Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Joining the Conversation on Immigration

Enter the Rainbow (Andy Bryan) and Locusts and Honey (John the Methodist) are writing on the recent immigration debate here, here, and here.

Andy offers several scriptural texts that encourage loving attention to foreigners, a care rooted in Israel’s status in Egypt and the Christian status as foreigners in the world. Hebrews, instead of urging xenophobia enjoins philoxenia – love of strangers (usually translated “hospitality”) instead of fear of strangers.

He then claims:
This is one reason we should care about immigration in our country today. It should be important to us because it is important to God. This is why we cannot allow U.S. House Bill 4437 or U.S. Senate Bill 2454 to slam shut our border and harshly penalize our brothers and sisters sojourning in our land. Rather than chase foreigners home, we should welcome them with the radical hospitality that our faith calls for. In Christ, there is no Mexican, Sudanese, Belgian, or American, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
In his second post Andy summarizes what the relevant comments in the UM Social Principles (a good place for UMs to look) and comments:
The Social Principles of our denomination say, “The rights and privileges a society bestows upon or withholds from those who comprise it indicate the relative esteem in which that society holds particular persons and groups of persons.
“We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened.”
Interpretation of this principle hinges in part on what is meant by “those who comprise [a society].” If “those who comprise” the United States are only legal citizens, then this principle does not apply to undocumented immigrants. But if the phrase, “those who comprise it” is an inclusive phrase that takes into consideration all people who are living in the society regardless of official status, then we must conclude that no consideration of legal status ought to be made when affirming a person’s inherent value in God’s eyes, and therefore in ours. We cannot accept policies that deny rights to a particular group of people and devalue them based solely on whether or not they have jumped through all the necessary hoops, themselves flawed, of becoming legal citizens.
Rights and privileges are bestowed by a system of laws. Citizenship is a right offered under certain conditions, and with citizenship comes other rights. Are the Social Principles suggesting that there should be no differentiation between citizens and non-citizens? From a US perspective, I don’t think that would work. From a Christian perspective, I think it’s irrelevant. As Andy notes, Christians are called to love and extend kindness to all. While some might infer that this means Christians must confer the status of citizenship on all who come into our land, we certainly don’t even think things work that way in our churches. While we show love and kindness to all the people around us, we do not unilaterally confer membership upon all we see. There is even an ongoing debate in United Methodism about standards and processes of membership.

John the Methodist recognizes the same issues as Andy, but comes down in a very different place. He says,
That dominant culture is being washed away in favor of a different one from Latin America. The new wave of immigrants have little to no desire to assimilate to the dominant culture. In fact, they are becoming the dominant culture. That bothers me because I like my culture and I don't want to see it go away. Many Americans agreed in the past, which is why immigration policies a century ago advocated assimilation, and largely succeeded. We made a deal with immigrants: you can come to our country, but you have to join our culture. As an independent polity, I think that we have inherent property rights to our own territory and can therefore require such bargains. No one has a right to come to our country anymore than anyone has a right to walk into your house and start living there.

But beyond our lovely culture being absorbed into a different one, we Americans also face a real political danger from massive immigration from Latin America. Healthy states are ones that are largely uniform. Although multiethnic societies can thrive, multicultural societies fail, almost without exception, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (which don't exist anymore. Guess why). Multiple divergent cultures within one polity ultimately lead to Balkanization, a process exacerbated if those divergent cultures actually have different languages. If people can't even talk to each other easily, they have trouble forming a cohesive society…
So culturally and politically, let's do the smart thing: drive the illegal aliens out, keep them out, and wait a couple generations for the Mexican population here legally to be absorbed into our culture before resuming large-scale immigration from Mexico.
Clearly John’s perspective is more “Americanist” than Andy’s. I don’t know if he’s read Samuel Huntingdon’s Who Are We? But the points he brings up are discussed in great detail in that work.

Here’s my take.

First, both Andy and John need to tighten up their use of "we", "us", "our" language. Do these first person plural pronouns speak of us as Americans, Christians, Anglos, Caucasians? Is it our relation to a culture, a nation, a polity, a race or Jesus and his kingdom that most determine our action?

Surely “in Christ” cultural and ethnic variance is unimportant (which is why we United Methodists make no ethnic distinctions in our churches and ministries), but are we such a Christian nation that what is said about the church applies to the nation? As a non-Constantinian, I’d say not.

