I Love the Church

In a lot of the conversations about church renewal and hope for turning around mainline denominations, I sense a longing for a church that people haven’t experienced. There is a vague dream of a better Church somewhere “out there,” and the subtle suggestion is that if we are just smart enough or creative enough, we will bring it into existence. People on one side of this conversation dream of the good old days (First Church Corinth or Laodicea perhaps?), and the people on the other side dream of the glorious future when the Church will finally align with their dreams and preferences.

In light of this, I want to celebrate the Church (and churches) I’ve experienced.  I prefer the messy, but beautiful, reality of church as I’ve known it to the theoretical churches of the future and the idealized churches of the past.

This isn’t a plea for a particular denomination. The church of my childhood, imperfect as it was, is Baptist, and the church of my adult life, imperfect as it is, is United Methodist. In both places and communities, I’ve seen people actively pursuing God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways that are inspiring and real, and I want to share with you some of what I’ve seen.

My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and had one of his lungs removed as part of his treatment. For the rest of his life, he was in and out of the hospital fighting off whatever infection attacked his remaining lung. During that season, I’ve seen pastors sit with our family for hours in the hospital. I’ve seen fellow church members help my mom feeding cattle and helping take care of their farm when she and my dad were away from home. And I’ve even seen a congregation move their worship service on a Sunday night to my parent’s house when my dad was too sick to attend.

I saw it in the senior minister in the first church my wife and I joined after getting married, a UMC. This pastor took time to meet with a group of young adults every Tuesday morning over donuts and coffee so that we could study scripture and ask tough questions, while at the same time he was looking for signs of God’s call in our lives. I saw it in the Associate pastors who led mission trips, taught Disciple Bible Study, and prayed for us when we attended spiritual renewal events like Walk to Emmaus. In that same congregation, I saw it in a dear friend and accountability partner giving up a lucrative career to enter full-time ministry.

Early on after I became a United Methodist pastor, my dad died. Coming out of his funeral, there were a handful of members from my first appointment who I will never forget, who took time out of their busy schedules to attend a service where they couldn’t even get into the tiny little church where we held the service. Those same members were willing to try anything I suggested (with one or two exceptions, and they ended up being right…) and launched into mission and ministry in ways that I think even surprised them at times.

I saw it in the other congregation I served during my first appointment spending their time with kids whose parents would rarely darken the doors of our building. They used their own resources to lead after-school programs and youth ministry events for young people who would never give anything back financially because they believed that knowing Christ was a gift worth giving at any cost.

I continue to see the beauty of God’s people pursuing Christ where I serve today. I see it in the small group I meet with every week who encouraged and prodded me until I read through the bible in a year for the first time in my life. I see it in their prayers and their friendship, even when I’m cranky and sarcastic. I see it in a congregation who gets fired up about feeding the poor and teaching and mentoring children who are struggling to learn to read. I see it in their  appetite for learning God’s word and seeing it take root in their lives. I see it in their willingness to invite people who don’t know Jesus to come and experience worship with them. I see it in elderly men and women who celebrate and pray for a new worship service that they will never attend because they want to know we’re trying our hardest to reach people who will connect with God in ways that are very different from them.

I see it in my colleagues and friends around the conference and across the denomination who encourage me, pray for me, and especially those who put up with countless texts and calls. These friends care about the people entrusted to their care (inside and outside the walls of their congregation) and want them to have a deep relationship with God through Christ more than anything in the world, even when it’s hard….even when it hurts. They, like me, know that we live and work in a system that isn’t perfect, but they have the ability to stop thinking about that long enough to work hard for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

Yes, I could tell you stories of times the Church or churches have let me and others down I could share moments of disappointment and even incredible frustration, but I could also keep going on and on sharing stories like those above. God is still at work in churches all around the world, and it is a thing of beauty and grace. Take a look and see.

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.

Why to Be a Methodist

My Master of Divinity, the advanced degree most often required for clergy these days, is from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. Since I graduated, the seminary has experienced several changes including hiring a new President, Dr. Timothy C. Tennent. I have been very impressed with Dr. Tennent’s tenure so far and have been following his blog closely.

His latest series of posts have helped explain why he is both a Methodist and an evagelical. This is such a good series of posts I wanted to compile them here on my blog for everyone who may wonder what makes us distinctly Methodist in the mix of denominations in the world.

 

 

Methodist Discipleship

My friend Kevin Watson has a great series starting over at his blog, Deeply Committed.  He’s looking at one of the tools John Wesley used to spark revival and renewal in the Church, the Methodist Class Meeting.

You won’t want to miss his insights, which he puts in accessible yet informative language – typical Watsonian style (I wanted to be the first to use that one before the academics beat me to it!). Go check it out:

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.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 6)

Today we reach the final chapter in Dr. Scott Kisker’s book, Mainline or Methodist.  Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with this series.  In the final chapter, Kisker admits that he is a historian and not someone who easily makes suggestions about directions to take in the future.  However, as a committed United Methodist, he uses this chapter to propose several ways forward.

More than anything, he hopes to recover Methodism within United Methodism.  While this may seem like a strange comment to people outside of the UMC, Kisker reminds us of something very important.

Methodism was always most church (defined, as Wesley did, as “a company of faithful” people) when it was a movement…Methodists became more “churchy,” and we gradually ceased to be “one” through schisms, we ceased to be “holy” through lax discipline and compromise, we ceased to be “catholic” through denominational prejudice, and we ceased to be “apostolic” (that is, a “sent people”) through sloth.

