Canadian Worship Experience

            We have recently returned from vacation in Shenandoah National Park and the Canadian Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia).  It was a wonderful time with family and just special time away for us as a couple.  Beginning today, I will be picking back up the mantle of writing regular blog entries.

            While traveling we had some interesting worship experiences.  During our two weeks in Canada we planned on attending The United Church of Canada (a Canadian merger of essentially mainline denominations – including Methodists – that took place in the 1925).  The first of those Sundays we participated in a nice service held in a small fishing village adjacent to Fundy National Park.  It was engaging but nothing unusual.  Our second Sunday was a different experience.

            We were staying in a very rural part of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia that is known for summer retreats and seasonal visitors.  We had seen a variety of brightly lettered signs inviting us to the Margaree Valley United Church for 9:30 a.m. worship.  We checked out where the church was located on Saturday evening and drove over Sunday morning.  Another family just in front of us was also coming for a visit.  At the church no one was present.  The door was unlocked but no one was there! 

With some disgust the other tourists left.  Jolynn went inside and rummaged around for a while.  She finally found a bulletin from the previous week announcing that next week’s service (i.e. the Sunday we were there) was cancelled and a combined service was being held at the “Centerville” church (the other church on the circuit).  There were no directions to the other church, no address you could put in your Garmin, nothing was put out to help someone (anyone!) on where to go to worship God on that Sunday.  With disgust, we gave up.

On the way back to our cottage, we came across the Baptist Church.  The service was contemporary with some blending of traditional music; evangelical, engaging (we discussed the message and “winsomeness” of the worship all afternoon).  The Sanctuary was nearly full (mind you this was a mid-July worship in vacation region near Cape Breton National Park)! Jolynn and I thought we’d go back to that church even though we had some sharp disagreements in theology. 

The Margaree United Church knows that the days of Christendom are over but is still acting like they aren’t.  They believe in hospitality but don’t really practice it (at least not with an eye to the stranger.)  In the Baptist Church, Christ was Lord.  The faith mattered in a deep way, and they were sold out committed to reaching others with the news of Jesus.  God had blessed us with a painful and illuminating experience.  Small wonder The United Church of Canada is dying and the Baptist Church is thriving.

Missions = Hospitality

         Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I am at Duke for the Episcopal Leadership Forum.  Yesterday (Monday) we heard from three outstanding presenters – Dr. Dana Robert, Dr. Gil Rendle and Mr. Gary Shorb.  Each was insightful and challenging.

            Dr. Robert is on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology.  She is a leading historian of missions and the author (among many writings) of the current United Methodist Women’s study, Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity.  She presented the concept of the Bishop as chief missionary of the church.  In noting a list of great missionary bishops through the history of Christianity, she included Francis Asbury.  (Others on the list were people like Gregory the Great, Boniface, St. Patrick, St. Francis.)  Each was a “deliberate boundary crosser” taking the gospel to indigenous people. 

            I was especially intrigued by the implications of globalization in today’s missions.  Dr. Robert noted that 1) Every local church can be its own mission agency, 2) we are going through an explosion in short-term missionaries, and 3) Currently 10-12% of people in America (legally) were not born here. People from the U.S. are going out while others are coming in.  Missions are now a networking enterprise and no longer a simple partnership. 

        This revolution in missions has a great upside but it also brings some special problems.  Short term missionaries often come back seeing themselves as experts but don’t speak the language and don’t really have in-depth cross-cultural understanding and relationships.  Deeper training, understanding and reflection are needed.

            An intriguing image of mission work is to use the model of breathing.  Missions begin at home with hospitality and welcome to those coming in (with implications for our reception of immigrants).  It goes out (like our breath) as we go out sharing the gospel by word and deed (Great Commission – Matthew 28:16-20, among many other passages). 

            The connection of the practice of hospitality to missions is dramatic.  Radical hospitality in both segments of the breath metaphor is foundational.  Being in mission is intrinsic to being Christian!

