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EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #4

 First Steps at Recovering a Personal Witness© 

I have had the joy of serving a number of wonderful churches.  On one occasion at Asbury United Methodist Church, we consciously geared up to teach evangelism and faith sharing.  This was a congregation with a history of conversion growth.  There were a number of years in which adult professions of faith exceeded the number of people who joined on transfer from another congregation.

The Associate Pastor taught a course designed to help people discover their personal best style of evangelism  She used material from Willow Creek Community Church entitled Becoming a Contagious Christian: Communicating Your Faith in a Style that Fits You (written by Mark Mittleberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels). As the class started participation was high.  People were eager to discover how to share their faith.  Slowly the class built on the learning until the time when people would actually share their faith with a non- or nominal Christian friend.

As the time for faith sharing came closer attendance steadily decreased!  Anxiety palpably rose.  Excuses for not being able to complete the course grew with creative reasons.  It became obvious that many in class (most of us!) were afraid.  Fear of faith sharing, rejection, and ridicule was a mind killer and a spirit drainer.  Assisting the Associate Pastor in teaching, she and I over and over tried to address the fears present (both those articulated and those that remained unspoken).  

One of the first steps at recovering a personal witness is to honestly face the fear of doing so.  The fears we have are often (almost always!) far greater than reality.  Amazingly, if shared respectfully in a gracious natural way with attentive listening, most people are eager and hungry to talk about their deepest beliefs, highest yearnings, and soul gnawing spiritual hunger.  We need to appropriate the advice of I Peter 3:13-16.  “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them.  Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 1Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”

A second key element in recovering personal witness is a willingness to share your own experience of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in your life.  People want to know how you experience the Lord Christ in your life far more than they want to know about God in the abstract.  Share your story!  It doesn’t need embellishment.  In fact, dressing it up weakens the beauty and greatness of God’s presence.  Have you had a “God-sighting” this past week?  Share the story!

A third basic part of first steps for a congregation recovering personal witness and faith sharing is that the pastor has to practice what he or she is preaching.  Put differently, the pastor must, absolutely must! be a player coach.  At a minimum this involves spending time and making friendships with non-Christians and not just residing in a church ghetto.  Friendships and relationships have to be real and not just done to get a conversion.  One of our deeper struggles is that many Christian people don’t know many non-Christian people.  Make some friends and be a friend without expectation of reward.  God will offer the opportunity for sharing.  (Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, & Kay Kotan have written an excellent basic book titled Get Their Name that can help.)

A fourth basic step at recovering personal witness is to engage in recommending.  Jim Ozier (Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church) notes that we are “hardwired to recommend.” We recommend all kinds of things – restaurants, stores, people, hairstyles, doctors, etc.  American culture is geared more to recommending than inviting.  A crucial first step in faith sharing is simply to learn to recommend Christ and your church to others.

There is more to say here, much, much more.  But, at first step:

  1. Face your fears
  2. Share your story of Christ active in your life
  3. Practice what your preach, make friends
  4. Recommend Christ and your church

Epiphany is real.  The light of Christ shines in our darkness.  Take some basic first steps to share the light and so live the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20).  Next week, “evangelism as mission.”

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #3 The Challenge of Why Bother ©

This is the third in a series of “Epiphany” related blogs which deal with the foundational issue of faith sharing and evangelism.  They spring from the understanding that among the very first to greet the new born Savior were a group of wise men who were probably adherents of another religion (Zoroastrianism).

As we struggle with the “Dilemma we face” (see my previous blog) I am convinced that, at its heart, this is a theological crisis.  With pointed insight Ross Douthat (see Bad Religion) and many others have delineated how much the old “mainline” churches have theologically descended into a vague unitarianism.  The challenge presented by much of an indifferent America is, “why bother being Christian?”

Stories abound.  Martha Grace Reese in Unbinding the Gospel viscerally catches my attention with the following tale:

The idea for the Mainline Evangelism Project can probably be dated to one conversation I had with some of my favorite people. I was leading a retreat for eight smart, loving pastors of growing mainline churches. Off the cuff, I asked, “Hey, what difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?”

