Predictions for the Future

About a month ago,  I ran across an article written by Jim Denison ( on Thom Rainer’s “Fourteen predictions for American Churches for 2014.” Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and known to many in the Central Texas Conference as the co-author of Simple Church.  Here’s the list:
1. Larger churches will acquire smaller churches in increasing numbers.
2. Denominational structures will become smaller as their churches decline.
3. Many of our new members will come from other churches.
4. We will see more megachurches.
5. Worship styles will become more unified.
6. High-expectation churches, where members are asked to make significant contributions to the work of the congregation, will become more numerous.
7. It will become more difficult for churches to build and acquire land.
8. More large churches will function as mini-denominations, with multiple locations and their own missions programs and literature.
9. Worship centers will be smaller, as people seek greater intimacy in church life.
10. Small groups will become more significant.
11. Pastors will stay at their churches longer.
12. Local churches will increase their role in training ministers.
13. Church members will find new ways to take their faith to their community.
14. Churches will have more communicators on their staffs.

It makes for fascinating reading and interesting speculation.  Much of the list (but not all) is on target from my point of view (whether or not I/we/you like it).  We are getting both bigger and smaller.  There is an increase in part-time appointments filled by Lay Supply.  (Currently we have two open!)  Larger churches are engaging with smaller churches in creative new forms of ministry (which I believe to be a work of the Holy Spirit).

The trend to high-expectation churches has been going on since before I went to seminary (well over ½ century!).  (And no, I didn’t graduate from seminary 50 plus years ago.  I got my degree from Perkins in 1976, 38 years ago.)  Lyle Schaller noted over 30 years ago the characteristic for larger churches to become like mini-denominations.  The United Methodist Church is built as a predominantly small church denomination yet the economic engine of the UMC is indisputably the larger (1000+ in worship) churches.

One of the myths about large churches is that they have lower expectations and commitment levels than small churches.  Usually it is just the opposite!  The evidence I have seen strongly suggests that Rainer is on target with point number 6.  This clashes with a Methodist tendency to be a low commitment church.  It worth noting that we were originally a high commitment movement for Christ!

I disagree with Rainer’s point number 5 – “Worship styles will become more unified.”  I think just the opposite is happening.  Point number 10 ought to thrill Methodists.  We will built on the foundation of small groups – the class meeting.

Increasingly we are seeing clergy training move from the seminary to the mega church and para-church organizations.  (#12)  This will increase for a host of reasons not the least of which is because seminaries (across denominational lines) are typically late adaptors.  There will be exceptions (United Theological and Asbury Theological come to mind) but this move to church based ministerial training is a good move; a move of the Holy Spirit in my opinion.  It is trend away from professionalism & career advancement towards passion driven Christ-centred ministry committed to transformational impact in communities. (See #13)  In fairness most seminaries support such a move.  Yet despite their best intentions they are often captive to the professional academic academy.

One of the most exciting and encouraging of the predictions is already coming true.  We are seeing an increasing number of churches finding new ways to take their faith to their community.  This is a current reality I am constantly encountering as I travel across the Central Texas Conference and the wider UMC.  Experimentation is the order of the day.  While it is risky, it is also a sign of the winds of the Holy Spirit blowing in our midst!

What about you?  Where (and more importantly why) do you agree or disagree with Rainer’s list?



The Most Important Issues facing the United Methodist Church

Fascinating and instructive poll results were published in a recent article written by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) entitled “The most important issues facing The UMC today.” The poll was a survey “by email of 509 U.S. United Methodist lay members by Corporate Research of Greensboro, N.C., and Research Now of Dallas.”

Hahn notes in the article two important qualifiers to the poll.  First, “the poll screened out pastors, retired pastors and paid staff at any level of the denomination to focus on the views of lay members, who sometimes can seem voiceless in churchwide discussions.”  And, second, “The 509 sample size — representing a denomination with about 7.4 million U.S. members — is a typical statistical sample of the kind seen in political and market research.”  She further adds, “This United Methodist survey has a 4.4 percent margin of error.”

