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Ministry With the Poor

Yesterday I was in Nashville preparing the presentation on the Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People, Leadership Development, Ministry with the Poor, and Combating Killer Diseases – Imagine No Malaria) for General Conference. As we worked, all of us were powerfully impressed with the notion that the Four Focus Areas are interlocking. They reinforce each other and offer primary evidence of a healthy church. Vibrant and vital congregations start new places for new people, develop leadership, engage in risk-taking ministry with the poor and reach out around the world to combat evils like killer disease.

Here in the Central Texas Conference I remain deeply impressed with how engaged our churches are in ministry with the poor. Great examples are everywhere from the 1st Street Mission to Laura Edwards to concrete hands-on help in small communities across rural Texas.

Today (Friday, March 2nd), I am at work in San Antonio as a part of one of these great ministries with those who are poor or otherwise in crisis. I have the privilege of representing the five Texas bishops on Methodist Children’s Home Board. MCH is a wonderful godly ministry that reaches out to those in need and/or crisis in deep and lasting ways. It is worthy of our support and fully reflects our best intent in sharing the gospel by deeds as well as words.

Reaching More People, Younger People & More Diverse People

“There is one looming adaptive challenge that we can address only through major learning, innovation, and the wisdom of everyone through Christian conferencing. The United Methodist Church in the United States has a future only to the extent that it can find ways to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people” (Dr. Lovettt Weems, Jr. Focus: The Real Challenges that Face the United Methodist Church, pp. 74-75).

In a provocative chapter under the above title, Lovett Weems focuses our attention as a church and a missional movement of the Lord back to the future. There was a time when Methodism’s reach was breathtakingly evangelistic, young and diverse. To a large degree, the current strength of Methodism with older adults is a reflection and a testimony to this fruitfulness and faithfulness. Our future will be a both/and: that is to say, it will involve continued ministry excellence with and for older adults. It will also engage us with a younger and more diverse population of faith seekers.

Dr. Weems is right when he asserts that reaching more people involves reaching younger people, which necessitates reaching more diverse people. The three are inextricably linked!

There are many elements to such a forward claiming missional movement for Christ. A few (but only a few) are:
1. New places for new people – the development of new churches and faith communities
2. Recovery of an ability and willingness to engage in evangelistic witness – sharing the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior
3. The growth and development of large congregations
4. Strengthening of ministry that directly impacts a new generation – children, youth, camping and campus ministry
5. An emphasis of professions of faith especially among younger people of color
6. Development of a new generation of leadership

The list could go on. Tomorrow (Leap Year Day – February 29th) I will be in Nashville with the Four Focus Area Bishops (New Places for New People, Leadership Development, Ministry with the Poor, and Imagine No Malaria) preparing for General Conference. No Christian group in the 2,000 years of the faith has grown without a determined emphasis on new church development (“New Places for New People”). None!

It is my joy and calling to help us engage more deeply in Reaching More People, Younger People, and More Diverse People.

New Fields of Ministry

Just prior to Christmas, I had the joy and privilege to visit the Project 44 Farm.  Many of you know about Project 44 which began as a ministry to refurbish donated cars and give them to those in need.  That wonderful ministry continues to grow.  Not content to rest on one ministry outreach, the folks at Project 44 have expanded to new fields of ministry (subtle pun intended).  They have begun a farm to feed those struggling to find food!

The Farm sits on a 50 acre piece of land in Granbury, Texas. Project-44.org has currently cultivated 2.5 acres of outdoor crop space on this property for planting and has erected a 4500 square foot greenhouse on the property for year-round planting. It was cold day when I went, but the enthusiasm and commitment warmed my heart.  Over the past year the Project 44 Farm folks estimate that they have produced over 15,000 pounds of produce with countless volunteer support to provide food for hungry families all over Hood County. They are partnering with 4 local non-profit organizations to distribute food throughout Hood County including Rancho Brazos, an extension mission ministry of Acton UMC, as well as local charity Rose’s Place and Christian Service Center. They believe the land they currently have cultivated for use could potentially produce over 30,000 pounds of produce under the right conditions and with adequate volunteer support.  They do need more volunteers.  If interested, contact Kyle Roberson, Administrative Director of Project-44, at 214.215.0033 or kyle@project-44.org.

