Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To Plant or Not to Plant: That is the Question

During our special Annual Conference session November 19th a retired pastor and District Superintendent made the contention that new church plants are only for the Houston area – not for the majority of towns in the Conference. I can think of two reasons one might hold such a view, one clearly wrong, and one that is questionable, yet commonly believed. Note: I do not know if the one who made the original comments adheres to these or any other reasons.

First, one who is against church planting outside Houston – easily thought of as the Big City of the Conference – might think most of the other towns, whether static in population or not, have all the churches they need to reach the resident population. My guess is that the city that has 50% of its residents in church any given Sunday is highly exceptional. There are lots of unreached people out there – even in a small, highly churched town like Pittsburg. The Baptists and non-denominational churches certainly don’t think there are enough churches: they keep planting more, whether through intentional placement or through church splits. We may quail at the idea of copying the Baptists, but in how many of our East Texas towns is the main UM church larger and stronger than the largest Baptist church? In how many towns are there multiple Baptist churches that are larger and stronger than our UM churches? If they can keep up the church planting (and growing), why can’t we? So the idea that there are simply plenty of churches to reach the people is clearly false in my judgment.

The second possible reason is related to the first. Some believe that one church can be for all people. These are the folks who think the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) is evil. This principle, developed by theorists in Church Growth, basically says that people like to go to church (and do just about anything) with people who are like them. Some of us hear this idea and hear it as an expression of racism. We think it’s wrong to want to go to church only with people who are like us.

Before I came to my current appointment I served Westbury UMC in Houston. Westbury is rightly known as a multi-cultural church. One of my favorite things about the congregation was that it wasn’t just Anglo folks like me: we had Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, etc. One might point to Westbury as counter-evidence to the HUP. Here are people who are clearly different going to church together and enjoying each other’s company. But that assessment would be wrong, and in its wrongness I see why the HUP need not be considered as a justification for racism – or any other evil “ism.”

The difference between Westbury and the vast multitude of monochromatic churches was not that the people there decided not to identify those who are “like us” on the basis of race. Racial difference just didn’t matter. If you could go to Westbury and ignore race, you’d notice that most of the people were alike: they were (mostly) middle class professional people. We lazy Americans too often judge “likeness to us” based on skin color since skin color is something we can see instantly (unless the lights are low), with no thought required.

HUP – as I understand it – does not make the claim that homogeneity is the ultimate destination for the church, either in the eschaton or here and now. HUP is a descriptive sociological claim – people congregate with people who are like themselves, not a normative theological claim – churches ought to be composed of people who are alike.

If this is so, can we ask this question: Is it the case that one of the questions people ask when they are considering going to church (any particular church, that is) is, “Is there someone there like me?” If this is one of the questions people who are not in our churches ask, is it then legitimate to ask the general question, “What barriers must we remove that are presently keeping people out of our church?” in a more particular way: “What can we do that might break down the barrier the keeps this particular group of people in our town from coming?” Or, to put it another way, “What can we do to make this particular group of people comfortable in our church?”

“Comfortable” is a dangerous word. It’s hard to read the New Testament and not see that the Gospel – the Good News that Jesus is Lord – is highly discomforting for those committed to living the way of the World. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio has commented that when it comes to language, he wants to be as clear and accommodating as possible [I paraphrase] so that he makes sure the people understand the Gospel well enough to be offended at it and not their method of style of presentation. Shifting from the rhetorical to the social arena, we see Jesus doing something similar – he loved sinners in a way they never expected – yet his relationships with them led them away from their sin, not to affirmation in their lifestyle (Ex. Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery).

What does all this have to do with church planting in the Texas Conference? Just this: Our assumption in small town United Methodism has too often been that one church will accommodate all people. Actually our practice is a little different – we really mean that one white church and one black church will accommodate all people.

In the first summer of my first appointment, it crossed my mind that we ought to do a vacation bible school. That’s what churches do in the summer, isn’t it? Our problem was that our little church only had one or two children. We had loads of retired adults who could teach, but not enough children. Simple minded fellow that I was, I looked across town (about a quarter mile) and saw the black UM church. They had lots of children, and few adults available to teach at VBS during the day. It sounded like a perfect match. As I recall, our combined VBS went well that year, but I sure got a bunch of lectures. “Preacher,” I was told, “Our churches are supposed to be separate. That’s why the Conference spent so much money to build them their own building.”

Now I don’t know if the Conference was motivated by an ecclesiastical version of “separate but equal,” but my (white) members certainly perceived it that way.

Having pastored a multicultural church my longstanding theory (and previous experience) was confirmed: Black people aren’t all alike. The senior pastor I worked with their commented that he (and African American) had observed the same thing about whites – we’re not all alike. If these observations – first, that people tend to congregate with people who are like themselves, and, second, that not all people in any given racial, ethnic or social category are all alike – are accurate, then surely one White church and one Black church surely won’t be enough to reach everyone in any town. Some people find their primary identity in their race. My guess is that neither Black church leaders nor White church leaders will be prone to label their monochrome way of doing church as illegitimate anytime soon. Nonetheless, there are many in our communities for whom ecclesial segregation is the main barrier that is keeping them out of our churches. So without eliminating our white and black congregations (instead multiplying them), we need also to plant intentionally integrated churches. Some will say this is impossible to do in East Texas. I have two answers to that protest. First, church planting is hard no matter where you are or what kind of church you’re planting. Second, God loves calling us to do things that can only be done in his power.

