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Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #3 ©

Being Methodical – Embracing Spiritual Disciplines

The great Christian theologian and spiritual mentor Dallas Willard opens his epic book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, with a profoundly insightful tragic story.  He writes: “Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent – and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

“This is a parable of human existence in our time – not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that – but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 1-2).

Such phrasing is surely descriptive of our age and time.  We live at a pace of life that is simply unsustainable.  In the midst of our times, bombarded by instant news, assaulted by more input than we can possibly process, we remain committed to being follows of Christ.

This is not a new enterprise.  The quest for faithfulness in confusing and even chaotic times is one that all Christians who have gone before and all who come after us have or will wrestle with. How is that we  – moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – walk in the way of Christ?  To be sure, we have primary and basic guidance from Holy Scripture.  Consider ….

  • He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you:  to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8)
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
  • Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. (Matthew 28: 19-20)
  • You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. (Ephesians 2:8-10a)

As powerful and strengthening as these biblical admonitions are we need something more.

Ardent conviction and sincere intent alone are not enough.  We need a method, a way of practicing the Christian faith such that walking with Christ becomes our habit, our natural way of living. Years ago Jolynn and I took country western dancing class.  The instructor used to say that we needed to develop “muscle memory” for our dancing.  (Unfortunately my muscles were exceptionally challenged!)

The Wesleyan Way is energized by just such thinking and acting. Wesley looked back at the earliest Christians, examined the faithful saints down through the ages, and appropriated a “methodical” way to be a faithful Christian.  It involved what we call today “spiritual disciplines.”

While the list varies, the spiritual disciplines are at least in part made up of foundational activities.  At a minimum they consist of:

  • Quiet time for contemplation of the Holy Spirit and prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures (as Wesley put it, we might say Bible reading and study)
  • Regular worship including regular participation in Holy Communion
  • Watching over one another in love through small group discipleship (class meeting)
  • Works of love, justice and mercy
  • Giving both financially and of our time

All this and more is, must!, take place in the context of community-  the very Body of Christ called the Church.  If you read my above list carefully, you will notice two things.  First, it is not new, this is already an a clear reflection of the witness of Scripture, the practices of the earliest disciples and each succeeding generation of the faith down through almost 2,000 years of Christian history.  The second thing you will notice is that my list is incomplete.  It needs to be filled out, to be written by each of us in our individual contexts.

No one, absolutely no one, lives a life of faithful discipleship by themselves.  We all live in community with Christ and each other.  Our methodical practices will ultimately be under the influence of the how the Spirit shapes us for the better.

I leave the reader with a comment from Professor Jason Vickers:

In the postmodern West, the church is beset by two problems. First, in many quarters, we have lost confidence in the materials, persons, and practices that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for our healing and our salvation. We have lost confidence in the power of Scriptures and the sacraments to form and to transform our lives. We have lost confidence in the power of spirit-filled preaching and prayer to convict us of our sins and to assure us of our forgiveness. We have lost confidence in the power of the testimony of the saints to guide us into all truth. Put simply, we have lost confidence in the very resources by which the church lives and by which she is a source of the renewal of life and of holiness throughout the world.  (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 94-95)

If we are to reclaim the Wesleyan Way, we must reclaim the spiritual disciplines in the habits of our living.  This is the path to true holiness (Wesley’s holiness of heart and life) and thus the true path ultimately to deep joy and happiness.  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way involves hiking on the trail of the life well lived!

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #2 ©

Enthusiasts – God as a Subject

Many of us are aware that the title “Methodist” was originally meant as an insult.  Those called Methodists were considered methodical fanatics in the way they followed Jesus (i.e. through in bible study, prayer, spiritual discipline, evangelistic faith sharing and works of love, justice and mercy, etc.).  Often a more common shorthand reference to them was that they were simply “enthusiasts.”  It was not meant as a compliment!

In the introduction to David Hempton’s marvelous Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, the author recalls an interchange between two great Oxford scholars.  Hugh Price Hughes challenged Mark Pattison, the then distinguished scholar and rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford. Pattison rejected Methodism as part of religious thought worthy of consideration.  Pattison considered Methodism as “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).  Methodists in Pattison’s vision were “enthusiasts” who should be dismissed by all right thinking “reasonable” Christians/people.

