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“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

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 I: “I am Doing a New Thing!”

It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion.

He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service.

At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.”

However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.”

“I am doing a new thing!”

 I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.

Counterintuitively, while the dam 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 spring 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.”

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.”  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 orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence.

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, causing 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.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.

Consider some of the antidotal evidence:

  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • 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.]
  • 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.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers 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 evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. 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. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). 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 inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, 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) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.

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.

Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.)

Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.”

The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

A WITNESS IN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK ©

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.”

Thus opens the full text of the famous Celtic prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate. There is more, much more, to the prayer but the opening lines anchor Patrick not in mythology but far more importantly in Christian theology.  St. Patrick’s Day is more than a day to celebrate all things green.  We do well to honor St. Patrick as a giant of a Christian leader, missionary, evangelist and bishop.  Even more, in celebration of the life and ministry of St. Patrick, we remember in order that we might learn and recommit ourselves to this same great mission in the name of Christ.

His story is a compelling witness to the Christ as Lord of his life and to his love in Christ through the Holy Spirit even for those who mistreated and harmed him.

Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past life expectancy in the 5th century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel.  Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches, and he ordained perhaps 1,000 priests.  “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions.  He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery.  Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 23).

I invite the reader to pause with me and deeply consider Patrick’s witness. In doing so I am reminded that he sought to honor and serve Christ in all he did, with the fullness of his very life!  Patrick’s return to Ireland was courageous.  His witness to Christ was electric.  His sharing of the Christ’s saving grace was bracing.  He offered a new possibility, a new way of living in and through Christ that converted a land.

George Hunter’s brilliant book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again closes with the profound insight learned from St. Patrick.  “The supreme key to reach the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially.  The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their heat to the God who understands them”  (George Hunter, The Cesaint_patrickltic Way of Evangelism, p. 121).

We who live in a land more pagan than Christian need to learn again from this great man. We are called like he was to share a witness of Christ for a people spiritually starving, living in a druidic darkness of fear, bombarded by religious quackery, and overdosing on confectionary falsehood.  We need to offer God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The claim laid upon Patrick is laid upon us by the Lord.

A brilliant teacher and communicator of the gospel, Patrick used the ever-present native plant, the shamrock, as a symbol of the holy Trinity. Each leaf witnessed to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a prayer which comes, legend has it, from the breastplate of St. Patrick.  I read it first in the old Book of Worship for the United Methodist Church.  I use prayer regularly, and I invite the reader to pray the prayer as well:

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me.
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger” (Taken from The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church, 1964 edition, p. 244).

Patience for a Patient ©

Tuesday morning at about 9:15 a.m.  I walked in the doors of Texas Health Resources Harris Hospital Southwest.  As I walked up to the information desk where I was to report in for my knee replacement surgery, an elderly woman using a cane and wearing a back brace was in front of me.  About the same time I arrived to begin the line a younger man (40ish) approached from the side. We stood there as she fumbled in her purse and pulled out a phone.  She asked for the room-number of a patient and after some careful search on the computer, the desk volunteer graciously notified her that there was no one registered at Harris SW Hospital under that name.  Graciously the volunteer offered to help expand the search.  As we waited, the lady proceeded to call a family member to see if she had the right hospital. 

I don’t know how you as a reader would handle a situation like this.  I must confess that it is difficult for me not to demonstrate a lack of patience when someone stands in line and deals with a phone call all the while obviously holding up the line.  For that matter, even in the best of circumstances, patience is not one of my spiritual attributes.  Unfortunately or rather very fortunately, I knew the desk volunteer.  Bob Sherman, the volunteer on the information desk, is a member at Arborlawn United Methodist Church.  If Bob was exhibiting a grace filled example of patience to one of the elder saints of the Lord, the least I could do was keep my mouth shut.

By the grace of God and the witness of a good Methodist layman, I did just that.  I kept my mouth shut.  The story doesn’t quite end there. 

A little while later changed into a hospital gown and waiting in the pre-op room, Bob slipped in and asked if he could phone church so that folks on the Arborlawn prayer team could be lifting me up in prayer for a successful knee replacement surgery. I shared my appreciation with Bob a little while later but those brief interactions have lingered in my mind.  The Apostle Paul’s listing of the fruits of the Spirit linger in my mind.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 522-25).

Just four days earlier, we had returned from a spiritual pilgrimage following much of the Apostle Paul’s third missionary journey.  The theologian in me cannot help but notice the connection between the witness of those earliest persecuted Christians and a simple act of kindness and care shown at a volunteer’s desk.  In recent blogs I have highlighted how the earliest Christians could live with grace, joy and love in horrific conditions. 

