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Annual Conference Focuses on Making Disciples

I am often asked, “What is the theme of this year’s Annual Conference?” For me, the answer is always the same. Our theme is “to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The theme is the Conference’s core mission – to energize and equip local congregations. The second part of theme reflects the core mission of every local United Methodist congregation – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I don’t believe in a theme de jour or flavor of the year. To borrow from the slogan made famous by Ford Motor Company… This –“to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – is Job 1!

Underneath that theme we try to have a focused teaching piece (usually two or three major presentations) that will guide us as an Annual Conference through our local churches to better accomplish the mission of making disciples. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.

I typically work a year and a half ahead in scheduling Conference teachers. About 18 months ago, I asked Rev. Rudy Ramus the Sr. Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston to be our Conference teacher for 2014. My intent was that he would lead us in a focused teaching on how we might be more culturally and ethnically sensitive. Rev. Ramus graciously agreed to come lead us. However, he recently found out that his daughter will be graduating from medical school that day! We celebrate for her and for the whole Ramus family but have had to scramble to change our plans.

Rev. Rasmus has consented to come lead us in the same teaching piece in 2015 instead. I had planned to have us focus on intentional faith development – how we in fact grow and mature as disciples of Jesus Christ in 2015. Instead we have flipped the two subjects. We will focus on discipleship development (the path of disciple-making) in 2014 and receive Rev. Rasmus’ great teaching on cultural and ethnic sensitivity in 2015. (For those interested, our Conference teaching in 2016 will be on evangelism and witness.)

I am pleased to announce, with great appreciation for their willingness to come on short notice!, that we will have Bishop Scott Jones on Monday afternoon share an overview of intentional faith development using his material from Cokesbury’s The Wesleyan Way. Rev. Candace Lewis, Executive Director of Path 1 (the United Methodist Church’s new church development initiative) will share the critical learning that her Path 1 Team have made in discipleship development. Dr. Phil Maynard, a noted pastor, consultant and leader in the church, will share a path to discipleship based on his book Shift. Rev. Sue Engle, a leader in the field of intentional faith development, will use the material developed in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference called Charting the Course of Discipleship as a model for how local congregations can set out a clear and cogent path of discipleship. Each of the three presentations/break-out sessions will be for 1&1/2 hours. They are designed to help pastors, lay leaders and congregations work on drafting their own plans for discipleship formation in their respective ministry settings. It is our intent to give every congregation some very practical tools by which they may think through and enact a path of discipleship from a new Christian to a deeply committed discipline-follower of Christ. They will have components that involve education, Bible study, spiritual formation and applications in practice.

Over the next 5 or 6 blogs I intend to write on intentional faith development. My material will hone in on elements of a path for discipleship that move us beyond vague assertions in to practical applications.

What do we mean by a disciple of Jesus Christ? Arguments about definition (which clergy tend to love and laity tend to have their eyes glaze over!) are often exercises in work avoidance. While we may quibble about the words, the essence is straight forward. A disciple is a committed disciplined follower of Jesus Christ. Dallas Willard says a disciple is an apprentice of Christ. The great Saint Athanasius reminds us that Christ became like us that we might be like Him! It is an audacious claim with a missional call into evangelistic witness and ministry of love, justice and mercy for all – literally all! – of God’s people. Discipleship has membership intentions. We are to be followers of the way of Christ! And, we are to be a part of the living, loving, forgiving body of Christ, the church!

Discipleship is at the heart of what the Apostle Paul calls sanctification. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30, NRSV). I love the way the Common English Bible translates the same passage: “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us” (I Corinthians 1:30, CEB). Eugene Petersen’s The Message paraphrase renders the passage, “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:30, The Message).

In one sense discipleship is clear. We are followers of Jesus who seek to imitate Him in our life and witness. In another sense, discipleship can involve different, complex, and contextual applications. In all senses it is a life journey with the Lord living, as Wesley put it, in the full house of God.

Think about it. What is the path of discipleship for your church? How clear and clearly understood by all is it? Are you walking on that path? “O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free; tell me thy secret; help me bear the stain of toil, the fret of care” (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” Hymn No. 430, The United Methodist Hymnal).

