A New Church Being Called Forth By the Holy Spirit #4

The Building

Prior to the Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin, I had been engaged in a series of blogs under the broad label “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit.”  During the COB meeting, I took time out to share Bishop Warner Brown’s (President of the Council of Bishops) “open letter” on prayer and healing which made up a part of his address to the Council.  With my fellow bishops, I shared our “Pastoral Letter on Racism.”  While I am now turning my attention back to the series on “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit,” I wish to emphasize my (and hopefully our – the entire Central Texas Conference) ongoing concern that we continue with ardent zeal to address issues of racism and discrimination wherever they take place in the world.  We have already planned (for over two years) to address the issues of radical hospitality and cultural sensitivity at this coming Annual Conference.  For Christians these issues (radical hospitality & cultural sensitivity) lay the foundation and are at the heart of combating racism.

Photo from Trip Advisor

Photo from Trip Advisor

Moving back to my series on a new church being called forth, Jolynn and I had the blessing of spending 8 days in Italy on vacation prior to the COB gathering.  We spent two in Florence.  If you ever venture to that great city, phenomenal artwork abounds.  Museums leave even the casual visitor quieted by thought.  At the center of it all is the great “duomo” (cathedral church) Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (“Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower”).  Located in the center of Florence its great dome literally towers above the city.  (A great quick read about the Florence duomo is Ross King’s book Brunelleschi’s Done: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture.)

I not only toured the great cathedral church and visited the fascinating crypt; I climbed to the top ofduomo selfie the Brunelleschi’s dome!  (In my defense, I got in the wrong line.  And, when I finished the climb (376 ft – the equivalent of a 37 story building!), I had a great view of Florence sitting outside at the top of the cupola while I recovered from my heart attack (just kidding about the heart attack – but not about the view!).

When I came down from the cupola and strolled through the cathedral, I could not help but reflect on the great churches I was seeing: St. Mark’s in Venice (my favorite), three different churches in Assisi (the churches of St. Francis and St. Claire), and Vatican in Rome.  Each in their own way was and is a moving testimony to the church faith.  Yet each had the air of a tourist museum albeit a holy, sacred, and awe-inspiriting museum.  This was not the intent of the builders of these great churches.  Nor is it the intent of the clergy leading these great churches today.  Yet a curious public appears captivated by the buildings.

At first, in my musings I was caught by own sinful arrogance.  I could not help but think how terrible it was for a church to become a museum; couldn’t help but reflect on the tragedy of people worshipping the building and neglecting the Savior.  As I stepped in the crypt of the Santa Maria del Fiore, it occurred to me that we have the same issues in Central Texas.

Despite our best intentions, it is so easy to slip into an adoration of the building and neglect the Savior.  I recall a conversation with a young pastor who had interned with me when I was senior pastor of University UMC in San Antonio.  She was assigned to her own church (well, its Christ’s church but she was now a solo pastor at a church).  She was thrilled to be there but distressed by what she encountered.  In a changing urban landscape, the church had once worshipped over 1,000 on an average Sunday. Over the years it had gradually slid to an average attendance of just over 100.  Significantly over the years the congregation had built a huge endowment fund.  Unfortunately the fund was restricted for building maintenance, upkeep, and capital improvements.  The young pastor and some wise lay leaders sought how they might move away from adulation of the facility to missional engagement with the neighborhood.

The new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be mission-driven and not building bound.  The combination of smaller and bigger will result in more “house” churches and the use of more rental facilities.  Simultaneously, the bigger or regional churches are finding that finances driven a building of multi-use facilities.   I think this is not only a good thing, but the Spirit’s initiative.

Furthermore the missional/evangelistic church being born face the future with a stance of flexibility towards building use.  Signs of this emergence are already all around us.

