Too Busy?

Timothy Larsen has a great reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the danger of self-importance.  It centers around this wonderful, yet challenging quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together,

The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

Larsen discusses this quote in light of the tendency of academics to be “too busy.” The not-so-subtle effect of telling others we are busy is, “announcing that we think we are important and that our time is more valuable than that of most other people.” Unfortunately, this is a tendency of ministers (and probably every other vocation) as well. According to Larsen,

Being worried about the loss of time is not a sign of a healthy awareness that our work is of vital importance. Quite the contrary; it is actually a sign that something is amiss in our character.

I know he’s right.  Far too often when people ask me how I’m doing, I reply, “Oh…I’ve been really busy.” If I’m honest, it’s for the very reasons he describes.

I’d ask for your thoughts, but I don’t want to be a bother when we’re all so busy.

Kevin Watson on Social Holiness

Kevin Watson is a personal friend and colleague currently working on his PhD at SMU.  We met each other when we were roommates getting our pastoral licenses at OCU, and this has ended up been a true blessing in my life.  If you are a United Methodist (or just curious), please, please, please go read his post on the distinction between social holiness and social justice.   Overall, this post is an excellent corrective for those who use John Wesley’s quotes poorly.

Kevin is such a strong voice on the priority of faith and holiness in the Christian life, and I eagerly anticipate reading his work for years to come as it informs my ministry in countless ways.

Prooftexting Wesley @ Deeply Committed w/Kevin Watson

Open Call for God-Called Preachers

My two oldest kids stayed overnight with my mother back in southeastern Oklahoma, so I drove down and picked them up in Henryetta today.  On the way back to Oklahoma City, I decided to take a different route.  We ventured through downtown and made a stop by an older United Methodist Church off the beaten path, several streets north and west of downtown.  As I pulled alongside the church my four year old said, “Wow, it’s dirty.”  I said, “why do you think it’s dirty,” and my seven year old daughter said, “because they don’t take good care of it.”  I then told them that any church that stops reaching out and bringing people to Christ ends up in even worse condition.  At the same time, across the street, I saw two young men.  They were dressed in white shirts, black ties, and backpacks and were walking from door to door in the older neighborhood around the church.  I pointed them out and said, “They don’t believe the same thing we do, but they are out telling people what they believe.”  I then told them how our church would look just like this one if we stopped inviting people to our church to come to know Jesus.

After getting home, I looked up this church online and found the typical non-webpages listing the congregation’s name.  However, I also found a defunct website on the Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban parish.  Here is an excerpt from that website (I’ve changed the name, because I’m not writing this to embarrass anyone and I think it’s common for many of our congregations regardless of the name),

In 1969 on a typical Sunday morning 365 people gathered for worship in the beautiful Gothic sanctuary at ____________ United Methodist in Oklahoma City. “On Easter, every pew was packed, even in the balcony, and we brought extra chairs in,” recalls a retired United Methodist pastor who was then pastor at ________.

“Our educational building was less than ten years old, and we needed every room in it,” __________ says. Average Sunday school attendance was 368. The church had 206 children from birth through the sixth grade and 184 youth.

Compare this with its current situation at the time,

On a typical Sunday last year, 85 gathered at __________ for worship. Seventy came to Sunday school. The church had 15 children from birth through the sixth grade and three youth.

The neighborhoods weren’t empty, people just moved and stopped commuting back to attend on Sundays.   For whatever reason, the church stopped reaching out to their local neighborhood (or any other neighborhood for that matter). So what was our ingenious solution to this dramatic shift?  We formed a cooperative urban parish whose purpose statement read,

The Oklahoma City Cooperative Urban Parish is composed of churches and organizations who have a common heritage in the Christian faith; are located in a common geographical area; share common commitment to effective ministry with persons in their congregations and the surrounding community. The members of the Parish covenant to identify resources, establish goals, and develop ministry strategies designed to achieve those goals. In no way does the Parish compromise the integrity of member institutions, but through cooperation strengthens the ministry of each

While I’m sure this doesn’t completely encompass their vision for these congregations, I can’t help but notice Jesus Christ is not mentioned anywhere here other than in their “common heritage in the Christian faith.”  In fact, the article said the goals of the urban parish could be summed up with our denomination’s campaign, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  I also can’t help but notice how uninspired this makes me.

