Insights from Upper New York

Last Thursday I flew to Syracuse, New York.  Friday and Saturday mornings I made two separate presentations/bible studies to the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  It was a great time of making new friends, sharing and learning for me.

Bishop Mark Webb and the good folks of Upper New York exercised radical hospitality towards me!  I was tremendously blessed by the warmth of their welcome and the graciousness of their hosting me.  (I even got time for an afternoon side trip to The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on Friday afternoon.  A member of the staff at the Hall of Fame is also a member at the Cooperstown UMC.  They were able to arrange some special time down in the archives where I got to hold the hat Greg Maddux wore when he pitched against Roger Clements.  It is the only occasion where two pitchers who have won three hundred games each have pitched against each other!)

The Upper New York Conference was alive and vibrant.  I gained a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  In a tough challenging cultural situation, they are wrestling with how to reach out in the name Christ with the gospel.  Upper New York has been one of the eleven conferences in the U.S. (along with Central Texas) who were involved in a growing Vital Congregation’s pilot learning project.

As commentators have well noted, the tsunami of secularity (which I wrote about in my May 2nd blog Leadership and Hope as the Tsunami Engulfs Us) has hit the northeast harder and earlier than the southwest.  Put differently, Upper New York is dealing with a tougher version of the tsunami than Central Texas is.  (There is no reason to either worry or brag in Central Texas.  Our time will come!)  There are lessons we can learn from Upper New York.  Perhaps the first and most important is to keep a good spirit as we are led by the Holy Spirit.  Discouragement will hammer us all, but this is still the Lord’s world.

The second strong impression I left Upper New York with lies in the close similarity of issues both conferences are facing.  I have written before about how I get up in the morning as a bishop and wrestle with three clear areas of focus: 1) Deep theological & cultural change within the Church focused on recovery of a Christ-centered theology; 2) The building of vital congregations including both the transformation of existing congregations and the development of new congregations; and 3) Developing a new generation of both lay and clergy leaders.  My perception is that Upper New York was deeply engaged in those same issues as well.

By way of example, I participated in a service honoring retirees and recognizing those to be ordained Deacons and Elders.  They (Upper New York) are already being hit by the retirement tsunami.  (Our peak in Central Texas should hit no later than 2018 but probably earlier.)  By my rough count, 38 deacons and elders retired and 12 new deacons and elders were voted on (to be ordained the next day).  The math is fairly plain.  Upper New York replaced about 1/3 of their retirees.  The impact is offset somewhat by the number of churches being closed.  The same is true for Central Texas.  Both conferences are facing serious leadership shortages.  (This is meant in no way to subtract from some outstanding new clergy being ordained in both conferences!)

I closed my Friday morning address with a reference to the British missionary C. T. Studd who left a fortune behind and abandoned a star cricket career (think all-star major league baseball player) to share the gospel in places like China and India.  He said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.”

In my better moments, so do I.  In our better moments as a church, as local congregations, this is actually what we do.  We run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.  It is to this high and truly holy purpose that we gather and offer our witness.  This great truth towers before both the conferences.

Our son, now 35 and recently married, was born six weeks premature.  Jolynn and I were scheduled to start Lamaze class the day after Nathan was born.  I had the Lamaze instruction book in my pocket as I held my wife’s hand in the delivery room.  (Have you ever had one of those really bright ideas that wasn’t real bright?)  I pulled it out of my pocket and started reading it to Jolynn.  “It says here, honey, you need to breathe deep and focus.”  It is a blessed act of her forbearance and divine mercy that I am still alive today.  It also helped that she couldn’t get off the table.

Yet, as strange as it may sound, this is exactly the kind of advice we need today.  We need to breathe deep and focus.  Those of us from both the Upper New York Conference and the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church know that the Christendom world where America went to church every Sunday has died.  A new world is aborning and, as strange as it may seem, we need to remember that this is God’s world.  The Great Commission of Christ to His disciples is as applicable today as it has ever been.  Our mission, should we accept it, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Amidst the chaos of our times and the controversies that are wracking the United Methodist Church, a new church is being born.  This is scary, but it is also a good and godly thing.  “The Church [truly] is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”

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