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Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

An Opportunity not to be missed ©

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N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!

 

Sharing on the Future of American Methodism ©

In November of 2014 a young faculty member from Candler School of Theology, addressed the Council of Bishops on Christian Conferencing and the recovery of the Wesleyan Class Meeting.  It was a fascinating deep address that unpacked his excellent new book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group ExperienceDr. Kevin Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler.  With his permission, I am sharing his recent blog posting as a guest blog.  I commend it to the reader for thoughtful reflection.  Dr. Watson will be the Conference Teacher at the Center Texas Conference in June, 2017.  – Bishop Mike Lowry 

The Future of American Methodism: 5 Predictions
Posted: 01 Aug 2016 06:43 AM PDT

Methodism in America is in the midst of change. It is not yet clear how exactly American Methodism is changing or whether change will lead to a bright future for my own denomination in particular (The United Methodist Church). But it does seem clear that it is changing.

During the three years I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I experienced life in a major U.S. city that is profoundly post-Christian. Moving from Seattle to the Atlanta metro area was a kind of culture shock, because cultural Christianity appears to be alive and well in many parts of the southeast. My sense is that within one generation the landscape of the U.S. as a whole will look much more like Seattle than Atlanta.

And so I’ve found my mind wandering again and again to this question: What is the future of Methodism in America? Before I enter fully into these thoughts, let me assure you that I am aware of what a speculative enterprise this is. I offer these thoughts as ultimately nothing more than one person’s thoughts about the kind of Methodism that will be most likely to thrive in twenty years or so.

  1. American Methodism will experience a paradigm shift as the desire to pursue cultural respectability becomes obsolete. American Methodism will slowly recognize its loss of cultural respect, eventually acknowledging it and then grieving it. Ultimately, American Methodism will emerge on the other side with a much clearer sense of its own identity, mission, and purpose and will learn to live authentically from these, even though much of what American Methodism stands for will be alien and perhaps even offensive to the broader culture(s) it is situated within. Moreover, given broader cultural changes, American Methodism will recognize that it must form people into a new worldview, and not merely a few ideas and practices that serve as self-help strategies adorning mostly unchanged lives.
  2. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a theology that is ideally suited for a post-Christian context. Methodists will preach the Wesleyan understanding of grace in its fullness with renewed conviction and boldness. Methodists will insist that God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions. And Methodists will maintain that God’s grace saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who cancels (forgives) all of our sins. And Methodists will also boldly proclaim the audacious optimism of God’s sanctifying (life-changing) grace, which can enable us to love God and neighbor to the complete exclusion of sin. American Methodists will be known for their passionate belief in entire sanctification and God’s ability to changes lives radically.
  3. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a practice that is ideally suited for such a time as this. In a post-Christian context, a thriving faith community must not only proclaim the gospel, with the accents just mentioned, it must visibly demonstrate its proclamation by embodying what God makes possible. American Methodism will embrace social holiness (communal formation, especially through transformation-driven small groups) as a part of its fundamental and foundational essential practices. Participation in weekly small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting will be seen as more important than attending a weekly worship service. It will be impossible to be a member of American Methodism in the future and not regularly attend corporate worship and a small group focused on God’s work in your life.
  4. As American Methodism passionately preaches entire sanctification and makes an uncompromising commitment to social holiness, it will find God’s deepest blessings through being in ministry with all of God’s children, especially those who seem beyond hope from a worldly perspective. American Methodists will not send money and resources to help those who cannot help themselves, but will be in relational ministry with them as a natural expression of their practical theology. As one example, American Methodism will recognize that recovery ministry is not something that a church lets an auxiliary group anonymously do in their building, but is something that is a core ministry of the church. American Methodists will not see this as a ministry for “those people,” but will seek complete freedom from addiction to the ways of sin and death together, by the grace of God. And many will experience the fullness of God’s amazing grace.
  5. The boundaries of American Methodism will be blurred by close connection and cooperation with global Methodism. Methodist missionaries will both come to and from America. American Methodism at every level will be changed through relationships with brothers and sisters from across the globe, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American. Methodists across the globe will be united by a common mission to spread scriptural holiness across the globe.

There are so many possibilities for the future of American Methodism. It is impossible to predict with certainly what will be. I do know that when I think about this possible future, I get extremely excited. Come, Holy Spirit!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

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.”

Whose Side Are You On?