It just so happens we’re approximately ten years removed from what the date of this article.  Yes, this means we can judge the effects of this particular approach to revitalizing a series of churches.  According to the most recent conference journal, this congregation averaged just over 60 people in worship during 2008.  That’s right, down 25 in worship from the time of the intervention.

While I was parked in front of this old building, I took a picture with my phone and sent it to a friend of mine who is beginning to more fully grasp and develop his understanding of God’s call on his life.  All I did was take a picture of the exterior, and send him a note with the word, “Calling” in the subject line.  His reply?  “This made me tear up, let’s do it!”

We have young women and men in our conference who have a deep-seated Spirit-filled longing to lead congregations like this to revitalized ministry for Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father.  We have young men and women who are tired of campaigns, sick of non-descript goals and efforts, and dying to be used by God to share the Gospel.   My 95 year old Grannie once called these “God-called preachers,” and I’m praying their tribe will increase and be invited to lead.  Let’s stop wasting time adding pages to the Book of Resolutions that no one will ever read, and begin to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Who knows what ten years of that might accomplish?

What are United Methodists Known For?

Craig Groeschel wrote this in a recent short blog post:

I’m thankful for the:

  • Social conscious of the United Methodists.
  • Emphasis on being born again from the Baptists.
  • Focus on holiness from the Nazarenes.
  • Power of the Holy Spirit in the Charismatics.
  • Evangelistic hearts of the seeker sensitive leaders.
  • Message of grace from the Lutherans.
  • Attention to right doctrine from the Bible Church leaders.
  • Heartfelt worship from Pentecostals.
  • …and much more more!

I’m thankful that God uses different Christian Churches as His light in a dark world!

What are some of the differences you’re thankful for?

Does anyone else think it’s strange that United Methodists only get props for social conscious (conscience/consciousness)?  It seems to me that at our best, Methodists should embody everything on this list.  After all, you can find every one of these themes in the writing and preaching of John Wesley.  

I know the spirit of this post was likely just sort of the general ecumenical, “I appreciate things from all denominations” sorta thing, but I really see it as a challenge.  Are we just the nice socially aware denomination, or can we recover a passionate concern for justification, holiness, the power of the Spirit, evangelistic desire, grace, rich orthodoxy, and passionate heartfelt worship?  I think this is a question worth asking.

Joe the Saint

You’ve heard about Joe the Plumber, now hear about Joe the Saint.  This is from a sermon I once preached and an old post here on the blog – just in time for All Saints Sunday!

There is a classic story about one of these saints told by Tony Campolo. There was a man named Joe who was addicted to alcohol. By God’s grace he was converted to the Christian faith at a mission in one of the worst parts of New York City. Before his conversion, Joe was known – at best – as a dirty hopeless wino with no future. Following his conversion, something profound happened. Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known. He spent his days and nights “happening by” the mission to do whatever needed to be done. There wasn’t a single task that was too lowly for Joe to take on. There was never anything he was asked to do that he considered to be ‘beneath him.’ If a bathroom needed to have vomit mopped up, Joe was the man. If a toilet needed scrubbing, Joe was the man. Joe did anything he was asked with a kind smile and gratitude for getting the chance to help. He could be counted on to feed those feeble men who wandered into the mission off the streets, and to carefully prepare those for bed who were simply too far gone to take care of themselves. One evening, the director of the mission held a worship service and spoke to the usual crowd of still and sullen men with drooped heads. One man looked up, came down to the altar, knelt to pray, and began to sob. “Oh God, I’m ready to change.” The repentant man kept shouting, “Oh God, make me like Joe! Make me like Joe, dear God! Make me like Joe; make me like Joe!” Finally the director of the mission came, and knelt down beside the man to pray, “Son…I think it might be better if you prayed, ‘Dear God, make me like Jesus.’” The man looked up with tears in his eyes and a puzzled expression on his face. He asked, “Is he anything like Joe?”