Creating disciples of Christ


Youth involvement


Members’ spiritual growth


Decline in membership




Children at risk


Social injustice


Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage


Structure of the UMC


Economic inequality


Women and minorities in UMC




Immigration reform


With the aforementioned background firmly in place, I submit that the poll results are encouraging.  They show a distinct focus by the laity on our official core mission as a church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It also reflects the importance of the local church as the primary place disciples of Jesus Christ are made.  The crucial factors of both social and personal holiness (Wesleyan distinctives) can be clearly discerned in the polling data.

In these turbulent times, perhaps the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!  We may deeply debate various issues and stances of the church.  This is a good thing.  Great churches debate great issues.  Let us stay united on the central towering mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Disciples of Christ transform the world!

Episcopal Address to the Central Texas Conference


June 9, 2014

By Bishop Mike Lowry ©

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:4-8)

This passage from Philippians 4:4-8 has been a committed part of my devotional life over the past few months.  In a world awash in bad news, we need to be a people of the good news, the gospel news.  The peace of Christ really will keep us safe in these perilous times.

I rise for my 6th meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference with joy in my heart and song on lips.  I think God is doing a good and wonderful thing among us.  For the last five years we have focused on the cardinal mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Indeed, we have consciously rejected slogans and fads for the towering vision of Churches alive in Jesus Christ all across the conference.  The Conference Center has one clarion goal – “to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The news is good.

During the past two years the Central Texas Conference has participated in a pilot project with eleven conferences from across the nation working to build vital congregations.  In the Vital Congregations project of the UMC there are five vital signs we track.  These signs are similar to a physician tracking our blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, etc.  They are:

  1. Worship attendance (the spiritual vibrancy of the congregation to attract and engage disciples to praise God) New Disciples (the congregation’s ability to reproduce)
  2. Disciples engaged in small groups (the congregation’s ability to engage disciples in faith formation)
  3. Disciples engaged in mission (the congregation’s ability to inspire disciples to engage in the purposes of God and effect transformation)
  4. Generous giving, particularly to mission (the congregation’s ability to fund ministry and mission)

[As I have said over and over again, by themselves vital signs never tell the whole story.  They are imperfect metric measurements designed to help us look deeper and more coherently at the fruitfulness and faithfulness of a congregations life.  At the same time, just as I learned from the pain in my knee (which led to arthroscopic surgery 2 months ago), vital signs can’t be ignored!

By themselves vital signs are always incomplete.  They must be linked with the narrative or story of what is going on in the life and outreach ministry of a congregation.  Often the narrative changes before the metrics.  We begin to hear stories of life transformation through commitment to Christ as Lord and great service through risk-taking missional outreach in love, justice and mercy.  But I digress.  The news is very good.]

In every single category we are up as a Conference.  The number of vital congregations has increased to 31%.  Professions of faith (that is new converts and confirmation classes) have risen.  The number of people engaged in missional outreach to the hurting, hungry and homeless went up.  Worship and Giving showed a rise!  Furthermore it is not just the numbers or metrics.  We are increasingly hearing stories like this one.

Tom Beaty moved from full time pastoral leadership a few years ago to serving as a part-time pastor in Palo Pinto UMC and Cedar Springs UMC.  He has engaged in his own evangelistic outreach through a part time job at Stewart Tank out in Palo Pinto County. Tom just retired from Stewart Tank Company (largely due to health issues) but he reported. “The fruit of the ministry included four professions of faith followed by baptism and one reaffirmation of faith.  I conducted one funeral service for the father of an employee and made several hospital visits to visit employee family members.  Additionally, I helped Mexican employees with legal paperwork and sent a letter to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico trying to help an employee unite with his son here in the U.S.”[1]  Tremendous!

Look at this:

True life transformation through allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior is taking place!  Disciples are being made through the ministry of faithful and fruitful local congregations.

Behind the good news of wonderful ministry taking place in Central Texas, there lives the reality of engulfing waves of deep cultural change crashing over us.  Today it is common for many to see the church as irrelevant and Christianity as quaint.  Intellectually Christianity and the Christian church are often dismissed by high culture.  Amid signs of spiritual starvation, we in the church are wrestling with deep institutional change and embattled in a crisis of relevancy.  Toss into this mix a growing fiscal crisis as a giving generation that is only partially being replaced by a generation that does not give regularly but episodically and related to a cause and not to an institution.  Stir in huge portions of aging and the concomitant leadership crisis that comes with it.  Season with deep theological divisions.  And then frost this concoction with a heartfelt soul deep argument over same gender issues, inclusion and the role of biblical authority.  Small wonder the church is sagging to the point of splitting.

