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PHILIPPINES BRIGHT SPOTS

When the first George Bush (that is George Herbert Walker Bush) was President, he lifted up what he called for “1,000 Points of Lght.” President Bush urged us to focus on the better side of our nature by lifting up organizations (ministries) that shape human society in healthy, hopeful ways. I thought then and think now that there is something to this emphasis on the points of light or bright spots around us. I believe this is especially true for the Church. There are “bright spots” – “points of light” – all around us.

Sunday night I arrived in the Philippines with Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference. We are working with representatives from the Philippines Central Conference (three Episcopal Areas) on the Council of Bishops Bright Spots Project. The Bright Spots project is an outgrowth of the United Methodist Church’s worldwide emphasis on building vital congregations. The areas of congregational vitality are the same in the Philippines as they are in the United States (and around the rest of the world). We look for evidence of congregational vitality through transformation life stores, fruitfulness in ministry, and life changing ministries which reflection the Wesleyan way of being a Christ follower (holiness of heart and life). The five markers of vitality correspond to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the earliest Christian church as found immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. Vitality is measured by the “five markers of disciples involved/engaged in “1) making new disciples (evangelism, a part of radical hospitality); 2) worship; 3) small groups (intentional faith development); 4) hands on mission (risk-taking mission and service); and 5) giving to missions (extravagant generosity).” The connection to the Bright Spots Project comes out of the work of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team, Discipleship Ministries and Vital Congregations project through the Connectional Table.

The “Bright Spots” project builds on the notion and understanding of a research method called Positive Deviance. (PD) PD is a strength-based approach around core principles which involve communities possessing the expertise to address their own problems. In brief form the community (read church) discovers existing uncommon, successful behaviors and strategies. Put differently, it looks at the bright spots among the various congregations in an Annual Conference. PD is built on the notion that “someone just like me is succeeding against all odds with the same resources that are available to me.” PD focuses on practice instead of knowledge. (“You are more likely to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”) For those of you interested in reading more, I strongly commend The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.

All this sounds dry but it ends up exciting. Drawing lay and clergy together we learn how to focus on what is working (fruitful and faithful ministry) and learn from such ministry in ways that are naturally transferable to other congregations. Practical insights are welded to the best biblical and theological insights. The beauty of this approach is the way people are turned into their own researchers and own the results in a concrete way. Instead of a top-down “program,” “bright spots” provides a bottom up approach to ministry in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

In the Central Texas Conference our focus remains firmly on what I call the Big 3.
1. Christ at the Center
2. Focus on the Local Church
3. Development of Lay and Clergy Leadership

As I keep insisting, no one needs to ask what the focus of the next Annual Conference is. The theme is on “energizing and equipping local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We are blessed with many bright spots. We can learn much by asking simple questions of each other, laying aside our preconceived convictions and listening again as if for the 1st time what leads to excellence in faithful and fruitful ministry. What can we learn from our “bright spots?” How is it some churches engage in risk-taking ministry above and beyond what is normally expected? How come some congregations have professions of faith in situations where other churches are closing? How is it that passionate worship breaks out in the oddest places?

The Holy Spirit is loose in our world and our churches. We have much to learn from others. As we share, God works on us in our hearts leading us to exciting faithfulness.

New Room Report

For the last two and a half days I have been in Franklin, Tennessee attending the New Room Conference. I was warned not to go. I was told that the New Room Conference was a gathering to plan the schism of the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBT marriage and ordination. I suppose such rumors came about because the New Room talks about building a new network of Wesleyan Christians.

The notion that this is some schismatic Wesleyan-United Methodist group couldn’t be farther from the truth. There has been no talk about leaving the United Methodist Church from any of the Conference speakers. New Room has used explicit language about a new annual conference. But such talk about a conference is not structural.

The New Room Conference is about a global Wesleyan movement. It is an effort about connecting Wesleyan Christians from all over. In their own words, “it’s a decisively, unapologetically, creatively, Wesleyan gathering.” Yesterday I sat next a retired University President who is (as he put it) “a salvationist,” by which he meant a part of the Salvation Army. We heard a lecture from the Presiding Elder (translate Bishop) of the Wesleyan Church (Jo Anne Lyon). Her moving address connected a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with ministry among those who have been maimed and mutilated by extremist in Syrian refugee camps. [The official from the Wesleyan Church who introduced her commented that some people work for the “man” but they work for the woman and are proud of it!]

