Now he is saying that Evangelicals control the Republican party. To be fair, this is appears to be the editorial spin on his comments which are more exactly a claim that the Republicans will fail to elect a Presidential candidate whom Evangelicals do not support. This isn't the same as "controlling" the party (it doesn't look to me liek any one group is controlling the party; they just don't have that level of unity), but it does come across as a desire to control the party - at least the selection of a president. I have trouble seeing how proclaiming a lust for political power will bring many people to Christ - though I can see how it might scare some people away.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Now he is saying that Evangelicals control the Republican party. To be fair, this is appears to be the editorial spin on his comments which are more exactly a claim that the Republicans will fail to elect a Presidential candidate whom Evangelicals do not support. This isn't the same as "controlling" the party (it doesn't look to me liek any one group is controlling the party; they just don't have that level of unity), but it does come across as a desire to control the party - at least the selection of a president. I have trouble seeing how proclaiming a lust for political power will bring many people to Christ - though I can see how it might scare some people away.
Monday, September 27, 2004
New Bishops face decline
Bishop Peter Weaver has taken over in the New England Annual Confrence after 8 years in Philadelphia.
The new head of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church on Saturday stood at the altar barefoot and urged members of his flock to do the same.Bishop Peter Weaver passionately urged worshippers to wiggle their toes and feel the world that is under their feet at a ceremony held in the historic Chestnut Street United Methodist Church nestled just off Congress Street behind Portland City Hall.Yes, the Conference has only lost 13,000 members over tha past decade. Since church membership has been aging for some time, some might think that the majority of this decline is due to the death of members. The most recent copy of the General Minutes that I have is fro the year 2000, reporting data from 1999. In that year the Conference churches lost 1640 members through death, 1017 through transfer to other churches (transfer may be to other UM churches in other areas or to other denominations), and 3654 through Charge Conference action or withdrawal. This third category represents memebrs who have withdrawn from the life of the church either through word or action.
"I invite you to take the shoes off your souls and be in touch with the reality of the power in God's presence and the pain of God's people," Weaver, 59, said.....
Church membership in the New England Conference of the denomination has fallen by 13,000 over the past decade, according to conference spokesman, the Rev. Michael Hickcox. Tight finances over the two years have forced the church's New England headquarters, located in a former furniture store in Lawrence, Mass., to downsize its staff.Other challenges facing Weaver include graying congregations and declining Sunday service attendance, which in rural locations in northern New England often means an average of 25 worshippers per service, Hickcox said on Saturday. Aging church buildings often are in desperate need of repair As he took off his shoes and delivered a fiery sermon interrupted by applause and amens, Weaver said that those things would not be the focus during his tenure as bishop.
Why have they lost so many?
The fight over homosexuality among United Methodists has made many people in the conference unhappy and caused some to leave for churches with a more liberal outlook, Hickcox said Saturday, adding that the 18th and 19th century music older worshippers often prefer puts off many younger worshippers. Yet success in blending contemporary and traditional worship styles has been mixed, often leaving "everybody unhappy part of the time," he said.It sounds like Mr. Hickcox believes the Church hasn't been liberal enough in their attitudes toward homosexuality. Or their worship styles haven't caught on with the general worshipping yet on-church-going public. But now everything is under control. They finally have a bishop who will take his shoes off in worship (while not saying negative things about homosexuality, as far as we can tell). He will be positive, feel "god's presence" and not focus on "those things" - membership decline and an aging church. I can't help but think that in that kind of situation "those things" would require some focus from the bishop.
Mary Ann Swenson is entering her second quadrennium as bshop inthe California Pacific Annual Conference. (LA Times story requires registration.)
The Cal-Pac Conference, like most the others, is also in decline. The LA Times reports that they lose 2000-3000 a year now. We know the loss is not due to population decline - California continues to grow. Bishop Swenson has a theory why this is:
The bishop attributes the decline in church membership to a material wealth that makes people think they have no need for church, distractions from popular culture, and the church's failure to reach out enough to new areas and new potential members.It's society's fault for being too rich and too busy. It's the church's fault for not reaching out. I spent four years in a UM church in that conference. I know that in general, the church doesn't reach out - unless by "reaching out" one means doing good works for people. All the California Methodists I met were friendly people. They were nice and well-mannered. What they lacked, for the most part, were articulated reasons for why someone ought to be a Christian rather than something else (or even rather than nothing). The Bishop at that time was Roy Sano. I remember him telling us that his Buddhist heritage and his Christian heritage were so important to him that he kept both the Christian symbol and the yin-yang on opposite sides of this briefcase. I have trouble seeing how the Conference will ever grow - or even reverse its decline - until the leadership develops a conviction that people actaully need Jesus -not just the good deeds done by Jesus people.
I haven't met Bishop Swenson, but the people I know that serve under her report that she is a very kind person and perhaps the most pastoral bishop they've ever met. According to the LA Times, she has a plan. This plan is exemplified in two related things: Her bike riding and her social action.
She sometimes spends a night with homeless people in shelters, marches on behalf of workers' rights, and has spoken out on behalf of gays and lesbians.I can imagine that all these are good things. But where is Jesus? Where is the difference between being a Christian and just being a supporter of the ACLU, the Humane Society, the Unitarians or a political party? I just don't get it.
But then I'm not a bishop.
Saturday, September 25, 2004
The above link takes you to a discussion of this issue in the Deseret News in Utah. As far as I can tell, the Mormons pioneered the modern use of advertising in religion with their "Family" spots. When non-Mormons see these ads they think something like, "Aw, I remember those days... back before everyone in the family was off doing their own thing. Back in the days when we had real togetherness. Back before the problems of divorce & child abuse." Not being a Mormon, and never having been in any of their strategy sessions, I think their appeal to American nostalgia could be really effective. From my understanding of Mormon doctrine, it is also truthful advertising. Family IS important in Mormonism - more important than outsiders can conceive. Eternal life for Mormons is all about family - being with your family for eterity; begetting spirit children; creating and ruling over a world where your spirit children can take on bodies and repeat the cycle. You don't get all that in their ads, but there is a direct line between the doctinal position and the advertising message.