And yet, if we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we recover the zeal of the original Methodist “enthusiasts.”  They held a passion for Christ and the gospel, for the life of faithfulness and fruitfulness in holiness of heart and life which so burned within them that it shed light on the outside in an often brutal shadowed world.  Indeed so true is this basic element of the original Methodists that some scholars “argue that the explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century … can best be explained as a much-modified continuation of the Methodist holiness tradition”  (Hempton, p. 2).

Famously in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley shared his hopes and fears for the future of the Wesleyan movement with the words: “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 both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” 

All this boisterous enthusiasm is a stretch for someone like myself who came to the Christian faith via the Friends (Quakers) and their preference for dignified silence.  And yet… at the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we are called to be enthusiasts for Jesus.  I can’t help but recall a young new start pastor rising to share in a Path One gathering (The United Methodist Church’s official new church & new faith community planting ministry) who commented, “The Methodist Church was begun by a bunch of college students who were determined to take Jesus seriously.”  There is more than just a small element of truth in his comment.  A bunch of college kids got seriously enthusiastic for Jesus.  While estimates vary today there are something around 35 million plus (I am sure this figure is low, but it is the best I could lay my hands on quickly) Methodists around the world and the many, many more who claim connection to the Wesleyan way of Christianity (probably 250 million!).

The modern sage of American culture Garrison Keillor has remarked, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them….If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael row your boat ashore’ they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!” (Garrison Keillor on “Those People called Methodists” ).
How then are we to reclaim this heart of the Wesleyan Way for our day?  The young pastor has it right for starters.  We embrace the model of a bunch of college kids who decided to take Jesus seriously.  We follow Jesus in our lives and larger world.  But there is more to this than simply a call to commitment and action.  At its core, the need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way is theological.

Methodists were “enthusiasts” for Christ because they saw God in action!  God was simply not an object of belief but a subject moving in their lives and the lives of those around them.  Personal transformation by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is real.  Social transformation was (and is!) an outgrowth of personal transformation.  It is happening today!  I can still taste the thrill of sitting in a worship service where the pastor opened by asking people if they had experienced any “God sightings” this week.  All kinds of folks from middle school-aged kids to septuagenarian adults stood up and shared!  They were enthusiasts in the original Methodist sense.  The Trinity was real; Jesus was alive; the Holy Spirit was active!  Their lives and community were being transformed by the Lord moving in their midst.

I love the comment offered by Professor Jason Vickers in his book Minding the Good Ground, “… the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost not simply to dwell among us but to dwell within us in such a way that, as Boris Bobrinskoy once put it, ‘we cannot discern the frontier between his presence and our own autonomy’” (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 77).  We must get over ourselves; our own convictions, causes and campaigns opening ourselves again to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is scary and dangerous stuff.  It is much more than simply academically reclaiming a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to be sure we must do this much!).  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way calls us to set aside of cultural “properness” (regardless of where we are on the political, ideological and social spectrum!) and open ourselves to the wild ways of the Holy Spirit!

Regaining an understating of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as an active subject moving in our lives and worlds is at the very center of reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  This will not happen without a re-appropriation of the practice of foundational spiritual disciplines.  But for today, I will pause.  A following blog will offer some reflections on being methodical – embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

Reflections on the Upcoming Judicial Council Decision ©

On Tuesday, April 25, Mike Ford, Central Texas Conference Lay Leader, and I sent the following letter (via email) to all the clergy in the Central Texas Conference currently under appointment as well as the Lay Leaders of our local churches. We’d like to thank Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the CTC, for his valuable assistance. – JML

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus””   Philippians 2: 1-5 (CEB)

Dear Friends,

Greetings in the name of Christ! We are writing to all Central Texas Conference clergy currently under appointment as well as those serving as Lay Leader for our local churches, in hopes of providing you the necessary information and context regarding the pending Judicial Council ruling on the validity of the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

As you may recall, Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated a United Methodist bishop in July by delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto, an elder in good standing at the time of her election, is a partner in a same-sex marriage. At the time of the election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about the validity of her election. The petition asks the Judicial Council whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” is lawful under The Book of Discipline [Paragraphs 304.3, 310.2d, 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)].

The Judicial Council is meeting today through Friday (April 25 – 28) in Newark, New Jersey. During this meeting, the Council will act on the request for a declaratory decision on Bishop Oliveto’s election. At this time, we have no indication as to when the ruling will be announced.