If there is a theme, it is about the recovery of a full Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with a large (very large) dose of movement (work) of the Holy Spirit. These folks are deeply serious about genuine discipleship and deep allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. The focus is worldwide and not just a North American-centric vision.

Dr. Stanley John gave an impassioned address on the rise of immigrant churches in North America and the changing face of American Christianity. [“Stanley John is a member of the Indian diaspora born and raised in Kuwait. He serves as the director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.”] There is a great emphasis on church planting and evangelism that is yoked with sanctification in the best Wesleyan sense. Mike Breen, leader of the 3DM, led a workshop I attended that challenged us to consider how we move beyond mere cultural Christianity. Lisa Yebuah, Pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC, and Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas, both gave exciting illuminating talks. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler, gave an excellent address on the role of class and band meeting (similar to an address he gave to the Council of Bishops in Oklahoma last year). I could go on but hopefully you have received a taste of what for me has been a heartwarming and wonderfully encouraging conference.

The original purpose of an annual conference meeting was to investigate what to teach and how to teach and not about running an institution. This conference (spelled with a small “c”) is focused on the original purpose and not a political gathering. I hope to go to next year’s conference, time permitting.

As I closed this blog, I would be remiss if I did not note the recurrence of prayer for and conversation about the persecution of Christians. Persecution is a present reality in a number of places around the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and ISIS but the struggle is far wider. One report from India was particularly chilling. Amid the reality of persecution there is a wonderful converting ministry which is a work – one of the Holy Spirit offering love in the place of hate. I ask you to join with me in prayer for all those suffering for the faith and for those causing the suffering. May Christ be known! May our discipleship grow in both sanctification (personal and social holiness in heart and life) and grace-filled love for all people!

The Crucial Role of Music in Faith Development

I have just returned from a month off for Renewal Leave. During that time period, I have been working on a possible book focusing on the need of the United Methodist Church to reintegrate the core essence of orthodoxy theology. I also spent some time being Grandpa! Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry was born to our son and daughter-in-law on July 16th. The highlight of my summer was holding Simon (love that middle name – Michael!).

During my Renewal Leave and the three weeks preceding it (2 weeks of vacation and about a week in separate chunks for the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops and the meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board), I have not be writing my regular blog – The Focused Center. I have from time to time posted a guest blog. With this writing I am picking back up the joy and challenge of writing my regular blog. I try to publish a blog on Tuesdays and Fridays.

While on leave, Jolynn and I have worshipped in a variety of places and settings. We’ve worshipped at United Methodist Churches and churches of other denominations. We’ve shared in praise and prayer at churches large and small, rural, urban, and suburban. We heard some excellent preaching, and we’ve experienced some preaching that left much to be desired.

In our worship adventures I have been repeatedly impressed by the way much of our theology comes from the music. (Unfortunately, almost tragically, the theology of at least 1/2 the sermons we heard were mush.) Often it was the music that spiritually fed us the most. I was most impressed by how much of what we heard and sang was a mixture of old and new. Many are familiar with “Amazing Grace (My Chains Fell Off).” How many of you have heard a mixture of “I Need Thee Every Hour” with a contemporary praise theme? Check out Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You.

The list could go on but my point is made.

There is something happening in healthier, robust, faithful and fruitful churches about the way they are recovering and reclaiming deep faithfulness through a mixture of old and new music. We know the phrase, “music soothes the savage beast.” This much is true. But music does much more. It is a crucial vehicle of witness and praise. Our music is often our theological anchor.

Recently in our weekly time together my spiritual guide reminded me of how important our music is. He related visiting with an old friend who lives in another state. His friend was returning to the faith and the church after a long sojourn. His friend asked for advice on finding a church. My guide advised his friend to look first and foremost for a place with great music that was anchored in the Trinitarian faith.

Shortly before that conversation, I had been reading a biography of the great Church of India bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life by Geoffrey Wainwright. This saint of the 20th century and theological titan often sang a hymn as a part of his devotions.