MISSION TO FORT WORTH

 What comes to your mind when you think of a missionary?

I must confess that my usual image is both anchored in the past and colonial in genre. I imagine Albert Schweitzer and pith helmets.  Intellectually I know better. Here in Central Texas we are living into a new world where the whole world, including Fort Worth!, is missionary turf.

For a long time the Central Texas Conference (CTC) has had a formal (covenantal) relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico.  Over the last couple of years we have worked to strengthen our relationship with the Easter Mexico Conference. A couple of years ago, Randy Wild, Rev. Dawne Phillips (CTC Director of Missions) and I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico and spent time with Bishop Garcia and their Conference leaders in Monterrey.  Bishop Raul Garcia and the members of the Conference have been wonderfully receptive!

As God led the two Conference in reconnecting, it became clear that we had much to offer each other.  While we initially talk about CTC missions trips to Eastern Mexico, it quickly became clear that mission runs both ways. After visiting their seminary, I came home thinking about internships for seminary students to help train us an outreach in our own neighborhoods.

God had even bigger dreams! Last June at Annual Conference, we were blessed to have LaTrinidad UMC transfer from the Rio Grande Conference to the Central Texas Conference. LaTrinidad is a great church with a long history of outreach in the Diamond Hill area of Fort Worth. As the North District Superintendent, Dr. Ginger Bassford, worked with them on a pastoral change, it quickly became clear that a special skill set was needed for a new pastor.

Again the Lord moved through the Holy Spirit!  Contact between folks at LaTrinidad, the North District Superintendent and a reciprocal visit by a District Superintendent from the Eastern Mexico Conference led to conversations between the two bishops (Bishop Raul Garcia and myself).  Through the gracious leadership of Bishop Garcia, the hard work of Dr. Bassford, and the courageous optimism of Rev. Macias (along with the support of Rev. Macias’ family), the Rev Samuel Macias will become (after we clear all the immigration hurdles and he receives a guest worker permit – “green card”) the new pastor at LaTrinidad UMC in Fort Worth!  Rev. Macias will be with us from two to four years and then return to the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church in Mexico to continue his ministry back in his home country.

We, the Central Texas Conference, are the recipients of a missionary from the Eastern Mexico Conference. It is a great mission of outreach in sharing the gospel through love, justice and mercy in Fort Worth.  Praise God!  A new mission to Fort Worth will soon be launched.  You can read more about this mission to Fort Worth here.

Even as we are receiving a missionary from Eastern Mexico Conference, we are sending missionaries ourselves. Tuesday we had our first team meeting of a conference mission trip to Kenya in September.  I look forward to being a part of the Kenyan mission team next September.  The mission road runs both ways!  We are all working together to share the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and spread the gospel of salvation!

All of this is as it should be. Spiritually we are Wesleyan Christians. John Wesley, the founder of the Wesley (Methodist) movement declared, “The world is my parish.” We are living this great legacy of mission in the name of Jesus Christ!

Taking the Podium – Congratulations to Barclay Berdan

In mid-February I wrote a heartfelt blog congratulating Bliss Dodd for receiving the Perkins School of Theology Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award.  In part I commented, “I cannot help but reflect that it was only a couple of weeks ago that I attended the Alumni Award Dinner at Perkins School of Theology to watch our own (Central Texas Conference’s) Rev. Karen Greenwaldt receive the Perkins Alumni Award.  Now our own Bliss Dodd receives the Woodrow B. Seals Laity Award!  Wow!  To shamelessly borrow from the Olympics, this is like winning gold and silver.  (I have no idea who is the gold or who is the silver medalist; more likely Karen and Bliss are double golds!)  I can’t think of what would constitute winning the bronze as well to take the whole podium (ala the American slope-style skiers).”