Nicky Gumbel tells the story of “a [who] young police officer was taking his final exam at a police training college in north London.  Here is one of the questions:  ‘You are on patrol in outer London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.  On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby.  Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol.  Both occupants are injured.  You recognize the woman as the wife of your Divisional Inspector, who is at present away in the USA.  A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.  Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and the shock of explosion has made the birth imminent.  Another man is crying for help, having been blown into an adjacent canal by the explosion and he cannot swim.  Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.’

The officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote:  ‘I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.’”[2]

Aren’t’ you glad you’re here!  The United Methodist Church has been struggling to engage this new cultural reality during most of my 40 years of ministry.  Amazingly, it is when we are at the end of our machinations that God is most active!  It is an exciting time with wonderful new ministries emerging.  It is trying time with vast change sweeping like tsunami waters over existing congregation.  To paraphrase Dickens’ marvelous quote; “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.”  I really mean it.  I am glad I’m here. It is good to be a part of the Central Texas Conference!  I believe we were called for “such a time as this.”[3]  These are “the best of times, the worst of times.”  The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad!

So what do we do with news that is very good and very bad; what do we do in the best of times and the worst of times.  Today I want to not only report but lift up two crucial acts of faithfulness that we individually and collectively as churches and as a conference must live out in faithfulness to Christ as Lord and Savior.  For such a time as this, we need to live in perseverance and hope!

The Healthy Church Initiative and its partner The Small Church Initiative are making a difference.  There are things we need to improve – shorter waiting time for the consultation and ramping up our coaching – but the difference of HCI & SCI is demonstrable.

There are other outstanding options.  The Holy Conversations initiative from the Texas Methodist Foundation is tremendous.  Some churches and pastors have worked with individual coaches and organizations to great effect.  There are still others.  We are open to various possibilities.

I firmly believe that we must work with the coalition of the willing.  No one is forced into an option.  However, doing nothing is not an option!  Let me be unmistakably blunt.  Pastors, if you reject all the offered options, refuse to come up with your own, do nothing and expect to move to a new church with a higher salary.  It is not going to happen!  Lay Leaders, if you church rejects every opportunity to move into a new future and yet requests a wonderful new pastor.  You will not get first pick in the draft!  Pastors and congregations that show a demonstrable willingness to move forward in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world will be strengthened and encourage (“energized and equipped”) to the best we are able.  Don’t get squirrelly on me here.  We – the Cabinet – understand context and we understand narrative.  Judgments will be made on more than just metrics (though the metrics will be carefully looked at and are a part of the assessment).

This is a time for faithful perseverance.  I call on us to live Philippians 4:4-8; remember especially verses 6 & 7.  “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”[4]

It is also a time for hope.  Hope not in ourselves but the leadership of the Holy Spirit who is calling us into a new church for a new age.  We have to live the promise of Jeremiah 29:11.  “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”[5]

In a memorable speech given to the graduating class of The University of Texas this spring, Admiral William H. McRaven, the ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, shared 10 critical life lessons he learned in SEAL Training.  The ninth of those lessons is as follows:   “9. The ninth week of SEAL training is referred to as Hell Week. It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues—a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.

It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing-cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure from the instructors to quit.

As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud. The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold.

Looking around the mud flat, it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone-chilling cold. The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song.

The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing.

We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted. And somehow, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.

If I have anything learned [said Admiral McRaven] in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan named Malala—can change the world by giving people hope.”[6]

This is a time for hope.  Ezra, of Old Testament fame, once wrote in the 3rd chapter, the 13th verse of his book:  “No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.”[7]

Sing with me, and in the singing not only remember but lean forward into the great future the Holy Spirit is leading us to.

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia![8]

It is my joy and high honor to serve the Lord together with you.  Let’s keep singing!

