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Settling for Less ©

 I drove down to Kerrville, Texas for our family Thanksgiving gathering wearing my “Chicago Cubs World Series Champions 2017” jersey. That’s right; the shirt read “2017” not “2016.” It was a gift from Howard Martin back in early September at the celebration of First UMC Stephenville’s 100th anniversary. At the time, the Cubs were in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals over who would win the Central Division of the National League.

The last time any team repeated as a World Series Champion was back in 2000 when the New York Yankees won for the third straight time. Between 2010 and 2014 the San Francisco Giants won every other year but never two years in a row. The theory is that, with the addition of first the Division Playoff Series, then the League Championship Series added to the World Series, teams that get into the World Series have roughly played a month more than the rest of the teams. The extra time playing especially at a hyper elite level takes a toll on the pitchers especially. Statistically there is usually a distinct drop-off (since the addition of the League Championship Series) in the pitching performance of World Series teams the following year.

With that as backdrop, I confess that I wasn’t too disappointed that the Cubs didn’t win the World Series this year. In fact, I was proud that they won the Central Division and the Division Playoff Series. Even more, I was delighted that the Astros won the World Series. After all they have been through, our neighbors down South needed a big win! I was quite willing to settle for less this year after last year’s championship.

It was a conversation with Dr. Clifton Howard (Assistant to the Bishop) that got me thinking differently. Casually I commented to him that I wondered why I was willing to settle for less. I opined that if it had been a year ago, I would have been deeply disappointed. But, the year after a championship it was okay to settle for less. Clifton challenged me by asking me to think about that spiritually. Would I be willing to settle for less in terms of missional outreach to the poor or professions of faith? He added, “Churches that grow tend to be churches that don’t settle.”

As I mulled all this over while driving, Oswald Chambers famous devotional classic “My Utmost for His Highest” came to mind. 

I think I have read his great classic of Christian spiritual guidance and devotion three times in my life (including one year as a Bishop). There is the line from the movie As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson says, “You make me want to be a better man.” The Christian faith does more than that for me, for us all. It actually makes us better people. Chambers’ book serves as a great devotional guide to help me be a better man, a true Christ-follower.

In less than a week Advent is upon us. This season of the Christian year calls us to prepare for the coming of the Savior. (Advent means literally “coming” – out of the Latin.) I have written before about how the season of Advent, and especially Christmas Eve worship, is special time when non- or nominal Christians are unusually open to the hearing the gospel of God’s saving presence with us in the person of Jesus the Christ.

I write to invite us as a church and as individual Christians not to settle for less. Use this time as a special opportunity to reach out to those eager and receptively open to hear the gospel. Offer the love of God by deeds of justice and mercy but don’t stop there; don’t settle for less. Fuse word and deed with a worship that offers new life in Christ.

As a basic first step, make sure that your website prominently shares worship times and especially the time of your Christmas eve service. Make sure greeters and ushers are prepared to offer truly radical hospitality in welcoming. Don’t miss the opportunity to register attendance for both members and visitors that all might share in grace-filled follow up.

One of the ways the infant Christ-child is referred to by the theological fathers and mothers of the faith is as a baby where Word and deed are one. Think about it. In Christ and Christ alone, Word and deed are one. During this Advent season follow the model of his life witness. Don’t settle for less. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). Share the gospel, the good news of a God who loves so lavishly that the Lord of all life comes to us in the person of a helpless baby. Let John 1:14 infuse your living as an individual; let it saturate your witness, actions and sharing as a church.

“The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Escaping the Stranglehold of Fear ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … I ask myself, whence the fear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation

Last Fall Bishop Ken Carter, The Florida Conference, wrote a series of blogs on “Fresh Expressions of the Church.”  Taken as a whole they are outstanding and well worth reading.  As a part of my own recent writing about deeper discipleship centered on allegiance to Christ, I reprint, with his permission, the 9th of those blogs entitled Discipleship as Spiritual Formation and Mentoring: The Heart of Fresh Expressions of Church.” – Bishop Mike Lowry

The Bishop’s Blog

(Ninth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”)

If we are listening to God’s call in the present moment, in increasingly non-churched and de-churched environments, we may discover that we are being led back to a fundamental experience—an encounter with the living Jesus. We encounter him in the gospels, even as he is anticipated in the Old Testament and as his message is embodied and proclaimed in the later writings of the New Testament. The encounter is always one that calls us into deeper relationship, which we call discipleship.

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation
So how do we become a disciple of Jesus?

Becoming a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a cumulative process. It involves small steps and giant leaps of faith. It is like swimming against the stream and riding the rapids. It is unconscious and intentional. It is planned and spontaneous. It is work and at the same time a gift.

