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A Texas Tintern Abbey ©

William Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“ drifted back into my mind through my musing at the close of a recent trip. Sunday, October 29th, Jolynn and I had the joy of sharing with Ferris Heights United Methodist Church on the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their founding. After sharing in worship and a fellowship dinner, we gazed through the document history of Ferris Heights. There were pictures of a full sanctuary and pastors sharing children’s sermons surrounded by a forest of youngsters.

This was the fourth anniversary or otherwise special celebration I have preached at this fall. Each is a time of rejoicing, remembering and recommitting to the ministry of our Lord. Almost always there is a special history room or display. The pictures explode with a different time in the life of the church, a time when sanctuaries were full and children abundant. But such is not usually the case today. Oh, there are notable exceptions to be sure, but inhaling the historic pictures reminds me that the time of Christian cultural dominance is over.

As I age, some of the pictures now represent times in which I was just starting out as a pastor. One that overlapped my ministry was on display at First UMC, Stephenville. (We were there for the celebration of their 100th anniversary.) It pictured a pastor surrounded by a large youth choir dressed smartly in beautiful choir robes. Viewing the glory of a bygone era brought back good memories.

Thus in my musing on Sunday driving home, I could not help but think I have had a Texas encounter with Tintern Abbey this fall. Wordsworth’s famous words cascaded over me.

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Here…
On the best portion of a good man’s life;
In his little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love…
(William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” selected verses)

The sense of what William Shakespeare called a “sweet sorrow” surrounds my reflections; yet as my colleague Mike Ramsdell puts it, “the truth is your friend.” The truth is that the day of abundance in worship attendance and a surplus of young children is largely over. In a wider cultural sense the sun has set on the church of the 1980s and ’90s.

I am increasingly convinced that we have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church. Rediscovering how to evangelistically engage modern secular culture is not an option if we wish to survive. New forms of ministry must abound. It was former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki who pointedly stated, “If you dislike change, You’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Yet it is here, in the midst of radical change amid the institutional life of the church which we have grown up with, that I am most excited and hopeful. Looking over what once was, the Lord brought me to a vision of the new future. A man stood up at Ferris Heights and shared what they were doing in Karios Prison Ministry. Such ministry was and is transformative in the way of Christ. Truly God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is even now birthing a renewed, deeper Christianity.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278).

Embracing a full blown unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us. The way ahead is difficult. It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful. We are duly challenged. Is Jesus Lord of our lives, including our professional work? Is this his church or a human institution? Make no mistake, the way is strewn with obstacles but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.

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

 

WORSHIP AND THE WIG ©

John Wesley is purported to have said that “worship is the first and primary duty of the Christian.”  This crucial act of biblical discipleship is clear. In his decisive interchange with the woman at the well, Jesus says, “But the time is coming – and is here! – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24). The great 100th Psalm is explicit: “Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth!  Serve the LORD with celebration! Come before him with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 100:1-2). The writer of Hebrews admonishes us, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).

In a recent sermon, I shared a classic definition of worship from Archbishop William Temple. As bombs dropped over London and night after night the Nazi bombers released their load of destruction, William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching from the mighty St. Paul’s Cathedral, gave his famous definition of worship. “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God. All this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions – adoration.”  The context is of great significance. In the midst of a great world war, worship was seen as central to the life of faith.

As we have moved through the Exodus Project (for 7 years now), we have asked ourselves “what is the one thing that would make the greatest difference in the life of faithful discipleship and in the life of our churches?”  The answer is simple and basic; the one foundational activity that makes a huge difference across the board is an increase in average worship attendance.

Consider the truth:

  • An increase in average worship attendance means more people engaged in outreach mission of justice and mercy for the hungry, hurting and homeless.
  • An increase in average worship attendance has a direct correlation to an increase in giving thus enabling both basic discipleship development and greater outreach for others.
  • An increase in average worship attendance usually means a church is reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people with the gospel.
  • An increase in average worship attendance develops a greater commitment to the whole gospel.

