Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Getting beat by the Lutherans

While many of our Annual Conferences will be taking up resolutions opposing the war in Iraq, the Lutherans are taking the opposite approach. They are sending their own troops!

Driving through Waco this afternoon, I noticed a Lutheran Church, the specific name of which will remain withheld, had posted on its marquee "Support our troops." They've sent their own troops?

Ok, to be fair, they didn't specify that they were sending troops to iraq, so it is presumptuous of me to imply that the Lutherans were raising a military. But I cannot imagine a Christian group encouraging support for one Caesar's armies over those of another Caesar, so we are left with two options.

1) The Lutherans are raising an army to be deployed somewhere


2) The Lutherans are using militaristic methaphors to describe their commitment to spreading the gospel.

Either way, it seems that The United Methodist Church is being left in the dust.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bishop's Book List

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve heard about the many changes happening throughout the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, our Episcopal leader, is not only providing energy, but also encouraging engagement with ideas from inside and outside the connection. I’d heard of a list of books for a while, but just recently requested a list.

Following are a couple of the books Bishop Huie has asked the cabinet to read:
Good to Great, Jim Collins
Good to Great and the Social Sector, Jim Collins
Holy Conversations
She has recently ordered the following books for herself:
The Life You Save May be Your Own, Paul Elie
Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner & Emma Laskin
Crossing the Unknown Sea, David White
Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
How to Change the World, David Bornstein
Callings, William Placher
Leading Lives that Matter, Mark Schwehn & Dorothy Bass
Here are books she has recommended to Cokesbury for inclusion in their annual conference bookstore:
Radical Hospitality, Homan & Pratt (Paraclete Press)
Hospitality of the Heart, Marilyn Brown Oden (A-Peak Publishing)
Making Room; Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl
Reaching Out; The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen
Where God Happens, Rowan Williams and Desmond Tutu
She Offered Them Christ: The Legacy of Women Preachers in Methodism, Paul Wesley Chilcothe
Her Own Story: Autobiographical Portraits of Early Methodist Women, Paul Wesley Chilcote
Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism, 1760-1939, Jean Miller Schmidt
Methodism: Empire of the SpiritDavid Hempton, (Yale Press)
The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman
The Present Future, Reggie McNeal
The Art of Possibility Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pension Quandry

I would be happy to have some perspective on this. The Central Texas Conference, like many if not all Annual Conferences, will be establishing a new way of figuring clergy pensions for 2007. For more information about the new plan in general, please check the General Board of Pensions site.

Here is the way our conference Board of Pensions is proposing we fund it: each church will pay 12% of each clergy's compensation package, up to the DAC (Denominational Average Compensation), then an additional 5% on the entire compensation.

Thus, some churches will be paying a total of 17% of their clergy compensation towards pension. On the other hand, a church that pays its clergy $150,000 (and we have at least a couple who do) would pay only 9.2% total. For a specific example, the cost to our cabinet-level folk will be 11.3%.

Sure, in actual dollars the higher paying church is out quite a bit more money. As a percentage of its budget, though, the larger, higher-paying church will be spending far less than the smaller churches.

I ran the numbers provided by the Conference Office, and a flat rate of 14% across the board would adequately fund our conference's pension. In response to this suggestion, I was told that our largest two churches already pay 10% of the total apportioned budget of the CTC, and that this would be too much to put on them.

I wonder how many of the smaller churches, many of which are declining anyway, will be driven under by this new plan, which shifts more budgetary weight (as a percentage of budget) to them, rather than to the larger churches.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Selling Jesus

I remember listening to Keith Green back in the early 80s. In those days I thought he was a better speaker than singer, though it was the latter he was best known for. I remember hearing him inveigh against "Jesus Junk," the sentimental mementos we fill our homes with. Well, Nathanael Blake seems to be on the same page as Green. Here are his final comments:

Treating Christianity as an industry, a business with a profit margin, has corrupted the church, and the crowning achievements of the CMI are at the core of the refuse pile. It’s time to end the token preaching to the choir, the coded religious messages, and the charging of money for events that supposedly exist to preach the gospel.

Get out. Those who want to create worship and devotional music, go back to where you belong, which isn’t arenas, festivals, and clubs, but churches. The rest of you, go out into the world; claiming Christianity and presenting Christian messages in your songs won’t prevent you from succeeding…if you have the necessary musical ability (U2, anyone?).