The daily news of divisions assault us. I have been watching with many of you the nightly news of debate amongst the contenders for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Are you for Trump or Cruz, Perry or Fiorina, Rubio or Kasich, Carson or Bush, or any of the other (what is it now –17?) candidates. Maybe instead your preference leans into the Democratic Party’s race for the nomination. Do you support Clinton or Sanders, Webb or Chafee? The rhetoric of division and demonization has already scaled the foothills of the absurd.   I cannot help but think of Donald Trump’s trip to Laredo and his claim that he had put his life in danger by going there. (The last time I went there I helped open a new United Methodist Church!)

Before we settle into the holy arrogance of the elite, we must pause and confess the divisions among us. For starters there is the obvious denominational division which is a scandal on the body of Christ. But the issue of whose side are you on strikes closer to home. Nowadays almost everywhere I go in the United Methodist Church there are debates and divisions about whether United Methodist pastors should be able to perform same gender marriages and about ordination of those who are a part of a same gender married couple. Whose side are you on?

Recently as a part of my daily devotional life, I perceived the Lord directing me to read the book of Joshua. I confess that I am more a New Testament guy (through I do regularly read and study both). Trying to be faithful, I have slowly been reading through Joshua and contemplating its lessons.

One day, I went through a series of experiences where the divisions impacted me directly. I watched (but did not take part in) a debate around various Republican candidates. People kept pushing each other to declare whose side they were on. The argument quickly became strident. Later in the day I was directly involved in a painful strife-laced tense argument about how the United Methodist Church should respond to the recent Supreme Court decision declaring marriage a constitutional right. I went to bed that night more than just a little disturbed by the divisions tearing at both our society and church.

The next morning as I went through my devotional time the fifth chapter of Joshua came up for reading in the regular rhythm of my devotions. Joshua 5:13-15 reads:

13 When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up. He caught sight of a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn. Joshua went up and said to him, “Are you on our side or that of our enemies?”
14 He said, “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” Then Joshua fell flat on his face and worshipped. Joshua said to him, “What is my master saying to his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s heavenly force said to Joshua, “Take your sandals off your feet because the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this.

I heard the Lord speaking to me and us as a people of faith. It is well past time in our debates and divisions that we embrace a godly humility. We do not have God on our side. Humbly we pray that we might faithfully align ourselves with the only one who can rightly be called Lord and Master.

This does not mean we should not have opinions, preferences and convictions. We can and should. It does not mean we should not debate issues, even passionately stating the case as best we understand it. Again, we can and should.

It does mean that we should sit lightly. However sure we are that we are right, the last word belongs to Lord God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However convinced we are that our “side” is the Lord’s side, only the Lord Jesus Christ alone can truly make such a claim.

The Lord stands in our midst and speaks again to our challenge of whose side you are on. The answer is once again clear. “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” (Joshua 5:14a). We too, like Joshua, need to fall on our faces in worship asking only, “What is my master saying to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b).

The Crucial Role of Music in Faith Development

I have just returned from a month off for Renewal Leave. During that time period, I have been working on a possible book focusing on the need of the United Methodist Church to reintegrate the core essence of orthodoxy theology. I also spent some time being Grandpa! Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry was born to our son and daughter-in-law on July 16th. The highlight of my summer was holding Simon (love that middle name – Michael!).

During my Renewal Leave and the three weeks preceding it (2 weeks of vacation and about a week in separate chunks for the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops and the meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board), I have not be writing my regular blog – The Focused Center. I have from time to time posted a guest blog. With this writing I am picking back up the joy and challenge of writing my regular blog. I try to publish a blog on Tuesdays and Fridays.

While on leave, Jolynn and I have worshipped in a variety of places and settings. We’ve worshipped at United Methodist Churches and churches of other denominations. We’ve shared in praise and prayer at churches large and small, rural, urban, and suburban. We heard some excellent preaching, and we’ve experienced some preaching that left much to be desired.

In our worship adventures I have been repeatedly impressed by the way much of our theology comes from the music. (Unfortunately, almost tragically, the theology of at least 1/2 the sermons we heard were mush.) Often it was the music that spiritually fed us the most. I was most impressed by how much of what we heard and sang was a mixture of old and new. Many are familiar with “Amazing Grace (My Chains Fell Off).” How many of you have heard a mixture of “I Need Thee Every Hour” with a contemporary praise theme? Check out Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You.