The great centrality of holy worship in the life of discipleship has led us to the WIG. WIG means the Wildly Important Goal. At our last Annual Conference, we introduced the WIG as a percent of market share. United Methodists have roughly 1% of the populace in the geographical area composing the Central Texas Conference worshipping in our churches. The goal we adopted as a Conference was to increase our market share in worship attendance as a percent of the population to 1.25 percent by 2026. This is a huge increase, especially considering that we expect the population of our Conference area to grow 15% by 2026. Recently Lovett Weems (founding Director for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Center and now Senior Consultant) shared with me that this is one of the most audacious and significant goals he has seen any Conference in the United States set in many years.

Figuring out the market share goal of any one local church is not a matter of simply calculating 1.25% of the population within a 5-mile drive radius. Figuring out market share (a way of thinking about worship mission share) involves first, knowing your market (mission) area. Is it 5 miles or a 15-minute drive or a geographical county or a few zip codes?  The local church (not the District or Conference) will establish its own best understanding of their mission field and market area.

Secondly figuring out market share necessitates knowing what your current market share is as a congregation. Again, the local church (not the District or Conference) will establish its own best understanding of their mission field and market area. Using Mission Insite (a detailed demographic analysis which may be accessed free of charge), a church can then calculate its current market share. The market share will differ wildly from church to church. For some churches the current market share of average worship attendance will be above the Conference average. (I looked at two recently that were at 3% and one at 6%.)  Others will be below 1%. (I looked at one that at .5% and another at less than .5 %). Typically market share will be higher in small towns and lower in cities.

Local church leadership together with the pastor (not by the pastor alone!!) will establish a measurable goal for the next year. Those goals should include an increase in worship attendance (whether market share or a simple numeric goal) as well as an increase in Professions of Faith. Together we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

 

How to set goals – by Jaime McGlothlin from Valley Mills / Cayote

 

 

 

Engage! Missional Transformation in Love, Service and Relationship with Others ©

This coming October, we have a significant opportunity to grow our missional outreach to those in our local communities through a CTC-sponsored event entitled ENGAGE: Transforming Missions. The ENGAGE Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at Temple First UMC, and is designed for clergy and mission leaders seeking to grow deeper relationships with the persons they serve.

Through the opening sessions with Tom Bassford, a leader in transformative mission ministry, and breakout sessions led by our own Central Texas Conference mission leaders, participants will have the opportunity to learn from and dialogue with other leaders about best practices of relational mission ministry.  The key is “relational mission ministry.”  The ENGAGE Conference focuses on helping churches make the transition from ministry that meets emergency needs into individual and community transformation through relationships. I invite the reader to click the following link for a brief video discussion on ENGAGE (the video is also available below). In it, Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for the Central Texas Conference, and I discuss the importance of local churches moving toward doing transformational missions.  The Conference will connect our core mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, with the WIG as together we seek to reach out in love, justice and mercy to all.

The keynote speaker/teacher is Dr. Tom Bassford. Tom Bassford is Founder and President of Significant Matters and SATalks in Olathe, Kansas, a non-profit organization working with churches, faith-based groups, community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations to tackle complex societal issues in sustainable ways. Before founding Significant Matters, he pastored for more than 30 years and has been involved in the work of church missions both locally and internationally for over 40 years.

In 2014, under Tom’s leadership, Significant Matters launched SATalks, a TED Talk type of gathering and video website to explore and demonstrate ways to create sustainable transformation through church missions.  They also launched the Missions 3.0 Network for churches wanting to move their mission work beyond “helping that hurts.” SATalks and Missions 3.0 exist to accelerate the learning curve around sustainable approaches to missions and connect those early pioneers trying to make it happen.

ENGAGE is an outstanding opportunity for churches to send a team who can participate in a variety of breakout sessions and then return home with ideas to consider for mission focused on making disciples in their local community.  Registration information can be found on the Central Texas Conference website.