But what about the United Methodist advertising campaign? Our motto isn't "Family is forever," but "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors." How will the average American hear this? That we are OPEN. We don't believe anything in particular, and to be a United Methodist you don't have to believe anything in particular - unless its believing in Openness (not believing in anything in particular). In the Deseret News piece Steve Godier of Christ UMC says;
"It says a lot about who we are theologically. That we're not so dogmatic that we'll tell you what to believe."It is un-American to tell people what to believe. The Mormons don't - they just hitch on to the modern American nostalgia for family. We UMs hitch on to the modern American desire to be autonomous, to practice atomistic individualism. Do you want to believe in God? That's ok. Want to believe Jesus was only a wandering Cynic philosopher? That's ok. Want to believe he was killed, and his body eaten by dogs? That's ok. Want to believe the resurrection had nothing to do with Jesus' body, but onoly reflects the fact that after he died some people came to think Jesus was a great guy? That's ok too. But - if you want to believe there is such a thing as truth and that it actually matters - and that one of the jobs of United Methodists is to help people become disciples of a Jesus who actually was and is, who is NOT made in their own image - that is a sin against openness.
When the advertising campaign first came out I corresponded with some of the campaign staff. I shared my concern that it gave the impression that UMs have no doctrine. Their comment was that the UMC did indeed have doctrine, but advertising wasn't the place for it. We needed to get people in the (open) door first, and THEN give them doctrine. My response was that we UMs were already so deeply enculturated in American Autonomous Individualism, that even UMs would be mislead by this campaign. They would also seek to conform their churches (which had doctrine) to the slogan (no doctrine) so they wouldn't be accused of using Bait & Switch. And now we see that a pastor - a leader of a church - happens to think exactly that.
Now I'm afraid we have even more work to do.
Friday, September 24, 2004
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
From the Muslims I've talked to, this is not Islam. As an outsider, I'd say that Muslims are at a point in history where they have to decide what is genuine Islam and what isn't. We can't do that by (1) just reading the Qur'an, (2) declaring at the beginning that Islam is a "religion of peace," or, (3) listening to a terrorist - or any other single speaker.
As to (1), the Qur'an clearly can be read in a variety of ways. One way some Muslims are doing this is by doing what some might call a "fundamentalist" move - going back to the Qur'an alone, setting aside the Haddith (traditions of the Prophet).
As to (2), many religions can be described as "religions of peace." But this moniker begs several questions: What does "peace" mean? What does is look like? Peace for whom? By what means? Under what conditions?
Finally, (3) is insufficient because a religion is to complex a thing to identify on the word of any one person on any one occasion. It takes time. If Islam is in flux now, it will not be resolved quickly.
We do have more to learn, I believe. We achieve our peacefulness by simply avoiding all political talk - even of the intersection of Kingdom of God interests and political interests.
Like other mainline Protestant denominations, United Methodists have grappled with issues surrounding homosexuality. At their general conference last spring, in Pittsburgh, they reaffirmed their doctrine against ordaining "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals," and against same-sex marriage.
Asked if he agreed with those decisions, Devahdar, who as a delegate cast secret ballots, would not say.
"I will not say whether I support the blessings of same-sex unions or the ordaining of gays and lesbians," he said. "My duty is to be loyal and guard the doctrine of the church ... As a United Methodist bishop, I am committed to be faithful to the discipline of the church."
I think when he says something like, "My opinions are irrelevant" he is on the right track. I'm not a bishop, but my opinions are also irrelevant to the issue of UM doctrine. I submit.
For years now I have been concerned that our educational system seems so caught up with standardized multiple choice tests. Does one’s ability to darken appropriate squares really translate into one’s ability to succeed in life?
Even more than my lack of faith in standardized, multiple choice tests, I am extremely skeptical of anyone who thinks that religion can be so simply summed up with a set of beliefs deduced therefrom.
Don’t get me wrong; what one believes does matter. And I enjoy theological discussions, even debates as much as the next person. But I have also learned over the years that God is not nearly so worried about my ability to correctly articulate my beliefs as He is about my living in a relationship with Him.
Jesus even said in Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, that what is important is what one does, not what one says. He is interested in how we live our lives more than in how well we explain what we believe.
I admit, though, that this attitude of mine comes from this very basic belief: there is one God, and He lived among as Jesus to teach us how to live as humans in relationship with God. Whether or not you’ve got everything figured out, God still loves you and wants you to know that.
The practice of having local congregations hold their property "in trust" for the whole church (in the legal entity of the Annual Conference) is very long standing in Methodism, dating back to John Wesley's Model Deed. The basic thought is: We want our churches to remain our churches. We don't want outsiders coming in and usurping authority and taking them from us. In Wesley's day, the fear was that usurpers would come from below - from the local preaching places (since Wesley never left the church of England, the Methodists didn't have "churches" in his day). The phenomenon in California is very different. From the perspective of the congregations, the usurpation has taken place at the top. The problem: there is no theoretical space in United Methodism to conceptualize usurpation from above.
The UNited Methodist system is, to a large degree, defined and structured around distrust. The Congregations don't trust the Annual Conference or the General Church. The General Church doesn't trust the congregations. The laity don't trust the clergy, the clergy don't trust the laity. The bishops and their cabinets don't trust the preachers, and vice versa. We're thoroughly top down in our leadership structure. As Lyle Schaller noted in his book Tattered Trust, this distrust is destroying us.
What our polity has hidden from us (and here it is abbetted by the fact the the UMC is very much in the thrall of modernity) is that the buildings and intsitutions - the things with dollar signs attached - are not the only things held in trust. Our doctrinal heritage is also held in trust, and I would argue it is of much greater importance. Some of our Bishops and other leaders want to maintain the right to be completely free with their doctrinal proclamations while restricting the local churches' freedom with their property. A betrayal of trust is a betrayal of trust - which ever way it works.
Bands from both schools played. First, Texas State’s band played selections from Boston, a 1970’s rock group. Then, the Golden Wave Marching Band took the field and played music from Aerosmith. Though they are still fairly popular, Aeromsith is another 1970’s rock band. When I got home I told my 15 year old daughter that she could expect to hear college marching bands playing Eminem when she is 40.
I couldn’t help but chuckle and wonder if either band would have imagined 30 years ago that their music would someday be played by college marching bands as a halftime show for football games. My guess is no, they would not.
Rock wasn’t about halftime shows; it was about rebellion. The very volume of it screamed that! The artists wore their hair long and dressed in non-conforming ways. Some were militantly political, even anti-american, and mixed such views into their music.
Our society, however, has a tendency to domesticate almost anything. What was cutting-edge or even counter-cultural twenty years ago may be mainstream or even boring next year.