Now I know what it means for representatives of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) to sweep the podium!  One of our (CTC’s) hallmark relationships is with Texas Health Resources (THR) through the Harris Methodist Hospital system.  A key leader over the years in providing quality faith-based health care in our region has been Barclay Berdan.berdan

Early in the week I received news that Barclay has been honored in an extraordinary way by his peers.  To quote only in part, “Barclay Berdan, FACHE, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of Texas Health Resources, was recognized by the Texas Hospital Association (THA) as the 2013 recipient of the Earl M. Collier Award for Distinguished Health Care Administration. Established in 1965, the Collier Award is the highest honor bestowed by THA. Recipients of the award are recognized as being outstanding executives who have distinguished themselves through their contributions to the health care industry and their profession, who are leaders in providing quality health care services, and who are active in THA and other industry groups.”

In these times of change and challenge to our health care system, it is blessing to know that we have outstanding leadership in the field of faith-based medical care.  Methodists have long been leaders in providing health care to all people.  Every Conference of the United Methodist Church in Texas at some point or other in its past helped in establishing a major medical system in its area.  The Harris Methodist Hospital system (and now the greater THR system) is an expression of this commitment by the Central Texas Conference.

I don’t know who got the gold, silver or bronze.  To my way of thinking, three gold medals have been awarded to Karen Greenwaldt, Bliss Dodd, and now Barclay Berdan.  I do know that each give evidence of our greater corporate faith commitment to live the prayer our Lord taught us – “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Well done, Barclay, we are proud of you!

Purpose and Identity

Periodically I am asked to review a book and write an endorsement for Abingdon Press.  I just finished my latest – John Flowers’ and Karen Vannoy’s new book, Adapt to Thrive: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfunctional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.  (It is due to come out in April and I will be writing a blog on the book in April.)  I was struck by the authors insistence on the importance of purpose and identity.

At one point they quote Dr. Doug Anderson (Executive Director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development).  “We need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church.  We need to move from a church that does what I want to a church that does what God wants.  We need to move from a church that follows my dreams to a church that follows God’s dream.”  Amen!  If that sounds familiar, it is because it is familiar.  We have heard such phrasing again and again from people as different (and alike) as Gil Rendle (Texas Methodist Foundation, Senior Consultant for Church Leadership and author of Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church & author of both The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life), and Rudy Ramus (our Conference teacher in CTC for this year’s Annual Conference and author of Touch: The Power of Touch in Transforming Lives and The Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge)  I could easily add others to the list.

Whoever we are; whatever our denominational affiliation or lack thereof; at the heart of the matter for any local church is the question of whose we are.  Do we belong soul and body to the Lord Jesus Christ?  This is a tough question because it is easy to say yes.  We belong to the Lord Jesus.  Biblically understood, the Church is the “body of Christ.”  The “toughness” lies in the hard reality that it is difficult to live out our yes.  I find it easy to confuse my preferences with God’s desires.  I’d like to believe the two are the same.  So would most churches.  The truth is that our preferences are not always (dare we say, often not) God’s desires.  We live in an age of entitlement.  The church is here to serve me and other longtime members/pastors.  The painful reality is that the church is not here to serve us but rather to be a mission post of the advancing kingdom of God.  It is an old line from a hymn that rings in my mind and heart.  “From ease of plenty save us; from pride of place absolve; purge us from low desire; lift us to high resolve; take us and make us holy; teach us your will and way.  Speak, and behold! We answer; command, and we obey!” (“The Voice of God is Calling,” Hymn No. 436, verse 4, The United Methodist Hymnal).

This issue of purpose perforce delivers us to the question of identity.  In adaptation #7 (“From Marginal Members to Deep Disciples”) Flowers and Vannoy note:  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.”  This is a polite understatement!  The key I think resides in the identity issue.  They (Flowers and Vannoy) get at identity in adaptation #10 – “From a Generic Culture to a Self-Defined Culture.”  With deep integrity and theological courage they write:  “Many new expressions of community-based churches are in fact trying to appeal to all faiths.  They regard all faith teachings as equally true and do not prioritize one over another.  However, when a Christian church adopts this generic culture, they have lost their own self-definition.”  They go on to add, “The generic church is a slippery slope in another way as well.  Once we buy into the idea that we must welcome and accept all belief systems, then it is a short ride to accepting any and all kinds of behavior as well.”

