Monday, February 28, 2005

Was Jesus Married?

I just ran across this old series of posts by Mark D. Roberts. He consistently puts out substanative well-thought out material. As one in the same profession, I don't see how he has the time to do it all. As long as he keeps up the work, it's a blessing to the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Problem with Integration

In 1998 when I was appointed to Westbury United Methodist Church in Houston, I was finally at a church where I could invite anyone. Westbury is a culturally diverse church, full of Anglos, Africans, African-Americans, Asians, etc. Many great people. I loved it.

Now I'm pastor in small town East Texas. After 5 years at Westbury I sometimes wonder "Why are there only white folks here?" when I look out on the crowd. There are many in the church who, like me, would like to see our congregation become more racially diverse. I even heard one person say the other day, "All those other Methodist churches should close down and come join us." I understand the sentiment, but I don't think that't the way to go.

In today's Dallas Morning News (registration required), There is an article on the demise of black-owned businesses since the end of segregation. Now that white insitutions are (increasingly) open to blacks, it is getting harder for back institutions to keep going. Insofar as this gives more peopel opportunities, this is likely a good thing. But my guess is that it's been easier for blacks to become integrated as consumers ("we'll take your money") than as business people ("We'll give you our money"). I think they need both.

When it comes to black churches, I don't want to put them out of business - I don't want all the black methodists to come join us so they can close down; any more than I want all the baptists to come join us. First, the black churches are too important in our communities. Second, the varieties of churches we have preaching the gospel the more likely we are to reach all the people. It might stoke my ego, but that certainly isn't a Christian motive. Instead it seems that a better Christian motive would be for each church to begin to invite and assimilate non-church people indiscriminately. That is, instead of us trying to get black church people to come join us, we'll try to get black non-church people along with the white & other non-church people we work on. In the same way, the black churches would work on bringing in people of all races also.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Support Iranian Bloggers

Through the combination of the Protestant Reformation and the rise in lietracy brought about by the invention of the printing press, it might be said, "Each man became his own interpreter." Now with the combination of the Internet and the blogging phenomenon, we can say, "Every person their own publisher." (The difference in pronouns is intentional. Whereas the initial force of the Reformation and the rise in literacy was mostly a "guy thing," blogging is fully open to men and women.)

It is still dangerous, however, for some ideas to be published. Some bloggers are paying the price for speaking freely. I'm inclined to think that freedom, though capable of great and tragic misuse, is better than non-freedom. My reading of the Bible tells me God thinks the same way. So I feel just fine praying for persecuted Iranian bloggers. See their story at The Committee to Protect Bloggers.

Shaping Postmodernity

My old teacher Nancey Murphy speaks out on the Christian response to postmodernism. As we discussed many times, her conclusion is that postmodernity (what will follow modernity) is still up for grabs. We Christians have an awesome opportunity to be shapers of this phenomenon - insteead of just defensive critics.

Monday, February 21, 2005

SWOT from where I sit

Our new Bishop, Janice Riggle Huie, is leading the Annual Conference through SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis (For more on SWOT, check here and here). The root idea is to consider the Positives (Strengths, Opportunities) and Negatives (Weaknesses, Threats) from the Inside (Strengths, Weaknesses) and the Outside (Opportunities, Threats). I'm a bit unclear what level (or which levels) we're supposed to be considering. If we're starting from the point of view of the local church, then the District, Conference, and Denomination are all on the outside. For that reason, in what I provide below, I try to mark identify the perspective I'me working from.

The Bishop's goal is producing a better alignment of "our mission and ministry and money" within the Conference. There has already been one meeting - see the report here. My first thought is that SWOT would work better if we were clearer on our basic identity and our mission before we considered SWOT. After all, each different understanding of our mission would see a different set of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

Here's what I have so far:


- Wesleyan heritage

o Orthodox theology: In our Articles of Religion we see that our basic theology is for the most part what is held in common by most Christian groups.

o Wesleyan distinctives developed within the context of orthodoxy: particularly the doctrines of assurance and Christian perfection

o Translation of orthodox theology into experiential terms & ecclesial practices: Wesley valued orthodoxy enough to defend it, but thought holiness of life was more important. His application of the former sought to make real the latter.

o An ability to see the work of God across denominational lines: Perhaps because of his early relationship with the Moravians, Wesley was able to see that that Anglican way of doing things, though best, was not the only way. He respected Christians from various backgrounds, editing their works for inclusion in his Christian Library.

o A willingness to try new strategies and structures to achieve desired ends: Wesley held to the core of his message (entering a relationship with God through Jesus and pursuing holiness of heart and life), while adapting methods of ministry.

o Centrality of Discipleship and mutual accountability: Since the goal of the Methodist has been holiness, the methods chosen have been high practical and relationship based.

