Reports and Observations from COB & the Extended Cabinet Summit ©

Late last week I returned home (Saturday, November 5th) from a week at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting and the Extended Cabinet Summit held in Jacksonville, Florida. In the midst of trying to catch up on working that was waiting for me to return home and on the elections, I got behind on blogging. This is a brief attempt to report back on those activities of the Council of Bishops Fall meeting (October 30th through November 2nd) and the Extended Cabinet Summit (November 2nd through 4th). Additionally I want to commend reading a couple of articles I have read in my travels.

The COB meets regularly twice a year – the first week in November and the first week in May. The fall meeting at the beginning of a quadrennium (i.e. this year) is always a retreat in executive session where we welcome new bishops and in a more informal atmosphere can discuss issues together. Parts of the sessions are open to the public (The President’s Address, Worship, etc.) It was a joy to welcome new bishops to the Council including Bishops Ruben Saenz, Jimmy Nunn, and Bob Farr from the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The following link offers various news reports on some of the activities which took place at this year’s COB meeting: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/council-of-bishops-news-statements

On Wednesday, November 2nd, the COB meeting closed shortly after noon. The United States (or Jurisdictional) bishops, with some Central Conference (from outside of the U.S.) bishops joining, then traveled to nearby Jacksonville, Florida to join with their extended Cabinets (Assistants to the Bishop, District Superintendents, leaders of the Connectional Table or the equivalent, Lay Leaders, Treasures or the equivalent, etc.) in an intensely focus gathering on building Vital Congregations. I had the privilege of chairing the event and superb worship leadership was provided by Dr. Olu Brown (recent presenter at the Central Texas Conferences’ Evangelism Summit) and Chuck Bell (music). I commend to your reading the following link. Church Leaders Kick Off Quadrennium With Vital Congregation Focus.

A personal joy which took place amidst the Extended Cabinet Summit was the 7th game victory of my beloved Chicago Cubs … the World Champion Chicago Cubs! I just love saying that(!) but I digress.

In preparation for the Extended Cabinet Summit we had asked that people read background research material put together by Dr. Amy Valdez Barker and the Connectional Table Staff Team. The second reading was a deep, thoughtful and a fascinatingly insightful article on courage written by Dr. Gil Rendle a Senior Vice President at the Texas Methodist Foundation. I have read parts of it over and over. It should be required reading for all (lay and clergy) who would seek to offer wider leadership to the church. It can be found through the following link: “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” by Gil Rendle.

A second article which caught my attention came in going through emails when I got home. I read a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Regardless of where you stand on the theological spectrum or on “hot-button” issues like same gender marriage, this deeply thoughtful discourse on the linkage between theology and preaching is superbly worth your reading and thoughtful/prayerful reflection.

Allow me to tantalize your thought process by quoting Dr. Tennent:

  • I am publicly calling our movement back to doctrinally-oriented preaching. Like Wesley’s day, our post-Christendom context has spawned vast numbers of church goers who have no real understanding of the Christian faith. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak and their ability to think theologically is almost non-existent. Therefore, this stands as a fresh mandate for us to put aside the light hearted, casual preaching which has become so characteristic of our movement. As noted, this is not about rhetorical style. Whether you preach topically, narratively, exegetically, or expositionally is not the point.
  • A post-Christian culture will not be transformed by light hearted fluff with a sprinkling of vague spirituality and God-talk. If the truth be told, the congregations you will serve are tired of being spoken to like children. They are tired of going into a sermon with low expectations. They are tired of hearing sermons which were cobbled together on Saturday night. They long to be fed! They want to be challenged! They want to think deeply about things. They actually want to know what passages of Scripture mean and how it applies to our context.
  • In the wider culture, our social and political discourse has been coarse, crude, and infantile. Civil discourse has been slain, and demagoguery is on the throne of public discourse. Most media outlets have succumbed to this and it has become difficult to encounter thoughtful, principled reflections on almost any topic that confronts our society today. We must position ourselves as a striking alternative to what goes on in the broader cultural discourse. We must be thoughtful and insightful and prepared, because preaching and, indeed, all ministry, is a holy and sacred responsibility.