The entire Cabinet is quite conscious that there are deep and varied convictions about this issue across the conference and connection. We are also aware that there is great interest, discourse and anxiety about this decision. As such, we are in daily prayer for all United Methodists, but especially the lay and clergy leadership of our conference as they are being called upon to lead their congregations through this critical moment and keep their church’s focus squarely on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We ask you to join us in these prayers.

We offer the following for your careful consideration, believing that it will help prepare you for the announcement of that ruling and assist in any questions or comments you might receive.

  • First and foremost, be a people of prayer. Pray for the Judicial Council, the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto and all the bishops of the church, all local churches, clergy and laity and The United Methodist Church at large.
  • Slow down, relax, don’t over respond. Please remind all to breathe deep and recall that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is at work here. Regardless of the ruling, the churches of the Central Texas Conference will continue in their worship and ministries.
  • No matter how the Judicial Council decides, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ stays the same. We will stay focused on 1) Keeping Christ at the center of everything we do; 2) Developing strong and effective clergy and lay leadership; 3) Growing vital congregations throughout the Central Texas Conference.
  • We are going to continue to uphold church law. Please do not make premature decisions based on this ruling. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality and legality of actions taken by individuals or constituted entities of the church and will express its own perspective and give its own rationale for its decision. The Judicial Council’s actions are always specific to particular circumstances. Because their decision will be about a specific request from one jurisdiction regarding the action of another jurisdiction, their decision will not change The Book of Discipline.
  • We ask you to wait for the full report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), which is expected to be released in about a year, and the actions that come out of the called General Conference, scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, before deciding on where you stand on this issue. Remember, this week’s ruling DOES NOT change church law, nor does it suggest how the CWF or the called General Conference might decide.
  • Please be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. While Facebook, Twitter, etc. are important and vital tools of communication, posts and tweets can easily be taken out of context, especially when shared or retweeted. While you and the members of your church are certainly entitled to and encouraged to have your own opinions, we do want to remind you that there is a greater constituency beyond your personal social media network to which you are responsible. No matter how the Judicial Council rules, there will be some in your congregation/community/peer groups who are celebrating the ruling and others who will mourn the decision. As you engage via social media, please do so in a positive, uplifting manner and help redirect the conversation back to the mission of the church. We encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Remember, as a pastor or lay leader, to some degree, you no longer only represent yourself, you represent your church, and the larger shared ministry of The UMC.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns following the decision, we urge you to visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including either one of us. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to the conference lay leader. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • At the request of the Council of Bishops, we will form a task force to help us design processes for working with and through the recommendations put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward. Dr. Bob Holloway, dean of the CTC Cabinet; Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central District Superintendent; Rev. Travis Franklin, North District Superintendent (effective July 1) and Rev. Casey Orr, member of the Commission on a Way Forward, have been named to this task force. They will be joined by four members of the 2016 CTC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The delegation reps will be named by the delegation in the coming months.

Once again, we ask you to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord, keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the process – the Judicial Council, the CWF, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue. We also urge you to live in the second chapter of Philippians – particularly verses 4-5. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.“(CEB)

The Lord is at work here – whether we are aware, the Lord is at work here.

May the grace of the Lord guide your hearts and minds, today and forever.

Recovering the Methodist Movement ©

A while back a friend called my attention to a March 2013 article by David Brooks entitled “How Movements Recover.”   A part of what grabbed my interest is the often repeated comment about the “Methodist” movement.  Movemental growth in the church for a justice cause or evangelism or mission impact or spiritual growth etc. is an indwelling and outreaching of the Holy Spirit.

In brief summation, Christian movements are periods of revival or reawakening to the original mission of the faith.  Commonly, “Methodism” is referred to as a movement in the Christian faith (a great element of spiritual revival and vitality).  By way of contrast, movements are different from institutional advancement.  They focus on the primary mission and contain strong elements of growth reaching out to new groups. [Allow me to emphasize that both!! institutional advancement and movemental engagement are needed.  If movements are not ultimately institutionally shaped, they dissipate and ultimately amount to little beside a passing fad.  If, on the other hand, movements are choked out by institutional rigidity, desperately needed renewal is lost.]

At any rate what intrigued me about David Brooks Op Ed piece in the New York Times was the way he connected the recovery of the Christian faith as a movement (not just an institution) to reaching out to embrace the world in all its messiness- rather than seeing the church as an ark closed off from the rest of the world, riding out the storms.  St. Augustine “reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.”  Brooks continues, “His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.”

