On the Road Again

Fall is my traveling season.  (Well, actually all times are traveling times for a bishop in the United Methodist Church).  In the past three weeks, I’ve been to Nashville (for Rev. Karen Greenwaldt’s retirement celebration), Chicago (for a Vital Congregations conference, with a delegation from the Central Texas Conference), Austin (for a TMF – Texas Methodist Foundation – Executive Committee meeting); next week I’ll be back in Nashville for the fall meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House.  I’ve had the joy of sharing in worship all over the Central Texas Conference (CTC):  September 8th at Lakeside UMC (Central District), Grandview UMC (North District) on September 15th, Blooming Grove UMC on October 13th (Central District), Lifepoint UMC (North District) on October 20th; I’ll be at Thompson Chapel on the 27th of October and share in the East District Charge Conference Celebration on November 3rd at Trinity in Arlington.  (Admittedly I took September 29th off to be at our son’s wedding in Massachusetts.)  I am looking forward to the Clergy Time Apart retreat on November 5th and 6th as a respite prior to heading to Lake Junaluska for the fall Council of Bishops the week of November 10th.

On my plane trips I confess to not being very sociable.  One of my joys is settling in with my head phones, listening to music (Taize is a current favorite) and reading.  As I look forward to the Clergy Day Apart, I am reading Professor Stephen Seamands’ Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  It is a pleasure to soak in a deep and thoughtful Christology.

In the second chapter, Dr. Seamands called to mind E. Stanley Jones’ writing on the “Indian Road.”  The quote from Jones comes in a chapter entitled “Preaching the Incarnation.”  It struck my heart as I travel my own episcopal road.  I offer a quote from this work in the hopes that it might strike heart with you, the readers of this blog.  The incarnation is a central tenant (you could argue it is THE central tenant of the Christian faith.  It is what this coming season of Advent and the following time of Christmastide is all about.  Christmas is the incarnation!

With Professor Seamands, I invite you to drink deep from the wisdom and faith of a great Christian leader.

In his missionary classic The Christ of the Indian Road, published in 1925, E. Stanley Jones eloquently portrays the powerful difference Christ’s show-and-tell, personal revelation made:

He did not discourse on the sacredness of motherhood – he suckled as a babe at his mother’s breast and that scene has forever consecrated motherhood….

He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable….

He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”…

He did not paint in lowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of a friend.

He did not argue the worth of womanhood and the necessity of giving them equal rights – he treated them with infinite respect, gave to them his most sublime teaching, and when he arose from the dead he appeared first to a woman.

He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”  (Taken from Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 46).

 

Walter’s Membership and the Meaning of Discipleship

This year at the Central Texas Annual Conference we passed a motion to clean church membership.  Entitled “Jubilee Membership Year” (page 271 in the Central Texas Conference Journal 2013) the motion reflects deeper theological commitments.  In part it reads:  “Faithful membership in the local church is essential for personal growth and for developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God.”  Both biblically and in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church, church membership is intended to be a reflection of a practicing disciple.  (Actually there is no such thing as a non-practicing disciple but that discussion is for another day.)  Back in the 1980s Bishop Wayne Clymer wrote a marvelous little book entitled Membership Means Discipleship.  Our discipleship as members is lived out in the vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  The “Jubilee” motion notes that churches are to follow the process laid out in The Book of Discipline in paragraph 228.

As hoped, a large number of churches are cleaning their rolls as a sign of integrity and faithfulness.  Recently a story was passed on to me via a District Superintendent about the experience of one church in cleaning its rolls.  (Names are changed to protect the innocent.)

It seems that when this church first got a computer, the Treasurer in experimenting with the system put in a family Walter Schroder (the first name is real, the second I made up) to test the system.  Due to the good work of the Treasurer, the system worked.  Unfortunately they failed to take Walter’s name out of the rolls.  So … well, here’s what the pastor wrote:

“While taking part in the CTC Year of Jubilee, my office administrator and I sent out letters to families and individuals who have not been active at Halleluiah UMC for more than a year. A few days after the mail-out, we began to receive responses. Some told us they were attending other churches. Others wanted to remain on the rolls. One family notified us of their mother’s death. But then came the story of Walter.

Walter’s family had moved their membership to another CTC church several years ago. Only Walter and the family’s daughter had left their membership at Halleluiah. But neither was active, and neither had left a forwarding address. My office administrator thought that maybe Walter was the family’s grandfather, so she sent his letter to the former members who now attend another church.

