Preaching and Teaching Doctrine in the Local Church

As the #andcanitbe conversation has developed over the past few weeks, I have sensed two underlying questions. The first question is, “Is doctrinal clarity an essential part of the renewal of the United Methodist Church?” Kevin Watson helpfully dealt with the details of this question from an academic perspective in his post, What We Are FOR Isn’t Good Enough. I want to add my voice to his by responding with a resounding, “Yes!”

The second question is one I have dealt as a United Methodist Elder who has been working in the Church and teaching on a weekly basis since I was first commissioned for ministry in 2005. That question is, “Is teaching and preaching with doctrinal clarity even possible in a world that struggles with the most basic biblical literacy?” One might even go on to ask the pragmatic question, “…and does it bear any fruit in the lives of the men and women who hear it?” To both of these questions I would add, “Absolutely, yes!” (I realize that I’m not touching on an extended set of questions about biblical interpretation, epistemology, and post-modern ways of engaging the faith. This post isn’t intended to examine every aspect of this conversation, and I would simply say my assumptions about common shared doctrinal convictions aligns closely with the work done by Dr. Thomas C. Oden in his abbreviated systematic theology, Classic Christianity.)

While I could start by talking about my early experiences in ministry, I want instead to talk about my most recent experiences. Since August 2011, I have preached on a weekly basis as an Associate Minister at Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. On one hand, I lead worship and preach in our Chapel Community which is our most traditional worship service, and on the other hand, since December 2011, I have helped launch and lead the Servant 923 community, our attempt at reaching people who are drawn to more modern worship styles.

Each week, I preach nearly identical messages in each service. I lean heavily on sermons that are shaped by walking through individual books of the bible, including an eleven part series on Colossians in Summer 2011 (we’re going to be in Revelation this Summer). We have spent time with the Parables of Jesus. We have walked through the earliest vision of the Church in the book of Acts. We’ve explored marriage using resources shaped by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, but with a Wesleyan accent.

In addition, I teach two large group bible studies where we walk through books of the Bible verse by verse by verse. In recent weeks, we have covered topics like universalism, exclusivity, and inclusivity. We talk about the realities of eternity. We wrestle with doctrinal concepts like grace, justification and sanctification.

In each of these settings, we wrestle with Scripture on its own terms as the inspired, never-failing (infallible) Word of God and do our best to let Scripture guide our understanding of who God is and how we should interpret our personal experiences and life stories.

As a result, I believe both of the following ideas are false:

  1. Laity, especially young adults, don’t want to hear, or are unable to process, clear scripturally grounded doctrine. 
  2. We have to be embarrassed by classic orthodox Christian teaching, because it fails to appreciate modern realities.

Instead, what I see is an incredible hunger for an authority beyond my own teaching, or my own personal experience, and beyond the latest fads or cultural movements. And I see it in people in middle school as well as in 90+ year old widows. One of my favorite aspects of my job is getting texts from high school and college students asking how to wrestle with a particular theological problem using the best of biblical scholarship and theological understanding.

I see men and women committed to submitting to the Gospel, even if it’s not completely intuitive, and even when it is counter cultural. I see people putting their trust in the Gospel for the very first time and experiencing Christian baptism as a powerful life-giving transformative moment.

One reason I’ve started to write again on this blog is because I believe the way forward in United Methodism is nothing less than a wholesale commitment to the things that make us most unified as Christians. John Wesley in a letter to the “Rev. Mr. D_______” expressed his desire for all clergy to express,

three grand Christian doctrines – original sin, justification by faith, and holiness consequent theron…

We should expect no less than a common core commitments to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as expressed in concepts like these “grand Christian doctrines” to lead us forward in renewal and revitalization.

One couple recently shared their story with several of us on staff, and I believe their words will give you a sense of how God has used and worked in this kind of enviroment,

God began his hard work in both of us.  We had our revelations and grew so much in our faith.  [My spouse], a self-proclaimed, Sunday christian, began going to small groups, and getting even more involved…  We began praying as a family.  We began to see God, feel God, and be the hands and feet of God.

