Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.”

Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “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” (Philippians 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts.

A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare.

I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40).

I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated.

“Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4).

We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.

A Meeting in Chicago and Other Activities

This morning (way too early!) I fly out to Chicago, Illinois.  Unfortunately there will be no time spent at my beloved Wrigley Field (home of the once – 1908 – and future World Champion Chicago Cubs).  Instead I will be in a meeting of the Council of Bishops (COB) Executive Committee.  (I am on the COB Executive Committee through my work as Chair of the Vital Congregations Leadership Team of the COB.)

The agenda is full.  We will examine ongoing work in a variety of areas and ministry including but not limited to leadership development, Acts of Repentance as a part of our ministry with Native Americans, Task Force reports on accountability and human sexuality, training for church trials, work on ‘holy conferencing,’ planning for upcoming COB meetings (in Oklahoma City next November and in Berlin, Germany in May of 2015).  A part of the work near and dear to me (which comes from the Congregational Vitality Leadership Team) is about building vital congregations in Africa.

I often think of the summer as slow or at least a slower time.  I hope to catch up on some reading.  One of my summer activities is to usually lay out my preaching schedule for the fall and winter.  I hope to sketch outlines for various fall teaching projects (one on the book Wesley vs Calvin: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice; another on teaching a joint Wesley Foundation study for the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations).  I had hoped to spend some significant time this summer writing on a book project about the future of the church.  So far, I haven’t gotten to writing time.

Monday, I was on a conference call with Path 1 (new church development).  The news is exciting.  All across the nation work in new church development and the concomitant outreach is expanding.  Monday evening (just prior to finishing this blog) I participated on a conference call with the Texas bishops about how the church is and should respond to the ongoing border and immigration crises. We are wrestling with how we (the church) respond in ways that are caring and compassionate as well as wise and discerning.  I am deeply impressed by the insightful compassionate faithfulness that our churches (and my fellow bishops) are offering.  The larger Christian community is working together in marvelously ecumenical ways to help the last, the least, and the lost.

As I gaze over the host of items on my desk and get ready to fly off to Chicago, my mind drifts back to the ordination service at Conference.  One of the historic Methodist instructions for those to be ordained is to never be triflingly employed.  It is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Most days, I love this ministry yet the administrative load can overwhelm the available time.  Large organizations are complex.  We are truly a world-wide church with all the benefits and challenges!

Advice from 2 Timothy comes to mind:  “I’m giving you this commission in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearance and his kingdom.  Preach the word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. . . . Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully”  (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5).

A Christian Response to the Border Crisis

The image of protestors angrily greeting three busloads of mostly women and children in San Diego is both vivid and powerful.  Primal emotions were stirred.   The victims were often terrified younger children.  The great issue – immigration reform – is a need we must address.  Virtually all agree on the need for significant reform.  The passionate debate revolves around what kind of reform.  Good Christians disagree often strongly!  It is important to emphasize the last statement.  Good Christians can disagree with each other with passionate conviction about how to best reform the immigration system and respond to the border crisis.

So what is a Christian response?  Allow me to modestly suggest that there isn’t “a” (as in singular) Christian response.  There are multiple Christian responses.  Our faith offers us deeper moral guidance.  It presents a biblical and ethical framework out of which we may respond.

As I watch a report of the shouting and screaming at buses filled with children, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus.  “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14).  Whatever the best strategic answer to the crisis is, further victimization of young children is not the answer.  Adults are the ones who need to be held accountable across the spectrum and across national and ethnic lines.

The second passage that comes to me is the famous one called the “Judgment of the Nations.”  It is well known.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Regardless of our political orientation (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Green and/or – if there are any of you left – WHIG, We Hope In God), Christians see and help those in need.  I served in the Rio Grande Valley as the Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.  Among our good friends was another young couple in the church, Myron and Sandy Merchant.  (They kept our son Nathan while I took Jolynn to the hospital for the birth of our daughter Sarah.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.)  Committed Christians, they tried to faithfully respond in the swirling environment of immigration and border issues.  Myron was Captain in the Border Patrol.  I remember well him calling me one day.  The church had been collecting clothing for those in need.  Over the phone Myron asked, “Do you have some shoes?  We’ve arrested an illegal immigrant we are going to send back but he doesn’t have any shoes.  Could we help him?”

Myron did his duty faithfully and within the context of Christian care.  Wherever we come out on the best immigration policy for our nation, we are to engage that policy with Christ-like care and compassion.

A third piece of moral guidance we might apply in seeking the outline of a Christian response comes from the Book of James.  Often forgotten near the back of the New Testament, it contains marvelous practical advice.  James, the brother of Jesus, warns the first Christians (and us) of the power of the tongue.  He writes of the spiritual and moral importance about what and how we say things.  He warns us against improper hurtful angry speech.

