Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cut out for the job?

Over the past couple of years the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has invested much time and energy in defining pastoral effectiveness. By the quality of the handouts they distributed, one can tell this was very important.

But is it still relevant?

As presented in "Faithfulness in the Clergy: A Call to Effectiveness," we see a fairly traditional portrait of what pastors are to be and do. Left out entirely is accountability. We are to "oversee" the ministries of the church. Anyone can do that. Apart from clear standards, many can even do it well.

But times are changing.

I hear that Bishop Huie has been reading Paul Borden's Hit the Bullseye: How Denominations Can Aim the Congregation At the Mission Field. If she takes Borden seriously and applies what he has to say, we're in for some big changes.

Borden's big idea is that the purpose of the church is to make disciples and that the church hierarchy needs to hold pastors and churches accountable to this mission. Nothing new here - except that a denominational leader is saying this and acting on it. For Borden's region of the American Baptist Church these ideas no longer just get lip service.

From her episcopal address it sounds like Bishop Huie agrees with Borden. She says it is no longer acceptable for a church to
  • have no one join on confession of faith in a year
  • baptize no one
  • have stable or declining attendance when the population is growing
These expressions of discontent are straight out of Borden.

Will Borden's approach work in the TAC? When a pastor sticks the traditional pastoral model - the pastor is the chaplain who takes care of people - Borden and his leadership team would offer that pastor training to move out of that role to become a leader, or, if the pastor was not willing to make the change, would suggest the pastor needed to find another line of work. The pastor's chief job is leadership. Not a priestly administrator of the sacraments, not a shepherd tending the sheep, but an apostle out winning people to Christ and growing the church. As long as the United Methodist Church has guaranteed appointments, this will not happen. But if we see our leadership - the Bishop and the cabinet start pursuing accountability on these issues I believe some change will happen.

Are we cut out for the job? I don't have the spiritual gift of leadership. I've been doing tons of study on leadership over the past ten years. It's hard work. As an academic introvert, it's not at all close to my nature. I like change. I think my current congregation is like the vast majority of churches I'm familiar with. We NEED change. But when the conflicts arise and I feel my own deficiencies, I wonder if there is any place in leadership for people like me whose leading gifts are in teaching and knowledge. I've read numerous books on church leadership that tell me that people like me (the theologian types) are a blight on churches. They need extroverted entrepreneurial type leaders. I'd like to be one of those (at least sometimes), but I'm not.

But then I consider the fruit. I've never led the flashiest and most impressive groups. I've never been the charismatic leader of the multitudes. But over the course of my ministry I can look back and see fruit that lasts. How do we count that?

As a theologian and scholar, I can see we - the church - have a huge job ahead of us. The entrepreneurial skills of making something out of nothing (or very little) - which lead to numerical growth - need to be married to the theological skills of contextualizing people in the story of God and increasing their articulacy about the faith. Given these goals and our current reality I know two things for sure. First, we have a lot of work to do. Second, I have a lot to learn.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Episcopal Candidate, Part II

What is one to do if one wants to be a United Methodist Bishop? As I noted before, if one can get a gig leading another Annual Conference in one's jurisdiction in morning bible study, one can dramatically increase one's visibility. The theory goes that if one does a good job, one might gain votes at the next Jurisdictional Conference.

My concern is about whether or not such "gigs" are rewarded on the basis of launching or promoting episcopal candidates. While the connection seems obvious to me, it is covert. No one at Annual Conference dared mention that our "guest Bible Study leader" might be being presented as an episcopal candidate.

Ok, no one but me. Everyone with whom I brought up the possibility shrugged it off our outright denied that it could be the case. I finally did get one person to acknowledge what was going on, that said Elder was indeed being presented as an episcopal candidate, and that said Elder was a choice of the current Bishops to be an episcopal candidate.

One of the most frustrating things for me in the family system we call The United Methodist Church is when we refuse to say things that are obvious but simply not to be said.

Isn't it time we were willing to name things what they are?

Tom Wright on Acts

Maybe when I grow up I'll be able to write half as well as Tom Wright. In this piece (link is in the title) Wright summarizes the claim of the Book of Acts as "Jesus is Lord and Caesar Isn't" - addressed to both a Jewish audience (which offers them hope and deliverance) and to a pagan audience - your pursuit of Mammon (money), Aphrodite (sex) and Mars (war) will destroy you. If you're United Methodist like I am, try reading "Methodist" each time he writes "Anglican."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Religious or not?

Apparently the Supreme Court can't decide if the Ten Commandments are religious or not. Or perhaps they cannot reach consensus on how religious they are.

I am interested in your opinion: Are the Ten Commandments inherently and inextricably religious?

Treating people like adults

Sometimes we church leaders are tempted to treat people like children. We selectively give information, we tell people exactly what to do, we make sure we repeat ourselves frequently - preferably in words of few syllables. Example: When it comes to church finances I've heard that you should never tell people things are going ok. If they hear things are going well, they'll stop giving, on the reasoning that since things are going well now, their giving isn't needed anymore. While I have seen some evidence to support this theory, I still can't bring myself to treat my people like children - instead of as responsible adults. It honors God to say that we're doing well financially (when we are truly doing so), when we see it as a result of his generosity with us. It honors the people when finances aren't doing so well to tell them the truth and let them respond to the need in faith.