They showed me a 3 bedroom 2 bathroom house on the property they have been given permission to use.  I shared my vision of starting a “new abbey” here in the Central Texas Conference in line with the emerging new monasticism movement.  I can imagine an appointed pastor in some multi-assignment capacity (maybe tent-making or a combination of part-time assignments) as well some seminarians in an internship capacity.  The establishment of an Abbey would facilitate not only a place of work and worship but also a place where worship, prayer, and labor could come together as a manifestation of a faith community.

I realize all of this is a distant vision but I am also convinced that we need to “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God” (William Carey). We need to dream dreams and see visions (Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17). Who knows where the Lord will lead us.

Well Done

This year we have continued our special emphasis on the Focus Area – Imagine No Malaria
(INM).  Nothing But Nets was step one in this mission, and last year we expanded our efforts to INM.  We asked congregations to engage in special giving to this incredibly important mission emphasis. Our (the entire United Methodists Church’s) audacious goal is to, in the name of the Great Physician Jesus Christ, eliminate malaria. 

Well done Central Texas Conference!  To date the following financial support has been received by the Conference.

Imagine No Malaria

2010                                        $110,300.41
2011(to date)                         $112,903.70
                                                 $223,204.11

We will continue to be engaged in Imagine No Malaria as one of the four focus areas for ministry in the United Methodist Church. [The others are: 1) new places for new people – new church development and the transformation of existing congregations; 2) Combating poverty in ministry with the poor; and 3) Leadership Development.]  Together we are making a difference in the transformation of the world as we live the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Well done, thou good and faithful people!

Healthy Church Initiative

The first part of this week, I am at a Healthy Church Initiative workshop
being attended by the Cabinet, some members of the Conference staff, and our Lay Leaders (Steve McIver and Kim Simpson). In major part, we are investigating a major tool for the transformation of local churches to engage in their stated mission of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.”  Among many things, we are learning how cluster groups might best engage in energizing and equipping local churches and how we as a Conference staff might help them.

As a part of that learning, I read a blog written by Dr. Thom Rainer (author of Simple Church) in 2011 entitled “Signs of Hope.” I found the blog both accurate and encouraging. I quote:

  1. A Renewed love for the Bible.
    -Increased hunger for deeper preaching and
    teaching.
    -The rise in interest and commitment to spiritual formation.
  2. Increasing passion for nations.
    -Transformational church members are actively involved in reaching nations with the Gospel. Conference churches engaged in places like Kenya or other nations.
    -The Denominational Focus area (1 of 4) reaching around the world especially to Africa on Imagine No Malaria and the emphasis in conversion growth for extended areas of the world.
  3. A concern for both eternal needs and temporal needs.
    -Transformational churches are focused on both the Great Commission AND the Great Commandment … with fervor.
    -Attempting to rediscover the connection between evangelism and social justice/mercy. The Focus Area in the UMC on combating poverty.
    -The rise in local church mission initiatives in their community.
  4. The young and restless millennial Christians [born between 1980 – 2000].
    -The largest generation in America’s history (78 million).
    -Only 15% are Christians.
    -Causing shake up in our churches with their Holy Discontent.
    -We have tended to relate to the 15% and struggle to engage the 85%.
  5. A desire for authentic and transparent leaders in our churches.
    -… a return to godly, biblical leadership
    -The overwhelming feedback from laity and the great need for us to teach leadership to both lay and clergy.
    -Leadership Development as one of the Four Focus Areas for the UMC.
  6. A healthy reevaluation of church and denominational structures.
    -New leaders are not anti-traditional … but want structures that are the best use of God’s resources
    -The Call to Action Report and Interim Operations Team Report – IOT on the national level; the Exodus Project on the Conference level.
  7. An increased emphasis on church planting.
    -U.S. currently has one church for every 1,000 people
    -Path One as one of the Four Focus Areas of the UMC

(Source: Healthy Church Initiative – Orientation 2011, p. 8 – quoting blog by Dr. Thom Rainer; additional comments by Bishop Lowry in italics.)