Have you noticed how “family” television stations merely bring back shows from at least twenty years ago and plug them as “family-friendly?” Some of these shows, at the time of their original release, were certainly not heralded as wholesome shows. By comparison with the current offerings, though, they are tame.
Christians, we too have to fight such a trend toward domestication in our own lives. Forces in society work toward making all of us the same. Everything anyone says is merely an opinion, and everyone is entitles to his or her opinion. “Religion” is relegated to the private, and everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants to believe, but we are not to act according to our beliefs, unless they lead us to act the same way everyone else does.
Be careful you are not being domesticated by society.
Monday, September 20, 2004
It sounds like Bishop Bickerton has a good record of growing churches. Should be good for Western Pennsylvania. One thing he says makes me wonder:
"Generally speaking, the United Methodist Church is an old denomination," Bickerton said. "We have to work to find ways to be relevant today."
Is he saying talking about (a) the fact the church was started in 1784; (b) the fact that our churches are full of older people with the average age of members going up every year? My guess is (b). I'm not sure how relevance connects with this. One could argue that we are being relevant - to old people. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are pleny of unchurched old people around that the church can be reaching. Or is he suggesting that we need to be relevant to younger generations?
I can't help but think that if we're obedient to God we'll be relevant to the people around us. Of course, they still need the grace of God to recognize the church's relevance.
- <>You grow a church with talent and leadership. You impact a community with compassion.>
- <>You grow a church on your terms. You reach a community on their terms. >
- <>You grow a church by offering good programs. You reach a community by offering good relationships.>
- <>You grow a church by investing in yourself. You invest outside yourselves to reach a community.>
Purpose Driven Life - Day 3
- Resentment and anger
- Need for Approval
The alternative he proposes is - not suprisingly - a purpose driven life, a "life guided, controlled and directed by God's purposes." When we live this way, he claims, our lives will have meaning, be simplified, have focus and motivation, and we'll be prepared for eternity.
Let's take apart this whole concept.
"Driven" is a metaphor used to describe that which makes something happen. What is the best explanation for the way we live our lives? Why do we do what we do? What motivates us? When we rephrase and ask these questions we can get beyond the passivity of the "driven" metaphor. My car is driven. It has no choice where it goes. It responds directly to my action, although limited by its environment (wind, rain and ice affect ist performance). But we humans aren't cars.
Knowing our purpose isn't enough. We can know our purpose and still be "driven" by those other features: fear, guilt, etc. It is truly a good thing to know God's purpose for our lives, but we must engage with those purposes intelligently. We must actively obey God. Again - we are not cars - not even to God. We are being made in his image. He doesn't "drive" us. When we say we're living a "purpose driven life" we're saying that we are responding faithfully to what God made us for, whether that fits with our environment or not. Our environment may induce us to do what we do based on fear, guilt, need for approval, etc. We all have to deal with these motivations. Living the Purpose Driven Life doesn't make these other motivatiosn unreal - it just makes it so that we chose to be motivated by something else - by God's purposes.
Pastor's Report for 2004 Charge Conference
Let me begin by saying that I’m happy to be your pastor. This church is full of interesting people – “characters” one might say. I can easily see your commitment not only to the church but also to the community. I have never served a church had so many community leaders. You may have noticed that I’m somewhat academic by nature. I appreciate the fact that you accept me as I am and have even expressed appreciation for the way this academic bent comes out sometimes. I have great people to work with – those on staff and those of you who are lay leaders.
Sometimes we pastors divide ourselves from our people. We use phrases like “your church.” My attitude is that if this church isn’t “my church” then there’s not much point in my being here. If you have to live in one place all your life or be the most recent of several generations in a place to truly be at home, then I’ll never be home. When we consider the Pittsburg tenure of everyone in the room tonight, I’m one of the newest here. But my calling is to make this town – and this church – my home as long as I’m here. This is where I’m committed. United Methodist polity says my membership is in the Annual Conference, and I understand what that is about. But for all effects and purposes my membership is here. I tithe my income here. I pour my energy here.
We – notice I say “we,” not “you” – face a number of challenges this year. These challenges are not new or peculiar to us here in Pittsburg.
The first challenge is the most obvious, but the one that counts for the least in the light of eternity. I’m speaking of our finances. We have a historic sanctuary and an aging church plant. We have money due on our renovations and more work needs to be done. This need will never go away. We also have a budget increase. Again. Adding a part time staff person to do children’s ministry may sound extravagant. Some might say, “How can you add staff when you already owe so much? Shouldn’t you pay off the debt first?” Perhaps we’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived. Cindy Strait led the children’s ministry these past few years, giving hours and hours every week. It cost her family financially. Over that time we got the idea that that much ministry could always be done for free. The church leadership doesn’t think so. We also don’t think it’s intelligent to put children’s ministry on hold until we get our debt paid off. When we look at our mission as a church it doesn’t make sense to say to families with children, “Why don’t you just take your kids to another church until we get our debt paid? Then we’ll be glad to have you!”
I’ve seen too many churches that hit a financial crunch after doing building work who respond to the crunch by doing the obvious: cutting ministry and staff. Then they wonder why people stop coming. However much all of us love our buildings, it’s not the buildings that attract or keep people. It’s us. As I’ve said before, we’re in the people business.
The foundation of a church’s finances is the tithes of its members. Tithing is more than putting something in the plate each week. It’s giving ten percent of your income. That’s really easy to figure. Someone asks, “Do I tithe my gross salary or my net?” I don’t care. If our people tithe, we’ll make it fine.
So tithes are the foundation. Additionally we have special offerings. Some in the congregation have been blessed in the area of resources, so they are able to give beyond a tithe, especially when it comes to special projects. From what Jerry Massey tells me, you’ve already given more than a hundred thousand more to our renovation projects than what the experts said you would. Our church has a strong heritage of responding to needs when they arise. We also need people who remember the church in their wills – people who want to see their legacy of faith continue on for the generations to come.
What about fundraisers? We have our annual Lord’s Acre next Saturday. Fundraisers can be a lot of fun, and when successful, can bring in thousands of dollars. But whose money is it? Many times it is our own. I’ve never understood why we need to have fundraisers to get money out of some church people. Fundraisers that draw in from outside the church – those make more sense. It’s like the Israelites plundering the Egyptians. Maybe someday I’ll get it. In short: fundraisers are good, but woe to the church that depends on them in any significant way.
It all boils down to trusting God in the area of money. I hope I do a decent job of modeling that for you. I know I’ve seen the Finance Committee and the Administrative Council do it in the past year.