In his July article in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens tells of the Iranian Mullahcracy's practice of treating the Iranian people as children who need a nanny (or, since they're all males, do we find a masculine version of "nanny"?).
The Islamic republic actually counts all of its subjects as infants, and all of its bosses as their parents. It is based, in theory and in practice, on a Muslim concept known as velayat-e faqih, or "guardianship of the jurist." In its original phrasing, this can mean that the clergy assumes responsibility for orphans, for the insane, and for (aha!) abandoned or untenanted property.
When I read the Bible I see that while God talks of people as his children (in two different senses: universally as creatures made in his image, particularly, as though who have been adopted through faith in Jesus), and Jesus encourages us to respond to him with childlikeness, God always respects people enough to give them both freedom and responsibility. We may or may not like this freedom and responsibility. We may or may not use them well. But if God can love and hold accountable the people he has made for himself, surely we ought to do likewise.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Fewer people with Down Syndrome?

In France at least, they've found a way to reduce the number of Down Children. Through the miracles of modern science and technology, they can now identify these defective children in the womb and kill them before they ever desecrate society with their endless needs and non-productivity. I wonder what defect they'll work to eliminate next?

I'm with Angela Beise: if this is what a more perfect society looks like, I'd rather not have it.

A Matter Essential to the Faith?

Since the beginning Christians have been disputing what items are essential to the faith. In the West, current debate centers on homosexuality. The Anglican Consulatitive Council has recently acted to exclude the American and Canadian branches for their refusal to bring their views in line with Anglican doctrine (see here and here). In the BBC piece we read:

The Rev Susan Russell, president of the US gay Christian group Integrity, said gays and lesbians were just as capable of holiness as heterosexuals.

But she said: "The more important question, I think, for the Church, is, 'Does God care more about our sexual orientation or our theological orientation?'

"And if one's theological orientation is determined to be correct, faithful and holy, then we see no bar to ordination."

She told BBC News the issue of gay clergy was "not a matter essential to the faith".

She said: "The more important question to me right now is, 'Is this an issue that should split a communion when our attention should be focused on people dying of malaria and children with Aids in Africa?'"

Doubtless one's take on whether homosexual practice is compatible with the Christian faith is not "a matter essential to the faith." At least not the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture. Just because it is not an essential belief does not mean that particular beliefs in this arena are not truly in line with Scripture - or church teaching - and more conducive to a healthy church. Of course we can trump almost anything with the appeal to deats caused by Malaria and AIDS in Africa. Surely even doctrines that have been considered essential to the faith - the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection of Jesus - can be trumped by our need to attend to these horrible realities. But the church isn't just a social service agency. We're to to make disciples of Jesus. This involves life transformation - in the direction of holiness. Though supporters of the homosexual lifestyle see no conflict between that lifestyle and the life of holiness, it sure looks like Scripture argues differently.

But then maybe this whole point is misguided. Maybe one's position on homosexuality reallyis an essential matter of the faith. A bank in England has asked a Christian group to close its account because that group rejects homosexuality. It appears that in some circles at least, the acceptability of homosexuality IS an essential matter of the faith - the secular faith, that is.

Communicating within Worldviews

I first read Seth Godin's work years ago in Fast Company. I continue to find his work stimulating and helpful in my role as a church leader. Though his recent post is titled Shark Attack, he only uses the recent tragedy to discuss other matters.

First he talks about his recent book (which I've commented on several times in the past).
All Marketers are Liars was probably a dumb title for my latest book (if my goal was to sell a lot, fast). It doesn’t do a good job of matching the worldview of the people most likely to buy it or talk about it. Perhaps I should have called it, “The Orange Kangaroo: How Smart Marketers Tell Stories People Want to Believe.” Same book, different worldview. To be fair, my goal wasn't to write a sequel, though, it was to change minds--which is a very time-consuming and difficult thing to do.
Actually in his terms, he failed to "market" the book. Instead of telling a story within the worldview of the hearers, he sought to tell the "truth" from a meta perspective - from above the fray. We philosophical types found this interesting, but I guess those interested in marketing found it less appealing.

He then raises the questions we communicators of the Gospel need to consider:

If you don't have the energy or the time to change minds, though, what should you do? You need to realize that changing a worldview requires you to get your prospects to admit that they were wrong. This is awfully hard to do.

I think that tapping into a worldview almost always requires more than a new title or a new wrapper or a new ad. I think it requires rethinking the product itself, starting from scratch with the worldview in mind.

Udner Bishop Huie's leadership this year's session of the Texas Annual Conference was quite different from any I had previously experienced. The most obvious agenda difference came on Tuesday with the addition of two workshop sessions. The first workshop I went to was on a new conference plan for evangelism. The workshop leader recognized that most of our United Methodist churches aren't currently configured for evangelism. Maintenance of facilities, yes. Paying the bills, yes. Taking care of members, yes. But evangelism? Reaching people outside the church and bringing them to faith in Jesus? Nope. Change is required. The plan calls for spending 4 weeks changing the minds of the congregation toward evangelism so the work can proceed, since "it takes 30 days to change a person's mind." I almost fell down laughing. Is he serious? Have his churches been easier than mine? Changing minds - except on trivial subjects - is much too complicated to be accomplished in a mere 30 days. Seth Godin understands this.

So how do you change minds - whether to sell a book or to lead a church to care for evangelism? When worldview is involved - and in evangelism it most assuredly is - two acts must be performed simultaneously. First, the old worldview must be shown to be deficient. Second, the new worldview must be shown to be desirable. Both must be done continuously. Understanding the second step is fairly straightforward (though actually doing it is a huge job), so I'll speak to the first step.

Undermining a worldview is extremely difficult. Not only are worldviews highly resilient, but attacks often provoke violent responses (if you think I'm exaggerating, consider the current relations between America and the Islamic world). Personally I'm not sure I'm cut out for the frontal assault. I tried that in one church and got run off pretty quickly. More in line with my personality is attempting the reductio ad absurdum of the current worldview. The weakness of this approach is that it is built on the notion that worldviews are primarily things of reason - and they're not. Though they form the framework for one's reason, we become very emotionally attached to our worldviews.