While we plant and grow churches where distinct people groups (and we’ll have to work by their own self-identification, not our own), we will include as part of their discipling, the skills and inclination to expand the circle of those they count as “like me.” To do this, the leaders (especially the pastors) will have to be more mature than their people in this area, so they can preach unity in Christ. Beyond preaching and teaching, we’ll also have to find ways for congregations to gather regularly with each other across the various boundary lines we’ve identified.

My guess is that racial, ethnic and even language boundaries will be easier for us to cross than the socio-economic barriers. The UMC is mostly a middle-class denomination. Our leadership comes from that stratum of society. We have many ministries to the poor. We even have brought them into some of our churches (St. Johns in Houston strikes me as a good example). It will be very difficult, however, to bring them into leadership and equip them to be pastors and church planters. The main barrier is the educational requirement. The normal route to becoming an Elder is a four year college degree, followed by a 90 hour (at least) masters. Some of the Baptist and Pentecostal groups that offer lower educational hurdles for pastors (or none at all) seem to be doing a more effective job of planting and growing churches among the poor. We UMs tend to look down our noses at them – at their questionable theology, their quaint hymnody, their crass emotionalism. But just as we’ve learned that neither the White or Black way(s) of doing church is/are the one right way, we’ll need to learn that the middle class educated way of doing church isn’t the one right way either.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Who'da Thunk it?

The Rolling Stones have been signed to play halftime of the upcoming Super Bowl. It reminds me of the time I recognized “Hotel California” playing on Muzak at a funeral home.

While I am not old enough to remember it well, I know that rock and roll was once-upon-a-time counter-cultural. The “establishment” didn’t like it. Adults opined aloud that western civilization was coming apart at the seams at the sound of electrical music.

I have seen the photographs. Men used to almost always wear ties and fedoras when out in public. Women always wore dresses that actually covered their bodies, and often wore hats and gloves, too. You know, the “Leave-it-to-Beaver” world that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seem to want us to go back to? When The Government and Big Corporation America ran things and all was well with the white-washed world?

Those days are apparently gone as once edgy rock and roll is now safe for the Super Bowl halftime.

Let’s face it; following the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake debacle of 2003, the NFL is not going to take a chance at offending everyone again. No; these days Super Bowl is the epitome of family entertainment. It has got to be safe for everyone.

The Rolling Stones are safe. Who’da thunk it 40 years ago?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Review of Quartz Mountain Resort

For our family Thanksgiving gathering this year we met up at Quartz Mountain Resort Park on Lake Altus in western Oklahoma. None of us had ever been there before, but considering we were traveling from East Texas, Central Texas, the DFW area and NW New Mexico, it provided somewhat of a compromise.

Our family stayed in the 3 bedroom cabin, my parents and youngest brother & his wife (and dogs) in a 2 bedroom cabin, and my other brother’s family in the lodge. The cabins were described as “rustic” – that means that haven’t been renovated recently. They worked just fine for us and were nicely furnished. The 3 bedroom cabin had a full kitchen so we were able to prepare our own meals – including Thanksgiving Dinner. Our cabin could have easily accommodated several more people. If the weather were warmer, one could even sleep out on the screened porch.

The lodge was much newer. I didn’t see much of the interior, but it looked quite nice. Unlike the cabins, it had TVs in the rooms – and had no nearby parking. The parking lot was closer to the main building and people were getting luggage carts or just hefting their stuff to their rooms. All the staff people I encountered were friendly and helpful.

The staff described the pool as indoor-outdoor. Since it was cold during our visit, the garage-door-like windows along both sides were closed. I suppose in warmer weather they open it all up.

We only ate at the restaurant on Wednesday night, so I can’t report much about it. They were very slow in seating us. More than a problem of seating a group of 12, I think they were severely short of staff. We observed a long table (the one they eventually put us) sitting unbussed for at least 20 minutes. My wife and I shared the Blackened Chicken and Pasta in Spicy Alfredo Sauce. It was very tasty, but it’s a good thing we shared. Other than my mother’s French Onion Soup coming out cold, all reported their food good.

For me, beyond seeing family, the highlight was hiking up to the top of the mountain (a small granite hill, to be more precise – maybe 500-600 feet up). I wish I had one of those in my back yard. I know I’d be in better shape. The trail we took was fairly strenuous, but was easily doable by my 9 year old daughter. The one downside of hiking around so much was seeing all the refuse people had dropped on their treks. Soda and beer cans seemed to be in almost every crevice on the mountain. I wish we’d brought a garbage sack with us.

I’ve posted some photos at if you’d like to get an idea what the place looks like.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Are we the enemy?

Our Final Night in Nashville for the NYWC. Heard a group called Lost and Found tonight. They are a band that is funny, edgy, witty, and, did I mention musical.

They mentioned that they have been together for 14 years and for that time have been flying under the radar of "the christian music industrial complex." I laughed. Many missed it.

Are we at such a place in history that even something like Christian Music is eaten up with power grabs, manipulation, and unfair practices? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Most "Christian" recording labels are owned by "secular" companies, so on what basis could one expect them to be run any differently than their parent companies.