Our second big challenge is activating the whole body. We have over 400 members. We have a goal of averaging 200 in worship – a milestone this church hasn’t reached since 1966. We’re really close. Do you know why we’re so close? Because you’ve been committed. You’ve been coming. You’ve been inviting your friends and neighbors.
Of course attendance in worship is only the beginning of activating the Body. When I read the bible I see that God’s plan is to have all members of the body connected to each other, growing in relationship to Jesus (the head of the body), actively involved in ministry, and vigorously influencing outsiders toward the Kingdom.
Body activation in this sense then, is the main reason for the 40 Days of Purpose Campaign that starts next month. It will be a concentrated time for all our people to deepen their connections to, in and through the body.
If you think activating the body and getting the finances under control are big challenges, just wait till you hear the last one I’m going to mention. In the Great Commission Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations by going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything he commanded. Does that sound big enough? We, like most churches in the country, are mostly configured around taking care of ourselves. We think of membership conferring privileges. We see ourselves as the recipients of the ministry done by the minister. The biblical model, however, is for God’s people to let him do his work in their lives so that the watching world can see, wonder, and ask questions. Through what they see of God in us – and I mean more than seeing that we’re nice people – and through what they learn from our bold response to their questions, they can come to the place where they are ready to give their lives to Jesus. It’s at this point that membership make sense – not membership as a claiming of rights, but membership as a taking up of responsibilities, of joining in the mission of Jesus.
Reaching outside the church in evangelism is another aim of the 40 Days of Purpose. That’s why we need more than just Sunday School – why we need to have groups meeting during the week as well. That’s why I keep talking to you about getting a Spanish language group going as well. We need to invite people. We need to offer them Christ.
Our internet ministry is also expanding, enabling us to reach the world. Sunday messages are now available to the world at streamgarden.tv. I’ve recently started a weblog where I post my commentary on what’s happening in the world from a Christian point of view. You can get links to both of these by checking out our website – www.fumcpittsburg.com.
If we pay all our bills, whip our debt and have piles of cash laying around, I’ll be happy, but I won’t be satisfied. If all four hundred plus of our members start coming to worship and get involved in the ministry, I’ll be happy, but I won’t be satisfied. I’m not going to rest – I’m not going to stop crying out to God until we become a place where people are regularly coming to faith in Jesus, crossing the line of commitment to Jesus and to the church.
Does all that sound impossible yet? Does it sound like something we can’t do? Does it sound like a set of goals we will definitely fail to reach – unless God intervenes? That’s the thing – we’re trying things that are hard and difficult – things outside the norm. We can fail. We need resources beyond our own, the chief being a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit that not only empowers us, not only sweeps away our apathy and lethargy, but also opens our mouths and lives to the watching world.
That’s what I’m working and praying toward. Will you join me?
Drawing on the work of Philip Longman, Burns writes:
... no business or government institution can replace the functioning of a family. Without that functioning, society would cease to exist... Mr. Longman sees a birth rate that is literally verging on extinction (nearly half the required rate for replacement) in Europe, Japan and Russia. And he asks questions few are asking. Those questions turn on two words.
Care. It will become more difficult in such a rapid population shift. Mr. Longman points out that there will be 35 million fewer children in the world by 2050 but 1.6 billion more elderly people. We can measure that by asking what portion of the population will be at least 60 years old in 2050, remembering that in most of human history it has been less than 5 percent.
In forever-young America, the figure will hit 26.9 percent, the lowest of any of the developed economies. In Italy and Japan it will be 42.3 percent. In Germany it will be 38.1 percent.
These are massive changes. They will absorb the lifetime work of millions of younger people. It will strain – or completely destroy – institutional systems of retirement income and health care that depend on transfers from younger workers. It will put devastating strain on younger households that may have to care for aging parents and stepparents.
Nurture. This is what adult parents do for the next generation. Nurture will be increasingly problematic as young couples confront the competing demands of caring (or paying) for the elderly, paying off education debts taken on to be competitive in the job market and paying for expensive housing in the shrinking number of school districts that offer quality public education.
Burns has a long history of warning us about the upcoming demise of Social Security (the math just doesn't work). Now we see the deeper problem - the generational balance is out of whack. We're all happy about the advances of medicine that have enabled us to live longer. But we have not taken into account all the effects that ripple through society.
If we think that Burns (and Longman) are correct in their assessment, what can we do?
At the very least, we need to turn our attention to those places where the population is not cratering - especially Africa. Africa is faced with exploding populations, rotten government, and new diseases. As Christians, we need to find ways to bless the people's of Africa. It won't only be for their good, but for the good of the world. Perhaps Africa University will prove of immense importance here.
We'll also have to find ways to build up families in America. This will mean finding ways to encourage families to have more children. I have three children, so I know this is tough both economically and socially. Children cost us time and money. They're the biggest investment we make. We need to find ways to convince people that investing in children (I'm not speaking of government investment in children but parental investment) instead of new and bigger houses, cars, vacations, etc.
Update: Here's some new commentary on Africa University. Since they're in Zimbabwe, thye certainly have their work cut out for them. Keep praying.
Friday, September 17, 2004
40 Days of Purpose - Day 2
"You are not an accident." This is the thesis statement of the chapter. Many of us live like we are accidents. Not only do we not matter in the light of eternity, we think we don't even matter in the light of this week. According to the bible, however, "God never does anything accidently, and he never makes mistakes." He has a purpose for each of us.
"While there are illegitimate parents, there are no illegitimate children." Some of us may have made a mistake when we "chose" our parents. That may have done a rotten job with us - led us to see ourselves as accidents - but God got the first word with us and will get the last word.
"If there was no God, we would all be accidents." What he means here is (a) without God, it would only be random chance that brought us here, and (b) we would lack any purpose larger than ourselves.
He quotes Dr. Michael Denton of the University of Otago in New Zealand: "All the evidence available in the biological sciences suppots the core proposition... that the cosmos is a soecially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality have their meaning and explanation in this central fact." This is a strong statement of what is called the Anthropic Principle.
What do I find questionable? Warren presents a strongly controlling God, pictured as actively planning everything that is. "God prescribed every single detail of your body. He deliberately chose your race, the color of your skin, your hair, and very other feature." Including your disabilites and defects. Do you have any congenital defects? God prescribed those also. It sure reads like everything is the way it is because God planned it that way. When I read scripture, I see that something AREN'T the way God wants them to be. Sometimes God is disappointed in the way things are. God made us not only for a purpose, but to be freeling willing and acting beings. Our free actions have consequences, not merely in our own lives but in the lives of the people around us.
