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Church in a Time of Change

I find myself settling back in upon our return from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It feels good to be back in the routine of episcopal life in the Central Texas Conference.  Wednesday afternoon I drove down to the South District office and met with Rev. Rankin Koch, the South District Superintendent and Rev. Tom Robbins who chairs the District Superintendency Committee.  Look for an announcement on the incoming (at Conference) South DS on the Conference website Monday.

Today I am driving to Eastland to meet with Rev. Carol Woods as we review ministry in the West District together.  Eastland UMC is engaged in some exciting outreach ministry (as are other churches throughout the Conference).  It does my soul good to be “on the ground” in our local churches.

Changing subjects just a bit; at our last Council of Bishops meeting we had a Powerpoint presentation from Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary entitled “Being Church in a time of Change.”  Some those insights stick with me in a deep way, and I pass them on for your reflection.

We are living through three major shifts:

1. From Christendom to World Movement
2.  From Religiously Segmented to Religiously Pluralistic World
3.  From Denominational Preeminence to Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation

Dr. Pieterse quoted Andrew Walls.  “Christianity began the twentieth century as a Western religion [and] ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so. . . . The demographic transformation of the church. . . faces us with twin challenges: a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.”  On a more personal level, our recent Holy Land pilgrimage reinforced just how worldwide and diverse the Christian movement is.  There are a growing number of Asian Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land!  The implications of this change were deeply felt in the UMC at our last General Conference (and hence affected local churches in Central Texas!).

Consider the following statistical data which Dr. Pieterse quoted form Dr. Phillip Jenkins:

  • In 1900, two-thirds of all Christians lived in Europe.
  • Today, less than one-fourth of Christians reside in Europe; and by 2025 it will drop to under 20 percent.
  • Today, more than 65 percent of Christians live outside the West.
  • Between 1900 and 2000, the Christian presence in Africa increased from 10 million people to over 360 million.
  • Africans and Asians already make up about 30 percent of Christianity around the world.
  • By 2025, half of all Christians on the planet will live in Africa and Latin America.
  • By 2050, non-Hispanic whites will make up only about one-fifth of the world’s projected 3 billion Christians.

Or reflect on the following insights he offered from a variety of sources:

  • Christianity should enjoy a worldwide boom in the new century, but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American.”1
  • Today, a typical Christian is not a White Methodist or Episcopalian living in an upscale suburb of New York or Atlanta, but a poor woman struggling to survive in a village somewhere in Nigeria or in a favela in Brazil. (Jenkins)
  •  “Christianity today is largely a movement of the “poor, the powerless, and the persecuted.”2
  • Christians make up a significant percentage of the 2.8 billion people worldwide struggling to survive on pennies a day.
  • Of the 1,090 million people who live in absolute poverty, 260 million are Christians—13 percent of all Christians.
  •  Approximately 100 million Christians live in the world’s twenty-six poorest countries.

He offered some insights and implications for our North American (and hence Central Texas) context.  Consider:

A Growing World Church in Our Midst:

  • “Immigrant congregations represent the fastest growing segment of American Christianity across all traditions. . . . [E]very Christian migrant is a potential missionary.1

An Emerging Landscape of Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation:

  • “[T]he forms of legitimacy that shaped the twentieth century have been disappearing in a process of rapid and discontinuous change.”
  • “A crisis of legitimacy occurs when discontinuous change occurs in the overall environment and is not matched by corresponding responses within the organization.”
  • “[D]enominations face questions of identity and legitimacy. . . . [T]hey are confronting a legitimacy crisis and will be unable to become missionally shaped systems unless they understand the dynamics of this crisis.”
  • “[D]enominations tend to address the crisis at the levels of organizational structure and role identity. . . . Changing them will not address the legitimation crisis. The core issue facing a [denomination] is at the level of culture, or identity.”2

There is a lot to chew on here, and I invite the reader to prayerfully chew away with me.  In the midst of our change I see great opportunity.  The Holy Spirit is at work in our world!  Here in Central Texas these insights are being reflected in our congregations.  For instance, one of our new churches is made up of Ghanaian immigrants; we have a large Korean Methodist contingent in the Central Texas Context; as with all of Texas (& America) responding to Hispanic ministry growth is central to our future.  The list could go on but you get the drift.

These are exciting and changing times!  God is working in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is my joy to share in ministry with folks in Central Texas!

Extravagant Generosity and Vital Congregations

 As I move through the accumulated paperwork of my office, many different items caught my attention.  Two offer witness to living out of our missional purpose of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.”

Rev. Dawne Phillips shared that in a recent preaching at FUMC Weatherford that she was presented with a check for the Conference in the amount of $17,071 to be contributed to Imagine No Malaria.  The contribution is the first gift from a $440,000 capital campaign for a new bus, audio-visual equipment, long-range planning with an architect, debt reduction and a 10% pledge to Imagine No Malaria.  Their plan is to make periodic payments to the Conference as funds are received.  The faithfulness and fruitfulness of the good folks at First UMC, Weatherford is a prime example of extravagant generosity.