After all, American Christians have plenty of money, and they (we) seem to like our music.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Special Conference Session Report

The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church met in special session at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center today. After approving the Chartering Resolution, the Conference delegates readily approved the “Supporting” and “Implementing” Resolutions. Here’s the text of these six resolutions:
1. Center for Congregational Excellence
Resolved that the Conference authorizes the Bishop to establish a Center for
Congregational Excellence with staff responsible for revitalization and new church starts. (Requires a ¾ vote. See Rule 27.)
2. Center for Clergy Excellence
Resolved that the Conference authorize the Bishop to establish a Center for Clergy Excellence, an expansion of the Office of Ministerial Services, with staff and resources to enhance clergy effectiveness. (Requires a ¾ vote. See Rule 27.)
3. Reformation of Districts
Resolved that the Conference authorizes the Bishop and the Cabinet to reorganize the Conference into nine (9) districts effective May, 2006.
4. Restructuring
Resolved that the Conference authorizes the Strategic Mapping Team to propose rules and structure in alignment with our Vision, Mission, Key Drivers, Core Beliefs, and Strategic Themes, as well as requirements of the Book of Discipline. These proposals will be reviewed by the Conference Committee on Rules and Structure and presented to the May 2006 Annual Conference for action.
5. Process of Accountability
Resolved that the Conference authorizes the Strategic Mapping Team - in consultation with the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Orders of Elders and Deacons, the Clergy Effectiveness Task Force, and the Conference Council on Ministries - to propose a definition of accountability and processes for implementing accountability in all areas and to recommend a plan to the 2006 Annual Conference.
6. Realignment of Budget
Resolved that the Conference authorizes the Strategic Mapping Team to make proposals to Conference Council on Finance and Administration regarding alignment of the budget with Vision, Mission, Key Drivers, Core Values, and Strategic Initiatives and the Book of Discipline. CFA will present the budget to the May 2006 Annual Conference for action. (Requires 2/3 vote. See Rule 27.)

The first three resolutions generated the most discussion. Comments included:
  • From a pastor with 49 years of service (including 11 years on the Cabinet), now retired for some years: (the quotes are approximate) “During all my years of ministry I never felt a need to call on conference staff people in Houston. We surely don’t have the need to add more staff there now.” (This is the same fellow who, when I told him I was attending Asbury Seminary, replied, “You’ll never get anywhere in this conference unless you go to Perkins.”)

  • Church conflict was a big concern. (With the big changes coming, conflict will increase, not decrease.) The same pastor I just quoted said, “There’s an easy solution to conflict. Just move the pastor.” That comment received a raucous response. Have you ever been to a funeral and heard someone say of the deceased, “He looks so peaceful”? Of course he looks peaceful. He’s dead. For many of our churches conflict is a necessary step to LIFE.

  • “The DSs already have too much work to do. Why are we cutting their number?”

  • “Houston suburbs may be growing, but we don’t need any new churches in all these small towns around the Conference.”

In my judgment, the Conference did the right thing in approving these resolutions. The changes will definitely be difficult. Not only are we changing the declared purpose of the Annual Conference (“Equip congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the
transformation of the world to the glory of God”), but we’re also pushing churches to shift from seeing their purpose as taking care of the members to making disciples. It will be very tempting to minimize the differences – to say that everything we’re already doing is making disciples. What will make the difference is accountability. This is where the work for leadership comes. Will leadership be willing to hold churches and pastors and districts to be accountable for making disciples? Or will we resort to “happy talk” instead? The UMC has a strong tendency to want to be affirming and nice. Real accountability will include a lot of actions that won’t look or feel like affirmation or niceness. We – pastors and churches – are going to have to want this real bad to let it overcome our entrenched lethargy, fear of conflict, and love of niceness.

The scales are tipped in the favor of success by Bishop Huie’s leadership. After leading us through the resolutions today, she shared a short message from Mark 16:15, 20 (I was surprised to hear a UM Bishop preach from a text the top textual critics reject as an original part of Mark) on “Preaching the Gospel to all Creation.” She said the first thing we need to do is pray for ourselves and our churches – for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to make the things we voted on a reality.

As her “altar call” she issued three challenges to those present.
  1. Will you raise your 2006 worship attendance 5% over 2005?

  2. Will you raise your number of professions of faith in 2006 5% over 2005?

  3. Will you raise the number of people engaged in hands-on outreach ministry (outside ministries that serve church members) 5% in 2006 over 2005?
In each case those willing to take the step were invited to stand, look around, and hold each other accountable in the coming year.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. But we’re off to a good start.

UPDATE: Peter Cammarano at A Padre Complex has another good post up on the Conference session, and here's what Guy Williams has to say. I'm trying to collect responses from Texas Conference bloggers here. If you're a TAC blogger send me a link and I'll add it here.

Report from Nashville

I am in Nashville for the weekend, at Youth Specialities National Youth Worker's Convention. I am a first timer, but this won't be my last time.

Oddly, just after I sat down in the little turbo-prop puddle-jumper on which my journey began, I looked up and saw a colleague in ministry. As he sat down I realized this was also the weekend of the AAR-SBL Annual Meeting, held in Pittsburg this year. That was the meeting toward which my colleague was headed.

As we travelled together from Waco to D/FW Airport, I couldn't help but ponder the irony in having these two separate meetings at the same time. At one, the academic study of religion will be recognized, even glorified. At the other, ministry within the Christian tradition will be celebrated and practiced.

