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On the Way to the Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Learning from John the Evangelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Windows

A week ago Wednesday (September 24th) I stood outside the chapel at Maua Methodist Hospital in Kenya.  The hospital conducts daily chapel worship every morning with the expectation that all hospital staff will attend.  Graciously they had asked that our Central Texas Conference Mission Team lead worship on that day and that I preach.  The assigned text they gave (as a part of an ongoing series they were involved in) was 2 Timothy 1:1-4.

As I stood outside mentally going over my message, the words of the text flowed over me.  It was as if I could hear the author of 2 Timothy speaking to the staff of Maua Methodist Hospital.   “I’m grateful to God . . .  I’m reminded of your authentic faith … I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. … God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

The explicit vibrancy of the Christian faith in our north east Kenyan setting was everywhere present.  The words of 2 Timothy continued to echo: “So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

The Kenyan Christians are explicit about their faith.  Amidst a bewildering variety of denominations and expressions (some European and North American implants and other expressions homegrown denominations), they are not ashamed of their faith.  Nor do they take it for granted.  While Kenya is far more Christian as a whole than the United States, there is a still a freshness to their witness that inspires.  We have much to learn from them.

Earlier that week on Monday morning as we stood outside waiting to join the first of our weekly chapel services, Rev. James Monroe, CEO of Maua Methodist Hospital, had called our attention to the placement of the windows in the chapel.  They were not in the normal position but instead high up on the outside walls.  Rev. Monroe went on to explain that when Christianity first came to the area (only a few generations ago) people would throw stones through the windows at Christians worshipping together.  The stones would hit and injure people in the pews.  So, when the built the chapel, as a protective measure they put the widows high up on the outside walls.  In this way people worshipping were less likely to be struck by a thrown rock.

The rock throwing didn’t stop the worship; nor did it squelched their public witness.  They remained, in the words of 2 Timothy, “not ashamed” of the gospel.  Today, because of their public witness, explicit evangelistic sharing, monumental good works for all people (even – especially – those who were not Christian), and steadfast reliance on the Holy Spirit, something like 80% of the population of the Maua region of Kenya is Christian (active and practicing, not just on a role!).  The high windows are both testimony and legacy.  There provide a pointed lesson to us.

I wonder, are we – am I – willing to suffer for Christ in boldly offering our/my witness?  Are we unashamed of the gospel and willing with courage and utter reliance on Christ to say “This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).  Do we “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus [?]. Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

I return from Kenya thankful for the teaching and prodding they offer us.  We have much to learn.

KENYA_preaching

MAUA MISSION

The day opens with worship at 7:30 in the hospital chapel.  The simple but pleasant sanctuary fills with hospital staff and we stand to sing.  The music comes from an old British Methodist hymnal and is known to many of us.  As the voices lift in song, the day begins with the Lord.

We arrived in Maua, Kenya on our mission trip to the Maua Methodist Hospital (an “Advanced Special” offering site of the Methodist ministry in the north east of Kenya) a day late.  Mechanical delays at DFW meant that we missed our connection in Dubai.  As a result, we spent an unplanned night in Dubai.  Most of us took the time to tour the city.

Opulence was the descriptive word!  On our tour we went past one magnificent structure after another.  The lights, the glitz, the extravagant wealth all combined for the ethereal experience.  At first I was impressed and then gradually I became depressed.  It was all too much.  Whatever the religion, the reigning God appeared to be financial wealth.  I am rightly judged by my inclination to be initially impressed and even covetous.  I am liberated by Christ calling me back to my better self.

At Maua Hospital, a ministry of the Methodist Church of Kenya (an affiliated Methodist Church of the UMC), a work of God unfolds in a ministrykenya_kids that only begins in the hospital.  A part of our mission travels took us yesterday to a pre-school for children who have been orphaned by AIDS and other poorer children in the community.  The poorest of the poor are not abandoned by the church but embraced.  One of the truly great God moments happened as Rev. Katie Meek let us in a singing, handwaving, dancing interaction with children who are starved for love.  This outpost work of the hospital is a phenomenal sharing of the love of Christ with most often unloved.

The hospital’s vision is far greater than simply a call for physical health care to those in the hospital.  It sees itself as responding to a call and claim for the Lord to a wider ministry beyond the hospital grounds  – especially (but not limited to) the poor.