Second, with John, I’d say that traditional American culture is greatly weakened by a flood of immigrants who do not assimilate to American culture. But that semi-mythical American culture has first been weakened from other sources. It’s been weakened from within by the exaggeration of its traits of radical individualism and consumerism. It’s been weakened from without by the type of multiculturalism that insists that no culture is "right" - except the other guys.

This view is found not only in American culture, but in the church. When found in the church (which is all to easy to do), this view seems to say that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, etc., are all right – but Christians, if they are right about anything (and not doing crusades or inquisitions), are only right about the platitudes that "everybody" agrees about anyway.

The USA is a sort of organism. As an organism, it, like all cultures, has a sort of immune system. Not only is the US immune system not working well, but it has also become common to think the mere having of an immune system to be a bad thing.

We have come to think this in the church also. If orthodoxy can be thought of as part of our immune system – something that defends “us” against “not us,” – orthodoxy is thought of as an evil. Openness – apparently to everything – is much better than orthodoxy (which is inherently narrow).

Does the US need an immune system? Only if it wants to continue to be the US. If we're happy becoming another Mexico/Guatemala/Colombia/etc. - which John the Methodist evidently doesn’t want to do (and which I'm not excited about either), then we'll have to do something.
I'm pessimistic that American Christians can be very helpful in this debate. A generation or two ago we decided to minimize the boundaries in our traditions. UMs in particular (I know them best) continue to fall apart because of this. “You're a Buddhist? Well sure, you can be a UM (bishop) too.” “You're an agnostic? Well sure, you can be a UM too.” “You deny the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Jesus? No problem - you not only can be one of us but we'll either make you a bishop or hire you to teach in our seminaries to train our pastors.”

These questions of identity are huge. Treating the answers dichotomously - EITHER we're completely open, to the point of having no boundaries, OR we're completely closed, to the point of killing those who are different (which seems to be the current approach)- will be a huge mistake. We need to develop some nuanced accounts of identity that are healthier and more productive. That’ll take more work than I can give to the topic today.


Why is it that publishing companies shell out bucks to pastors of mega-churches to write books in which they say "it isn't about numbers or buildings, it is about people;" yet the only reason these individuals are paid to write these books is that they have built huge buildings and attracted massive numbers of people?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sunday message

This past Sunday I began my message with a reference to the Jon Stewart interview on Crossfire. I offered to provide a link to watch this video, and have done so on my church's website. You can either click the heading of this port to go straight to that page, or ckick to go to our website, choose "From the Pastor." My sermon is also available there.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What do we do with sinners?

Of course, "Sinners" is a Christian term - or at least a term with meaning circumscribed by particular religious traditions. Other terms, taken from other contexts might include: "Miscreant," "deviant," "criminal," "traitor."

In the nation formerly known as the USSR, people who were accused of "sinning" against the system were dealt with quite harshly. Depending on the whims of the leaders, they might be tortured, killed, sent to the Gulag, or put in an psyciatric hospital. While this last option might sound benevolent, it was nothing of the sort in actual soviet practice. You see, the doctors tried to cure their patients. Or at least that's that they called it. Massive doses of drugs. Electro-shock. Whatever it took to cure them of their sin. Sins like believing in democracy, freedom, God - all those were illnesses worthy of a soviet cure.

The Corner at National Review Online has been following the story of Abdul Rahman. They point to a story at CNN that the Afghans have come up with a possible out for Rahman: He's insane.

On Wednesday a state prosecutor said Rahman may be mentally unfit to stand trial, The Associated Press reports.

"We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn't talk like a normal person," The AP quoted prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari as saying.

Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination, according to the AP.

"Doctors must examine him," the AP quoted Baluch as saying. "If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped."
So Mr. Rahman has an out. Innocent by reason of insanity. What does that mean in Afghanistan? When someone in the US is declared "not guilty by reason of insanity" does that mean their life goes on as normal, as if whatever it was they did wasn't done? I think not.

What do they do with Rahman if he's declared insane? Will they do the "compassionate" thing and seek (i.e., enforce) his "healing?"

As a Christian, I understand that turning away from Jesus can be an expression of mental unhealth. But as a follower of Jesus most of the common courses of action are ruled out for me. I cannot torture them into health (that was the mistake of that benevolent institution known as the Spanish Inquisition). I can also not imprison them or kill them.