A Time for Courage: Part III ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part III) is the third and final section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017. Part I was posted June 19th and Part II was posted June 21st.  I remind the reader of the closing paragraph of Part II: “We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!”  –Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

So let’s get concrete about the work of ministry before us as lay and clergy together in the Central Texas Conference.  Wherever you are on the continuum between a progressive theology and a traditional/evangelical theology, we need faithful and fruitful congregations.  The Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, calls us to build vital congregations! Whatever the future brings, we need Christ-honoring, life-giving places of worship and service! This is why we are engaged in our God-honoring mission that emerges naturally out of the Great Commission of the risen Savior and moves forward under the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference nine years ago, there was already a firmly implanted understanding of the mission of The United Methodist Church and in particular of the mission of the churches in the Central Texas Conference:  “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our clear vision over the last nine years has centered on building faithful and fruitful churches in all kinds of locations, with wide and a variety missions fields including great diversity, and a deep sense of life transforming discipleship.

Vision: Vibrant and Vital local churches of all sizes, types and in all contexts all across the Central Texas Conference, which are fruitful and faithful in accomplishing the stated mission.

Yoked to the mission and vision has been a consistent core strategy which we have called simply “the Big Three.”  Collectively they represent not only the core strategy but a set of driving values which give shape to our collective ministry.

Core Strategic Values: To engage deeply in the “big three” key strategic values

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on the local Church
  3. Develop a new generation of lay and clergy leaders

This year we have added a strategic focus, namely what we are calling the WIG (Wildly Important Goal).  The WIG is the key thing we must keep as a targeted goal above all else.  In doing so, we are driven by the living power of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the risen Lord, and the constantly creating genius of our creator God.  Make no mistake, the WIG must be central to have any chance of accomplishing our stated mission.  Folks, this is true regardless of where you stand on the controversial issues facing us as a larger church!  The WIG leads us to tangible strategic focus.  It forms the linchpin of “how” we will accomplish our larger strategic task and links with the why of the Great Commission, which Christ has given us to go and make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20).

Strategic Focus:  Increasing the number of disciples of Jesus Christ during the next 10 years through . . .

  • New Faith Communities
  • Clergy and Lay Leadership Development
  • Mission Focused Discipleship

Always, always, always! narrative and metrics go together.  We will seek out the stories of transformation (narrative) – both personal and congregational, embrace growth in variety of forms – missional, spiritual, financial, social, etc.  As we learn the stories of faith transformation, they are yoked to two specific WIG measurements.

WIG MEASUREMENTS YOKED TO THE NARRATIVE:

  • Market share (as defined by average weekly worship attendance divided by total population; currently we are at 1.07%)
    •   1.1% by 2020
    •   1.25% by 2026
  • Professions of Faith
    •   3,500 per year by 2026 (At the end of 2016 the number of professions of faith was 1, 845.)

Taken together with the narrative stories, these are two key components of making disciples.

Tactics:

From our core strategy, focused on the WIG, over the years we have looked at a number of important tactical ways to move towards this Christ honoring goal of vibrant, vital, faithful and fruitful local churches in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ to go and make disciples.  This list includes but is not limited to:

  • Investigating our context (with Dr. Gil Rendle)
  • Wrestling with Wesleyan Theology (Dr. Kenda Dean)
  • Local Church Leadership (Rev. Adam Hamilton)
  • Developing cultural and ethnic inclusivity (General Secretary Erin Hawkins & Rev. Rudy Rasmus)
  • Building a Conference and Church culture that is open to experimentation (Bishop Robert Schnase – “Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences”)
  • Understanding our Path to Discipleship (Dr. Candace Lewis, Bishop Scott Jones, & Dr. Phil Maynard)

Today we intentionally add a new and old key tactical component to living out our missional focus of “making disciples for the transformation of the world” by lifting high the Big Three: Christ the Center, Focus on the Local Church, and Developing lay and clergy leaders.  What tactical component to our mission is both new and old, at once at the heart of the Wesleyan movement and yet desperately needing rediscovery while simultaneously radically new?  This crucial tactical component needs to be emphatically embraced on an intensely practical level if a congregation is to be faithful and fruitful in accomplishing the WIG and thus our stated mission.  It is no more nor less than the rediscovery and reclaiming of what original Methodists call “The Class Meeting.”