What stands out the most for me, however, is the manner in which they understand true health care as accompanying both the spiritual and the physical side of life.  The morning worship is only one component.  Here at Maua Methodist Hospital they are explicitly but not exclusively about the Christian.  By that I mean they are consciously clear about praying to Christ, lifting up Christ, and seeking to be faithful to HIM as Lord and Savior by both word and deed.  The intertwining of the two is natural and instinctive.

Theologically speaking, this mission work seeks at its best to combine our understanding of justification and sanctification.  It yokes being saved by Christ to living for Christ in love and service to all.

Wednesday morning I will be the chapel preacher.  The assigned text they have given me is 2 Timothy 1:1-14.  (I invite the reader of this blog to read the text in full.)  2 Timothy gives thanks to God for their life and ministry.  I shall do the same.  One of my seminary classmates is a former presiding bishop.  (They have term episcopacy and he now serves in a Methodist University in Nairobi.)  The writer of this marvelous passage goes on to admonish Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel but rather to offer a bold witness.  Such is being faithfully done in Maua and the surrounding area of Kenya.

The church here is not perfect.  Challenges abound.  But, significantly I think, we have much to learn here.  We also have something to offer.  It is in the combination of the two that God is honored and the gospel of our Lord is lifted up.  I know myself blessed to be on this mission trip.

For those who would like to learn more, the Conference mission trip has established a regular blog site led by Rev. Katie Meek, a member of the team from First United Methodist Church in Round Rock.  I commend your reading of this ongoing blog about our mission trip

For All the Saints: Bob, Blessing and Baptism

Today, Thursday, September 11, 2014, I went to the funeral service for one of saints of the Central Texas Conference, Robert H. Briles, Sr., “Bob.”  Such occasions always lead me to reflect on life; its meaning and fragility.  Bob went from being a young boy raised on a farm near Milford, Texas to being a soldier in combat in Korea to a committed pastor pouring his life out in service to Christ and His church. Those leading the service spoke with eloquence but the greater eloquence was Bob’s life and witness.

The great words of the hymn For All the Saints echoed through me:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Driving back from First UMC in Weatherford over to White’s Chapel for the continuation of the High Octane Preaching Class, I could not help but reflect on the juxtaposition of celebrating the resurrection life of a saint like Bob Briles and the rise of a new generation of preachers as represented in the High Octane Preaching Class.  In the realm of the Lord’s kingdom building rule, together we are all a part of the ongoing never-ending witness to Christ’s rule and reign.

This coming Sunday I will participate in another act of worship which extends that great cause of our Lord.  I will be out at Newcastle United Methodist Church and have the joy of sharing in the baptism of Josiah Ray.

The three actions connect in my mind à from the service of Death and Resurrection for Bob Briles, a saint of the church to à the blessing of teaching the High Octane Preaching Class with John McKellar to à the celebration of Christian baptism with the Ray’s and the faithful of Newcastle UMC.  Bob … blessing … baptism; all point to the truth that we are enlisted together in a great cause, the cause of Christ.

It is the words of a later verse of For All the Saints that lingers deep in my being:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

As I drive along, I think I can hear the hymn and words echoing in my life.  They are still on my ear as a gift from God.  Bob, blessing, and baptism; they all connect with the work of God’s grace through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  In the midst of all the activities that engage us, I celebrate being a part of the cause of Christ!

On another critical subject, we received a letter from Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal Area which includes Russia and Ukraine.  He writes in part, “The United Methodist Church in Ukraine continues its ministry in the time of war, suffering and much uncertainty   in   the   country.   We   have   two   churches   in   the   Eastern   Ukraine   -­‐    in   Lugansk   and Krasnoarmeisk near Donetsk. The bombing of Lugansk was felt by many of our United Methodist people. One bomb fell in the garden of the neighboring house next to our church building. The neighbor suffered and the windows of our church was broken. The congregation in Lugansk which consists of 65 people became refugees and left the city. Only three elderly members of Lugansk UMC decided to stay in the city. 10 members of Lugansk UMC moved to Chelyabinsk region where they are given shelter and small job to survive. I am grateful to our UMC in Satka (Chelyabinsk region, Russia) who helps this group of 10 physically and spiritually. Especially I am grateful to this group of 10 who want  to  start  a  new  church  in  the  midst  of  difficult  situation.  They find comfort in God and in fellowship with our brothers and sisters from Satka.”