Brooks writes from a predominantly Roman Catholic perspective but there are deep insights for us Methodists in his work.  He points to the witness of Pope Francis commenting, “It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers ‘accidents on the streets’ to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.”

We do well to listen and wrestle at this juncture.  How do we hold tight to core doctrine and yet remain open and engaged, yearning for discovery?  Rigid self-righteous boundaries are not only unfaithful; they will surely kill us.  Conversely, a lack of boundaries leads to meaninglessness and ultimately will also just as surely kill us.  Many of my colleague bishops speak of the need to be an outwardly focused church.  The four focus areas of the United Methodist Church (new places for new people/new faith communities, ministry with the poor, leadership development, and Global health – Imagine No Malaria) are vibrant expressions of an outward focus which seeks to recapture a movemental character.  So too are attempts to recapture a holistic holiness – holiness of heart and life that is both social and personal.

And yet, our cultural and denominational obsession with immanence as both the locus and focus of ministry suffers from a lack of transcendence.  A full blown doctrine of the Trinity with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit active in our world as subject (not just object) is desperately needed. The theologian David Bosch (as Alan Hirsch reminds us) has rightly written, “discipleship is determined by the relation to Christ himself not by mere conformity to impersonal commands” (D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 67; taken from Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  Hirsch himself goes on to comment, “Apostolic movements make this a core task, because when we really think about it, this is perhaps the most strategic of all the church’s various activities”  (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  He [Hirsch] goes on to reference Mother Teresa, “We must become holy not because we want to feel holy but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us.”

As much as I resonate with David Brooks’ correct insistence on an outward focus in to the world in love-induced mission, by itself it is not enough.  There must be an upward dimension as well for the enterprise to be sustained.  The work of Kenda Creasy Dean and others on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” warns us of the desperate need for both immanence and transcendence, for both parts of the cross.  The apostolic genius of the original Methodist movement reached out to the world in love and reached up to God in holiness.

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.

Deep Discipleship ©

While we wrestle with deep divisions about much in The United Methodist Church these days, we are in strong agreement that our collective mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Such a great grand mission erupts from the Great Commission of Christ given in the closing paragraph of St. Matthew’s sweeping Gospel (Good News!).  “Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

As I have shared in Episcopal Addresses both to the Central Texas Conference and to the South Central Jurisdiction, “Jesus doesn’t want fans.  He wants committed disciplined followers.”  The dilemma for us is that over the last ½ century plus we have been a low demand church with a high commitment theology.  The two don’t mix well.  Now we find ourselves struggling to move from cultural attachment to the church to deep discipleship to Jesus.

In my recent readings, I’ve been working through Deep Church Rising  by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry.  In chapter 8, “Deep Transformation: Recovering Catechesis” (which is worth the price of the book alone) the authors note, “living as a Christian in modernity and post-modernity is quite different from living as a Christian before the Reformation.  The sacred canopy of a Christian culture is now virtually gone and the social structures that made Christian belief and lifestyle plausible are no longer in place.  It is harder to believe than it used to be – not because there are better arguments against Christianity than there used to be but simply because the plausibility structures are not in place.  If we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, if we are serious about spiritual formation and discipleship and the plausibility of Christianity in the modern West, then going to a church meeting for a couple of hours a week and having a five-minute ‘quiet time ‘ each day is hardly going to do the trick”  (Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry, Deep Church Rising, p.132).

A part of what fascinates me about Walker & Parry’s detailed insistence on the recovery of catechesis (religious instruction for baptism, confirmation, and life-long discipleship) is the way it dove tails with so many other writings on discipleship.  The importance of deep discipleship training is strongly emphasized in Kenda Creasy Dean’s marvelous book Almost Christian.  It is echoed in the writing of people like Mike Slaughter.  And the list could continue to include many solid authors and Christian leaders across the theological spectrum.  Taken together they point us in the direction of a serious recovery of adult discipleship and training.  This is no small task but rather one that necessitates great commitment and a move away from a simple 6-week curriculum approach.  Walker and Parry note that “According to the Apostolic Tradition, catechesis was a journey that lasted for three years.”  They added:  “catechesis functioned as a kind of decompression chamber that took those seeking entry into the church on a transformative journey, climaxing in baptism and full entry into the Christian Community” (Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry, Deep Church Rising, pp. 133-134).