Can you imagine a weekend of meetings where both of these things happen?

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Challenge of UM Dissent, part 2

Sometimes I hear folks who think that dissent is part of the Great American Tradition. We hear it in politics - whether the issue is taxes, abortion or war. If we stifle dissent for the sake of national security or to "support the troops" it is said that we're letting the bad guys win (or that we're becoming like them).

This disctinctive American attitude is also part of the American church. Bishop Sprague illustrates this with his dissent from many doctrinal positions long thought normative in the church. Dissent is good - it shows that one is truly rational and authentic, brave enough to stand against the (evil?) powers-that-be.

Part of this tradition of dissent seems to come from a reluctance to admit the existence of a truth or reality we have to submit to regardless of our personal likes or dislikes. Lawson Stone (in the midst of a series of posts on the literal meaning of Scripture) writes:

For now, let's note that Augustine raises a caveat for both moderns and post-moderns. Both of these Spawn of Kant share a disquiet with.. Truth. Both want truth, especially the truth about God and salvation, to be...negotiable. Neither wants an inconvenient "meta-narrative" to bound their "meaning making." Both prefer the truth to be inaccessible, valuing the lattitude for a multiplicity of "stories" afforded by Truth's elusiveness. Kant's modernist children show their stripes by marshalling the open-endedness of the historical quest to undermine any witness to...the Truth. It's somewhat out of context, but I think Augustine exposes the mendacity of both when, in attacking those who quibble over his interpretation not being that of Moses, he says

Rather they are proud and know not Moses's meaning, but love their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs (Confessions 12.25.34 emphasis added)

Neither wants to be held accountable to a Truth that simply sits there and demands allegiance. To both groups, I suspect--but I am no expert--Augustine would say "A pox on both your houses!" Those who love the Truth do not put that truth at risk when they confess the inadequacy of their historical quest for the inspired authors' meanings because they are not seeking to escape anything. They are simply being humble. Likewise, those who love the Truth will not hold it hostage to a quest that inherently cannot end, and that might never return a final answer. They will pursue their quest, but realize that even as we pursue the truth we are embraced and sustained by "the Truth."

Whether the issue is the sexuality, economics, or war & violence, we often let our feelings and desires trump scripture and the Christian tradition. We move from the fact of variety within the tradition of the church in each of these areas to assert the place of dissent against the tradition so that we can have our way. Sometimes this is in order to deny the tradition, sometimes to absolutize one option within the tradition.

Too often dissent is lifted up as an abstraction. Dissent is good, dogmatism (the oft-perceived contrary to dissent) is bad. But no one dissents (or can dissent) from everything. If they did, they wouldn't be able to function in society.

So when it comes to dissent in the United Methodist Church, let's drop the praise of dissent as if the abstraction has value in itself and seek instead to defend dissent only in particular instances.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Recent Recommended Read

At the recommendation of an aquaintance, I picked up Christianity and the Postmodern Turn Myron Penner, ed. I am not linking this to Amazon or anything else, because I don't care to help you find it. This collection of essays primarily sets up straw men of the positions of self-identified postmodern Christians and then knocks them down "convincingly." If you buy every argument Josh McDowell has ever offered, you'll love this book!

I bought and read this because this aquaintance was so concerned that I admitted to being a postmodern Christian. I read it. I remain postmodern.

Any suggestions as to what I ought to recommend he read in return?

More Evil from North Korea

North Korea is known for being one of the most backward and horrible places to live. Misruled by megalomaniacs for over half a century, they routinely starve their own people to death so they can build a bigger army.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has just put out its new report on religious persecution in North Korea (available here as a pdf). The New York Sun has a bried summary of the contents of the report if you're short on time. Here's a brief excerpt showing the brutality of the regime:

on a summer day in North Korea in 1997, a young woman was washing clothes in a tributary of the Tumen River when she dropped a small Bible she had hidden amid the laundry. Spotted by a fellow washerwoman, the girl was reported to North Korean authorities on the suspicion that she was engaging in an exercise of thought or religion condemned by the state. The girl, believed to be in her 20s, and her father, estimated to be around 60, were arrested by local national security police and imprisoned for three months.

One morning, they were taken to a public market area, where, after a brief show trial, the father and daughter were condemned as traitors to the North Korean nation and its communist dictator, Kim Jong Il. The father and daughter were then tied to stakes a few meters from where they had been "tried," and, before an assembly of schoolchildren, were riddled with bullets by seven policemen who fired three shots each into the pair.

Pray for the people of North Korea.

los símbolos significativos

Las Cruces is in trouble. At least a couple of the Lawyers WIthout Nothing Better to Do have decided to waste some tax money pursuing justice for the beleagured non-Christians in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The city's logo is three crosses. Of course the city's name translates "the crosses." What a religiously bigotted thing to name a city! While stopping short of calling for the city to be renamed, those offended want the symbols removed.

Oddly, they say that “the crosses serve no governmental purpose other than to disenfranchise and discredit non-Christian citizens.” Are we then to believe that the Las Cruces government intends to disenfranchise and discredit non-Christian citizens? I have been to quite a few city council meetings (though none in Las Cruces) and have never heard a city councilmember advocate disenfranchising or discrediting anyone.