Again, I strongly commend your reading the entire address which can be found on the following link. My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology.

A Christian Witness in a Bitterly Contentious Election ©

Upon being elected a bishop, I learned quickly that bishops usually cast absentee ballots in national elections.  The Council of Bishops (COB) regularly meets the first week of November.  This year, without giving it a second thought, I voted early.  On returning home last night from a week at the COB meeting on St. Simons Island (Epworth by the Sea in South Georgia) and the Extended Cabinet Summit in Jacksonville, Florida, I realized to my chagrin that I could have actually voted on Election Day.  For the first time in nine years as a bishop, I was home for Election Day.

Watching the news last night with the rest of America, the bitterly contentious nature of the contest repulsed me.  Not for the first time I found myself thinking on how a Christian witness should differ from common contentious arguments all around us.   This fall I preached a series of sermons on the theme of “a different kind of living.”  I am deeply convinced that a (our!) Christian witness should be greater and more gracious than the culture as a whole regardless of our own convictions about who to vote for.

My ruminations led me back to a passage from one of the forgotten books of the New Testament – Titus.  The following words have taken up lodging in my heart and mind this fall.  I find my biases and passions judged by this holy witness.  They challenge me to repent and follow the way of Christ.  Step with me back into the divinely inspired witness found in Titus:

Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone. We were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, and slaves to our desires and various pleasures too. We were spending our lives in evil behavior and jealousy. We were disgusting, and we hated other people. But “when God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done.” (Titus 3:1-5)

This is the witness to the role of a Christian’s moral stance with regard to politics, justice, etc. in a time of persecution.  They lifted a different way of living and different mode of relating not just to each other but especially to people who disagreed with them.  Notice again how the first Christians related to a non-Christian culture.  It wasn’t with a new political party; after all, to be Christian was considered treasonous.  It was with a dramatically different kind of living.

Inhale the witness of the embattled Christian Church found in the Roman colony of Philippi.  “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.” (Philippians 4:4-7)  Look at verse 5 where I’ve added emphasis.  It says “let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.”  Please note.  It does not say “people who agree with you.”  It does not say “other Christians.”  The Bible says all people!

This was the witness, the way of living for earliest Methodists as well.  On October 5th in 1774, John Wesley gave the following advice on Christian voting:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them. 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Regardless who you support or who you vote for, may it be so for us.  May our words and actions reflect the way of Christ.

Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

Membership on “The Commission on a Way Forward” ©

Bishop Bruce Ough, President for the Council of Bishops has announced the selection of membership on the “The Commission on a Way Forward.”  He has noted in his press release that the Commission is made up of 8 bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders, and 2 deacons.  Furthermore Bishop Ough has noted “the makeup of the 32-member commission is roughly comparable to U.S. and Central Conference membership.”

Of special interest to members of the Central Texas Conference is the inclusion of Casey Langley Orr who is serving as a Deacon and appointed to First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas.  I ask us all to keep the entire Commission, and indeed the United Methodist Church as a whole, in our prayers.  Those who share the privilege of being related to the Central Texas Conference, I especially ask that you be in prayer for Casey.  I believe Casey to be an outstanding choice who will prayerfully see a way forward in these tumultuous times.

In the words of Martin Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is he.” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Number 110, verse 2, The United Methodist Hymnal.)

