be closer followers of Jesus.   So how do we mentor (or make) new disciples?

1.  Listen to the other person. This may happen in a meeting, perhaps in everyday life and in planned or unplanned ways, or over a succession of conversations. In a culture that is cynical about faith, it is not wise to rush this step. Listening is a lifelong activity!
2.  Reflect back to the person that you are wanting to get to know and understand them. For many persons, this is a rare experience to discover that others are listening to (honoring) their stories.  Note:  These first two steps are essential and cannot be bypassed.
3.  Connect their story with your own story and a part of the gospel. This assumes that we know the gospels (the importance of daily reading) and can access the presence of Jesus in most any human situation: fear, loss, anger, poverty, betrayal, confusion, pride. You may share an experience where the power of Jesus helped you to overcome an obstacle. This connection is not about institutions or denominations, but is instead about relationships and the spiritual journey.
4.  Ask how you can be in prayer for the person. And ask if the other person will pray for you. This places you together on the same level.  Note:  Here you will want to be as humble as possible, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through the gospels and the act of prayer. At this point the action is more important than the response, which you cannot control.
5.  Seek to connect the other person to your community. In our time, the basic steps will be a group that meets outside the church (say, in a coffee shop) or in a context of mission and serving, or in a new group in formation. Don’t worry if you get stalled here, but don’t hesitate to name your own worshiping community. It is a relational process.
6.  Stay in touch with the person, and continue to develop the relationship, no matter the response. You are investing in the friendship for the sake of the other person, and not for any congregational or institutional gain.
7.  Continue to pray for the other person each day, and occasionally let the other person know you are doing this.

There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between becoming a disciple (spiritual formation) and making disciples (mentoring). We often learn best by teaching and leading; and at the same time, our lives are shaped, formed and enriched by deep friendships.

It is also true that where spiritual formation and mentoring are not present, our Christian life can become stagnant and rigid. How do we break this cycle?

If we are stuck, we might seek out a spiritual director, pastor, coach or guide.  This person is likely less appealing to us because of credentials and more through an authenticity and depth of faith.   Note:  A word about generations. Many younger adults have a strong need to live in relationships with persons who are older (not of their generation). At the same time, many younger adults have a great deal to teach older adults. This is sometimes called reverse-mentoring. There is a need for both mentoring and reverse-mentoring in our church.

By definition, Fresh Expressions “come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.” And, so, our first priority is not to create Fresh Expressions of church; instead, we listen, serve, and become incarnationally present and discipled. In our time, this will take the form of spiritual practices that shape us, and intentional relationships that empower others.

Questions:
What two or three spiritual practices or habits would strengthen your life as a disciple of Jesus? What happens weekly, or monthly, or annually? And, is there someone near to you who might be open to your spiritual mentoring?

-Bishop Ken Carter, October 26, 2015

Recovering the Methodist Movement ©

A while back a friend called my attention to a March 2013 article by David Brooks entitled “How Movements Recover.”   A part of what grabbed my interest is the often repeated comment about the “Methodist” movement.  Movemental growth in the church for a justice cause or evangelism or mission impact or spiritual growth etc. is an indwelling and outreaching of the Holy Spirit.

In brief summation, Christian movements are periods of revival or reawakening to the original mission of the faith.  Commonly, “Methodism” is referred to as a movement in the Christian faith (a great element of spiritual revival and vitality).  By way of contrast, movements are different from institutional advancement.  They focus on the primary mission and contain strong elements of growth reaching out to new groups. [Allow me to emphasize that both!! institutional advancement and movemental engagement are needed.  If movements are not ultimately institutionally shaped, they dissipate and ultimately amount to little beside a passing fad.  If, on the other hand, movements are choked out by institutional rigidity, desperately needed renewal is lost.]

At any rate what intrigued me about David Brooks Op Ed piece in the New York Times was the way he connected the recovery of the Christian faith as a movement (not just an institution) to reaching out to embrace the world in all its messiness- rather than seeing the church as an ark closed off from the rest of the world, riding out the storms.  St. Augustine “reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.”  Brooks continues, “His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.”

Brooks writes from a predominantly Roman Catholic perspective but there are deep insights for us Methodists in his work.  He points to the witness of Pope Francis commenting, “It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers ‘accidents on the streets’ to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.”

We do well to listen and wrestle at this juncture.  How do we hold tight to core doctrine and yet remain open and engaged, yearning for discovery?  Rigid self-righteous boundaries are not only unfaithful; they will surely kill us.  Conversely, a lack of boundaries leads to meaninglessness and ultimately will also just as surely kill us.  Many of my colleague bishops speak of the need to be an outwardly focused church.  The four focus areas of the United Methodist Church (new places for new people/new faith communities, ministry with the poor, leadership development, and Global health – Imagine No Malaria) are vibrant expressions of an outward focus which seeks to recapture a movemental character.  So too are attempts to recapture a holistic holiness – holiness of heart and life that is both social and personal.

And yet, our cultural and denominational obsession with immanence as both the locus and focus of ministry suffers from a lack of transcendence.  A full blown doctrine of the Trinity with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit active in our world as subject (not just object) is desperately needed. The theologian David Bosch (as Alan Hirsch reminds us) has rightly written, “discipleship is determined by the relation to Christ himself not by mere conformity to impersonal commands” (D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 67; taken from Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  Hirsch himself goes on to comment, “Apostolic movements make this a core task, because when we really think about it, this is perhaps the most strategic of all the church’s various activities”  (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  He [Hirsch] goes on to reference Mother Teresa, “We must become holy not because we want to feel holy but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us.”

As much as I resonate with David Brooks’ correct insistence on an outward focus in to the world in love-induced mission, by itself it is not enough.  There must be an upward dimension as well for the enterprise to be sustained.  The work of Kenda Creasy Dean and others on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” warns us of the desperate need for both immanence and transcendence, for both parts of the cross.  The apostolic genius of the original Methodist movement reached out to the world in love and reached up to God in holiness.