Silence. Loud silence stretched on. And on. I stared around the circle in disbelief. Finally one volunteered hesitantly, “Because it makes me a better person???”

That question hadn’t been intended as a pop final. I was not raised in the church, so I have a very clear sense of having made a choice to become a Christian that went against the culture in which I had always lived. I have a good sense of what it is like to be Christian and what it is like not to be Christian. Most Christians and most pastors grew up in the church. They did not change cultures to get there. (From Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese, pg. 14)

Clearly we have some theological work before us.  I would argue that this necessitates at a minimum a re-appropriation of doctrines of salvation and sin.  How real is sin in our life and times?  Surely ISIS and Ferguson challenge us with larger sins of violence and racism but the litany does not end there.  Honest personal reflection clamors for a self-application that in our comfortable middle class existence we wish to explain away.

Likewise our allergy to any talk of hell and damnation leads to a fuzzy notion of what we are saved from (if anything!).  The answer of course is sin and death.  Yet, the full implications of such in our time are often lost on us.  Let’s face it.  The biggest sin confronting most of us, the sin we really need to be saved from, is a massive dose of hedonism which hides in the guise of personal pleasure as long as we don’t harm anyone else.  It begs all kinds of larger questions.  Worship of the self and our own pleasure in any form is an idolatry, and the wages of sin still are death.  We need salvation.  We need a Lord – ruler – Master who can deliver us from our bondage.

In the face of the challenge of “why bother” there is reason for great hope.  A light really does shine in our darkness. The light has a name.  It is Christ.

I close with a perceptive insight offered by Ross Douthant:

The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – 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 civilizations 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).

I think the Apostle Paul has it right. “The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)  More in the next blog on “the first steps at recovering a personal witness.”

An Unfolding Work of the Holy Spirit

 

On returning home from the Council of Bishops week-long meeting in Oklahoma City, I find myself slowly getting back into the issues of ministry in our local setting.  Among the disagreements at the Council, the great sign of encouragement was our agreement around the importance of building vital congregations.  Here is a divinely ordered platform on which we can come together.

These musings led me back to an email report I received about a month ago.  I detour to set some context for the report.

Last Conference we made an unusual appointment of Pastor Denise Bell Blakely to Everman UMC as Associate Pastor for Mission, Community Development and Evangelism.  Rev. David Griffin is the senior pastor at Everman.  Everman is a community undergoing change.  Once a predominantly Anglo community, it now has a majority Hispanic population. Collectively both the congregation and the cabinet wondered how we could engage this new environment.  Already, Everman UMC was working on ministry with those attending school right by the church.  They were open to reaching out in a new and creative way.  So too was Pastor Griffin.  Enter Rev. Blakely who lives with a courageous sense of the Holy Spirit calling her.  (It is worth noting that Rev. Griffin is Anglo, Everman UMC is predominately Anglo, and Rev. Blakely is African-American.)  Through the combination of the a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), Conference mission support and the local church, together we stepped up to risk-taking mission and service.  Through a supportive church and senior pastor, a new and highly innovative mission work was begun.

After 3 ½ months on the job, Rev. Blakely filed a report which (edited for length) included the following:

