Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

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