Recently in two different venues (a comment from a bishop at our recent Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin and a blog by a seminary president), I have had cause to learn a new term which is changing the building dynamic of denominations (like UMC, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) with an excess of physical plants designed for 1950.  The term is “redundant church.”  There is already a Wikipedia definition for a “redundant church.”  “A redundant church is a church building that is no longer required for regular public worship. The phrase is particularly used to refer to former Anglican buildings in the United Kingdom, but may refer to any disused church building around the world. Reasons for redundancy include population movements, changing social patterns, merging of parishes, decline in church attendance or other factors. Although once simply demolished or left to ruin, today many redundant churches find new uses as community centres, museums, houses or other more innovative solutions.”

A couple of years ago the Cabinet read the book Legacy Churches by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond.  It details how a church through its building can help leave a legacy by starting new congregations.  It can repurpose itself missionally to reach a new generation and/or it can sell the physical facility to help finance a new start elsewhere.  (There are a number of other options but hopefully these examples offer a glimpse of how the church can be mission-driven – “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – and not building-bound.)

Prior to being elected bishop, I served for two years as a new church developer.  I can still vividly recall a conversation with my counterpart in Southern California who spoke about the challenge of what to do with money and resources gained from the sale of closed congregations.  As wonderful as buildings are, they are tools for ministry under the leading of the Holy Spirit.  As we move from Christendom into this post-Christian culture we are experiencing, the repurposing of physical building will be a growing issue and a source of wonderful mission opportunity.  (A blog worth reading on this subject is Would You Sell Your Church for $1? by Dr. Timothy Tennent, Wednesday, April 22, 2015)


While I have been in Europe attending the Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin, we as the world-wide Council have lived with the ongoing news of racial strife across the globe.  One regular aspect of the nightly news here in Europe has been the struggle of European countries to respond in humanitarian ways to the refugees from North Africa.  (For those unaware, there is a veritable tide of refugees crossing the narrow parts of the Mediterranean seeking the safety and financial opportunities that Europe offers.  Typically, they land in Italy.  By analogy for Americans, this is very similar to the Cuban and Vietnamese boat refugees that the United States has experienced in the past.)  We have also been following the news of continuing clashes over police action in places like Baltimore.  We are constantly aware of racial and tribal conflict in the Middle East.

However someone understands any given situation (whether in Italy, the United States, the Middle East or somewhere else in the world), it is clear that racism is a world-wide issue.  We who follow a Lord and Master who reached out in love to all people are committed to love, justice and mercy for all people.  All really means all!  Thus as a Council we believe we are to offer pastoral leadership on this critical issue for the whole church.  As such, our episcopal pastoral letter is also shared as a witness to the wider world.  I am convicted by the love of Christ to vote for this pastoral letter to the church and the world.  I am honored to join my sister and brother bishops in sharing it with the church and the world.

BishopCrest (4)“Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!

We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, are meeting in Berlin, Germany, 70 years after the end of World War II.  As we gather, we renew our commitment to lead, as together we seek to become the beloved community of Christ.

We are a church that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  On every continent, people called United Methodist are boldly living the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, the people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound.  Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.

Our hearts break and our spirits cry out, as we see reports of migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa, note the flight of Jews from Europe, watch the plight of Mediterranean refugees and see racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.  The evidence is overwhelming that race still matters, that racism is woven into institutional life and is problematic to communal health.  This reality impacts every area of life – in the church and in the world.

Racism is prejudice plus intent to do harm or discriminate based on a belief that one is superior or has freedom to use power over another based on race. Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.  Racism and xenophobia, like other sins, keep us from being whole persons capable of living up to our full potential. They deny the profound theological truth that we are made in the image of God with the handprint of love and equality divinely implanted in every soul.

As bishops of the Church, we cast a vision for a world community where human worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. We acknowledge that silence in the face of systemic racism and community fears serves only to make matters worse.

We commit to lead, model and engage in honest dialogue and respectful conversation and invite people of faith everywhere to join us.  Let us repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege.  May we love God more deeply and, through that love, build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, valued, heard and safe. As we proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may we lead the way in seeking justice for all, investing in and trusting God’s transforming power to create a world without hatred and racism.