  • “Developed English and Spanish Language handouts to the community of Everman and Forest Hill, containing information about Everman UMC, the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Spanish, weekly prayers for children, and the household for Victory in Christ, also in English and in Spanish.
  • Delivered the handouts in door hanger format and in person in the neighborhood surrounding Everman UMC.
  • Visitations at Hugley Senior Center and Communion Service at the Senior Activity Center
  • Home and hospital visitations with the Stephenson family.  Grief counseling for the family.
  • Assisted senior pastor at the Graveside Service for Beverly Stephenson.
  • Attended orientation at the Tarrant County Food Bank.  The orientation is mandatory for access to services at the Food Bank.
  • Developed volunteer handbook for “Hanging Out” that can crossover to all volunteer activities at Everman UMC.
  • Served as primary contact for all walk-in and phone inquiries pertaining to Hanging Out and other mission activities.
  • Attended the Opening Convocation Service for Everman ISD and met with the Superintendent of Everman ISD, the school board members, principals of the schools, Dr. Bean and some of the teachers of the school.  The purpose was to initiate conversation about the expectations and goals of Everman UMC and Everman ISD and how we can help each other achieve these goals.
  • Filled in for the Senior Pastor for three weeks while he was on vacation, carrying out the instructions of the Senior Pastor and mindful of the faithful representation of Jesus, and the United Methodist Church.
  • Began a ministry of grace, handing out bottles of water to those walking in the 100+ heat.  The bottles of water are labeled, “Courtesy of Everman UMC.”
  • Handing out blessing bags consisting of hygiene items and snacks to the homeless in Everman.

Rev. Blakely closed her unusual report with the following: “These are the projects in progress. At I-35 and Everman Parkway, working on developing communication with the prostitutes.  Still discovering Everman. Working with the Senior Pastor in planning a revival.  Working with the volunteers and preparing for Hanging Out 2014-2015.”

She added, “Everman UMC has had eight visitors to the church so far, I believe this is the fruit of prayer in action.  Please pray for the mission and my family, we need all the prayer we can get.”

Wow!  After all the effort and energy at the Council of Bishops, it is this kind ministry that inspires me and fills my soul!  I don’t know many pastors who would set up a dialog with prostitutes, be in conversation with school leaders, establish multi-lingual prayer meetings and plan a revival.  Most of us would get the last three – school, prayer, and revival.  It is the first one I choke on – a ministry with prostitutes.  I confess that I would be afraid to do so.  And yet, the more I think about, I do know someone else who established such a ministry.  His name is Jesus.  I can actually think of a few other pastors who have done so as well.  (Including a Presbyterian minister/missionary and his wife in Hong Kong back in 1968.)

We don’t know how this will come out.  This is work of the Holy Spirit unfolding in ways we do not understand and cannot control.  And yet there is a lesson and witness here for more than just Everman UMC.  The future of the larger United Methodist Church lives on in such Holy Spirit- led ministry.

In my reflection, it is the Lord who is calling us to courageous risk-taking mission and service, willing to evangelistically offer Christ to those most in need.  I want to publically thank the good people of Everman UMC and Pastors Griffin and Blakely.  I also want to be a part of a church that reaches out to those most in need – sharing in both (!!) Word and deed!

On the Way to the Council

As I write this blog, I am sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, Wednesday October 29th.  We have just finished the annual fall meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board. (Cokesbury & Abingdon Press are two of the better known divisions.)  I have been privileged to serve on this Board for the past 10 years (four as a representative from the Southwest Texas Conference and six as a bishop representing the Council of Bishops (COB).

During those 10 years, we have lived through (and are continuing to live in!) a revolution in the publishing business.  The advent of new technology spearheaded by Amazon has transformed the publishing enterprise beyond previous recognition.  And yet, Amazon just posted the biggest loss in its history.  With the superb leadership of President and Publisher Neil Alexander we are sailing through storm tossed seas, battered but still afloat, and slicing through the waves.  (It is worth noting in this same time period, Borders has declared bankruptcy; Barnes & Noble is losing money and cutting back; Nazarene Press is closing; Augsburg (Lutheran) is in turmoil fighting a lawsuit for failure to honor its pension commitments.

We had a good meeting as we planned future strategy and made strategic decisions.  GROW, our children’s curriculum, is outstanding.  So too is the new adult Covenant Bible Study series.  UNDER WRAPS: The Gift We Never Expected, a new advent study, looks outstanding.  Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It  is exciting in possibilities.