The hat trick took place for me reading a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Tennent wrote: “Those of us in the Wesleyan stream … have been nurtured and nourished for centuries on theologically rich hymnody. The reason is because when the “chips were down” it has been our hymns which have saved us. Even when the church became lured into exchanging the gospel for the latest cultural mess of pottage, our hymns managed to keep us on track. The rich theological depth of our hymns helped us to re-remember the gospel and become better hearers of the Scriptures (Timothy Tennent, “ A Word to Worship Song Writers: Take Up Thy Pen and Write,” March 8, 2015.

This summer I encountered once again the great truth that music plays a crucial role in faith development. I have more favorite hymns and treasured contemporary music than I can fairly report on. I carry in my pocket words from a chorus I learned at Taize.

“In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”

The words of “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” – whether sung in the original 1757 version or presented by Chris Rice in a 2007 version (“Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project”) – never fail to move me. As they impact on the soul of my being, I am learning again about great theological doctrines of sin, salvation, and sanctification. I am embraced by a high Christology and blessed by a love that will not let me go and demands an active repentance.

“3. Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood; How His kindness yet pursues me Mortal tongue can never tell, Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me I cannot proclaim it well.

4. O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”
-Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Richard Robinson, 1757

Music plays a crucial role in faith development. Theology unfolds in the embrace of great music both contemporary and traditional.   It is good to be back.

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part II

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

 In the first of my two blogs, we explored Investing in Leadership Development. Of seven Exodus Evaluation recommendations, it’s the one given top priority by the Core Team and the Cabinet. Today’s topics are the other two recommendations selected for emphasis: focusing disproportionately on “selected churches;” and making programming decisions.

Focus Disproportionately on “Selected” Churches  -The intent of this recommendation is to help a small number of high potential churches take a major step forward. This could mean reversing a period of decline, breaking through a growth barrier, or launching a major missional initiative. Doing this requires CTC to identify a small number of churches and ensure that they have the attention and resources to reach this potential.

A version of this recommendation has already been practiced by the DS’s informally, so a natural starting point is for the ad hoc task group to evaluate what has and hasn’t been effective in the DS’s efforts, and what improvements should be made. From my perspective, this is likely to include:

  • A more formal criteria and process for selecting the churches.
  • The development of specific plans for improvement, with resourcing to support the plans.
  • Increased tracking and accountability.

This recommendation should also be started on a small, pilot basis (perhaps only one or two churches per district) with an emphasis on high quality and learning before expanding to additional churches. Workshop participants discussed if and how this initiative should be communicated to the broader conference. There are pros and cons with publicly identifying the selected churches. The task group should include recommendations on this point.

Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions  -This recommendation had the greatest divergence of opinions during the workshop. While we discussed the possibility of “starting from scratch,” the consensus is that doing this is too radical and that the cost (time and organizational stress) would outweigh the benefits. The preferred course of action is for CTC to do a better job of coordinating and communicating programming decisions. The task group for this recommendation should:

  • Develop a clear definition of “programming” vs. “resourcing.”
  • Propose a process that will lead to better coordination of programs and less duplication. This could be as simple as one or two meetings each year where the Cabinet reviews all planned programs and events (from all three centers and districts) at the same time, and makes adjustments as appropriate.
  • Identify ways that programming plans can be communicated more effectively, especially between centers and between the conference office and districts.
  • Consider whether a formal process for evaluation of programs is needed.
  • Consider whether it is appropriate to set a goal each year for reducing CTC’s existing programming by some percentage. Doing so could create an environment of evaluation and creativity (new programs could replace existing programs that were cancelled) and could also free up time for personnel to focus more on resourcing.

Other Recommendations   -In choosing to focus on three recommendations, CTC’s leadership has determined that the other four recommendations are less important. This is an appropriate way to allocate limited resources and to ensure that progress is made. I would like to offer brief thoughts on two of the other recommendations:

  • Resourcing (Recommendation 2). Several people commented that the conference, especially the Center for Mission Support, is already doing quite a bit of resourcing. A simple but high value step may be for Mission Support to create a more formal database of currently available resources with an emphasis on the expertise that resides in local churches around the conference. This database can be expanded and improved over time. If this is done, it should be publicized to increase awareness.
  • Evaluation processes (Recommendation 5). CTC is currently working to improve its clergy evaluation process. The new process should align with the values (discussed in “leadership development”) and the overall goals of the Exodus Project. As discussed in my report, the process needs to be transparent so that clergy understand how they’re being evaluated and so that they can set appropriate goals for their own development.