- American Methodist Heritage

o An adventurous spirit willing to take risks to help people know Jesus: The early circuit riders worked hard and burned out young. Even as late as the later 19th century they were planting a church a day and aiming to do two a day.

o A short path to ministry: Centrality of lay leadership & ministry

o Commitment to missions: By the mid 19ths century Methodist were involved in missions – to the Native Americans and to overseas populations.

o Strong commitment to education and scholarship: Methodists started creating schools and colleges in their first decade of formal existence.

o Our appointment system makes it possible to see the big picture: Have a leader who can see the uniqueness of hundreds of congregations and hundreds of pastors and match them up for best fit for ministry can be a great advantage.

o Strong informal institutions for spiritual formation (like Walk to Emmaus, Upper Room, and Aldersgate Renewal Ministries)

o National and international coverage & connections: We’re connected all over and often find ways to experience that connectedness.

o Biblical mission statement: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ

- Texas Annual Conference

o Many valuable institutions either within the bounds of the conference or nearby

§ Methodist Health System

§ UM & Texas Methodist Foundations

§ Higher Education institutions

§ Room to Grow

§ Lakeview

§ Campus Ministries

o Faster rate of church planting than most other conferences

o A renewal of interest in Spiritual formation

o Fairly healthy relationships among pastors

o The development of Celebration Ministries in a collegial way with Conference & UMW leadership

o Many large churches that are role models for the whole denomination

o Many resources available to support pastors (ministerial services, financial help for counseling through BOM)

o Unity and relationships based on doing ministry rather than ideological uniformity

- Texarkana District

o Far from the center of power, so we’re able to focus on local church ministry with fewer interruptions

o Good fellowship among the pastors and churches

o Good lay leadership in the churches and the district

- Pittsburg FUMC

o Beautiful historic sanctuary

o Hardworking, skilled staff

o Large number of trained lay speakers

o High degree of community involvement

o Increase in giving and attendance over the past few years

o Our week day children’s ministry is attracting large numbers of unchurched kids

o We just completed our Feed Store youth center

o A fair number of people who have been to Walk to Emmaus

o Many members who are financially generous, both with the congregation and with people in need

o A great choir

o Healthy relationships with other churches in town


- Wesleyan heritage

o Authoritarian tendencies: John Wesley was clearly the authority.

o Uncertainty as to whether we are a church or a society (Parachurch organization): Much of what Wesley said about Methodist ecclesiology was based on the reality of early Methodism’s non-churchly status. When we directly apply what he said on Methodist ecclesiology to our current reality (which sure looks like a church), we can miss the point of Wesley’s original statements.

- American Methodist Heritage

o The “other” against which we have tended to shape our identity has most generally been other Christian groups and not the world: We know we’re not Baptists, fundamentalists, or Pentecostals. But how are we different from the world?

o Doctrinal Pluralism has led us to minimize the theological component of our identity: While one might argue that normative doctrinal pluralism was the disciplinary position from 1972, this has not been the UM position since 1988. It often remains the de facto position in UM leadership circles, however.

o We have too often substituted the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator for Christian perfection or the Calvinist variant universalism for the Wesleyan teaching of assurance. In the first case, we too easily say that we’re sinners and always will be, and usually our people lack any hope for anything better than just being forgiven. This is very far from Wesley’s preaching of holiness. In the second case, the place of “good works” in the Christian life has confused many to the point that they think their salvation is dependent on their goodness. Knowing that their being “good enough” is surely in doubt, most United Methodists appear to settle for a form of “I hope so” – or a lapse into an easy going universalism that says everyone will be saved. Both options are quite far from Wesley’s doctrine of the Spirit and assurance.

o We have thought doctrinal clarity is a bad thing: We think doctrine is divisive, so we should settle for ministry. Unfortunately, it is through our doctrine that we understand the nature, purpose and ways of doing ministry.

o We have had an authoritarian, top-down style of organization

o There is rampant distrust on many levels in the church

o An either/or approach has led to the loss of important ministry, specifically:

§ Too often social action has replaced evangelism: We do social action and assume we’re doing all that is necessary in the work of evangelism. We fail to share the Word about Jesus and help people come to faith in him.

