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The Hunger Among Us ©

Recently a friend pointed me back to an article written a number of years ago about The Beatles and spiritual hunger.  In their meteoric rise from obscurity to fame, The Beatles quickly discovered that fame and fortune were not everything it was cracked up to be. “At a later time in Lennon’s life he addictively found himself watching popu­lar television preachers in search of answers. It was reported that Lennon sent a fascinating letter to the Rev. Oral Roberts in 1972, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the fa­mous lyrics ‘money can’t buy me love’ and sent a donation.”
“It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness,” read the letter to Roberts. “I don’t want to keep on with drugs…. Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”

In the midst of a thoughtful and lengthy response, Roberts wrote, “What I want to say … is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'”

Despite the letters exchanged between the rock star and the TV preacher, Len­non’s restless journey eventually led him to embrace philosophies and beliefs that were all over the map.

“You could rattle human authority by growing your hair long, but you couldn’t conquer your inner demons in the same way,” observed [author Steve] Turner [in his book, The Gospel According to the Beatles]. “To ‘change your head,’ as John referred to it in [the song] ‘Revolution,’ required something much more radical” (Steve Beard, “Summer of Love,” Good News, May/June 2017, p. 9).

I am convinced and convicted that we live in a time and culture seeking something greater, something more, than what we have.  Society-wide, we have a desperate search for meaning and truth which often exists just below the thin soil of American hedonism.  Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma force people to confront this truth.  They challenge us by making us face what matters most.

There is a deep spiritual hunger among us.  We all need wisdom and guidance.  Faithful and fruitful churches understand this truth. It is a cry we hear behind the words spoken by someone who says “I don’t go to church, but I’m very spiritual.” It ricochets around this county. It reverberates in conversations held across social networks. It is part of the background noise of our searching society.

Great churches live out of this focused center. They understand that people are not seeking an institution but a relationship with God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The focused center we are called to live out of is the same one that captivated the struggling conflicted early Christian church. Thus, the Apostle Paul wrote the small struggling house church in metropolitan Corinth his second letter of instructions. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own” (II Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message).

Bishop Will Willimon writes: “There may be religions that begin with long walks in the woods, communing with nature, getting close to trees. There may be religions that begin by delving into the recesses of a person’s ego, rummaging around in the psyche. Christianity is not one of them” (William Willimon, Peculiar Speech, p. 19). It is about an encounter with Jesus, the God/Man. It is the divine answer to the hunger within, around and among us. This focused center brings us to faith – faith as trusting obedience that encounters Christ in our everyday lives through our following Him. It is no more nor less than the way of the cross. This is the true path of salvation. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).

Deep Calls to Deep ©

Tuesday, November 8, 2016, our world tilted and ground shifted – wherever you stand on the political spectrum in the United States, whether or not it be far right or far left or anything in between or above or below.  On November 9th we awoke to a new and different world.  The candidate who proclaimed that the election was rigged is now the President-Elect.  His supporters cheered and celebrated.  Those who deeply disputed his candidacy – whether out of fear, anger, straight forward policy disputes, or contentious character flaws – grieved and wondered out loud what the future holds for us as a people and as a nation.

The next day, November 9th, “protesters started at 6 p.m. in Union Square, and began marching north on Broadway to Sixth Avenue at 7:30 p.m. They eventually ended up at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and later headed to Trump International Hotel & Tower at Columbus Circle. . . . The group chanted, ‘Not my president!’ as well as ‘Black lives matter,’ and, ‘Love Trumps hate.’” Reports noted protests at a variety of places all across the country which have continued and spread.  Meanwhile, both President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton have called for the nation to peaceably unite.

I write today not to debate the election nor to engage in a futile dispute over who voted and how, nor even to share in a public venting of our celebration or anguish, sunlit hopes or gloom- shrouded fears.  Rather, whether you go to bed wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat or hugging you pillow in tear-stained anguish over what a President Trump might do,  I invite you, more than that, I challenge you to set your personal preferences aside and raise the deeper question of what God now calls us both to be and to do.