Extravagant Generosity and New Churches

As of Monday our Conference offering for Glen Lake is $39,379.   This is a remarkable response of extravagant generosity far exceeding our goal of $23,000.  In addition those at Conference also responded with great generosity in lunch giving to spring storms relief through UMCOR across the United States (including our own Conference).  I am proud to be the bishop of such a wonderfully generous Area.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference, we were already known for our extravagant generosity in a number of other ways including (but not limited to) Imagine No More Malaria (through Nothing But Nets), the Central Conference Pension Initiative, Wings of the Morning, Central Texas Conference Youth Mission (CTCYM), and Volunteers in Mission (VIM).  If you haven’t already read the headline article on the CTC website entitled “Your Generosity Recognized by the ‘Advance,’” I urge you to do so!  Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center is a wonderful part of our local outreach both to our own children, youth and adults as well as to others who do not know Christ.

Recently I heard of a way that one of those initiatives – Imagine No Malaria – intersects with evangelistically sharing the gospel. Bishop Tom Bickerton from the Western Pennsylvania Conference passed on the following: The story really relates to our mission work in Sierra Leone.  “After we did our country-wide distribution of insecticide treated bed nets (approx. 4 million), Bishop John Yambasu had a visit from 15 tribal chiefs (basically they are mayors of villages – when they authenticate something it gets top priority and gets done).  Those chiefs, some of whom are Muslim, said to John, ‘We would like for you to start United Methodist Churches in our villages.’  When John inquired about their desire, the response was, ‘You have proven to us that you want to take care of our people’s bodies.  We would like for you to come and take care of their souls.’  What a wonderful intersection for our two areas of focus!!” 

The two areas of focus which Bishop Bickerton references are Stamping Out Killer Diseases (Imagine No Malaria) and New Places for New People (new church development).  Through our extravagant generosity in supporting Imagine No Malaria we are spreading the gospel of Christ as Lord and Savior.  The Central Texas Conference (with the United Methodist Church as a whole) is truly engaged in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Imagine No Malaria

Currently the Central Texas Conference is engaged in a major emphasis called Imagine No Malaria.  It is a passion for me and (I believe) for us as Christ followers.  Such a great ministry springs from the larger connectional church of which we are a part.  [The United Methodist Church through the leadership of the Council of Bishops has adopted four focus areas for ministry emphasis.  They are: 1) Leadership Development, 2) New Places for New People (New church development and transformation of existing congregations), 3) Ministry with the Poor and 4) Eradication of Killer Diseases (in particular Malaria and HIV/AIDS).]

Jolynn and I have made a personal commitment to give to Imagine No Malaria (in fact our Christmas gift to the CTC Cabinet was given to Imagine No Malaria in honor of the Extended Cabinet).  All across the Conference, gatherings are being held to brainstorm on how we might engage in the fight against this killer disease.  Recently one of our pastors shared his commitment.  Through his District Superintendent I learned about his sharing.  I contacted him and asked if I in turn could share it with the reader.  He indicated I could if I thought it would help in the fight against malaria. 

Mary and I have been praying about the Imagine No Malaria campaign and the challenge. I know the goal is $28 a month for three years to be able to raise a total of $1,000. We would like to let you know that we have three grandsons whom we love very much who will probably never face the possibility of contracting malaria. My son and his wife, their parents, will never have to worry about losing these boys because they don’t have access to the proper drugs. So, in honor of Zach, Nate and Evan Strayhorn we will be pledging the equivalent of 3 nets a month ($30) for the next three years in support of Imagine No Malaria.

 I’m both proud of and excited by what the United Methodist Church and our partners in Nothing But Nets have already accomplished toward eradicating this killer disease. Deaths due to malaria have gone down by 10%. We have a long way to go, but I truly believe that this is a time when we can make a huge impact on lives and families while making a great witness to the world in the name of Jesus. Please use me in any way you see fit.

 Grace and Peace,
 Billy D Strayhorn

 Join the battle!  I too truly believe we can make a “huge impact on lives and families while making a great witness to the world in the name of Jesus.”

The Spirit and SBC 21

I see the Spirit of the Lord moving among us as we struggle to engage the church we love in transformation.  Over and over again, the call of a new day in the Lord beckons us into the future.  Recently this conviction has come to me through a variety of events.  Allow me to explain.

 One of the Four Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church is the development of new places for new people (new church development) and the transformation of existing congregations.  (An important aside:  I vastly prefer the term transformation over revitalization or renewal.  We don’t need to, and in fact can’t, go back to the past – which the “re” language suggests.  We need to be transformed under the Lordship of Christ as the church of the 21st century.)  Thursday, September 30th, our area (and I personally) was blessed by Dr. Fred Allen, Executive Director of SBC 21, guidance and leadership in transformation.  SBC-21 is Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.  It is one of a crucial transformational partners as we move through this wilderness way.

