{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

A Wesleyan Missional Manifesto

Back in October 2011, I was priviledged to be with a group of United Methodist pastors and lay people who gathered around the common interest of reform in the church. By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the reform being debated by leaders in the denomination. The Call to Action and Vital Congregations movement has created quite the stir among the UMC faithful. But those of us who gathered 5 months ago all agreed that while structural reform was good, it wasn’t enough.

Out of that gathering was born an idea to create a document rooted in history and distinct Wesleyan theology that would serve as a supplement to the structural change offered by denominational leaders. We felt this would add an ingredient of theological integrity to the discussion. And so we spent the next few months beginning to craft the document for others to read and hopefully endorse.

It’s not finished yet but Rev. Jay Voorhees has posted it on his blog in order to get the discussion going.


What would you add or change about this document? How do you see it contributing to the conversation of change?

Beginning to Rethink What it Means to be a Disciple


About 2 or 3 General Conferences ago, we crafted a mission statement for The United Methodist Church that says:

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We’ve put this statement all over bumper stickers, banners, stationary, and even across our church bulletins. As we’ve faced some tougher times since the economic turndown of 2008, we’ve come back to that mission statement time and time again. It’s become a part of the collective imagination of our churches. But let me ask a question: What does it mean to make a disciple? We can quote a mission statement for memory but the question of “how” seems to be the nagging question in many of our church circles.

It is my belief that the greatest failing of The United Methodist Church over the last 50 years does not lie in the number of people we’ve lost or the dollars that have disappeared from our coffers. The greatest failure of our church is a failure to disciple one another. 

The Methodist movement began when the Wesleys and others decided the Church of England reached a point where it was going through the motions of doing church. They felt things like personal conversion, salvation in the most evangelical sense, and discipleship were lacking across the Church of England. Now, some 250 years later, we find ourselves in a similar position. Only this time, we’re the ones guilty of going through the motions of doing church. 

Over the next few blog posts I want to begin a conversation that I hope readers will contribute to. If the church is in the type of decline that statistics and reports are telling us, then it will take as many people as possible working, praying, and conferencing together (yes, holy conferencing) in order to come up with creative ways to re-imagine ourselves as The United Methodist Church. So I would like to plant my flag in the fertile ground of discipleship and say let’s begin our journey of rediscovery there.

Being Christian Means New Life and Nothing Less

If we’re truly called by Christ to be “born from above” (John 3:5-8), then discipleship is an expression of new life in Christ. John Wesley would argue that once we experience justifying grace (the acceptance of forgiving grace by faith) we are then regenerated into new life. And life, then, takes on new perspective because we are born anew in the Spirit. Discipleship is the process of participating in God’s sanctifying grace that seeks to move us all the way to complete salvation–perfection in grace. So to discuss discipleship, I think it’s only appropriate to use the model of human development and relationships as our guiding analogy.

The Infant Stage

Human beings are relational by nature. I’m becoming more and more aware of this fact as my wife and I get closer everyday to the birth of our first child. Children come into the world defenseless and helpless. They have basic needs that must be met by others. It’s the dependence upon others that begins the relational aspect of our life as humans. Having needs met by a caregiver is among the most primal relationships in nature.

The same is true in our relationship to God. So often we turn to the analogy of God as Father or parent because it is God who, by grace, gives the gift of life and provides our very needs. We like to refer to ourselves “children of God.” It’s comforting to speak of God in these terms. But do we ever risk overusing this analogy? Do we think of God so much in a parental way that we never see ourselves as anything but needy children? Think about it. How often do we reduce prayer to a never-ending wish list (I want, I need). How often do we, clergy and laity alike, neglect our call to be ministers because we’re so inwardly focused (church needs to meet my needs). And how often do we fail to play nice with others (If God loves me, then God must not like those people because I don’t like them). All to easily we can turn into spiritual kindergartners who whine too much and can’t play nice with others because we want everything “our way, right away.”

Growing Up in Faith

The Apostle Paul reminds us that there comes a point in time in life that we’re to put childish things aside (1 Cor. 13:11). So if we have new life in the Spirit, there also comes a time when we should grow in our faith and mature past the point of being so inwardly focused and self-serving. This maturity is found in a life of discipleship. The life of a disciple is found first and foremost in a life that hears the call to deny themselves, take up a cross, and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). But even more than that, it’s a call that challenges us to move past such a self-centered view of faith. Discipleship means that our faith grows beyond simply a “personal decision for Jesus” or a personal belief we cling to for ourselves. Discipleship requires that we take our faith public as we follow Jesus and give our of lives in community with others. This is why Wesley saw salvation as “holiness of heart and life.” Discipleship requires that faith must take a certain shape in our lives. Discipleship becomes the vessel by which faith, undergirded always with grace, shapes and molds us towards salvation–no less than complete holiness of heart and life towards God and our neighbors.