As United Methodists, we affirm that all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.  We renew our commitment to work for a Church that is anti-racist and pro-humanity, believing that beloved community cannot be achieved by ignoring cultural, racial and ethnic differences, but by celebrating diversity and valuing all people.

“This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 1 John 4:21 (CEB)


A New Dawn in Beloved Community:  Stories with the Power to Transform Us, Linda Lee, ed., Abingdon Press, 2012

Pan-Methodist Statement on Racism
from the 72nd Consultation of Methodist Bishops

Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,
Joseph Barndt,  Fortress Press, 2007″

A Call for Prayer and Healing from the Council of Bishops

council of bishops logo 2014_medOnce a quadrennium, the United Methodist Council of Bishops meets intentionally outside the United States, which reminds us that we are truly a worldwide church. As we gather in Berlin, I ask for your prayers, especially for those Christians undergoing persecution, civil unrest and violence, as well as those dealing with the devastation brought about by natural disasters. I also request prayers for all the bishops as we gather together to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance of this great church.

On the opening day of our meeting, Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, sent an open letter to the people of The United Methodist Church requesting that we all join together in prayer for the church and the world. Bishop Brown, not only remembered those who are suffering around the world, he also commented on the recent eruption of violence in Baltimore and the need to no longer be in denial about the powerful impact of racism in the U.S. Bishop Brown currently serves as bishop for the San Francisco Episcopal Area, but he grew up in the very neighborhood of Baltimore that is ground zero for the rioting and unrest in the area.

I offer up to you his letter as a guest blog post.

“To the people of The United Methodist Church:

Grace and peace to the people called United Methodist and all people of good will. I greet you in the name of Jesus, the Christ who is risen. From May 1-7, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church will hold its 2015 meeting in Berlin, Germany. During this week, we will be praying for the church and taking actions that we hope will help lead the church in a faithful response to the call of discipleship. Please pray with us, for the church and all those the church seeks to serve.

We are a church that practices ministry to the world in Jesus’ name. While United Methodist churches are primarily in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, our ministry partnerships connect us with every continent. So, we grieve when the news of the day reminds us of the many ways the people of our world are hurting and suffering under the weight of tragedy. We seek to respond readily with prayers and aid to the natural disasters such as we have just witnessed in Nepal. And the human inflicted pain also requires a prayerful response that declares that terrorism, human exploitation, bullying and abuses of power will not overcome us.

Please join me and the Council of Bishops in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies. Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us.

For those of us in the United States, our attention has been called to the powerful impact of racism on all of us. If we seek healing, we cannot continue to be in denial. Some of us have read the shocking Justice Department report on Ferguson and most have seen the violence that tragically erupted there against police officers. Since then other unarmed Black men have been killed in several cities and now Baltimore has also erupted in violence.

As a Black man who grew up in the very Baltimore neighborhood we have watched explode, this is personal. I grieve over what I see in my old neighborhood. The anger in the community is real because of decades of distrust.

Video documentation has raised expectations that claims of wrongdoing would be seriously considered; so distrust grows because very few police officers have been held accountable.

A just society cannot be built on violence. Violence and misconduct by either a misguided police officer or an angry citizen will not lead us to beloved community. Reconciliation can occur when we tell the truth and take responsibility for our actions.

Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring United Methodist Church which serves Ferguson, Missouri, said this: “Who is going to become a model for dealing with reconciling and truth? That is the role of the Church!”

In this season of resurrection, the Council of Bishops and I believe that we followers of Jesus are called to lead the way. Let us examine and repent of our own sins of racial bias and abuse of privilege. Let us proclaim and live the Gospel of love and justice for all. Let us become proactive in modeling that gospel in our churches and teaching it to young and old alike. Let us be disciples who are engaged with God in transforming our world, beginning in our own communities, working for justice, judicial reform and good police/community relations. Let us break down the walls that divide us and build relationships that vanquish our fears. When we work together for justice and peace, we will no longer be strangers.