Bishop Khegay continued, “Our UMC in Eurasia is very grateful to UMCOR for providing help to Ukrainian refugees in Sochi region and to members of Lugansk UMC who became refugees (documented and undocumented) within Ukraine and Russia. Our members of UMC in Sochi minister to refugees from Ukraine who come to Sochi region in the Southern Russia. ….”

Bishop Khegay closes, “Rev. John Calhoon, GBGM missionary, and Rev. Vladimir Khabriko coordinate our ministries in Kiev, Ukraine helping refugees from Crimea. Again, we are grateful to UMCOR for providing help so quickly when so many people are now in need of food and shelter.  As people called Methodists we move as the Spirit moves us to be where suffering people are, to comfort those who need help, to bring food and water, and to start new churches as God leads us. Thank you for your prayers and support!”

I ask that we keep the people of Ukraine and Russian in our prayers and especially Bishop Khegay and the United Methodists of that embattle region of the world.

Six Critical Questions

For the past year and a half, the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference has been working with the Lencioni organization (The Table Group) in assimilating and implementing lessons from Lencioni’s bestselling book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.  We have been seeking to do so in a manner that integrates such thinking with scriptural guidance and theological fidelity to the Wesleyan understanding of faithfulness.  (Many of you might be aware that Patrick Lencioni is a very active practicing Roman Catholic and engages in such work with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  Our consultant, David Simpson, is a very active Southern Baptist layman and is likewise committed to integrating the insights of organizational health with Christian theology and practice.)

In our recent Cabinet retreat we examined six critical questions.

1)      Why do we exist?  (Mission)
2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
3)      What do we do?
4)      How will we succeed?
5)      What is most important right now?
6)      Who must do what?

Our focus was in particular on questions two and five.  In a spirit of transparency and an invitation to join in reflection, I offer the following notes of our work.

1)      Why do we exist?
To energize and equip local churches to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
i.  Missional (service)
ii.  Christ-like community (worship, lifting up Christ, inclusive)
iii. Engaging, grace-filled, witness [Evangelism] (new people new places, resurrection Jesus, reaching outside the walls)

3)      What do we do?

4)      How will we succeed? (Strategic Anchors; the anchors offer guidance for decision making. We are establishing a “word-smithing” team to refine wording and communication of our strategic anchors.)
– Christ at the Center
– Focus on the Local Church
– Leadership Development

5)      What is most important right now?
1
.      Increasing the number of vital congregations (the current Thematic goal) with five “Defining Objectives” (as follows):
i.     HCI (point guard = Gary Lindley)
ii.    Personal Evangelism & Witness (point guard = Carol Woods)
iii.    30 new church in Risking Taking Mission with the Poor (point guard = Randy Wild)
iv.    Maintain and grow the number of 126+ (average worship attendance) churches (point guard = Bob Holloway)
v.    Lay and clergy leadership development & recruitment (point guard = Georgia Adamson)

We committed to having at least a monthly check-in conversation where we are pointing to these five.  I named “point guards” (drivers or champions) for each of the five defining objectives.

Additionally we outlined some actions steps (some of which are already in process)

Action steps for #5 re Evangelism/Witness:
1.  Bob will visit with Board of Ministry with regard to candidates qualifying for ordination having the ability to tell their personal story of salvation.  Individual DS’s will convey this concern to District Committees on Ministry.
2.  Establish a “Task Force on Conference Evangelism” strategy – Bishop and Carol
3.  The Cabinet will share with each other who they are evangelizing.

Action steps for #5 re Leadership Development:
1.  Continued Recruitment (Georgia)
2.  Laity teaching module for local church (Kim Simpson and Kevin Walters are currently work on this project in conjunction with Georgia Adamson.)
3.  Rewriting HCI curriculum (Gary)
4.  Develop 10+ lay supply (part-time) preachers (Don)
5.  Improving acculturation of newly ordained clergy for the first five years
6.  Leadership succession planning (Bishop)

6)      Who must do what?
There is much thinking and praying that remains to be done to fully complete this work.  And, in a larger sense, it is ongoing work which is never really finished but always in various stages of beginning and refining.  Nonetheless, with Mr. Wesley we celebrate that the “best of all is that God is with us” (Matthew 28:16-20).

