Project 44

    Recently Jolynn and I had reason to interact with Project 44. Project 44 is named for the 44th book of the Bible – the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is an incredibly wonderful ministry that receives cars in donation, fixes them up, and through the church gives them to families critically in need of transportation.

            I sat down for coffee with Ben Fields (who along with his wife Margaret) is the leader of this ministry. Ben started his own spiritual pilgrimage in the United Methodist Church. As he steadily moved to a deeper level of discipleship in risk-taking mission and service, Ben related (as he put it) discovering the Holy Spirit.

            Raised in the UMC, a committed lay leader in the church, he said, “I hadn’t heard about the Holy Spirit in the United Methodist Church.” Visiting with him, I was struck that this was not a shallow theological statement representing an off-beat point of view but a mature reflection of deeper discipleship. It made me stop and think about how often I had preached or taught on the movement of the Spirit in our midst. I am challenged by Ben’s insight. God as Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. It is past time to lift up the third person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

            After writing this blog, I asked Ben for his thoughts before it was posted.  He commented: “The Methodist Church has NEVER lost sight of the Cross, what we have lost is our flame. Shall we endeavor to reclaim our heritage?”  Wise reflection; it is time to lift high the flame along with the cross.

Learning from the Megachurch

I just finished reading Scott Thumma and Dave Travis’ book Beyond the MegaChurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches.  It makes for fascinating reading.  Perhaps the most significant insight is this:  “We argue that the greatest contribution of meagachurches is not about growth or being large so much as it is about learning how to address the contemporary needs of people in the Community.  In many cases, megachurches have figured out how to do this in ways that resonate with their neighbors – an insight that has great value to congregations of all sizes.”  (p. 191)

1. MYTH: “All Megachurches are alike!”
    REALITY: They are not all alike but in fact very diverse.  They do share some common organizational characteristics.

2. MYTH: “That church is just too big!”
     REALITY: “The reason that megachurches are so large is ultimately because many people are getting their needs met in them.” (p. 46) Younger generations are comfortable with and in larger institutions and often find in them small intimate groups for nurture and discipleship formation.

3. MYTH: “Megachurches are cults of personality.”
     REALITY:  Leadership is a critical factor in any size of church.  Megachurch pastors lead teams of people with a clear sense of vision and mission.

4. MYTH: “These churches are only concerned about themselves and the needs of their attendees.”
     REALITY:  Great initial growth tends to focus a church on building facilities and internal structure but as churches mature, they diversify and strengthen their outreach in ministry often far beyond other churches.  Many (if not most) megachurches have great missional outreach to those in need.

5. MYTH: “Megachurches water down the faith.”
     REALITY:  The evidence is just the opposite.  Clarity of mission means that these churches “actually call many believers to higher levels of commitment.” (p. 92)

6.  MYTH: “These churches are bad for other churches.”
      REALITY:  They have resulted in the loss of power and influence from smaller churches but the “benefits these congregations bring to other churches can outweigh the challenging situations they create.” (p. 119)

7. MYTH: “These churches are full of people of the same race, class and political preferences.”
     REALITY:  While this can appear true at a distance, closer examination often reveals greater diversity than in traditional congregations!  Every study done on megachurches shows a considerable mix of economic groups, education, & occupation.

8. MYTH: “Megachurches grow because of the show.”
     REALITY:  Preaching and excellence in worship are a hallmark of megachurches.  As a group, these churches are widely diverse in worship styles and much better at connecting with the “heart language” of new generations.  They speak both to and with the culture.  Quality is a crucial explanation for growth but not the only factor!

9. MYTH: “The megachurch movement is dying – young people hate these churches.”
     REALITY:  Just the opposite is true!  “There are large numbers of young adults in these churches – perhaps in greater percentages than in any other congregational size or form.” (p. 169)

There is much to learn here for all kinds and sizes of churches.  Thumma & Travis’ core insight bears repeating.  “We argue that the greatest contribution of megachurches is not about growth or being large so much as it is about learning how to address the contemporary needs of people in the Community.  In many cases, megachurches have figured out how to do this in ways that resonate with their neighbors – an insight that has great value to congregations of all sizes.”