As I reflect on our time and work together, an old song by Bob Dylan comes back from my college days.  “The times they are a changin’”

Tonight, I will join a special gathering put together by the Path 1 (“New Places for New People” focus area) staff of the Discipling Ministries (which used to be known as The Board of Discipleship).  The event is a gathering of seminary professors of evangelism and new church start practitioners.  The hope is for an intensive interaction between the theology and practice of new church development.  One of the key areas of focus is on why “Wesleyan church planting matters.”

I will be offering an opening “theological reflection/devotion” (that is the actual title of my assignment) entitled “The Challenge of Why.”  Central Texas Conference members have heard a precursor of this extended work offered in a series of sermons at the 2012 Annual Conference.  Simply put, the challenge of “why” is to answer the question of “why bother being Christian or worship God by going to church.”

One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff member to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?”  No, we can’t!  Answering the “why” question necessitates recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching.  It is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America.

Thursday night I fly home and a brief part of Friday morning will be spent in the office.  We’ll drive to Oklahoma City Friday afternoon so I can take part in a rehearsal for Saturday’s Connectional Table Webcast event of a panel discussion of the bishops who wrote Finding Our Way.

The Council meeting starts Sunday afternoon with a traditional Memorial Service.  I hope to offer reflections on our gathering during the week.  In my devotional time I am reminded again of a song we sang at Taize, In The Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful.

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.

Church Typologies and Crucial Shifts

The great church leadership, administration and church growth guru of the late 20th century for mainline Protestantism was Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Among the many insightful concepts he popularized was the notion of church typologies.  Church typology is a way of understanding churches and common behavior found in similar-sized churches.  The Alban Institute, a highly respected think-tank for mainline Protestants, also offered valuable insight in why open country rural churches worshipping between 50 and 70 on an average Sunday would act much the same and why large downtown “First” churches confront similar challenges.  Both championed the notion that worship attendance was a key (if not “The key”) variable for helping congregations understand their internal dynamics.

I often use my own short-hand version of their deeper insights.  A simple way of thinking about churches based on size is through worship attendance.  (I hasten to add that there are many other factors such as urban, rural, county seat, suburban, etc.!)

Average Worship Attendance Typology
Less than 70 Family chapel
70 to 150 Small
150 to 300 Medium
300 to 750 Large
750 to 1800 Regional
1800+ Mega

There are interesting variations in this shorthand (and admittedly overly simplistic) way of viewing congregations.  For instance, a downtown first church will often have a regional characteristic even if its worship attendance is not around 750.  So too with the perceived leader in an urban ethnic community.  A county seat church will often be a large church even if its worship attendance puts it in the medium category.

There are two size subsets that are important to note:  Less than about 25 or 30 in average worship is a much more distinctive family chapel.  On the other end of the spectrum, at around 500 in average worship a large church starts to act and feel more like it is semi-regional.

There are some common touch points for United Methodist Churches worth noting:

  1. Most churches operate as one size smaller than they really are.  Thus, they tend to shrink to a smaller size just to fit the way they are operating!
  2. We (the UMC) have tended to staff for one size smaller then we are.  Over the last 10 years this has changed, and I see many churches staff bigger than they actually are!  This can hurt the importance of a shared lay ministry.  It is tricky and important to staff for growth without over-staffing.
  3. As church growth breaks into the next size category is much like going through the sound barrier.  Moving to a bigger size means engaging in church operations differently.  People unconsciously often resist such change.  It is not uncommon to see a pattern over a 20 or 30 year time period of a church that approaches a size and then falls back to the smaller size (especially among larger churches).  This is because it is difficult to change the way we consciously operate!  Changing to a larger size is a category shift and requires “doing church” differently.  A lot of congregational fights are really over system issues that have to do with size.
  4. Context – that is the ministry area, mission field, and congregational history – affect the way our “typology” interacts with our ministry, but no church is exempt from wrestling with the issues presented by a category shift!