Frankly, I don't understand why The Offended are satisfied with changing the logo. How could any reasonable non-Christian be expected to live in a city named for crosses?

The solution? Las Cruces, New Mexico needs to become Los Simbolos Significativos, New Mexico. In a state with a city named Truth or Consequences, would that really seem so strange?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Challenge of UM Dissent, part 1

Over at Locusts & Honey John has a post about the acceptable range of dissent in the United Methodist Church.

In the comments section David says, "I'm not sure why someone would want to be a United Methodist if s/he had strong objections to infant baptism." Tim remembers from long ago, "I said something like 'But your a lesbian! How... why... would you do that?' Her response: 'I'm going to reform the church from the 'inside' '."Perhaps I'm just being irenic, but I think we see our root problem regarding these issues in these comments. It's easy to dismiss our opponents (or if we're trying to be more "spiritual" we'll call them "those who think differently") as bigoted, ignorant, out to destroy the church, tools of the devil or right/left wing special interests, liberals, fundies, etc. Some may be, but that's not what I'm seeing.Instead, the people I've met over the years grew up in a denomination that was afraid to have a unified and distinctive doctrinal identity. When we grow up in a denomination where doctrinal pluralism is the de facto standard, why ought we wonder about what's happening now?Doctrine has consequences. It's not just a list of beliefs we have in our heads. It shapes our worldview, our actions, and our judgments regarding good and evil. With no clearly articulated and shared doctrinal vision for the past few generations in Methodism ought we be surprised when we find uncritical acceptance of the world's views on sexuality, abortion, economics and war?It used to be that in the midst of this doctrinal confusion we could rely on authority - the Bishops and DSs and Boards and Agencies would keep us in line. Authority doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to.

The oft-expressed notion, “If you don’t agree with the United Methodist position on X, then you ought to go somewhere else,” might work if we had maintained doctrinal discipline over the generations. But we haven’t. Although moderns would like us to think so, we’re not blank slates. Most if not all these folks in the forefront of arguments in the church have grown up in the church. They understand the positions they now defend as expressions of or faithful developments of what they’ve learned since infancy. That’s why people seek to “change the system from within.” They’re not trying to undermine it – they’re trying to bring it in line with what they think it ought to be in light of the vision of Methodism they’ve been given.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Special Annual Conference Session: Congregational Excellence

The called session of the Texas Annual Conference is this Saturday at Lakeview. The Pre-Conference Journal highlights several themes that make up the proposals from the Strategic Mapping Team. I’m enclosing my comments in brackets[].

GOAL - Lead congregations to revitalize and to reach unserved resident populations. [The starting point is to realize that these are goals for the Annual Conference. The purpose of AC leadership will not be to collect apportionment money or to have meetings, but to lead congregations in reaching people. I observe that it doesn’t say, “Lead needy churches to revitalize…” The assumption – and I think the statistics easily support it – is that the vast majority of TAC churches need revitalization. This may be a hard sell. Most congregations think they’re doing pretty well. They have nice programs. They usually meet the budget. They’re full of nice people – well, the people they have are nice, at least. But most of us aren’t having a significant impact on the surrounding population. We’re not winning people to Christ. We’re not crossing cultural boundaries. It’ll take leadership to transform our ways of doing things if we’re going to start winning people to Christ. It’ll take even greater leadership to create and maintain dissatisfaction with the status quo. As long as most churches think the purpose of the church is to take care of its members, they will resist efforts to push them elsewhere.]

  • Equip congregations to become vibrant and grow. [Yes! We want congregations were insiders and outsiders can tell God is at work. When they see God, it will attract the, Because the insiders have experienced Jesus and been filled with the Spirit, they will be able to introduce others to Jesus, resulting in growth.]

  • Identify and prioritize resident populations and start new churches. [The usual UM church planting model has been to look for new developments. This contrasts with other denominations that not only target new developments, but allow congregational freedom to divide and multiply. Although UM ecclesiology doesn’t fit well with the Homogeneous Unit Principle, I think part of the thought here is to fid ways to reach the different cultural and ethnic groups in E Texas through church planting. We have at least 60,000 Urdu speakers in the Houston area – and one Urdu speaking UM pastor. We have work to do.]

  • Implement the Congregational Development Task Force Plan.
The Conference will:
Develop a congregational vitality assessment to assist churches in identifying
  • challenges, opportunities, and needs. [This will enable our churches to answer the question: “How are we doing?” By having clear measures and assessments, we’ll be able to get beyond the “happy talk” of “I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok together.”]

  • Provide resources for congregational revitalization and transformation. [This will enable us to answer the how question: How do we change?]

  • Assist in identifying strategic opportunities for new church starts. [This is a big change. No longer will the Conference simply do this – it will assist in the work. By distributing the responsibility for church planting, not only will wisdom and knowledge increase, but so will buy-in.]
Learning and Growth [These points sound like what’s already been said. Unless this is identifying areas the Conference needs to learn. If so, it constitutes a confession that they don’t already know how to do everything. A wise move.]
  • Model and coach churches to become vibrant in ministry and to grow.

  • Provide resources and financial support for new church starts in identified strategic

  • opportunity areas.
Financial Strategy
  • Reallocate currently available funds to support strategy

  • Develop volunteer partnerships

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Why the Texas Annual Conference Needs Change

If you’d like to read the whole report (the Pre-Conference Journal for the upcoming special session) you can find it on the Texas Conference website. In my previous posts on this proposal I highlighted the positive reasons for making this move: There’s lots of people out there and we’re not reaching them!

