Archive - October, 2016

Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

Membership on “The Commission on a Way Forward” ©

Bishop Bruce Ough, President for the Council of Bishops has announced the selection of membership on the “The Commission on a Way Forward.”  He has noted in his press release that the Commission is made up of 8 bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders, and 2 deacons.  Furthermore Bishop Ough has noted “the makeup of the 32-member commission is roughly comparable to U.S. and Central Conference membership.”

Of special interest to members of the Central Texas Conference is the inclusion of Casey Langley Orr who is serving as a Deacon and appointed to First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas.  I ask us all to keep the entire Commission, and indeed the United Methodist Church as a whole, in our prayers.  Those who share the privilege of being related to the Central Texas Conference, I especially ask that you be in prayer for Casey.  I believe Casey to be an outstanding choice who will prayerfully see a way forward in these tumultuous times.

In the words of Martin Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is he.” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Number 110, verse 2, The United Methodist Hymnal.)

MEMBERSHIP IS ANNOUNCED AS FOLLOWS:
Jorge Acevedo – USA, Florida, elder, male

Brian Adkins – USA, California, elder, male

Jacques Umembudi Akasa- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male

Tom Berlin – USA, Virginia, elder, male

Matt Berryman – USA, Illinois, laity, male

Helen Cunanan – Philippines, elder, female

David Field – Europe, Switzerland, laity, male

Ciriaco Francisco – Philippines, bishop, male

Grant Hagiya – USA, California, bishop, male

Aka Dago-Akribi Hortense – Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female

Scott Johnson – USA, New York, laity, male

Jessica Lagrone – USA, Kentucky, elder, female

Thomas Lambrecht – USA, Texas, elder, male

Myungae Kim Lee – USA, New York, laity, female

Julie Hager Love – USA, Kentucky, deacon, female

Mazvita Machinga – Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female

Patricia Miller – USA, Indiana, laity, female

Mande Guy Muyombo – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male

Eben Nhiwatiwa – Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male

Dave Nuckols – USA, Minnesota, laity, male

Casey Langley Orr – USA, Texas, deacon, female

Gregory Palmer – USA, Ohio, bishop, male

Donna Pritchard – USA, Oregon, elder, female

Tom Salsgiver – USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male

Robert Schnase – USA, Texas, bishop, male

Jasmine Rose Smothers – USA, Georgia, elder, female

Leah Taylor – USA, Texas, laity, female

Deborah Wallace-Padgett – USA, Alabama, bishop, female

Rosemarie Wenner – Europe, Germany, bishop, female

Alice Williams – USA, Florida, laity, female

John Wesley Yohanna – Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male

Alfiado S. Zunguza – Africa, Mozambique, elder, male

MODERATORS
Sandra Steiner Ball – USA, West Virginia, bishop, female

Kenneth Carter – USA, Florida, bishop, male

David Yemba – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, bishop, male

Observations from the Wesleyan Covenant Association ©

Last Friday, October 7th, I experienced the high privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).  It was my honor to preach at the closing communion service and share with my friend and colleague Bishop Bob Hayes in presiding over Holy Communion.

wca-lowryI experienced the event as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was deep. Hope was bright. A sense of the Spirit’s leading was strong. Obedience to Christ was paramount. Such prayer, hope, sense of the Spirit’s leading, and obedience to Christ remains paramount.

In writing these words I quite realize that the gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was and is controversial.  For some, the WCA is viewed as a potentially schismatic organization.  Honesty compels me to acknowledge that a case can be made that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is potentially a church in waiting.  Yet it is carefully worth noting that WCA is supportive of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In point of fact, unlike some 9 Annual Conferences, the WCA upholds the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  The WCA is active in searching for a meaningful new unity.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association statement of purpose notes:  “The association is a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from across The United Methodist Church, committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment. We have come together to support, network, and encourage one another as the uncertain future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.”

While facing the possibility of future schism, the opening meeting Wesleyan Covenant Association shared a commitment to give the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward an opportunity to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Like the rest of the church, this is not a blank check to support whatever the Commission proposes but rather an opportunity to allow space for a new kind of unity.

At the WCA inaugural meeting, a theological statement was adopted which is called the Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission.. I urge a careful and attentive reading of this document.

We need something greater than a tepid statement of vague theological tolerance.  If we are too rigid, boundaries will strangle us as a denomination and we will lose our cardinal focus on the cross of Christ and the redeeming grace of the Lord active in our midst.  Without meaningful theological and ethical boundaries, the United Methodist will dissolve into cultural flotsam.  In its theological statement, the WCA is benefiting the whole church by calling us back to the central issue of reclaiming our core Christian theology.  For those who believe the theological and ethical boundaries are wrongly drawn, a serious debate on what constitutes the core of the Christian faith is blessing to the whole church.  At its heart, the issue before us is not (ultimately) about human sexuality but rather is a dispute about what accurately constitutes the core of the Christian faith and the essence of United Methodism.  To be united is to share a common doctrine, discipline and mission (which includes methodological coherence).

At its heart, I believe we need to recover a high Christology and a deep doctrinal emphasis on the cross of Christ.  For myself I stand with the Apostle Paul and witness of Holy Scripture.  In my closing sermon at the WCA gathering, I shared again the great testimony of faith from the Word of the Lord to the Church at Corinth (and in Central Texas!).  “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).

For myself as Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, I wish to be publically clear that I believe it is important across the theological spectrum to give the Commission an opportunity to offer a new way forward. I continue to pray daily for the United Methodist Church and its future under the Lordship of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May we together walk with Christ!

An Opportunity not to be missed ©

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N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!