So what's my alternative? How would I explain the defects we experience in our bodies? First, I would make a simple admission: Not everything we consider a defect is a defect in God's eyes. Our values and valuations are warped by sin and our limitations. Second, because of sin we live in a broken world. This brokenness, which is not God will, affects us on many levels, even the genetic and biological. Brokenness is not only outside us, but within us.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
"And even though his twenty-something son quipped in to say he was 'disappointed' by the film and asserted 'politics is not as important' for Iran's younger generation, he did envy Moore's position.
'It sure is a great country, where someone like Moore trashes the president and gets away with it -- and makes so much money!' he laughed."
Does this tell you something about America? People here see Fahrenheit 9/11 (I have not and probably won't) and think, "Oh, we're a horrible place!" Yet we often forget the tremendous freedoms we have.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
40 Days of Purpose - Day 1
What is God's role in all this? God wants us to know our purpose. He doesn't create us and then tell us to grope our way towards purpose. No, he loves us enough to reveal himself, his purposes and his ways to us in the bible.
We also find our purpose through relationships: our relationship with God, our relationships with other people, and our relationship with creation itself. When sin has its way in our lives, these relationships are broken or warped, so we fall short of the purpose God has for us.
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
40 Days of Purpose - Introduction
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in California. Ostensibly a Southern Baptist congregation, they don't make much of their denominational affiliation. From what I've seen of Rick Warren (I first heard him back in the early 90s while I was living in California), he and his organization honestly seek to be a blessing to other churches, whatever their denomination. They present their stuff - including the 40 Days of Purpose - as plain old basic Christianity. For the most part they're right on target. But by downplaying their baptist heritage, there are elements of that heritage that come through without the label. What is presented as basic Christianity is actually the baptist take on basic Christianity. I'm not in the least perturbed by this. I'm United Methodist and I'm sure my tradition comes through the same way in what I write and say. Saddleback is also an extremely large church in Southern California, so some of what we find in the material may also represent a large church and a California take on basic Christianity. I share these obvious points simply so we will be aware while we read.
The Purpose Driven people strongly advise every church that uses their material to adapt it to their situation. That's great advice, and the rationale for my blogging the book. I will be blogging each chapter of the book, offering my comments and questions. Hopefully it will be good for you. I know it will be good for me.
Warren's book is all about answering what he calls "Life's most important question": "What on earth am I here for?" It is comon to think that the best way to answer this question is to look inward: Who am I? What do I want? What are my talents and abilities? What makes me happy? Although these questions aren't irrelevant, they will inevitably lead us astray if we don't consider them in the context of who God - our Maker - is, and what God has done, is doing, and will do in our world. We're part of something bigger than us!
Here are some pointers as you read the book.
- Remember that it's not the bible. It's a devotional book. Measure what you read by the Bible.
- Read only one chapter a day. Take time to digest it.
- Interact with the book. Ask questions of it. Ask questions of yourself.
- If you own the book (and you should), write in it. Underline or highlight parts you think most relevant.
- Don't take this adventure alone. Be part of a small group doing the book. Talk about it with your family. As we talk things over we engage our senses more fullly and learn more.
- Pray. Allow God to be your partner. Ask for ears to hear what He wants to say to you.
Monday, September 13, 2004
Compass Direct - Iranian Christians Arrested
Once again bad news is coming out of Iran. Time to keep praying.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Blogs vs. Mainstream Media (MSM)
The dominant theory of knowledge in the modern era is foundationalism. Foundationalism is the notion that we need an indubitable foundation upon which we can build our knowledge. Nothing certain? Then no real knowledge. Descartes got the ball rolling (I'm simplifying a bit) with his Cogito ergo sum, but Locke, Kant, and others followed the same path.
One requirement of the foundation of one's knowledge structure was univeralizability - it had to be equally available to anyone. Thus the guardians of real knowledge had to be neutral observers - freed from all particularity. With this scheme the universal and the abstract held sway over the local and the particular.
Fast forward to today. The MSM sees itself as the neutral guardian of knowledge. They are the experts, properly trained in the skills of acquiring and building knowledge into a structure. The bloggers? They're chaotic elements hovering on the edges. If we want real truth, they (the MSM) think, we must stick with those who are neutral.
Problem: Nobody's neutral. No one stands nowhere. Thomas Nagel wrote a book years ago - The View from Nowhere. His aim was to describe a truly objective epistemology. His title, however, has been claimed by "the other side," those who reject the possibility of standing nowhere.
According to moderns, knowledge IS built on foundations. If there are no foundations, then there is no knowledge. This is their take on the bloggers. The bloggers have no foundations. No universitality. They are to the media, what Nietzsche (and Nietzsche's recent followers - I think of Derrida and Foucault here) is to the theory of knowledge. Real knowledge is foundational in structure, you [Nietzscheans, bloggers) say there is no foundation (only difference), so there is no knowledge. BUT: we all want knowledge, so we need the MSM, not the bloggers. QED.
But there are other postmoderns - and though I am fairly new to blogging, I think I would be right to think that whether bloggers consider themselves postmodern or not, the phenomenon itself IS - who refuse to accept that all knowledge must be conceived foundationalistically. Once we make that move, no longer do we have to worry about the lack of foundations.
So how might the blogs become producers of real knowledge given non-foundationalism? Well, it looks like they talk with each other. They push each other. They provoke each other. They argue. They critique. They learn.
Oh - but what if Blogger A is not really who or what he says he is? Eventually, if that is relevant to the piece of knowledge pursued, I believe it will come out.
Finally (it's getting late) let me turn this around for a moment. I think it possible that what we're seeing with the blogs vis-a-vis the MSM not only is a picture of the demise of foundationalism, but also might very well be an agent of the demise in broader culture. We'll see.
But from what I've read of the history of the war (as opposed to the feelings associated with it), this picture is highly inaccurate. My main source has been Lewis Sorley's Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America�s Last Years in Vietnam. The book tends to be repetitive, and thus longer than necessary, but the picture it gives of the war is very different than the "Vietnam" that lingers in public consciousness.