Concluding Thoughts   -This workshop was another important step forward for the conference and the Exodus Project. I will conclude with four recommendations to maintain this momentum:

  • Communicate decisions from the workshop to the conference. This was discussed at the end of our meeting, but needs to be re-emphasized in light of some of the awareness concerns raised in my report.
  • Set a date for the next meeting. A general time frame of September or October was mentioned, but it will help the task groups to have a firm date so that they have a deadline to work towards. In addition, the task groups should be asked to submit their draft recommendations in advance so that everyone has a chance to review them before the meeting.
  • Commit to a one-year review. In 12 to 18 months, CTC’s leadership should meet again to review progress in these specific areas. This may also be a good time to decide whether the conference should prioritize any of the other recommendations.
  • Decide whether to do another evaluation. My report recommended a simpler evaluation of Exodus (statistical plus survey) after two more years, but CTC’s leadership should decide if, when, and how this will be done.

Next Steps Workshop on the Exodus Project, Part I

Mike Bonem meets with Cabinet and Core Team ©

Before departing on a vacation to Ireland, Bishop Lowry invited Mike Bonem to be a guest blogger. Mike, the consultant leading the Exodus Project evaluation, met on June 17 with the CTC’s Core Team and the Bishop’s Cabinet to discuss next steps.

Dear Friends in Christ,

My purpose here is to recap key points from the workshop with Central Texas Conference’s Core Team and Cabinet held on June 17, 2015. This blog and the one that follows are not meant to be a comprehensive set of notes, and they represent my perspective, which may at times differ from the group. I am also including some follow-up thoughts and recommendations for next steps that were not discussed in our meeting. Accordingly, this is intended to foster further conversation among CTC’s leaders as we move forward.

The purpose of the workshop was to define the “next steps” to be taken in the implementation of the Exodus Project. My evaluation of the Exodus Project introduced the recommendations with this statement: CTC can accelerate its progress in the Exodus Project and improve its results by narrowing its focus to the highest value activities and collaborating more actively at all levels. The seven recommendations that followed are:

  1. Develop a new process to guide programming decisions.
  2. Formalize resourcing to leverage local expertise.
  3. Focus disproportionately on “selected” churches.
  4. Invest in leadership development.
  5. Create transparent evaluation processes that align with Exodus.
  6. Re-emphasize peer learning.
  7. Clarify the role of the District Superintendent

Recognizing the need to focus on a smaller number of recommendations, the leadership team prioritized three of these as having the greatest potential impact for CTC. Those three are highlighted in bold above. Of the three, leadership development is the highest priority. This is the first of two blog posts in which we will more fully explore the recommendations the group initially has selected to emphasize.

Each of the three prioritized areas has a person who will lead in developing specific recommendations. That person will assemble an ad hoc task group to work with them in that process. The task group should include lay members as well as clergy and is not limited to the Core Team and Cabinet. The teams are to develop preliminary recommendations for discussion at a meeting in the fall. As part of their recommendations, each task group should propose milestones/goals for the first and second years.

Since top priority was given to Investing in Leadership Development, I want to address this recommendation first. The recommendation for leadership development was refined considerably during the workshop. We discussed three key ideas: leadership development for clergy, leadership development for laity, and clergy recruitment – with the majority of the time spent on the former. Leadership development for laity is important, but the current efforts that are already under way are seen as addressing this need.

The overarching concept for clergy leadership development was shaped by the “High Octane Preaching” class that has been offered for several years. The content (preaching) was chosen because of its importance for pastoral leadership, and participants are hand-selected based on their future potential. A weakness of this class is that it is not part of an integrated and intentional process for leadership development and has lacked follow-up accountability.

As envisioned in our workshop, key components of CTC’s future leadership development include:

  • Selectivity. Participants should be screened and should be chosen based on their future potential and the benefit of this development for their careers and churches. An intentional process for this selection will need to be created.
  • Focused content. CTC should not try to teach everything that a pastor might need to know, but instead should choose/design content based on the needs of the target participants and churches.
  • Values-driven. Content selection and design should reflect the conference’s values for effective pastoral leadership.
  • Mentoring and accountability. Because content is only a small portion of an individual’s development, it is important for the design to include mentoring and accountability. Individuals who are not diligent about practicing skills that they have learned in one class should not be allowed to take future classes.