Insights from Bishops’ Week

  • It has been a stimulating time at Bishop’s Week wrestling with both our spiritual journey of faithfulness and the role of the Extended Cabinet (Bishop, Lay Leader, DS, New Church Development, Treasurer and Assistant to the Bishop/Executive Director for Mission Ministry).  Today under Gil Rendle’s leadership we focus on issues involving “centers and edges” in organizational behavior and hybrid organizations.  Some of the pithy insights that have stimulated my thinking:
  • At the moment we are experiencing the downside of being centralized.  There is a good side and we need both!
  • Bishops, District Superintendents, Lay Leaders (among others) are at the center and yet need to encourage creative experiments and insight from the edges (which is a role fraught with contradictions!).
  • “We have inherited a spider [organization] with a central command.  We [at least some of us] desperately want to be a starfish but that is not us.  We are to be a hybrid organization.” 
  • “The Methodist movement was a reaction against the calmness with which English theologians had accepted and suppressed many of the vital elements of the Christian creed.” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature).
  • “The movement which now bears Wesley’s name was at first distinctly a church movement owing its impetus to long neglected doctrines of the church.”  (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

            Leadership needs to focus on storytelling and being champions of the mission and purpose.  We need to be catalysts and open system mangers (all the while we keep things organized! – no easy action).  We need to be grief mangers as an old way of doing and being church passes.

            A last pithy quote from Gil (though I do not think it is original to him):  “Perhaps we are too busy trying to calm waters that God is trying to stir.”

Bishops’ Week Focus

            Currently I am in Arkansas at our Jurisdictional Conference Center, Mt. Sequoyah.  June 23rd is a day for the meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops.  Wednesday, June 24th we begin Bishops’ Week with a decidedly different thrust.

            In past years Bishops’ week had been essentially a continuing education event hooked on to various Jurisdictional gatherings involving Bishops and District Superintendents.  While the presentations were often excellent, attendance has been spotty at best.  This year, in sharp contrast, Bishops’ Week will focus on the work of the Extended Cabinet.  Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation, will be guiding us on leading the church through the wilderness.  Bishop Sally Dyck, Resident Bishop of the Minnesota Conference, will be leading the group on spiritual formation and deepening our walk of faith.  We have read two books in preparation for the time of learning and spiritual growth – The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom and Finding Our Way Again by Brian McClaren.

            The Starfish and the Spider wrestles with the difference between movements and hierarchical organizations.  Implications for us as a church are obvious.  Once, the United Methodist Church was a movement for Christ.  Today we are best characterized as a hierarchical organization.  Where once we were fluid and nimble, today we are rule-bound and argue about boundaries.  Consider this quote:  “If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.”

            Finding Our Way Again chronicles the rediscovery of vital spiritual disciplines.  Consider:  “Spiritual practices … are a way of locating ourselves in a present moment no less lighted by the presence of the unseen God from whom we come, to whom we go, and with whom we travel.”  Pilgrimage, fasting, sacred meal, common (disciplined) prayer, giving, Sabbath rest, and liturgical year –  “these ancient practices have formed people of Abraham faith through many centuries.”

            There is much to share, learn and discuss here.  I look forward to this time of learning together.

The Holy Spirit and the Pension Crisis

          Another Annual Conference is behind us and I find myself struggling with the paper work which any Conference generates.  As I wrestle with an overflowing in-box of letters to answer, articles to write, and people to visit, some questions from Conference come back to me.

            In the middle of a serious and good debate about the growing cost of Pensions and Health Insurance (P&HI), someone stood on floor and asked, “If the Bishop has stated that our current Pension and Health Insurance is unsustainable, how does simply direct billing Pensions and Health Insurance solve that problem?”  It is a great question.

          Initially, an honest response is that direct billing does not solve the problem of unsustainable increases in P&HI.  A major part of any solution cannot happen at the Annual Conference level. Pensions is a denominational issue and solutions dealing with underlying issues such as contribution-defined or benefit-defined must be solved on the General Conference level.  At the Annual Conference, direct billing pushes the issue down to a local church level. 

          A deeper and equally honest response is that direct billing does force answers to the sustainability question.  Putting responsibility on a local level does offer an extremely significant partial solution. Local direct billing for P&HI forces a congregation to make priority choices around mission. It means people need to decide is the pastor and the church worth the expense.  Very few American Christians tithe.  Giving 2% of our income is usually seen as significant (verses a biblical tithe of 10%).  Direct billing forces us to confront an issue of faithfulness.  Do we practice extravagant generosity (one of the 5 practices)?