That’s what it means to be a saint. We need to be like Joe! When people are around a saint, they know it. Saints are those people who follow Jesus so closely that he starts to rub off. When you look at a saint, there is something joyful and worthwhile about them – they embrace the world with one hand and God with the other. They’re people worth imitating.

Hitting the Ground Running

I’m settling into my new position, but I’m also still learning something new everday.  Right I’ve taken over several of the major teaching duties that I’ll do each week.  For instance every Tuesday morning I am teaching through Romans.  It’s interesting because I took on this mid-stream, so I am starting with the men’s group in chapter 14, and the women’s group in chapter 10.  I’m spending quite a bit of time each week immersed in Romans getting prepared to teach these classes.

Another large chunk of my time is spent preparing to teach Sunday School classes.  However, I have yet to step foot in a classroom.  How, you might ask?   Each week I prepare a teaching vdeo and then meet with a group who gathers to study and discuss the scripture that corresponds with the Sunday morning sermon (right now we’re in Luke).  They then help me go deeper into the passage and prepare a series of questions to go along with the lesson.

One thing I’ve learned in all of this is how difficult it is to do high quality video teaching.  It looks so easy to see Rob Bell doing Nooma or when I’ve watched other folks doing video teaching, but in reality it’s ridiculously hard to look natural and deliver high quality content at the same time.  It also takes quite a bit of time to do this.  I’m definitely blessed to have tons of help from people who know far more about video and editing than I ever will, so that makes a difference.  However, I really think that this is a great means of being in several places at once to teach on a Sunday morning.  In fact, last week I printed off over 200 lessons for people using this curriculum.

There’s a lot going on with missions at our church too, but I’ll save that post for another time!

Minister of Discipleship

My official title is “Minister of Discipleship,” and when I share this with friends, family, and colleagues I am often asked, “So what do you do?”  I try to explain by saying I’m sort of like a teaching pastor crossed with a missions pastor.

As a staff, we are reading Len Sweet’s Aquachurch 2.0: Piloting Your Church in Today’s Fluid Culture. This morning, as I was reading, I came across an insight that helps me define my position.  Len reminded me, “…the very word disciple means “learner.”  In Greek, mathetes (which we translate as disciple) comes from mathano, which literally means “student” or “learner.”

In a sense then, I’m the Minister of “Learners.”  That means that I’m not only responsibile for sharing information or knowledge in the teaching aspect of my position, but for helping people integrate that into concrete acts of mission and love of neighbor.  In other words, I think the multiple aspects of my position will help me remember that true knowledge is not just a “head thing,” but a “whole life thing.”

Clear-Paned Missiology

At one of the congregations I serve, there are huge windows lining each side of the sanctuary. Without fail, every time we have guests come and speak from across the conference, they mention these windows. You see, they aren’t stained-glass. They are simply huge panes of clear glass, and they are indeed beautiful.

Out the north windows you can see the high school across the street, a small rental house, and a large wooded hill beyond. To the south, you can see the parsonage, several homes, and oftentimes people walking on the side street.

Apparently, in the past these windows were something like stained glass. They were thick, yellow, and had giant draperies hanging around them. However, when they were replaced the church bought the huge clear panes. Stained glass would have been nice, but it simply was too expensive. Little did they know, they were making a theological statement.

Far too many churches have a stained-glass missiology to go with their opulent stained glass windows. Rather than constantly looking out at the world beyond, people can only contemplate what’s on the inside. Today, in my sermon, I described the beatuy of those windows and the striking image they present of who we are called to be as a church. We gather together, worship faithfully, and listen to God’s call, ever mindful of the world outside the walls.