In this beautiful testimony (which I wish I could share in its entirety), there are countless examples of being engaged in relational ministry through both mission outside the walls of our building as well as opportunities to serve in the church. In other words, I’m not talking about doctrinal orthodoxy that just engages our brains, but a full-bodied understanding of the Gospel that results in practical acts of faith. I believe that Methodism at its best is a passionate expression of classic Christian faith, with a Wesleyan accent, that finds its expression in practical engagement in God’s work in the world!

Preaching and teaching doesn’t have to be “dumbed-down” or soft-played to make a difference. In fact, my experience leads me to believe it is even more transformative when shared as clearly and honestly as we know how.

Five Hopes for #andcanitbe

In recent weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be a United Methodist, inspired by my good friend and colleague Kevin Watson. Kevin’s last three posts on his blog have dealt with some of the concerns and ideas I’ve been wrestling with for some time. 

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the future of the United Methodist Church ever since General Conference and the failed initiatives to make major overhauls to our structure. Ever since, people have offered proposals suggesting we will only move forward with continued efforts to restructure at the next General Conference. 

While I agree we need major change, I think we have more basic and fundamental problems that need to be addressed. While we do suffer from an over-inflated bureaucracy, we struggle more with a lack of what I call core unifying commitments

That’s where the #andcanitbe conversation began. Those of you who aren’t familiar with Methodist hymnody might not recognize that this is based on the lyrics Charles Wesley published in 1738, 

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

For me, this suggests a hearty recovery of the basic Christian doctrines at the core of the Wesleyan movement we call Methodism. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, is used and co-opted by people in the denomination from across the theological perspective. However, the reason I’m so drawn to him is that I believe he was, at his heart, an orthodox classic Christian who held to the most basic doctrines of the Christian faith. 

Several years ago, I ran across this helpful advice from Tim Keller to a pastor asking about how to find a denomination in which to be “missional,” and I believe it is extremely relevant to this conversation, 

I wonder where you’d go to find a truly missional denomination? I don’t know of any. For missionally minded churches, any denominational connection will bring you into relationship with some other churches and ministers who downright embarass you. This will be true of any ecclesiastical body with more than 5 churches in it. I don’t think that going independent and only staying connected in to a missional ‘network’ – which has no disciplinary authority – is the answer either.

My counsel: 1) inhabit a denomination with a historic tradition you admire (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist) 2) stay in a denomination if it gives you space to follow your calling, 3) don’t be marginal to it–be active in the denomination, but 4) don’t be too absorbed in all its workings and especially not in its politics

United Methodism inhabits a particular tradition I admire, but only inasmuch as it holds strongly to  classic Christian doctrines (even as they’re given uniquely Wesleyan emphases), such as the ones Kevin described in his post,

sin and the need for repentance and forgiveness; justification by faith; the new birth and assurance; and sanctification by faith, even unto entire sanctification. Another way this has been put is: “All need to be saved. All may be saved. All may know themselves to be saved. All may be saved to the uttermost.”

My hopes for the #andcanitbe conversation are as follows

  1. That it reminds United Methodists that there are plenty of young adults in the denomination who care deeply about classic orthodox expressions of Christian doctrine and faith. 
  2. That it demonstrates we United Methodists are Christians first and then tied together missionally by distinct Wesleyan core commitments (both practical and doctrinal) such as the importance of small groups for growth in discipleship (being apprentices of Jesus) and the helpful articulation of the work of God’s grace even to entire santification. 
  3. That it reminds us renewal will not come as the work of human ingenuity or bureaucratic tinkering, but instead from a hearty return to God in faith, repenting of our own failure to “do it ourselves,” and turning toward a future of radical abandonment to God. 
  4. That it eventually spreads to the point that we can recognize God’s work outside of the United Methodist Church in the United States as an important corrective to the decades of decline we’ve experienced here.  
  5. I also hope that there are more diverse voices that come to the #andcanitbe table who share common commitments to classic Trinitarian belief, the bodily resurrection, and the doctrinal commitments mentioned above.   

Miroslav Volf on Generosity

Miroslav Volf in “Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. 