            Secondly, direct billing will have a corollary impact of raising pastoral competencies.  Why?  People won’t pay for poor or mediocre ministry.  It will not appear worth the investment.  Finances will force both pastors and churches to get more adept at reaching out to a new generation.  Churches that turn inward to survive (a huddle and cuddle strategy) will die.  Church that turn outward in mission and ministry will thrive.

           All this gets me to thinking even further out.  Is God using the economic crises to reform our church practices?  I think so.  I think the Holy Spirit is in the P&HI crises – not as cause but as a divine use.  Do you remember Joseph’s response to his brothers? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”  (Genesis 50:20)  God is at work here. That is really good news!

Like Christ

In getting ready for the Conference, I finished writing my Episcopal address and find pieces left over. I always feel a bit like Marco Polo who is reported to have said on his death bed, “But I haven’t told a half of what I’ve seen.”

Here are quotes I want to offer that lie unused on the cutting floor of my manuscript.

One is from one of my favorite church leaders, John Stott: “In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the hypocrites and the pagans and added: “Do not be like them” (Matt. 6:8).

Another, the apostle Paul could write to the Romans: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2).

Here then is God’s call to a radical discipleship, to a radical nonconformism, to the surrounding culture. It is a call to develop a Christian counterculture. The followers of Jesus, for example, are not to give in to pluralism, which denies the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus, nor be sucked into materialism or become led astray into ethical relativism, which says there are no moral absolutes. This is God’s call to his people to be different. We are not to be like reeds shaken by the wind, as Jesus said, but to be like rocks in a mountain stream; not to be like fish floating with the stream, but to swim again the stream – even the cultural mainstream.

We are faced, in fact, with two cultures, two value systems, two standards and two lifestyles. Which shall we choose? If we are not to be like chameleons, changing color to suit our surroundings, what are we to be like? The answer is that we are to be like Christ. The eternal and ultimate purpose of God by his Spirit is to make us like Christ.”
(by John Stott taken from UnChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons pgs. 151-152)

Back to the Future

 

Tuesday, May 25th, I had the privilege of joining an ecumenical group for a Conversation with Leaders of the China Christian Council.  Brite Divinity School graciously hosted the gathering along with the Tarrant Area Community of Churches.  As I listened to the Rev. Gao Feng (President of the Christian Council – representing the registered Protestant Churches), I could not help but think that we have much to learn or more accurately relearn.

Rev. Gao’s group purports to represent some 20 million Protestant Christians in China.  Their group is “registered” with the government.  There are other “unregistered” protestant Christian gatherings in China.  By all accounts the 20 million figure is low.  In fact, a more accurate number may be closer to 40 million.  The Christian movement is growing rapidly in China.

Repeatedly I was struck the reference to the Christian Church in China as “post-denominational.”  There is an affiliation but it is a loose one.  One of the Brite professors present who had more detailed knowledge than I said that it was a relationship more like what we might have with the National Council of Churches.  The Christian Church in China reported 3,700 pastors (1,000 of which are female).  You do the math.  By my rough count that means there was one pastor for every 5,405 active(!) lay persons.  They reported 55,000 churches and “meeting points” (many of which are house fellowships).  That means each ordained clergy had 14.85 churches or meeting places they were responsible for!

Behind all this is obviously a vibrant movemental sense of the Holy Spirit at work.  Lay leadership in ministry is common and vital to the movement.  Much of the preaching is done by lay leaders guiding house fellowships.  (The leaders insisted in not calling them house churches because as they put it “there is only one church.”)  Instead of focusing on church buildings, most of the members worship in homes.

Hit the pause button and ask, “Where have I seen this before?”  Here are three quick answers: 1) The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, 2) The Celtic missionary movement from Ireland in the 5th – 7th centuries, and 3) The early Methodist movement.

It’s time to go back to the future!  We need to loosen our structure and allow ministry to flourish as a lay movement under the power of the Holy Spirit once again.