The list could go on but my point is made.

There is something happening in healthier, robust, faithful and fruitful churches about the way they are recovering and reclaiming deep faithfulness through a mixture of old and new music. We know the phrase, “music soothes the savage beast.” This much is true. But music does much more. It is a crucial vehicle of witness and praise. Our music is often our theological anchor.

Recently in our weekly time together my spiritual guide reminded me of how important our music is. He related visiting with an old friend who lives in another state. His friend was returning to the faith and the church after a long sojourn. His friend asked for advice on finding a church. My guide advised his friend to look first and foremost for a place with great music that was anchored in the Trinitarian faith.

Shortly before that conversation, I had been reading a biography of the great Church of India bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life by Geoffrey Wainwright. This saint of the 20th century and theological titan often sang a hymn as a part of his devotions.

The hat trick took place for me reading a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Tennent wrote: “Those of us in the Wesleyan stream … have been nurtured and nourished for centuries on theologically rich hymnody. The reason is because when the “chips were down” it has been our hymns which have saved us. Even when the church became lured into exchanging the gospel for the latest cultural mess of pottage, our hymns managed to keep us on track. The rich theological depth of our hymns helped us to re-remember the gospel and become better hearers of the Scriptures (Timothy Tennent, “ A Word to Worship Song Writers: Take Up Thy Pen and Write,” March 8, 2015.

This summer I encountered once again the great truth that music plays a crucial role in faith development. I have more favorite hymns and treasured contemporary music than I can fairly report on. I carry in my pocket words from a chorus I learned at Taize.

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

The words of “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” – whether sung in the original 1757 version or presented by Chris Rice in a 2007 version (“Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project”) – never fail to move me. As they impact on the soul of my being, I am learning again about great theological doctrines of sin, salvation, and sanctification. I am embraced by a high Christology and blessed by a love that will not let me go and demands an active repentance.

“3. Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood; How His kindness yet pursues me Mortal tongue can never tell, Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me I cannot proclaim it well.

4. O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”
-Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Richard Robinson, 1757

Music plays a crucial role in faith development. Theology unfolds in the embrace of great music both contemporary and traditional.   It is good to be back.

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 SPIRIT #5:

The Three Orthos at the Heart

At the very heart of a new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be what I call the three orthos.  At its core the healthy renewed Christian movement in American will be a combination of orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia.  The word ortho comes from the Latin and late Greek.  It means right or correct.  Thus orthodox = right belief or right (correct) doctrine.  Orthopraxis = right practice or correct action and practice.  Orthokardia = right heart.

Over the years the church has on different occasions emphasized one of the three above the others; thus, there have been times when right doctrine so dominated practice and heart that the result lacked grace.  There have been occasions when heart has been right but the actions disastrously mistaken.  There have been times when the practice was holy but its lack of cohesion with heart and doctrine led to long term mistakes with little lasting strength.

Orthopraxy, which is currently in ascendant position of the three, is an insistent emphasis in Wesleyan thinking.  Thus Don Thorsen in Cavlin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice writes,

“Wesley emphasized that the church ought to be more than a congregation of believers – more than ‘faithful men’; it ought to also exhibit ‘living faith.’  It is not enough for people to exhibit right belief (or orthodoxy); they ought to also exhibit a right heart (orthokardia) and right practice (orthopraxis).  From Wesley’s perspective, the devil (as well as other religious people) may hold to ‘orthodoxy or right opinions,’ but ‘may all the while be as great a stranger as he to religion of the heart’” (Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bring Belief in Line with Practice, p. 98).

Significantly, “progressives” with an emphasis on enlightenment-thinking and a reasoned faith and “evangelicals” with an passion for doctrinal correctness both run the risk of ignoring religion of the heart (orthokardia).  Orthokardia holds a critical function of constantly directing our attention to Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  I am convinced that much of the emphasis of modern praise music is an attempt recapture a forgotten orthokardia.  So too is much of the renewed interest in spiritual formation.

Orthodoxy, correct or right doctrine, was central in the life of the earliest Christian movement. After the Holy Spirit descended, Peter preached, and listeners responded with repentance. The life of the newborn church was anchored in its doctrine. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Jaroslav Pelikan (one of the great scholars of the Christian faith over the last half century) in Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, references the textus a patribus receptus with a stronger translation of action of those earliest Christ followers.  “And they were persisting in the doctrine of the apostles” (textus a patribus receptus, excerpt from Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 57; emphasis added).  Thus the critical importance of doctrine (or foundational teaching) emerges as a centerpiece of the life of the earliest Christian church.  The importance of doctrine towers over any strategy for growth or program for action.  It is a first-order claim on the life of the church.