Missional Faithfulness

Today at Cabinet meeting we went over Conference financial reports for 2010.  There is a part of us that makes a nod and moves on to such reports.  Numbers can be numbing (pun intended).  Yet … often our numbers represent missional faithfulness.

Some data is illuminating.  Gulp, we did not pay our general church apportionments in full for only the second time in the last 12 years. (The last time was 2005.)  Our payout rate was 93.13% to the general church.  I want to express my appreciation for the faithfulness of so many churches and add encouragement to those reaching towards a higher missional faithfulness.

Other missional giving continues at a high degree of faithfulness.  The number one response of missional faithfulness was the giving of $289,295.79 to emergency relief in Haiti.  This is a tremendous response!  So too is the $110,150.41 given to Imagine No Malaria.  In the weeks and months ahead we will move forward as a Conference to engage Imagine No Malaria to an even greater degree.  $26, 965.20 was designated for the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco. $18,550 was given to support the greatly needed Central Conference Pension Initiative. 

Overall, the Central Texas Conference gave a total of $834,018.86 to support Advanced Specials and various other special mission projects.  This is tremendous continuing evidence of Missional Faithfulness.  Well done, thou good and faithful servants!

Streams in the Desert

Dallas Willard in his marvelously illuminating book, The Divine Conspiracy, opens with story of a pilot practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter.  “She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent – and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

[Willard continues,] This is a parable of human existence in our times – not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that – but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high-speed and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant.” [1]

Willard’s image sticks in my mind.  Often I feel like I’m flying upside down at full-speed.  I have gradually, sometimes grudgingly over the years, become a firm believer in the importance of renewal time and focus time on reconnecting with the Holy Trinity.  A part of my attempt at self-reformation is dedicated time in spiritual retreat.  This week, I am spending three days at a Catholic retreat center.  Just prior to that event I have spent a couple of days speaking at the annual Streams in the Desert Spiritual Life Retreat sponsored by the Ft. Worth District at Glen Lake.  (Going on retreat and being the presenter are very different experiences!)

My wife will accurately tell you that I am an at best semi-reformed workaholic.  I am wrestling now and have so all my life with my own spiritual walk.  Two recent works have been shaping much of my thinking.  The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz and The Great Omission by Dallas Willard.  I desire to pick up their insights and lay them alongside some biblical teaching that I have been wrestling with.  Biblically I’ll use as a primary (but not exclusive) focal point Paul’s letter to the Colossians (following a suggestion from Dallas Willard that it make a marvelous starting point).

I have heard rumors of another world and long for it.  I have heard stories of a greater life and hunger after it.  The voyage of my own Dawn Treader is upon me and I know that to rely on myself is sheer folly.

[1]           Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 1

The 85% Problem

Early in December I attended a regular learning group with other bishops that I am a part of – The Episcopal Leadership Forum at Duke Divinity School.  While there, we listened to (among other great presentations – including our own Dr. Ginger Bassford – who was outstanding!) the report of some fascinating research done by the Center for Creative Leadership.

After extensive research (which was later supported by similar research conducted in Europe), they reported the following fascinating information about learning temperaments.

  • Active Learners – 10% of North Americans
    • Strive to take responsibility for their own learning
    • Take a role in how & what they need to know and what to do about it
    • Educational self-management
    • Self-motivation becomes a greater force behind learning
  • Passive Learners – 85% of North Americans
    • Learner is a recipient
    • Expectation is that others will provide occasion for learning
    • Socialized to believe that personal learning needs are identified and provided by others as determined by a given situation or authority
  • Blocked Learners – 5% of North Americans
    • Appear to be incapable of learning from their experiences
    • Variety of causes

Which category are you in?  Be careful!  Clergy are no different in learning temperaments than the rest of the population.  These insights forced me to stop and engage in personal inventory.  It is too easy to assume that I am in the 10% of active learners.  Self deception is common and all of us wrestle with the malady of such self-deception.  I am asking myself: Am I an active learner?  What evidence is there to support such a conclusion?  I invite the reader to do the same.