Quit pretending that Christianity is a brand name, because there will be Hell to pay for it, in the most literal sense. If Christianity is true, then there are lost souls dying and going to Hell all around us, while the church sits and sells Jesus to itself.
Go read the whole thing. I'm happy there are still some young trouble makers out there.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Friendly & Loving?

We’re in the midst of some big changes. As of June 1 we’ll be part of the North District of the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. The old Texarkana District will be history. Conference wide we’re seeing a huge shift in accountability structures. The Annual Conference will exist to equip local congregations (like ours) to fulfill our mission to reach people for Jesus. That’s a huge change from the ethos of the local church existing to support the general church.

At the closing worship service for the Texarkana District we heard one way this will work itself out. In her first year in the Texas Conference Bishop Huie visited all the churches, inquiring into their strengths and challenges. Can you guess what the most commonly reported strength was? “We’re a friendly loving church.” It sounds better than, “We’re an unfriendly hateful church,” doesn’t it? But the dirty little secret of our “friendly loving” churches is that they’re not fulfilling their God-given mission. Some are so self-absorbed in their friendly love that they want nothing to do with outsiders (I’ve pastored one of those churches before). Some settle for being loving by just being nice to people. When it comes to evangelism we either reduce it to “being nice” or we add the thought, “When people see that I’m a nice person they’ll come to believe good things about Jesus.”

I don’t know if outsiders think of our churches as “friendly and loving” or not, but the statistics have been consistent over many years: we’re not winning people to Christ. Many churches aren’t even maintaining their membership levels. Attendance is dropping. “Friendly and loving” may be nice, but it’s not fulfilling our primary mission (Remember – Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” – That’s our mission).

Bishop Huie has noticed how many churches are happy to be friendly and loving while the people around them miss Jesus. Our preacher Sunday night, retiring Texarkana District Superintendent Howdy Dawson, reported that she told the cabinet, “If I hear one more church say, ‘We’re friendly and loving’ I think I’m going to puke.” Mighty strong language from a bishop. And just what we need to hear.

Howdy recognized the seriousness of the issue. He spoke of being a friendly loving pastor to friendly loving churches throughout his whole ministry. Everyone who knows Howdy knows he has a big heart. We like friendly and loving. But Howdy said that after listening to the bishop over the past couple of years he’s wondering if he hasn’t missed something – that by settling for being friendly and loving he’s missed out on leading his churches to reach people for Jesus.

Instead of being held accountable for being friendly and loving, we’re now going to have to give account for winning people to Christ. That’s going to cause some discomfort and conflict. We’re going to be roused from our sentimental apathy, complacency and comfort. Nice just won’t cut it anymore.

The bible says, “We love, because he [Jesus] first loved us.” That same book said that that same Jesus is the standard for our love. If we really love people we will tell them about Jesus. Though it’ll cost us, we won’t settle for having them think, “Those Methodists sure are nice.” Instead it’ll be, “That Jesus those Methodists exhibit sure looks interesting. I think I’d like to follow him too.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bi-Polar UM Ecclesiology

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke, “How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?” Sometimes the answer is, “Change? What do you mean, Change?” The other answer is, “About a hundred. You need to set up a study commission composed of equal representation from each Conference, Jurisdiction, Racial/ethnic group, every gender, etc. Give them a quadrennium or two and maybe something will happen.”