The earliest Christians did not begin by joining a political party.  They didn’t clamor for their rights.  Their witness to the risen Savior sprung out the way they lived towards others.  They took the admonitions of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount; the teaching from his parables; and the way he interacted with all people – even lepers, as an example of how they were to live in relationships with others … event their enemies.  They were literally grace-filled.  They lived by the Spirit and walked by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).  This way of living differently so marked out earliest Christians that people would wonder if they weren’t some kind a new species or race.

Perhaps you can recall an old admonition I learned in Sunday School.  It goes something like this.  “If you were arrested as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

I am not a good patient and I am not someone who exhibits patience as a part of my daily walk with Christ.  What I am is a sinner saved by God’s grace.  It is in this relationship that I am lifted up to “be more than I can be.”  Thanks, Bob, for helping me live the faith that is so life giving.  In the background noise of our age and time, I need to remember the words of the Savior and Master – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matthew 18:22).

Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #7

 

 Moving Beyond the Church World © 

We stood gazing over the impressive “hemi” engine at the Good Guys Car Show located on the grounds of the Fort Worth Motor Speed Way.  My cousins, Fred and Tom, peered intently inside the hood of the “hot rod.”  They gazed in awe down at the engine components.  I gazed too but I had no clue what we were actually looking at.  Finally I had to ask; “What are we looking at?”  Almost reverently Fred pointed with one finger down at a part of the engine intake.  Solemnly he intoned, “Fuel injected.”

That day at the Texas Motor Speedway I was introduced to a different world I only dimly knew existed.  My cousins had talked with great zest about the world of cars and car shows (especially what I would call the “hot rods”) before.  They had repeatedly invited me to come to one of the shows with them.  They both had restored older model cars to a “street rod” configuration.  This semi-hidden world was a great part of life for them.  It was a part of life that they were eager to share.

So what does all this have to do with the Wisemen and “the light in our darkness?”  In a sense, everything!  Neither of my cousins is an active Christian.  To be sure, they would align themselves loosely with what they understand to be some of the values of the Christian faith.  Still neither would claim the title of “disciple” or “Christ follower.”  Strangely however, they were “evangelistic” about their love of cars and zeal to share that love with others.

For me they are a launching point into this last blog (of seven) on the series “EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness.”  I write to offer six practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world.  Additionally, I write to offer five practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church.  [While I will list them separately, there is a real sense that both lists belong to both lay and clergy alike!]

Practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world:

1.     Live the incarnation. Go and enter in the non-Christian, non-church world. The Lord of the universe didn’t just demand that we come to him!  Jesus came to us.  Follow Christ’s example!
2.     Make friends for the sake of friendships (not as a means to an end). Model such behavior for your congregations and be publically explicit about such modeling! This is a basic way we both share the love of Christ in us and help our congregations do the same.
3.     Where appropriate, share what God is doing in your life. The key is to speak of the triune God as a subject in action and not as the object of sentence. To quote Carlyle, “People want to know God other than by second hand.”  To quote Peter, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (I Peter 3:15).
4.     Pray to be led into a faith-sharing, witnessing opportunity. The Holy Spirit is at work in our world and our lives. Every time I remember to pray to be led, in measurable time, the Holy Spirit comes through!  The Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is powerfully active in our lives!  We need to both seek and trust the Spirit’s guidance.
5.     Turn “attenders” into “recommenders.” Jim Ozier writes, “Before we get to a culture of invitation, we must master the art of recommendation” (Jim Ozier & Fiona Haworth, Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church, p. 117; the whole book is an excellent starting place, but chapter 9 is worth the price all by itself!).
6.     Rediscover and employ in congregational worship brief “testimonials” or “witnesses” by lay people about how God is active in their life. Brief, practical faith sharing has a power and blessing all its own. It must not be about God but do stress how God has been active in my/our life/lives.

Practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church world:

1.     Prayer, Prayer, Prayer! It cannot be said enough. The Holy Spirit will lead you!  In your prayer, trust your fears to the Lord. Pray also for people you see in public places. Try asking your table server next time you eat out if they have something they might like you to pray for as you say grace.  9.5 times out of 10, they will be deeply appreciative and often spiritually moved!
2.     Rehearse and be able to share your own story (“testimony”) of how God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has been and is now active in your life. Sunday School classes and small groups are excellent safe places to practice. In fact, a Sunday School class will itself be revitalized and revolutionized by such faith sharing.
3.     Engage in mission outreach as a part of sharing your faith story. The Christian faith is more caught than taught. A (lay) friend recently told me about how in his church they share fresh grown produce with the poor and hungry.  In doing so, they add a gracious non-coercive verbal witness
4.     Exemplify a Christian lifestyle by both word and deed. It is not an either/or equation. It takes both word and deed.  The two together are a gift to others!  Employ Philippines 4:4-9.  In this divisive culture, it will be received as a blessing.
5.     Invite and go with. Incarnational faith sharing and invitational faith sharing go together. They too are not an either/or.  Pick some wonderful ministry/event in the life of your church and invite a non-Christian friend to go with you.  Most Christians fail to understand how scary visiting a church is to non-Christians.  Simultaneously most non- or nominal Christians would secretly be delighted by an invitation to go to church with Christian friends on Christmas Eve, Easter or Mother’s Day.