MEMBERSHIP IS ANNOUNCED AS FOLLOWS:
Jorge Acevedo – USA, Florida, elder, male

Brian Adkins – USA, California, elder, male

Jacques Umembudi Akasa- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male

Tom Berlin – USA, Virginia, elder, male

Matt Berryman – USA, Illinois, laity, male

Helen Cunanan – Philippines, elder, female

David Field – Europe, Switzerland, laity, male

Ciriaco Francisco – Philippines, bishop, male

Grant Hagiya – USA, California, bishop, male

Aka Dago-Akribi Hortense – Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female

Scott Johnson – USA, New York, laity, male

Jessica Lagrone – USA, Kentucky, elder, female

Thomas Lambrecht – USA, Texas, elder, male

Myungae Kim Lee – USA, New York, laity, female

Julie Hager Love – USA, Kentucky, deacon, female

Mazvita Machinga – Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female

Patricia Miller – USA, Indiana, laity, female

Mande Guy Muyombo – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male

Eben Nhiwatiwa – Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male

Dave Nuckols – USA, Minnesota, laity, male

Casey Langley Orr – USA, Texas, deacon, female

Gregory Palmer – USA, Ohio, bishop, male

Donna Pritchard – USA, Oregon, elder, female

Tom Salsgiver – USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male

Robert Schnase – USA, Texas, bishop, male

Jasmine Rose Smothers – USA, Georgia, elder, female

Leah Taylor – USA, Texas, laity, female

Deborah Wallace-Padgett – USA, Alabama, bishop, female

Rosemarie Wenner – Europe, Germany, bishop, female

Alice Williams – USA, Florida, laity, female

John Wesley Yohanna – Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male

Alfiado S. Zunguza – Africa, Mozambique, elder, male

MODERATORS
Sandra Steiner Ball – USA, West Virginia, bishop, female

Kenneth Carter – USA, Florida, bishop, male

David Yemba – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, bishop, male

Observations from the Wesleyan Covenant Association ©

Last Friday, October 7th, I experienced the high privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).  It was my honor to preach at the closing communion service and share with my friend and colleague Bishop Bob Hayes in presiding over Holy Communion.

wca-lowryI experienced the event as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was deep. Hope was bright. A sense of the Spirit’s leading was strong. Obedience to Christ was paramount. Such prayer, hope, sense of the Spirit’s leading, and obedience to Christ remains paramount.

In writing these words I quite realize that the gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was and is controversial.  For some, the WCA is viewed as a potentially schismatic organization.  Honesty compels me to acknowledge that a case can be made that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is potentially a church in waiting.  Yet it is carefully worth noting that WCA is supportive of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In point of fact, unlike some 9 Annual Conferences, the WCA upholds the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  The WCA is active in searching for a meaningful new unity.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association statement of purpose notes:  “The association is a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from across The United Methodist Church, committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment. We have come together to support, network, and encourage one another as the uncertain future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.”

While facing the possibility of future schism, the opening meeting Wesleyan Covenant Association shared a commitment to give the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward an opportunity to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Like the rest of the church, this is not a blank check to support whatever the Commission proposes but rather an opportunity to allow space for a new kind of unity.

At the WCA inaugural meeting, a theological statement was adopted which is called the Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission.. I urge a careful and attentive reading of this document.

We need something greater than a tepid statement of vague theological tolerance.  If we are too rigid, boundaries will strangle us as a denomination and we will lose our cardinal focus on the cross of Christ and the redeeming grace of the Lord active in our midst.  Without meaningful theological and ethical boundaries, the United Methodist will dissolve into cultural flotsam.  In its theological statement, the WCA is benefiting the whole church by calling us back to the central issue of reclaiming our core Christian theology.  For those who believe the theological and ethical boundaries are wrongly drawn, a serious debate on what constitutes the core of the Christian faith is blessing to the whole church.  At its heart, the issue before us is not (ultimately) about human sexuality but rather is a dispute about what accurately constitutes the core of the Christian faith and the essence of United Methodism.  To be united is to share a common doctrine, discipline and mission (which includes methodological coherence).

At its heart, I believe we need to recover a high Christology and a deep doctrinal emphasis on the cross of Christ.  For myself I stand with the Apostle Paul and witness of Holy Scripture.  In my closing sermon at the WCA gathering, I shared again the great testimony of faith from the Word of the Lord to the Church at Corinth (and in Central Texas!).  “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).