I am headed out for three days in Nashville.  Two will be spent in the annual meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board, which it is my privilege to serve on (along with Dr. Eric McKinney from the Central Texas Conference).  The third day will be participating in and giving an address to a gathering of evangelism professors at various seminaries and a group of new church development pastors.  I’ll fly back in Thursday night and leave Friday for 8 days at the Fall Council of Bishops meeting held this session in Oklahoma City.  (The Council itself only meets for 5 days, but I am on the Executive Committee which adds a pre-meeting meeting, plus I am a part of a panel interview of those who co-authored the book Finding Our Way.)  I ask for your prayers for the Council of Bishops meeting.

Anniversaries of Joy, Discipleship and Sacrifice

During the past 2 months I have had the joy and privilege of participating in the anniversary celebrations at four difference Central Texas Conference Churches. Alvarado UMC celebrated its 150th anniversary; Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC had their 125th anniversary; First UMC, Temple celebrated the 100th anniversary of its magnificent historic sanctuary (the first sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they rebuilt completing the new/current sanctuary in 1914). I will have the joy of sharing in the 100th anniversary celebration of Saginaw UMC.

As I have done my research for each of the five churches listed above, I have been deeply struck by the discipleship (committed, disciplined following of Christ) and sacrifice that each anniversary represents. Consider the times these various churches launched out as a new church. In every case they went ahead and started the church or built the sanctuary in the face of internal trials going on in America that would make a reasonable person pause.

Alvarado UMC began in the midst of a raging Civil War. Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC both began in the midst of great national debate and division. In 1889 President Grover Cleveland was succeeded by President Benjamin Harrison in a contentious election that would be reversed four years later. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) War between America and Germany over an incident in Samoa was barely averted. Racism in all its virulent evil stalked the land. 125 years ago a religious crimes code was passed by Congress “to deny Indians their 1st amendment right: freedom of religion. It was designed to drive away the Indian religious ceremonies and only allow those made and created by white men.”

In Temple, the great First Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they went ahead and rebuilt in the face of really tough times. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the peace President, an international misunderstanding with Mexico (then undergoing a revolution) erupted into armed conflict and the occupation of Veracruz. In the initial fighting “19 Americans were killed; 72 wounded. Mexican losses were around between 150 and 170 soldiers killed, between 195 and 250 wounded, and an unknown number of civilians killed.” Meanwhile back at home labor unrest was rampant. The Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners killing 24 people in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

This tumult paled in comparison with the start of World War I in August and the closure of the New York Stock Exchange because of the war. While the stock market reopened about 3 ½ months later, eventually World War I resulted in over 37 million military and civilian deaths. Comparatively the United States got off light because of when we entered the war and it was fought on foreign soil. With respect and honor to those who so nobly sacrificed, 117,465 deaths are recorded as silent witness to how bleak the times were. You would have thought that the good people of Alvarado, Morgan Mills, Temple, Cranfills Gap, and Saginaw could have picked better safer more congenial times to begin a church.

You would have thought they would have better economic sense than to sail forward into the headwinds of a closed stock market, or contentious national election, or a Civil War. But no, they moved forward in discipleship as committed, disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. In their discipleship they were full of joy. It is easy to be a fan of Jesus; to sit in the stadium and cheer when things are good. It is a whole other thing to live in a deep-seated joy that is committed, disciplined, loyal even – no especially – when times are tough.

This brings me to the second cardinal, biblically-grounded, insight I found in my research. They got to the joy of their anniversaries through sacrifice. Consider the biblical and theological truth that Jesus doesn’t need advice. He is the one giving advice. The Master does not covet fans. He seek followers, friends, who will go beyond being advisors to being sacrificial followers. Reflect on the teaching of Jesus as reflected in John’s gospel. “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends” (John 1511-15a). This is the example the people of these churches set a hundred plus years ago.

Our ancestors thought it was worth the price to sacrifice so that these churches could come into being. I like to remind every congregation that there was a time in their life when this congregation was a new church. This is part and parcel of the biblical reason new church development is so critical. It is not about whether we will have faith. It is about whether our children and grandchildren will have faith. It is a pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Anniversary joy comes in deep sacrificial discipleship! It knows sadness and grief. It lives in times of tumult whether it be 1864, 1889, 1914 or 2014. It ascends the hill of personal prejudice and plants the flag of Christ atop the peaks of violence and rancor. Joy comes in the committed disciplined living as a disciple precisely because it is sacrificial. It is built on our relationship with the Lord and not on our personal preferences. I thank God and those five churches for the joy of sharing with them!