What does Jesus say to do to people - to sinners - who won't listen to reason? (I have Matthew 18 15-20 in mind.) He says, "Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Does that sound brutal? After all, from the view point of holiness, those are the bad guys. But think a minute. How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?

Once we look at Jesus - which is what his followers are supposed to do - we see our way clearly. Our role is to love sinners (the miscreants, deviants, criminals - those who depart from the faith). Our role is to treat them as we would any outsider - as those for whom Christ died, as those whom we are to love into the kingdom.

Where does Islam stand on this? I wouldn't be surprised if there are multiple traditions on this, partly depending on the weight given to certain Koranic passages (like, "There is no compulsion in religion") and certain passages in the Hadith, as well as other cultural traditions that have built up here and there over the centuries.

Of course, it may be the case that Afghanistan, an ostensible Muslim nation, ends up doing the Pushtun or Uzbek (or Afghani) thing instead of the Muslim thing. I know that's the case here in America (claimed by some to be a Christian - especially in the Muslim world - nation).

We'll see.

On not interferring with a Sovereign Nation

Attention to Abdul Rahman’s case is spreading. The Germans are complaining. Even the Americans had something to say, though the description makes the protest sound rather tepid.
The Bush administration issued a subdued appeal Tuesday to Afghanistan to permit Rahman to practice his faith in the predominantly Muslim country. The State Department, however, did not urge the U.S. ally in the war against terrorism to terminate the trial. Officials said the Bush administration did not want to interfere with Afghanistan's sovereignty.
Ah, yes. Sovereignty. Wouldn’t want to interfere with that, now would we? Why is “interfering” with our ally’s trial of a man for conversion to Christianity a greater challenge to sovereignty than invading and overthrowing the government?

There is more than one theory of national sovereignty. While some might think all nations are sovereign by definition, the Rahman case in the larger context of Afghanistan illustrates that the current US leadership adheres to a different theory.

In our country, we describe our system as government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We call it a democracy. We extrapolate from this to find sovereignty rooted in “the people.” Thus if a nation is a democracy, i.e., “of the people,” then it is a sovereign nation.

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan did not have a government “of the people.” It was not a democracy. Now that we have invaded and cast aside the Taliban (we have not yet cast them out), we have installed a democracy. Now Afghanistan has a government “of the people.” Now it is a democracy.

And that democratically elected, i.e., a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has put a man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity. Surely we all know that Muslims make up a majority of the Afghan population. Surely we know that death to converts is a standard practice in other allied Muslim nations (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Ought we to be surprised when the majority – the operative power in a democracy – follows its conscience?

The AP article hints that there may be some division of opinion in Afghanistan.
The trial is believed to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan and highlights a struggle between religious conservatives and reformists over what shape Islam should take there four years after the ouster of the fundamentalist Taliban regime.
I’d like to see some evidence of this “struggle.” Are there voices in Afghanistan calling for Rahman’s release – and freedom to follow Jesus? The AP avoids specifics here.

At the very least, we Christians ought not to be surprised. The bible says, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Just because we’ve been domesticated by a smiling Caesar, doesn’t mean the world is a safe place for Jesus people.

As Americans we ought not to be surprised either. Some of our founding fathers (James Madison comes to mind) warned us against the power of faction and absolute majorities. More recently our love for democratic theory may have been chastened by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Though we may not be surprised by the trial of Abdul Rahman, do we have to keep quiet about it? Do we have to keep paying for Afghanistan – with our money and with the lives of our people? If we were a Christian nation, our approach would be different (assuming, of course, that there is such a thing as a Christian nation). But, we’re not. So we keep propping up a nation because we believe the government of a sovereign (democratically elected) nation can do what ever it wants.

UPDATE: I see that there is a transcript of an interview with a State Department official at The Corner. Unfortunately the issue seems to be framed as one of Freedom of Religion. My guess is that Mr. Rahman's persecutors will think Freedom of Religion is one thing, and Freedom of Conversion from Islam is another thing altogether. If this is so, as long as we keep the subject on Freedom of Religion, we will be missing the point.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

THIS is what we're fighting for?

American soldiers have been in Afghanistan for 4 years. We've disposed of the oppressive Taliban government. Or at least the "Taliban" label.