On a full sea we are now afloat indeed but, this is not the voyage of the Titantic.  Instead to the glory of God, the honor of Christ, and the celebration of the Holy Spirit moving among us, this is the voyage of some kind of combination of the voyages of the Mayflower and the Dawn Treader.  It is combination only God could put together.

Our phenomenal good fortune, no … our phenomenal divine blessing and high privilege is being signed aboard as crew on the ship of the church captained by Christ himself!  I challenge us to be who we are at our best … people of faith and not fear.  This is a time for courage; quiet, persistent, resilient courage under the Lord’s leadership and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

“God of grace and God of glory, On Thy people pour Thy power. Crown Thine ancient church’s story, Bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour, For the facing of this hour” (“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Hymn Number 577, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse No. 1).

 

 

A Time for Courage: Part II ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part II) is the second section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference June 12, 2017. Part I was posted on June 19th.   —Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

In Narnia, the green mist preys on people’s weaknesses and their fears. It makes their darkest dreams come true, and frightens, or worse yet, tempts them. The same happens in our time and even in our churches and the greater United Methodist Church.

This is a call to trust and obey. The temptation would be for us to try in this gathering to solve political issues that stalk the halls of Washington, D.C. or the 2019 issues of human sexuality and avoid the pressing needs the Lord God calls us to face today. This does not mean an ignorance of those issues or a failure to address them but rather calls us to focus on the task before us in its proper context.

There will be opportunity to face the issues that threaten us with schism, specifically same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI people.  We have a task group working with our feedback to the Commission on the Way Forward.  (The Commission holds the responsibility to prepare a report for the Council of Bishops and the called session of the 2019 General Conference.)  Each and every district along with their lay and clergy will have time and opportunity to give feedback.  We are committed as a Conference to a week of prayer for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and a faithful future of The United Methodist Church.  (It should be noted that each annual conference in The United Methodist Church worldwide has been asked to take a specific week.  Our assigned week is January 28 – February 3.)

I invite you to take the image of the voyage of the Dawn Treader along with the image of the Mayflower and yoke them together with multi biblical injunctions and instructions.  Apply Joshua 1:5b -7, 9:

I won’t desert you or leave you. Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors. “Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you.  … I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Embrace Psalm 46:1-7.

God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
     when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.
Selah

 There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
 God is in that city. It will never crumble.
God will help it when morning dawns.
 Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
God utters his voice; the earth melts.
 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety.

Clergy, allow me to speak specifically to you while inviting the laity to overhear our conversation.  We need to lay our anxiety on the altar of the Lord.  We are not in control of the future of The United Methodist Church.  We need to trust God and allow the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work while we buttress them with prayer. We need to engage in respectful, carefully graceful conversations with our laity. Let the words of Jesus guide our emotional and spiritual dispositions.

Notice how the lilies in the field 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 of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. …  Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:28-29, 33-34)

Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control.

Laity, allow me to speak to you from both head and heart.  “On such a full sea we are now afloat” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3). Shakespeare’s words fit our times and our churches.  Expecting your clergy to magically solve the controversial issues of our day is not just unrealistic. It is fundamentally unfaithful.  We can neither ignore the elephant in the room – possible schism in The United Methodist Church – nor be frozen by fear.  Laity and clergy have to do this together.  We cannot faithfully and successfully sail the perilous seas of our age separately. To borrow in paraphrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., “we must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  This is a time for courage from both lay and clergy leadership.  It is also deeply a time for prayer. It is also a time for uncommon patience.  Hear again the opening words of Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Allow me to reiterate my comment directed specifically to the clergy but this time direct it specifically to the laity while inviting the clergy to overhear.  Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control. “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord, and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #2 ©

Enthusiasts – God as a Subject

Many of us are aware that the title “Methodist” was originally meant as an insult.  Those called Methodists were considered methodical fanatics in the way they followed Jesus (i.e. through in bible study, prayer, spiritual discipline, evangelistic faith sharing and works of love, justice and mercy, etc.).  Often a more common shorthand reference to them was that they were simply “enthusiasts.”  It was not meant as a compliment!