There are also “negative” reasons. We’re in trouble. The first negative statistic, worship attendance last year was down .06% from 2000. As I consider the attendance reports since 1998 I don’t see any really significant change. Churches compute attendance by a variety of means: (1) Counting people (some ushers & preachers are pretty imaginative with their counting); (2) Attendance pads (I have never seen these be 100% accurate. They undercount more often than they overcount.); (3) A checklist. (Usually in a software package.). None of these methods are fool proof; all have a margin of error. I’m inclined to think that the worship attendance variance over the past few years is within the margin of error. If so, we’re not seeing substantial decline (assuming the numbers are real), but since these numbers are just over a third of our reported membership, we’re still doing pretty pitifully.

By my reckoning, attendance is hugely important. Healthy churches will have more people in attendance than they do members. Why? First, because they will be attracting seekers – people who are investigating Jesus – who have not yet committed themselves. Second, because membership is seen as a substantive commitment, not just getting your name on a roll.

Other statistics are down also: Professions of Faith (new Christians), Baptisms, and students in confirmation classes all declined over the past 5 years. We’re apparently not doing enough to help people become Christians and connect to the church.

Considering these statistics, the document sums up the situation very briefly:
The Texas Annual Conference is at a turning point. We can maintain the current path, which is not addressing the opportunities of our growing area, or we can choose a new path leading to growth, revitalization, and enhanced ministry and mission.

I’ll put up more later.

Friday, November 11, 2005

He doesn't speak for God or for me

It is time for Pat Robertson to retire. It is at least time for someone to take away his microphone. The AP reports that Mr. Robertson warned Dover, Pennsylvania that God has rejected them.

Why does Mr. Robertson think God has turned his back on Dover? On Tuesday Dover voted out of office all eight school board members. The Dover school board had tried to introduce intelligent design theory into science classes.

Intelligent Design (ID) is the theory that the complexity of the universe implies some intelligence behind its design; that it didn't "just happen." Critics of ID consider it dressed up scientific creationism. ID proponents, of course, deny this.

I have commented on ID before. Richard also blogged on the matter. I have no intention of commenting in ID, evolution, creation, or any other theory here.Here I am more concerned with Pat Robertson than with how the world came to be.

I am confident God brought the universe into existence. I am wondering, at the moment, why he brought Pat into existence.

NEWSFLASH: Townfolk of Dover and everywhere: God has not forsaken and will not forsake you depending on your vote for school board or based on your understanding of origins.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Perspective Check

How do you know when you've got things out of proportion?

I was at a high school football game a couple of weeks ago. Just before halftime the quarterback was on the sidelines, and was smiling. I heard an adult not far from me say, "I wish I could wipe that smile off his face! Does he think this is just a game?"

No, I am not making that up. What a tragedy for so many adults who live their dreams of glory vicariously through kids.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Things Old and New

Whew. Another year's Charge Conference behind us. One of the challenges our church faces is our old church plant. We celebrated the centennial of the sanctuary this past spring. The fellowship hall and education building are 50 years old and are clearly showing their age. Starting before I arrived as pastor in 2003, the church has been engaged in an extensive program of renovation centered on the sanctuary. The building interior was renovated (finished the week I arrived), leaving us with a current debt of 250k. We just finished the 46k renovation of the stained glass windows, and the 34k roof job. We ony lack about 23k for the 185k renovation of the pipe organ. Lurking ominously in the background is the need for getting a bid to level the shifting foundation (we wish we didn't see the cracks in the walls). The fellowship hall/education building also has a shifting foundation and a 50 year old asbestos roof. If you've been following this blog for a while, you know about the loss of our recently renovated youth building. Just opened in February, an arsonist burnt it down in July.

Do you get an idea that money might be on the minds of the congregation? Do you also get an idea of how that money might be used? As far as these capital expenses go, the money is going entirely toward fixing old things. Having fixed old things is better than having unfixed old things, but there seems to be a different kind of attitude that goes with repairing the old than building the new.

Many would like to build a new youth center to replace the one that was destroyed. In a community where the other leading churches (i.e., the baptists) already have new youth facilities, it's mighty tempting to jump on the "if you build it they will come" train. Clearly, some people think that way. They make a direct connection between a church's investment in facilities for youth and the church's commitment to youth. If there are no - or substandard (when compared with other local churches) - facilities dedicated for youth, then they'll take their youth elsewhere.

I understand how children look at these things. When I was a kid I'd much ratrher have something new than something old. What's the ratio of kids who want their old clothes constantly repaired to those who want new clothes to replace the old? As a culture, we tend to value the new over the old (unlike the ancients who valued the old over the new).

In a historic church like this there are both kinds of people: lovers of the old and lovers of the new. Too often, they think they're desires are not only incompatible, but so righteous that they must be imposed on the whole body - "or else I'll quit." In times like this one of my main jobs is reminding people that we're in the people business. Building have a purpose - they can be a great blessing. But they can also sap the energy, finances and missional drive of a church.