Re-Learning from John the Evangelist

In an earlier blog (September 26, 2014 – Medical Camp & the Ongoing Ministry of Ken Diehm), I wrote about the incredible experience of participating in a Medical Mission Camp near Maua, Kenya. We were among the poorest of the poor and engaged in a great ongoing mission venture. While engaged in the medical mission camp, a host of unusual things took place. One of them was meeting John the Evangelist.

As we were handing out malaria bed nets and directing the flow of a long, long line of people seeking medical care, a nicely dressed (suit and tie in the midst of an incredibly dusty, rugged situation) young man appeared on the scene. People (both from the village area and the hospital) started happy exclaiming “John the Evangelist is here!” Rev. Jim Monroe, the CEO of Maua Methodist Hospital, commented, “I knew he would show up.”

Jim made a point of introducing us. It was exciting to meet and visit with John the Evangelist (as the people called him). John shared with me and Randy Wild that he had planted 8 churches. Joking, Randy asked when he was going to start #9. Not getting the joke, John replied in full seriousness, “Soon.”

I know that many of those churches are quite small and effectively are what we would term “house churches.” Yet as we visited, John shared that one of them had grown from 17 members to 300 members (worship attendance if I understood him averages more than 300).

I get it that the Kenyan climate for new church development is radically different from ours. I’ve been a part of starting a new church and fully realize the difference in context and environment. Still, the zealous commitment to evangelism, witness, and new church development is awe- inspiring work of the Lord to which they (the Methodists of Kenya) are highly, incredibly highly, committed. I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if we held to a similar high commitment.

I am not sure that I correctly understand the various steps and their order for ordination in the Methodist Church of Kenya. As John the Evangelist explained to me, he hopes soon to be ordained. Carefully he shared that one is an evangelist first and then becomes a pastor. To him the connection seemed obvious. It was as if he was telling Randy and me, “Of course you can’t be a pastor until you have proven yourself as an evangelist.”

As I listened to John the Evangelist, our Cabinet Retreat of 2011 came back to me. Dr. Ted Campbell, (Associate Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology and a specialist in Wesley studies) led the Cabinet through a learning experience from early Methodism in American. Ted had us read the autobiography of Rev. William Stevenson, who was a pioneer itinerant in the southwestern part of the United States. In 1815 Rev. Stevenson was the “first Protestant of any denomination to preach within the bounds of what is today Texas. He was also among the first Methodists or Protestants to preach in Oklahoma as well” (The Autobiography of Rev. William Stevenson, Edited by Ted Campbell).

John the Evangelist operated much like Stevenson. They were both courageous frontier evangelists (witnessers) for Christ and the Wesleyan way of salvation. They both risked physical hardship. They both put together in a marvelously faithful way public evangelism and a concomitant call of commitment to Christ with an active ministry of social aid and justice. In ways that were obvious and seemed instinctive, they both got the combination of evangelism and missions (the deeds of love, justice and mercy).

After visiting for a while, I watched as John the Evangelist moved among the people waiting patiently in line. Their mutual affection and relationship to each other was obvious. In a pleasant and grace-filled manner, he listened, counseled, and helped to connect them to the needed care. He did so explicitly lifting the name of Jesus Christ and, where appropriate, pausing to pray with them.

I cannot help but think we have much to learn, or more properly re-learn, from John the Evangelist.

That’s Path 1

At the recent meeting of the Path 1 Advisory Board in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rev. Martin Lee the new church developer for the Northern Illinois Conference shared a story of the start of a new church in Brookfield, Illinois (in the Chicago metropolitan area).  The old First United Methodist Church of Brookfield had been closed and sold to the public library.  The congregation had dwindled and could not maintain the old facility.  There was not parking and attempts at outreach had not succeeded.