Church in Budapest

Identify our Core Values: What I Learned in Meetings

Last Friday afternoon (continuing until noon on Saturday) I participated in a fascinating meeting that has remained on my mind and be lodged in my prayer life. (The previous 5 days were spent meeting as a part of the Council of Bishops (COB) in Columbus, Ohio.) I am still not sure what the name of the group I was meeting with is. The gathering consisted of the President of the Council of Bishops, the General Secretaries of the various United Methodist general church commissions and agencies, the Presidents (Chairs of the agency or commission’s board) of those agencies (some of whom are bishops), the four Focus Area lead bishops (I hold the position for “New People in New Places and the Transformation of Existing Congregations – commonly referred to as Path1), and leadership from the Connectional Table.

The purpose of the meeting was to examine potential reduction/realignment of general church agencies; coordinate budgeting and finances; examine the impact of the global nature of the church related to our current and possible future structures. That is a lot to engage in! Thirty or so dedicated and committed people wrestled hard with preliminary considerations of this huge task. I was impressed with the dedication and seriousness with which the group went about its work.

One of the issues that surfaced is the relationship of the Four Areas of Focus (Leadership, New Places for New People and Transformation of Existing Congregations, Poverty, and Eradication of Killer Diseases) with the disciplinary mandates. Disciplinary Mandates are those items that The Discipline of the United Methodist Church mandates (orders) that the general agencies engage in. I had the privilege of visiting with Erin Hawkins, General Secretary for The Commission on Religion and Race, at a break and she conveyed to me that her agency had some 34 or 35 disciplinary mandates. Hers is one of the smaller agencies. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have vastly over legislated the church’s work. How does the existing “to do” list converge with our missional priorities? Discernment of convergence (Holy Spirit driven!) is a major task before us! We are far from agreement on this most basic commitment.

What we could agree upon is our mission. The United Methodist Church exists to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We had ready agreement that mission should drive are alignment and budget. From that came the necessary corollary that we should align and budget in a manner that is outcome based. In other words, what alignment will best produce the outcomes we are after in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?”

The huge question that drives off such a conviction of mission and determination to be outcome driven is: what are our shared core values and what are the outcomes we should measure? So, if you have read this far, here is where you come in. I would like feedback on 1) what four or five core values should drive this mission process, and 2) what are the key outcomes we should be seeking.

I want hear what you think. Please, short concise answers to 1) what four or five core values should drive this mission process, and 2) what are the key outcomes we should be seeking? If you can’t put it on a postcard, it is too long. I promise to read all ideas but, due to other time restrictions, will not be able to respond to any individual. Instead, I will share group feedback with you in a later blog. Thanks for the help!

Pray as We Examine our Faith Focus and our World

Starting Sunday evening, May 2nd, I will be at the Council of Bishops meeting and remain for an additional two days for a meeting of a Task Group of Bishops and General Secretaries on aligning our church with the Four Focus Areas: combating the diseases of poverty by improving health globally; engaging in ministry with the poor; creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations; and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

My particular work is with the area of creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations. It is a stimulating time and as we go forth, I am reminded of a quote by Nelson Henderson in which he said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade we do not expect to sit.”

It’s no secret that we’re looking at amazing and large spectrum issues that involve us moving through the wilderness of our time (from a Christendom culture to a post-Christendom culture). I like to say that no one knows for sure what they’re doing. We do know, however, who we are traveling with – and that person is God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amid all the controversies of our time – debates over war and peace, health care, racism, poverty – it’s important to remember that the church is engaged in significant issues that affect not just those who claim to be Christian but those who do not know Christ. Bishop Ches Lovern taught me that great churches deal with great issues. As we meet as a Council, I ask for your prayers for the Council as a whole and for the church and its leadership. I cannot help but remember a marvelous piece of writing that Garrison Keiler shared about Methodists. He wrote, “I do believe this: people, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you could call up when you are in deep distress. If you are dying, they will comfort you; if you are lonely, they will talk to you; if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!” His marvelous little insights provoke me to remember that this is not my church or your church but is truly God’s church. And in our own humorous way are simply but part of it; gifted by God to take part in the struggles of our time to advance the kingdom of God. Please keep us in your prayers as we reach out.

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