Happenings in France

Rioting has been going on in France for almost 2 weeks now. Why? Originally set off by the deatsh of two boys - they thought the police were pursuing them so they hid, mistaking a transformer station as a safe refuge - the riots have expanded each night. Some have suggested it is the beginning of a European (or "Eurabian") intifada. Clive Davis has a different take on it. He suggests that the biggest problem is the lack of integration of immigrants for the past 40 years. What we see now is their hopelessness boiling over.

At the end of his post Davis translates from a Le Figaro interview:

Ces émeutiers ne se projettent dans aucune revendication sociale ou politique. "A notre niveau, c'est la merde», lâche Morad, qui avoue toutefois rêver "d'un petit pavillon, d'une femme et d'enfants... au bled".

[Loose trans: "These rioters put forward no social or political demands. "Down where we are, life is horrible," says Morad, who nevertheless admits he dreams of "a little house, a wife and kids... in a village."]
Once upon a time France was counted as a Christian nation. Surely part of the long term solution in France will be for Christians to take the hope found in Jesus to these folks with no hope. As for an immediate solution, I'm too far away and too ignorant to have any advice for anyone.

But I do wonder how these things might be prevented in America. I think we do a better job of assimilating imigrants - though sometimes we do so kicking and screaming, and sometimes, especially of late, we've proclaimed that assimilation is a bad thing. But there's more.

If you want your eyes opened, read Jerome Weeks' piece in today's Dallas Morning News. He writes about "Sundown Towns," towns that through explicit or implicit action have sought to keep blacks from settling. The stereotype might be that this is a southern problem, but from the research of James W. Loewen, the problem (sin? evil?) is greater in the North and Midwest. Texas has its Sundown Towns - Weeks mentions Vidor (everyone knows Vidor's reputation) and Highland Park (a rich town in Dallas - and the rich profess to be more enlightened!).

Once upon a time peopel called America a Christian nation. Evidently we have even more work to do than we thought.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Preposition Problem

The Council of Bishops has just released a "Pastoral Letter" in response to the Judicial Council's ruling that reversed a bishop's decision to place a pastor on a leave of absence for denying membership to a practicing homosexual.

I have not yet digested the entirety of the letter, but came to this sentence that, frankly, set me off: "The United Methodist Church is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ with all people." (emphasis added) I cannot take it anymore! Mrs. Weisinger, help me!

Mrs. Eloise Weisinger was my Senior English Teacher. She had the patience and the passion finally to open the doors of my mind to grammar. Now I wish she were available for our denomination.

It has long struck me that we, as a church long since ceased ministering "to" anyone. To claim we were in ministry "to" someone would obviously imply that someone was in need of our help, thus we would be putting ourselves above another.

Putting ourselves above anyone is something we United Methodists would never do. (Except the Religious Right, but they are barely human anyway) In our concern never to do anything that could be conceivably construed as condescending, we only are in ministry "with" others; never "for" or "to" others.

Ah, but the dear Bishops, our Loyal Leaders, have taken it one step further. Now we are no longer to be part of the Great Commission of making disciples of Jesus Christ "of" all people; we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ "with" all people.

Please, Mrs. Weisinger, correct me if I am wrong, but the way I read "make disciples of Jesus Christ with all people" assumes that all people are about the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Since everyone is about this same business, we happily, then, join in the work.

But is it fair or wise to assume that everyone is about the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ? Are our Muslim brethren aware they are on such a task? Ought we suppose the Hindi have a lick of interest in making disciples of Jesus Christ "with" us?

Prepositions are generally small words. But, my, can they make a great deal of difference!

The Price of Following Jesus

Last Sunday I preached on the price of following Jesus. Jesus didn’t practice some of the positive thinking recruitment strategies we’d think of today. Instead of just offering a mansion in heaven, eternal happiness and an end to the difficulties of life, Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” In this message I show that this isn’t an isolated thought in scripture but permeates not only the message of Jesus but also the writings of Peter and Paul.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Improving the Economic Lot of the Bottom 75%

Scott Burns, a financial columnist for the Dallas Morning News always writes interesting and practical pieces, sometimes on personal finance, sometimes on bigger issues. Today's column was on the declining buying power of the lower 75% of the American populace. Here are some snippets of what he has to say:

According to the most recent IRS statistics on tax returns (for 2003), households needed at least $295,495 to be in the top 1 percent, $130,080 to be in the top 5 percent, $94,891 to be in the top 10 percent and $57,343 to enter the top 25 percent.

Yes, you read that right. If your household income is over $57,343, you're well toward the front of the line when the checks are handed out. If your income is below $29,019, you sink into the bottom 50 percent.

Increasingly, those in the bottom 75 percent – households with incomes below $57,343 – are looking like a long, slow train wreck....

Over this period [1993-2003], the dividing-line income for the bottom 50 percent has risen from $21,179 to $29,019, rising 4.3 percent a year. Had the income line only risen with inflation, it would have climbed to $26,504.

And that's an important fact: Even the bottom of the income scale has gained purchasing power over the period – about $2,515.

Combine that additional income with declining interest rates on home mortgages, a period of weak to declining rents for apartments, a multitude of low-interest and no-interest offers from stores and automakers, and the people who do a lot of the heavy lifting in our society have gotten along.

Meanwhile, those with more earning power have done a lot better than just get along.

Earners at the top 1 percent line have gained $63,040 in purchasing power. Earners at the top 10 percent line have gained $12,198 in purchasing power, while seeing the portion of income they spend on income taxes decline from 20.2 percent to 18.5 percent. Earners at the top 25 percent line have gained $5,570 in purchasing power.