o We have a tendency to confuse church growth (a set of sociological and marketing techniques) and evangelism (helping people become followers of Jesus): It’s good to have clean restrooms, an up to date nursery, plenty of parking, and quick follow up of visitors. But that’s not evangelism.

o We too often thought that one size/style fits all (and that size/style emanated from Nashville or New York): Styles and methods of ministry flow out of our basic doctrine but are shaped by the local culture. We have tremendous cultural variation even within the bounds of our own Annual Conference.

o We mirror the divisions of our culture

§ Olden days: The 1844 split mirrored the later national split

§ Now: Too often we look like an amalgam of the American Left and the American Right

§ We don’t have institutional means to use the resources available to develop a particularly Christian politics (Stanley Hauerwas provides us with the fundamental theory to start with): We have some (especially in leadership positions in our Boards and Agencies, if news reports are correct) who sound like the Democratic party. We have others who sound like the Republican party. And we too often see these as the only options and argue about which of the two is the Christian option. Politics is about People Making, not about the various issues that our political culture has chosen to latch onto.

o Despite our commitment to higher education we continue to lose our colleges and many that remain are functionally secular; We lack a unified vision of how higher education might be truly Christian. (My perception is that we lack the unity to recognize this.)

o The path to ordained ministry in the UMC is getting longer and more complex, while in other (growing) denominations the path can be much shorter.

o The denomination continues to age: We are doing a poor job at winning and keeping our younger generations.

o Leadership studies (Built to Last) found that organizations that are ruthlessly clear about their purpose and ultimately flexible in their methods of achieving those purposes last the longest; our strategy tends to be the opposite – vague or pluralistic on purpose, inflexible on strategy

o Those same leadership studies identify planned succession as a key job of effective leaders to maintain continuity of vision. Our polity explicitly rules out this aspect of leadership.

o Lack of a shared understanding of what our denominational mission statement means and entails: What is a disciple? How does one become one?

o A perceived disconnect between the values and goals of the local church and those held on the national level

- Texas Annual Conference

o Opaque appointment process: We joke about the cabinet relying on dice & darts. Although churches and pastors have heard about the process of appointment making many times, both groups have seen so many anomalies that they doubt there is any consistent practice.

o Lopsided geography of power & money: Houston is the place to be.

o Church planting is not keeping up with population growth

o Many small churches are discouraged and ruled by fear about their continued existence.

o Little communication about how to access the pastoral support resources. It would be very easy to set up a series of FAQS on the Conference website.

o Historic lack of opportunity for advancement for non-Anglo pastors.

o A tendency to stereotype churches instead of seeking to understand them in their particularity (stereotyping may be the only option when we have over 700 congregations to deal with)

o We lack structures to engage in theological reflection

o We’re often too quick to engage in “happy talk”: “Aren’t we doing well!” “The Texas Conference is a leader in the denomination!” “We have over a third of our membership in average attendance. We’re doing better than most the churches out there.”

- Texarkana District

o Far from many conference events and resources. Last year when materials we’re being distributed to the churches, the delivery only went as far north as Longview.

o Many small churches with limited resources: most have to use all their resources on survival and have nothing left to invest in growth.

- Pittsburg FUMC

o Old buildings are a constant drain on financial resources

o Limited parking

o No land available for expansion

o Only a small percentage of members are involved in ministry

o Only a quarter of members are regularly involved in some sort of disciple making activity (Sunday School, small groups, etc.)

o We’re a mono-lingual congregation in a bi-lingual community

o We lack the personnel resources to adequately minister to the unchurched kids attracted by our children’s ministry

o We don’t currently have the resources to offer more than one style of worship


- Texas Conference and the UMC in general:

o The population is growing on all levels: nationally, statewide, and in many of our communities.

o The world is moving to Houston. Representatives of difficult-access countries and cultures live here. If we can plant churches among these populations we will have the potential of establishing a beachhead among peoples around the world.

o More students are looking for a distinctively Christian education: Many Christian colleges are booming

o We can find ways to allow our vigorous, growing, young congregations (I think of churches like Grace Fellowship, Faithbridge, Windsor Village, etc) to follow the model of growing non-UM churches and become centers of church-planting activity.

o The technological and communications revolution open up new opportunities to make disciples and do ministry. Example: Through the Internet, all churches can have a worldwide ministry at very low cost.