That’s Path 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith, Hope and Clarity – and the Greatest of These is Clarity

When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”

There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.

And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).

A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.

“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2014/03/30/remembering-the-source-of-aldersgate/; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).

Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).

Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!

Lessons from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas

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

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

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

Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Behavioral Change

Common wisdom is that we change our beliefs, then our actions follow.  Reality is often different.  Most of us act our way into a new way of thinking and believing.  If we push hard on this distinction, the truth emerges that it is a both/and not an either/or.  Do you recall the old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”  Or the more modern version, “Is it nurture or nature, environment or genes?”  Both are important.  Neither can be separated.

So it is with intentional faith development.  What we believe is crucial and critical; yet, belief alone is not the whole story to faith development.  The key adjective “intentional” involves critical behavioral change.  As important as belief is, as critical as truly orthodox theology is, we learn by acting ourselves into a new way of living out our faith.

I invite the reader to look with me at three critical behavior changes that are central to intentional faith development: Devotional and quiet time with an emphasis on scripture reading; Hands-on missional engagement especially with the poor; and Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians. (I readily admit this list is not exhaustive but let’s start here.)

Devotional and Quiet time with the Word of God:  I have written on other occasions about my conviction that we live life at an unsustainable (and unhealthy!) pace.  Quiet time with the Lord and with Holy Scripture in silence, prayer, reading and reflection is essential!  It is non-negotiable if we wish to grow in intentional faith development.

Perceptively Leonard Sweet writes, “One of my heroes is E. Stanley Jones. He is widely read and celebrated for being a Methodist missionary theologian. But I admire him for another reason: he was a great artist of stillness. Every day, seven days a week, Jones devoted the first hour to leaning on his ‘listening post.’ He stood, sat, or walked in silence and listened to the voice of God: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!’ E. Stanley Jones mastered the art of stillness, and inspired me to sign-off letters and sign books with this triple wordplay: ‘Still in One Peace’” (Leonard Sweet, The Greatest Story Never Told, pg. 42).

A few years ago the Willow Creek Association participated in an in-depth study of spiritual formation, growth and maturity.  It involved over 80,000 people and some 200 churches (including a few from the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church) all across the denominational and theological spectrum.  There was a deep correlation with devotional practice and regular scripture reading/study.

Hands-on Missional Engagement, especially with the Poor:  Intentional faith development fails when it is only a couple of content-based classes on prayer and bible study.  Yoked with quiet time is the crucial need to be personally engaged in hands on ministry.  Missional engagement with the poor by itself is not enough, but when linked with devotional quiet time and biblical reflection, walking with Christ takes on a whole new (greater!) dimension.

Just before she graduated from college, our daughter took a one night course her college offered on professional deportment.  The class was designed around teaching skills of public etiquette for a business lunch or dinner, proper professional dress, etc.  I remember she came home and instructed us that you are never to pass the salt and pepper shakers separately.  The instructor coached the students “the salt and pepper are married.  They go together!”  So it is with intentional faith development.  Devotion, prayer, quiet time and scripture are married to hands on missional engagement especially with the poor!

The third critical behavioral change is perhaps the most neglected and forgotten part of intentional faith development.

Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians: There is something amazing that happens in the interchange between faith sharing (including witnessing) with others, especially those who are non- or nominal Christians.  The sharers own faith is strengthened and grows in grace-filled maturity.  Many who participate on a mission trip report that they got much more out of the mission work than did those they were helping.  So it is with witnessing and faith sharing.  In the amazing spiritual economy of God, faith sharing (witnessing) becomes a critical behavioral change whereby the sharer grows in the love of Christ and the love of others.

I cannot help but recall D.T. Niles famous definition of evangelism.  “EVANGELISM is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.  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.”  The Christian stands alongside the non-Christian and points to the Gospel, the holy action of God.  It is not his knowledge of God that he shares, it is to God Himself that he points” (Daniel T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96).

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