Archive - evangelism RSS Feed

Learnings and Sharings ©

This has been a great week of learnings and sharings around the Conference. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, we held our annual Fall Cabinet Retreat at Stillwater Lodge. As a part of our work together, we focused on team building, caught up on a myriad of details and calendar items that need to be coordinated, and engaged in an exercise designed to surface potential new DSs or Executive Center Directors. (Dr. Georgia Adamson, Dr. Bob Holloway and Rev. Gary Lindley all retire at Annual Conference in 2017.) It is always my hope that the incoming members of the Cabinet are selected by mid-January so they may participate in the Cabinet Inventory Retreat in February.

 Friday night, the Core Team shared dinner with the Cabinet and met all day Saturday to look at strategic directions we will focus on in the upcoming year. Those strategic directions will continue to center around “The Big Three.” 1. Christ at the Center in Radical Discipleship; 2. Focus on the Local Church; 3. Lay and Clergy Leadership Development. It was not only a fascinating time of sharing but also a time of reviewing where we are as a Conference in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor of preaching at Polytechnic United Methodist Church on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University. Together with a large crowd, we celebrated the end of the 125 year anniversary of Texas Wesleyan and the beginning of the 125th year of Polytechnic Church. In the early annals of the Christian faith, Tertullian asked “What has Jerusalem [meaning the center of religious life] got to do with Athens [meaning the center of philosophy and learning]?” Then and now, the answer is “Everything!” To quote Wesley, “Let us [continue] the two so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.”

 Monday morning was a time of fabulous learning. The Evangelism Summit was held at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church with its usual stellar hospitality and phenomenal worship leadership. Those great events alone blessed us all immeasurably. Addresses by Dr. William Abraham and Dr. George Hunter on the foundation of evangelism shaped a theology built around the kingdom of God and allegiance to Christ.

 Dr. Abraham reminded us at the heart of the gospel is the arrival of God in Jesus Christ. In particular he emphasized three crucial practices: preaching; catechesis (or Christian formation); and church planting. His focus was on our need to make or build disciples of Christ through a combination of teaching & preaching around the kingdom of God.  I could not help but to recall the sharing of a friend recently who commented that Jesus Christ didn’t come to give good advice but to bring good news.

 Dr. George Hunter followed Dr. Abraham with a deeply thoughtful lesson outlining the strategy for evangelism and giving concrete ways we move forward in the sharing of the faith and its connection with our greater work. Dr. Hunter built his lecture around the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi and how people become new Christians, noting that it takes place around a process with a chain of experiences. His witness moves us far beyond any mythical one shot conversion story but rather, in practical applicable terms, shared the holiness of conversations (many conversations!) and relationship in leading people to the faith.

 Rev. Olu Brown, lead pastor of Impact Church – one of the fastest growing new church starts in all of Methodism – built on Dr. Hunter’s insights with an intensely practical emphasis on building relationships through things like radical hospitality and witness of bringing the church to where people are. It was fascinating to hear him talk about holding various meetings, including Finance Committee, in a local restaurant and bar as a point of Christian witness and faith sharing. Our own Leah Hidde-Gregory brought a great day to a close with her talk on evangelistic Covenant Group formation, in particular the impact on clergy in sacramental groups on the local church. I believe this is a fundamental and primary way we recover an understanding of building ourselves as disciples even as we share the faith with others. The early Methodist movement emphasized the class meeting, and Rev. Hidde-Gregory’s work with sacramental groups calls us back in a profound way to the heart of the Methodist movement.

 Today finds me heading to Franklin, TN for a three day continuing education conference at the New Room. I was blessed in going last year to a place that was free of political talk about the future of the United Methodist Church and focused instead on missional outreach in love, justice and mercy combined with deep spirituality and evangelistic faith sharing. It should be a joy to attend this year as well. After all these activities, I have saved a week of vacation, centered around my wife’s birthday (the number shall remain sacrosanct!), and designed to spend my time chasing Simon, who knows me not as “bishop” but as “Papa.” He is the middle of three precious grandchildren Jolynn and I have been blessed with.

 Also today I am announcing today that Rev. Allen Goss has graciously agreed to fill in as Interim Executive Director for the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth as Gary Lindley heals from injuries sustained in a terrible car accident. We give thanks to Allen for his willingness to step into this crucial leadership role on a part-time basis. His experience as a previous Director for Church Growth and Development for the Central Texas Conference make him the ideal person to lead in the interim. We also continue to pray for and look forward to the day Gary can return to the job full-time. He is dearly missed!