A poem by the great British poet and playwright of the mid to late 20th century, Christopher Fry beckons us back to Psalms.  Fry wrote the following:

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.[2]

Christopher Fry’s evocative poem springs from the heart of Psalm 42 verse 7.  Reading in a Common English Bible translation, “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[3] I believe the imagery speaks to our present situation.  It is a picture of an iceberg calving, which is the breaking off from the main ice shelf in a thunderous crash with waves surging outward.  calving_iceThis is where we are living today.  The tumultuous election of Trump verses Clinton; the red state/blue state divide; the policing crisis and the cry “black lives matter;” the assault of truly global economy; the Balkanization of Europe and much of the Middle East along with the seemingly endless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The list could go on; they all point to the calving of our world.  Reality has shifted and a new world is struggling to be born.

How are we to respond to the surging waves of change that are washing over us?  Are you ready for the answer?  I don’t know.  But, I do know where we are to look for guidance!  “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[4]  God speaks to us this day.  Lean forward and listen to Holy Scripture for here lies insight and wisdom far greater than our flawed human understandings and more virtuously noble that are our highest aspirations.  Deep calls to deep – plumb the depths of Psalm 42.

Scholars tells us that the original writer of this Psalm lived near what would become Caesarea Philippi “where the springs of the River Jordan rush down into the valley in roaring cataracts.”[5]  He gazes at the unfolding scenes of his life and shares a near universal hunger that lives in us to this day.  “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.  My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.  When will I come and see God’s face?  My tears have been my food both day and night, as people constantly questioned me, “Where’s your God now?”[6]

Here lies the first great line of instruction for us this day.  1.  Long for God; seek the Lord!  The great St. Augustine put it this way: “Let us burn together for this thirst; let us run together to the fountain of understanding.”[7]  We have spent too long seeking our own desires and pleasures.  We need to see God’s greater glory and will.  Long for God; seek the Lord! 

If this last election was about anything, it was surely about a hunger, a longing for a better life and better world.  The Word of the Lord teaches us that this hunger, this thirst, can only be slaked by the fountain of the Lord’s presence.  “But I remember these things as I bare my soul: how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode, to God’s own house.”[8]

Notice quickly what gets tied to that longing is a hope driven promise.  2. Put your hope in the Lord!  Look at the grandeur of hope amid the very despair of the Psalmist’s situation.  Verse 5:  “Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.”[9]

The world doesn’t need a more politically partisan church.  It needs a more prayerful church – submitted, humble, and obedient!  Psalm 33:20 says, “We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield.”[10]  Romans 8:18 reminds us:  “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”[11]  Hebrews 10:23 asserts with unshakable insistence, “Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.”[12]

Two quotes from great Christians in the latter half of the 20th century guide us in so placing our hope.  The first I trust many of you know.

In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he included the saying [originally spoken by Theodore Parker a Unitarian minister fighting slavery in 1853]: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

 The second quote is less well known but no less significant.  It comes the great biblical scholar Eugene Peterson.  Many of you know him for his work in producing The Message translation of the Bible.  He wrote a book 1980 called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  This is God’s claim on us in a day and time filled with instant gratification.  In a culture of text and twitter, the Word of God bids us live in a hope filled faithfulness.

This leads us to the third great lesson the Word of the Lord has for us this day out of Psalm 42.  It comes from the seminal 7th verse.  As the world thunders, cracks and the waves of time and culture crash over us, we are to trust God.  Listen again to verse 7.  It opens with the line you already know, ““Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[13]  Then it adds the following words.  “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

What will redeem life for us in this time?  Look at verse 7!  “The Lord commands his faithful love.”  How does the writer respond?  “By night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”  He responds with radical trust!

This then is the towering lesson of Psalm 42; a Psalm given by God to us this day!  3.  Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God. 