Sorley presents the work of Vietnamization - the plan to equip and enable the South Vietnamese to provide their own defense against the North. Under General Creighton Abrams, this strategy proved very successful. In theory, this strategy, combined with the treaties we signed with the North Vietnamese, left the South Vietnamese in fine shape. Every North Vietnamese offensive as far back as Tet 1968 (roughly the time Sorley's coverage begins) had been stopped - with devastating effects on the North Vietnamese. Abram's approach was also characterized by a concern for the security of ordinary South Vietnamese people. Sorley's contention is that this effort was so successful that by the time of the American withdrawal in 1973, the Viet Cong was no longer a force to be reckoned with. So if we and the South Vietnamese were victorious on the battlefield, what happened?
First, the success of the policy of Vietnamization depended not only on the rise of the South Vietnamese armed forces in numbers and fighting capacity, but also in the continued support of the US in terms of money and war materiel. Although the US leadership promised to do this, they didn't.
Second, the treaty specified that the North Vietnamese would withdraw all their troops from South Vietnamese territory. Makes sense, doesn't it? After all, it's a lot easier to conquer a territory if you already have troops there. But our leadership pretended that the North Vietnamese were honest on this - or engaged in wishful thinking.
Third, North Vietnam continued to receive aid from its allies - China and the Soviet Union. If it was only the South versus the North, the South might have won without us. But with the combined effort of such powerful patron's, the North prevailed.
So - if this is a more accurate picture of Vietnam, what might it mean to say that Iraq is "a Vietnam?"
First, it would mean that we were unwilling to stick with our allies and keep the promises we made to them. The new Iraqi government, like the old South Vietnamese government, will most likely fall well short of our American ideals of democratic government. But in both case promises were made to those governments. We didn't keep our promises to the South Vietnamese. If we fail to keep our promises to the people of Iraq (and I take a key element of those promises to be something like: "Democracy will not only work in Iraq, but it will be a blessing to your people. It will be lots of work, but it will be well worth it. And we will help you achieve that goal") then we can truly say that Iraq has become another Iraq.
Second, if Iraq were to become "another Vietnam" it would mean that we stopped speaking the truth about the situation there and let sentiment and mere ideology (and perhaps even electoral popularity) prevail. Like the South Vietnamese, the Iraqis have multinational forces arrayed against them. These forces are quite different than what the North Vietnamese had, in terms of fighting capacity, but they are very numerous.
Am I saying the the war in Iraq was the right course of action? No - I'm just saying that it is not yet "another Vietnam" though we could very easily turn it into one by disengaging and leaving the Iraqis on their own.
One more piece of historical analogy before I quit. With the help of US armed forces, the allies prevailed in World War 1. We won! But then we disengaged. We left the Germans facing huge reparations. After years of postwar devastation Hitler came in and picked up the pieces, restoring Germany to its former glory - but more bellicose and dangerous than ever. We again mobilized, working with our allies to defeat Germany. This time, we didn't disengage. We did the hard - and extremely expensive work of rebuilding Germany. We might have more clarity - and less emotion - if we face the decision in Iraq as whether it will be another World War 1 or another World War 2.
Friday, September 10, 2004
Reformation in Islam
Tuesday, September 07, 2004
A Slightly Different Perspective
Sure, I was born and baptized in the church, and was confirmed a member of the United Methodist Church in the early 70s. The only real memory I have of confirmation classes, though, was that after going through them, I would receive my own set of offering envelopes. I did not say that was all I was taught in confirmation; I said that’s all I remember. I was a reasonably bright youth, and that’s all I got out of the class.
A few years later, at a Houston North District youth rally, I accepted the invitation to begin a relationship with God and accept Jesus’ gift of eternal life and forgiveness of my sins. Finally, during the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I was both a United Methodist and a Christian.
Like my older brother, Richard, I was called to ministry soon thereafter. Also like Richard, I am committed to this ministry within the United Methodist Church until God or the System decides otherwise.
Brad Ramsey, a UM pastor and mentor of mine who died far too soon, told me a story once of his early years in ministry. Fairly fresh out of seminary, he was an associate pastor in a church where he had previously served as youth minister.
In a conversation with his senior pastor, Brad said some things that showed his naïveté about the politics of being a United Methodist Clergy. His senior pastor turned to him and said, “Ah, I see you have not yet been tainted by the system.”
Brad told me this story before I was tainted by the system. That was back when I was so fresh out of seminary that I thought being a United Methodist Clergy was about ministering the Gospel more than about being a functionary of the bureaucracy. Every year I am in the system, I find it more of a struggle to fight the tainting.
The “tainting” I fight is the one that would make me more interested in maintaining the system or “moving up” within it than in winning people to Jesus and leading a congregation in being a place that is about embodying the grace of God.
Please don’t misunderstand; this is not a condemnation of the current leadership of the denomination or of the Central Texas Conference, of which I am a member. It is, rather, recognition of the life that organizations seem to take on a life of their own. Most organizations, and The United Methodist Church is surely one that has, tend to start with noble purposes, goals and visions.
Yet, as an organization survives across generations, there is a tendency to build into it systems that are more about the sustaining of the organization than they are about the original purposes, goals, and visions. Stanley Hauerwas warns that a pension system signals the death knell of a denomination. Though I hope to live long enough to receive a pension, I also hope my ministry never becomes motivated by the maintenance of such a benefit.
To conclude my introductory offering to this site, I assure you I am not opposing to denominations in general or to The United Methodist Church in particular. I do think, however, that we have got to be about more than sustaining a system. We have to be about making disciples of Jesus Christ. Who, as far as my research indicates, never had offering envelopes
Chechnya & Beslan
Good News Investigates Unity
The 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in its closing hours overwhelmingly approved a resolution proclaiming unity in Christ. In so doing it professed a desire for dialogue and finding means by which the diverse theological perspectives of The United Methodist Church could continue to exist together. In theory, this is a laudable and worthwhile goal that all who call themselves United Methodist should be willing to commit themselves to. However, the resolution failed to address the reality of the position we find ourselves in as a church.My impression of this unity declaration when I first heard of it was that it was wishful thinking. If we only deny a problem long enough, maybe it will go away.
Unity is definitely a good thing. Jesus said, ""My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." John 17:20-21 This prayer of Jesus has been the foundation of the Ecumenical Movement for at least a century. Do we now have this kind of unity - are we ONE, just as the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father? Is the world seeing something in us and our relationships with each other that attracts them to Jesus? The world certainly sees that we have the word "United" in our name, but the reality backing it up seems purely institutional.