Remember, all who would follow Jesus, he calls us again and again to “love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matt.22:39) Even out of the injustice and violence he experienced, Jesus leads us to hope and resurrection. Let us believe in and practice the power of prayer for our world, our church, our neighbors and our own lives.

And, the risen Christ said to his followers, “remember, I am with you always.”(Matt.28:20)

Your brother in Christ,

Warner H. Brown, Jr.”

Following the  release of the Bishop Brown’s letter, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the Ohio West Episcopal Area called for the Council to issue a pastoral letter on racism and asked the president to appoint a task force to work on this effort, to be completed by May 7.


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 New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #2

Aslan is on the Move! ©

Few Christian writers and thinkers have had such a profound influence on the life of the faith & the church as C. S. Lewis.  (Mere Christianity is basic foundational reading!)  In his classic Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shares a wonderful allegorical tale of children who go exploring in an old wardrobe and find themselves in a new land – Narnia.  The land is frozen in perpetual winter through the grip of an evil queen.  The children themselves are tempted and even caught in the Queen’s evil snare.

Aslan is this great lion and messiah/Christ figure in the allegorical tale.  As the children move towards Aslan and away from the evil Queen, the land, which had been previously caught in perpetual winter, begins to thaw.  Noticing the changing landscape one of the creatures’ comments to another, “Aslan is on move!”

A new church is being called into being by the Holy Spirit!  Aslan is on the move!  Things long frozen in tradition and habit are opening up.   By way of example consider the following elements both in the Central Texas Conference and in the larger United Methodist Church.

  • Risk-taking is on the rise
  • There is a noticeable rise in interest in spiritual formation and discernment
  • Hands-on mission engagement is the norm for a local churches in much greater ways than ever before (In fact, it is no longer acceptable for a local church to NOT be in ministry with the poor.)
  • The question has changed from “are you starting new faith communities?” to “where and how are you starting new faith communities?” (46% of our Path 1 new faith community starts are multi-ethnic.)
  • We are seeing bright-spots in evangelistic engagement
  • We are begging to grapple with the discipleship in a way that transcends membership
  • Multiple Conferences across the United States are experimenting with a variety of ministries and with innovative ways of structuring for ministry
  • Attempts at accountability are on the rise (albeit with some serious angst)
  • Across the board we are seeing longer appointments
  • The Cabinet is partnering with senior pastors in making appointments of associate pastors in new and experimental ways.

All this is not without resistance and painful change. The days of subsidy are over. The days of the guaranteed appointment are numbered. (More on this in a later blog.) Job security for clergy is shaky. We are being called into risk-taking ministry in ways that we are not trained for. As painful as this can be at times, I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in much of this.

Here in Central Texas we launched the Exodus Project with a special called session of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) in 2010 with a restructuring designed to bring about a cultural shift with a focus on Christ and on energizing and equipping local congregations as they engage the mission field in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In adopting that report, we committed to conducting a detailed evaluation of the results of the Exodus project after 2014. That report will be presented at the upcoming 2015 gathering of the Central Texas Conference. Conducted by an independent outside consultant who is an expert in the field (Mike Bonem), the preliminary draft suggests that we have made significant progress in a cultural change to deeper Christ-centered discipleship in the life of the CTC.

The report suggests a significant beginning, not an ending or completion. What I am suggesting is that behind the seemingly pragmatic tasks and issues of the Annual Conference and our common work together lies an even greater insight. The Holy Spirit is at work in the movement of faith that is calling forth a new church. Business as usual is no more (whether we like it or not) and this a work of the Spirit! Aslan is on the move!