One of our current study commissions is looking into ordained ministry. If you’d like, you can read a news report of their latest gathering. What most struck my interest are the final comments.
The Rev. Grant Hagiya said the commission needs to explain the theological foundation behind current practices. He is superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California-Pacific Annual Conference and a member of the ministry study commission.
"We think the church is confused because it's not presented to them in a way that's a practical understanding. If we can do that, we can provide a great service to the church," he said.
"We have a dual ecclesiology, Catholic in that we have bishops and elders, but Protestant in that we have deacons and local pastors," he said. "There's a healthy tension about this, but it also points to the practical ways we need to deal with polity."
Rev. Hagiya could go farther. Our Catholic ecclesiology also shows up in much of our sacramental thinking. The church is seen as the dispenser of grace. I think that’s a major reason for the outcry against the Ed Johnson decision. When Rev. Johnson denied membership to a practicing homosexual, some took it as akin to shutting the doors of grace to the man. Since grace comes through the church, closing the door of membership to him was equivalent to closing the doors of grace. Rev. Johnson’s supporters (I’ve read more from them than from Rev. Johnson himself) take a more Protestant point of view. While the church may be a place of grace, it has no monopoly on grace. Thus the statement, “You are not at the appropriate place for membership now” is not at all the same (from their point of view) as “No grace for you, bub, until you straighten yourself out.”
In this sense at least, we have come so far from Wesley’s position that our membership policies would be unrecognizable to him. Unrecognizable as Methodist, any way. He’d likely see in them a mirror of the Church of England of his day. In Wesley’s day it was remarkably easy to become a Methodist – just evidence a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” Getting in was easy. Staying in – that was the tough part. The old time Methodists used the General Rules as a sort of “epistemology of seriousness” to see if the evidence was real. If you weren’t living according to the Rules, then they’d judge you weren’t really interested in fleeing the wrath to come. Wesley practiced strict discipline with his people.
We gave up on strict discipline long ago. We’ve come to think discipline, rather than an expression of grace, is the antithesis thereof. Oh, we still play at discipline – one the one side we come down on the homosexuals, on the other, we condemn our Presidential and Vice Presidential United Methodists for their participation in war. Because we’ve given up being a disciplined people (who hate nothing but sin and love nothing but God), so many of our current attempts at discipline seem to unchristian pettiness to those in the opposite camps.
Our Catholic/Protestant bi-polarity doesn’t help us in this regard. Notice how Rev. Hagiya divides the territory. On the Catholic side: Bishops & Elders. On the Protestant side: Deacons & Local pastors. Where is the power in the church? Who makes the policy? Who makes the decisions? Sure looks like a power imbalance to me. Is there any wonder our “Catholic” side argues for a “Catholic” view of church membership?
But don’t think it’s easy for the bishops. While they may have the most power, they also experience the greatest conflict. In their (“Catholic”) position they have a duty to stand up for the unity, holiness and purity of the church. They are to lead the application of discipline in the church. But many don’t want to. Some don’t want to remove their homosexual friends from ministry. Who would want to remove a friend of any kind from ministry? Some want to have theological freedom akin to their peers who work in the university – to be able to rationalize key doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection without consequence. But they can’t – their job is to uphold the doctrine and discipline.
While I think many things can and should be held in “healthy tension,” I’m afraid, contrary to Rev. Hagiya, the Catholic/Protestant divide within our ecclesiology isn’t one of them.

If jazz is blue, what color is U2?

Just finished Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. It was a good read. Sometimes it was a great read, sometimes a less than satisfying read, so overall I'll settle with good.

For two reasons I really do recommend it to you, though.
1) it is written from the perspective of a person who, though he grew up in church, "gets" why so many people in our society do not want anything to do with "The Church."

2) it is a provocative account of Christian spirituality that is written entirely without Christianese. More than two decades after Steve Taylor's "I want to be a clone," this book finally follows through on translation. Not that others haven't done it before, but Miller does a fine job at talking things Christian without using language you would only know if you had never missed a VBS.

Another Kind of Immigration

When Christians immigrate to America (or any other country), they not only have to learn a new language, but also a range of concepts that either have no role in the Kingdom of God or else are understood very differently. One such concept is “enemy.”

Those whose lives are shaped by following Jesus remember the Master talking about enemies. “If they hate me, they will hate you also,” he said. Jesus demonstrated that this hate was unidirectional, however. How else could it be when we also hear him say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” When we combine Jesus’ statements with what we see in his life, we get the idea that this enmity is a one-way affair. They hate us, we love them. They try to hurt us, we try to bless them. Their decision to stand as our enemies in no way forces us to take the same stance toward them.

But then we immigrate to a country that has enemies. Once we arrive we learn that our position has weakened. When we lived with our primary allegiance to Jesus, someone’s declaration of enmity did not compel us to make a similar declaration toward them. With our new dual citizenship (or have we been naturalized – given up our Kingdom citizenship?), we learn that the declaration of enmity does control us. Now when someone speaks enmity or acts as an enemy to us we are required to respond in kind.

Doubtless this relinquishing of control to those who would be our enemies makes sense in the logic of our new citizenship. Although we are allowed to trust in a god, this trust is not allowed to go very far. Instead of trusting in a god who commands us (often in ways contrary to our own desires), we get guns, bombs, tanks, planes, etc. Apparently, it is thought, these are more powerful than any god, and thus more worthy of our trust. When we read the bible we see Israel thinking similar thoughts. Unfortunately, we also see that it didn’t work very well.

Millions of people have come to America – in ways not in accord with America’s laws – looking for a better life. Many stubbornly refuse to assimilate and learn American language. Even as they work hard, participate in and contribute to their new communities, they retain their primary allegiance to their homeland. Who knows – maybe Christians can learn something from them.