The original creedal affirmation of faith was amazingly short.  It was not the full blown Apostle’s Creed we have today.  That came later.  The original affirmation was three words.  “Jesus is Lord!”  It rings out over the desolation of modern living.  It is a clarion call to new future in a church that self acknowledges that it belongs to Christ and Christ alone!  It is courageously, daringly counter cultural.  It is our future, if we are to have one.

Joyful & Triumphant – Really?

I realize full well that it is January 17th but I am still stuck on Advent and Christmastide and their resulting connection to Epiphany Season. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation, a making known, an appearing. For Christians in particular the season of Epiphany connects the birth of the Savior with the arrival of the Magi (or wise men) on January 6th. It is the celebration of the light of Christ coming to the gentiles (those who are non-believers).

With that reminder as a backdrop, I invite the reader to step with me back into Advent and Christmas. The great hymns of the season float through heart and mind. In the days immediately after Christmas and leading up to Epiphany, I found myself stuck on a familiar refrain. Do you remember the great hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful”? It is opens with the line: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem” (Hymn No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal). It sounds so full and wonderful! But wait a minute, “joyful and triumphant?” Really?

I get the joyful part. Who doesn’t? We are joyful because of God in Christ being born in a manager for us and for all. But triumphant? Really? It is here that the Christian claim takes a giant step into the bizarre.

In the so-called “West” (America and Europe), the steady decline of Christianity hardly makes this feel like a triumphant rendering of good news. The move from Christendom to a post-Christendom age feels threatening and confusing not triumphant. Read the paper or watch the evening news, there is still a brutal civil war in Syria. Afghanistan is still a bloody morass. We are still deeply divided as a nation on a host of social issues. Families up and down the spectrum of economics, ethnicity, marital status, and region still struggle mightily. Spiritually we are still a culture adrift from moral roots and saturated by the idols of personal preference and pleasure. The list could go on and on. Despair can seem like a reasonable response to the trials of modern living.

Joyful and triumphant? Really? Yes, amazingly enough, really. Our joy is not just for December 25th. It is for January 17th and all the other days of the year. Why do Christians dare sing about being triumphant? They (WE!) brazenly proclaim the transformation of human life and society in the name of the God with us. Christ’s appearing, epiphany, demonstrates God’s love and affirmation. Charles Wesley wrote of this in a little-sung Christmas hymn.

“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine,
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.” (Charles Wesley, “Let Earth and Heaven Combine”)

Far from a time to be lost in the doldrums, this is a season to be joyful and triumphant! What a wonderful January! What a great time to be in ministry together! Human heartache and divine love are welded together in the Son. The strife of ours or any time has met its match in the very present love of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joyful and triumphant? Absolutely! We need to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!”

The Vital Connection of Vision and Obedience

Friday (October 25, 2013) I wrote a blog on Vision.  In that blog I quoted Proverbs 29:18 in both the KJV translation and the CEB (Common English Bible) translation.  Respectively the verse is rendered:  “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV.  And, “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control, but whoever obeys instruction is happy” (CEB).  I shared how I was intrigued by how rarely the entire passage was quoted and promised (or threatened depending on the reader’s point of view) to pick up that connection in this blog.

The writer of Proverbs clearly ties vision to obedience.  The two go together.  It is almost as if Proverbs previews the Great Commission of Christ.  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:16-20, CEB).  Obedience without vision is aimless and Vision without obedience is empty.

The vision points us, directs us, and leads us into a preferred future of obedient faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ – God with us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ as Lord is the essence of our confession as Christians.  In the most basic way we understand that Lord means the ruler, the Master, the One to whom our ultimate allegiance is given.  All of this and yet more resides in the heart of our confession.  There can be little dispute of this essential truth.  This is why the martyrs died.  Their obedience was given to the Lord first and foremost.