Unfortunately, gains for the bottom 75 percent are vaporizing.

It would take a major hit to destroy the $12,198 gain for those at the top 10 percent line.

That isn't the case for those in the bottom 50 percent. Their entire $2,515 purchasing power gain since 1993 may already be history.

Will a tax cut solve the problem? Burns says,
If the federal income tax was simply eliminated for every household in the bottom half, it would liberate only about 3.5 percent of their income – less than inflation for one year.

Doesn't sound like a lot of help to me.

I'm inclined to think this is a problem - and not only because I'm in that lower 75%. I think it would be a good thing for people in the bottom 75% of the economic scale to do at least as well, percentage-wise, as those in the top 25%.

How is that going to happen? I don't know. A raise in minimum wage would help a few, but not the majority. In the olden days an increase in unionizing seemed to have helped, but I'm doubtful that'd work today. First, the nature of jobs has changed. Industries are more varied now. Second, we're even more individualistic than ever. Unionism seems to depend on denying yourself more than we're used to. Third, at least for me, unions don't have a great reputation. I'm sure many are just fine - maybe even most - but I've read too many stories of union bosses who are every bit as mean, controlling, greedy and corrupt as some of the worst business people they oppose.

Here are a few ideas, though they maybe too idealistic:
1. Find a way to bring CEO pay & expectations in line. Their huge packages ought to embarrass businesses. But you'd think the businesses would be embarrassed by hiring leaders who fail to lead and destroy their companies. It would seem companies need smarter boards to do this.
2. Think up ways to make it so work and not just wealth can build wealth. Right now, wealth has great leverage. As far as work alone goes, you can work all day every day, and still not get ahead. Completely unrealistic, I know. The underlying requirement seems to be moving away from a culture built on gambling - and I don't mean what they do in Las Vegas & state lotteries. Right now money makes money better than work because our culture sees investors as taking a risk in their investment. We've developed ways of quantifying and measuring these risks (markets, stock exchanges, etc.). That's great. Since people want a big return, they're often willing to take big risks. But is work seen as a risk? Short term, unless you have a dangerous job, it's often not. But economically with our economic structure, yeah, working for a lifetime and not getting ahead sounds like a risk to me. But we have no institutions that quantify this risk. I'm not an economist so I haven't a clue how to do this, but I'm inclined to think it's not impossible.

Orientation and Practice

At the risk of being labeled a homophobe, I have to make a confession here. There is something about the current debate over sexual orientation and practice that confuses me. For many, it seems, once sexual orientation is declared to be determined rather than chosen, it follows that acting on one’s orientation is therefore acceptable, even recommended.

For instance, the Reconciling Ministries Network’s mission statement is: “Reconciling Ministries Network is a national grassroots organization that exists to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice.”

Actually, so far so good. But from here is where, for me anyway, the problem starts. As one pursues an understanding of the position of the Reconciling Ministries folks, one becomes familiar with “LGBT,” or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered.

Is my point of confusion clear? I have no desire to argue here the various points on orientation versus practice of “lesbian” or “gay.” It seems to be pretty clear, though, that when one moves into “bisexual,” one moves to a place where there is an obvious and necessary distinction between orientation and practice.

Whether or not there is justification for a sexual orientation called “bisexual,” it is obvious that bisexual practice is inappropriate for Christians because Christians are in broad agreement, as far as I know, that appropriate sexual behavior is “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.”

(This is one reason those on the Reconciling side of this argument fight for homosexual marriage; as it currently stands, church law and civil law forbid them from practicing fidelity in marriage.)

So here is my problem, and it is one that will undoubtedly have some on the “left” side of this issue banding me a homophobe. It seems to me that there is necessarily a difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. There is no law, either in The United Methodist Church or in the United States, that directly refers to, limits, or addresses sexual orientation.

Since we necessarily have the ability to differentiate between orientation and behavior, the standard argument identifying orientation and behavior is specious. Specifically, how does “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” not preclude bisexuality being acted out?

New Tragedy, Old Question

Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

The Reverend Kyle Lake, pastor of the University Baptist Church, was electrocuted this past Sunday while preparing for a baptism. Why would God allow such a horrible thing to happen?

From what I have read, Rev. Lake felt called to take the Gospel to people who were not comfortable with traditional church. What a wonderful calling! The institutional church has injured so many people over the years there is a huge mission field among those who feel they cannot be a part of traditional churches!

I think the Good News of Jesus will help us understand why bad things continue to happen to good people. It will also help us see why the opposite, and just as frustrating, also happens: why good things happen to bad people.

In creating the world, God desired fellowship with creation. As such, from the outset people were given the freedom and opportunity to choose to live in fellowship with God, or not to. How meaningful would a relationship be if it was not entered into freely?

In allowing us the freedom to choose a relationship with him or not, God also allows us freedom to live and move as we decide, not as he decides. Scripture tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish….” (2 Peter 3:9).

God gave up controlling the world that he had made so that we might indeed have the opportunity to choose him. Because God gave up this control, things happen that would not happen if God were running every event.

The real Good News of the Gospel is that in spite of all the things that happen due to our freedom, God has established that all who choose him can have a relationship with him forever; in this life and the next.