Such deep discipleship formation training (catechesis) is a far cry from an invitation to come down and commit or recommit your life to Christ at the close of the worship service and possibly take a one to four hour class on Methodism and the church.  [As an aside, one can make a case for coming forward and making a public commitment/ recommitment to Christ and His Church which includes a follow-on commitment to join an extensive class in Christian formation and discipleship after such a public commitment.]

I am reminded of two quotes that Dr. Dean carefully places in the forefront of her book:

“An almost Christian … [chiefly] is one that … is fond of the form, but never experiences the power of godliness in his heart.”  — George Whitefield, “The Almost Christian” (1739)

“The Church is full of almost Christians who have not gone all the way with Christ.”  — John Wesley, “The Almost Christian” (1741)

Reflecting on all this and the concomitant need for small groups (ala the Class Meeting) in deep discipleship formation, the Holy Spirit guides me to one of the towering challenges facing the church of today.  Put bluntly, no matter where one is on the spectrum of church dividing issues (holding fast to current Disciplinary language with regard to LGBTQI questions all the way to being in favor of completely opening the Discipline up with regard to ordination & same gender marriage; or for that matter any other divisive issues – abortion, war, racism, theology, Bible, the role/power of the laity, etc. etc.) deep discipleship is desperately needed.  Casual Christians cannot meet the cry of our divided, terror driven world.  Almost Christians will not answer the Great Commission of Christ to go to “all the nations.” (The Greek word translated in Matthew 28:19 is the root for our word “ethnicities” or ethnic.)  Fans for Christ will not suffice to heed the challenge of advancing the Kingdom of God in love, justice and mercy.  We need committed disciplined followers.

The Lord calls for deep discipleship from ourselves and others.  A new and deeper form of discipleship formation or catechesis is a requirement.  Together we need to recreate the deep discipleship training which the early Christian movement so instinctively embraced.

We Are More ©

On May 10th the United Methodist General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon. Quadrennially (every four years) General Conference meets as the highest ruling body of The United Methodist Church. General Conference alone can speak for the whole church. At General Conference the Discipline (book of church law) is adopted for the next quadrenniam. The worship is inspiring. The speakers are challenging. The debates are invigorating.

All too often debate over a controversial issue drowns out much of the meaningful substance of the greater ministry taking place in and through the United Methodist Church worldwide. It is no secret that once again much of the debate and argument will be focused on issues regarding ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (currently not allowed in United Methodist Church law) and performance of same gender weddings by United Methodist Church clergy (also currently prohibited by church law). Other controversial issues regarding resolutions addressing a vast array of issues clamor for attention.

As I attend General Conference (bishops preside but do not vote, much like at Annual Conference), I am reminded of Bishop J. Chess Lovern’s marvelous statement. “Great churches wrestle with great issues.” [A personal aside: Bishop Lovern ordained me an elder in the United Methodist Church May 31, 1978.] In the midst of our public debates it is easy to forget that the foundation of ministry is faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the making of disciples for the transformation of the world.

The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (Central Texas is a part of the South Central Jurisdiction and I am one of the afore mentioned bishops) along with their Conference Communication Directors (Vance Morton for Central Texas) have gotten together to share the incredible good news and faithfulness of the church and Conferences of the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve entitled the campaign We Are More in order to remind one and all that we are more than an attention grabbing headline and heated debate. In faithfulness to Christ we are about life transformation and the transformation of society.

I strongly urge readers of my blog to follow the #WeAreMore campaign launched by SCJ Bishops. Together we have produced a series of compelling faith-based stories from around the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The campaign is designed to connect people and proclaim that #WeAreMore when united through Jesus Christ. Click the logo to the right to read more about the campaign or visit ctcumc.org/WeAreMore to check out the faith stories already posted and/or to submit one of your own.

Our Gnawing Hunger and the Class Meeting ©

I readily confess that this blog is only half formed and invite the perceptive reader to engage in wrestling the intersection of our gnawing hunger and the call to spiritually walk with Christ. Allow me the space and grace to interconnect some of my thinking and mediation.

As I watch the craziness that is the current American race for presidential nominations in both parties, I cannot help but think that they reflect a deep anxiousness and gnawing spiritual hunger that has infected us as a civil populace. As the waning value system of an old (and previously) entrenched church culture passes from the scene, the vacuum left eats at our souls as both a church and a nation.  We know that the current level of political discourse and national dialog (or true lack thereof) is toxic and yet are unable to extricate ourselves from it.  (As a sidebar, this meets the definition of original sin for all – all means all! – concerned.)