Beware of Nostalgia ©

Two pieces of reading and variety of reflective conversations with a wide and extremely diverse collection of people have caught my attention recently.  As he commonly does, Gil Rendle offers insightful reflections on the challenge a nostalgic longing presents to the church.  Almost simultaneously, I have been reading Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism.  Dr. Levin forcefully notes that much of our current political malaise (and dearth of leadership) stems from being “blinded by nostalgia” through looking back on mythic ideal age in America (the late 1950s –early 1960s for liberals and the early 1980s “Regan era” for conservative) and trying to somehow recreate that age (which can’t be done!).

What has captured my immediate attention is how both point to the danger of being so enamored by the past that we have trouble addressing the present.  In one of my early workshops under the great Methodist leadership guru Lyle Schaller, I remember him saying, “The most important vote an Administrative Board [or Council] takes every year is to decide what year is next year.”  Schaller went on to explain that if you think next year is 1957 you will vote, act and commit your resources differently than if you think next year is 2017.

In a Texas Methodist Foundation, August 15th blog entitled “Nostalgia and Three Changed Questions“, Dr. Rendle shares how he has added the critically important word “now” to his “Holy Conversations’” questions.  [“Who are we now?  What does God call us to do now?  Who is our neighbor now?”] He goes on to comment:

“I have come to believe that one of our key challenges in the church is nostalgia.  An antidote to nostalgia is to keep reminding ourselves when we are (i.e., now).  I am an early baby-boomer and grew up in the church when it was strong, growing consistently and at the center of the culture.

“When nostalgia kicks in, I am tempted to conjure that image of the church and assume that with a bit more hard work, we could be like that again.  (By the way, I’m also tempted to think of myself as having more hair and energy as well as less weight and complaints.)  The problem with nostalgia is that it leads me to think that’s how the church is (or I am) supposed to be and that somehow the world is supposed to be like it was before, as well!”

I am captured by the idea that the first task of leadership is to draw an honest picture of the current reality, which in this case is a picture of the church no longer in the center of a changed culture.  Nostalgia doesn’t help, and in most cases reminds us of what we cannot have anymore.  Instead, we need to ask what we are going to do with what we do have.

We in the church and in the larger American society need to beware of nostalgia. The temptation to try to “turn back the clock” to an imagined better time is powerful for all of us! Various scripture examples abound. There is Mordechai’s proclaim to Esther, “But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family” (Esther 4:14).  The prophet Isaiah shares a word of the Lord.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:19-20).  Perhaps greatest of all, there is the Lord himself proclaiming, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).

God doesn’t need to get with our program.  We must enlist or re-enlist with the mighty workings of God.  In a serious of recent presentations, I have intentionally made a point of emphasizing what the Lord is doing now(!) in, through and around us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.   God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing!  We are called to ministry for such a time as this!  The Kingdom of God is at hand!

In the South Central Jurisdictional Conference Episcopal Address, I reached for this great truth.  I said, “Please, I bid you, step with me carefully into the new future God is even now leading us to.  This is not the stuff of Pollyanna dreams nor still an ostrich-like head-in-the-sands denial of reality.  It is the stuff of our faith.  Here we find our footing in these turbulent times on the solid rock of Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 7:24-25).  ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 29:11-14a).”

Beware of nostalgia!  It can call us away and lead us astray however well intended.  The Lord God is birthing a new church out of the old and in some places in the old!

Faith Sharing Exercises ©

At our recent Annual Conference meeting in Waco, we engaged a series of faith sharing exercises. They are simple tools or exercises that can be used in a Sunday School Class, a United Methodist Women’s group (UMW) or a United Methodist Men’s meeting (UMM).  They are designed so that Youth groups can learn to share their faith.  Taken together they can help us learn or relearn a central part of our faith sharing in the name of Christ.  A good number of people asked about where they could get a copy of these exercises so I am sharing them in this blog.  Allow me to encourage you to employ them and pass them on to others.

Exercise #1: Share with another person your answer to the following question:  How did Christ become real to you?  Reflection: All of us have a meaningful, powerful story to tell.  Sharing this story is a basic way of living Acts 1:8.

Exercise #2: On a sheet of paper, write out briefly three things that are central to your Christian faith.  Cross out two and share with a neighbor the remaining crucial aspect of the Christian faith in your life.  (If time permits, go back and taking turns share the other two.)  Reflection: All of us have a working theology [theology means to talk about God] with the ability to share how God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is active in our lives.