In the introduction to David Hempton’s marvelous Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, the author recalls an interchange between two great Oxford scholars.  Hugh Price Hughes challenged Mark Pattison, the then distinguished scholar and rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford. Pattison rejected Methodism as part of religious thought worthy of consideration.  Pattison considered Methodism as “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).  Methodists in Pattison’s vision were “enthusiasts” who should be dismissed by all right thinking “reasonable” Christians/people.

And yet, if we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we recover the zeal of the original Methodist “enthusiasts.”  They held a passion for Christ and the gospel, for the life of faithfulness and fruitfulness in holiness of heart and life which so burned within them that it shed light on the outside in an often brutal shadowed world.  Indeed so true is this basic element of the original Methodists that some scholars “argue that the explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century … can best be explained as a much-modified continuation of the Methodist holiness tradition”  (Hempton, p. 2).

Famously in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley shared his hopes and fears for the future of the Wesleyan movement with the words: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” 

All this boisterous enthusiasm is a stretch for someone like myself who came to the Christian faith via the Friends (Quakers) and their preference for dignified silence.  And yet… at the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we are called to be enthusiasts for Jesus.  I can’t help but recall a young new start pastor rising to share in a Path One gathering (The United Methodist Church’s official new church & new faith community planting ministry) who commented, “The Methodist Church was begun by a bunch of college students who were determined to take Jesus seriously.”  There is more than just a small element of truth in his comment.  A bunch of college kids got seriously enthusiastic for Jesus.  While estimates vary today there are something around 35 million plus (I am sure this figure is low, but it is the best I could lay my hands on quickly) Methodists around the world and the many, many more who claim connection to the Wesleyan way of Christianity (probably 250 million!).

The modern sage of American culture Garrison Keillor has remarked, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them….If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael row your boat ashore’ they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!” (Garrison Keillor on “Those People called Methodists” ).
How then are we to reclaim this heart of the Wesleyan Way for our day?  The young pastor has it right for starters.  We embrace the model of a bunch of college kids who decided to take Jesus seriously.  We follow Jesus in our lives and larger world.  But there is more to this than simply a call to commitment and action.  At its core, the need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way is theological.

Methodists were “enthusiasts” for Christ because they saw God in action!  God was simply not an object of belief but a subject moving in their lives and the lives of those around them.  Personal transformation by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is real.  Social transformation was (and is!) an outgrowth of personal transformation.  It is happening today!  I can still taste the thrill of sitting in a worship service where the pastor opened by asking people if they had experienced any “God sightings” this week.  All kinds of folks from middle school-aged kids to septuagenarian adults stood up and shared!  They were enthusiasts in the original Methodist sense.  The Trinity was real; Jesus was alive; the Holy Spirit was active!  Their lives and community were being transformed by the Lord moving in their midst.

I love the comment offered by Professor Jason Vickers in his book Minding the Good Ground, “… the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost not simply to dwell among us but to dwell within us in such a way that, as Boris Bobrinskoy once put it, ‘we cannot discern the frontier between his presence and our own autonomy’” (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 77).  We must get over ourselves; our own convictions, causes and campaigns opening ourselves again to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is scary and dangerous stuff.  It is much more than simply academically reclaiming a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to be sure we must do this much!).  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way calls us to set aside of cultural “properness” (regardless of where we are on the political, ideological and social spectrum!) and open ourselves to the wild ways of the Holy Spirit!