There is more, much, much more, to be said.  Allow a redundant emphasis.  The clergy list applies to laity and the lay list applies to clergy!  The light shines in our darkness and the darkness does not overcome it!  (John 1:5). Moving beyond the church world is an exciting adventure in faithfulness!

I would also recommend these resources to explore evangelism and faith sharing:

Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church by Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese

Get Their Name: Grow Your Church by Building New Relationships by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan

Just a Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels

 

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #5

 Evangelism as Mission © 

One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951).  D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century.  He opens his book with the following assertion.  “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).

Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic.  “Evangelism is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “The Christian does not offer out of his bounty.  He has no bounty.  He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too.  The evangelistic relation is to be ‘alongside of’ not ‘over-against.’”

We have long and rightly understood that there is an intimate and inseparably intertwined connection between evangelism and missions.  (By missions, I will employ a short-hand definition – the deeds of love, justice and mercy.)  Living the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40) engages us in activities of social justice as straightforward as feeding the hungry and as controversial as welcoming the stranger (think of debates about immigration and gender preference) and providing adequate medical care for all; the commandment impels us forward to bring relief to victims in Haiti, water wells to Kenya, and help to the homeless in Fort Worth.  This is a central part of the light of Christ being brought in the darkness of our currently twisted world society.  It is an offering of love in the name of Jesus, who is with us always.

Evangelism can be understood as one vital aspect of missions.  If we truly love people, we will share with them what we understand to be the source of life at its fullest (see John 10:10).  Failure to share new life in its fullness under the Lordship of Christ is a negation of love in its fullness.  To truly love the neighbor is to evangelistically share in graceful, appropriate ways.  (Please read carefully!!!! note the qualifier: “in graceful, appropriate ways.”)

The title phrasing is important.  The light of Christ comes in our darkness as a part of mission as evangelism.  It does not say that mission is evangelism nor even evangelism is mission.  Evangelism is one important, critically important, aspect of the larger mission we are engaged in. Simply engaging in missions or what is seen as missional activity is not necessarily engaging in evangelism.  It may or may not bring the light of Christ into our darkness.

Evangelism cannot be collapsed into engaging in more ministries of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, engaging in medical ministry/missions in a different setting (whether in one’s home city or on another continent), etc.  All this and more is needed – desperately needed.  All this and more, the great missional expanse of ministries of sanctification through love, justice and mercy, is worthy of our time, talent, and energy in the name of Christ.  Missions – what I would like to summarize by the phrase “the deeds of love, justice and mercy” – is a companion of evangelism.  Indeed the case can be made that evangelism is a subset of the wider ministry of missions.  However good and godly (“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8), Jesus felt it necessary and vital to add the great commission – “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 28:19-20).

When we conflate evangelism and missions (or missional activity of love, justice and mercy), we do an injustice to both and truncate the full biblical witness offered by the Risen Savior and Lord.  It is significant that Jesus instructs His followers to specifically “name the name.”   Disciples are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.

In an instinctive and nascent way, the wise men understood this truth.  It is this great epiphany truth to which they point in offering their gifts.  The light of Christ enters our darkness offering a way out into the light of grace-filled love for a battered and bruised world.  Sharing that light is its own deep act of love and a fulfillment of the holy (and holistic) mission Christ as Lord and Savior calls us to engage in.

“Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12).  He said, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness” (John 12:46).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #4

 First Steps at Recovering a Personal Witness© 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporting From the Mission Field

There a many great avenues of ministry taking place in the Central Texas Conference and around the larger church. One of them lies in new church development. It is important to remember that every church was at one point in its life a new church.

Recently I met with our New Church Start District. The diversity was astonishing! There were eight developments that are a part of our New Church Start District. One is Korean; another is predominantly African American; and a third is reaching out to a predominantly Hispanic mission field. Two are extensions of parenting church situations. Two others are proposed “mergers” that would result in radically new and different churches.

Taken as a whole, there are a variety of experiments going on that reach deep into unconverted, unchurched and untapped mission fields. The very nature of the work is exploratory. It is also exciting with the connotations of a roller-coaster ride. The Holy Spirit is wildly at work in ways we only dimly understand. It is our call to be open – faithfully and courageously obedient to the Spirit’s claim upon us.