This is not easy.  The shallowness of much of what falsely passes for the Christian today will not do.  I don’t know how many times someone, well meaning, has said to me that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  What nonsensical vacuous tripe!  Being spiritual without being tied to the God who comes in Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is nonsense!  Deep calls to deep!  The writer of Hebrews was correct when he said, “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”[14] We need a faith that is biblically anchored.  Notice carefully the multi-step process of moving to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.  First, we must move to a deeper faith – summarized pointedly, deep calls to deep.  When the waterfalls roar and the massive waves of life surge wading pool spiritually will only lead to a drowning!  Secondly this calls for radical trust in God; if you will, an anchoring of life in Christ the solid rock.  Thirdly, the combination of a deeper, disciplined, mature faith with radical trust in God results in a “song” within us in the night and a prayer to “the God of my life.”

Jessica LaGrone, the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary was profoundly correct when she said, “Only desperate people need a Savior.”  Folks we are a desperate people!  We need a Savior.  His name is Jesus Christ!

We must go deeper not only into “the formation of beliefs about Jesus but [also into] the cultivation of trust in him. It is an important distinction.” [Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us by way of illustration.]  “When famed French tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, carrying his trembling manager Harry Colcord on his back, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales Edward Albert was there to watch. Before the stunt, Blondin asked the prince, “Do you believe that I can carry a man across the Falls on a tightrope?” Edward replied that he did. So Blondin asked: “Will you be that man?” (The prince declined.)

Incredibly, Blondin died in his bed in 1897 at the age of seventy-five after an accident –free high-wire career. The facts of his feats had been widely reported. But to participate in Blondin’s high-wire act required trust, not belief – a quality found almost exclusively among those close to him, which is why Blondin’s stunts involved his manager (and his five-year-old daughter, until the French government prohibited it, citing “child endangerment”) instead of strangers. Belief may enable us to approach Christ as a curious bystander, but our investment is abstract. Trust opens us to God relationally as we submit ourselves to divine love, which awakens our desire to know Christ better for ourselves.”[15]

 My spiritual mentor and friend shared in his congregation sermon the Sunday following the election this salient insight.  “Let me begin by saying that there are tough, disappointing days ahead for all Americans, for people on both sides of the political and cultural divide.  The euphoria of victory dissipates in the grinding days of hard work that follow. . . .

[Dr. Spain went on to say:] “This is a time for faith and faithful action.  The fact is that many in our nation will not be able to find a strong center in the days ahead; they will languish without a solid place to stand and cope with the disappointments that are coming.  But you and I and people of faith in all places—when we remember who we are, we stand on a solid foundation.  We build our house on a rock that is more than able to withstand the howling winds of ugly and desperate times.”[16]

You recall the verse he references.  It comes from the great Sermon on Mount, near the end of Jesus’ seminal teaching.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”[17]

Deep calls to deep.  We are bidden, challenged to move deeper in our faith, as I have already stated. Waiting pool religion will not suffice.  Wherever you are politically, the wind is blowing and the rain sleeting.  We must anchor ourselves yet more firmly on the rock of Christ.  How is it that we do so?  Psalm 42 instructs us:

1. Long for God; seek the Lord!
2. Put your hope in the Lord!
3. Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.”[18]

 [1]               http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/11/09/trump-election-protest/
[2]               Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, taken from The Word God Sent by Paul Scherer, pg. 111
[3]               Psalm 42:7
[4]               Psalm 42:7
[5]               Artur Weiser, The Psalms, p. 348
[6]               Psalm 42:1-3
[7]               Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50, Edited by Craig A. Blaising & Carmen S. Harding, p. 328
[8]               Psalm 42:4
[9]               Psalm 42:5
[10]             Psalm 33:20
[11]             Romans 8:18
[12]             Hebrews 10:23
[13]             Psalm 42:7
[14]             Hebrews 10:31
[15]             Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 118-119
[16]             Dr. Sid Spain, November 13, 2016, First UMC, Eagle, Colorado
[17]             Matthew 7:24-27, CEB
[18]             Psalm 42:11

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

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

Part IV: Convicted Hope

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

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

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

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

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

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

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

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

Part III: Deeper Reflections & Observations in a Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in the next installment of this four part series…

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

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 II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

“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…

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

Report on the Core Leadership Team/Cabinet Retreat ©

Last week the Central Texas Conference (CTC) Core Leadership Team and Cabinet met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the adoption of the Exodus Project Evaluation Report, the CTC Core Team and Cabinet promised to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report.