Regaining an understating of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as an active subject moving in our lives and worlds is at the very center of reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  This will not happen without a re-appropriation of the practice of foundational spiritual disciplines.  But for today, I will pause.  A following blog will offer some reflections on being methodical – embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #1 ©

Two incidents frame the beginning of a series of blogs I have tentatively entitled “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  First, an incident that happened a couple of months ago.  Jolynn and I found ourselves in another community worshipping at a large United Methodist Church on Sunday morning.  The preacher opened by stating that he was continuing a series of sermons by John Wesley with additions of his own.  Absentmindedly I didn’t catch what he said at first.  However as the sermon unfolded, I soon realized that he was preaching Wesley’s famous sermon on “Justification by Faith”  (See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1, Sermon 5, pp. 182-199, Edited by Albert C. Outler). Somewhat edited for length and spliced with a few comments, its essence and even language was straight Wesley.

I take notes when I listen to a sermon (for my own spiritual learning and growth in faith, not in judgment of the preacher!).  About half way through I put my pen down and closed my notepad.  I sat back and looked across the congregation.  There were roughly four hundred people sitting in the sanctuary, and they were in rapt attention.  Literally you could hear a pin drop.  The sense of spiritual hunger and eager learning was palpable.  (Afterwards I checked with Jolynn and she too felt the mood of anticipation and eager learning).

There is a deep longing for the gospel truth which exists within and around this wildly secular culture of ours.  Like those coming in from the desert, we seek the water of life.  Culturally we are a living embodiment of John 4:15.  “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!’”

The second incident took place the day before my mother-in-law died.  We knew the end was near and had spent the previous day at the nursing home.  Sunday morning – discouraged, emotionally and spiritually hurting – we went to the local United Methodist Church where Maxine was a member.  (Over some 70 years she had held many positions in the church including 25 years plus as a Sunday School teacher, a leader in the UMW, Chair of the Trustees and a member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.)  We had a soul-deep longing for a word from the Lord; a message of faith that was truly good news, the gospel.  The sermon did not mention God or the Trinity or Jesus Christ/Lord or the Holy Spirit.  The gist of it was that we should all volunteer to help others and if we really wanted to be good we should join the Lions Club.  (Sadly I am not making this up!)

There is a hunger to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way in the chaos of our times; one that is a soul-deep thirsting for a true and living walk with the Lord.  John Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wherever one comes out on the progressive vs traditionalist theological spectrum of modern Methodism in America, the need is for something greater.  We stand with the unnamed woman at well so long ago crying out for the water of life.  This is what the original Wesleyan Way brought to first England and then the world.  Instinctively people recognized in the Wesleyan movement the essence of the Pentecost church.  Wesley’s deep fear has become a painful truth.

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Wesley scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

At its heart our crisis in this day is not about a social issue (however desperately important issues like healthcare, immigration, war, and the like are – and make no mistake they are critically important!).  Today The United Methodist Church wrestles with a much deeper theological crisis.  I recently overheard one of our better pastor’s mutter, “we don’t need more vague Unitarianism.”  How right he is!

Many of us in seminary (especially those my age – 67!) recall reading the famous Christian theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr (long Professor at Yale Divinity School).  Back in 1937 writing his book The Kingdom of God in America, Professor Niebuhr penned a famous quote.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”   (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193) It was a prescient insight offered just before the outbreak of World War II.

It is just as accurate in a time floundering in self-indulgence and slathered with a self-righteous embrace of victimhood.  As I write, the insights of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics rumbles in the back of my mind.  Near the end of his book he writes, “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn.  Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics, p. 292).