Now Abdul Rahman is on trial for his life. His crime? He converted to Christianity 16 years ago. we know what the Taliban would say. Mullah "Queen of Hearts" Omar would say, "Off with his head." But now that the US has intervened and established a democratically elected government Judge "Queen of Hearts" Ansarullah Mawlavizada says, "Off with his head." Surely your powers of discernment are great enough to see the difference.

Back in the olden days - really olden - Plato wrote against democracy. He'd seen it degenerate and lead to Athen's destruction in the Peloponnesian Wars. He'd seen it restored just in time to kill his teacher Socrates. In Plato's assessment, in a democracy the appetites/desires of the masses went unchecked by any conception of the good. But at least they got to vote on it.

Now we have a US installed government in Afghanistan putting people on trial for converting to Christianity. How can we Americans protest? We got what we wanted - a democratic government.

We also now have a democratically elected government in Palestine. Surely they won't kill Christians will they? (Maybe they'll only kill Jews. - Think Martin Niemoller though). We're also installing a democratically elected government in Iraq. How will they handle Christians? Both Iraq and Afghanistan claim in their constitutions that nothing is allowed that contradicts Islam. If killing Christians is allowed under that standard in Afghanistan, how long until it's allowed in Iraq?

But then Mr. Rahman's crime is greater than just being a Christian. He converted from Islam to become one.

And this is what our people are giving their lives for? This is what we're spending billions of dollars for? Sure looks like a case of caveat emptor to me.

To see the details on the story you can check:
Fox News
Middle East Times

Saturday, March 18, 2006

An idea for a Seminary Curriculum

An idea for a Seminary Curriculum

  1. Engage with God. As long as seminary is just another degree producing experience, it’s perfectly understandable. But the Christian life is about walking in a love relationship with Jesus. As the seminary community experiences the love of God together, each participant will grow in practices of prayer, worship, submission, love, etc.

  2. Engage with the Bible. This includes both an ability to figure out what the text means (yes, I know the ambiguity of that term and I’m happy with it) an ability to live it out, and to lead others to engage with it in similar ways.

  3. Engage with the Christian tradition. By partaking of Christian history and theology, one will not only know and understand the basic content, but to do with the end of becoming a participant in both.

  4. Engage with the Church. Each church has a culture and way of doing things. Leaders need to know how to discern and shape that culture as they lead the people in being and making disciples.

  5. Engage with people. We all come to seminary with a variety of people skills. Some (often the extraverts) find it easy, while others find it hard work (some of us introverts). As Christian leaders our engagement with people will include listening to them, paying attention to them, conversing with them, connecting them with the church and with Jesus (and his resources).

  6. Engage with culture. Every culture in history has had two conflicting propensities: to seek Jesus and to kill him. As Jesus’ followers we take up his mission of sharing (through word and embodiment) the Good News of the Kingdom and suffering the consequences.

After 6 months or a year of the basics, students will be separated into cohorts of ten or so, aiming for a balance in terms of personalities and spiritual gifts. These cohorts will then go through ministry experiences together. Three types of experience would be envisioned.
Experience in a long-established church. There are a bunch of churches out there that haven’t changed significantly in ages – except for decline in numbers and increase in age. How do you live out faithfulness in that context?
A cross cultural experience. Since seminaries are cross-cultural institutions, it’d be most useful to have two of these to increase the chances of the experience truly being cross cultural for all the students.
A six month immersion in the life and ministries of a growing church. What does it look like to reach people, draw them into the body and equip them for ministry? What models for ministry work in different kinds of context?
A final year church plant. In their last year of school the cohort will together plant a church, putting into practice everything they’ve learned. To keep one area from being saturated with church plants, the final year of class work would use TEE (Theological Education by Extension) model. After the year is up the cohort will be free to continue the church plant together, divide up and plant others, or take up posts in other congregations elsewhere.

What do you think?
What obvious things have I left out?
Are there any seminaries working this way today?

Friday, March 17, 2006


The United States is out of the World Baseball Classic. Did we make it further in the WBC than we did in Olympic hockey last month?

Well, at least hockey isn't an all-American, born and read here sport. So what abotu Basketball? Our guys couldn't manage any better than the bronze medal.

Baseball and basketball are AMERICAN sports. Abner Doubleday and James Naismith are ours, and the games both orignated here.