- Pittsburg FUMC

o Growth of Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation in Camp County.

o Retirees moving into the area for Lake style living.

o Favorable image in the community

o Many unreached people in the community


- Texas Conference and UMC in general:

o Our society contains pockets of strong resistance to churches, ministries and the public expression of Christianity

o Our theories of the separation of church and state fail to take into account the growth of the state, not merely in terms of size, but in the dimensions of public life it has taken over. There used to be areas of social space that were deemed “pubic” but not “State.” Now all public institutions are deemed to be part of the state and to be walled off from Christianity or Christian influence.

o The rising cost of health insurance/care for church employees.

o The rising percentage of church budgets to offer adequate compensation for pastors is hurting many smaller congregations.

o The loss of the biggest membership cohort (speaking age-wise) in the next 20 years

- Pittsburg FUMC

o Economy based mostly on a single industry

o Economic factors that make it increasingly expensive to adequately compensate staff

o The residue of years of racism in the community have led to lack of trust, tentativeness in relationships, and strong convictions toward separateness

In the Comments section Mark adds some perceptive observations:
Two threats that you leave off.

(1) The increasing lack of shame about not going to a church. That will increase the cultural tendancy for the lightly-affiliated to stop going to church.

(2) Other evangelical churches in town. Given the weakness in the Methodist "brand," newcomers to town might be drawn to more openly evangelical churches.

That last one might be more of a weakness than a threat, but it is an area where weakness meets threat, which is the area where you have to watch yourself.
The first of these is certainly a threat all of us in America (or the West) face). In our East Texas culture Baptists are dominant. At the very least our youth have to live with pressure from Baptist peers who have been taught that Methodists represent a watered-down version of Christianity. The strategy of some Methodists in this kind of cultural setting has been to turn on the Baptists. I think this is a mistake and destructive not only to the Kingdom, but also to Methodists. As far as basic Christian doctrine goes, Baptists and Methodists are very close. When we turn on the Baptists, we are ignoring the source of our own weakness, which in my estimate, is our lack of theological depth and articulation. As long as most Methodists are content to summarize Christianity as saying not much more than, "God is love," and as long as our preaching is centered on this affirmation alone, our people will never have the intellectual resources to stand up with (and when they get confused, against) the Baptists. Even worse, our kids will not be able to answer the Muslim evangelists they'll encounter when they get to college. They will wither under the attacks of humanistic professors. Worst of all, they will not be able to live God with their whole MIND.
Our fellow Christians here in town may know us as nice people. They may even know us as dedicated and spiritual Christians. But when they want to know what we believe and stand for they will naturally defer to the Methodists who are in the media. That's part of the price we pay for the disconnect between the disconnect between United Methodism as expressed on the local and the national level.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Libertarian Approach to the US Marriage Problem

John Coleman writes in Reason that government should get out of the marriage business. If people love each other, they ought be be allowed to marry.
It is time to privatize marriage. If the institution is really so sacred, it should lie beyond the withering hands of politicians and policy makers in Washington D.C. There should be no federal or state license that grants validity to love. There should be no state-run
office that peers into our bedrooms and honeymoon suites.

We certainly have a thin view of society when all we have is the individual vs. the state, the state having consumed all the social space called public. Is there such a thing as the instituion of marriage? Or is marriage merely a legal construct of the state - or a personal commitment of two (or more?) people (beings?) who love each other?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Church Property Fights

A Virginia lawmaker has attempted to legislate a shift toward congregationalism when it comes to the ownership of church property. Didn't Paul say something about how scandalous it was for believers to take their divisions before unbelievers?

I don't know the history of property ownership in other denominations, but in Methodist John Wesley first formulated what he called his "Model Deed" (see here and here) in the middle of the 18th century. His intent was to make sure that the property Methodists invested in would remain in use to pursue Methodist goals. No church would want a bunch of outsiders to come in and take over their congregations and take their property from them. Seems like a pretty good strategy, doesn't it?

I also understand the motive behind this legislation that challenges this practice. From their point of view the exact opposite has happened. Instead of outsiders coming into the congregation and taking it captive, outsiders (theologically speaking) have come into the denominational leadership and taken it captive. Generations of Methodists have joined and supported their congregations with the thought that the churches stood for basic Christianity (as laid out in the Articles of Religion). They thought Methodists stood for doctrines like the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the authority of scripture, etc. Now they find that many of their leaders no longer adhere to these "archaic" doctrines. Sure, they're still free to adhere to orthodox theology, but since the UMC has a top-down authority structure, they have no say in whst kind of preacher they get next - one who adheres to something close to orthodoxy or not.

Do you see why there is a problem here?