Exercise #3: On a sheet of paper, write out briefly three favorite Bible verses in your life.  Cross out two and share with a neighbor the remaining verse.  (If time permits, go back and taking turns share the other two.)  Reflection: All of us have a working body of Scripture that we can share with other.  In the sharing, elements of exercise #2 are engaged as well.

Exercise #4: We say ‘Jesus saves’, turn and share with your neighbor and answer the question, just “what does Jesus save me from?” Reflection: This engages us in a heartfelt religious witness in the most natural of ways.  It invites others into similar self-reflection and engages us in theologizing together.

Exercise #5: Share with others your answer to the question: What are some of the barriers that keep you from sharing your faith?  Reflection: This exercise helps us confront our fears (which are often irrational) and learn to engaging in living the biblical command from Jesus to witness and share our faith.

These are the five exercises we used at Conference. As you engage in them there are a number of others which you will think of.  For instance, another exercise might involve sharing your favorite movie scene which had spiritual, moral, or theological point that impacted you.  As you share, you will find that others will open up with similar sharing.  It is great opening way of safely discussing faith issues.  Practice of these and other exercises will give you confidence to share in appropriate and graceful ways will be a great blessing to others.

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 4

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART IV – “A Time for Courageous Leadership”

Leadership development for both lay and clergy remains and must remain a top priority. To this end two years ago we brought in Dr. Kevin Walters to buttress our development of a new generation of lay leaders.  The Vital Leadership Academy as noted is already making a difference. Soon Dr. Walters along with our Lay Leadership Council will be rolling out a new Lay Servant Ministry program.  We are indebted to our Lay Leader Kim Simpson for her pioneering efforts along with Dr. Walters.

Mr. Jeff Roper has been hired as the Associate Director for Leadership Development freeing Dr. Georgia Adamson to focus on the task of Assistant to the Bishop.  It is my hope that you as a Conference will approve the splitting of those two positions, which was the original intent in the Exodus Project at its inception.  We did not do so because of budget considerations.  I am pleased and proud to say that we are now able to add the position of Leadership Development on a half-time basis in a way that is budget neutral; that is to say, it will not increase our apportionment one dollar.  [This action was approved.]

Jeff brings a wealth of superb senior leadership to us from Alcon Labs. Already he is helping us to develop a system of clergy leadership development which we call LASP.  LASP stands for Learning Agility Sustained Performance. This will enable us to significantly retool as we engage the post-Christendom environment we live in.

Concomitant with the LASP system of clergy training and assessment is what we are tentatively calling SPKP which stands for Sustained Performance Kingdom Potential. It is potentially a way of helping churches assess the degree they are will to step up to higher mission and ministry to which the sovereign Lord is calling them and us together to engage in.  Laity let me put this plainly.  We cannot hold clergy accountable unless churches are themselves open to such accountability.

It will take us awhile to figure all this out. We will go through field testing and pilot project in some districts.  It will be threatening to all of us.  Changes will need to be made.  But it also has the courageous possibility to help us step into the brave new world of church the Lord is calling us to.

There is a famous speech taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which addresses to our situation.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.”[1]

These are tough times for the church. There is no way around it.  It is harder to be a pastor today than at any time in my 41 years in ministry (thirty of which have been spent as a pastor of a local church).  Easy answers do not apply.  Complexity is the nature of the situation.  It takes nerve to stand for Christ in today’s environment.  Courage is not a nice bonus in a pastor but a necessity.  Lay leadership demands discernment and uncommon wisdom linked with the fortitude to navigate the storm.

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

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

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”[2]

It is not Demosthenes speaking to us[3]; still less Shakespeare. It is Jesus, the sovereign Lord of the both the church and universe.  More importantly it is Christ himself who calls and commands. Do you recall the verse I opened this address with?  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[4]

Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! So it is, so it is. Fear not! It’s time to march!

 

[1]               Brutus; Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene 3
[2]               Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278
[3]               “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”
[4]               Acts 1:8

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 3

 Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART III – “The Sinews of Methodism and the Recovery of Evangelism”

A second element in focusing on local congregations coincides with the importance of small group development. The key is that it is not just any old small group but much more specifically about small groups that develop spiritual depth and muscle.  The central element to the rise of early Methodism was class meetings (small groups) that watched “over one another in love.”