I am sure many Americans are looking at this latest loss on the world field of sport as a sign that our glorious nation isn't what it should be. (I hope there doesn't develop a loud cry that we pour more money into baseball and basketball)

I've got another way to look at it. Though baseball and basketball were both born in the US, we've done a fantastic job of exporting both sports. We've done so well, in fact, we don't even dominate international competition. Success is ours!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Transitional Church Stress

I’ve just finished reading Kevin E. Martin’s The Myth of the 200 Barrier: How to Lead Through Transitional Growth. I’ll make other comments on the content of this book later. In this post, however, I’ll focus on what I found the most striking in how it fit my own church situation.

The church I pastor has hovered between 130 and 200 in average Sunday morning worship attendance since at least 1966. Some years are up, some down. My goal has been to get the average up to 200. Last year we almost made it – we averaged 198. It’s tough work – and there are so many variables that there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to keep it up. Martin’s book offers a theory of why this is.

Martin proposes two basic church models: the pastoral church and the program church. While there can be great variety within these models, the pastoral church is based on the work and abilities of the pastor. The upper limit of attendance in a pastoral church is about 165. An average attendance of about 225 is required to sustain a program church. Therein lies the problem. Our church is in the no-man’s land between these two numbers. Martin calls these churches “transitional churches.”

Martin lists four characteristics transitional churches share:
  • Transitional churches tend to be high-stress congregations for clergy. The expectations that the pastor’s role will be primarily relational in the smaller church, and the expectations that accompany programs in the large church, create this high stress.

  • Transitional churches tend to use up and burn out lay leaders. This size church has a shortage of real leaders. Therefore, the transitional size congregation tends to overuse its leaders and give them multiple jobs. This leads to high burnout.

  • Transitional churches tend to need new programs, staff, and facilities all at the same time. This leads to confusion and a sense of continual frustration as the leaders run to keep up.

  • Transitional congregations often experience tension and conflict as the congregation develops. Those who prefer the style of the smaller congregation often resent the changes. Those who want quality programs often find this resistance frustrating and irrational.

I see each of these at work in the church I serve. (1) I feel the stress of having to know everyone and what’s going on in their lives. I don’t think it’s as stressful for me as it would be for some people. I’m fairly good at learning and remembering names. The tougher part is finding time to jump start all the programs and ministries I think would benefit us.
(2) We need more leaders. We can usually recruit people to do something, but I want leaders – people who are passionate, energetic and creative, who won’t need micromanagement.
(3) We need new programs. At the very least we need to increase our outreach ministries, our junior high ministries, our Senior adult ministries (beyond mere fellowship), our recovery ministries and evangelism. Staff? We need a staff person who speaks Spanish to lead ministry with the increasing Hispanic population. Buildings – a blessing and a pain at the same time. Our hundred year old sanctuary is one of the most beautiful in NE Texas. It costs a fortune. We’ve spent so much money on it in the past 5 years we’ve had no resources left to work with our decaying educational building and fellowship hall, let alone build anything new.
(4) We’ve also experienced the tensions of transition. We lost a couple of highly involved families last year because we’re not changing fast enough. Others complain we’re changing too fast.

The easiest thing to do would be to drop back down to about 135. Of course, such a move would entail a rejection of the Great Commission. “It’s just for big churches,” I can imagine some people saying. The problem is, I’m not willing to do that. I’m not content with anything but leading this church to make disciples. Leading a larger church (judging by my experience in larger churches) looks easier than leading a church through this transition period. Obviously I have a lot of learning and growing to do.

One final comment: If you find your church in the transitional range, you might try out Martin’s book. Read it and share it with the leaders in your church. See what happens.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Please Don't Do It Here!

If socialized medicine works well, it’s surely someplace other than here. I’ve been in big city hospitals and small town hospitals and never seen anything this bad.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Notorious Sinners & United Methodist Higher Education

United Methodist schools attract all kinds of people. I remember that from my days at Southwestern University. We had the usual representation from mainstream Christian denominations: Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals & Charismatics, etc. We also had Jews, Muslims, Buddhists & atheists. Many were only nominally affiliated with religious institutions. The most common philosophy on campus was likely variant of hedonism.

Two of the perpetrators of last month’s Alabama church fires were students at Birmingham Southern College, a United Methodist institution. Some of his fellow students report that Russell DeBusk was a low-grade Satanist. I doubt that the Birmingham Southern administration knew anything about DeBusk’s religious leanings. I even doubt that he wrote “Satanist” as his “religious preference” on his application form.