It Starts With a Baby

Recently I finished reading Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches.  I highly recommend it.  It is deep in its insightfulness about the journey we are on in the United Methodist Church.

Near the close of his book, Dr. Rendle writes about the United Methodist Church recovering and reorienting around a common purpose and identity.  Reframing purpose and identity is really the overarching theme of his book.  He challenges us to move beyond restrictive legislation and enforced conformity.  He writes: “Instead the center needs to be a story sufficiently strong to make others want to tell it, a purpose sufficiently important and difficult to make others want to pursue it, and an identity clear enough to make others want to live it.”  (p. 137)

Our story starts with a baby.  It starts simply, movingly.  “He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:5-7).

Somehow we have come too easily to casually accept the awesomely wonderful action of God in our midst.  Luther says, “The gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel. . . . Then come to Him. . . . You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair.  Trust Him!  Trust Him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. . . . Now overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you but come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.”

May you know the joy of the Savior’s birth.

  I will resume writing This Focused Center on January 4, 2011.

Christmas Eve Hospitality

The number 1 attended worship service by non- or nominal Christians is Christmas Eve.  Put differently, many of those who attend Christmas Eve worship are not active Christ followers.  A pastor and church have a (literally!) God-given wonderful opportunity to share the gospel.  Theologically speaking, this is a time to share the great doctrine of the incarnation – God with us in human form, in the person of a baby no less.  It is prime time evangelism.

 One of my concerns about Christmas Eve is that many churches and pastors appear to operate from the opposite assumption.  We seem to plan Christmas Eve worship and preach as if only active Christians who know the lingo and liturgy are present.  To be sure, active Christians are present in great abundance.  They make up a clear, overwhelming majority.  But, the opportunity to share the gospel of God’s love in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be missed.  Indeed, long time Christians will benefit from hearing the gospel again as well.

 Last Christmas it snowed and the roads iced over on Christmas Eve.  Services had to be canceled.  It was difficult to tell when and if a church would be holding Christmas Eve services.  We had friends visiting from out of town that we were planning on taking to a Christmas Eve service.  The service we had intended to go to was canceled and so I started to look for a different church.

 Seven or eight calls later, I discovered that only one church had updated its recording.  Most phone recorded messages never even mentioned Christian Eve worship (let alone any changes because of the weather)!  By then my curiosity was up.  I got on line and went cruising through the Central Texas Conference looking for web-site listings of Christmas Eve worship.  What I found, or rather what I did not find(!), was disturbing.  Few churches listed this worship opportunity prominently and a significant number (I checked about 15 sites) failed to list Christmas Eve worship at all!

 Hospitality (without even being radical hospitality) begins by letting people, especially non Christian people, know about the opportunity to greet the new born Savior in praise and celebration on the eve of His birth!  Invite.  Invite using the web and the phone. At least prominently share the times of worship!  Invite especially with personal invitations to family, friends, neighbors and strangers.  Come, let us praise Him, Christ the Lord!

Route 122 Group

Recently I learned about a group of church developers who are wrestling on a deep level with the issues of congregational transformation.  Interestingly, they named themselves the Route 122 Group.  The group name is a reference to Paragraph 122 in The Book of Discipline of the UMC 2010 (pg. 88).  It reads:

¶ 122. The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission—We make disciples as we:

  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing;
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.

The Route 122 Group came up with the following core process for church transformation.