Next installment – due on July 6: Focusing on “Selected Churches” and Programming Decisions.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #5:

The Three Orthos at the Heart

At the very heart of a new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be what I call the three orthos.  At its core the healthy renewed Christian movement in American will be a combination of orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia.  The word ortho comes from the Latin and late Greek.  It means right or correct.  Thus orthodox = right belief or right (correct) doctrine.  Orthopraxis = right practice or correct action and practice.  Orthokardia = right heart.

Over the years the church has on different occasions emphasized one of the three above the others; thus, there have been times when right doctrine so dominated practice and heart that the result lacked grace.  There have been occasions when heart has been right but the actions disastrously mistaken.  There have been times when the practice was holy but its lack of cohesion with heart and doctrine led to long term mistakes with little lasting strength.

Orthopraxy, which is currently in ascendant position of the three, is an insistent emphasis in Wesleyan thinking.  Thus Don Thorsen in Cavlin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice writes,

“Wesley emphasized that the church ought to be more than a congregation of believers – more than ‘faithful men’; it ought to also exhibit ‘living faith.’  It is not enough for people to exhibit right belief (or orthodoxy); they ought to also exhibit a right heart (orthokardia) and right practice (orthopraxis).  From Wesley’s perspective, the devil (as well as other religious people) may hold to ‘orthodoxy or right opinions,’ but ‘may all the while be as great a stranger as he to religion of the heart’” (Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bring Belief in Line with Practice, p. 98).

Significantly, “progressives” with an emphasis on enlightenment-thinking and a reasoned faith and “evangelicals” with an passion for doctrinal correctness both run the risk of ignoring religion of the heart (orthokardia).  Orthokardia holds a critical function of constantly directing our attention to Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  I am convinced that much of the emphasis of modern praise music is an attempt recapture a forgotten orthokardia.  So too is much of the renewed interest in spiritual formation.

Orthodoxy, correct or right doctrine, was central in the life of the earliest Christian movement. After the Holy Spirit descended, Peter preached, and listeners responded with repentance. The life of the newborn church was anchored in its doctrine. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Jaroslav Pelikan (one of the great scholars of the Christian faith over the last half century) in Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, references the textus a patribus receptus with a stronger translation of action of those earliest Christ followers.  “And they were persisting in the doctrine of the apostles” (textus a patribus receptus, excerpt from Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 57; emphasis added).  Thus the critical importance of doctrine (or foundational teaching) emerges as a centerpiece of the life of the earliest Christian church.  The importance of doctrine towers over any strategy for growth or program for action.  It is a first-order claim on the life of the church.

John Wesley famously wrote: “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 to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).

Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine.  His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline.  In other words, part of the genius of early Methodism was the way it combined the three – orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.”  They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement.  Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology (orthodoxy) in spirit (orthokardia) and discipline (orthopraxis).  Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

I close this writing on a deep conviction that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a wonderful thing.  A new church is being called forth for our post-Christendom age.  The words of Ross Douthat (which I have quoted before) are worth re-emphasizing.

“The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man [and woman] a God unto himself [or herself] – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #3: Smaller. Bigger ©

Texas Wesleyan University has been engaged in an award-winning advertisement campaign for student admissions. The campaign is built around a clever and insightful slogan, “Smaller. Smarter.”

The slogan is clever in that it is easy to remember. It is deeply insightful because it captures an essence of the educational adventure that Texas Wesleyan offers. As a church-related (United Methodist) liberal arts university, Texas Wesleyan University is committed to smaller classes where students receive intimate mentoring and direction from high quality professors and thus emerge smarter. By implication, they emerge with a four-year university degree at a point of insight, intellectual growth and maturity that is more advanced than a large 4-year university.

As we face the church of tomorrow, our slogan might instead be “Smaller. Bigger.” For well over two decades now, we have been watching a national trend in churches that cuts across denominational groupings. The trend is a growing number of very large congregations. Typically worshipping 700 or more on an average Sunday, they might best be labelled regional churches. Somewhere around 1,800 in average worship attendance, churches move into what might well be called the “mega” church category.  Regional and mega churches have been growing all across America, not only in non-denominational varieties but also in mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church. Here in the Central Texas Conference, our rise in worship attendance has largely been driven by our churches with over 500 in average worship attendance.