So what does it take to do this kind of undermining? At the very least, a strong sense of humor. You need to demonstrate over and over again that while you take God and his mission with utter seriousness, you don't take yourself too seriously. Additionally, you need to find ways to exaggerate your love for people. This will require actions and words. By "words" I mean not only the saying of loving words, but also active interpretation of actions as loving. Why? Because love looks different in each worldview. As Christians love is defined by Jesus. In American culture love is often defined as a hormonal response (in one kind of context) or as complete affirmation of one's desires and actions (in another kind of context). Perhaps you are sufficiently aware of worldviews to see a difference between these two understandings of love.

So how long does it take to change someone's - or a congregation's - mind? In my experience average situations would call for a minimum of at least 3 years. Obviously this calls for a third virtue - beyond a sense of humor and love: patience - or perhaps plain old stubborness. In the short term it's almost always easier to go with the status quo. But in the long term is will almost always kill you (or your organization). There are no quick fixes.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Figuring Out Emergent

The United Methodist News Service is trying to figure out the "Emerging Church" movement. In two articles they explore the nature of these churches and discover that they contain quite a bit of variety. Not a great surprise. I've done some stuff with Emergent & its people in the past, so I'll share from my own perspective.

Emergent Village defines itself as a "conversation." They avoid dogmatism - either theological or ecclesiastical. Most of the people I've met (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Brad Cecil, etc.) come from an Evangelical background - think Bible Church, Reformed and Southern Baptist. To my evangelical United Methodist ears they sound like they could easily be taken as liberals by their communities of origin. Such a label would be mistaken, however. They have learned much from theologians with a postmodern tilt - Stan Grenz, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf. From my evangelical UM perspective, it sounds like they're finally learning from the broader Christian tradition - and thus not all that new from our point of view. But to take the movement as solely or even primarily theological would be a mistake. It's a conversation, not an institution. They're not seeking power over anyone. Who is accepted as a conversation partner? In my experience they're very open. As evangelicals they didn't look at my United Methodism and reject me as hopelessly tainted with liberalism (as others have in the past). You can check out the conversation at their blog.

If Emegent has a bias, it is toward reaching the culture that has found American Christian culture irrelevant. This is where they rub a lot of their fellow evangelicals the wrong way. For modern evangelicals, the problem with modern culture is its atheism, its active rejection of Christian truth claims. From what the Emergent folk have seen, however, the question of truth has shifted from the theoretical to the pragmatic. Instead of facing moderns who hold to only one truth - knowing Christianity isn't it - they face a new cohort who admit to many truths and seek to create their own path through the mess. In the midst of this creativity the Emergent folk hold to Jesus as the truth - not merely as the messenger of truth (in line with some forms of modern Christianity - and Mohammed in Islam) but as truth personified. Their passion to reach this generation has led them to where they are.

I like the Emergent people. They're fun to be around. Most of my ministry, however, is in established churches with long term Christians. Most of the young people in my small town setting are at least nominal Christians. They take traditional ways of doing church as the way to go. So I've had less occasion to hang out with the Emergent folk than I would like. We'll see what happens in the future (when I become an old geezer).

New Ride at Disneyland

Well, it's not exactly a new ride - just new for me. The Indiana Jones ride was built years ago, and I've been to Disneyland at least a couple of times since they'd added it, but I'd never ridden it until our visit a week ago. Hannah (age 9) and I rode it right after we rode the Snow White ride. You'd think there would be a lot of difference between the two. Snow White is a ride for little kids; Indiana Jones is for big people. Riding them one after the other, however, I saw they were essentially the same. Oh, Indiana Jones is faster and louder, but it's essentially the same. In both you ride a vehicle that jerks you around through images from the story. Sure the images are more like-like, and thus scarier, in Indiana Jones, but if you're a little kid, what's the difference?

So now that I've ridden it once, I don't need to do it again. I'll stick with the g-force rides.

Healthfully Handling Employees

Several years ago - before the crash of the dot coms, I subscribed to Fast Company. Though the magazine has gotten much thinner of late, it is still putting out interesting articles on organization and leadership - and from the church perspective, windows into our culture.

In a recent piece they look at and the new book put out by the owners. The motivation industry puffs everyone up, aiming to make peopel feel good (sound familiar church?). Here's what the authors say:

"What executives fail to realize is that the life-changing insights sold by the motivational industry are the source of their problems rather than the solution," Kersten writes. "The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employees' narcissism so that they fall in love with themselves all over again, just as they did when they saw their own beauty in the distorted reflection of their mother's adoring gaze."

For Kersten, the heart of the problem lies in what he calls the "noble employee myth," a product of what he dryly calls the "motivational educational-industrial" -- or "ME-I" -- complex. The central elements of this myth are that employees are good and productive labor is natural for them. Management is responsible for creating the circumstances that unleash employee motivation and should be blamed when employees fail. Profits should not be pursued at the expense of employee satisfaction. On it goes -- the very kinds of things you'd expect to read if Jean-Jacques Rousseau happened to be unleashed in an HR department.

In our churchly effort to meet "felt needs" and make people feel good - centering the gospel on notins like "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for yourlife" - we've forgotten sin and the reality of its destructive power in our lives. I think a little de-motivation for us sinners might be a good thing.

The Joy of Fruit

We saw great natural beauty on our trip. For me, the highlight of the trip wasn't seeing nature - or going to Disneyland. Rather, it was seeing fruit. I led the youth of Fountain Valley First United Methodist Church for four years. It was a great blessing to see so many of them still walking with Jesus. Perhaps the biggest blessing was hearing Geoff Wilson preach. Go Geoff!