However discipleship simply cannot simply be a collection of individual journeys. It requires life together with others in community. But more on that later…Next Post: What Does Discipleship Look Like in Community? 


Announcing a New Series…

I’ve decided to begin 2012 with a new series that I hope will take us at least most of the way to General Conference. If you’re a United Methodist, you know by now there’s a great deal of change coming out of Tampa that will affect the entire Methodist Connection. The Call to Action is being used as a basis for assessing the health and vitality of our local congregations. There’s a good chance that there will be some major changes to the ordination process as a means of addressing ineffective clergy and hopefully stem the tide of decline in our churches.

As you also know, I’ve been a bit of a critic of many of these changes. I’m not convinced that implementing some sort of contrived plan of action will do much more than make us feel better for having “done something.” And yet, over these past few months and after studying and following much of the debate, I can now see some of the merits of the plans that are being proposed. We do have a problem with unhealthy congregations. And we do have a problem with clergy who feel more entitled than empowered to preach to preach the gospel. There’s a lot to be said for these plans in holding clergy and congregations accountable for doing good work of ministry. Are the priorities dangerously close to being self-serving? Sure. Are there still merits with the plans in spite of some shortcomings in theological integrity? I think so.

But that’s not why I’m writing this series. If you want a more candid and electric view of criticism for the Call to Action, check out my friend, Jeremy–he’s got some convincing material out there. I would rather examine what I’m not hearing much of in these debates: our failure in Christian Discipleship.

This upcoming series will seek to address the practice of Christian discipleship at the most local levels. Yes, there will be some theoretical approaches to my work: you can’t study practices without a little theory. But I hope this series will address some of our denominational shortcomings at the most practical level. Recently a friend of mine offered a thought that has stuck with me:

“It’s not about who or how many people or dollars we’ve lost, but how well we disciple people”

Therefore, I want to undergird this series not with our shallow mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but with The General Rule of Discipleship:

“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

And so as I begin I want to ask you for your  help. Please feel free to interact on this blog and offer your thoughts along the way. I want this to be a community experience of sorts. And frankly, I probably need some help fleshing these thoughts out. So please feel free to respond!

Is discipleship our greatest need in the Church today? How do you see our failure of discipleship in American Christianity? What do you see as our greatest need in forming disciples of Jesus Christ?

Honoring Methodist Conference 21st Century Style

There was a time when conferencing in the Methodist tradition meant something closer to a direct democracy than it did to the now more prevalent sense of representative government. For example, the Christmas Conference of 1784 saw the majority of itinerant pastors in America gathered in attendance. Over time, however, as the church grew both in size and structure that the proportion of representation grew less and less. Now annual conferences are allotted a certain amount of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference based on size and the number of church in a respective area. This is very similar to the method found in the United States House of Representatives and how they are organized and allotted. The way we organize ourselves in light of governing speaks to the heart of what it means to exercise our voice.

In a day and age that has seen massive political upheaval across the world and major demonstrations here at home from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, one must ask whether proportional representation still suffices as the prominent way we make our voices heard. We’ve seen many examples of masses of people gather to cry out against the representative governments. We now have to ask whether that’s a truly faithful way of organizing as the church. Where are persons being shut out? Who and where are the absent voices in our church? And how can we see too it that no one feels left out of the process of organization?

Interestingly, a new development has started to have an impact on larger meetings around the church. Whether it’s a conference event or a continuing education conference wireless internet, smart phones and portable tablets (think iPad) have allowed participants to log on to Twitter and react to what is heard at these meetings. Yes, social media has, in fact, infiltrated the church in new and exciting ways.

Now for those who don’t know, Twitter is known as a social networking website. Posting on the site is called “tweeting.” You can search for and follow the posts of whoever you want. And there’s a wonderful method of tagging your tweets to allow others to see what you’ve said called a hashtag (# symbol).

Let me give you a recent example of how this works in the life of the church. I went to the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville put on by The General Board of Discipleship back in October 2011. At the beginning of the gathering we were notified that our hashtag was “#WesleyLC2011.” So every time we tweeted, we ended our tweet with #WesleyLC2011. This way those who were not physically present could interact with what we were discussing. Essentially, Twitter allowed for a meeting of 75 participants to be opened up to whoever wanted to interact through the virtual world.