[1]               Tom Beaty, personal email, June 6, 2014
[2]               Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, pp. 234-235
[3]               Esther 4:14
[4]               Philippians 4:6-7
[5]               Jeremiah 29:11
[6]               Admiral William McRaven, May 17, 2014, The University of Texas
[7]               Ezra 13:3
[8]               “For All the Saints,” No. 711, The United Methodist Hymnal

Off to Conference

As I write this blog we are finishing last minute preparations for the 148th meeting (counting all the various predecessors!) of the Central Texas Conference.  Annual Conference is central to the notion of what Methodist’s are about.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist (or methodical!) movement for church renewal, wrote of the beginning of his “conference” structure: “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard of us.”

Bishop Schnase notes:  “The agenda for the first conference 268 (now 270) years ago was three-fold.  Mr. Wesley and the Methodists conferred on: 1. What to teach.  2. How to teach.  3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice” (Robert Schnase, Remember the Future, p. 43).

They didn’t primarily gather to conduct business, though they did engage in business.  They didn’t center their time on budgets.  Voting on delegates did not dominate their attention.  They focused on “how to save souls.”  They centered the extensive conversation on teaching.  It is an echoing of the famous elements of the early church as noted in Acts 2:42.  “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”  The conference resulted in exemplary evangelism and missions of love, justice and mercy.  (Just as in the Acts 2:42-47.)

This will mark my 6th Annual Conference as the presiding bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  Over those years we have consistently sought to lessen the amount of time spent on “business” and increase the amount of time spent on teaching and learning.  This year we will focus on Intentional Faith Development.  Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area will lead off with a focused teaching on The Wesleyan Way.

Three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.  Pastors and lay leaders alike will not want to miss these great learning opportunities!

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis          Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil Maynard              Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue Engle                           Resource: Charting a Course of Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter (revised by Delia Halverson)

Our second great emphasis has been worship.  I wish every Methodist had the high and holy opportunity to attend the ordination service at Conference.  It is a true time of rejoicing.

Bishop Paul Leeland will be our Conference preacher.  I can recall well Bishop Leeland preaching to the Council of Bishops.  Bishop Leeland challenged us to move into the world in faithful witness.  “When the caravan is moving, the dogs are barking!”  He will bless us greatly with his faithful insight and anointed witness.

In advance I wish to convey our great thanks to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield Texas for hosting us and offer a huge “God bless you” to the Conference staff for all their preparatory work.

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.”

A Time To Remember

As we come to Memorial Day, I invite us to pause for a time to remember and give thanks to and for those who has served in protecting our freedom.  This is not light task but rather an honorable endeavor that often calls for the greatest of sacrifice.

Recently Chaplain Ray Bailey, an elder in the Central Texas Conference currently serving as a Brigadier General Deputy Chief of Chaplains in the United States Army, shared with me the following story (used with permission):

Remembering our Fallen on Memorial Day

Recently I was asked by a widow to lead a simple service of remembrance at the grave of her husband buried in Arlington Cemetery.  It was the one year anniversary of his death.  As I walked to the gravesite, I noticed several family members at various graves paying honors and grieving at their loss.  Walking by one grave was a young woman and several other family members and friends placing a blanket on the grave so the wife could sit.  A wheelchair was there with a young Marine who had no legs.  He slowly lifted himself up by his arms and sat down on the blanket.  The wife gently stroked the tombstone and wept. I positioned myself by the tombstone where I was to conduct the service.  The family gathered and we began.  There were tears, smiles of memory, and solemn looks as I shared love, hope, and faith.  After I concluded I turned back toward the other graves and to my surprise, every eye of multiple families in the area was watching me had been listening to my words.  There were tears, smiles, and silent mouthing of “thank you” given me.  I was so moved by the moment. I slowly went back to my car and noticed the Marine slowly lift himself up back into his wheelchair while the young wife slowly folded the blanket to depart.  When I came close, she reached out and took my hand and through her tears, she smiled and thanked me for my words that meant so much in her pain.  As I drove away tears streamed down my face as I prayed, “Dear Lord, hold them in your hands.”

           -A personal story, CH Ray Bailey

 Courage, commitment, duty, and honor are old fashioned words that merit our proper respect and gratitude. Behind the noble sentiment of Memorial Day are the lives and loves of real people; people with families, friends and loved ones. This day is for us a proper time to remember and give thanks.  With General Bailey we too pray, “Dear Lord, hold them in your hands.”

memorial day

Joy in the Journey

As we look together at intentional faith development, there is joy in the journey – a deep seated peace and happiness that transcends even tragedy. This was at least part of what John Wesley was pointing toward in his understanding of the doctrine of perfection. Joy is at the core of holiness of heart and life.