I don’t care if we call them life groups or discovery groups or reunion groups or the original Methodist class meeting or the even more original initial Christian small group experience put together by Jesus the and 12 apostles. What we need to do is rediscover their essence and get intensely insistent on re-engaging this central component of the original Methodist movement.  The Christian church from bible times onward has never sustained discipleship growth without such an emphasis. Consider these two comments taken from Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting,

  • Never omit meeting your Class or Band … These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. – John Wesley[1]
  • We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry. – Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798 Doctrines and Discipline[2]

Dr. Watson goes on to comment, “I am worried that our approach to Christian discipleship is too often like a person who prepares to run a marathon by buying shoes without actually running in them. Please don’t misunderstand me; just as good running shoes are essential for long-distance running, the Bible and the church are essential for discipleship. Discipleship, however, is about a way of life, not only the life of the mind. Disciples follow Jesus. They are sent out in ministry by Jesus. They heal the sick. The feed the poor. They tell people about Jesus and what he has done.”[3]  We will hear more from him next year.

The third element of our relentless focus on mission through a focus on the local church is the continuing nascent recovery of the evangelism impulse. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not optional.  It is biblical and practical.  We won’t be here if don’t!  Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology.  Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate.  If we evangelize, more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.

One of the issues is that generations of clergy were taught how to do pastoral care but not how to engage in evangelism. Gil Rendle’s comment sticks in my mind, “I was taught how to change people’s affiliation not how to change their lives.”  If we are honest, real evangelism is foreign to most clergy and often scary.  We tend to hide behind a theology that says the Holy Spirit does the converting, we don’t.  This is true as far as it goes but fails to recognize that the Holy Spirit often intends to use us as instruments for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  The word evangelism itself means “tactics for sharing the good news” of Jesus Christ.  Our failure to engage in evangelism is largely driven by fear, work avoidance and at times masks our theological poverty.  It is time, well past time, to learn again how to engage in a core work of the gospel.

To that end, on September 19th of 2016 at Whites Chapel UMC we will be holding an evangelism summit.  The Evangelism Summit is intended to offer a short course on evangelism for clergy but all (laity emphatically included) are invited.  We have placed the Summit on a Monday in the 10 to 4 time period to enable clergy to attend.  We have some of the best thinkers and practitioners in the field coming to share with us including Dr. Olu Brown, Lead Pastor of Impact UMC in Atlanta and author of Zero to Eighty: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth, Dr. Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology and author of The Logic of Evangelism, and Dr. George Hunter, the first McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, retired Dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of many books on evangelism notably including The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

Clergy, only three times in the past eight years as your Bishop have I asked you to make attendance at an event a priority in your life. I am asking you now for a fourth time.  I ask you, I will go so far as to plead with you, do not miss this event.  Laity, especially those of you on Pastor-Parish Relations Committees, I ask that you help clear your pastor’s schedule so that she or he may attend.  I invite you to come along too!

Pastor Roger Ross in his new Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith reports the following 7 ways to share the faith from the original Methodist movement:

  1. Be Devoted to Prayer
  2. Go Where the People Are
  3. Speak Plain Truth
  4. Use the Music of the Culture
  5. Place Everyone in a Small Group for Spiritual Growth
  6. Give the Ministry to the Laity
  7. Use Mass Communication to Get the Word Out

 He adds:  Why Not Now?[4]

 

[1]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 19
[2]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 53
[3]               Watson, IBID, p. 60
[4]               Roger Ross, Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 2

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART II – “A Relentless Focus on the Mission”

As we move into a new quadrennium the pathway before us is clear. We must retain a relentless focus on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[1]  The big three will remain the big three.

  1. Christ Centered
  2. Focused on the local Church
  3. Development of a new generation of lay and clergy leadership.

Retaining a deep Christ-centered emphasis, understanding that we live in the embrace of God as the first person of the Trinity, our next step is to embrace the fullness of our great Trinitarian doctrine and heritage with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Our mantra is the Holy Trinity; God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I intend to deliberately help us widen our understanding and sense of the Holy Spirit as God active in our midst this very day!  I intend to do this without giving an inch on being Christ-centered.  The two naturally go together!  I love the way our conference teacher, Alan Hirsch, puts it in his book The Forgotten Ways:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”[2]

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church calls the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[3]  I remember when we received the Towers-Watson report in the Council of Bishops back in 2010. Fred Miller, a world renowned expert in institutional leadership, growth and change who led the exhaustive study of the United Methodist Church, made the first key recommendation that there be a 10 year intense focus on the local congregation.  Under questioning by the bishops after presenting the report, he admitted that they would have recommend a 30 year focus on the local church if they thought we could stick with it.  This is that important.  It’s about the local church!  The local church doesn’t exist for the Conference Center.  The Conference Center exists for the local church.