The UMC has pursued unity during its entire existence:
The reality is that for more than 30 years our denomination has tried to find that common ground. The reality is that, in that time, instead of growing closer theologically, we have grown farther apart.Why is this? At least two factors. First, United Methodism mirrors the broader American Culture. As a fairly normal cross-section of America, it is not surprising to find the same polarization in the church that we find in the culture. Second, the process of dialogue itself has heightened the articulacy of conflicting positions. If we ignored the situation and just went about our business in the local church (following the advice of some), we wouldn't know how far apart we really are on some issues.
A third factor may be the rise in the number of pastors who do not attend United Methodist seminaries. As a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, I find that Methodist doctrine seemed to play a more central role in my education than in that of some peers who attended UM seminaries. What we lacked, however, were the close ties to the denominational leadership and bureaucracy that those seminaries have. As the mass of pastors who see a conflict between the official doctrine of the church and the actual practices of the church reaches criticality, those pastors likely become more articulate and stubborn in their positions. Similarly, those who are taught a revisionist version of doctrine in seminary find an increasing gap between what they see as "real, biblical Christianity" and the traditional expressions of that faith.
We must face up to the reality that the holders of the diverse theological perspectives are firm in their beliefs, and that we as a "united" church lack common agreement on the foundation of our Christian doctrine. We are house divided. Over the past 30 years, too much time, energy, and resources have been spent on holding the United Methodist Church together in the face of our theological schizophrenia. One can only imagine what could have been done to minister to the least, the last, and the lost of the world with those resources.Yes, people in the UMC firmly hold widely divergent beliefs. I have no trouble attributing sincerity to them all. I have no trouble admitting that each group thinks what they are saying and doing is for the good of the church and truly "of God." The problem is that what we say and what we do has consequences, not only for ourselves and our churches, but for each other. We find ourselves working at cross purposes. We find ourselves having to undo or redo the work of others. After 30 years, yes, this does get tiring. Yes, it does sap our energy and resources that we could be spending reaching outsiders. But I have a couple of questions.
First, in historical terms, 30 years really isn't very long. It's certainly not long enough to adjudicate between traditions. It is, however, long enough to recognize that in the "liberal" and "evangelical" branches of the church we do indeed have different and rival traditions, pursuing different trajectories.
Second, if everything turned around tomorrow and we suddenly had the unity General Conference "celebrated," would we know how to live in it? I'm not sure I would. If you train someone to be adversarial and defensive for years, how can they suddenly change their ways?
This is more than an intramural ecclesiastical squabble. It raises first order questions of whether United Methodism has a future as an effective tool for making disciples throughout the world and, if there is such a future, how United Methodists are to move beyond our current mode of quadrennial conflict, a high level of distrust, and widely held cynicism. The conflict, distrust, and cynicism marking our denominational life today are not simply emotional reactions, but grow from longstanding experiences within an ineffective and unfocused institution.I don't understand those who say they are the "Great Methodist Middle," who say they feel caught in the crossfire between the two warring factions. What is their understanding of the nature of doctrine and its role in the church? Are things like the resurrection of Jesus, the Incarnation, biblical sexual morality merely adiaphora - indifferent items - to be held lightly as we live and let live? Sure there are some petty squabbles in the church, rooted in personality differences and power struggles. But most of what I see is based in real substantive disagreement.
Is our present system the one we need to maintain? Again our answer must be a resounding NO! The irreconcilable differences that exist between evangelical/orthodox Christians and revisionist Christians within United Methodism has led to ideological oppression by United Methodist leaders who expect denominational loyalty while undermining our covenant of doctrine and polity. This problem is systemic and not limited to a handful of bishops and board or agency officials.Wesley's original Model Deed was a way to control the preaching at the local Methodist stations. The assumption was that the Methodists would be ok at the top (after all, Wesley himself was in firm control in those days) and that problems, if they came, would come from below. Wesley had some experience with preachers "going bad," so this wan't an idle fear. The UMC has maintained the tradition of the Model Deed with the current Trust Clause vesting ownership of all church property in the Annual Conference and not in the local church. What we have come to see in the days since Wesley, however, is that departure form Methodist doctrine is not merely a local concern, but is a concern about the leadership of the church even on the highest levels. Whereas the leadership of the church - since Wesley himself - has seen the Model Deed /Trust Clause operating in a one way direction (local churches must be faithful), local churches have seen it as a two way relationship of accountability. Not only are they responsible to uphold Methodist doctrine, but of the leadership above them has departed from that doctrine, then a breach has occurred just as much as if the local church had departed. Having spent some time in the Western Jurisdiction, I've seen this in play. The hierarchy of the church, however, rejects such a possibility a priori.
The document goes on to lay out the four options they see. These are adapted from Lyle Schaller's new book, The Ice Cube is Melting.
A. Continue Current Renewal Strategies (Patching the Old Wineskin)
This option sees the tide of "battle" turning in our favor. It believes that if we continue steadfast in pushing for renewal, we will continue to make incremental progress in improving the spiritual and institutional climate of the denomination. It is just a matter of getting the right people elected as delegates and members of agency boards to bring about the cultural changes in the church that will foster spiritual vitality and growth.
This option is a type of Forced Departure, which is based on the model of church discipline, wherein the majority party within the church would essentially expel the minority party in order to create unity. The expulsion can be done either indirectly or directly. It would be done indirectly through making the environment of the church so hostile to the minority party that they choose either to leave or to agree to amicable separation. It would be done directly by requiring some type of "loyalty oath" or other enforcement mechanism that would require individuals and congregations to choose to leave if they could not live with the current majority policy.
This option starts off sounding positive - "Let's keep doing what we've been doing." After all, no change is usually the easiest position. But notice how it works out in light of our real and substantive differences - it becomes "Forced departure."
B Work for a Heterogeneous Denomination
This option believes that we will never get the United Methodist Church as a whole to agree to our vision of a renewed church. Rather than continuing to fight against the revisionists for control of the denomination, we would seek to decentralize control in the denomination and make a safe and healthy place for evangelicals to do ministry within the United Methodist Church.
I think this might go over better with the "unity first" crowd, but I'm not sure anyone else would like it in the long run. The hierarchy won't like it because it will entail huge power shifts and decentralization. Those who are theologically polarized won't like it, because they will see the American public (wrongly) perceiving them as the same as their opponents. But maybe I'm too cynical.
After at least a century of little or no doctrinal discipline, this would surely be a shocking move. I'm not sure we are close to havig a theory of doctrine that would accommodate this model. We can handle the "I'm right, you're wrong" model, We can handle the "Doctrine divides, service unites" (relativistic) model. Doctrinal clarity and accountability - with love and compassion - I'm not sure we'd know what to do with it. Even more, I'm not sure that we have a solid enough consensus in any group within the church to form a clear majority.