For myself as Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, I wish to be publically clear that I believe it is important across the theological spectrum to give the Commission an opportunity to offer a new way forward. I continue to pray daily for the United Methodist Church and its future under the Lordship of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May we together walk with Christ!

An Opportunity not to be missed ©

bannerhomepagentwright

N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!

 

Statement from the United Methodist Bishops of Texas

In response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent press release regarding Texas’ intention to withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program , the United Methodist bishops in the state of Texas have issued the following statement. You will notice in our signing of this statement that each bishop is listed by Episcopal Area. Please know that the Fort Worth Area (of which I am the bishop) includes all of the Central Texas Conference; the Northwest Texas Area is the Northwest Texas Conference; the Houston Area includes all of the Texas Annual Conference; the Dallas Area is the North Texas Conference; and the San Antonio Area includes all of the Rio Texas Conference.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

As bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas we join with other faith leaders in our state to encourage Governor Greg Abbott to seek a pathway that will affirm the worth of all humankind.  

As Christians and as Texans our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward newcomers. Those values lead us to welcome refugees to our state. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times but as Christians, we rely on Jesus Christ to overcome our fear of those who may be different. 

The United Methodist Church in our Social Principles states, “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God…. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.” 

We ask for God’s blessing on those who will step in to serve in the absence of our state’s participation in the resettlement effort, for they are truly being the hands and feet of Christ. 

Bishop Earl Bledsoe, Northwest Texas Area
Bishop Scott Jones, Houston Area
Bishop Michael Lowry, Fort Worth Area
Bishop Michael McKee, Dallas Area
Bishop Robert Schnase, San Antonio Area

Learnings and Sharings ©

This has been a great week of learnings and sharings around the Conference. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, we held our annual Fall Cabinet Retreat at Stillwater Lodge. As a part of our work together, we focused on team building, caught up on a myriad of details and calendar items that need to be coordinated, and engaged in an exercise designed to surface potential new DSs or Executive Center Directors. (Dr. Georgia Adamson, Dr. Bob Holloway and Rev. Gary Lindley all retire at Annual Conference in 2017.) It is always my hope that the incoming members of the Cabinet are selected by mid-January so they may participate in the Cabinet Inventory Retreat in February.

 Friday night, the Core Team shared dinner with the Cabinet and met all day Saturday to look at strategic directions we will focus on in the upcoming year. Those strategic directions will continue to center around “The Big Three.” 1. Christ at the Center in Radical Discipleship; 2. Focus on the Local Church; 3. Lay and Clergy Leadership Development. It was not only a fascinating time of sharing but also a time of reviewing where we are as a Conference in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor of preaching at Polytechnic United Methodist Church on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University. Together with a large crowd, we celebrated the end of the 125 year anniversary of Texas Wesleyan and the beginning of the 125th year of Polytechnic Church. In the early annals of the Christian faith, Tertullian asked “What has Jerusalem [meaning the center of religious life] got to do with Athens [meaning the center of philosophy and learning]?” Then and now, the answer is “Everything!” To quote Wesley, “Let us [continue] the two so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.”

 Monday morning was a time of fabulous learning. The Evangelism Summit was held at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church with its usual stellar hospitality and phenomenal worship leadership. Those great events alone blessed us all immeasurably. Addresses by Dr. William Abraham and Dr. George Hunter on the foundation of evangelism shaped a theology built around the kingdom of God and allegiance to Christ.

 Dr. Abraham reminded us at the heart of the gospel is the arrival of God in Jesus Christ. In particular he emphasized three crucial practices: preaching; catechesis (or Christian formation); and church planting. His focus was on our need to make or build disciples of Christ through a combination of teaching & preaching around the kingdom of God.  I could not help but to recall the sharing of a friend recently who commented that Jesus Christ didn’t come to give good advice but to bring good news.