I don’t know if we had any Satanists at Southwestern – the most I ever heard about it was a report from a campus security guy that he’d encountered some people performing a “Black Mass” in the Chapel late one night. He didn’t recount any evidence that the participants had any connection to the school, and his story seemed too sensationalistic to be credible.

Why would a Satanist (or Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist) want to attend a United Methodist school? My guess is that it’s because they offer a good education. Birmingham Southern’s president describes their mission this way:
Our mission is to provide a liberal arts education of distinctive quality—one that challenges our students to think independently, to examine the arts and sciences aesthetically and critically, and to communicate clearly. We accomplish this mission through offering educational experiences that prepare students to be lifelong and participatory learners and leaders, to be active and successful in their careers and communities, and to be individuals who better understand and shape the world around them.
This mission statement looks a lot like the mission statements of other liberal arts schools. If my experience at Southwestern is indicative of the category, they likely do a fair job at achieving these goals.

But is there anything particularly Christian about such a mission? If there is, it’s in such coded language that I’d think a Satanist or an atheist would have trouble noticing it. In other words, if there were such a thing as a liberal arts school affiliated with a Satanist or Atheist group, their mission would likely be indistinguishable from the average UM school.

When United Methodist schools take their missional cue more from academia (especially an academia shaped by the convictions and values of modernity), gross public sins like burning down churches can only appear shocking. President Pollick observes:
“In response to the two students having been charged with arson of nine Alabama community churches, Birmingham-Southern College has suspended each student from the college and immediately banned them from campus awaiting further action by the authorities. The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.
“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”
One of the advantages of the Christian tradition (and the United Methodist theological tradition when we remember we have one) is that we know people are sinners. We know not only that sinners sin, but that they work hard – even by sinning more (in this case, torching additional churches_ - to cover up their sin. We know this all too well, since it’s not just “those kind of people” – those subject to a “culture of personal license” who sin, but we ourselves.

What would happen if United Methodist institutions of higher learning would start taking sin seriously? Surely this would amount to more than a puritanical negativism (the bogeyman invoked by most moderns when the word “sin” appears on the scene). The Christian tradition declares not only that we are completely addicted to sin (we not only do it, but we do it willingly because we like it), but also that God has entered history in the person of his son Jesus Christ to do something about it. Some branches of the Christian tradition merely focus on the forgiveness of sin and the resulting life in heaven after death. That’s good. The United Methodist tradition, however, goes farther. We believe that the salvation Jesus offers ought to result in holiness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and life together in the Body of Christ, we have all the resources we need to say ‘No” to sin and “Yes” to God.

What might this look like in a mission statement? Here’s a rough go of it:
This United Methodist University (TUMU) aims to:
  1. Challenge you intellectually so you can love God with all your mind

  2. Help you develop as a well-rounded person so you can love God with all your soul

  3. Give you tools to navigate the economy as a productive citizen who both trusts God for provision and seeks to be a blessing for the people around you and be good stewards of the creation around you

  4. Put you into relationships with people who are completely different from you so that you can learn how to love your neighbor as yourself

  5. Seek to demonstrate the attractiveness of Jesus so that you will be inclined to follow him all of your days

Such a school would be open to all comers be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, or Satanists. Of course they’d make sure all students and their families were aware of the institutional mission – no bait and switch – so they could enter into the challenging environment with their eyes open. When a student sinned – bad enough to make the front page of the paper – the University would gather around that student, praying for him or her, and seeking to demonstrate Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and call to repentance. Some student/prisoners may resist this move, but if the University kept on demonstrating its love for student/sinners even through the long years of a prison sentence, perhaps some would get the idea.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Candy Lady, R.I.P.

I had my post op visit yesterday in Houston (everything’s fine). When I arrived in town I called to let my wife know I had made the 250 mile trip without incident. After our initial greetings she told me she had gotten a call from the pastor of a church I used to pastor. Merle Knight had been murdered by her son.

Everyone loved Merle – probably because she loved everyone. My kids knew her as the Candy Lady because she always had a piece of candy for them. They liked to go to her house and visit – not only for the chance at a piece of candy, but to see her and her dog.