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”  (James 3:2-10)

Each image – a bridle for a horse, a ship at sea, and flame in the forest – is used to illustrate the power of words and importance of not letting our speech descend into poison.  Christian maturity for James (what John Wesley would call moving on to “perfection”) involves controlling our tongue (verse 2).

At a minimum wherever you come out on the political land personal spectrum of immigration and border patrol, we must guard our tongues.  Christians are to be a people who speak gracefully.  Civil discourse should be one of the ways we are known as Christian.

I often list these three modest elements as a partial framework for our response to the border crisis regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.  Christians are to give witness, offer evidence with their lives, of 1) compassion for children, 2) care for those in need, and 3) communication that is civil (literally grace-filled).

*For information on what the Central Texas Conference is doing in response to the border crisis, please read Rev. Lariane Waughtal’s (CTC Coordinator – Disaster Response/UMVIM)  article.

Executive Staff Retreat

Former President and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was once asked about the relationship of plans and planning for the great D-Day invasion.  He is reported to have said something like “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”  This great truth applies to most significant efforts.  Planning is critical but events intrude and flexibility and adaptability are essential.

A couple times a year, I go on a one-day retreat/meeting with what I call the Executive Staff.  The executive staff consists of the 3 Center Directors (Leadership, Mission Support, and Evangelism & Church Growth) and the Dean of the Cabinet.  I have a similar retreat time with the District Superintendents and the Lay Leader.  The attempt is organize in an efficient way that lets each group focus its efforts and then report to the Cabinet as whole on what needs greater attention by the whole group.

There is a fairly new term for such planning and reflection time.  It is called “balcony time.”  It is a time we try to step back and look at the whole as if from above.  Most of us remember the old adage:  “When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original intent was to drain the swamp.”  Another way to think of balcony time comes from a friend who is a retired Army General.  He was asked to comment about all the plans that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had to reorganize the Pentagon.  The General noted that events overtook his best plans.

This is true for all of us!  Our Executive Staff Retreat is a chance to catch our breath and hopefully not get overwhelmed with the ongoing tasks always before us.  It is an opportunity to lay the biblical mandates next to the operational activities of our Conference.  It is a time to be open to the Spirit’s guidance.  Our focus is on learning and discernment.

The tentative agenda for the Executive Staff retreat is:

I.            A Time of Centering and Prayer         “The Priority of the Gospel”  Philippians 1:12-26

II.            Re-examination of Core Values

  1. Do these values reflect our deepest convictions?
  2. Do they guide our decision making?
  3. What do we need to learn?

III.            Learnings on Building a Healthy Organization – The Advantage & Acts 2:42-47

  1. Where are we?
  2. What are we making progress on?
  3. What is blocked or missing?
  4. Where do we need to put our focus?
  5. One page evaluation – Where do we stand & what needs to go to Cabinet as a whole?

IV.            Thematic Goal for 2014: increasing the number of vital congregations

  1. How are we doing? (+10% this year)
  2. How do we increase the commitment or “buy in” to this thematic goal?
  3. Where do we need to put our emphasis in the upcoming 6 months?

V.            Fall Focus Events/Ministry Initiatives

  1. Kenya Mission Trip
  2. Seven Levers with Bishop Schnase
  3. Clergy Day Apart
  4. Wesley vs. Calvin possible study?
  5. What other activities need our emphasis on the Conference Calendar?

VI.            Leadership Development

  1. Cabinet Bible Study or reading project for the fall
  2. Do we attend the Verge Conference in 2015?
  3. What are next steps for emphasis in clergy recruitment & lay leadership development?
  4. Process Issues for our attention
    1. Annual Conference Planning Team organization and schedule
    2. Looking ahead at Conference worship in 2015+
    3. Other?

This agenda will change as we move through the day.  There is an intentional rhythm to the schedule.  We hope to quiet ourselves and step back from the hectic pace of everyday activities.  From there, the day moved from a high view (what I like to call 40,000 feet up) to on-the-ground execution of activities and ministry.

In a speech at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957, President Eisenhower went on to comment: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected; therefore, it is not going to happen the way you are planning. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve–or to help to solve.”  It is great advice.  Even better advice comes from Proverbs 21:5 – “The plans of the diligent end up in profit, but those who hurry end up with loss.”

Reform the Continent and Spread Scriptural Holiness Across the Land

Do you recall the original vision for the United Methodist Church?  “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  To my mind this is as good a vision statement for the United Methodist Church in America as we can get.  This is our holy grail, our reason for being as a distinctive church in the larger body of Christ.  It fits as a hand does a glove to the stated mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  As we head deeper into the 21st century, we are trying to build a missional church culture where an institutional church culture has existed.  We are trying to return or reclaim our roots as a movement and church.  It’s tricky, hard, exciting, fun, etc.!  I think the Spirit of the Lord is leading us into new future for reforming the Continent and especially the church.