A deep lingering hunger for a better life exists for us all.  We stand by the wells of life hoping against hope.  Longing for a soul deep significance, a redemption which can deliver far more than materialism’s wildest claims, science’s most brilliant insights, and politics’ most raucous triumph.  This is what the Wesleyan Way provided a heart-sick, slum infested, socially desperate politically bankrupt England.  It is what the Wesleyan Way offered to an infant America and what became the comfort and hope of so many settlers pushing west in the “New World.”  It is what the Wesleyan Way has shared across the globe.

I will offer a series of blogs on this subject over the next month and half or so (with periodic interruptions).  Together the Lord God calls us to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  We were once called “enthusiasts.”  It is time to claim the title again.

Reflections on the Upcoming Judicial Council Decision ©

On Tuesday, April 25, Mike Ford, Central Texas Conference Lay Leader, and I sent the following letter (via email) to all the clergy in the Central Texas Conference currently under appointment as well as the Lay Leaders of our local churches. We’d like to thank Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the CTC, for his valuable assistance. – JML

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus””   Philippians 2: 1-5 (CEB)

Dear Friends,

Greetings in the name of Christ! We are writing to all Central Texas Conference clergy currently under appointment as well as those serving as Lay Leader for our local churches, in hopes of providing you the necessary information and context regarding the pending Judicial Council ruling on the validity of the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

As you may recall, Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated a United Methodist bishop in July by delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto, an elder in good standing at the time of her election, is a partner in a same-sex marriage. At the time of the election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about the validity of her election. The petition asks the Judicial Council whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” is lawful under The Book of Discipline [Paragraphs 304.3, 310.2d, 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)].

The Judicial Council is meeting today through Friday (April 25 – 28) in Newark, New Jersey. During this meeting, the Council will act on the request for a declaratory decision on Bishop Oliveto’s election. At this time, we have no indication as to when the ruling will be announced.

The entire Cabinet is quite conscious that there are deep and varied convictions about this issue across the conference and connection. We are also aware that there is great interest, discourse and anxiety about this decision. As such, we are in daily prayer for all United Methodists, but especially the lay and clergy leadership of our conference as they are being called upon to lead their congregations through this critical moment and keep their church’s focus squarely on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We ask you to join us in these prayers.

We offer the following for your careful consideration, believing that it will help prepare you for the announcement of that ruling and assist in any questions or comments you might receive.

  • First and foremost, be a people of prayer. Pray for the Judicial Council, the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto and all the bishops of the church, all local churches, clergy and laity and The United Methodist Church at large.
  • Slow down, relax, don’t over respond. Please remind all to breathe deep and recall that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is at work here. Regardless of the ruling, the churches of the Central Texas Conference will continue in their worship and ministries.
  • No matter how the Judicial Council decides, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ stays the same. We will stay focused on 1) Keeping Christ at the center of everything we do; 2) Developing strong and effective clergy and lay leadership; 3) Growing vital congregations throughout the Central Texas Conference.
  • We are going to continue to uphold church law. Please do not make premature decisions based on this ruling. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality and legality of actions taken by individuals or constituted entities of the church and will express its own perspective and give its own rationale for its decision. The Judicial Council’s actions are always specific to particular circumstances. Because their decision will be about a specific request from one jurisdiction regarding the action of another jurisdiction, their decision will not change The Book of Discipline.
  • We ask you to wait for the full report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), which is expected to be released in about a year, and the actions that come out of the called General Conference, scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, before deciding on where you stand on this issue. Remember, this week’s ruling DOES NOT change church law, nor does it suggest how the CWF or the called General Conference might decide.
  • Please be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. While Facebook, Twitter, etc. are important and vital tools of communication, posts and tweets can easily be taken out of context, especially when shared or retweeted. While you and the members of your church are certainly entitled to and encouraged to have your own opinions, we do want to remind you that there is a greater constituency beyond your personal social media network to which you are responsible. No matter how the Judicial Council rules, there will be some in your congregation/community/peer groups who are celebrating the ruling and others who will mourn the decision. As you engage via social media, please do so in a positive, uplifting manner and help redirect the conversation back to the mission of the church. We encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Remember, as a pastor or lay leader, to some degree, you no longer only represent yourself, you represent your church, and the larger shared ministry of The UMC.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns following the decision, we urge you to visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including either one of us. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to the conference lay leader. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • At the request of the Council of Bishops, we will form a task force to help us design processes for working with and through the recommendations put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward. Dr. Bob Holloway, dean of the CTC Cabinet; Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central District Superintendent; Rev. Travis Franklin, North District Superintendent (effective July 1) and Rev. Casey Orr, member of the Commission on a Way Forward, have been named to this task force. They will be joined by four members of the 2016 CTC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The delegation reps will be named by the delegation in the coming months.

