THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

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