Kisker imagines that Methodism might be recovered by once again becoming a movement rather than a church, and could mean that someone could be Methodist (in discipline and practice) as part of any denomination whatsoever.  More than that, this suggests being United Methodist doesn’t necessarily make you a Methodist!  He goes on to say that this movement toward recovering Methodism could begin with groups of individuals starting class meetings on their own, or even having Sunday school classes reframe their purpose in ways that modeled the class meeting.  This kind of small group life would involve asking seriously, “How does your soul prosper,” or in today’s language, “How are you doing spiritually?”  No vague comment about spirituality will suffice to grow as disciples.  We need to regain the practice of reporting to fellow Christians how we are doing in the traditional means of grace: prayer, scripture reading, study, etc.

This means that we would have to take the character of our tradition seriously.  Kisker even suggests that our official vision statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is too vague.  Although it is certainly Christian, it doesn’t really suggest who we are.  He proposes returning to Wesley’s call, “to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.”  Imagine that!

We United Methodists have been playing church for a long time without being a Christian society.  We have [as Wesley feared] been “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” (1 Timothy 3:5, KJV)

To quit playing church and begin being the church, we need a renewed commitment to salvation,

A renewed commitment to holiness necessitates a renewed commitment to salvation, since holiness is the purpose of salvation.

After many other helpful suggestions and dreams, Kisker closes with helpful words,

Methodism began as a means of grace and a system of accountability.  It was an order within the larger church for the renewal of the Church.  If we are to recover that usefulness to the kingdom of God in the world, we need what we once had: a missional focus, clear simple rules, and a clear simple and flexible structure.

Can this be done within the United Methodist Church?  I personally think it can.  However, we will need strength and resolve to continue spreading scriptural holiness over the land, because this vision isn’t shared by everyone.  And like other phrases, “scriptural holiness” can be shaped and defined by whoever is using it.  My prayer is that we will continue to move closer in line with the work of God’s Holy Spirit and capture the passionate desire for salvation that the early Methodists had.  Then, we will see true renewal and revitalization.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 5)

In chapter 5, Kisker turns his attention to conferencing in the Methodist tradition.  His description of the way annual and general conferences function is not much different than my experience with them over the past five years.  We meet as an Annual Conference every year.  We ordain a new group of Deacons and Elders, we honor those who cease active service, we remember those who have died in the previous year.  We also get to spend time in worship and in reviewing legislation that comes from various committees across the conference.  Additionally we get to reconnect with sisters and brothers in Christ that we haven’t seen much in the prior year.

Kisker believes the majority of United Methodists would be surprised that none of these activities are the reason conferencing was established within Methodism by John Wesley.  That, instead, grew out of Wesley’s oversight of the Methodist movement.  It is describes beautifully here,

In 1738, a high church Anglican, Oxford academic met Jesus for real and began acting very contrary to character.  He lowered himself to preach outside of a church and to focus his attentions not on the promising young men in the university, but on the working class men and women struggling along in early industrial England.

As a result, Wesley incorporated lay leadership and lay preaching in the leadership of the early Methodist groups.  The first conference, then, was designed to gather the spiritual leaders of these Methodist groups, those in particular who were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to think, talk, and pray together as they sought God’s direction.  All of their questions reflected these general questions,

  1. What to teach;
  2. How to teach;
  3. What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice

The early Methodists didn’t gather to discuss legislation that made little difference in the lives of the people they served.  Instead of meeting and using the same tactics and practices as congress, we are called to confer for only one reason,

We confer for one reason and one reason only.  Because we are called to play a part in a movement of God’s Spirit.  And that movement is big…United Methodism matters only if it is connected to, a part of, that movement.  If not, it is worthless, and might as well cease to exist.  To make sure we are continuing to be part of that movement requires discernment.  And discerning the Spirit of God requires a seeking community.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kisker’s read on the situation at this point.  Not only our churches, but any of our institutions cease to matter if they are disconnected from the movement of God’s Spirit.

After  a discussion of the steps it would take to truly conference in our world today, Kisker closes with a segment that provides hope for what could be,

It might amaze people to find out that at one time conference was a place of expectation – where revival might break out – where people might get converted to God…Conference was a place where ordinary people might find something extraordinary to pledge their lives to – a movement of God’s Spirit sweeping this world…  Many a newcomer gets converted at annual conference, but I fear it is generally not to Jesus.

I actually think this (conversion) could happen at our annual conference, if only based on the strength of our Bishop’s preaching.  He effectively offers the gospel in ways that call people to repentance and conversion.  I can picture women and men giving their lives to the extraordinary call of Christ in response to the worship that we sometimes encounter at conference – if you were at last year’s ordination service, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

However, I also sense the frustration that Kisker describes.  Sometimes we spend thirty minutes to an hour working on a piece of legislation that is basically passing a proclamation about something or another that apparently goes in a file that never impacts anything.  I still remember a piece of legislation that proposed the highest paid employee of a church couldn’t make more than a certain percentage more than the lowest paid employee.  It was poorly thought out and didn’t factor in a consideration of rural churches whatsoever, but we spent forever talking about this inane piece of legislation.  That’s the kind of thing conference can devolve into.

All in all, I think Kisker’s hope for conferencing probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and it is probably the weakest chapter in an excellent book.  In the next (and final!) installment, we’ll look at his thoughts for a way forward.