By now you may be asking what in the world does the Christmas Conference of 1784, political upheaval, and Twitter have to do with one another and The United Methodist Church?

First, for the first time those who were elected as delegates to General Conference do not have to be the only ones present. There will hundreds of United Methodists physically gathered in Tampa from all over the world. But there will also be hundreds gathered through the power of social media.

Secondly, many analysts have noted the fact that social media has helped drive the transformative power of political change. The Arab Spring in the Middle East was largely organized and driven through social media, often by younger adults. The same power has been seen among movements here in America as well. It is because of this influence that we have to plead with our denominational leaders to see to it that the Convention Center in Tampa is 100% wi-fi enabled. In the 21st Century, to disable Internet access would be likened to cutting off phone access. It is a means of communication and information access.

Finally, the politics of running for and being elected as a delegate to General Conference can no longer forbid access to those who are not elected. Social media has granted us unprecedented access to follow what’s happening and to voice questions and comments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Christmas Conference of 1784. The system is in the process of being upended and we’re in the process of watching the way we exercise authority shift in a major way.

Social media has had a hand in some major change in the Arab world and here at home in America. It’s driven the voice for change and empowered those who once had no voice. By utilizing the power of social media I’m convinced that conference will no longer just be a place or an event—it will be a way of acting uniquely as United Methodists. It will be a return to a way of life that maybe we’ve forsaken in recent pursuits for efficiency and streamlined organization. And it will be a 21st Century example of honoring the Methodist sense of gathering to conference–a true means of grace–in such a way that I’m sure would make even Mr. Wesley himself very proud.


“Say What?”: The Vague Call of Reform

If you’re a United Methodist, you’ve probably heard about the Vital Congregations movement that’s begun to help reform our denomination. A lot of money has been invested in studies, marketing, and analysis to come up with the conclusion that if we, The United Methodist Church, are to survive as a denomination and overcome a 50+ year decline, we need to “equip and empower people to be Disciples of Jesus Christ in their homes and communities around the world” (See homepage of Vital Congregations website for full quote).

Our agencies have gotten fat and our budgets are suffering the effects of malnutrition. The thought is it’s time to reform the larger denominational structure in order to empower our congregations to put action behind the mission statement of the church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve put this mission statement on every poster, brochure, website, program agenda, and banner–we know it by heart, it’s now time to perform it.

As we get closer and closer to General Conference 2012, there is growing buzz around the denomination about the extent of reform that will come out of that important meeting of our church. How much of it will be centered around this massive renewal spelled out in the Call to Action Report and Vital Congregations Initiative? What will these new initiatives mean for the life of church as we know it? If we’re equipping congregations in order that they may be called “vital,” what does that mean?

Let’s review some of the proposed characteristics of congregational vitality, shall we?

We’ve identified key drivers that include:

  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. A mix of contemporary worship and traditional worship
  3. A large percentage of the congregation involved in leadership
  4. An assortment of small group opportunities for all ages

We’ve made some key proposals in how our structure should be aligned:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

All of this sounds great if you’re a fan of reform. I’m a big fan of reform and personally, I see a great deal of this only benefiting the way we operate as a large denomination.

However I do have a problem. My lingering question throughout this entire process is yet to be answered clearly and with the same depth that the rest of the analysis has been put together. That is, what does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? We spend lots of time, energy and ink going into great depth on the need for congregations to become vital organizations. And we even believe this is done by “making disciples.” So if our mission is to “make [or form] disciples,” then what constitutes a disciple? 

Let’s go back to our new source for all things “vital: Vital Congregations webpage. There you’ll find at the bottom right of the homepage a box named “A Disciple of Jesus Christ” and you’ll read 5 characteristics that characterize a disciple:

  • worships regularly
  • helps make new disciples
  • is engaged in growing his/her faith
  • is engaged in mission
  • shares by giving in mission

Now before you get swept off your feet by the excitement of these characteristics [insert sarcasm here], there is biblical backing for such a description. The site notes Matthew 22:36-40 as the source for this description. And I would argue that the twofold law of the gospel is a great place to start when talking about how we view and grow our faith.

But I also have some major issues with this description [you knew that was coming]. For starters, why do we like to reduce everything down to bullet points and simple statements. It’s almost as though we don’t think the members of our churches want to get bogged down in an overly wordy and in-depth description of their discipleship. I reference us back to one of the great scenes from my all-time favorite show, The West Wing, for a better diagnosis of this flaw:

Gov. Ritchie: We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.

Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. [Season 4 Episode 71 Originally aired 10/30/02]

You see, as a young pastor in The United Methodist Church, I’m not looking for short, simplistic answers to the great questions of how to live as the Church in our world. And frankly, over my short career in ministry I’ve found that most laity long for something deeper as well. I want the complexities that come with admitting that discipleship is hard. I long for the words of liturgy over the words of a grocery list rendition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When do we get to the parts about “resisting evil, injustice, and oppression” in all forms? When do we talk about “confessing Jesus Christ as Savior” and “putting our whole trust in his grace”? And when do we get to the part that reminds us:

Through baptism we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we [are welcomed] as members of the family of Christ.

When you put these vague statements on discipleship together with the clear, direct statements on what the church needs in order to reform, you get little more than a plea to save our institution without the cost of doing just that. We want to convince people that they should “be engaged in growing their faith” but we fail to say how to do so. We want people to “help make new disciples” but we fail to say that comes with a price–or rather, a cross. We want people to “attend worship regularly” and “give to missions” but we fail to disclose the truth that the life of a disciple is a life where worship is embodied everyday and missional is a description of a life given for service to the world.

I want to believe that the Vital Congregation Initiative is a positive step for the church. And maybe it is a good place to start. I want to believe that realigning resources accordingly will better enhance the ministry of The United Methodist Church to the world. But until we move past these neatly packaged, banal, vague statements into something with depth and [dare I say it] life-changing qualities, I suppose I’ll remain a skeptic–a skeptic devoted to the ongoing, transformative work of the church nonetheless.

What Does Family Really Mean at Christmas?

I was reminded this past weekend of just how difficult it can be to let Christmas truly be a Christian observance. We spend the season fighting against the hustle and bustle of a commercialized rhythm that can leave any church in the dust.

We did 4 worship services over the course of the weekend (3 on Christmas Eve and 1 on Christmas Day). I figure the vast majority of churches probably followed a similar pattern. It wasn’t until I read an article via the Patheos blog that I even realized just how many were not planning to hold worship on Sunday, December 25, at all. In fact, around 10% of Protestant pastors polled by LifeWay said they did not plan to hold worship on Christmas Day. Why? Well, many churches cite the need for the staff and ministers to have a day to spend with their families. One church’s website I found (and won’t disclose) even said that “Christmas is a day to love and appreciate family, we will not have worship on Christmas Day so that families can do just that.” Very interesting.

I hear the tension that exists for pastors who try to balance their family life with their vocation of ministry. I now know first-hand just how much work goes into Christmas Eve services so I get the fact that many would rather hold the very best services throughout Christmas Eve and then take the next day (Sunday) off. It’s hard when much of your logistical work is done by volunteers who have conflicts on a holiday weekend. It’s hard when you consider the paid staff who would like a day off as well. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.

But let’s at least be honest that underneath the family needs on Christmas Day, we’re also canceling church because we think no one will attend. The truth is, if we were guaranteed the same crowds on Christmas Day that we see on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t consider canceling worship even if you paid us. So yes, there are family needs at play here. But there’s also a marketing mentality that informs us to believe that low crowds don’t merit our best efforts so maybe it’s more efficient to close up shop instead.

So in that spirit, I wonder what sort of message a mass canceling worship sends to those outside of the church?

The author for the atheism section of about.com makes the ironic connection in his article titled, “Christmas: So Christian that Churches Close for Christmas Day.” It is a bit ironic that we spend so much time preserving some sense of religious observance throughout the season just to say that we’ll close on Christmas Day itself in favor of “quality time with families.”

Rather than trying to make the point that short of natural disaster or weather that makes it unsafe for travel you shouldn’t cancel worship–period, I want tease out this idea of family. What constitutes our sense of family? And how is that sense informed by our identities as Christians?

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship contains the wording of the Baptismal Liturgy we practice in the life of the church. In it, there are some interesting ways this idea of family is reoriented in light of one’s baptism:

“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church…we are given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [BOW p.87]

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God…” [BOW p. 89]

“Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as member(s) of the family of Christ” [BOW p. 92]

You see, while canceling worship might be more convenient for pastors in our observance of family time, we are, in fact, neglecting the family time of the community of faith. Limiting family to one’s immediate family at Christmas is not Christian at all. We have to be honest about that fact. As members of the baptized community of faith we have to hold fast to the idea that for us, “family” has been expanded to touch the far-reaches of the church universal.

So is an hour on Christmas Day really a sacrifice when it comes to spending quality time with our family in light of our baptismal identity? I guess that’s a question pastors, members, and churches should ask themselves. But don’t worry, I hear 2016 will give us another opportunity to respond to such a challenge.

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