If we only care about what goes on inside, we’re like a sports team that only practices and never plays the game. We’re created to get in the game. We’re called to be formed in the faith and move to the other side of the glass, where we can live out the adventure of following God’s ongoing mission in the world.

Holy Serendipity!

I love the word serendipity and the concept of unexpectedly stumbling across something even though you weren’t really trying to find it.  Back when I worked in a research lab, I always said, “If we don’t leave our work benches messy, we don’t leave room for serendipity.  After all, we wouldn’t have penicillin if Alexander Fleming was more conscientious!”  Supposedly Fleming had a notoriously messy lab, and left some bacterial cultures out only to find the growth of the bacteria was inhibited by…you guessed it…Penicillium mold!  Others were skeptical of my logic.

I think this concept can apply to the Church too, even though we usually call it by more theologically sound words.  Preparing for Sunday, I was in a hurry to finish the worship service.  So, I just went through the hymnal and picked out several songs we haven’t sung in awhile.  None of them fit the message especially well, but hey at least they weren’t repeats!  We ended up singing, among other songs, “To God Be the Glory,” and “My Tribute.” No big deal, right?!

Lo and behold, holy serendipity! During our announcements and prayer requests at my first church service, a woman told the story of her daughter’s involvment in a car wreck that ended up as a huge pileup.  She and her family escaped unharmed.  The mother said her song all week had been, “To God be the Glory,” and she had planned on requesting it during the service.  Not only did that song proclaim God’s glory, but “My Tribute” also sings praise to the glory of God.  She couldn’t believe those were the songs for the day!  How cool is that?!

Smaller Committees and Life-Changing Discipleship

For some strange reason, I have been paying closer attention to some of the United Methodist megachurches. I just ran across this article on Emergent Village by Michael Slaughter. It’s an excerpt from the new edition of his book UnLearning Church.

Two things in this article stood out in my mind. First, some folks might assume big church = many meetings. Apparently this isn’t true at Ginghamsburg,

Older-mindset churches usually require a lot of committees and meetings. Ginghamsburg finds that its people have neither the time nor the patience for multiple committee activities, so we are down to one committee of nine people called the Leadership Board. No more staff-parish, missions, or finance committees. Major businesses operate with one board, but too often tiny churches become immobilized by layers of committees. They spend hours debating about what color carpeting to put in the church narthex, or about the precise wording of the congregation’s statement of beliefs.

Imagine a leadership board of nine people. There are congregations in United Methodism who average fifty people in worship and have 25 people serving on boards and committees. Imagine Ginghamsburg, who averages 4,000 in weekly attendance, with a Leadership Board of nine people. Interesting.

Another thing that stood out is his comment about “listen and learn” meetings,

Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning.

This is something that really interests me, and it may be something I try to explore more in my D.Min. project and dissertation. Are there alternative ways for people to find life meaning through the local church that we aren’t taking advantage of? I think Web 2.0 and its emphasis on participation, rather than simply receiving information, might be one of those ways. Have any of your churches developed participatory Advent or Lenten studies using some of the newer technology (Twitter, Blogging, etc.)?

I know some of my purist friends will think I’ve lost my mind, and they’re probably right. I simply think we’re going to have to get more creative in our approach to making disciples. It’s too important to ignore. As United Methodists, I believe we have a tradition and commitment to offering in-depth discipleship. I’m not saying we need to “jazz things up” to get people interested. I’m just saying we need to work our tails off to think of creative ways to encourage discipleship via the means people are comfortable with and excited about using.

As always, there will be the argument that this will leave a certain segment of our people behind. That’s the great thing about a world where we can embrace “both/and” thinking. We don’t have to quit doing traditional bible studies, devotionals, and the like. There will be a segment of people who will continue to be powerfully transformed in those environments. We simply need to be mindful of the people that those setups won’t reach or transform. It’s not choosing one or the other. It’s about doing both with excellence.