Archive - October, 2017

Is It Only About the Number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why an Emphasis of Christ at the Center?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

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

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

by Kenda Creasy Dean, pg 14

 

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

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

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Escaping the Stranglehold of Fear ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … I ask myself, whence the fear?

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

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

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

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

The Vatican and Christian Unity ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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