By way of recall, the seven recommendations that came out of the Exodus Project evaluation were:

  •  Recommendation 1: Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions
  •  Recommendation 2: Formalize Resourcing to Leverage Local Expertise
  •  Recommendation 3: Focus Disproportionately on “Select” Churches
  •  Recommendation 4: Invest in Leadership Development
  •  Recommendation 5: Create Transparent Evaluation Processes that Align with Exodus
  •  Recommendation 6: Re-emphasize Peer Learning
  •  Recommendation 7: Clarify the Role of the DS

Dr. Mike Bonem, our Conference consultant for the Exodus Project evaluation, led us through a process of focusing on the top two or three recommendations.  There was a clear consensus that all of the recommendations are important and need to be addressed; however, our work recognized that we must begin with a focused intent on a smaller list.

There was close to unanimous consent (with some 20 people in the room, both lay and clergy leaders) that the item of first importance was recommendation #4: to invest in leadership development.  Likewise there was close to unanimous agreement that recommendation #3 was second on the list in order of importance.

Much improvement in leadership development was noted.  Last year, the Conference made a heavy investment in lay leadership development with the addition of Dr. Kevin Walters to work with Kim Simpson (Conference Lay Leader) and Georgia Adamson (Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The HCI Lay Leadership Development groups have proved to be a strong part of lay leadership development. A variety of other leadership development options were noted for clergy – High Octane Preaching, Board of Ordained Ministry Residency, HCI Pastoral Leadership groups, various continuing education events, etc. What the group wrestled with was the need for a more coherent and cohesive process of leadership development (as differentiated from episodic learning opportunities).

The Core Leadership Team and Cabinet noted critical elements of leadership development.

Self-evaluation
Orthodox theology
Emotional intelligence
Constantly develop preaching
Learn to handle stress
Staffing/administrative leadership
Evaluation based on performance

The list is in no way exhaustive but rather suggestive of the lines of development needed for growing clergy leaders.

A group of selection criteria were established for implementation of recommendation #3, “Focus disproportionately on ‘Select’ Churches.”  Some obvious questions that beg answering are:  Who selects the churches?  What is the criteria by which a church is to be considered select?  How will this “focus” be implemented?  The critical answer to who or what is a “selected” church is that our focus will be on “the coalition of the willing.”  Churches will self-select by how they engage in the ministry and mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Some of the self-selection criteria involved will be:

  1. Ability or willingness to grow. (How would we know? – by a churches response) (1) Readiness 360, (2) Capacity; 3) what they do/how they vote, 4) intervention (?)
  2. Evidence of new energy, commitment, etc.
  3. Exercise demons (resolving past disputes and control issues) – willingness to engage in intervention when needed, etc.
  4. Crucial location/situation

The third issue we looked at was Recommendation #1, “Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions.”  We noted some preliminary issues.  The need to develop a clear set of decision-making criteria and communicate better.  We raised the question, is there value to have a budget review committee external to the Conference Center?  We focused on three key convictions/commitments: 1. Clarify decision-making process for programs (& resources), 2. Communicate better; 3. Don’t tolerate silos…. Work on ending silos.  “Is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?” (Andy Stanley).

This begins the process of learning and implementation of the next steps facing the Central Texas Conference.  The Evaluation Report for the Exodus Project is found in the Pre-Conference Journal beginning on page 29.  As we worked together, we could sense the Holy Spirit guiding our efforts.  I invite and urge lay and clergy who are a part of the Central Texas Conference to join in the journey.