There is a story which sticks with me from Philip Yancey’s marvelous book Where is God When It Hurts? Yancey writes of being surprised by happiness [deep seated joy]. He interviews and examines the lives of those we might call famous or stars and comments, “these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57). Then he reflects on those who might rightly be called “servants.”  Then he comments:  “I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to uphold them as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But now, as I reflect on those two groups, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents among the poor and uneducated. But somehow, in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the peace that is not of this world” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57).

Once again we rediscover the truth of Jesus’ teaching. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

I heard someone say once in a sermon that “great living comes in serving.”  There is a truth here that gets at the essence of Methodism’s understanding of holiness of heart and life. Many love to quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”  What is missing is the full citation from this great saint. He continued, “The life of man is the vision of God.”  Intentional faith development is our moving on to perfect in this life through the very vision and works of the Lord. Literally and factually speaking, there is joy in the journey.

Both in Scripture and in the words of Jesus we are given an invitation to celebrate the joy, to enter into the discipline of joy. Sounds odd, doesn’t it, to combine those two words – discipline and joy?  Yet as a matter of faithful living they go together. Consider the powerful example that comes to us from the eighth chapter of the book of Nehemiah.

Let me set the context for you. The book of Nehemiah comes at the point in which the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem from exile. They have seen their nation destroyed. The Holy Temple where God is said to dwell is in ruins. They had been driven from their homes and lived in foreign lands as, at best, second class citizens. Now at last they return home. If Hollywood were to film the scene that opens before us in the eighth chapter, the picture would pan across a sad heart-wrenching tableau.

As the chapter opens, the Law of Moses is read to them. After living through devastation, they encounter again the Holy Scriptures in a scene of covenant renewal. They weep in verse nine because they understand how far short of God’s law they have fallen. These are a people who ought to be joyless but instead, as the word of God comes to them afresh, Nehemiah speaks for the Lord. “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength’” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Did you catch the focus in the last part of that verse?  “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” God is telling them – don’t focus on the human failure; focus on God’s graciousness; focus on what God has done, is doing, and will do. In the tumult of our time those are words we need to hear.

Intentional faith develop leads to joy in the journey. The fruit of such joy is the “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ”  (Philippians 4:7, KJV).

Such is the ultimate aim of intentional faith development: a growing maturity in Christ that results in crazy love for God and others, immense joy in service to all, deep peace that passes understanding and true discipleship in daily walk with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. What more could anyone want from life?!

Recently I had the privilege of attending a Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF) Board meeting. At the meeting we focused on the issue of what it means to “make disciples.”  Among a number of outstanding and provocative presentations Dr. Clayton Oliphant & Rev. Debra Hobbs Mason from First UMC, Richardson, Texas shared the following contrast (which I use with permission).

Traditional Approach to Discipleship:

  • more passive than active
  • more complex than simple
  • more accidental than intentional
  • more subjective than quantifiable

New Approach

  • more active than passive
  • more simple than complex
  • more intentional than accidental
  • more quantifiable than subjective

So I invite the reader, lay or clergy, to reflect on the path to discipleship in your community of faith. Have your really focused on “making disciples” – disciplined committed followers of Jesus Christ?  Do you have a clear path that members and visitors alike can readily grasp and comprehend?  Does your path to discipleship engage in critical behavioral change?  Are demons faced and confessed with forward movement in holiness of heart and life (moving on to perfection)?  Is there joy in the journey and the fruit of peace which passes all understanding?

Facing the Demons

The words are rightly well known.  They are oft uttered in heartfelt worship.  Any genuine life of intentional discipleship rides on the wings of its application.  What words are those?  “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (I John 1:9).  Our chafing comes in the opening phrase, “if we confess our sins.”

Most of us choke because we think confession is something others need to do.  The universality of sin is widely disputed in our comfortable existence.  Where evil (as a concomitant expression of sin) is encountered it is usually done so in the extremes of a group like Boka Haram.  And yet, boldly the Apostle Paul asserts, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  John likewise declares, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).  However discarded, sin is still around and still present in our lives.