Theoretically this all sounds so nice and neat.  It is in the messiness of real living that such a vital connection is put to the test.  Recently I visited a church which is facing critical change, including a decision to relocate (which it has already voted in favor of doing).  The problem is obedience means that power and privilege will flow away from the long-time leaders of the church as they live into this new vision.  Levels of rationalization and resistance can rise to new heights. We tend to seek the grandeur of the vision without the hard living of obedience.

So, too, this is a reality in the area of appointments.  It is easy to sing “all to Jesus I surrender” or “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee” or “wonderful merciful savior.”  It is hard to go to an appointment you didn’t want or respond to a move you didn’t seek.  Our modern sense of upwardly moving career clashes with our profession of obedience to Christ and allegiance to the Lord’s greater vision.  I do not make this as a light assertion.  I have twice been moved against my desires.  One of the moves proved to be a great blessing.  The other was not and even there I learned, grew in faithfulness, and was blessed (reluctantly I will admit).

John Calvin says, “The only true knowledge of God is born of obedience.”  It is to this truth that I confess.  Despite his strong anti-Calvinist convictions, on this much John Wesley would agree.  It is not by accident that obedience in submission to the Conference, Class Meeting and community of faith was for Wesley an extension of his commitment to Christ. The Wesleyan Covenant prayer is prime example of such conviction. (“Let me be employed for thee or set aside by thee; let me be exalted by thee or brought low by thee; …”)  Vision and obedience go together under the Lordship of Christ.  They go together even when it is against my natural inclinations or personal desires. I have discovered a love and joy to the prayer which Bishop Cho has taught me.  “Dear God, Your will.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Nothing else.”

 

CORE STRATEGIES: New Churches

A remarkable event took place at the 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference.  During the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth report, four specific initiatives related to our core strategy of new church development were launched.

  • 1. Lance Marshall was appointed to 7th Street, Fort Worth for a new church start parented by First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth.  (To the best of my recollection this is the first time someone has been appointed to a street!)
  • 2. Shea Reyenga was appointed a Path 1 Intern at White’s Chapel.  Path 1 is the core strategy of the larger United Methodist Church in the United States on new church development.  (The title “Path 1” comes from the original seven vision pathways laid out by the Council of Bishops for the recovery/transformation of the United Methodist Church.  New church development was designated the first of those seven pathways.)  White’s Chapel, through the mentoring of Dr. John McKellar, is working in coordination with our Center for Evangelism and Church Growth and the Path1 team headed by Rev. Candace Lewis of the General Board of Discipleship. Each of those three entities is contributing expertise, time, and financial resources to this internship.  It is our intent that this would lead to a new church start with Rev. Reyenga and partnered by White’s Chapel UMC sometime in the fall of 2014.
  • 3. Rev. Louis Carr, Jr. was appointed to Thompson Chapel with the intention to relocate and re-launch Thompson Chapel.  This action was taken in conjunction with work done by the congregation (and voted on by them) to take this historic risk-taking mission with the expertise and involvement from both the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth and the Cabinet leadership from the Dr. Luther Henry and District Superintendent Dr. Ginger Bassford.  Pastor Carr tells me that they have already surpassed 100 in worship and are looking to close a deal on new land!
  • 4. A second site start with Rev. Daniel Hawkins serving as the pastor as a part of the staff of First United Methodist Church Keller.  Again the courageous and visionary leadership of the parent church for this second site (1st UMC Keller) is yoked with resources from the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.

Each of these four ministry initiatives are concrete examples of how we are living out our core strategy of new churches.  No church, no Christian community, no denomination has ever grown in the two thousand year history of Christianity without a deeply committed emphasis on new church development.  None!  Check it out for yourself.  Read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s multi-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity.

Notice further how the core strategy of new churches is yoked with the first core strategy of a focus on the local church; that is, the transformation of existing congregations.  (See my blog entitled “The Transformation of the Local Church” posted September 18, 2013.)  For me, hopefully for us, the need for new places for new people is a conviction – no, more than that – a call that God has laid upon us as a people of faith.  It is one that comes out of the heart of the Christian gospel.  Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 13:1-3 are two of many passages that provide a biblical anchor.