Curious Place

Originally uploaded by rheyduck.
While on our California trip, we stayed with some friends in Tiburon. We'd gotten the idea the community was an expensive place to live (real estate prices average well over a million - and this is for small houses on small lots). We learned, however, that Tiburon was originally for the families of laborers, while Belvedere was where the wealthy had their homes. As far as I could tell, except for the lower income set aside apartments, no one in my social class or below live here any more (I was told the longshoreman who live in the area make $120k a year). Our friends told us that the two questions asked when you meet someone are:
1. Where do you live?
2. Do you have a view?

They take views mighty seriously. (Here's a link to their View Ordinance as it relates to trees.) Our friends told us that views are so important that you have to get your neighbor's permission to do anything to your house - including changing from single pane to double pane windows. I asked if the views were valued primarily for the sake of the view or for that American god "property value." Take your guess what the answer was.

Tiburon was a very nice place to visit, but I don't think I'd fit in as a resident.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Churches as Potential Government Profit Centers

Donald Sensing comments on the recent Supreme Court Kelo ruling on government seizure of private property for the benefit of others. I haven't read the ruling, but from what little I've heard it sounds horrible.

UPDATE: Here's a link to further discussion at Christianity Today.

Automatic Theological Labels

Blogging has been slow because of my vacation to California. Just ran through a theological test though. Here are my results. Nothing shocking.

You scored as Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan. You are an evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition. You believe that God's grace enables you to choose to believe in him, even though you yourself are totally depraved. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives you assurance of your salvation, and he also enables you to live the life of obedience to which God has called us. You are influenced heavly by John Wesley and the Methodists.

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Neo orthodox








Roman Catholic


Reformed Evangelical


Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal


What's your theological worldview?
created with

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Return from the Pill Culture?

The irony overwhelms me. "Scientists" or "experts" or whoever comes up with these things have an astounding new discovery. Behavioral therapy can significantly reduce the need for medication for ADHD

Haven't parents known for years that behavioral therapy has great affects on the behavior of kids?

For too many years we have been rolling headlong toward popping pills for just about everything. Perhaps this will herald a new day in medicine... a day when we don't reach for the pill bottle first thing every morning and last thing at night.

Episcopal Candidate?

We had a guest preacher lead our morning Bible Studies at Annual Conference this year. While she did a good job, I couldn't help but think that she was increasing her visibility toward a run at the the episcopacy in 08.

But how does one get such gigs? Does one approach one's bishop and say, "Bishop, I would like a shot at the episcopacy at the next Jurisdictional Conference, could you contact some of your bishop friends and get them to invite me to lead a bible study at other annual conferences in our jurisdiction?"

Friday, June 17, 2005

Mission Trip Reflections

“Here we are, entertain us,” wrote Kurt Cobain, claiming to identify the shallowness being bred into the young among us as our media culture thrived in the early 1990s.

This is being written in Hamburg, Arkansas. I am one of approximately 2400 senior high youth and adults who have traveled from central Texas to Arkansas this week for the Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission trip (CTCYM). In July we will have some 700 junior high youth and adults doing very similar things within central Texas.

I’ve got good news. We are spending our nights on the floors of churches and community centers around the state and our days helping people. We are building wheelchair ramps, replacing floors, painting houses, and much more. We are touching lives.

We are doing these things because we serve a God who loved us enough to come to us. One of the ways we thank God for finding us and loving us and inviting us into a relationship with Him is to spread the word; To share the love.

There is more than enough bad news these days, and more than a fair share of it is about “the youth of today.” According to some, young people are growing more detached from society all the time. Many people my age and older are too busy looking down our noses at youth and their music and hair and clothing styles we don’t give them a chance.

If you have any concern about “today’s youth,” this week should give you encouragement. Not only did all these young people pay to get to go and do sweaty work for a week, they are willing waking up at 6:30 each morning and eagerly getting back out to the worksites.

The theory on mission trips in youth ministry used to be that the kids would do a half day of work if they were offered an exciting diversion or entertainment in the afternoon. I am happy to tell you that theory is outdated; since CTCYM was founded in 1994, youth have been working hard from 8 to 4 to bring hope and comfort to people they have never met before.

We hear two critical reactions to these trips. First, some tell us that charity starts at home and that we ought not have to travel to do mission work. The first of these trips I took the youth of one church on so inspired a couple of them that when they got home that summer they planned a similar time of service in their own community. The truth is these mission trips and others like them change those who go, making them better neighbors at home.

The other criticism is that many of the people we are offered help don’t deserve it. Some of them have made poor choices that have brought them to the place they are now. In support of this point, many of our clients are able, or have family who are able, to be doing the things we are doing, but doing them for themselves.

I am fraid people who offer this criticism have missed the whole point of the Gospel. Every since the first sin we have been trying to take care of our own problems and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Knowing that we couldn’t do it on our own, Jesus came to bridge the gap between God and humanity that we could not bridge on our own.

This is precisely what makes the Gospel good news; that God loved us all enough to invite us back, not because we could or should do it anything ourselves, but simply because He loves us.

We help others, whether or not they deserve it because we serve a God who stepped in to help us even though we could not deserve it.

Go thou and do likewise.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Learning from the Weaknesses of Others

I tell my kids to try to learn from experience. I also tell them it's usually cheaper to learn from someone else's experience than from your own. In this piece, Tarek Heggy lists some weaknesses of the Arab Mind. Being neither an Arab nor the son of an Arab, I think the weaknesses he lists are worth examining ourselves for. When you pray for the Arabs to be delivered from these weaknesses (surely it would be good for the world for Arabs to be a healthy, strong set of cultures?), you can then pray for your own deliverance.

Church Funding

The Times of London talks about the financial crisis in the Church of England. According to their figures, the biggest single expense - 4 times larger than the second largest - is clergy pensions.