After a season of having no United Methodist Church in Brookfield, the Conference decided to go back into the area and plant a new church.  An effective new church developer was appointed and soon a new church was discipling people in the area.  With help from the Conference New Church development office and sacrifice on the part of the new people, they were soon able to purchase land for a new church.

The land was in a core urban environment and quite expensive.  The purchase required some form of zoning approval because it would be removed from the city’s tax role.  Rev. Lee along with the new church pastor/planter went to the hearing.  The room was packed with people opposing the sale and removal of the land from the tax rolls.  A restaurant owner led the charge to deny the church the land.  (A decision is still pending.)

Karl Sokol, the new pastor/planter, got involved in the community including the business community.  He reached out and made friends.  One of his new friends was the obdurate restaurant owner.  As they visited Greg shared his need for space to worship.  The restaurateur learned that the time they wanted to meet at was when his restaurant was closed so he offered his restaurant as a place for them to worship.

Soon there were worshipping in the very restaurant that had tried to block their entrance into the community.  The owner would periodically peek in to see how they were doing.  After a while, instead of just looking in occasionally the restaurant owner was sitting down and staying.  Gradually he lingered to help.  And now, he has been baptized, confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and joined the church.  His life has been transformed by Christ and the community of the faithful.  (By the way, the name of the new church is Compassion UMC.  The restaurant owner and now member of Compassion UMC has changed his position on the sale 180 degrees.)

In sharing the story, Rev. Lee finished by saying, “and that is Path 1.”

Path1 is formally, institutionally, a branch of the work of the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.  It works to establish new churches is a part of the crucial focus area “New Places for New People.”  (The other major part of the “New Places for New People” Focus Area is building vital congregations in existing churches.)  The Path 1 Team works with Conferences and local churches to reach new people for Jesus Christ.

This is our Connection Mission Giving (apportionment) dollars at work.  It is at work in transformation in the name of Christ.  Rev. Lee was reminding us that it comes down to the transformation of an individual life.  Bottom line, Path 1 is ultimately about conversion and life transformation.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we are intimately linked with Path 1 through the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.  Currently Rev. Jennifer Pick is serving as our second Path 1 intern in new church development.  She is appointed to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield.  Rev. Shane Reyna, who served as our first intern at White’s Chapel, is now building a new faith community in the northeast corner of the Conference called 1709 United Methodist Church.  Through the Path 1 LMPN (Lay Missioner Planting Network), Teresa Sims (a lay person) is starting a Hispanic community at Wesley UMC in Arlington.

Path 1 is a Spirit led, life transforming work of God, offering Christ to all. That’s Path 1.

Lessons from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas

I am nearing the end of Michael Green’s book Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today.  While the first edition was published over 20 years ago (1993) and the second edition was republished 12 years ago, I find its relevance increasing for our time.  As we push deeper into a post-Christendom America (not necessarily a bad thing), there are lessons we need to apply from those first Christians.

At one point in the book, Professor Green (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University) details the shift of the center of Christian leadership from the mother church in Jerusalem (i.e. the church of Pentecost) to Antioch.  The Church at Jerusalem was originally known for its missionary (both evangelistic and missional outreach in love, justice and mercy) zeal.  Dr. Green comments:  “The Jerusalem church members were remarkable for their apostolic doctrine, their willingness to sacrifice, their outstanding unity, their social concern, their prayers both informally and in the liturgy of the temple.  Spiritual gifts were clearly in evidence.  Evangelism flourished.  Large numbers became followers of Jesus” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

Through the second half of the Book of Acts, the Jerusalem church fades and Antioch takes center stage.  Scholars note a number of reasons for the decline of the Jerusalem church.  Foremost among them was a fading of the evangelistic and missional (love/justice/mercy) zeal they first had.  Slowly Antioch replaced Jerusalem.  If you read the Book of Acts carefully, you will realize that it is from Antioch that the great missionary journeys were launched.

Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Jerusalem church began well but failed to fulfill God’s number one priority, world mission.  [By world mission he means a very Wesleyan understanding of evangelism/conversion growth and missional outreach in love/justice/mercy.]  The torch was passed to Antioch, which had a blazing zeal for mission, and Jerusalem thereafter shrank into insignificance.   No doubt there were contributory reasons for their decline, but the most crucial one was their satisfaction with their own church life and failure in missionary commitment.  They are a serious warning to us.  Even the most flourishing church can be eclipsed and become an irrelevance if it fails to maintain the outward orientation that Christ laid upon his followers” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

I read the words and sat back in my seat.  The correlation to our day and time is plain to see.  It is so tempting to fold back in on ourselves taking care of those we know and love.  There is nothing wrong and much right and good about excellence in the pastoral care of church members.  And yet, churches that make pastoral care their greatest priority inevitably lose their great calling to outreach and in the end deliver impoverished and inadequate pastoral care because of the failure.  This is all counter intuitive and yet empirically, experientially, and biblically true.

My reading drove me back to an earlier book that I had read back in 2005 when I was the Senior Pastor of University United Methodist Church in San Antonio – Reggie McNeil’s The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.  McNeil shared the following story and commentary:

“In the summer of 2002, the country spent several anxious days concerned about the fate of nine mine workers trapped in a mine in Pennsylvania.  Rescue efforts involved several innovative strategies, including pumping heated air down the shaft.  As the workers emerged from their ordeal, so did the story of their survival.  One key element was their decision to huddle together to stay warm and touch one another in the cold darkness of the collapsed mine.

“The church in North America far too often resembles these miners.  Feeling trapped in the collapse of the church culture, club members are huddling together in the dark and praying for God to rescue them from the mess they are in.  This is the refuge mentality that pervades the mentality of many congregations and church leaders.  Instead, the church needs to adopt the role of the rescue workers on the surface.  They refused to quite, worked 24/7, and were willing to go to plan B or whatever it took to effect a rescue.

“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in His redemptive efforts to save the world.  People all around us are in darkness.  They are going to die unless someone finds a way to save them.  Trouble is, the church is sleeping on the job.  Too many of us have forgotten why we showed up for work.

“Even worse, many of us never have known” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, pp. 18-19).

The lessons move from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas.  Let those with ears hear and those with eyes see; may we see and hear.  Even more, may we obey the call of Christ!

The Most Important Issues facing the United Methodist Church

Fascinating and instructive poll results were published in a recent article written by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) entitled “The most important issues facing The UMC today.” The poll was a survey “by email of 509 U.S. United Methodist lay members by Corporate Research of Greensboro, N.C., and Research Now of Dallas.”

Hahn notes in the article two important qualifiers to the poll.  First, “the poll screened out pastors, retired pastors and paid staff at any level of the denomination to focus on the views of lay members, who sometimes can seem voiceless in churchwide discussions.”  And, second, “The 509 sample size — representing a denomination with about 7.4 million U.S. members — is a typical statistical sample of the kind seen in political and market research.”  She further adds, “This United Methodist survey has a 4.4 percent margin of error.”

Creating disciples of Christ

39%

Youth involvement

27%

Members’ spiritual growth

24%

Decline in membership

19%

Poverty

17%

Children at risk

17%

Social injustice

16%

Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage

11%

Structure of the UMC

8%

Economic inequality

7%

Women and minorities in UMC

5%

Racism

4%

Immigration reform

3%

With the aforementioned background firmly in place, I submit that the poll results are encouraging.  They show a distinct focus by the laity on our official core mission as a church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It also reflects the importance of the local church as the primary place disciples of Jesus Christ are made.  The crucial factors of both social and personal holiness (Wesleyan distinctives) can be clearly discerned in the polling data.

In these turbulent times, perhaps the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!  We may deeply debate various issues and stances of the church.  This is a good thing.  Great churches debate great issues.  Let us stay united on the central towering mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Disciples of Christ transform the world!

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