“Faith tells us that we do not exist simply to live our three score and ten years without pain, with ease and enjoyment, to accumulate possessions, power or knowledge, to receive accolades and enlarge our egos. How empty such a life would be! Faith is an expression of the fact that we exist so that the infinite God can dwell in us and work through us for the well-being of the whole creation. If faith denies anything, it denies that we are tiny, self-obsessed specks of matter who are reaching for the stars but remain hopelessly nailed to the earth stuck in our own self-absorption. Faith is the first part of the bridge from self-centeredness to generosity.”

Ministry and Character: Tim Keller

the ministry will make you a far better or a far worse Christian than you would have been otherwise. But it will not leave you where you were! And it will put enormous pressure on your integrity and character. The key problem will be preaching the gospel while not believing the gospel. As ministers, we must be willing to admit that ministerial success often becomes the real basis for our joy and significance, much more so than the love and acceptance we have in Jesus Christ. Ministry success often becomes what we look to in order to measure our worth to others and our confidence before God. In other words, we look to ministry success to be for us what only Christ can be. All ministers who know themselves will be fighting this all their lives. It is the reason for jealousy, for comparing ourselves to other ministers, for needing to control people and programs in the church, and for feeling defensive toward criticism. At one level we believe the gospel that we are saved by grace not works, but at a deeper level we don’t believe it much at all. We are still trying to create our own righteousness through spiritual performance, albeit one that is sanctioned by our call to ministry

Tim Keller, Redeemer City to City Resource: Ministry and Character

Rambling Update

When I finished my D.Min. degree earlier this year, I just knew that I’d have more time than ever.  Of course, that spare time was immediately filled with other responsibilities and opportunities.  I thought I’d write a quick post to update everyone on the latest events in my life.

This fall I had my first experience leading a major stewardship campaign.  We developed and tried a different approach that we were really happy with. Instead of the normal focus on the importance of stewardship as a spiritual discipline, as important as that is, we focused on the difference giving makes in the life of our congregation.  We developed four different video testimonies of individuals whose lives have been changed or transformed in the life of the congregation.  We also continually reminded the congregation of the way our giving transforms lives through our missional involvement locally and globally.  The campaign was called “Giving Changes Lives,” and we have had an incredible response, seeing increases in giving across the board for the first time in several years.  We also had lots of comments about the different “feel” of seeing how our faithful stewardship makes a difference for Christ and his Kingdom.

After the major part of this campaign finished up, I’ve been heavily involved in a visioning process for our future.  I’ve leaned heavily on Will Mancini’s book, Church Unique, which is probably the best book I’ve ever read on developing vision in a local congregation.  In the back of our mind, we’ve continued to be influenced and inspired by Reggie McNeal’s work after hearing him speak at the UMC Large Church Initiative in San Antonio.  We’re closing in on a vision framework that we’ll be presenting to our laity for final refinement in the beginning of 2011.

On a personal spiritual note, on November 30th I finally managed to finish a goal that I began on November 30, 2010.  Along with my small group, I’ve been working through a one year bible reading plan using the Life Journal.  As embarrassed as I am to admit it, this is the first time I’ve ever maintained this discipline for an entire year.  It has been a transforming discipline to say the least.  As cliche as it might sound, instead of just reading the bible for study, preaching, and teaching preparation, I’ve been reading the bible daily for personal spiritual transformation and it makes a difference.  After this year, I am more deeply committed to the God revealed in Scripture,  more fascinated with the incredible missional calling that Scripture describes and more committed to being a faithful follower of Jesus.  If you haven’t began a discipline like this, I strongly recommend the Life Journal for 2011.  If you’re like me, you’re definitely going to need a small group of committed Christ-followers to hold you accountable on a weekly basis to make sure you stick with your commitment.

Finally, life in my family is cruising right along with all the challenges and blessings of raising an 8, 5, and 1 and 1/2 year old.  We’re busier than ever and learning how much work parenting can be!  Fortunately, we have the support of a remarkable community of faith and a great family, which makes all the difference.

Denominations & Missional Ministry

I’ve wondered about the connection between the missional Church and denominations quite a bit, so yesterday when I stumbled across this advice from Tim Keller on DJ Chuang’s blog I decided I needed to share it.  He doesn’t mention Methodism as one of the historic traditions, but I’d include it in there. What I love here is his recognition that  we can work within flawed structures to accomplish something far greater than denominational politics and agendas.  Most of the pastors I know having a significant impact seem to really be taking this advice already.