To this end, strategically we will continue the focus on congregational transformation as represented by the Center of Evangelism and Church growth through transformational efforts like the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) as well as other transformation ministries such as Holy Conversations, individual consultants and the like. As a part of this emphasis, we will continue to lift up the stories – the narratives if you will – of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of individuals and congregations.  Consider this one, taken from the recent (and continuing) WeAreMore emphasis.

Along with this emphasis, we now have solid research that indicates that a congregation (including the pastor(s) and key lay leaders) who can articulate a clear coherent path to discipleship is significantly more fruitful in all five major areas of congregational vitality (worship attendance, professions of faith, small group development, missional outreach with the poor and those in need, and extravagant generosity through Connectional Mission Giving and second mile offerings). Bethesda, Acton and First Fort Worth are three examples in the North District alone.

The first time I read about seeing a clearly articulated path to discipleship put out by a congregation was at a workshop at Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Arizona. They were public about pointing back to Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church.  In that book Warren outlines the baseball diamond approach to discipleship used at Saddleback Community Church.  First base was worship attendance.  Second base was bible study and prayer. Third base was mission involvement with the poor and those in need.  Home plate was sharing the faith evangelistically with others.

To my current regret, I and others dissed their approach. We critically noted that few people follow a rigid linear approach to discipleship formation.  Some start with Bible study; others are hooked first through mission work at home or abroad.  There seemed to be as many approaches as there are people to approach.  You know what?  We were both right and terribly wrong.  Discipleship formation is not linear.  One size emphatically does not fit all!  People are unique – duh!  And yet!  The clear delineation of a path is crucial to learning and growth in discipleship.

It reminds me of my son playing T-ball at age 5. One of the kids knocked the ball off the T and headed to third base.  Our left fielder was too busy picking dandelions to pick up the ball.  One of Nathan’s buddies hit ball and took off into center field!  (I have no idea why!)  Nathan only seemed to care about getting the promised snow cone at the end of the game (win or lose).  I can remember sitting in the bleachers in a three piece suit (having come from conducting a funeral service at a nearby cemetery) in the heat of a humid Corpus Christi, Texas summer with the Gulf of Mexico on my left and the T-ball field in front of me laughing so hard I almost fell out of the bleachers.  But you know what, the kids learned baseball.

Something similar happens when a clearly defined path to discipleship is articulated. We’ve discovered that a clearly articulated path to discipleship, even if overly simplified, is vastly superior to the alternative of being unable to cogently and briefly (in an elevator speech) summarize the elements of you and your church’s path to discipleship.  Even the kids that ran to third base and center field were at least engaged and learning baseball.  By way of analogy we need to trust the laity to figure it out and adapt.  They will learn.  Think of the insightful brilliance of the missional slogan Texas Wesleyan University has adopted – Smaller. Smarter.  It tells you all you need to know.  If you come to TWU you will get a quality education in a small classroom environment geared to your learning.

Therefore, I am publically instructing every District Superintendent to ask every pastor and every church council at their Charge Conference or some other appropriate local congregational setting to articulate and share their specific path to discipleship along with the strategic steps to move people forward in their discipleship development. If you don’t have one, your DS will work with you to come up with one.  Furthermore, I will ask every DS to report those strategic paths to discipleship at the Cabinet Inventory prior to our beginning the appointment process next February.  (Hear me carefully, if you don’t know or are not sure, ask!  We will pour gallons of help into the engine of your congregation’s disciple making system if you ask.  We work with the coalition of the willing!  You will not be abandoned but aided; however, you have to ask.  Accountability will be expected by all involved, which includes us at the Conference office.)  We need to think this through and more importantly pray this through. Together we will learn!

 

[1]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91
[2]               Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 86
[3]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91

THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “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.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 4

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part IV: Convicted Hope

But, I started the talk the way I did out of deeply held convictions. We are not just an Easter people; we are an Easter church!  There are signs of new life all around.  The Lord God really is doing something new!  McGrath is right: “The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity.”