And yet our better natures cry for something more. The Lord calls us repeatedly to live in love and charity with all in need.  The unmitigated teaching of Jesus challenges us to trust the Lord.  “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!  Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well’” (Luke 12, 22, 27-31).

Add to this teaching the Apostle Paul’s admonition in the closing part of Philippians. “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks” (Philippians 4:6).  Stir with the faithful need to pray and trust.  The outcome I submit is what we long for – a sense of peace amid the storms of change that swirl around us.

We instinctively know that we cannot get there on our own. Solitary spirituality can only take us so far.  The biblical admonitions to be together the body of Christ speak deep in the thunder of our times.  It is here I suspect that the Wesleyan Way of life following Christ has something to offer.

In my ongoing reading of Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, I think God is guiding me and our larger church but to its essential structure. Dr. Watson quotes Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798, Doctrines and Discipline:

“We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.”

Then he adds, “A common method (joining every Methodist to a class meeting) and a common message (the necessity of repentance, faith, and holiness) were at the center of Methodism during its periods of most explosive growth” (The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience by Kevin M. Watson, pg. 53).

There is much here to wrestle with and piece together. More later…

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

PHILIPPINES BRIGHT SPOTS

When the first George Bush (that is George Herbert Walker Bush) was President, he lifted up what he called for “1,000 Points of Lght.” President Bush urged us to focus on the better side of our nature by lifting up organizations (ministries) that shape human society in healthy, hopeful ways. I thought then and think now that there is something to this emphasis on the points of light or bright spots around us. I believe this is especially true for the Church. There are “bright spots” – “points of light” – all around us.

Sunday night I arrived in the Philippines with Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference. We are working with representatives from the Philippines Central Conference (three Episcopal Areas) on the Council of Bishops Bright Spots Project. The Bright Spots project is an outgrowth of the United Methodist Church’s worldwide emphasis on building vital congregations. The areas of congregational vitality are the same in the Philippines as they are in the United States (and around the rest of the world). We look for evidence of congregational vitality through transformation life stores, fruitfulness in ministry, and life changing ministries which reflection the Wesleyan way of being a Christ follower (holiness of heart and life). The five markers of vitality correspond to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the earliest Christian church as found immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. Vitality is measured by the “five markers of disciples involved/engaged in “1) making new disciples (evangelism, a part of radical hospitality); 2) worship; 3) small groups (intentional faith development); 4) hands on mission (risk-taking mission and service); and 5) giving to missions (extravagant generosity).” The connection to the Bright Spots Project comes out of the work of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team, Discipleship Ministries and Vital Congregations project through the Connectional Table.

The “Bright Spots” project builds on the notion and understanding of a research method called Positive Deviance. (PD) PD is a strength-based approach around core principles which involve communities possessing the expertise to address their own problems. In brief form the community (read church) discovers existing uncommon, successful behaviors and strategies. Put differently, it looks at the bright spots among the various congregations in an Annual Conference. PD is built on the notion that “someone just like me is succeeding against all odds with the same resources that are available to me.” PD focuses on practice instead of knowledge. (“You are more likely to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”) For those of you interested in reading more, I strongly commend The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.

All this sounds dry but it ends up exciting. Drawing lay and clergy together we learn how to focus on what is working (fruitful and faithful ministry) and learn from such ministry in ways that are naturally transferable to other congregations. Practical insights are welded to the best biblical and theological insights. The beauty of this approach is the way people are turned into their own researchers and own the results in a concrete way. Instead of a top-down “program,” “bright spots” provides a bottom up approach to ministry in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

In the Central Texas Conference our focus remains firmly on what I call the Big 3.
1. Christ at the Center
2. Focus on the Local Church
3. Development of Lay and Clergy Leadership

As I keep insisting, no one needs to ask what the focus of the next Annual Conference is. The theme is on “energizing and equipping local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We are blessed with many bright spots. We can learn much by asking simple questions of each other, laying aside our preconceived convictions and listening again as if for the 1st time what leads to excellence in faithful and fruitful ministry. What can we learn from our “bright spots?” How is it some churches engage in risk-taking ministry above and beyond what is normally expected? How come some congregations have professions of faith in situations where other churches are closing? How is it that passionate worship breaks out in the oddest places?

The Holy Spirit is loose in our world and our churches. We have much to learn from others. As we share, God works on us in our hearts leading us to exciting faithfulness.

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