In another setting, I learned of some of the initial fruit of our strong emphasis in upgrading campus ministry and specifically Wesley Foundations. This ministry takes time to develop and mature, but it is making a tangible difference in the life of the Conference. Rev. Joseph Nader, CTC Coordinator of Campus Ministries, reports that we now have:

  • “2 students serving at Arborlawn UMC in the youth group.
  • 4 students serving at FUMC Mansfield in the youth group.
  • 1 student serving at Richland Hills UMC in the children’s ministry.
  • 2 students serving at the UTA Wesley (1 of them a repeat…also serving at Mansfield).”

He concludes, “Really [we have] a total of 8 students serving in a ministry designed to help them discern a call, and then equip them for moving forward in ministry. Additionally it is worth noting that Rev. Megan Davidson who was Director of the Wesley Foundation at TCU is moving on to be Chaplain at Southwestern University. Rev. Melissa Turkett is the new (as of Annual Conference) Wesley Foundation Director at Baylor University. Melissa is a graduate of the Wesley Foundation of UTA. In her last year at Perkins School of Theology, Melissa served her internship at the UTA Wesley Foundation.”

On a very different subject, I had the privilege of attending the Board meeting for Texas Wesleyan University (TWU) last week. TWU is moving forward in a number of impressive ways. We are looking forward to moving the Conference offices to TWU. It was reported at the Board meeting that the new Conference Center building should be completed this coming summer.

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I hope that we all will remember to give thanks by offering out of our bounty to those desperately in need. Here in the Central Texas Conference I especially want to remind us of our traditional “Thanksliving Offering.”

The Conference news notes that: “The 2014 Thanksliving Offering, generally received in the month of November, will go to energize and equip local church ministries with persons experiencing food insecurity in their communities. The Thanksliving Special Day Offering (Remittance Fund #3968) can be sent to the CTC Service Center online or by mailing a check.”

The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and we are blessed to be a part of a great work of the Lord. In countless numbers of ways, some large and impressive others small and unnoticed, the Kingdom of God is being constructed through a multitude of risk-taking acts of faithfulness. We truly have reason to rejoice and be thankful!

BEHIND THE SCENES

After the talk of schism and arguments over same gender issues settles, there is an emerging consensus over the importance of building vital congregations.  This great consensus is built on the foundation of commitment to the stated mission of The United Methodist Church — “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I believe there is a growing recognition that if our threatened unity as a church is to hold, it will do so around this great theme of vital congregations that make disciples of Christ.

Such a great theme blossoms naturally from the fertile soil of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) of the risen Christ to make disciples.  It is nurtured in conversion events like Acts 2 and the Pentecost experience, the road to Damascus of the Apostle Paul, and the dramatic transformation of Rome from a place dedicated to stomping out Christianity to the center of a new emerging Christian faith. The current denominational emphasis on building vital congregations is a faithful attempt to re-appropriate the center of our faith.

Behind the scenes of the vital congregation emphasis lies an only partially recognized need to rediscover evangelism and witnessing.  Missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s famous admonition of witnessing and faith sharing echoes in the background.  “Words without deeds are empty.  And deeds without words are dumb.”

Lost in the noise of the 2012 General Conference was a thin publication by Abingdon Press written by Dr. George Hunrecv contagious meth mvmtter, III.  The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement looks at the capacity of the Call to Action to build vital congregations, to move beyond institutionalism to the recovery of a vital movement of faith consistent with the original Wesleyan vision.  Hunter notes “the contagion of culturally relevant Christianity and emotionally relevant Christianity are experienced fairly directly” (p. 41). This involves a direct connection between conversations that might best be called witnessing.

Recently with Carol Woods (West District Superintendent) we have gathered a small task group together to refocus us as a Conference on what is classically called evangelism.  This great word, “evangelism,” has gone from Jerusalem to Jericho and fallen among thieves.  The word literally means “tactics for sharing the good news.”  Regardless of where one stands on deeply divisive issues like same gender marriage, it is an irrefutable central fact that if we as a church are to survive we must recover an active ministry of evangelism.  This great task lies behind the scenes of much of our modern controversies, but its reality is irrefutable in a post-Christian America.

Behind the scenes of recovering evangelism and witness lies the even deeper theological issues of a robust doctrine of sin and the need for salvation and thus a recovery of a vibrant Christology.  Those are common themes to which I have returned time and time again in my blogging.  It is at our theological heart that the real crisis of Methodism and mainline Christianity lies.  More on this later.  For today, we need to embrace the threatening world of evangelistic witness — not for our sake, not for institutional self-preservation.  Such is a far too petty goal.  We need to recover evangelistic witness for the sake of a bruised and battered world, for the love of those lost in hopelessness, helplessness, and homelessness (both spiritually and physically)!

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