Like others who had responded, we heard back from the family right away – only to find out that Walter is a cat! There has been a cat on the rolls at Halleluiah UMC for years!”cat

I admit to being a dog lover and not a cat person; however, membership really is intended to be about discipleship.  Integrity and faithfulness are routed in following Christ.  This isn’t about nickels and noises (mere counting); it is about lives transformed through the Lordship of Jesus Christ and engaged in the transformation of our bruised and battered world.  Discipleship is a holy vocation for both lay and clergy.  In the great words of Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx Abbey in England (1147-1167 A.D.) and borrowed by the musical Godspell, “may we know Christ more clearly; love Christ more dearly; and follow Christ more nearly.”  We are to be day by day more like Jesus.

Celebration and Reflection

Last Friday I flew to Nashville, Tennessee for a special retirement celebration.  With many (including a large passel of bishops and General Secretaries), we honored Rev. Karen Greenwaldt for 32 years of service to the general church at the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD).  This celebration included special recognition of her last 13 years at GBOD as the General Secretary.  I had the privilege of formally representing the Central Texas Conference and the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops.  More personally, as a seminary classmate and as her bishop, I had the joy of expressing my personal thanksgiving for her lifelong ministry.

Greenwaldt_web1Karen was the first women ordained an elder in the Central Texas Conference.  As such, she pioneered the way for many.  Today, we are engaged in a major challenge to build the next generation of lay and clergy leadership.  We need both men and women who will step forward for the high call of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the good news of the Lord’s healing love – grace – to a battered and bruised world.  Biblically speaking disciples are made, not born.  Discipleship – disciplined, committed following of Christ – comes through the whole of one’s life including dynamic holiness on both (!) a personal and social level.

As I sat through the celebration dinner in Nashville listening to a variety of speakers give thanks for Karen’s ministry, I could not help but reflect on this wider task.  The night before I flew out to Nashville, I taught a class to the Missional Academy of the TCU and UTA Wesley Foundations.  We are examining Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways Handbook.  Hirsch writes about disciple-making that it is “perhaps the most critical element in the mDNA [missional DNA] mix, because it involves the critical task of becoming more like our Founder, Jesus – of actually embodying what he was about” (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways Handbook, p. 63).

In the celebration we were offered an invitation, or maybe it was a challenge, to build the next generation of women clergy leadership.  Instead of gifts for her, in the invitation she noted “the gift of your presence is all that’s needed.  Should you wish, please donate to the Karen A. Greenwaldt Endowment.  The endowment will provide scholarships for women clergy candidates from the Central Texas Conference attending Perkins School of Theology at SMU in recognition of Karen who was the first woman ordained by the CTC.”  Wow!  The next generation is built by the generosity of friends and the grace of God.

Jolynn and I have already made a contribution.  If the Holy Spirit so moves you, I invite you to join us in doing so.  You may do this by sending checks payable to the Texas Methodist Foundation Karen A. Greenwaldt Endowment, 11709 Boulder Lane, Austin, TX 78726.  If you wish to apply, hang on a bit.  Karen shared with me the following:  “The agreement with the Texas Methodist Foundation includes the language that they will provide to the Board of Ordained Ministry [of the Central Texas Conference] by January 31st each year the amount of funds that can be distributed. The agreement says that the Conference BOOM will manage the process for how the funds will be distributed. The funds will be distributed to Perkins by TMF once the recipient(s) is named.”

I celebrate her faithful ministry and look forward with anticipation to next generation of great women clergy leaders!

karen g_group

CORE STRATEGIES: Extravagant Generosity

The incident stands clear in my mind.  It was mid-December of my first year at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio.  Jim (I’ve changed the name and some parts of this story but NOT the essence of the tale to protect anonymity) called and asked for an appointment.  Later that day he sat across the desk from me and slid a piece of paper over to me.  It was a five figure amount of money (the sum $23,000 and change sticks in my mind but I’m not exactly sure).  Puzzled I looked at him.  “That’s one tenth of our share of the business profit for this year,” he said.  “Sue and I always tithe on our profit.  What would you like the money put to?”

I knew their giving pattern.  They already gave over a tithe (10%) on their combined salaries.  While far from the wealthiest in the congregation, they were among the largest givers year in and year out.  “I don’t understand,” I stammered.  “You already tithe.”