 The Core of the SBC 21 plan of action is: 

1)      Selection of 25 vital congregations to serve as Congregation Resource Centers (CRCs).
2)      Teams of lay and clergy from CRCs to serve as a resource with partner congregations (PCs).
3)      Utilize geographic and needs-specific models to meet rural, urban and suburban church needs.
4)      A strong intentional focus on the laity.

We have a long way to go, but the Spirit is blowing among us with fresh ways of thinking and acting.

Spiritual Vitality & Attendance

It has been a busy week getting back into the flow of ministry after time out for vacation and the School for Congregational Development.  While gone I had the opportunity to engage in some stimulating reading:  Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins, Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini, and The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (audio book) by Dallas Willard.  I will try to share some information on later blogs.

Going through my email I got the chance to catch up on some other writings.  The work that Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr does out of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership is consistently excellent.  Recently he passed on some new findings about American Congregations based on the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership out of the Hartford Seminary foundation.  The report’s author is David Roozen, a noted researcher in the field.  I thought you might like a taste.

Some of the factors associated with growth in spiritual vitality and attendance are: 
   

 

  • Changing a congregation’s style of worship or adding a new service tends to improve attendance, and there is a clear affinity found between contemporary worship and higher attendance. However, the quality of the worship appears to be more important than the style.
  • Congregations that have a clear identity and purpose tend to grow in attendance and spiritual vitality. This is true of churches that see themselves as more conservative than other churches and those that see themselves as more liberal than other churches.
  • There is rising interest in youth ministry. While not strongly associated with attendance growth, a strong relationship was found between youth ministry programs and increasing spiritual vitality of the congregation.
  • While no one method of contacting guests seems to work better than others, the number of different methods a congregation uses to connect with newcomers is highly associated with attendance growth.
  • Member involvement in reaching new members is tied strongly to growth in attendance and spiritual vitality. This connection is more important with Oldline Protestant churches than any others.
  • Contacting members who stop attending makes a positive difference in churches that average 300 or more in worship. However, large churches are the least likely to make such contacts.
  • Creating strong interpersonal bonds and purposefulness are two factors that decrease the likelihood of conflict.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between spiritual vitality and financial health. Increasing financial health leads to greater giving to mission.

A free download of the report can be found at http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/research-based-products-congregational-leadership.

Missions = Hospitality

         Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I am at Duke for the Episcopal Leadership Forum.  Yesterday (Monday) we heard from three outstanding presenters – Dr. Dana Robert, Dr. Gil Rendle and Mr. Gary Shorb.  Each was insightful and challenging.

            Dr. Robert is on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology.  She is a leading historian of missions and the author (among many writings) of the current United Methodist Women’s study, Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity.  She presented the concept of the Bishop as chief missionary of the church.  In noting a list of great missionary bishops through the history of Christianity, she included Francis Asbury.  (Others on the list were people like Gregory the Great, Boniface, St. Patrick, St. Francis.)  Each was a “deliberate boundary crosser” taking the gospel to indigenous people. 

            I was especially intrigued by the implications of globalization in today’s missions.  Dr. Robert noted that 1) Every local church can be its own mission agency, 2) we are going through an explosion in short-term missionaries, and 3) Currently 10-12% of people in America (legally) were not born here. People from the U.S. are going out while others are coming in.  Missions are now a networking enterprise and no longer a simple partnership. 

        This revolution in missions has a great upside but it also brings some special problems.  Short term missionaries often come back seeing themselves as experts but don’t speak the language and don’t really have in-depth cross-cultural understanding and relationships.  Deeper training, understanding and reflection are needed.

            An intriguing image of mission work is to use the model of breathing.  Missions begin at home with hospitality and welcome to those coming in (with implications for our reception of immigrants).  It goes out (like our breath) as we go out sharing the gospel by word and deed (Great Commission – Matthew 28:16-20, among many other passages). 

            The connection of the practice of hospitality to missions is dramatic.  Radical hospitality in both segments of the breath metaphor is foundational.  Being in mission is intrinsic to being Christian!

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