I understand the idea of taking care of retired clergy. But that's not the mission of the church. Some how, they, like us, need to figure out how to move from maintenance to mission. They don't need just any mission, but they need to figure out how to live the Christian life in such a compelling way they can re-evangelize their country.

Worshiping in Nature

Tod Bolsinger has a good discussion of people who claim they "worship" on the golf course, at the beach, or in the mountains. He says these folks are confusing worship with inspiration. Both are good, both are useful. But inspiration is direxted at us - what we get out of it. Worship, on the other hand, is about what we give God.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, Open Theology?

What began as a fairly clever ad line is well on the way to becoming United Methodist Theology.

The slogan, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" was created by an advertising firm for the United Methodist Church. It was rolled out to use in the "Igniting Ministries" marketing strategy.

As an ad line, I have no real problem with this slogan. However, I hear more and more United Methodists refer to this line when describing our church. When difference of opinion, or more seriously, difference of doctrine comes up, some fall back to this slogan as though it is the lowest common denominator of all things United Methodist.

I'm not really sure what "open hearts" are, but an open heart is certainly not our goal. "To worship God and enjoy Him forever" is the chief end of man. Where openess of heart and mind are important aspects of this that the individual can come to know and love God better, I am all for it.

Our purpose is NOT to have "open minds." Open minds are an essential part of learning and growing, but because learning and growth are possible, the openess of the mind is ultimately secondary to its capacity to learn and grow. In other words, if one has learned something, one no longer needs to have one's mind as open as when was merely ignorant.

Again, our purpose is also NOT "open doors." It really bugs me when my ushers, for whatever reason, lock one of the two doors to our sanctuary, figuring since one is open, everyone can get in. I shudder at the idea of someone reaching for a door handle to enter a sanctuary and the door not opening. On the other hand, there is something very particular and specific going on in our sanctuaries; the worship of the God we have come to know chiefly in and through Jesus Christ.

I don't have all the answers. My theology is not airtight and completely formed. For it to grow closer to where it ought to be, looking to Our Theological Task and our Articles of Religion will do me far more good than will turning to an ad slogan.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why don't you answer his questions?

In one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H, the 4077th needs an incubator. Hawkeye and BJ find themselves at a press conference with a General. When the General takes questions, Hawkeye asks why MASH units don't get incubators. After he receives a convoluted bureaucratic answer that doesn't answer the question, Bj asks the next question: "Why don't you answer his question?"

The other day the budget of our Annual Conference was presented. It was then explained that the budget was presented on Mondays for the opportunity of questions and information, but wasn't to be amended or voted on until Wednesday. The floor was opened for questions.

Two people raised legitimate questions. Neither were answered with any more than an "I don't know; we'll check on that."

There were no more questions. Can anyone really wonder why?

Last year at the District Steward's meeting, I had two legitimate questions about the budget. The only answer I got was that the chair of the Finance Committee had not seen the budget until that night, but she had chaired the committee for twenty years, so I should just sit down and mind my own business

If the System really doesn't want questions to be asked, could we at least develop the integrity to admit it?

Responding to Bishop Huie's Challenge

Last week I summarized Bishop Huie’s address – that’s the official term; “challenge” would be a better word. I said then that it was the best such address I’ve ever heard. As a pastor who is called to lead rather than to just be a chaplain it is very encouraging to have my boss say what she said. Here are some thoughts on how we in Pittsburg can respond.

Part 1: Current Reality – We live in a small town. Though it will continue to be small for the foreseeable future, we not only have new people moving in, but we have long term residents who do not participate in any church. There are plenty of people to reach. Some of these are a lot like us. We already have connections with some of them so we can invite them into the life of the church. Others, however, are form a completely different cultural background. They speak Spanish rather than English. It’ll take more work to reach them. I’ve spoken with Rev. Jaime Lopez, the incoming pastor at Far de Luz UMC in Mt. Pleasant about finding a way to partner with them to start a work in Pittsburg. More on this below. Another aspect of our current reality is that we are an established church. We celebrate our sesquicentennial in 2 years. Our facilities are older and their recent renovation has left us in debt. We can look at this debt and continuing expense as reason to hold back on ministry with the idea that we need to conserve scarce resources. I think that such a move will be deadly for us. Why? We’re in the people business, not the building business. When paying for and maintaining the buildings crowds out reaching people, we’re defaulting on our calling.

Part 2: Jesus’ Model of Discipleship

A. Radical Hospitality – This goes beyond friendliness. Jesus was notorious for spending time with outsiders – with people whose lives were broken. There are plenty of outsiders here in Pittsburg. Some we see as they come in for help with food. Some we see in Wacky Wednesday, FISH, and the Youth Ministry. As we find ways to draw in the Spanish-speaking community and the poor and broken, we will be practicing radical hospitality.

B. Passionate Worship – I (like some of you) like contemporary style worship. I (like some of you) like traditional style worship. More important than style is connecting with God in worship. Singing is important – I’d love to see the sanctuary full of exuberant, joyous worshipers every Sunday. This kind of worship will draw people in and help them experience God.

C. Faith-forming relationships and experiences – Early Methodism was built on small groups. We have good Sunday school classes, but right now less than half of our average worship attendees go to Sunday School. We need to start more small groups, not only for the people we now have, but also as entry points for new people.

D. Risk taking Ministry and Service – This can be scary stuff. Failure is possible. Doing the Agape House ministry was an exercise in this direction. I’m so thankful that we have leaders who are willing to take risks and try new things. We’ll be trying a lot more (and probably failing at a few) before we’re done. The main thing is, We’re in the people business, so we’ll be investing in ways to connect them with Jesus.