1.  As a cumulative process, discipleship is a daily spiritual practice: reading scripture, sending a tweet about a passage of scripture or a God-sighting, memorizing a verse, offering an intercession, acting with kindness, writing in a journal.
2.  Discipleship is also a weekly activity: an hour of worshipping God, a meal with a mentor or with friends, reflecting deeply on the neighborhood as a context for mission, encouraging a small group of Facebook friends, contributing money to God’s mission.  Note: While the Christian life may begin as an individual search, it can only be sustained and supported through participation in a small group, where we are loved, blessed and held accountable. The contribution of the Fresh Expressions movement is that these groups are not confined within our local churches, although they may happen there—this is the “mixed ecology.” And, as we have noted, this is deeply embedded in the practices of the early Wesleyan Christian movement (class meetings and band meetings).
3.  Discipleship as a sustained habit might include monthly experiences:  a day of silence and prayer and deeper scripture reading, meeting with a spiritual director, reading a book/spiritual classic, a deeper act of service in the community, serving in a leadership role.
4.  And discipleship as a more reflective and long term way of life might include annual practices: an extended pilgrimage or retreat, a mission trip, an evaluation of financial giving to God’s mission.
5.  Discipleship is a lifelong process; in Eugene Peterson’s language, it is a “long obedience in the same direction.” It will help to document your spiritual formation; for some, there are life-changing events, and for others, the process is more gradual and even generational. In the Wesleyan tradition we have called this sanctification.

The Bible itself can be read in this way:

  • it is the journey of God’s people from slavery to freedom;
  • the passage of Jesus from baptism and wilderness to suffering, death and into resurrection;
  • the experience of the disciples who follow Jesus, listen to his teaching, witness his death and resurrection, receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and are sent into all the world.

For the non-churched (nones), the language of becoming a disciple is entering a new world of practices, habits and relationships. For the de-churched (dones), the path of discipleship requires a detachment from negative experiences of church in the past and a turning toward the gift of new forms of church. And for leaders, lay and clergy, there is the essential and lifelong basic work of spiritual formation. At our best, we will be most effective and faithful as we accompany each other into the future that God is preparing for us.

Making Disciples as Mentoring
Once we are on the path of being a disciple, we soon discover that we are also called to invite others into this way of life. Thus, we want a simple method for making disciples or mentoring friends to be closer followers of Jesus.   So how do we mentor (or make) new disciples?

1.  Listen to the other person. This may happen in a meeting, perhaps in everyday life and in planned or unplanned ways, or over a succession of conversations. In a culture that is cynical about faith, it is not wise to rush this step. Listening is a lifelong activity!
2.  Reflect back to the person that you are wanting to get to know and understand them. For many persons, this is a rare experience to discover that others are listening to (honoring) their stories.  Note:  These first two steps are essential and cannot be bypassed.
3.  Connect their story with your own story and a part of the gospel. This assumes that we know the gospels (the importance of daily reading) and can access the presence of Jesus in most any human situation: fear, loss, anger, poverty, betrayal, confusion, pride. You may share an experience where the power of Jesus helped you to overcome an obstacle. This connection is not about institutions or denominations, but is instead about relationships and the spiritual journey.
4.  Ask how you can be in prayer for the person. And ask if the other person will pray for you. This places you together on the same level.  Note:  Here you will want to be as humble as possible, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through the gospels and the act of prayer. At this point the action is more important than the response, which you cannot control.
5.  Seek to connect the other person to your community. In our time, the basic steps will be a group that meets outside the church (say, in a coffee shop) or in a context of mission and serving, or in a new group in formation. Don’t worry if you get stalled here, but don’t hesitate to name your own worshiping community. It is a relational process.
6.  Stay in touch with the person, and continue to develop the relationship, no matter the response. You are investing in the friendship for the sake of the other person, and not for any congregational or institutional gain.
7.  Continue to pray for the other person each day, and occasionally let the other person know you are doing this.

There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between becoming a disciple (spiritual formation) and making disciples (mentoring). We often learn best by teaching and leading; and at the same time, our lives are shaped, formed and enriched by deep friendships.

It is also true that where spiritual formation and mentoring are not present, our Christian life can become stagnant and rigid. How do we break this cycle?

If we are stuck, we might seek out a spiritual director, pastor, coach or guide.  This person is likely less appealing to us because of credentials and more through an authenticity and depth of faith.   Note:  A word about generations. Many younger adults have a strong need to live in relationships with persons who are older (not of their generation). At the same time, many younger adults have a great deal to teach older adults. This is sometimes called reverse-mentoring. There is a need for both mentoring and reverse-mentoring in our church.