 Dr. George Hunter followed Dr. Abraham with a deeply thoughtful lesson outlining the strategy for evangelism and giving concrete ways we move forward in the sharing of the faith and its connection with our greater work. Dr. Hunter built his lecture around the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi and how people become new Christians, noting that it takes place around a process with a chain of experiences. His witness moves us far beyond any mythical one shot conversion story but rather, in practical applicable terms, shared the holiness of conversations (many conversations!) and relationship in leading people to the faith.

 Rev. Olu Brown, lead pastor of Impact Church – one of the fastest growing new church starts in all of Methodism – built on Dr. Hunter’s insights with an intensely practical emphasis on building relationships through things like radical hospitality and witness of bringing the church to where people are. It was fascinating to hear him talk about holding various meetings, including Finance Committee, in a local restaurant and bar as a point of Christian witness and faith sharing. Our own Leah Hidde-Gregory brought a great day to a close with her talk on evangelistic Covenant Group formation, in particular the impact on clergy in sacramental groups on the local church. I believe this is a fundamental and primary way we recover an understanding of building ourselves as disciples even as we share the faith with others. The early Methodist movement emphasized the class meeting, and Rev. Hidde-Gregory’s work with sacramental groups calls us back in a profound way to the heart of the Methodist movement.

 Today finds me heading to Franklin, TN for a three day continuing education conference at the New Room. I was blessed in going last year to a place that was free of political talk about the future of the United Methodist Church and focused instead on missional outreach in love, justice and mercy combined with deep spirituality and evangelistic faith sharing. It should be a joy to attend this year as well. After all these activities, I have saved a week of vacation, centered around my wife’s birthday (the number shall remain sacrosanct!), and designed to spend my time chasing Simon, who knows me not as “bishop” but as “Papa.” He is the middle of three precious grandchildren Jolynn and I have been blessed with.

 Also today I am announcing today that Rev. Allen Goss has graciously agreed to fill in as Interim Executive Director for the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth as Gary Lindley heals from injuries sustained in a terrible car accident. We give thanks to Allen for his willingness to step into this crucial leadership role on a part-time basis. His experience as a previous Director for Church Growth and Development for the Central Texas Conference make him the ideal person to lead in the interim. We also continue to pray for and look forward to the day Gary can return to the job full-time. He is dearly missed!

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation

Last Fall Bishop Ken Carter, The Florida Conference, wrote a series of blogs on “Fresh Expressions of the Church.”  Taken as a whole they are outstanding and well worth reading.  As a part of my own recent writing about deeper discipleship centered on allegiance to Christ, I reprint, with his permission, the 9th of those blogs entitled Discipleship as Spiritual Formation and Mentoring: The Heart of Fresh Expressions of Church.” – Bishop Mike Lowry

The Bishop’s Blog

(Ninth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”)

If we are listening to God’s call in the present moment, in increasingly non-churched and de-churched environments, we may discover that we are being led back to a fundamental experience—an encounter with the living Jesus. We encounter him in the gospels, even as he is anticipated in the Old Testament and as his message is embodied and proclaimed in the later writings of the New Testament. The encounter is always one that calls us into deeper relationship, which we call discipleship.

Discipleship as Spiritual Formation
So how do we become a disciple of Jesus?

Becoming a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a cumulative process. It involves small steps and giant leaps of faith. It is like swimming against the stream and riding the rapids. It is unconscious and intentional. It is planned and spontaneous. It is work and at the same time a gift.