Politely he responded as if stating the obvious.  “Of course, but we also tithe on our bonuses.”  Such is a picture of our last but far from least Conference core strategy – extravagant generosity.

Most readers will recognize extravagant generosity as one of the five practices of fruitful congregations.  Others will note its reflection of the original core practices of the Methodist Movement under John Wesley. (“Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”)  Still others will make the biblical connection to the earliest church found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4:32-37).

Bishop Robert Schnase writes in The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, “First-century Christina communities, the Methodists of the 1700s, faith mentors, and models of Christian living today – all have discovered a truth as sure as gravity, that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the Body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries. Giving reflects the nature of God. Growing in the grace of giving is part of the Christian journey of faith, a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world …. People who give generously to the church do so because they genuinely desire to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ and because they want to align their lives with higher purposes” (pp. 106-107).

To this high and holy purpose we will seek to work as a Conference.  Two immediate practical examples of this strategy come to mind.  First: recently we brought Dr. Clif Christopher to the Central Texas Conference to lead a workshop on stewardship for both clergy and lay leaders.  (I commend his writing including most recently Rich Church Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry and commend Joe Park as well as other members of the Horizons Stewardship team.)

Second: we are actively looking for a part-time development officer for the Central Texas Conference.  This position has already been approved by the Core Leadership Team and was reported at the last gathering of the Central Texas Conference.

Standing strong behind this activity is a Conference that is committed to extravagant generosity.  This is demonstrated in our mission response to those who are hungry, hurting and homeless (whether it be physically, spiritually, or psychologically – or some combination of the three!).  It is demonstrated by a long – decades long! – Conference culture that expects from both churches and clergy full faithfulness in paying apportionments.

Together we are living the biblical dream of Acts 4!  I am proud to be the bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

CORE STRATEGIES: Accountability

I was fascinated by the leadership advice offered in comment about his own organization, The Pittsburg Steelers of the National Football League. Head Coach Mike Tomlin commented, “We seek to have a no excuse culture.” The comment came back in 2009 when, under Tomlin’s leadership, the Steelers won the Super Bowl (making him the youngest coach ever to win the Super Bowl and earing him the NFL’s 2008 Coach of the Year award). Today the Steelers are 0-4. However with such a commitment to excellence in accountability, they will get better. (For the record, I am not a Steeler fan!)

I am a fan of excellence in ministry. I believe this is a way we honor Christ and fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Bishop Robert Schnase writes about the importance of excellence in his book The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Greg Jones (former Dean of Duke Divinity School) and Kevin Armstong wrote a provocative book entitled Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry. The very concept of excellence when attached to faithfulness in ministry harkens back to honoring Christ with our best. The more excellent way of which Scripture speaks is anchored in love (I Corinthians 12:31). A straight line runs from excellence to fruitfulness to faithfulness.

The notion of disciplined accountability was built into the original equation of early Methodists’ understanding of faithfulness and fruitfulness. Richard Heitzenrater in his marvelous history Wesley and the People Called Methodists reflects on the growing Methodist movement and its penchant for accountability (see especially chapter 4 “Consolidation of the Movement”). It is no mistake that the title for our book of Church law is The Discipline.

Most of us can readily agree with the concept of accountability as a reflection of the excellent way of faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry. It when we come to the particulars that we choke. We know that metrics (measurement) is needed and yet we also know that any standard of measurement by itself is incomplete. Thus it is important to ask “how many people attend worship” yet this alone is not a faithful determiner of the biblical fruitfulness of a congregations’ (or pastors’) ministry.

Furthermore a part of our struggle in adopting accountability as a core strategy lies not just with the question of metrics but also with our tendency to use measurement to apply blame rather than seeking to learn and develop. Put different, we tend to (falsely!) use the concept of accountability as a punishment first and only later ask, “What is the ‘learning’ we might gain from this outcome (fruitfulness) or lack thereof?” Our defensiveness in learning is a crippling form of sin. So, too, is our tendency to blame and look for a scapegoat (a biblical concept – read the story of Abraham and Isaac – Christ came to put an end too!).

I am convinced that accountability is a key strategy we must employ if we are to be faithful. But we must engage in accountability as a strategy aimed at learning and not blaming! Accountability is about faithfulness and fruitfulness. The two biblically go together. We need to be a no excuse culture that is committed to faithfulness and fruitfulness in learning and application.