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

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

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

Embracing a full blown, unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us.  The way ahead is difficult.  It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful.  We are duly challenged.  Is Jesus Lord of our lives including our professional work?  Is this His church or a human institution?  Make no mistake: the way is strewn with obstacles, but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.  Do you remember that marvelous interchange which takes place between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Lucy in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 3

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

Allow me for a moment to hit the pause button here to make a couple of strong assertions. First, whatever your position on same gender marriage & ordination, a decision should not be made on the grounds of losing or gaining members! I cannot say this strongly enough.  We should do what we best understand to be biblically and theologically faithful.  The advice to Timothy is well embraced.  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Secondly, you know better than I that our current warfare over gender ordination and marriage is the presenting issue where the far deeper issues of theology and practice meet. What is really at stake is what it means to be a biblically faithful church and individual disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Pointedly we are wrestling with deeper issues of authority; how do Christians relate most faithfully to the culture and the future of the Wesleyan orthodoxy in America.  I find myself constantly reminded of the phrase “he (or she) who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.”

Third, we must cherish unity and simultaneously NOT make unity a cardinal cause or our highest value. I do not understand how a church which began by breaking away from the Church of England can claim unity as our highest institutional value. Please hear me carefully.  We must cherish, work towards and pray for unity but unity is not (and cannot be) our highest value.  Please allow me to stress this last.  We should pray for and work towards unity.  Even with deep differences unity is to be treasured, but it cannot be our highest value!  No one should be deluded into think that any kind of splintering will be easy or painless.  It will not.  It will be wrenching and painful for all concerned but faithfulness is the higher biblical virtue!

Peering through the murk and fog, allow me to hit the play button again and make some observations.

  1. We have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church.
  2. The anti-intuitionalism combined with a culture embracing a “free church” model makes church discipline and leadership increasingly problematic. Take the cultural mix of churches insisting on the right to choose their own pastor (I’m talking United Methodist now!), pick & choose apportionments, and decide for themselves what part of The Discipline they will abide by. Now mix in the growing number of acts of disobedience to church law (which is much greater than simple disputes over same gender marriage), many of which are endorsed by episcopal leadership. Stir this concoction, seasoning with a clergy culture that resists any form of accountability and a Council of Bishops that is absolutely unable to really lead. It takes no genius to assert that “the center will not hold.”
  3. We are in more financial trouble than we realize. As Lovett Weems has amply demonstrated, finances are a trailing indicator. In 2012 for the first time there was a reduction in General Church appointments (which we prefer in the Central Texas Conference to call “Connectional Mission Giving”). The General Secretaries Table has already suggested a modest ($12 million) reduction in apportionments for the next quadrennium. Now salt and pepper this with two things: a) there is significant discussion about the need for a much greater reduction, possibly as high as a $100 million reduction freeing resources for impactful local missions and ministry; and b) Some of our better financial leadership as a denomination have already held a national conference on right sizing the United Methodist Churches financial structure.
  4. As we are currently constituted, we don’t really need all the seminaries we have. Furthermore, MEF (Methodist Education Funds) which go to both official UMC seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry will come under increasing scrutiny. Connect this with the anti-institutional spirit of the age, and the pressure to return all the money to Conferences for their own scholarship use will grow. It almost goes without saying that a splintering church will find it even more difficult to fund seminaries. With regard to the growing issue of orthodoxy, the question is being asked seminaries, do your preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)? Are you preparing students to pastor United Methodist Congregations with faithfulness and fruitfulness? Which leads naturally to the next point…
  5. We are in a local church leadership crisis of immense proportion. Bishops and Cabinets simply do not have enough competent clergy to appoint. This is intensified by the wave of baby-boomers retiring and conversely mitigated somewhat by the number of fulltime appointments being lost every year due to a declining church.
  6. The guaranteed appointment in its current form is a dodo bird. Regardless of Judicial Council rulings, the guaranteed appointment in its current form (again, a huge and careful qualifier) cannot be financially sustained. Boards of Ministries are struggling with a radically different way to understand the ordination process, the role of higher education, the importance of mentoring and need for jobs.
  7. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not option. It is biblical and practical. We won’t be here if don’t! Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology. Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate. If we evangelize more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.
  8. The deeper theological crisis which has been the backdrop of this whole talk of this gathering itself, continually asks us to consider the “big tent” conception of the church as over against the disciplined, truly disciplined (and discipling) movement for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I realize that this recitation can feel unmitigatingly depressing. I actually stand before you excited and hopeful.  I can be hopeful not in a winsome denial of reality (which is everywhere present in the United Methodist Church) but because of the gospel itself.  We do see in a mirror dimly. We must begin to face the future unflinchingly.  The United Methodist Church as currently constituted will not survive regardless of decisions at this General Conference over same gender issues.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

Page 1 of 512345»