1.  As a cumulative process, discipleship is a daily spiritual practice: reading scripture, sending a tweet about a passage of scripture or a God-sighting, memorizing a verse, offering an intercession, acting with kindness, writing in a journal.
2.  Discipleship is also a weekly activity: an hour of worshipping God, a meal with a mentor or with friends, reflecting deeply on the neighborhood as a context for mission, encouraging a small group of Facebook friends, contributing money to God’s mission.  Note: While the Christian life may begin as an individual search, it can only be sustained and supported through participation in a small group, where we are loved, blessed and held accountable. The contribution of the Fresh Expressions movement is that these groups are not confined within our local churches, although they may happen there—this is the “mixed ecology.” And, as we have noted, this is deeply embedded in the practices of the early Wesleyan Christian movement (class meetings and band meetings).
3.  Discipleship as a sustained habit might include monthly experiences:  a day of silence and prayer and deeper scripture reading, meeting with a spiritual director, reading a book/spiritual classic, a deeper act of service in the community, serving in a leadership role.
4.  And discipleship as a more reflective and long term way of life might include annual practices: an extended pilgrimage or retreat, a mission trip, an evaluation of financial giving to God’s mission.
5.  Discipleship is a lifelong process; in Eugene Peterson’s language, it is a “long obedience in the same direction.” It will help to document your spiritual formation; for some, there are life-changing events, and for others, the process is more gradual and even generational. In the Wesleyan tradition we have called this sanctification.

The Bible itself can be read in this way:

  • it is the journey of God’s people from slavery to freedom;
  • the passage of Jesus from baptism and wilderness to suffering, death and into resurrection;
  • the experience of the disciples who follow Jesus, listen to his teaching, witness his death and resurrection, receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and are sent into all the world.

For the non-churched (nones), the language of becoming a disciple is entering a new world of practices, habits and relationships. For the de-churched (dones), the path of discipleship requires a detachment from negative experiences of church in the past and a turning toward the gift of new forms of church. And for leaders, lay and clergy, there is the essential and lifelong basic work of spiritual formation. At our best, we will be most effective and faithful as we accompany each other into the future that God is preparing for us.

Making Disciples as Mentoring
Once we are on the path of being a disciple, we soon discover that we are also called to invite others into this way of life. Thus, we want a simple method for making disciples or mentoring friends to be closer followers of Jesus.   So how do we mentor (or make) new disciples?

1.  Listen to the other person. This may happen in a meeting, perhaps in everyday life and in planned or unplanned ways, or over a succession of conversations. In a culture that is cynical about faith, it is not wise to rush this step. Listening is a lifelong activity!
2.  Reflect back to the person that you are wanting to get to know and understand them. For many persons, this is a rare experience to discover that others are listening to (honoring) their stories.  Note:  These first two steps are essential and cannot be bypassed.
3.  Connect their story with your own story and a part of the gospel. This assumes that we know the gospels (the importance of daily reading) and can access the presence of Jesus in most any human situation: fear, loss, anger, poverty, betrayal, confusion, pride. You may share an experience where the power of Jesus helped you to overcome an obstacle. This connection is not about institutions or denominations, but is instead about relationships and the spiritual journey.
4.  Ask how you can be in prayer for the person. And ask if the other person will pray for you. This places you together on the same level.  Note:  Here you will want to be as humble as possible, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through the gospels and the act of prayer. At this point the action is more important than the response, which you cannot control.
5.  Seek to connect the other person to your community. In our time, the basic steps will be a group that meets outside the church (say, in a coffee shop) or in a context of mission and serving, or in a new group in formation. Don’t worry if you get stalled here, but don’t hesitate to name your own worshiping community. It is a relational process.
6.  Stay in touch with the person, and continue to develop the relationship, no matter the response. You are investing in the friendship for the sake of the other person, and not for any congregational or institutional gain.
7.  Continue to pray for the other person each day, and occasionally let the other person know you are doing this.

There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between becoming a disciple (spiritual formation) and making disciples (mentoring). We often learn best by teaching and leading; and at the same time, our lives are shaped, formed and enriched by deep friendships.

It is also true that where spiritual formation and mentoring are not present, our Christian life can become stagnant and rigid. How do we break this cycle?