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).

Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine.  His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline.  In other words, part of the genius of early Methodism was the way it combined the three – orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.”  They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement.  Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology (orthodoxy) in spirit (orthokardia) and discipline (orthopraxis).  Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

I close this writing on a deep conviction that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a wonderful thing.  A new church is being called forth for our post-Christendom age.  The words of Ross Douthat (which I have quoted before) are worth re-emphasizing.

“The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man [and woman] a God unto himself [or herself] – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #3: Smaller. Bigger ©

Texas Wesleyan University has been engaged in an award-winning advertisement campaign for student admissions. The campaign is built around a clever and insightful slogan, “Smaller. Smarter.”

The slogan is clever in that it is easy to remember. It is deeply insightful because it captures an essence of the educational adventure that Texas Wesleyan offers. As a church-related (United Methodist) liberal arts university, Texas Wesleyan University is committed to smaller classes where students receive intimate mentoring and direction from high quality professors and thus emerge smarter. By implication, they emerge with a four-year university degree at a point of insight, intellectual growth and maturity that is more advanced than a large 4-year university.

As we face the church of tomorrow, our slogan might instead be “Smaller. Bigger.” For well over two decades now, we have been watching a national trend in churches that cuts across denominational groupings. The trend is a growing number of very large congregations. Typically worshipping 700 or more on an average Sunday, they might best be labelled regional churches. Somewhere around 1,800 in average worship attendance, churches move into what might well be called the “mega” church category.  Regional and mega churches have been growing all across America, not only in non-denominational varieties but also in mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church. Here in the Central Texas Conference, our rise in worship attendance has largely been driven by our churches with over 500 in average worship attendance.

Simultaneously, there is a national trend in the direction of smaller congregations. More and more congregations are going part-time in their pastoral appointments, with average worship somewhere between 30 and 75 in attendance. (Lovett Weems’ calculations indicate that it takes an average worship attendance of 126 to afford a full-time elder in The United Methodist Church today. Our calculations in Central Texas, while varying from church to church, tend to hover at around 100 in average worship attendance to financially support a full-time elder.) This growth in small churches represents an intimate deepening walk with Christ in settings that are often lay-led and lay-driven. Where the deepening walk with Christ is present, smaller churches have a health and vitality that is uniquely their own. Many such smaller congregations are often much more able to achieve a high level of supportive spiritual accountability.  People aren’t able to simply sit back and “enjoy the show.”

Interestingly, the largest congregations in average worship attendance are actually very fragile.  The pivotal role of senior clergy leadership is crucial. By contrast, churches that have around 50 in average worship attendance tend to be extremely stable. There is a strength and vitality in the small church that is exciting. (This is a part of why we emphasize not only the Healthy Church Initiative, HCI, but also the Small Church Initiative, SCI.)

We face a future in The United Methodist Church that is at once going to be smaller and bigger. It much more difficult to engage in standardization in ministry. Put differently, one size DOES NOT fit all! Both pastors and lay leaders need very different skill sets for these two different mission fields.

Meanwhile, churches that average 150 – 300 in average worship attendance (medium sized) and churches that average 300-700 (large sized) tend to be either climbing or declining but are rarely stable. The shifting landscape on the American scene really is smaller and bigger at the same time.

In urban environments, there are also an increasing number of very large churches that have multiple numbers of small satellites. They are combining smaller and bigger in exciting and creative ways which capture the best of both worlds!

Alan Hirsch in his tremendous book, The Forgotten Ways notes the rising sense of highly committed small groups. (Think of the fellowship of the ring in the Tolkien trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Even more, think of Jesus and the original 12 disciples.  Add in the original Methodist class meeting.) We are going to see a continued growth in house church groups and in the health and strength of small town or rural congregations which offer vibrant spiritual connections to the Lord and each other.  They will be served by less than full time pastors. The very organizational shape of the church is changing in ways that are hard for our current structure to keep up with let alone effectively lead. Hirsch notes that the church will be made up of “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pg. 236).