E. Extravagant Generosity – Little that is worthwhile comes cheap. Oh, some things don’t cost much money – just, blood, sweat, toil and tears. Doing the ministry God calls us to will mean that we can’t live as a poverty church (controllers of scarce resources). We’ll have to live as stewards of God’s abundance – in our lives as individuals, families and as a church. One of the economic changes that has hit churches in the past generation is the number of families with 2 full time workers outside the home. People have less volunteer time available, and more organizations clamoring for it. This has given churches two choices: (1) Cut ministry; (2) Hire staff to fill in the gap. Although it’s expensive, I’m glad we’ve taken the second option. No church, however, can afford to hire enough people to do all the ministry that needs doing. This extravagant generosity, therefore, calls not only for financial stewardship, but also time stewardship.

Part 3: Vision

Bishop Huie named four elements in her vision – I know more will come later.

  1. New Church starts – Starting 10 new churches a year is a major change from the way we’ve been doing things. It is sufficiently impossible that if God doesn’t step in we will fail. What’s our role? We need to keep our eyes open even here. As a strong congregation we may be able to give birth to a Hispanic Methodist church here.
  2. Revitalizing existing congregations – We’re going to have to ratchet up our learning and skills development. We won’t be able to survive, let alone thrive, by doing things the way we’ve always done them. I have a lot of growing to do, and I assume I’m not the only one.
  3. Focus on Youth and Young Adults – The studies I’ve read show that churches that invest in a full time youth pastor have more impact on youth. I’m thankful we started thinking that way before I got here. Those same studies show that churches need to (and can!) overcome the divorce between youth and adult culture.
  4. Recruitment, training and retention of effective leadership – If the Conference is going to plant 10 churches a year, we’ll need a bunch more pastors. I think some of those new pastors can come out of this congregation. We also need to develop more leadership training for our local leaders so we can stay beyond the model of managing scarce resources model of church.
Well. Does that sound challenging enough? Don’t quail at the sight of it all. Instead, give thanks to God that he has counted us worthy of joining him in his mission of reaching the world.

What Kind of God? What Kind of Church?

I read two articles on American religion today. Tom Ehrich bemoans the rise of conservative Christianity. Narrow-minded, unquestioning, dogmatic, they go to church for comfort as they face economic stresses of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Fear. Ignorance. Certainty. Ehrich sees these as the building blocks of conservative Christianity. He recognizes that this kind of Christianity seems to be "working" - it draws the crowds. Their way of doing things, however, contrasts with Jesus, and will have dire consequences.
What concerns me is the emergence of a religious leadership cadre that doesn't hesitate to turn fearfulness into rage, hatred and scapegoating. They, of all people, should know better. They should know that the answer to fear is faith, not hatred. They should know that Jesus didn't name enemies, launch moral crusades or wage culture wars. He didn't exercise thought-control with his disciples. He didn't insist on one way of thinking or believing. He wasn't legalistic or rigid or conformist.
No, Jesus was a good modern American liberal, thoroughly open-minded. He wouldn't hurt a flea. And since his world was ruled by evil conservative republicans - oops! strike that - Romans - they killed him for it. Or so it appears.

Jesus had disciples. A disciple is a learner - a student. He taught them not merely a method (critical thinking) or a moral directive (be loving and kind) but actual content about the nature, purposes and action of God. Through his actions and words he embodied the Kingdom of God, not just as a theory, but with himself - strangely - as the King. Was his method "thought control?" Well, he like other rabbis (and other teachers throughout the ages) wanted his students to learning something. He thought this teaching to be important enough that he spent three years with them - and continued teaching even when it led to death threats. If Jesus was a good teacher (not just a teacher who happened to be a good person) then it would make sense that his students actually learned from him. When students attach themselves to a teacher one might imagine them doing so because they want to learn something, perhaps even how to think better. Jesus certainly didn't treat them as robots - in John 6 he even encouraged them to consider what he had said and to leave - if they thought that appropriate.

Though I wouldn't call this "thought control" - which may just function as a "boogie man" term for Ehrich - it is a far distance from Jesus to modern autonomous individualism, which might be more amenable to Ehrich's desires. Think and let think. Treat everyone as fully rational already (unless they're conservative and act on their beliefs).

Dave Shiflett rights from the opposite point of view in National Review Online. Author of a recent book on the collapse of liberal churches, Shiflett emphasizes the different views of God in liberal and conservative churches. The former, he suggests, proclaims a God of infinite mercy and niceness, who "understands" the hardships we face, and wouldn't (and probably couldn't) deign to lift a finger to correct (oppress) us when we stray from what some idiosyncratic preacher might proclaim as "the way." Sometimes this God even seems to blink out of existence.
Writer Andy Ferguson encountered the lesser god while taking a class at a West Coast Episcopal seminary. Andy sometimes argued basic Christian beliefs with a professor. After one such discussion he repaired to the lunchroom, where he was approached by a fellow student. '“We have finally figured out what your problem is,'” the classmate said. 'You are the only one here who believes in God.' Andy thought it over and concluded: This guy is right. Thus began a journey that recently took him into Catholicism. In economic terms he had switched brands. It'’s highly unlikely he'’ll be switching back.
The latter group proclaim a stronger more serious God - a God to whom we must adapt or pay a huge price. People are hungering, Shiflett says, for a God who is bigger and stronger than they are.

What do we do with these divergent evaluations of American religion? Does it work to explain away our opponents as mere projectionists (following Feuerbach) who create a god in their own image - either the pipe-smoking, tweed clad, bearded deep thinker or the macho, brusque, impatient strong man? Or are both sides pursuing an illusion (following Freud) , who excuses their immorality (the economic immorality of the conservatives and the sexual immorality of the liberals) and makes them feel better?