Exalted hopes
Negative emotions
Unrealistic dreams
Irrational mood swings

What does this short list describe?  The answer; the list is taken from an article on emotional changes and feelings that an expectant mother experiences!  It is also a descriptive list of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century.  (I am indebted to Dr. Kenda Dean for this insight.)  We are depressed and excited, anxious and hopeful; we are experiencing irrational mood swings.

Over Easter we had a joyous visit with our son and daughter-in-law.  They are expecting their first child in early August.  Our conversation was filled with hope and laughter; with recounting of incidents and growth pains from their childhood, and some sharing of anxieties and fears.  Their child-to-be is eagerly sought and joyously wanted.  Expectant emotions are a healthy part of the process and yet they do constitute their own struggle and trial. The same is true for the church, especially The United Methodist Church.

Over the past few years I have come to believe deeply that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new or renewed church in the North American mission field.  Phyllis Tickle builds her marvelous book, The Great Emergence, on an insight from Bishop Mark Dyer.  Bishop Dyer famously observed “that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale”  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, p. 16). Tickle goes on to note that by rummage sale she (and by inference Bishop Dyer) mean that the “empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity” are shattered so that “renewal and new growth can occur.  She writes of three very positive outcomes which emerge from the expectant emotions and birth pains of transformed Christian witness.

  1. A new, more vital form of Christianity does emerge.
  2. The organized expression of Christianity (translate as church form and culture) is reconstituted “into a pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”
  3. The faith has spread into new “geographic and demographic areas.”
    -(the above points are either a quote or close paraphrase taken from The Great Emergence, p. 17)

Often it feels like I am aligned with two churches/conferences simultaneously.  One is vibrant, growing and experimenting with new forms of ministry.  Its appointment needs from the current United Methodist institutional structure are dramatically different from those in the past.  No longer are general associates needed.  Associate pastors are often target specialists.  In very large “regional” churches, a key position is that of a “teaching/preaching” associate pastor.  This position did not even exist when I entered ministry 40 years ago.  In small to medium sized churches, the key component is pastoral leadership.  Congregations desperately want pastors who know how to lead them into a new future. Previous generations sought a pastor who first and foremost who excelled at pastoral care. The shift in emphasis, though subtle, is significant. No longer is pastoral care the key to the future.  And yet, simultaneously, there is a continued demand for the pastor to ensure continued stellar pastoral care.  For many years we have been moving to longer and longer appointments for pastors.  Lay leadership is deeply engaged in outreach and willing to look at new ways to reach new people with the gospel.

At the same time, there are churches, pastors, and lay leaders who remain strongly resistant to making this shift.  We are steadily having more and more churches go from full-time to part-time pastors.  The “worship wars” of the ‘90s were one part of lay (and clergy!) resistance to the new church that God is calling into being.  The choice of slow death is being embraced over change.  In a good number of cases the issue is demographic.  Many smaller communities simply don’t have the economic and population health to remain strong.  A younger generation is steadily moving to urban environments.  Choosing a new future means becoming a legacy congregation.  This can be deeply painful and even involve the grief as of a death.

It is harder to be an effective pastor today than it used to be!  This is a simple yet under-appreciated truth.  Concomitant with this truth is the reality that it is also harder to be a wise lay leader.  The old forms are breaking down, and God is doing something new!

We are living Isaiah 43:19 and this is a truly good and exciting thing!  A great insight we need to prayerfully hold on to is an understanding that it is the Lord calling a new church into being through the active presence of the Holy Spirit!

The Cape of Good Hope ©

This Sunday I will be preaching at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Belton.  I will be using the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-30.  As I reflected on the passage, my mind drifted back to an illustration used by Rev. Michael Green, the great British pastor and scholar.

In 1499 A.D. the European view of the world changed dramatically. For years European traders had been looking for a sea route to India. They had been searching for a way to the land rich with spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa. “All attempts at rounding the Cape had failed. So much so that this treacherous headland was known as the Cape of Storms and it was the scene of many wrecks. However, one determined sailor determined to try again. He succeeded in rounding the Cape and reaching the East. Indeed, there is still a monument to this famous mariner, Vasco da Gama, in China today. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon [arriving home in 1499 A.D.] it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists round the bottom of Africa. The very name of that perilous Cape was changed to its present title, the Cape of Good Hope” (Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 131).