Simultaneously, there is a national trend in the direction of smaller congregations. More and more congregations are going part-time in their pastoral appointments, with average worship somewhere between 30 and 75 in attendance. (Lovett Weems’ calculations indicate that it takes an average worship attendance of 126 to afford a full-time elder in The United Methodist Church today. Our calculations in Central Texas, while varying from church to church, tend to hover at around 100 in average worship attendance to financially support a full-time elder.) This growth in small churches represents an intimate deepening walk with Christ in settings that are often lay-led and lay-driven. Where the deepening walk with Christ is present, smaller churches have a health and vitality that is uniquely their own. Many such smaller congregations are often much more able to achieve a high level of supportive spiritual accountability.  People aren’t able to simply sit back and “enjoy the show.”

Interestingly, the largest congregations in average worship attendance are actually very fragile.  The pivotal role of senior clergy leadership is crucial. By contrast, churches that have around 50 in average worship attendance tend to be extremely stable. There is a strength and vitality in the small church that is exciting. (This is a part of why we emphasize not only the Healthy Church Initiative, HCI, but also the Small Church Initiative, SCI.)

We face a future in The United Methodist Church that is at once going to be smaller and bigger. It much more difficult to engage in standardization in ministry. Put differently, one size DOES NOT fit all! Both pastors and lay leaders need very different skill sets for these two different mission fields.

Meanwhile, churches that average 150 – 300 in average worship attendance (medium sized) and churches that average 300-700 (large sized) tend to be either climbing or declining but are rarely stable. The shifting landscape on the American scene really is smaller and bigger at the same time.

In urban environments, there are also an increasing number of very large churches that have multiple numbers of small satellites. They are combining smaller and bigger in exciting and creative ways which capture the best of both worlds!

Alan Hirsch in his tremendous book, The Forgotten Ways notes the rising sense of highly committed small groups. (Think of the fellowship of the ring in the Tolkien trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Even more, think of Jesus and the original 12 disciples.  Add in the original Methodist class meeting.) We are going to see a continued growth in house church groups and in the health and strength of small town or rural congregations which offer vibrant spiritual connections to the Lord and each other.  They will be served by less than full time pastors. The very organizational shape of the church is changing in ways that are hard for our current structure to keep up with let alone effectively lead. Hirsch notes that the church will be made up of “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pg. 236).

Jolynn and I experienced a fascinating example of this about a decade ago when our daughter was a student at the University of York in England. As good parents, we saved some vacation time and went over for Thanksgiving to visit her in her semester abroad study. We were there for the first Sunday in Advent that year. Together as a family, we chose to go to the great York Minster Cathedral for Sunday Advent evening worship. As we entered (over an hour early thinking we’d have no trouble finding a seat), we were shocked to discover that the great cathedral, which is typically very sparsely attended during a regular Sunday worship, was packed. There were well over 2,000 people present. We sat in folding chairs on the side aisle.

While waiting for the service to start, we visited with the family behind us. They were in their mid-thirties with two preschool children. They lived in York and were very active practicing Christians in a local Baptist Church. They did not in any way identify with the Church of England. Puzzled, we asked them what brought them to the great Cathedral (the seat of one of three Archbishops in the Anglican Church) this night. They shared that they came to the cathedral, as did many Christians from a variety of churches, for high festival celebrations but spent their regular Sundays and discipleship formation activities in their much smaller church that was served by a part-time pastor holding another job. It is this model that many suggest we will see more and more of; large regional churches that serve as centers for faith and community coupled with small – in essence house churches – churches in a small setting with limited space.

I believe we are witnessing a gradually unfolding work of the Holy Spirit. Historically, if you study the cathedral system that gradually arose in Europe, it was originally this model: small communities encircling larger centers of worship and praise. For United Methodists, this represents a dramatic institutional change that is imperceptibly taking place. It is difficult, given our common ecclesiastical assumptions, to adjust to. “Smaller. Bigger.” evokes a very different set of clergy needs and competencies.  It elicits different patterns of organizational structure and decision making.  I hope to address those issues in a follow up blog.

The Cape of Good Hope ©

This Sunday I will be preaching at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Belton.  I will be using the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-30.  As I reflected on the passage, my mind drifted back to an illustration used by Rev. Michael Green, the great British pastor and scholar.