When I read the Bible I find a God who is way bigger than I am. This God wants people to come into a love relationship - a relationship that includes increasing understanding. I know this, but I also know that because God is so much bigger than I am, my understanding is always partial. And because I am a sinner, my knowledge is also often distorted. But the mistake of moderns is to look at this word knowledge and pursue an objectivist epistemology leading to certainty. Liberals may be pessimistic when it comes to knowledge about God, while conservatives may be optimistic about the same, but insofar as both count this kind of knowledge central, both will fail. While factual knowledge of God is important (and possible), it will not work when abstracted from a living relationship with God. As we live in this relationship God not only offers us forgiveness and deliverance from fear, but we also hear Jesus' invitation to take up our crosses and follow him. Whether one thinks of oneself as either a liberal or a conservative (or anything else) that is not a comforting thought. But it is a good - because on the other side lies resurrection.

Kingdom voting

“All in favor, say ‘Aye,” any opposed, ‘Nay’.” I am in Fort Worth for the 139th session of the Central Texas Annual Conference. This three day session is a time when over a thousand clergy and laity from United Methodist Churches in central Texas come together for meetings, meals, and worship services.

It seems like we vote on almost everything. There are positions to be filled and budgets to be apportioned. We vote on each of them. There are candidates for ordination. We vote on them. We even vote on whether or not we will receive a report. We take this vote after the report has been presented. I’m still unsure what would happen if we voted not to receive a report that has already been given. Would the presenter have to try again?

Overall, I suppose it is a good thing that ideas, motions, and budgets are presented, discussed, and voted upon. But last night as I lay pondering our first day of business sessions, it struck me: we are not serving a democracy.

Though much of the ethic Jesus taught his disciples seems to us today to fit well within a democratic framework, Jesus did not call us to the “Democratic Republic” of God. He called us to the Kingdom.

One key difference between a kingdom and a democracy is the matter of who is in charge. In a democracy the will of the people is supreme. In a kingdom, the will of the King is supreme.

It is difficult for Christian Americans to get our minds and souls around this; we are democratic to the core. It is good practice for us occasionally to step back from this and realize we serve a King.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Organic Riff

The sanctuary was full, and though the closing hymn was listed as the "Recessional Hymn," the congregation sat down following the benediction for the playing of the postlude. It was a well played piece by an obviously talented organist.

As the moving toccata came to a close, the congregation applauded. Some stood. It was clear; the man's talent was appreciated and was a ouseing way to end the worship experience.

This brought to mind the debate over worship styles. The service that night was entirely traditional. A large choir sang three different selections, and did so very well. I suppose it was the way we were instructed to sit for the postlude that brought to my mind the "worship wars." The points were going to be made that THIS was worship, that the ORGAN is the instrument of choice for worship, and that THIS organist was a very gifted musician.

To toccata was beautiful. What I could not get out of my mind, thought, was, in what way(s) was this performance better, or more inherently worshipful than a well done guitar riff?

Please help me understand!

Central Texas Conference

The Central Texas Conference opened tonight with a worship service at the First United Methodist Church of Hurst. Bishop Woodie White preached from Philippians 2:1-11.

The gist of the message was this: claim the Name. There is power in the Name. Do not be ashamed of the Name. The Name is that of Jesus, of course.

I appreciated the Bishop's point that Christians ought not be ashamed of the name of Jesus. He called us to be good citizens in an increasingly pluralistic society, but to do so without ditching the name of Jesus in the name of inclusion.

"I expect a Buddhist to be about Buddha. I expect a Hindu to be a good Hindu. We likewise ought to be good Christians. Don't be ashamed of the name."

While I am skeptical that merely using the name Jesus will reunify and refocus the energies of The United Methodist Church as much as is needed, this is a welcome call to the church. Let's get back to the name.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Keeping Pastors Long Term

In a conversation with another pastor yesterday morning at Conference, the issue of pastoral tenure came up. This pastor shared a theory one of his parishioners holds (I paraphrase): "When you want to keep a pastor a long time, you need to make sure you don't pay too much. If you pay too much the pastor might get ambitious and want to move." From the way many churches operate, I get the idea this is a commonly held theory. I think it is mostly mistaken, however.

I freely admit that I'm ambitious. I'm not content with the way things are. And this is a good thing for my congregation.

My ambition is not to move up to be a DS or Bishop. My ambition is not to become wealthy - although I do have a few dreams that are money related: paying for my kid's braces, sending my kids to college, and owning my own house some day. But those things aren't the center of my ambition (and I think they're not that abnormal when compared to most of the people in my church).

My ambitions center around reaching people for Jesus. I want to pastor a church that is radically in love with Jesus and does everything possible to connect people with Him. Such a church will hunger after God, win people to Christ, grow them as disciples, help them discover their spiritual gifts, and then deploy them in ministry.

Doesn't that sound like a good thing for a church?

Some churches out there are already everything they need to be. Everything goes smoothly. It's perfect. I've never been in a church like that, but I figure there's some out there. But I like the idea of creating something that doesn't exist - of bringing health where there isn't health, growth where there isn't growth.

So what church leaders ought to want is an ambitious pastor whose ambitions can be fulfilled within that congregation. That will go a long way toward keeping a pastor.

How People Become Christians

Anyone who has thought deeply about evangelism knows that decisions are important. In come circles, the decision to "accept Christ" becomes the end-all of the evangelistic enterprize. Years ago James Engel came up with the Engel Scale, a way of depicting the multiple decisions - or stages - of a person's response to the Gospel. Then a few years ago Frank Gray observed that while the Engel Scale mostly dealt with knowledge, it neglected the attitudinal component. This led to his development of the Gray Matrix. The Engel Scale is 1 dimensional, the Gray Matrix two dimensional. An even greater improvement would be to make it three dimensional to show the social component, one's connection with the church.

Here's a good overview of Engel & Gray.