By inference, I remember on a summer vacation, we found ourselves hiking in Yellowstone National Park, one of our favorite places on earth. We were hiking in the north central part of Yellowstone in a beautiful forested section with a small pristine lake. As we got about a half mile down the trail, we came upon a sign that said, “Danger. Bear Sightings in the Area.” And we paused. We held a debate on whether we should continue down the trail or not. I looked around and thought, “You know. Come on! This is so wonderful, let’s go.” And so, reluctantly, my wife followed me down the trail. She said, “What are you going to do if you come across a bear?” And I said, “I’m going to run and jump in a tree and climb it.” And Jolynn said, “Bears climb trees, Mike. They can get you there.” And I looked at this gorgeous small lake nearby and said, “I’m going to run into the water.” She said, “Bears fish.”

I was lost metaphorically up a tree with no way to get out of danger.  No offense is meant or intended, but I submit so are you, so are we – individually and collectively.  By way analogy at some time or another we have shinnied up a tree that breaks under our weight or plunged into water that threatens to drown us.

Consider another image from the Boston Marathon tragedy. In the film clip of the first explosion, one of the runners was literally blown to the ground by the shock wave.  We pray that may never happen again, but metaphorically we know the reality of being blown to the ground in the living of our days, sometimes because of what we have done and many times through no fault of our own.

Sin is real in our lives and in our society.  It must be confronted.  A crucial aspect of intentional faith development is not to lie to ourselves about our lives or the reality within which we live.  The biblical advice is right on target.  If we confess our sins … then through Christ we can climb down the tree or get out of the water.  Facing the demons of our lives is a necessary element of intentional faith development.

As a part of my Lenten blog series on Heading Towards the Cross, I shared Professor Scot McKnight’s list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

A part of the genius of Methodism was its conviction of holiness of heart and life to such a degree that intentional sin (sins of commission) could actually be dispensed with.  Methodists call this moving on to perfection.  The question is still firmly lodged in our ordination service.  At the Executive Clergy Session of Annual Conference candidates for ordination are asked:

  1. “Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?”  (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 336, p. 262)

The list continues.  The thrust is clear.  We are to be engaged in ongoing continual faith development.  Along with critical behavior change, we have to face the demons that trip us (and our society) up.

Dallas Willard in his great spiritual classic The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God recalls a powerful teaching by an equally great Christian leader:  “The influential Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill, for example, says simply: ‘To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ.’ And, ‘Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness all other relationships of a man – to God, to himself, to other people – are transformed.’”  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pg. 42).

Critical Behavioral Change

Common wisdom is that we change our beliefs, then our actions follow.  Reality is often different.  Most of us act our way into a new way of thinking and believing.  If we push hard on this distinction, the truth emerges that it is a both/and not an either/or.  Do you recall the old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”  Or the more modern version, “Is it nurture or nature, environment or genes?”  Both are important.  Neither can be separated.

So it is with intentional faith development.  What we believe is crucial and critical; yet, belief alone is not the whole story to faith development.  The key adjective “intentional” involves critical behavioral change.  As important as belief is, as critical as truly orthodox theology is, we learn by acting ourselves into a new way of living out our faith.

I invite the reader to look with me at three critical behavior changes that are central to intentional faith development: Devotional and quiet time with an emphasis on scripture reading; Hands-on missional engagement especially with the poor; and Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians. (I readily admit this list is not exhaustive but let’s start here.)

Devotional and Quiet time with the Word of God:  I have written on other occasions about my conviction that we live life at an unsustainable (and unhealthy!) pace.  Quiet time with the Lord and with Holy Scripture in silence, prayer, reading and reflection is essential!  It is non-negotiable if we wish to grow in intentional faith development.

Perceptively Leonard Sweet writes, “One of my heroes is E. Stanley Jones. He is widely read and celebrated for being a Methodist missionary theologian. But I admire him for another reason: he was a great artist of stillness. Every day, seven days a week, Jones devoted the first hour to leaning on his ‘listening post.’ He stood, sat, or walked in silence and listened to the voice of God: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!’ E. Stanley Jones mastered the art of stillness, and inspired me to sign-off letters and sign books with this triple wordplay: ‘Still in One Peace’” (Leonard Sweet, The Greatest Story Never Told, pg. 42).