Provide a Process at the Conference level that engages the following 8 key elements:

  1. Focus on Transforming Grace of Jesus Christ.
  2. Apostolic Leadership
  3. Conference alignment on missional focus
  4. Continuous lay and clergy learning and collaboration
  5. Independent assessment of congregation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities including relationship with the mission field
  6. Ongoing coaching for missional performance
  7. Accountable action plan
  8. Openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit

(From Route 122 Group, transforming churches meeting Nov 29-30)

New Readings

I am engaged in some reading that has both stimulated and reinforced much of my current reflection.  As a part of my devotional life, I am reading Bishop Will Willimon’s new book Why Jesus?  It contains the fresh (that is, seen from a different angle) reflection on Jesus that is common to Bishop Willimon.  I will be sharing it with friends who have doubts about the place and role of Jesus (including some beloved agnostics and atheists).

The other book that I am almost finished reading is Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches by Gil Rendle.  It will become a part of our collective reading in 2011 as a Cabinet.  For those familiar with Gil’s work, the book will represent a restatement and fleshing out of many of the themes he has shared in his speaking.  Whether as a deepening and clarification or new information, it is extremely worthwhile reading!  (For those readers not familiar with Dr. Gil Rendle, he is Senior Consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation and serves as a consultant for many denominations and conferences – including the Central Texas Conference – on change and engagement in the new post-Christendom world.)

Like my Wilderness Way columns, Gil employs the exodus imagery for what the church is going through.  In the opening chapter he notes a number of helpful and hopeful insights:

  • He is hopeful.  “I do not despair of the fundamental connection between God and the people.” (p. 2)
  • He is encouraging.  “Above all else the wilderness is a place to learn.” (p. 2)
  • He is insightful.  “We have been here before. We are a people of the original Exodus and Exile.” (p. 3)
  • He is practical.  “Being able to see the normal and natural within our communities as living systems in the midst of change allows anxiety to transform into energy and worry to turn into hope.” (p.11)

As I am reading, I find myself in Nashville, Tennessee. In approximately 2 hours I will convene a meeting of leading practitioners in church transformation (renewal and revitalization) as a part of the Council of Bishop’s Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People ~ new and existing congregations).  As we (the UMC as a whole) lean into a new future, we are seeking to live Romans 12:1-2 as a people transformed by God’s grace and God’s purpose as revealed in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is an exciting time!  It is also a challenging time!

Informative Events

In the run up to the Thanksgiving holiday, I attended two informative events.  While distinctly different from each other, each is evidence of the creative reflection taking place across the United Methodist Church.

Saturday, November 20th I attended “Can We Talk?” and took part in a Bishops’ Panel during a Q& A time.  “Can We Talk?” focused on “Effective Leadership … Changing Our Reality” in the African American church.  (An annual event, this is my 3rd year in attendance.)  Rev. Ronnie Miller Yow, pastor of Wesley UMC, Little Rock, Arkansas, gave a powerful address on new ministry in new ways.  Some nuggets of his address:

  • Dead worship will not bring anybody to Christ.
  • No pay, no say – if you are not tithing you should not have a say in the direction the church is taking.
  • The reason this church is dying is that pastors don’t know how to pray.

There was more but the listener (and hopefully reader) can grasp the cutting edge of Rev. Yow’s connection between spiritual formation and congregational fruitfulness.

 The second event took place on Sunday evening, November 22nd.  I attended The Texas Methodist Foundation’s dinner recognizing special medallion honorees, Rev. Leighton Ferrell and Tom Graves.  Dr. Bill Enright a Presbyterian clergy and President of the Lake Institute for Faith & Giving, spoke on trends in stewardship.  Giving is down (as the economy would suggest).  Significantly though, major giving is much more focused than it used to be.  Instead of giving to (say) 7 or 8 causes, those sharing larger gifts are choosing to focus on a few causes (say 2 or 3).  The driving question is: How can I make a gift of significance?  Put differently, what difference (play on words intended) will my gift make.  Meaning, purpose and engagement are driving giving as never before.  Churches cannot simply assume economic loyalty.  Are we places of significance in the kingdom building work of Christ?

 Both groups are leaning into a new future.  These are exciting times to be in ministry for the Lord.