Once again, we ask you to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord, keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the process – the Judicial Council, the CWF, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue. We also urge you to live in the second chapter of Philippians – particularly verses 4-5. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.“(CEB)

The Lord is at work here – whether we are aware, the Lord is at work here.

May the grace of the Lord guide your hearts and minds, today and forever.

A Easter Church ©

I used to tape a quote of the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter to my pulpit so I could see it every time I rose to preach:  “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Somewhere along the way I stopped doing so but the words that signal the importance of Christian preaching stay with me.  This is even more true as we approach the cross of Good Friday and peer into the fog shrouded mists of Easter Sunday.

More recently Phillip Jenkins’ fascinating book The Lost History of Christianity opens with the disturbing comment:

“Religions die. . . . It is not difficult to find countries or even continents, once viewed as natural homelands of a particular faith, where that creed is now extinct, and such disasters are not confined to primal or “primitive” beliefs. The systems that we think of as great world religions are as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs or Mayans in their particular gods.
Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christens were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West” (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pp. 1-2).

It is no secret that mainline Protestantism in North America has been slowly dying for well over half a century.  Scholars talk about this broad societal trend in terms of the “death of Christendom.”  Christine Chakoian in Cryptomnesia reflects on this widespread change commenting:  “In the last fifty years, every major mainline Protestant denomination has seen a steady decline in membership” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 11).  United Methodism reached its peak in the mid-1960s and has been steadily declining throughout my ministry (roughly 42 years).  I recently finished listening to a book Robert P. Jones entitled The End of White Christian America.  The title is deeply instructive of the wider demographic shift taking place both ethnically and within various Christian religious groups.  Closer to home, youth soccer games are scheduled for Easter morning this year in Mansfield, Texas.

And yet, all around us creative new expressions of faith communities abound.  First UMC Fort Worth is engaged in a creative new worship expression called “The Gathering.”  Harvest UMC in Fort Worth is a creative new multi-ethnic expression of the Christian faith.  LifeChurch UMC in Waco is a transformational outreach of the Christian witness sponsored by First UMC Waco under the leadership of Pastor Gabe Dominguez. The Wesley Foundation at Tarleton State University has over 50 students gathering for worship regularly.  Rural Nolanville UMC has a “bus stop” ministry that is reaching a new generation.  The Oaks (CTC’s newest congregation) had 5 baptisms (including 1 adult baptism) on Palm Sunday!  Works of missonal outreach in love, justice and mercy exist in abundance in virtually very church.  And the list could go on and on!

Rev. Cecil Williams’ famous turn phrase sticks in my mind.  “It’s a Friday world, but Sunday’s coming!”  Beyond the cross a beam of light lances out on an empty tomb.  Far from dying, new forms and expressions of Christian faithfulness and new faith communities are being born all over the Central Texas Conference and across the United States.

Dr. Tim Tennent, President of Asbury School of Theology, commented in his opening Convocation address in 2016: “Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport, still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon, church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania.”  (Tim Tennent, “My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology,” Asbury Theological Seminary, September 13, 2016)

God is at work to birth the Lord’s new church!  We are a resurrection people who dare to look at the cross and see through it to a greater work of the Lord unfolding all around us!

Click on the image below to view and/or download Bishop Lowry’s 2017 Easter Message.

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