[For in-depth learning about the issues related to applying “metrics,” I commend to the reader a series of monographs that Dr. Gil Rendle is publishing online through the Texas Methodist Foundation. You may find them at http://www.tmf-fdn.org/learning-transformation/resources-conversations/written-materials/]

CORE STRATEGIES: New Churches

A remarkable event took place at the 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference.  During the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth report, four specific initiatives related to our core strategy of new church development were launched.

  • 1. Lance Marshall was appointed to 7th Street, Fort Worth for a new church start parented by First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth.  (To the best of my recollection this is the first time someone has been appointed to a street!)
  • 2. Shea Reyenga was appointed a Path 1 Intern at White’s Chapel.  Path 1 is the core strategy of the larger United Methodist Church in the United States on new church development.  (The title “Path 1” comes from the original seven vision pathways laid out by the Council of Bishops for the recovery/transformation of the United Methodist Church.  New church development was designated the first of those seven pathways.)  White’s Chapel, through the mentoring of Dr. John McKellar, is working in coordination with our Center for Evangelism and Church Growth and the Path1 team headed by Rev. Candace Lewis of the General Board of Discipleship. Each of those three entities is contributing expertise, time, and financial resources to this internship.  It is our intent that this would lead to a new church start with Rev. Reyenga and partnered by White’s Chapel UMC sometime in the fall of 2014.
  • 3. Rev. Louis Carr, Jr. was appointed to Thompson Chapel with the intention to relocate and re-launch Thompson Chapel.  This action was taken in conjunction with work done by the congregation (and voted on by them) to take this historic risk-taking mission with the expertise and involvement from both the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth and the Cabinet leadership from the Dr. Luther Henry and District Superintendent Dr. Ginger Bassford.  Pastor Carr tells me that they have already surpassed 100 in worship and are looking to close a deal on new land!
  • 4. A second site start with Rev. Daniel Hawkins serving as the pastor as a part of the staff of First United Methodist Church Keller.  Again the courageous and visionary leadership of the parent church for this second site (1st UMC Keller) is yoked with resources from the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.

Each of these four ministry initiatives are concrete examples of how we are living out our core strategy of new churches.  No church, no Christian community, no denomination has ever grown in the two thousand year history of Christianity without a deeply committed emphasis on new church development.  None!  Check it out for yourself.  Read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s multi-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity.

Notice further how the core strategy of new churches is yoked with the first core strategy of a focus on the local church; that is, the transformation of existing congregations.  (See my blog entitled “The Transformation of the Local Church” posted September 18, 2013.)  For me, hopefully for us, the need for new places for new people is a conviction – no, more than that – a call that God has laid upon us as a people of faith.  It is one that comes out of the heart of the Christian gospel.  Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 13:1-3 are two of many passages that provide a biblical anchor.

These are exciting times for the United Methodist Church in Central Texas and around the nation and world!  We are re-engaging and embracing the forgotten ways of Christianity and Methodism.  Praise God!  While writing this blog I received the following note from Dr. Tim Bruster, the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth:  “I want to let you know that we have exceeded our goal of $100,000 from First Church to name the Evangelism and Church Growth Center after Lamar Smith.  We are at nearly $108,000 and the money is still coming in.”

What a great testimony to name the center of Evangelism and Church Growth in honor of truly outstanding leader of Methodism in our Conference (and the Texas Conference) as well as a former President of Texas Wesleyan University – Dr. Lamar Smith.  A double praise God for such faithfulness and vision!

CORE STRATEGIES: Ministry With The Poor

A critical central core strategy of the Central Texas Conference comes straight from the Four Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church – ministry with the poor.  Two quotes come to mind.  The first grows from the soil of Methodism in its original form:

1.  “It is to these Samaritans, those who live outside the palladium of property and privilege, that the Methodist mission is directed. Life is already in the condition of the “spiritual.” Life is the arena of the Spirit. To go deeper into life is to go deeper into the life of the Spirit. Miss J.C. March wrote to John Wesley and asked how best to mature her faith. John answered with an elaboration of prevenient grace: ‘Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!.… Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God!’ When Jesus is Lord, our lords become the poor, the sick, the hungry, the hurting” (The Greatest Story Never Told by Leonard Sweet, pg. 86).

Reflect deeply on the truth that Wesley teaches.  To go deeper into a mature faith involves us going to and being with the poor.  Wesley harkens back to the great teaching of Christ in Matthew 25 (“to the least of these my brothers and sisters”) in his phrase, “Jesus went before you.”