Jolynn and I experienced a fascinating example of this about a decade ago when our daughter was a student at the University of York in England. As good parents, we saved some vacation time and went over for Thanksgiving to visit her in her semester abroad study. We were there for the first Sunday in Advent that year. Together as a family, we chose to go to the great York Minster Cathedral for Sunday Advent evening worship. As we entered (over an hour early thinking we’d have no trouble finding a seat), we were shocked to discover that the great cathedral, which is typically very sparsely attended during a regular Sunday worship, was packed. There were well over 2,000 people present. We sat in folding chairs on the side aisle.

While waiting for the service to start, we visited with the family behind us. They were in their mid-thirties with two preschool children. They lived in York and were very active practicing Christians in a local Baptist Church. They did not in any way identify with the Church of England. Puzzled, we asked them what brought them to the great Cathedral (the seat of one of three Archbishops in the Anglican Church) this night. They shared that they came to the cathedral, as did many Christians from a variety of churches, for high festival celebrations but spent their regular Sundays and discipleship formation activities in their much smaller church that was served by a part-time pastor holding another job. It is this model that many suggest we will see more and more of; large regional churches that serve as centers for faith and community coupled with small – in essence house churches – churches in a small setting with limited space.

I believe we are witnessing a gradually unfolding work of the Holy Spirit. Historically, if you study the cathedral system that gradually arose in Europe, it was originally this model: small communities encircling larger centers of worship and praise. For United Methodists, this represents a dramatic institutional change that is imperceptibly taking place. It is difficult, given our common ecclesiastical assumptions, to adjust to. “Smaller. Bigger.” evokes a very different set of clergy needs and competencies.  It elicits different patterns of organizational structure and decision making.  I hope to address those issues in a follow up blog.

A Critical Advent Sharing

One of the newsletters I read regularly is Update from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary.  Dr. Lovett Weems is a very wise and practical writer about the American church scene and especially about the United Methodist Church.  Recently I read the following article by Dr. Weems which I found striking and deeply insightful. Graciously Dr. Weems has given permission to reprint his recent article.  I do so with a strong recommendation to Pastors and Lay Leaders:  Read this article and next week, before Christmas(!), act upon it in some significant way.  This article is reprinted by permission from the free e-newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at www.churchleadership.com.

The Emergence of the Dones

A friend alerted me to a blog by Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, on “The Rise of the Dones.” At first I thought there must be a misprint. Surely the title meant to refer to the rise of the “Nones,” the increasingly large number of people, especially among those under 30, who choose as their religious affiliation “None.”

But “Dones” was correct, so I set out to learn more about this new group. Dones are those who typically were at one time the most active and loyal of church members. Now they have left. They did not go to other churches. They stopped going to church completely. Sometimes these persons are referred to as the “dechurched.”

Schultz points out the danger for churches. “The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews.”

Drawing on research by sociologist Josh Packard, Schultz points to people fatigued with being talked at through countless sermons and Bible studies when they really want to be more engaged and to participate instead of a Sunday routine of “plop, pray, and pay.”  

Schultz asks if they will return. “Not likely, according to the research. They’re done. Packard says it would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place. Preventing an exodus is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.”

Often I will ask a pastor to think of a few people in the congregation who, if they left in the next year, would cause the church to be most vulnerable. Once they come up with their list, my follow-up question is, “What personal engagement have you had with them in the last two weeks?” Usually the answer is “none,” precisely because these are the people who are most loyal and dependable. They do not “require” or insist upon attention. But not giving attention to them is dangerous.

Pastors, staff, and congregational leaders need to spend time with the most active people to stay in touch with their thinking and feelings. Such ongoing connection can pick up clues about concerns or opportunities that would be missed otherwise. Decisions to leave are not made suddenly. They have been brewing for some time. Once people leave, often the clues that something was not right become all too obvious in retrospect.

Finding ways to talk with long-time, active members about their spiritual journeys and the connection of those journeys with your congregation can go a long way toward understanding the heart of the congregation and issues that can guide congregational leadership. Schultz suggests these questions.

*  Why are you a part of this church?
* What keeps you here?
*  Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
*  How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
*  How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
*  What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
*  What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? 

Remember that leaders listen. Leaders usually have to listen to those expressing upset and displeasure. Good leaders make sure they are finding time to listen to the most faithful well before any of them become “Dones.”

Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
December 3, 2014
http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/updates/141203.html

 

 

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