I wonder where you’d go to find a truly missional denomination? I don’t know of any. For missionally minded churches, any denominational connection will bring you into relationship with some other churches and ministers who downright embarass you. This will be true of any ecclesiastical body with more than 5 churches in it. I don’t think that going independent and only staying connected in to a missional ‘network’–which has no disciplinary authority–is the answer either.

My counsel: 1) inhabit a denomination with a historic tradition you admire (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist) 2) stay in a denomination if it gives you space to follow your calling, 3) don’t be marginal to it–be active in the denomination, but 4) don’t be too absorbed in all its workings and especially not in its politics

In Defense of the Megachurch

Lately, I’ve heard and read several conversations wondering about the megachurch.  Some question its authenticity,  others question its methodology, while some just question whether big is good.   As these questions bounce around in my head, I’m serving on staff at the largest United Methodist congregation in Oklahoma City.  Needless to say, I’ve got a little different take on the megachurch than some of the voices you hear.

Just this week we started Vacation Bible School.  Yesterday, those of us here in OKC were just about washed away in a torrent of rain, and we ended up having to cancel the first day of VBS.  As a result, several of our members who were volunteering quickly found themselves as volunteers without a cause.  In the end this was a real blessing, because I was able to have some great conversations with the folks who waited inside to avoid going home in the hardest rain.

As I was speaking to one of our volunteers, we began to talk about her children.  As we talked she mentioned a friend of her children who has experienced some hard times, but is facing those difficulties with the help of an amazing community surrounding them.  As she described the beauty of this caring community, she gestured around at our building and the people gathered there and said, “You know, this is that community for our kids, and it has been since they were little.”

In that moment, I realized something.  This family has specifically chosen to raise their kids in an intentional way, surrounded by incredible men and women of faith, and it just so happens to be here in a megachurch.  When I look at this family, I can say the same thing for myself.  I want my kids to grow up in a community of faith like the one I’m appointed to serve.

Although megachurches are bigger than the churches many of you attend or pastor, they are no less communities of faith and discipleship.  In fact, they aren’t even necessarily big for the sake of bigness.  In a very large urban or suburban area, the megachurch actually shrinks the city and becomes a smaller community of faith and discipleship within that setting.  We aren’t the big box store selling religious experiences or goods; we are a community of people, albeit a large community, who’ve said, “This is where I want my family to grow and be shaped in their faith.  This is the place where I want to live out my faith, both inside and outside the walls.  This is the place where I want to nurture Christian friendships and live out my commitment to Jesus Christ.”

Are we bigger than some of the small towns in Oklahoma?  Sure we are.  But just as people who live in those towns are shaped by the life of those communities, people here at Servant are shaped and formed into the image of Jesus Christ because of the living, breathing, faithful men and women who come here to celebrate the goodness and grace of Jesus.

Who is Your Tribe?

Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog has a guest post by Mary DeMuth that explores how she discovered her tribe (a la Seth Godin‘s, Tribes).  This post got me thinking about the ways we find our tribe.  How do we figure out the group where we have the most potential for impact and influence?  DeMuth has a few suggestions.

  1. Ask others, “What is my one thing?” My friend Alex has often said everyone has a “one thing.”  This is the theme of your life and ministry – the well you find yourself continually returning to when you feel dry.  If someone asked you to communicate one message (verbally or through actions) and one message only, what would that be? DeMuth suggests sending a wide variety of people you know an email asking them to help you define you and your ministry (or calling).  I may do this.
  2. Seek Professional Help. As an author, DeMuth had the ability to consult with a variety of experts to help her whittle down to the core of what she lives to communicate.
  3. Finally, so some soul-searching.  Here, I’ll quote DeMuth in full, “Frederick Buechner says that the place that you ought to serve is “where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” So define that.  In your opinion, what is the world’s greatest need? (Everyone’s will be different). What is your greatest joy? How do they intersect in your life right now? How would you like them to?  Another exercise: List your three favorite movies. (Don’t think about it; just list them.) Now look over your list. What is the common thread in all three? That common thread is typically your passion colliding with the world’s greatest need.”