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #8:

The Future Before Us

I come now to the close of an eight part series on “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit.” I opened recalling how books on giving birth to one’s first child describe the emotional changes and feeling of an expectant mother – irritable, emotional, anxious, excited, exuberant, irrational. The list is also a descriptive of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century. The future is now unfolding before us. “The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:6).

How now shall we live? The answer which comes ringing back to us through the great tradition of the church in keeping with the witness of Holy Scripture is clear – with Spirit induced hope! These are not the last days of the church. Far from it. These are days of a pulsing new beginning (or if you prefer renewal) under the Spirit’s guidance.

William Butler Yeats marvelous poem The Second Coming needs to be heard again with the ears of expectant faith.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;  the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(By Willian Butler Yeats 1865-1939)

Written in the aftermath of World War I’s devastation, the poet calls us once again to a radical trust in God. We too are called back to Bethlehem. We must kneel before the baby and recall that it is His church, not ours.

Jason Byassee perceptively notes: “Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us, and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, pp. 38-39).

I believe God in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us anew. There are so many passages of Scripture that clamor for our attention in times like these. Among them some of the best advice comes from Hebrews 12. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul’s great writing to the church at Philippi guides us as well.  “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The discerning reader will add other passages. Taken together they beckon us to a new future. Truly, the church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time. We do not rest on our own promises or even ardent good intent. We live in God’s greater purpose! Over the centuries a host of different voices have given witness to this greater truth. Our various organizational manifestations may stumble and crumble, but God’s great purpose will out! The battle belongs to the Lord! (2 Chronicles 20:15).

We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation. Despite the Judicial Council, the guaranteed appointment (in its current form) is a Dodo bird already scheduled for extinction. The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding. And yet now more than ever our witness is needed in a world beaten down, half-starved, morally bankrupt and spiritually emaciated. (Dr. Timothy Tennent’s writings on a similar theme are well worth exploring; see “I Came, I Saw, I Loved: My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Spring Graduating Class of 2015” http://timothytennent.com/2015/06/03/i-came-i-saw-i-loved-my-charge-to-the-asbury-theological-seminary-spring-graduating-class-of-2015/)

There is a story which Pope Benedict XVI loved to repeat “about Napoleon exclaiming to French bishops that he had to ‘destroy the Catholic Church.’ A particularly courageous bishop responded, ‘But sire, not even we have been able to do that!’” (Taken from Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, by Jason Byassee, p. 48). We Methodists can easily and accurately transpose this tale into our context. Despite our best (or worst) efforts we are unable to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. This is truly good news from the Lord God. The future – the God led, God inspired, God anointed future – lies before us.

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirt #6:

 

A MISSIONARY CHURCH

Shortly before I was elected as bishop in the United Methodist Church, I stood with others, including two bishops, at a tiny country church in Leesville, Texas.  A plaque was dedicated to Alejo Hernandez who had been ordained at Leesville in 1871 by Bishop Enoch Marvin.  In part the plaque reads simply, “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

In 1873 Bishop Keener charged Hernandez “with the responsibility of opening a Methodist mission. With the result, as described by the secretary of the Board of Missions:  ‘Brother Hernandez has been subjected to the dire necessities of poverty, to the persecutions of superstitious ignorance and bigoted power, and to the no less potent influences of flattery. But out of all the Lord hath brought him by his power.’” (http://www.gcah.org/history/biographies/alejo-hernandez)

Reverend Hernandez was a man on a mission.  He understood himself as driven by the Lord through the Holy Spirit and assigned by the bishop.  Illness caught up with him in Mexico, and he did not live long.  Buried in Corpus Christi, Texas, his tombstone reads:  “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

Methodism began as a missionary movement!  People like Hernandez were the norm not the exception.  The term missionary comes from mission and it details a person sent on a mission in the name of and by the power of the Risen Christ.