Bishop Willimon Speaks

William Willimon, the new Bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference, is finding his new leadership role somewhat different from his old role at Duke. Though he has never withdrawn solely into the world of the theoretical - like some who work in seminaries - he is now in a frontline leadership position. He wants to see growth in the churches of his annual conference - he's going to challenge them to grow their average worship attendance by at least 5% in the next year. Adding contemporary worship services is clearly one way to do this, but
Willimon is concerned contemporary services will bring an end to Christian traditions, such as the hymns of Methodist co-founder Charles Wesley, that have enriched the lives of Methodists for more than 250 years.
First, though much contemporary worship uses only recently written songs, there is also a resurgence of hymn singing, though the accompaniment and style of singing has been "contemporized."

Second, for me - and I'd guess for many others - what matters isn't the musical style but the spirit of the worship. The memorial service Monday at Annual Conference was a great worship experience. All the music was traditional - And Can It Be, I Stand Amazed in the Presence, and For All the Saints. It was awesome to have thousands of people singing with gusto - as if they actually understood and meant what they were saying. For that very reason, hymn singing is always one of the highlights of Annual Conference for me. What would happen if in our local churches we recovered the vigor of old-time Methodist singing - whatever the style?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

No Discrimination?

During this morning's last business session at Annual Conference, there was much discussion over a particular resolution. The actual resolution was not controversial, but some of the supporting whereas's were vague and echoed some of the studied ambiguity on a controversial subject in the Discipline. A conference leader went forward and declared that discrimination has no place in the UMC. I know we're used to saying that, not only as UMs but as modern Americans. It's not true, though, and that's a good thing.

On Wednesday, former conference Chancellor Ewing Werlein warned us about the use of titles. It seems that some church staff people have been calling themselves "pastor" when they're not. This has led some people to believe they're qualified to do some things they're not qualified to do, in turn exposing the churches to legal problems. He urged us to reserve the titles "Pastor" and "Reverend" for properly ordained or appointed individuals. If that's not discrimination, I don't know what is.

Discriminating is a form of judging. Sometimes we absolutize Jesus' teaching on judging and say that all judging is wrong. But it's not. It's part of life. We can't get by without it. We also can't get by without judging or discriminating with regard to people. When I fly on an airplane, I really hope the airline discriminates betwene those who can fly and those who simply think it'd be really neat to try.

Now those who decry discrimination are trying to say (I think), is that we don't discriminate on the basis of invalid characteristics. We don't decide pastoral status on the basis of race or gender (unless one counts some of the newly invented genders - some DO count these, I know). But surely we can clean up our language and do away with pious sounding cliches.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

On Not Disbanding the UMC

At the Confessing Movement luncheon Monday, Billy Abraham (Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology at Perkins in Dallas) addressed the suggestions of some (namely Stanley Hauerwas - "God is killing United Methodism" - and John RObert McFarland) that the UMC should disband.

Abraham calls these two "illuminating false prophets;" illuminating because they call attention to the UM "death wish" prevalent in the church, especially in the so-called "progressive wing."

Abraham asserts that this is not the time for panic or disbanding. LIke Wesley in 1745, he says (speaking for others in the CM) that "We will not leave the ship." "Renewal and division are not compatible," so "we [the CM] are in it [the UMC] for the long haul."

Some scholars have claimed that American Christianity reinvents itself every 30 years. Since our last reinvention in 1968 we've:
  • Become overly bureaucratized
  • Lost our sense of unity
  • Divorced the mission of evangelization from humanitarian work, too often settling for the latter in the place of the former.
  • Our fear of being racist or sexist has paralyzed us
  • We've divided into causcuses, interest groups, boards, agencies, etc.
The good news out of all this is that our decline has awakened us to our need to make disciples; our spiritual poverty has allowed us to recover spiritual formation resources in Wesley and the broader Christian tradition; and, interest in evangelism is on ther rise.

There are three good reasons to continue.
1. God raised us up in the 18th century and gave us a network of convictions & practices which were - and still are - of value to the whole church.

2. There are millions of Methodist sheep scattered around the world who need continued care. "We are a full service church, not a business looking for market share."

3. There remains a vast missionary task of making disciples home and abroad. We have the resources and an essential role to play in this work.

We need to stop whining and apologizing for our existence. It is time to move forward and find our distinctive voice in the world Christian communion.

In light of two factors we find ourselves at a cross roads.
1. Internal fragmentation - serious, but rejecting the role of denominations is the wrong response.
2. The failure of the structures of ecumenism

Leaders on all levels of the UMC need a more subtle understanding of what is happening and to come to terms with the various renewal groups in the church. They won't just go away.

We need to remember and give thanks for those who stood up early on for a recovery of our doctrine, when taking such a stand was very costly and received much opposition.

As we press on for the next phase of doctrinal renewal we have several issues to work through.

1. Make crystal clear that we aimt o take the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith as our doctrinal standards. [Abraham would like to find a way to better include Wesley's standard Sermons and Notes on the NT in this mix]

2. We need to think thourh being a fragmented and fragmenting body and find a way back to unity. Absence of division alone is not unity. The CM needs to be a shining head light showing how doctrine leads to unity.

3. We need to connect doctrine with the mission of making disciples. We need to impart to our converts a fully Christian worldview. [The most important development in the UMC in the last 40 years was identifying our mission as "Making Disciples of Jesus Christ."]

4. Relate doctrinal renewal to the renewal of the whole church. When we stand strong we will be a blessing to the wider Body of Christ and a force for unity.

5. Find a way to implement a doctrinally sensitive connection to disciplemaking, particularly in the rest of the world. We need to release the resources of local churches everywhere to produce strong, doctrinally whole, disciple-making churches. This will require de-centralization.

Whatever else we do, most of all we need a fresh Pentecost.