Another (of many) example of faithfulness and fruitfulness is the growing participation by the churches of the Central Texas Conference in the greater Vital Congregations emphasis of the larger United Methodist Church. Gary Lindley and Jeff Jones offer the following bullet points:

  •  Thus far 128 churches are participating. Some of these include: White’s Chapel, Keller, Killeen First, Oglesby, Ranger and Cranfills Gap.
  • Criteria for determining whether or not a church is vital are:
    For each church, we average the metrics from each category (Worship Attendance, Professions of Faith, Number in Small Groups, People in Mission, Dollars to Mission). Churches receive a score from 1 to 3 in each category based on their ranking with other churches. Churches in the bottom 25% of each category receive a 1; those in middle 25-75% receive a 2; and those in the top 25% receive a 3. Those scores are then added together. Churches with a score of 10 or more and with no score of 1 in any single category are considered “Highly Vital.”
  • Data will be reviewed by the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth to determine churches that are considered vital.
  • Numbers represent the narratives – numbers communicate what is happening in our churches, they capture quantitative and qualitative growth.  We need both the numbers and the personal stories.

As I have written before, with the numbers (or metrics) we add the crucial narrative!  (See my blog of March 19, 2012 entitled The Importance of Narrative and my comments on the same subject in my recent Episcopal Address.)  When the Cabinet looks at appointments and assesses faithfulness and fruitfulness, we will examine together both the metrics of vital congregations and the narratives that accompany those metrics.  May the stories of God’s unfolding grace in Christ through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit abound!

I SAW GOD

On Friday night our CTCYM Community Living Center shared in a moving, humorous and thought provoking worship service.  Every team came forward & each CTCYMer was invited to share.  As if in a cascading litany, young person after young person spoke the phrase “I saw God” or “I saw God’s love.” In a manner at once casual and deeply reflective, they were reporting on a Matthew 25 experience. “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me’  (Matt 25:40).

I saw God on a ladder; I saw God holding a paint brush; I saw God lying under a floor pounding in floor joists; I saw God in a client.  The list goes on and on.  I saw God or saw God’s love in action – working in nursing homes, building wheel chair ramps, painting, washing windows, cleaning up, washing flea infested dogs, mowing the yard, helping a homeless guy walking by, putting in a new storm door, doing new things we’d never done before, cooking.  I saw God or saw God’s love in relationships with each other, with clients, with new friends.  One of the adults spoke of “Angels dropped out of a white van” (a reference to our transportation).

This isn’t heresy. This is not a mistaken identification of CTCYMers as God.  We are not God, merely the Lord’s children.  Rather it is an understanding of God in action with us, around us and through us.  It is a living witness to Jesus keeping his promise of Matthew 28:20.  “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”  Both seasoned adults and young persons share a story of singing for a “client” who is in hospice Maybe one of the youth summarized it best when he opened his remarks, “I saw God in so many places it’s hard to pick one to talk about.”

I couldn’t help but think again of the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (circa 1147-1167 A. D., and popularized in the musical Godspell): “To know Him more clearly; to love Him more dearly; to follow Him more nearly.”  This, I think, was and is the great and holy project of CTCYM.  I was privileged to share in the mission.

RAMPING UP IN ARKANSAS

The words lay sterile on the page in the little read Book of Resolutions: “The United Methodist Church believes God’s love is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty.  We cannot be just observers.  So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex” (pg. 27). Behind the seeming academic dryness lies the active engaging godly love exemplified by CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission).

Monday I worked as a part of Team 1 building a ramp. Tuesday morning left CTCYM for two days of a national meeting on building vital congregations in the United Methodist Church held at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary just outside Chicago.  When I returned the initial ramp was finished!  Joining up with Team 4, another ramp much longer in size at a second location was nearing completion.  (The home owner is in a rehabilitation hospital and one of the medical conditions for coming home is a wheel chair ramp.). The team leaders had to make the youth quit on time.  They (the Youth) wanted to work straight through closing time.

There are numerous reasons for such dedication.  High among them is, I believe, the three way connection between the CTCYMers, the client (person being helped), and God.  Things are ramped up (pun quite intentional) because we are “not just observers” but connected, united.  The trinitarian model is not accidental.  It reflects the reality of God who took flesh, risked and reached out in love, justice and mercy.

By the time you read this we will have finished ramp #2! CTCYMers know how to ramp up for the Lord!

JOY AND BLESSING AT CTCYM

Today (Monday, June 11th) finished my first full day at CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth Mission).  Our young people are a joy as they come together in mission and service!  We are building a wheel chair ramp for an older couple in great need.  Jennifer & David, the adult leaders of the team are super!

This is my first CTCYM but hardly my first mission trip.  I’ve been on trips of mission and service to places as diverse as the Texas Gulf Coast, Appalachia, and Guatemala. On one level this mission, as with the others, is exciting; on another level it is just hot hard work (my back aches tonight! — the ravages of aging my wife tells me — I told her that it couldn’t be me!).  Today as a part of our time we studied I John 4 & the famous passage that “God is love.”. I was struck again that deep love is tangible and engaging.  It is ethereal and vague but has a concreteness that reflects God’s love for us in Christ.

It strikes me that a significant element of the power & impact of CTCYM is this mixing of practical engagement and biblical reflection.  This is good godly learning with a lot of fun & fellowship  supporting it.  I am blessed to share with these disciples.

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