For decades the term missionary was dismissed as a form of cultural imperialism.  Yet today the Pentecost movement in China is largely the legacy of North American missionaries prior to World War II.  The phrase missional with all its variations on “mission” and “missionary” calls those who are Christ followers back to the deep sense of being sent by Christ.  It is the awakening of the claim of Matthew 28:16-20 – The Great Commission.  Rightly it has been said that the church doesn’t so much have a mission, the church is a mission – a people sent to share the gospel in word and deed by Christ himself.

Alan Roxburgh, author of The Missional Leader, writes:  “If ever there was a word that has shaped North American Christianity in the opening decades of the 21st century it is the word missional.”  He continues with the following:

In 1998 Eerdmans published a book with the title Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  It was written in the most unlikely manner by a team of missiologists, theologians and practitioners who met for three years to compose the book.  The book’s genesis lay in the convergence of various people inside a new network called the Gospel and Our Culture Network.  Comprised of people from a variety of church backgrounds (Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and Anabaptist) GOCN coalesced around the writings of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary in India for over thirty years.  Newbigin, upon his retirement in the mid 70’s returned to his native England to encounter the fact that the Christian culture he had left some thirty years earlier had all but disappeared.  Having a keen missionary sensibility Newbigin recognized that by the latter part of the 20th century the mission field for the Gospel had shifted dramatically.  The greatest challenge to Christian mission was now those very nations that had once sent missionaries out around the world.  It was the peoples of Europe, shaped by the Western tradition, that were rapidly losing their identity as Christian.  In one memorable epithet Newbigin asked the question: Can the West be converted?  That question captured the imagination of church leaders in the UK and Europe.  It represented one of the fundamental issues that had to be addressed by the church but had not been articulated so clearly until that point.  The challenge facing the Western churches was the re-conversion of its own people.”  (From a paper presented by Alan Roxburgh to United Methodist Church Developers in 2007, “What is Missional Church?”)

What we need today, what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is calling into being, is a new church – a missionary church in the truest sense of the word!  Properly understood a missionary church is a sent church.  Such a sending comes from the authority of the risen Christ.  By its very nature it encompasses both personal and social holiness, both justice/mercy and evangelism, both justification and sanctification – “make disciples” + “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”  The focus of attention is not on institutional survival but on serving the Lord through loving others in the fullest understanding & sense of love.

Again Roxburgh is on target.

“The biblical narratives are about God’s mission in, through and for the sake of the world.  The focus of attention is toward God not the other way around.  The missio dei is about a theocentric rather than anthropocentric understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection which itself, as the apocalyptic engagement of God with the world, breaks into creation in order to call forth that which was promised from the beginning – that in this Jesus all things will be brought back together and made new.  But the focus of the missional is doxological.  It is not about, in the modern, Western, expressive individualist sense, meeting my needs.  The perpendicular pronoun is not the subject of the narrative; God is the subject.” (Alan Roxburgh, IBID)

Put bluntly a missional church is a movement for Christ that goes into the world (thus is incarnational at the essence of its methodology).  Worship, spiritual formation, bible study and the like provide a critical shaping that propels us forward.  The ancient theme so well explicated in 1 & 2 Peter of “in the world but not of it” is applicable at the very core of the churches’ being.

What are some of the practical elements of a sent church, a missionary church?  A missionary church will be:

1.  Christ centered at its heart.
2.  Spirit led in its soul.
3.  Sacrificial in nature.
4.  Servant oriented in character.
5.  Incarnational in methodology.
6.  Explicitly evangelistic in witness.
7.  Creatively engaging in its expression.

All this sounds good until we get down to particulars.  Yet if the gospel is anything, it is about the scandal of particularity.  The High God of the universe comes in the baby named Jesus.  This same Lord God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.  As the years unfold we can expect and even rejoice in a wondrously different shaping of the “United Methodist” part of the church universal.  We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation.  The days of the guaranteed appointment in its current form are numbered.  The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding.

Who knows what will happen?  Only God.  Methodism started as a missionary movement.  This is where our future lies.  We are in for a wild, exhilarating, terrifying wild ride.  The Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.

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