If we are stuck, we might seek out a spiritual director, pastor, coach or guide.  This person is likely less appealing to us because of credentials and more through an authenticity and depth of faith.   Note:  A word about generations. Many younger adults have a strong need to live in relationships with persons who are older (not of their generation). At the same time, many younger adults have a great deal to teach older adults. This is sometimes called reverse-mentoring. There is a need for both mentoring and reverse-mentoring in our church.

By definition, Fresh Expressions “come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.” And, so, our first priority is not to create Fresh Expressions of church; instead, we listen, serve, and become incarnationally present and discipled. In our time, this will take the form of spiritual practices that shape us, and intentional relationships that empower others.

Questions:
What two or three spiritual practices or habits would strengthen your life as a disciple of Jesus? What happens weekly, or monthly, or annually? And, is there someone near to you who might be open to your spiritual mentoring?

-Bishop Ken Carter, October 26, 2015

Recovering the Methodist Movement ©

A while back a friend called my attention to a March 2013 article by David Brooks entitled “How Movements Recover.”   A part of what grabbed my interest is the often repeated comment about the “Methodist” movement.  Movemental growth in the church for a justice cause or evangelism or mission impact or spiritual growth etc. is an indwelling and outreaching of the Holy Spirit.

In brief summation, Christian movements are periods of revival or reawakening to the original mission of the faith.  Commonly, “Methodism” is referred to as a movement in the Christian faith (a great element of spiritual revival and vitality).  By way of contrast, movements are different from institutional advancement.  They focus on the primary mission and contain strong elements of growth reaching out to new groups. [Allow me to emphasize that both!! institutional advancement and movemental engagement are needed.  If movements are not ultimately institutionally shaped, they dissipate and ultimately amount to little beside a passing fad.  If, on the other hand, movements are choked out by institutional rigidity, desperately needed renewal is lost.]

At any rate what intrigued me about David Brooks Op Ed piece in the New York Times was the way he connected the recovery of the Christian faith as a movement (not just an institution) to reaching out to embrace the world in all its messiness- rather than seeing the church as an ark closed off from the rest of the world, riding out the storms.  St. Augustine “reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.”  Brooks continues, “His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.”

Brooks writes from a predominantly Roman Catholic perspective but there are deep insights for us Methodists in his work.  He points to the witness of Pope Francis commenting, “It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers ‘accidents on the streets’ to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.”

We do well to listen and wrestle at this juncture.  How do we hold tight to core doctrine and yet remain open and engaged, yearning for discovery?  Rigid self-righteous boundaries are not only unfaithful; they will surely kill us.  Conversely, a lack of boundaries leads to meaninglessness and ultimately will also just as surely kill us.  Many of my colleague bishops speak of the need to be an outwardly focused church.  The four focus areas of the United Methodist Church (new places for new people/new faith communities, ministry with the poor, leadership development, and Global health – Imagine No Malaria) are vibrant expressions of an outward focus which seeks to recapture a movemental character.  So too are attempts to recapture a holistic holiness – holiness of heart and life that is both social and personal.

And yet, our cultural and denominational obsession with immanence as both the locus and focus of ministry suffers from a lack of transcendence.  A full blown doctrine of the Trinity with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit active in our world as subject (not just object) is desperately needed. The theologian David Bosch (as Alan Hirsch reminds us) has rightly written, “discipleship is determined by the relation to Christ himself not by mere conformity to impersonal commands” (D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 67; taken from Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  Hirsch himself goes on to comment, “Apostolic movements make this a core task, because when we really think about it, this is perhaps the most strategic of all the church’s various activities”  (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 113).  He [Hirsch] goes on to reference Mother Teresa, “We must become holy not because we want to feel holy but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us.”

As much as I resonate with David Brooks’ correct insistence on an outward focus in to the world in love-induced mission, by itself it is not enough.  There must be an upward dimension as well for the enterprise to be sustained.  The work of Kenda Creasy Dean and others on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” warns us of the desperate need for both immanence and transcendence, for both parts of the cross.  The apostolic genius of the original Methodist movement reached out to the world in love and reached up to God in holiness.

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