I think we often live at the juncture of the Cape of Storms.  This week I watched news of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  I’ve continued my ongoing prayers for the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the victims of the Garissa killing spree in Kenya, and for the safety of US soldiers serving in the Middle East (all a part of my regular prayer life).  I have read my morning paper with stories of crimes, struggles, and storms right here in Texas.  I had my fill and then some of the senseless and often fruitless political wrangling of both parties.  I have wrestled with and prayed about storms battering my work as a bishop and life as a husband, son, and brother.  My strong hunch is so have you.  Metaphorically speaking, we sail on seas that traverse the Cape of Storms.

When I read the Bible story of those disciples gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening, I think the Lord through Holy Spirit is speaking again to me, to us.  He is reminding me that we also sail past the Cape of Good Hope because Christ is risen and the ultimate destination the Savior offers is life lived with God.

I am forcefully struck by a cardinal truth in this passage (one of many!).  The Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope in community that is Christ centered – Christ focused!   Thomas only experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he was a part of the transforming community of Christ!  Cut off and alone there was no experience of the resurrection in his life.  In the transforming community, he experiences the risen Christ!

We live the resurrection only as a part of the transforming community of Christ. The Christian faith is not an isolationist movement. Thomas overcomes doubt through others.  Thomas’ Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope when he is with others in the transforming community. It is here and only here that he experiences the resurrected Christ.

It is our relationship with the risen living Jesus in community (!) that transforms our life.  Walking with God, receiving the Spirit, living through doubt – these are all ways in which we live the resurrection in a transforming relationship.

In his book What’s Right with the Church, Bishop Will Willimon writes: “The church [the transforming community] is a post-Easter phenomenon. It was the astounding, unexpected presence of the risen Christ that formed a believing community. Without that presence, the church might have been described as a memorial society or a reunion for old veterans of the Jesus campaign, laboring to keep alive the fading memory of a dead hero.” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, p. 45).

In the transforming community, Thomas experienced the living Christ. Doubt was overcome in his triumphant affirmation and commitment. “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt always is overcome by commitment.  Research has long taught us that we often act ourselves into a new way of believing and thinking.

So on this weekend after Easter, how will it be for you?  Is Easter a pleasant interlude of appreciation and remembrance or cause for a higher level of renewed faith and commitment which comes in living through doubt?  Do you wish to live the resurrection?  Do you want to transform the Cape of Storms into a Cape of Good Hope for your life?  We do so by being a part of the transforming community that overcomes doubt and affirms by word and deed. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

I hope to start a new series of blogs soon on the transformed church that is coming into being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the declines of Christendom and struggles of early 21st century Christians that many of us know full well, I think God in Christ through the presence of Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.  A transformed Christian community is slowly taking place.  With timidity, prayer and wonder, I hope to write on this Spirit led transformation, which is calling into being a new church.

In this Easter season, may you sail the seas of the Cape of Good Hope!

Peace Be With You ©

A straightforward CNN news story reports the following: “They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens. They were students and dreamers, pursuing their ambitions for a better life. And on Tuesday night, Kenyans gathered to remember them as innocent victims of a terrorist attack that stunned a nation and left communities heartbroken. The gathering began with quiet chatter among a crowd of hundreds, before mourners went silent and moved toward one end of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Then, 147 crosses were unloaded from a truck and quietly planted in the ground. The names of some of the victims were read aloud and then repeated by the audience in unison. The crowd then sang the national anthem. The attack at a university in Garissa on Thursday killed 147 people, mostly students. The Al-Shabaab militant group claimed responsibility. Kenyans attending the event wrote notes honoring the victims and lit candles.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil )

It continues with the stark reality of religious violence and Christian martyrdom. “In the Garissa attack, the terrorists separated Christians from Muslims, making some recite verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t quote the holy book tried to flee the gunfire, but whizzing bullets sent them to the ground. Others scampered into closets and stayed there for hours, until after the siege was over. Images from the scene showed heaps of students lying in pools of blood, faces down.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil/)

Many individuals and churches in the Central Texas Conference have personal relationships with Kenya. Having participated in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) mission trip to Kenya a year ago, the terrible news brought the reality of persecution and violence home. I could not help but think immediately of Bishop Joseph Ntombura and his wife Pauline staying in our home in Fort Worth. (We had visited their home in Kenya on our mission trip). The many friends and vital ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital (Maua Methodist Hospital Service Fund #09613A) are lodged in our hearts as a Conference. The martyred faithfulness and senseless tragedy of Garissa touches us personally.

How is a Christian to respond? Our first answer is render whatever practical aid we can. Our truest second instinct is to deep prayer. The reaction we must guard vigilantly against is a reaction of violence against those innocent others who are Muslims.

The reality of the killings should well focus us on another killing. This tragedy took place just before Good Friday and the killing of Christ on a cross. Now, two days post Easter, we know the story did not end at the cross. Neither will it end in the bullet-marked, blood-soaked detritus of Nairobi University at Garissa. The need for a grace-filled, love-soaked, hope-offering witness by Christians is greater now than ever. It is to our time that Jesus speaks.

On Easter, Jolynn and I worshipped with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston. In part the pastor’s hope-filled sermon led us back to Easter evening and the story of disciples huddled behind a locked door including the interchange with “doubting,” or rather “honest,” Thomas. I invite the reader to recall what Jesus said to the fear filled (no doubt in some anger driven – towards the Romans and other Jewish authorities) Christ followers. The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel (good news!) records the Savior’s greeting. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you’”   (John 20:19).

The great William Temple who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the World War II wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. He who preached during the Battle of Britain reminds us, “The wounds of Christ are His credentials to the suffering race of [humans]” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple). In writing on Jesus words “peace be with you,” Archbishop Temple then quoted a poem by Edward Shillito published under the title Jesus of the Scars.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
(Taken from Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 366)

But Archbishop Temple did not stop there in his commentary. He directed attention further to the follow injunction of Jesus our Lord. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21) . The peace of Christ is in very truth and fact with us should we choose to so avail ourselves. Prophetically Archbishop Temple added: “This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be spiritual” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 367).

Jesus now once again says to us and to our Kenyan brothers and sisters, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

The Easter Promise ©

On Sunday they had entered Jerusalem in triumph.  On Friday, they were imprisoned by defeat.  The fog of despair and hopelessness settled in.  Thus the Easter story opens.  “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

They did not go to the tomb expecting to encounter a risen Savior.  Neither do we.  They had seen the bars of death slam shut.  So have we.  The stone had been rolled in place.  They went wrapped tightly by the chains of defeat to anoint the body of their dead leader.  So certain were they of Jesus’ death, of his imprisonment within the walls of the tomb, that even when an angel appeared to them to share the news of liberation they were not initially joyful but disbelieving.  They had been convinced of the finality of the message:  ‘Jesus Defeated!’  And in his defeat they knew their own imprisonment to the forces of darkness and despair.

It is so easy to be casually critical of those early followers of Jesus.  One wants to think, “if only I had been there, I would have believed the scriptures.  I would have recognized that Jesus was the Savior who would free us.  I would have believed in his resurrection.”  Yet we are not so different from those first followers.  It is all too easy to become imprisoned by defeat and despair.  The harsh reality of life is that we all know or will experience fog settling in, the bars slamming shut, the chains enfolding us.  We know what it is like to walk a cemetery road.