Back in late February I read a blog written by Rich Robinson who is a part of 3DM.  3DM is a missional movement led by Mike Breen and others.  It is one of the blog sites I episodically follow.  [They share on their website this description:  “3DM trains churches and Christian leaders to do discipleship and mission in an increasingly post-Christian world.

“We combine 30+ years of learning from the context of a very secular England, penetrating Biblical insights and experience working with hundreds of faith communities worldwide — to come alongside churches and organizations who want to learn to be the church in this new world.

“We are megachurches, church plants and everything in between.
We are Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and non-denominational.
We are brand new churches and 200-year-old churches; rural, suburban and urban churches.
We are a movement of churches learning how to thrive in the future.
We are 3DM”.]

Here is the blog I read and pass on for your reflection:

Building a missional culture isn’t as easy as A-B-C

“Here are some of the marks of a M.I.S.S.I.O.N.A.L culture – can you see them in your culture or how could they begin to shape how you and your people live?

M – Missional Mindset
People who understand that they are ‘sent’. People who look to the Great Commission as well as the Great Commandments. People who live sacrificially. People who get out of the boat. People who take on the adventure. People who live life outside the church walls. People who recognize those ready and open to Jesus. People who embrace risk & change.

I – Incarnational Lifestyle
People who live a missional lifestyle rather than organize missional events. People who have mission at the core of who they are not just the center of activities that are ‘put on’. People who share life as well as a faith with people. People who ‘live with and amongst’ not ‘minister to’ people. People who look to be good news to who or where they are placed – home, neighborhood, work, nursery, golf club, pub, school gates, coffee shop…

S – Scripturally Based
People who are grounded in scripture – reading, processing, reflecting, learning, applying, acting, living. People informed and imitating the life of Jesus in the GospelsPeople who can feed themselves from the Word. People who have the word of truth as an offensive weapon.

S – Spirit Led
People who are dependent on the Holy Spirit. People who are empowered by the Holy Spirit. People who follow and join what the Spirit is doing in people & places.

I – Intercessory Prayer
People fuelled by prayer. People with a pattern of personal prayer. People with a pattern of corporate prayer. People sent covered by committed prayer. People who change the spiritual temperature through Intercession. People who win battles in prayer. People whose hearts are broken for the lost through prayer.

O – Orbit the Centre
People who live life in communities and gather together with the wider family for
Celebration. People who aren’t isolated from the resource center. People who
are resourced, trained and sent from the central church. People who return to
tell war stories. People who are healed up from battle scars.

N – Neighborhood or Network
People who know who (network – social, demographic, interest, ethnicity) or where (neighborhood) they are called to be Good News. People who live out the Good news in their networks or neighborhoods. People who connect with people. People who recognize People of Peace. People who understand and live Luke 10.

A – Active Participation
People who aren’t consumers of a Christian product on a Sunday. People who participate in the adventure & life of their community. People who play their part. People who ‘have a go’. People who step out of the boat. People who produce vision and grow maturity in others.

 L – Lay Led
People who don’t depend on Christian ‘super heroes’. People who don’t abdicate
responsibility to the pastor and staff. People who step up and take responsibility
for who & where they are called to lead & live.”
-Posted on February 23, 2014 by Anna Robinson 3 written by Rich Robinson, Team Leader for 3DM Europe

As you celebrate the 4th of July may we not only give thanks but also remember and recommit to our wider mission to America – “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

What Does Your Church Pray For?

In my readings, I recently finished Andy Stanley’s intriguing book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend.  As usual in reading Stanley’s material, I found myself stretched and challenged.  There are insights and ideas I loved.  There are also items I have deep disagreement with.

deep and wideOne particular insight I find myself wrestling with came late in this book.  “Speaking of prayer, what does your church pray for?  What does the staff pray for?  What do your elders or deacons pray for?  God’s blessings?  The presence of God?  A pouring out of the Holy Spirit? Safety? As far as the “presence of God” and “a pouring out of the Holy Spirit,” you’re a bit behind.  Both of those were covered on the day of Pentecost.  Regarding God’s presence, Jesus promised to be with those who were making disciples, not gathering for worship.  So besides you, and what you and your congregation want God to do for you, what does your church pray for?” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 312; emphasis in the original).

I want to debate a couple of inferences.  For starters, I think there is nothing wrong and everything right about praying for a fresh or renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  To do so hardly negates or discounts Pentecost.  Secondly, I think Jesus did promise to be with those gathering for worship – Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”  But beyond those debating points, I found a deep probing and high challenge in Stanley’s paragraph.