Merle was also an integral part of the ministry at Hooks FUMC. Whenever the children or youth were doing something, she was there to help. Her compassion for the kids in her neighborhood was also a spur to get others involved. I still remember her telling me about a young boy in the neighborhood who stopped to talk to her one day.

“How are you doing,” she asked the boy.
“I’m ok. My dad just moved out,” he replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You must be sad.”
“He’s not my real dad. He used to beat me al the time. I’m happy he’s gone.”
Merle’s heart was broken. I doubt this kind of story is unique to East Texas, but I’ve heard it too many times over the years.

We’ll all miss Merle. She made a difference in the lives of many.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blast from the past

I was looking for something to pick up and read a bit, and happened to notice my copy of Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, which I probably hadn't opened since seminary. I was pleased to find I had underlined sections while reading the book "back in the day," and turned to the chapter titled "Commnuity."

I found it eerily relevant today, considering Barth deleivered these lectures in the early 60s. He begins with an explanation of why he chooses "community" rather than "church." As some of us are just realizing now, in 2006, Barth noted then, in approximately the year I was born, that "Church" is heard and read too easily as "Christianity," as though the people of Jesus could be painted with one broad brush. Community carries the idea that "church" ought to. Was Barth treading on postmodern ground?

As he describes the community, he reaches the lines that inspired this entry:
The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and, moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, and needy in the world.

There is no denying that we do not speak with words alone. But, as I consider all that is going on around the world today, and especially since much of the world identifies the community of Jesus' people with the United States, I cannot help but wonder: what is our characteristic attitude to world problems? Are we, God's people, known for our silent service to the handicapped, the weak, and the needy?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Subsidize THIS

I was privileged to be a part of the Central Texas Conference's Mission Ministries Team meeting this past Saturday. One of the main purposes of this annual meeting is to go over the budget requests for all the various minsitry groups within the conference.

I had been very apprehensive about attending this meeting. The CTC came up about $900K short on our apportionments for 2005, and we ahve not proven very good in the past at limit the growth of our budget. I fully expected to hear the same old head-in-the-sand mantra of "giving will be better this year; let's go ahead and plan to spend more!"

I must admit I was pleased to find out that most of the MMT was on the same page as myself. While there are many worthwhile programs and needs, it would be poor stewardship on our part to plan to spend more than we could reasonably expect to receive.

One discussion I got involved in was particularly interesting, and will be the subject of this post. Much of what we do as the CTC is pretty heavily subsidized. We set costs for events based on what we would like everyone to have to pay.

What I think we ought to do is price events in such a way that participation actually pays for them. As we set prices to actually cover expenses, we also build in some funding for those who demonstrate financial need.

I was told by one person that for a particular event that her group hosts each year, "Everyone pays full cost, and it still doesn't cover the costs." Perhaps we aren't all clear on what "full cost" means.

We have operating, within the CTC, at least two groups that use the model I am reccommending. Glen Lake, our camp, sets the price for a week of camp at a rate that looks high for a church camp, but a letter from a pastor earns the child with need a week at camp. CTCYM, our youth mission organization is structured the same way, and has run with a surplus for about a decade.

The new model for connectionalism will include many more programs that run on the money they bring in from participants rather than from apportioned funds.

Friday, March 03, 2006

What's next?

In the past few days I have heard several different people talk about how they have gotten used to watching television shows without the commercials. Between buying boxed sets on DVD and the DVR/TiVO revolution, more and more people are skipping the commercials in favor of just watching the shows.

What do you suppose this trend will mean for the future of ad-driven programming? No doubt the producers of these shows are getting a cut from the dish/cable companies that sell the dvr machinery, and they are making good money off the dvd market, so what happens to advertisers?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Learning from North Point, part 8

Learning from North Point, part 8

North Point’s fourth practice for effective ministry turns to the area of communication. “Teach Less for More” aims for simplicity in communication.

The North Point guys (the ones who write the book and speak on the recordings are all guys – Andy Stanley, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner) remember their early days in church when they were inundated with information, so much information, in fact, that they didn’t know what to take out of it. Drawing from the previous practices – “Clarify the Win,” “Think Steps, Not Programs,” and “Narrow the Focus” – each ministry area identifies a short list of things that each group needs to know.