These are exciting times for the United Methodist Church in Central Texas and around the nation and world!  We are re-engaging and embracing the forgotten ways of Christianity and Methodism.  Praise God!  While writing this blog I received the following note from Dr. Tim Bruster, the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth:  “I want to let you know that we have exceeded our goal of $100,000 from First Church to name the Evangelism and Church Growth Center after Lamar Smith.  We are at nearly $108,000 and the money is still coming in.”

What a great testimony to name the center of Evangelism and Church Growth in honor of truly outstanding leader of Methodism in our Conference (and the Texas Conference) as well as a former President of Texas Wesleyan University – Dr. Lamar Smith.  A double praise God for such faithfulness and vision!

Insights on Changes in Congregations, Clergy and Deployment[1] #2

(This Blog is a part of a series of blogs sharing insights from the “Findings, Implications, & Recommendations” reported by Dr. Weems about the Central Texas Conference.  This report analyzes key trends related to church size and clergy deployment over the past decade.  I will follow the reporting with some of my own reflections on these findings and recommendations.)

Finding A:  Increasing impact of a smaller number of larger churches
2. Focus on larger new church starts.
New church starts are the primary way that denominations increase membership. In earlier chapters of United Methodist history, smaller churches met the needs of a dispersed and rural population. Today the need is for new larger churches (or new campus sites) that can reach over 80 percent of the population that is non-rural and tends to be more heavily clustered.

A tautology that is often ignored is the plain truth that we will not turn around the United Methodist Church with just the transformation/renewal of existing congregations.  Just as true is the tautology that we will not turn around the decline in the United Methodist Church just through the establishment of new congregations.  If ever there was a both/and, it is here.  We must engage deeply in both new church development and the transformation/renewal of existing congregations.  It is to this cardinal goal that the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth exists.

What is often missed is the critical role larger churches have in birthing other large churches.  The process really is a birthing process.  The DNA of the large congregation is embedded in the new church from the outset.

One of the highlights of our recently concluded Annual Conference lifted up our response to this recommendation.  First, we have a Path 1 New Church Development intern on staff for this year at Whites Chapel UMC learning how to birth a large congregation.  Second, First UMC Keller is engaged in a new start/second site outreach.  In the past we have engaged in other similar ministries; most recently through Waco First UMC, and St. James UMC & Killeen First UMC.  Third, in a highly experimental and creative way, Fort Worth First UMC is working with the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth with an appointment to 7th street in Fort Worth.

Our both/and commitment to establish new congregations, especially those begun from the ground up with an intention to be large, and our emphasis in transformation/renewal of existing congregations through HCI/SCI (Healthy Church Initiative/Small Church Initiative) and Holy Conversations (in partnership with the Texas Methodist Foundation) is alive and well!  The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst!


 

[1]               Based on A Lewis Center Report on Changes in Congregations, Clergy, and Deployment 2002-2012 South Central Jurisdiction The United Methodist Church, Central Texas Conference Report

Reclaiming a Robust Christology

Off and on for the last 3 months I have been working on paper that I will present at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies.  The Institute gathers every five years at Christ Church College, Oxford, England where John Wesley studied.  The gathering consists mostly of Wesleyan scholars (University and Seminary professors) from around the world.  A number of attendee slots are set aside for Methodist judicatory leaders (Bishops, Presidents, Superintending Elders – the titles vary depending on which branch of Methodism someone comes from).  I have the privilege of representing the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for the 8-day Conference.

My paper deals with reclaiming a theological orthodoxy at the heart of Methodism in the North American mission field.  As I have worked on this subject, the cardinal call to reclaim a robust Christology (and pneumatology – Doctrine of the Holy Spirit) as an antidote to what Dr. Kenda Dean, our Conference teacher, calls “moralistic therapeutic Deism.”  A robust Christology is the centerpiece of a faithful and fruitful congregation.

New Testament scholar Willi Marxsen noted long ago that the earliest Christian creed was the simple three word phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” It is not a mistake that the great early Ecumenical Councils of the Church dealt first with the person of Jesus Christ.  A doctrine of salvation hinges on a doctrine of Christology which in turn hinges on an understanding of the Trinity.  The whole issue of soteriology hangs on these core doctrines.