We pray regularly and earnestly as a Cabinet when we meet.  We pray for discernment and guidance.  We pray for pastors and churches.  We pray for hurts of the world.  We pray for loved ones.  Oh my how we pray.  In our prayer life together, we use the common response for a prayer of celebration – “Loving God, we give you thanks,” and an equally common response for prayers of petition – “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

What I’ve noticed is that we seem to have almost 10 prayers of petition and concern for every one prayer of celebration.  We appear to focus on healing for loved ones, for the church, for the world and are light on prayers seeking strength, courage and conviction.  We pray heavily for discernment and insight but seem almost timid in praying for focus, direction, nerve.  We are top heavy on divine intervention and almost quiescent on praise.

There is nothing wrong with our prayers and our praying.  They are good and godly.  Unfortunately we have limited ourselves.  Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the early church, a church facing persecution and in desperate need of protection.  What did they pray for? He quotes Acts 4:29 – “Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence.”  They prayed for boldness!  They prayed for God to act mightily – “Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant” (Acts 4:30).  Notice the results in Acts 4:31.  “After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.”

Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the first Christ followers: “They asked God to do something powerful through them, but not for their sake.  They were totally focused on those outside the walls of their gathering place” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 313).

I think I pray too genteelly, too tamely, and am both convicted and blessed by Stanley’s insight. How about you?  For me, it is past time to pray for boldness.  Praying is an act of trusting God and obediently living out our prayers.

Blown Away

John Wesley famously wrote of his heart warming experience, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”  I currently serve on 14 agency boards and/or Council of Bishops committees/task groups.  This does not include various committees, task groups and leadership teams within the Central Texas Conference.  Most of these entities are about good and even godly work.  Some (7) relate to Council of Bishops assignments.  (The Council of Bishops has responsibility for worldwide oversight of the church.)  Taken together, I could have a full-time job on these assignments alone without ever entering a local church.  I think I am about average in assignments for bishops in the United Methodist Church.  Thus it is that I often go “reluctantly” to a board meeting, even when the ministry is exciting and worthy of my time.

Last week I went reluctantly to a Board meeting for the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco.  I am on this Board as the representative bishop of the five bishops in the state of Texas (Bishops Bledsoe, Dorff, Huie, McKee, and myself).  The Methodist Children’s Home (MCH) is a stellar (!) outreach ministry of the United Methodist Church in Texas and New Mexico for children, youth and their families.  MCH provides services to more than 1,400 children and youth daily through residential care, foster care and other services. There are 12 Family Outreach Services offices located across Texas and New Mexico.  MCH is both a leader and a pioneer in the field of care for children and youth. I enthusiastically commend it to all people of good will and especially to Methodists across the region.  It is worthy of our enthusiastic committed support.

All that being said, I still went reluctantly.  One more board meeting is one more board meeting in my life.  I wanted/needed (still need) time in the office to catch up on the myriad of items that come across the desk of the bishop.  Nonetheless, the passionate love and high commitment to and for children and youth overflows (even in a normal board meeting dealing with budgets, employee policy, and program decisions).  It is incredibly refreshing to go to a board meeting that is passionate about its ministry, explicitly Christian and unapologetically United Methodist!

After conducting our regular business, we heard an address from Dr. Karyn Purvis (Professor of Child Development at TCU and Director of the TCU Institute of Child Development) who works in conjunction with MCH on trauma informed care.  Trauma informed care looks at the well-being of the whole child: neurological, behavioral, and spiritual. This is cutting edge research that is a marriage of science and theology.  She spoke about functioning in the way that a “sovereign God intended” us to; about being whole and especially working with the kids from “the hard places in life,” as Dr. Purvis refers to them.  I was blown away by the intermixing of the best of scientific research with a clear faith witness.  Phrases like “the intent of a sovereign God” and “touching the heart of grace” filled the conversation.  Biblical stories and references were sprinkled throughout the presentation.  It was not pushy nor was it exclusive of other faiths; rather, it was a grace-filled clear witness to faith in Christ reaching out for children and youth from the “hard places.”

I went into the meeting tired and wishing for a day off; I went reluctantly and was blown away.  At the end of the her address, I leaned over to Rev. Steve Ramsdell (Sr. Pastor at First UMC, Waco and a fellow Methodist Children’s Home board member) and commented, “her talk was worth the trip by itself!”  Repeatedly Dr. Purvis spoke glowingly of the Methodist Children’s Home as one of the pioneer institutions in this vital ministry of trauma informed care.  One of our major mission emphases as a larger United Methodist Church in recent years has been children and poverty.  Methodist Children’s Home is reaching out in a focused ministry that shares with the last, least and lost in a Christ-serving, God-honoring way.  I was humbled to be in the MCH Board meeting that day.

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