I remember my own early days as a Christian. I loved researching the End Times. I spent hours not only reading Revelation, Daniel, etc., but also Hal Lindsey, J. Dwight Pentecost and other dispensationalist authors. For a high schooler, I was well educated on the subject. But it didn’t do me or anyone else any good (unless you count the author’s book royalties). My model of the Christian life was very stunted: Being a Christian meant knowing lots of stuff (more than anyone else) about the end times (or the Bible). While model was more attractive than the major competitor I experienced – “God is nice. Be nice too” – I desperately needed a model that connected me with God and his Kingdom purposes.

Once you notice that Andy Stanley is Charles Stanley’s son, you might start thinking, “These guys are just a bunch of Baptists. What can we Methodists/Presbyterians/etc. learn from them?” For many years now, my estimation of the Methodist Mistake is that we tend to assume everyone is saved, and thus never talk about how to become a Christian, while the Baptist Mistake is tending to assume no one is a Christian and talk about nothing else. When the North Point folks talk about “Narrow the Focus” and “Teach Less for More” they’re not instantiating either Mistake. In other words, “Teach Less for More” is not “Get them saved and that’s all.”

Looking at each stage of life (which, of course, can be a gross over-simplification), they develop a short list of things people in that stage need to know. They refer to these in terms like, “6 things married couples need to know,” and “7 checkpoints for students.” A short list might give the impression their work will be quickly done. Taking the “7 Checkpoints for students” as an example, there is plenty of room to fill in years of communication, whether that communication be teaching or preaching. It is far more than a list of seven scriptures to memorize. Check the link and see for yourself.

As a church in the evangelical tradition, they clearly enunciate a high view of scripture. While they affirm that all scripture is equally inspired, they also say that not all scripture is equally important, nor are all parts are equally applicable to all age groups. This is nothing new, though I don’t hear it frequently articulated by many “bible-centered” churches.

How does this principle work itself out? They identify four steps.
  1. Decide what to say – identify irreducible minimums. Build a curriculum around those principles. [Have you noticed that “principles” are really big these days? I can’t help but think the evangelical infatuation with “principles” is their particular manifestation of Lessing’s Ugly Ditch (i.e., real religion is found in the necessary truths of reason, not the accidental truths of history).] They recognize that people need more than this, but they emphasize a desire that people WILL definitely get some things really clearly.

  2. Decide to say one thing at a time. Clear information on what to do with what you’re taught. Avoid information overload. [What about those of us who like to take up the biblical habit of saying more than one thing at a time? Is there no place for irony?]

  3. Decide how to say it. Focus on how to communicate in a way that your audience can hear what you’re saying. Build a team to design communication. Spend time reducing what you’re saying to one statement. Examples: “Purity paves the way to intimacy.” “When we see as God sees, we’ll do as God says.”

  4. Say it over and over again. Use repetition. Then say it again. It’s ok to use the same curriculum over and over again. Let people hear it in different ways – depending on their stage in life. Fight the urge to always say something new and original.

4 Questions for communicators to consider:
  1. What do people need to know?

  2. Why do they need to know it?

  3. What do I want people to do?

  4. Why do they need to do it?

If one adopts some variant of the first three practices, this fourth would seem to be the necessary communicator’s corollary. The traditional church will likely find this challenging for a number of reasons:
1. When it comes to Sunday School curriculum we tend not to look beyond the publisher. We either have a particular publisher that we’re supposed to use or simply one we’ve become accustomed to over the years. It takes a huge amount of work to know our audience, examine what they need to learn, and find or develop a curriculum that meets their needs and takes them to the desired goal.
2. Many people think of Sunday School as a holding time for kids and fellowship time for adults. While adults need fellowship and kids need some holding, if our teachers and leaders don’t have a vision of Sunday School as true discipleship training, it’s unlikely the students ever will.
3. As good Americans, we think that freedom of speech is a Christian virtue. We can’t tell our teachers what they should be teaching.
4. We preachers tend to pick preaching planning methods that may or may not be conducive to such narrow-minded teaching. We may have a string self-satisfaction in taking our people through the whole bible (either verse by verse or on a lectionary plan) or through the highlights of the whole of Christian doctrine, but they carry nothing home with them.

In the end, I find myself torn on this principle. On the one hand, it makes good sense. People seem to need a simple picture of what to do and how to do it. On the other, I’m an unreconstructed complexophile. I think complexity is more interesting and fulfilling than simplicity. Of course this might boil down to the fact that on the Myers-Briggs I’m an INTP.