As Lyle Schaller claimed years ago, the UMC is fractured by distrust. The hierarchy doesn't trust the congregations. The congregations don't trust the hierarchy. Pastors don't trust the laity and laity don't trust the pastors.

In this situation I don't think legislation like that proposed in Virginia is the solution. But neither is the usual authoritarian response from the denominational hierarchy. Both ends of the spectrum need to find ways to talk about the issues - and listen to each other.

Friday, February 11, 2005

IRiver H320

I've been looking at MP3 players for a long time now. The Ipod gets the most press, and every Ipod owner I've spoken with is very happy with their purchase. My needs are a little different, however. I'm not quite the audiophile many consumers of MP3 players are. I have plenty of listening to do, but much of it is spoken word, not music. I also wanted something that could record sounds. I discovered a way that one could make an Ipod record, but since it wasn't made to do that, the technique was difficult and the quality poor.

Then a couple of months ago I heard of the IRiver H320. With a 20GB drive, it has a decent capacity (they also have a 40 GB version). But it is also designed to do recording. It can record three ways: a built in condensor mike, a separate mike, and a line-in. So far I've only tried the last of these and it works great. It's a much easier way to convert my old LPs to digital format than any I've found yet. I'll also be able to hook it into the church sound system to directly record services.

So why did I buy one yesterday? I'd called Best Buy the day before to see if they had them. Their website didn't list them, so I thought I'd take a chance. Sure enough, they'd just gotten a shipment in. I asked the price - to see if they gave any discount off the MSRP of $329 (Amazon, for example, offers them for $312). I was shocked when they told me they were $214. In disbelief I called another Best Buy to see if it was a fluke. Sure enough, it was for real. Yesterday I was in a town with a store and bought one - before they could change their minds.

I haven't learned the whole thing yet - not much really - but I'll post more review later.

Arguing Theology with Terrorists

I ran across a discussion of this article - "Koranic duels ease terror," in the Christian Science Monitor - in The Corner at NRO today. The gist of the article is that Yemen's strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda captives is to send in a scholar of Islam with a challenge to justify their terrorism in terms of the Quran. He offers to join them if they can persuade him of their rightness. So far this strategy has had marked success in turning terrorists away from that strategy. Read the piece to see a fuller description.

At the Corner, John Hood's comment is (you'll need to scroll down to his post):
Theological dialogue is no substitute for intelligence, espionage, spreading freedom with missionary zeal, setting a good example at home, punishing killers, and taking vigorous military act when necessary. But it is a good complement.
I don't know enough about Islam to speak for its ethos, but I think theological argument is a great substitute for the normal ways the world has for dealing with enemies. Safer? I doubt it. More "effective" - if by "effective" we mean that WE win here and now at the least cost? Probably not. But I do think that what the Yemenis are doing is more obviously in accord with the Christian tradition (as constituted by Jesus) than is our normal response.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

A sad day in Christian Higher Ed

Christianity Today weblog reports that Davidson College, a Presbyterian school in North Carolina, is backing away from its Christian commitment. In our UM tradition too many colleges have gone this direction - but ours seem to go more quietly. CT weblog reports:
No longer does the North Carolina college seek "ties which bind the college to the Presbyterian Church." (Davidson has official ties to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) Now it's "ties that bind the college to its Presbyterian heritage." And where the school used to "intend that this vital relationship be continued to the mutual benefit of church and school," it now doesn't say that it wants to benefit the church.

So they're connected to a heritage. Nice and vague. In mainline churches our "heritages" are up for grabs - anyone can identify them however they want. Where will colleges stand up for a more robust conception of Christian higher ed?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Interview with a pro-Jihadist leader

In this interview with Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, we see one picture of what a Muslim-ruled America would look like.

What would be the rights of Christians in a restored Caliphate?

As citizens, in terms of welfare and security, education, etc., they will be equal. They will be exempt from national service, although they can volunteer. They will pay the Jizya poll-tax for security and signifying that they submit to Islamic law, except if they join the army. This need not be levied with humiliation. Nor is it levied on women, children, clergy, elderly, etc., only on mature, working males.

No private schools will be allowed, and there will be an Islamically influenced national curriculum. No new churches will be permitted, but existing ones will be allowed. Private consumption of alcohol will be permitted, but not its public sale. All state officials must be Muslims, save for the Caliph's assistants to advise him about relations with non-Muslim citizens. Muslims could not convert to Christianity on pain of execution. Evangelistic campaigns would be forbidden, but people would be free to present Christianity on TV, in debates, etc.

Sound like the situation for Christians in Egypt.