By definition, Fresh Expressions “come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.” And, so, our first priority is not to create Fresh Expressions of church; instead, we listen, serve, and become incarnationally present and discipled. In our time, this will take the form of spiritual practices that shape us, and intentional relationships that empower others.

Questions:
What two or three spiritual practices or habits would strengthen your life as a disciple of Jesus? What happens weekly, or monthly, or annually? And, is there someone near to you who might be open to your spiritual mentoring?

-Bishop Ken Carter, October 26, 2015

Deep Discipleship ©

While we wrestle with deep divisions about much in The United Methodist Church these days, we are in strong agreement that our collective mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Such a great grand mission erupts from the Great Commission of Christ given in the closing paragraph of St. Matthew’s sweeping Gospel (Good News!).  “Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

As I have shared in Episcopal Addresses both to the Central Texas Conference and to the South Central Jurisdiction, “Jesus doesn’t want fans.  He wants committed disciplined followers.”  The dilemma for us is that over the last ½ century plus we have been a low demand church with a high commitment theology.  The two don’t mix well.  Now we find ourselves struggling to move from cultural attachment to the church to deep discipleship to Jesus.

In my recent readings, I’ve been working through Deep Church Rising  by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry.  In chapter 8, “Deep Transformation: Recovering Catechesis” (which is worth the price of the book alone) the authors note, “living as a Christian in modernity and post-modernity is quite different from living as a Christian before the Reformation.  The sacred canopy of a Christian culture is now virtually gone and the social structures that made Christian belief and lifestyle plausible are no longer in place.  It is harder to believe than it used to be – not because there are better arguments against Christianity than there used to be but simply because the plausibility structures are not in place.  If we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, if we are serious about spiritual formation and discipleship and the plausibility of Christianity in the modern West, then going to a church meeting for a couple of hours a week and having a five-minute ‘quiet time ‘ each day is hardly going to do the trick”  (Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry, Deep Church Rising, p.132).

A part of what fascinates me about Walker & Parry’s detailed insistence on the recovery of catechesis (religious instruction for baptism, confirmation, and life-long discipleship) is the way it dove tails with so many other writings on discipleship.  The importance of deep discipleship training is strongly emphasized in Kenda Creasy Dean’s marvelous book Almost Christian.  It is echoed in the writing of people like Mike Slaughter.  And the list could continue to include many solid authors and Christian leaders across the theological spectrum.  Taken together they point us in the direction of a serious recovery of adult discipleship and training.  This is no small task but rather one that necessitates great commitment and a move away from a simple 6-week curriculum approach.  Walker and Parry note that “According to the Apostolic Tradition, catechesis was a journey that lasted for three years.”  They added:  “catechesis functioned as a kind of decompression chamber that took those seeking entry into the church on a transformative journey, climaxing in baptism and full entry into the Christian Community” (Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry, Deep Church Rising, pp. 133-134).

Such deep discipleship formation training (catechesis) is a far cry from an invitation to come down and commit or recommit your life to Christ at the close of the worship service and possibly take a one to four hour class on Methodism and the church.  [As an aside, one can make a case for coming forward and making a public commitment/ recommitment to Christ and His Church which includes a follow-on commitment to join an extensive class in Christian formation and discipleship after such a public commitment.]

I am reminded of two quotes that Dr. Dean carefully places in the forefront of her book:

“An almost Christian … [chiefly] is one that … is fond of the form, but never experiences the power of godliness in his heart.”  — George Whitefield, “The Almost Christian” (1739)

“The Church is full of almost Christians who have not gone all the way with Christ.”  — John Wesley, “The Almost Christian” (1741)

Reflecting on all this and the concomitant need for small groups (ala the Class Meeting) in deep discipleship formation, the Holy Spirit guides me to one of the towering challenges facing the church of today.  Put bluntly, no matter where one is on the spectrum of church dividing issues (holding fast to current Disciplinary language with regard to LGBTQI questions all the way to being in favor of completely opening the Discipline up with regard to ordination & same gender marriage; or for that matter any other divisive issues – abortion, war, racism, theology, Bible, the role/power of the laity, etc. etc.) deep discipleship is desperately needed.  Casual Christians cannot meet the cry of our divided, terror driven world.  Almost Christians will not answer the Great Commission of Christ to go to “all the nations.” (The Greek word translated in Matthew 28:19 is the root for our word “ethnicities” or ethnic.)  Fans for Christ will not suffice to heed the challenge of advancing the Kingdom of God in love, justice and mercy.  We need committed disciplined followers.

The Lord calls for deep discipleship from ourselves and others.  A new and deeper form of discipleship formation or catechesis is a requirement.  Together we need to recreate the deep discipleship training which the early Christian movement so instinctively embraced.