I’d take the movie thing with a grain of salt, because I’m not quite sure what gritty westerns (Tombstone, Unforgiven, etc.) and stupid comedies (Talladega Nights, Dumb & Dumber, etc.) have to do with my passion colliding with the world’s greatest need, so take the movie thing with a grain of salt.

However, it could definitely be a good exercise to spend some time thinking about your greatest joy,  your understanding of the world’s greatest need, and how you see those intersecting in your life.  If you’ve identified your tribe, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 3)

More and more, I hear from young doctrine hungry Christians who turn to the young Reformed pastors in order to understand doctrine and theology. Unfortunately, many United Methodists seem to have abandoned the practice of teaching and preaching theology in compelling ways.  Scott Kisker gives people from a Wesleyan background a strong place to begin recovering the practice of teaching a uniquely Methodist doctrine of salvation in Chapter 3.

In Kisker’s opening brief summary of the best Methodist preaching, he describes the content as “full salvation and the message of grace.”  Our Wesleyan heritage, “offers us a model of salvation that is more than simply being born again, or being forgiven.”  A Wesleyan approach agrees that forgiveness and being born again are essential parts of salvation.  However, in the same way that there is more to marriage than the wedding (ht Kevin Watson), Wesleyans recognize there is more to salvation than the first moment of being reconciled to God.

Using the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15, Kisker details a Methodist understanding of God’s character and grace.  For Kisker, the abundant love of the father in this story is key to understanding the love of God.  Unlike the Reformed position that places God’s sovereignty as his primary attribute, Wesleyans have always understood God’s love as primary.  This doesn’t deny God’s sovereignty, but suggests that God’s sovereignty is conditioned by God’s love.

Wesley puts it this way,

For what end did God create man?  [The Westminster Assembly’s] answer is, ‘To glorify and enjoy him forever.’ …Do the generality of common people understand that expression, ‘to glorify God?’ No, no more than they understand Greek…’He made you; and he made you to be happy in him; and nothing else can make you happy.’

Kisker then describes a position, not completely different than the Reformed position,

God created us to know, desire, and choose what will make us happy.  And yet we don’t make the choice.  There is something radically wrong with us.  Wesley has no trouble talking about the ‘entire depravity’ of human beings in our ‘natural state.’  Left to our own devices we are completely hopeless, looking for love, looking for happiness, but only in the wrong places.

God’s grace is his loving response to this condition,

Without the assistance of God, we will never use our liberty in such a way that it leads us to real happiness, we will never understand or desire or choose what will make us happy.  That assistance comes in the form of God’s love, which is grace.

Finally, Kisker does a terrific job describing preventing (his distinction between Wesley’s language of preventing and Outler’s language of prevenient is really helpful), convincing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.  Preventing (or prevenient) grace allows us to respond to God in the first place, convicting and justifying grace are what are often described as being saved or being made right with God.  Essential as these experiences are, there is an abundant life of grace after we receive grace and actively respond to God.  This is sanctifying grace.

…the unmerited love of God desires not simply that we be welcomed back into the familiy, but that we be healed of all that led us into misery in the first place.  [Salvation in a Wesleyan context] is the complete restoration of who we have been created to be, here and now, in this life.

Further,

It sanctifies us, makes us into saints, leads us into real, substantial happiness, not based on the externals of our circumstances, but on the unmerited love of God in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps the closing quote from John Wesley sums it up best,

Thus it is by manifesting himself, he destroys the works of the devil, restoring the guilty outcast from God to his favour, to pardon and peace; the sinner in whom dwelleth no good thing, to love and holiness; the burdened miserable sinner, to joy and unspeakable, to real, substantial happiness.

Methodism, at its best, also provided tools to engage people with God and help them experience this salvation.  In chapter 4, Kisker will turn his attention to that subject.

Amazing Rescue in Haiti

If you haven’t seen this yet, watch the young boy’s response at the first of the video.

The rest of the video shows the ongoing need.  If you’d like to make a donation that will send 100% of your donation to relief, please click here. UMCOR’s administrative costs are covered outside of your donations, so you can make a real difference with your donation.