A few years ago the Willow Creek Association participated in an in-depth study of spiritual formation, growth and maturity.  It involved over 80,000 people and some 200 churches (including a few from the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church) all across the denominational and theological spectrum.  There was a deep correlation with devotional practice and regular scripture reading/study.

Hands-on Missional Engagement, especially with the Poor:  Intentional faith development fails when it is only a couple of content-based classes on prayer and bible study.  Yoked with quiet time is the crucial need to be personally engaged in hands on ministry.  Missional engagement with the poor by itself is not enough, but when linked with devotional quiet time and biblical reflection, walking with Christ takes on a whole new (greater!) dimension.

Just before she graduated from college, our daughter took a one night course her college offered on professional deportment.  The class was designed around teaching skills of public etiquette for a business lunch or dinner, proper professional dress, etc.  I remember she came home and instructed us that you are never to pass the salt and pepper shakers separately.  The instructor coached the students “the salt and pepper are married.  They go together!”  So it is with intentional faith development.  Devotion, prayer, quiet time and scripture are married to hands on missional engagement especially with the poor!

The third critical behavioral change is perhaps the most neglected and forgotten part of intentional faith development.

Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians: There is something amazing that happens in the interchange between faith sharing (including witnessing) with others, especially those who are non- or nominal Christians.  The sharers own faith is strengthened and grows in grace-filled maturity.  Many who participate on a mission trip report that they got much more out of the mission work than did those they were helping.  So it is with witnessing and faith sharing.  In the amazing spiritual economy of God, faith sharing (witnessing) becomes a critical behavioral change whereby the sharer grows in the love of Christ and the love of others.

I cannot help but recall D.T. Niles famous definition of evangelism.  “EVANGELISM is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.  The Christian does not offer out of his bounty.  He has no bounty.  He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too.  The evangelistic relation is to be “alongside of” not “over-against.”  The Christian stands alongside the non-Christian and points to the Gospel, the holy action of God.  It is not his knowledge of God that he shares, it is to God Himself that he points” (Daniel T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96).

Designing the Path

I can still recall the thrill of listening to Bill Hybels, the Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, describe their mission well over two decades ago.  “Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”  Harvard Business School had a graduate student do a study of Willow Creek’s discipleship path.  With amazement she reported that it was their intention to take atheists and turn them into missionaries!  At Willow they call them “FDFers” – fully devoted followers.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we describe our mission in similar terms.  The mission of the churches, clergy and lay people of the Conference is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Both statements of mission grow out of the great commission of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the closing paragraph of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).  What stood out for me was not the declaration of purpose or mission; after all, that is given by Christ!  Rather, I was then and still am now deeply impressed by the clarity of their strategy for making disciples (or if you prefer, FDFers).

Clarity is often a forgotten, critical element in the path of discipleship.  Ironically in the United Methodist Church we have been exceptionally clear about the central elements of intentional faith formation (raising up disciples).  Our fivefold vows state the essence:  “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.”  Another way to think of intentional faith development in making disciples is to compare a biblical model from Acts with the original Methodist Movement, then place the two alongside the “five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living.”

Methodist chrt

The challenge for many churches is to get clear about the pathway for making disciples.  This is harder than it looks at first blush.  While we want to set out a “pathway” that is linear, life doesn’t happen in a linear fashion.  Intentional faith development swirls, ebbs and flows.  The context and missional situation can vary greatly from person to person and from congregation to congregation.  Yet, if we haven’t thought and prayed through a clear path of discipleship, we tend to end up with a vague, nice sounding yet inconsequential plan for intentional faith development.  A linear path, however imperfect, is better than no clearly delineated path.

At our upcoming Annual Conference meeting, we hope to look at different models for faith development in making disciples.  Bishop Jones will offer an outline with The Wesleyan Way.  Our other three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James   A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil   Maynard Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue   Engle Resource: Charting a Course of   Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter   (revised by Delia Halverson)

We have a tendency to make this all overly complex.  The early Methodists were clear and simple.  Their “method” (hence the name Methodist) could be succinctly communicated.  The challenges of clarity and communication are once again squarely before us.  What is your path of discipleship?  Can you lay it out in 25 words or less in a manner that can readily be understood by a non- or nominal Christian?  Do the members of your congregation understand and share your path of discipleship?