The second quote comes from a young millennial Christian leader named Shane Claiborne passed on to me by Dr. Elaine Heath (Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology):

 2.  “The problem with most American middle class Christians, according to Claiborne, is not ignorance of poverty, but absence of relationships with the poor. ‘I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor’”  (From Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, by Elaine A. Heath and Scott T. Kisker, pg. 74).

Ponder fully the phrase “the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”  Claiborne’s insight fits nicely with the profound and profoundly disturbing work of a secular sociologist Charles Murray (see his book Coming Apart).  Murray notes that often those making policy for the poor really have very little contact with those they seek to help.  This is the flaw in well intended ministry for the poor.  The transforming element of relationship is missing.

The operative word for this strategy both for the Central Texas Conference and the larger United Methodist Church is “with” as in ministry with the poor.  Part of what makes mission trips (whether they are across the street or across the world) so powerfully life changing for the missioner (the one missionally offering) is the personal hands on engagement.  The work of mission teams and local service ministry is literally life transforming for all involved.  This was a cardinal insight of Wesley and the early Methodist.  Today, our mission trips are re-appropriating this great insight.  Thus we together in ministry with the poor live out our core value of being missional – that is, engaged in ministries of love, justice and mercy.

CORE STRATEGIES: Clergy and Lay Leadership

The third major core strategy that we have in the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church is to engage and develop clergy and lay leadership.  This is both simple and profound in its essence.  A church, any church, will not exceed the capacity of its lay and clergy leadership.  The sage reader of this blog might well (should!) ask, “But what about the Holy Spirit?”  My response is straightforward.  Leadership needs to be (must be!) open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 10:14 states:  “So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher?”

A great example of this core strategy in action took place Saturday, September 7th.  Under the coordination of Leanne Johnson in conjunction with deep staff support from both the Center for Leadership and the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth, we had a Discernment Discovery Retreat at Austin Avenue UMC in Waco for those considering going into clergy or dedicated lay leadership.  It was a truly great praise God event!

Another example is the recent work of the Conference Lay Servant Ministry Team through the leadership of Kim Simpson (CTC Lay Leader) and the Dr. Georgia Adamson (Ex. Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The Lay Servant Ministry Team is moving forward with far-reaching plans for lay leadership development.  Additionally, the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) has Lay Leadership Development (LLD) groups as a key component of its transformation strategy.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

When Jesus gathers the initial group of disciples around him, our Lord is engaging in deep leadership development.  Our greater investment in leadership training for all ages, both lay and clergy, is following in His steps!

Alan Hirsch, one of the deeper Christian thinkers of our age, comments in his book The Forgotten Ways: “The quality of the church’s leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship. If we fail in the area of making disciples, we should not be surprised if we fail in the area of leadership development.”  To which I add a hearty AMEN!

Warren Bennis in his classic book on leadership, On Becoming a Leader, writes:  “Leadership guru Abigail Adams was right on the mark (as she so often was) when she wrote to son John Quincy Adams in 1780 that hard times are the crucible in which character and leadership are forged: ‘It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed,’ she counseled. ‘The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulty.  Great necessities call out great virtues.’  Just as World War II forged the leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, I predict that 9/11 and the dot-com implosion will be the crucibles that create a whole new generation of leaders.  If so, we will have reason to celebrate as well as to mourn.”  The Bible says, “But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

CORE STRATEGIES: The Transformation of the Local Church

Tuesday morning I shared in my weekly time my spiritual guide. He lives in Lakewood, Colorado not far from the site of both the recent fires and current flooding. As we visited he shared some of their trials. I offered our prayers and so ask you to join with me in praying for all those who are affected by the flooding (and fires) in Colorado. I also ask you to join with me in praying for all those involved, especially the victims and their families, in the Washington Navy Yard shootings. May God’s healing love pour over all who are hurting this day!

As we lift our prayers, I invite us to turn our attention the second of our Conferences’ (The Central Texas Conference of the UMC) core strategies. “I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Those words ringing out from the mouth of Jesus come on the heels of the apostles confession of who Jesus is; “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

The second core strategy which we hold to in the Central Texas Conference is anchored to this great biblical conviction. Numerous other passages uphold the church as chosen instrument of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I Corinthians 12:27 labels the church the body of Christ. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church states: “The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs. It is a community of true believers under the Lordship of Christ. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached … the local church is a strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society. The function of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to help people to accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to live their daily lives in light of their relationship with God.” (Paragraphs #201-2)

There is more, much more, that can be said and quoted both for the Holy Scriptures and from The Discipline of the United Methodist Church to cement the importance of the local church. Truly, in the ancient words, “the church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time.”