There is a powerful witness of this reality in Joyce Rebeta-Burditt’s novel The Cracker Factory.  A woman named Cassie writes her brother Bob about her husband leaving her.  “He looked at me one night and said, ‘Cassie, you’re a loser.’  Bob,” writes Cassie, “when I stand on Judgment Day to hear myself condemned to hell, it will be no more devastating and irrevocable than Charlie’s ‘You’re a loser.’  Forever defective.  Forever doomed.  No hope at all” (Taken from Have I Told You Lately by Joe Harding, p. 68).

Let me call him Jim, but it could be Sue or Olivia or Tom.  An achiever in school, driven by the success ethic, he climbed the pinnacle of success in earning power and career status.  In his mid-forties, despite a reasonably sound marriage and fine children, he gazes in examination at his life and finds it consumed by the pursuit of money, pleasure, and power.  Devoid of deeper purpose and higher values, the emptiness of what has driven him cascades over him and the fog settles in.  The bars of the rat race prison slam shut around him.  Does it sound familiar?

Easter morning greets us walking a cemetery road.  The simple line from the opening of the Easter story speaks volumes about the reality of life we all experience. “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

We may speak of springtime and glory in the blooming of flowers; we may celebrate the coming of the Easter bunny and frolic in the search for eggs; but the Easter news is a peeling of the bells of triumph.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake” (Matthew 28:2). In the Bible an earthquake is always a sign of God’s presence.  “An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2).   And where does this happen?  At the very place of imprisonment; at the epicenter of defeat.  From now on no death and no defeat need be final.  Despair as a condition of human existence is disenthroned.  Trudging tomb-ward in defeat we encounter God’s messenger ringing out the proclamation, “He is not here; for he has been raised!” (Matthew 28:6).

About a decade ago I had the high privilege of getting to know on an intimate level one of the great Christian saints of our time.  Many of you will remember that Father Martin Jenco was an Iranian hostage for years.  He told how the terrorists would move him at night, bound in tape and stuffed in the undercarriage of a truck.  He even recalled privately how he feared he would suffocate because his mouth was taped shut and often he was suffering from congestion and had trouble breathing through his nose.  But he shared that when he was taken from the tomb like compartment under the truck and the tape removed he would say to himself in Latin, “He is risen from the dead, hallelujah, hallelujah!” (Story shared by Father Martin Jenco with the author at Asbury United Methodist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas).

Our Easter dawns when we too receive this announcement of victory.  Easter comes upon us when the ground shakes and God is present with us in triumphant power.  So much of life can be spent, even for believing Christians, in the hopelessness of defeat, imprisoned by past hurts and failures, chained by regrets and grief.  Easter dawns, Easter really comes, when we begin to believe, really believe, that with the help and presence of God in the risen Savior, stones are moved and bars ripped open.

Jesus rises as a Colossus astride the world’s defeat and despair.  Death is not final.  That stone he has moved, once for all!  The chains of fear are broken.  Life is not futile and failure is not fatal.  He meets us on the road of living and speaks, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).

When you and I traverse the rubble of our lives, the past mistakes, the broken promises, the shattered dreams; it is this message that God proclaims to us through the resurrection of Jesus.  The Easter victory does not end in the graveyard.  Scholars are quick to note that in Matthew’s gospel the encounter at the tomb is not the climax.  The risen Christ is present when the women hear and obey with joy the angel’s word of command.

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:8-10).

Do you catch the import?  Where is Jesus with them in liberating power?  On the road, in the midst of life, he intersects the women and us too.  This is the Easter promise of the triumphant Christ!  In joy and worship we are invited to liberated living, to embrace the promise.  This is not some sugar-coated pill or cosmetic dressing of new clothes but a freedom in his presence, which will take us through and beyond death, failure and futility.  The Savior’s promise of verse ten that “they will see me” is a promise that we will see him.

Christ the Lord has risen indeed!  May the joy and hope of Easter be yours!

Greetings this Easter

Please click below to view a video message from Bishop Lowry…

Msg for Easter_big