In 1499 A.D. the European view of the world changed dramatically. For years European traders had been looking for a sea route to India. They had been searching for a way to the land rich with spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa. “All attempts at rounding the Cape had failed. So much so that this treacherous headland was known as the Cape of Storms and it was the scene of many wrecks. However, one determined sailor determined to try again. He succeeded in rounding the Cape and reaching the East. Indeed, there is still a monument to this famous mariner, Vasco da Gama, in China today. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon [arriving home in 1499 A.D.] it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists round the bottom of Africa. The very name of that perilous Cape was changed to its present title, the Cape of Good Hope” (Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 131).

I think we often live at the juncture of the Cape of Storms.  This week I watched news of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  I’ve continued my ongoing prayers for the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the victims of the Garissa killing spree in Kenya, and for the safety of US soldiers serving in the Middle East (all a part of my regular prayer life).  I have read my morning paper with stories of crimes, struggles, and storms right here in Texas.  I had my fill and then some of the senseless and often fruitless political wrangling of both parties.  I have wrestled with and prayed about storms battering my work as a bishop and life as a husband, son, and brother.  My strong hunch is so have you.  Metaphorically speaking, we sail on seas that traverse the Cape of Storms.

When I read the Bible story of those disciples gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening, I think the Lord through Holy Spirit is speaking again to me, to us.  He is reminding me that we also sail past the Cape of Good Hope because Christ is risen and the ultimate destination the Savior offers is life lived with God.

I am forcefully struck by a cardinal truth in this passage (one of many!).  The Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope in community that is Christ centered – Christ focused!   Thomas only experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he was a part of the transforming community of Christ!  Cut off and alone there was no experience of the resurrection in his life.  In the transforming community, he experiences the risen Christ!

We live the resurrection only as a part of the transforming community of Christ. The Christian faith is not an isolationist movement. Thomas overcomes doubt through others.  Thomas’ Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope when he is with others in the transforming community. It is here and only here that he experiences the resurrected Christ.

It is our relationship with the risen living Jesus in community (!) that transforms our life.  Walking with God, receiving the Spirit, living through doubt – these are all ways in which we live the resurrection in a transforming relationship.

In his book What’s Right with the Church, Bishop Will Willimon writes: “The church [the transforming community] is a post-Easter phenomenon. It was the astounding, unexpected presence of the risen Christ that formed a believing community. Without that presence, the church might have been described as a memorial society or a reunion for old veterans of the Jesus campaign, laboring to keep alive the fading memory of a dead hero.” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, p. 45).

In the transforming community, Thomas experienced the living Christ. Doubt was overcome in his triumphant affirmation and commitment. “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt always is overcome by commitment.  Research has long taught us that we often act ourselves into a new way of believing and thinking.

So on this weekend after Easter, how will it be for you?  Is Easter a pleasant interlude of appreciation and remembrance or cause for a higher level of renewed faith and commitment which comes in living through doubt?  Do you wish to live the resurrection?  Do you want to transform the Cape of Storms into a Cape of Good Hope for your life?  We do so by being a part of the transforming community that overcomes doubt and affirms by word and deed. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

I hope to start a new series of blogs soon on the transformed church that is coming into being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the declines of Christendom and struggles of early 21st century Christians that many of us know full well, I think God in Christ through the presence of Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.  A transformed Christian community is slowly taking place.  With timidity, prayer and wonder, I hope to write on this Spirit led transformation, which is calling into being a new church.

In this Easter season, may you sail the seas of the Cape of Good Hope!

Approaching Jerusalem ©

A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land.  After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem.  As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains.  The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness.  As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus.  The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers.  And then … there it was!  The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us.  Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring.  An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe.  For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.

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from PikiWiki_Isreal_Jerusalem landscape

Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City.  The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City.  The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us.  And yet, we live in the present.  The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.

For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord.  Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown.  She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others.  Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.”  Grief was leavened with hope.  Sorrow was transformed by triumph.  I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.

I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs.  As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront.  There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior.  As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind.  As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left.  Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection.  We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.

Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.

You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001).  There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building.  In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down.  As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop.  He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor.  There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump.  He shouted at them, “Come with me!  I know a way out.”  (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.)  He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies.  Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.

The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs).  Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line.  It was the only way out.”

Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences.  First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing.  Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.

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