The Apostle Paul’s great assertion of I Corinthians 15 arrests our attention. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures.” Paul is not offering a minor aside in asserting the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a claim to who Christ is.  He is the risen triumphant Lord and Savior; fully divine and fully human.  The creedal affirmation rightly reaches to this essence.

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven,
Was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And became truly human.”
(The Nicene Creed, No. 880; The United Methodist Hymnal)

Such creedal claims are a reflection of the early Christian church.  By way of example, at Pentecost Peter lays out the core Christological claim in the closing line of his sermon.  “Let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  When the Apostle Paul offers his witness at Mars Hill, the speech is going well until he insist on the resurrection of Jesus in verse 31.  “When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, ‘We’ll hear from you about this again’ ” (Acts 17:32). This biblical foundation is even more explicit in the Gospel of John.

A similar reflection of what we might loosely call a “high” Christology is found in the works of Wesley and the original Methodist movement.  Again by way of example, Wesley’s sermon on “Salvation by Faith” rests on the firm foundation of a high Christology.  “What faith is it then through which we are saved?  It may be answered: first, in general, it is a faith in Christ – Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper object of it” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” Sermon #1, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons I, Volume 1, ed. Outler, 120).

I recently compared our current struggle over Christology in United Methodism as akin to so emphasizing the fruit of salvation (sanctification) that we are ignoring the roots of our faith.  My conversation partner emphasized the missional (love, justice and mercy) ministry of the church as central in importance.  He argued that such teaching about Christology didn’t matter just as long as we held to Christian values.  I compared his position to picking the fruit while we starved the roots. Sooner or later we pay for such poor nurturing of the soil of faith.  A robust Christology is not a nice added on but central to the church’s life, health, and deep faithfulness.

Facing Death and Reading Love Wins

Over the fourth of July weekend I have had a time of reflection, prayer and thought. On the morning of July 4th I left Fort Worth to drive up to Oklahoma to be with my wife, Jolynn.  Jolynn was in Oklahoma with her mother, who has been battling a variety of illnesses (including pneumonia twice, a broken hip and a serious infection) since mid-January. We have loved, watched and prayed as she has slowly slipped downhill. The week of the fourth, Jolynn entered her mother in a hospice program.

Prior to leaving I’d stopped by my local library to get some books on CD to listen to while I drove. I grabbed a science fiction novel and then an audio version of a book I had been intending to read caught my eye. It was Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell.

For those of you who do not know, Rob Bell is a prominent evangelical pastor who comes out of an Independent Bible Church. His Amazon website accurately reports, “At age 28 he founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, and under his leadership it was one of the fastest-growing churches in America. In 2011 he was profiled in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.”

When Bell’s Love Wins came out it was instantly deeply controversial. The topic is essentially about who is saved. Or, put differently, who goes heaven and who goes to hell. Many quickly scorned (or embraced) the book as implying some aspect of universal salvation. Such a reading is both shallow and unfair. Rob Bell has a talent for asking tough questions; many of which he doesn’t answer. Those same probing questions are being asked by secular non-religious and non-Christian society. We would do well to sharpen our thinking, and Love Wins along with Will Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? are good places to start (start not finish!).

Bell keys off the work of C.S. Lewis. As one reviewer put it: “They both believe that a person can go to hell but they have to really want to go there.” The essential thesis is that it is God’s desire to save everyone but that love is never forced. Heaven and hell are choices made (let’s hear it for a Wesleyan understanding of human agency!). Furthermore, Bell rightly understands the concept of eternal life as involving both the here and the hereafter. Heaven and hell are real and real places but they are so much more (both good and bad!) then the stuff of childhood legend.

It is an easy read (or listen) and I commend it to you.

For me, the impact is magnified standing next the bed of a loved one as they begin the move from this world to the next. Simple answers containing harps and pitchforks don’t help. The immense undying resurrecting love of God in Christ does. “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:37-39)

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