C Refashion United Methodism as a High-Expectation Covenant CommunityThis approach would also allow us to retain the name and heritage of United Methodism, while creating within it a new church that would emphasize high expectations, high commitment, doctrinal certainty, and covenant accountability. This approach would be to jump immediately to the end state of what we hope our incremental changes under Option A would bring about. At the same time, there would need to be a renewal of the restated covenant for every member, pastor, and congregation. Those churches and individuals who could not affirm the renewed covenant would have to leave the denomination, and provision would need to be made for retaining property, pensions, and the like.
D. Work for a Structural Separation of Methodism
This option believes that it will be impossible to renew the current United Methodist denomination. A new start for all the various factions within Methodism would allow for greater creativity, smaller and (hopefully) more effective denominations, and homogeneous denominations that are outward-focused, rather than quarrelling as factions within a larger whole....
There appear to be two options for bringing about a structural separation within United Methodism: amicable separation and voluntary departure.
The option of amicable separation is based on both sides agreeing that a separation needs to take place. This option can be precipitated by one or the other side, but to go forward, it needs the agreement of both sides in the debate. The proposal worked on at General Conference calling for some type of commission or task group to create a plan of separation is the likely form this option would take. The appeal of this option could be broadened by creating the possibility of more than two options for new denominations. Lyle Schaller outlines five different denominations that could emerge (p. 206):
1) A new Methodist denomination closely resembling today's UMC, without the Restrictive Rules and with a reworked annual conference and general agency structure.
2) A new Methodist denomination retaining current UM doctrine, but with a new polity, organizational structure, and system of accountability.
3) A new Protestant denomination with its own distinctive doctrinal statement and an episcopal system of governance.
4) A new Wesleyan denomination with a new self-defined polity and doctrine.
5) A new Christian religious body with a self-defined polity and doctrine.
The labels "Wesleyan," "Protestant," and "Christian" relate to how closely the new denomination's doctrine and polity resembles historic Methodism. Central Conferences would have the choice of becoming autonomous Methodist churches or affiliating with one of the new denominations. Under amicable separation, the United Methodist Church would cease to exist, and every individual and congregation would be forced to make a conscious choice of which new denomination to become part of (or to become independent).
This option has the advantage of bringing an amicable spirit to the process of structural separation, since both sides agree to its necessity. It poses the least potential for disruption, since minimal energy is spent fighting the separation and most of the energy is devoted to constructing the two new entities.
The drawback to this option is its requirement that both sides agree, in order for it to be effective. One side can hold the other hostage by refusing to agree, either to the need for separation or to some particular elements in the plan of separation. It would also require a high level of agreement by General Conference delegates, who tend to be institutional preservers and unlikely to easily come to such agreement.
The voluntary departure of an organized group from the church is an option that is within the realm of possibility. It is the most frequent model of structural separation in the history of Methodism, including the formation of such denominations as the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Wesleyan, and Free Methodist, among a number of others.
The advantage of this option is that it does not require creating a high level of hostility within the denomination in order to succeed. It can be implemented by a highly committed group within the church, with minimal need for agreement by the General Conference. Thus, this option is most under the control of the group initiating it, where they are not at the mercy of other groups.
The disadvantages of this option are that it may require some congregations to leave their property behind (although one hopes a large enough critical mass of those departing could work around this problem). It also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact, with the accumulation of resources to potentially continue for decades on a progressively revisionist track. It will also require great investment of time and energy to create a new denominational structure, with the potential for further division among the departing group over the shape of that structure.
This is a variant of the position that generated so much heat at General Conference. The key recognition is that there is already a divorce between our theory and practice, and that at least one cause of this is a confusion as to whether our official doctrine is also to be considered operational (I take the distinction from George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine). As it stands, the way we do doctrine doesn't seem to fit with the way we do polity, and because there is a strong push to treat our official doctrine as non-operational, polity becomes the driving force in United Methodism. Given that we are Methodists, this might make sense, but I think being method driven as opposed to mission/purpose driven is fatal in the long run.
This document draws no conclusions about what steps the United Methodist Church (or Good News) ought to pursue. Some ineffetice strategies (withholding apportionments, sleective withdrawal) are mentioned. The most effective mentioned is networking with like-minded people.
We'll see what happens.
New Bishop Willimon
New United Methodist Bishop William Willimon has often needled his denomination for being boring and irrelevant and having a bulky bureaucracy.
Now, as the new spiritual leader of the United Methodist Conference of North Alabama, the former Duke University Chapel dean has become part of the bureaucracy. It’s an opportunity Willimon relishes.
“I’ve been kind of a critic of our church,” said Willimon, as he settled into his office at Methodist headquarters on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College on Thursday. “I want to see what we can do.”
I've read much of what Willimon has written over the past several years and find it difficult to imagine him fitting well into the UM bureaucracy. The whole system is set up to domesticate leadership. Bishops seem to be required to serve on so many boards, agencies and committees (that's what real leadership is about, right?) that it leaves them little breathing room to do much out of the ordinary. Willimon's advantage may be that having served as Duke University chaplain for so many years, he has been out of the system and away form most of the domesticating pressures.
The 8-million-member United Methodist Church, the second-largest U.S. Protestant denomination after Southern Baptists, has struggled with membership loss the past three decades. The North Alabama Conference has 157,862 members, down from 178,118 members at the start of 1984, an average loss of about a thousand a year.
“Sometimes we get distracted by the nonessentials and don’t keep focused on the essentials theologically,” Willimon said. “We need to ask what the church does that no one else does. Methodists are big on doing, serving, organizing. The downside of that is we have a tendency to get into lots of things that are not the basic mission of the church. We’ve lost touch with a couple of generations.” ....
Churches need to realize they’re supposed to be about more than providing social services, he said.
“I think we mainline liberal Protestant types have done a huge disservice in de-supernaturalizing the faith,” Willimon said. “I think it’s about miracles. It’s about the supernatural.”
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the church's mission is to "make disciples of Jesus Christ." Willimon's assesment that our apparent failure to do that over the past generation is a theological failure is refreshing. It has been much more common since the days of Bishop Richard Wilke's And Are We Yet Alive to see the root of UM decline in programmatic failure. As we pay attention to our theology, we'll be able to answer the WHY questions that ought to drive the HOW questions addressed by program.