This high and holy conviction is to be framed by a deep understanding that the church exists for the redemption of the world (and not for the institutional maintenance or survival, nor still the cozy comfort of the club). The mission of the Church, given by Christ and recorded in the Bible is both simply and profoundly “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” (See Matthew 28:16-20)

In a larger sense we know all this but we need to remind ourselves of its truth periodically. It is easy to fall off the rails in one of two ways; either by thinking the local church is unimportant and can be dispensed with or, by believing that institutionally the church is an end unto itself. Both are false heresies which lead to biblical, theological and practical ship wreck.

This theological, biblical and practical backdrop leads to the intense conviction and committed core strategy of the transformation of the local church. This is central to the being and purpose, the mission, of the Conference – “to energize and equip local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The basic (but not only) tactic for carrying out this core strategy is the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI). As I have often said to lay leaders and pastors, both individually and in groups, you don’t need to engage in HCI/SCI. Feel free to adopt another tactic for implementing this core strategy. What is unacceptable is not implementing the strategy. (Put differently: A core strategy for carrying out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is “the transformation of the local church.” One tactic for accomplishing this strategy is HCI/SCI. There are other acceptable tactics – Holy Conversations, the use of a targeted outside consultant, etc.) The local church and its transformation into a mission post of the advancing kingdom of God is nonnegotiable.

Reflecting on our post Christendom age, Professor Jason Vickers appropriately comments: “If this reading of the culture is even half right, then the time has come for the church to regain her confidence that she really does have a gift of inestimable value to offer to the world – something that the world cannot readily acquire elsewhere, namely, incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God…. But even if we are wrong about the intellectual and moral sensibilities of the wider culture, the fact remains that this is the only gift that the church has to offer. And even this she does not really have. Rather, she receives it anew and afresh each day from the Holy Spirit. Therein is the source of our hope for the future. (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 106-107)

To which I add, Amen and Thanks be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

CORE STRATEGIES: Wesleyan Spirituality and Theology

My recent participation in the 13th Oxford Institute for Wesley Studies has given me much reason to pause and reflect on the importance of our Wesleyan essence. With this blog I am beginning a series of blogs on core strategies of the Central Texas Conference. These are the strategies designed to energize and equip local churches to carry out their mission, namely to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786). Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine. His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.” They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement. Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology in spirit and discipline. Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

All of this seems fairly obvious at first glance; yet, the scene on the North American mission field has largely tried to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy; a vital set of core teachings, beliefs, and convictions has been separated from core practices. Wesley’s fear that we should exist as a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” has now largely become the case in the mission field called North America. We have held fast to neither the doctrine and spirit nor the discipline on which we first set out. Far from a casual academic exercise, recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America. One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff person to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?” No, we can’t. We have to reclaim the past for the future if that future is to be faithful and in any sense enduring.

Yoked with a theologically core orthodoxy must be a deep spirituality. Here is a simple test. How much time have you spent in prayer and quiet with the Lord this day? How much time have you spent actively seeking the Lord’s will and guidance? Holiness of heart and life was and is at the essence, the essential core, of Methodism. Our understanding of holiness has always had both personal and social dimensions. It is anchored in the “still more excellent way” of I Corinthians 13, the way of love. It gains its impetus from time spent with the Lord of love and is lived out in justice and mercy for all humanity. All really means all! Biblically speaking, Wesleyan spirituality is an expression of the great commandment of Christ to love God and love our neighbor, every accessible human being we may reach!

I am convinced that reclaiming a vibrant and robust core orthodoxy for the United Methodist Church in North America is at the center of our currently theological agenda and crucial to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Likewise, so too is the embrace, the energizing, which comes from a deep Wesleyan spirituality built on the foundation of a daily walk with Christ. My essential claim is that we need to move back to the past in order to reclaim a faithful future as a Methodist movement for the greater Christian movement and the Church Universal. The witness of the original Wesleyan movement offers a vibrant guide today in its full orthodox enthusiasm. God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new future anchored in that past.