Mainline or Methodist (Part 1)

For Christmas I received a copy of Dr. Scott Kisker’s book, Mainline or Methodist: Recovering our Evangelistic Mission.  After a quick read through, I saw that it was worth a second, more thorough read.  I also decided it would be a worthwhile way to start the new year here on the blog. Rather than giving a long review of the book as a whole, I thought I’d work through each chapter and share some of the ideas that really made me think.

First, Kisker acknowledges the systematic “sickness” of United Methodism, even though he refuses to make the numerical decline since 1960 his primary concern.  In Kisker’s argument, United Methodism’s problems started long before the decline beginning in the 60s.  He suggests, “the decline of Methodism began decades before the denomination experienced any numerical losses.”

For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our “mainline” identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health.  When we became “mainline,” we stopped actually being Methodist in all but name.  Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions also known as “mainline.”

“Mainline” means little to nothing.  Kisker uses the example of both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush belonging to the UMC as evidence that, “United Methodism has become simply a reflection of the middle and upper middle class world around it,” instead of the amazing movement of God captured when the Wesley brothers were, “an embarrassment to the Anglican communion and mainline society.”

This is easily seen in the 19-20th century practice of Methodists hoping to influence society,

We even began to assume we deserved to determine the shape of American society, not through conversion, a process of repentance and new birth, but through the political process and our own lobby, located in a fine white building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

Kisker then describes the movement we see in John Wesley’s life from respectable member of the Academy and elite Anglicanism to tireless evangelist to the common people.  This is epitomized by Wesley’s field preaching, taking the gospel outside of his comfort zone into the industrial working class quarters of society.  Wesley previously shared an aversion to this new model for sharing the gospel,

“I left London and in the evening expounded to a small company at Basingstoke, Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

Four days later, John Wesley began sharing the message of Christ in the same way,

At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.

Instead of following Wesley’s lead, Kisker suggests we may well resemble more the Anglicans Wesley hoped to revive than our own Methodist founder,

We are educated well beyond the majority in our society.  We pay our clergy, as distinctly mainline, beyond the majority in our society.  If we are to recover Methodism, freed from its addiction to the American mainstream, it will require the kind of  conversion Wesley experienced that day in Bristol…For such a recovery, we must humble ourselves before almighty God, trust in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and expect a blessing through a miraculous anointing by the Holy Spirit.

Over the next few posts, I’ll look at Kisker’s suggestions about the way forward.

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?

Core Values & Mission

While the United Methodist Church has agreed on its mission, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we have yet to have a common agreement on what this means!  Words like “disciple” and “transformation” are fairly nebulous and vague when you don’t have a common culture throughout your organization. Maybe this is just the nature of having a statement that is supposed to fit a global organization. Perhaps the best place to truly have mission and vision statements are on the local level.  

In my mind, the best vision statements provide focus.  They set the scope of your mission.  In a way, they function like fences around a daycare playground.  The fence keeps the kids in one general area, but within that area they have the freedom to play and do what kids do.  Core values then, are like the behaviors we expect from the kids: play nice, share, etc.  

So, a congregation and its leadership functions best when focused by a clear vision and guided by core values that can be embodied across the board.  One of the places that understands core values better than anyone is Zappos, the online shoe specialist.  Their core values are clearly and concisely articulated both in their culture and in their employees imagination.  They are focused – THE online shoe store – and they understand the behaviors they embody in carrying out that mission.

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace & Drive Change
  3. Create Fun & a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth & Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

In my two interactions with Zappos, they deliver.  While I was serving in a rural area of Oklahoma, I needed some brown dress shoes.  Wearing size 14s, it becomes pretty hard to find exactly what you want and get them quickly.  A friend told me about Zappos, so I took a chance.  I needed them in a few days, and figured it would be cool if they could get them there in a couple of days, but if not I wasn’t going to have a real problem.  I ordered them on Monday, and they were sitting on my porch Tuesday afternoon.  Magic.  WOW.  I told everyone.  They knocked core value #1 out of the park, and I’ve told the story several times.  Mission accomplished on their part.

What are the core values in your church?  What are the values you communicate in evereything you do from greeting guests on Sunday morning to cleaning up after wedding receptions?  Do you know?  When people leave your church on Sunday, do guests say, “WOW, I felt like an honored guest,” or do they say, “Wow…they acted surprised I was even there”?  Do the people on your leadership team understand the values they’re called to embody in everything from answering the phone to sending out emails?  If not, it may be time to give it some thought.

Making Disciples: Assembly Line or Environmentalist

As United Methodists we’re given the task of Making Disciples of Jesus Christ.  Much has been said about this statement, but in my reading I haven’t seen much made of the word “making.”

Today, I was part of a terrific conversation regarding discipleship within our local congregation, and I realized something.  The word “making” assumes more of an assembly line mentality than the way I think disciples actually develop.  Much has been made of the REVEAL survey at Willow Creek and the findings that participation in a series of programs often fails to bring profound Christian transformation in people’s lives.  In my mind, this is clear evidence against the assembly line model.  And yet, it seems that even congregations who are influenced by the REVEAL survey refuse to move away from programattic approaches and simply switch to different or better programs.

And yet disciples develop in Churches around the world.  As we spoke today, I remembered some of the deepest times of growth as a disciple in my own life.  Although I did participate in programs (Walk to Emmaus, Disciple Bible Study, Mission Trips), there was never a sense of working through an assembly line process.  It was much more organic. This led me to suggest that our role as pastors is more like that of an environmentalist or a landscape artist.  We are responsible for making sure there is an environment (or landscape) within our congregations in which disciples can develop organically.  Notice, I didn’t say “naturally.”  I think discipleship requires a lot of input and effort.  It doesn’t happen accidentally.

Like most of my blog posts, I’m still wrestling with an idea.  Is organic discipleship  is an adequate model?  One can definitely argue that “making” disciples is adequate.  A person could easily say that Jesus himself uses this language in Matthew 28:19, however in the original Greek we could just as easily translate matheteuo as follows, “As you are going, ‘disciple the nations,'”  The process-oriented word “make” really isn’t there.  On the other hand, this is a two-fold activity for Jesus: baptizing and teaching.  However, this is overseen and empowered by Jesus himself who says, “I am with you always…” This makes me think more of apprenticeships within a community – again a more organic model.

So, what is our role in helping people experience transformation as Jesus’ apprentices?  How do we aid people in development as disciples?  Are we charged to “make” disciples, or is our task one of creating an environment in which discipleship can flourish?  What does that look like?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Amazing Ash Wednesday

Tonight was special.  Not only did I get to think about my mortality on my birthday, incredibly appropriate as that might be, I was able lead worship with an incredible group of Christ-followers, and I saw scripture come alive.  We worshiped together tonight – hundreds of children, youth, college students, and adults – and it was incredible.

Our text for the evening was from the lectionary: Joel 2:12-17,

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;  gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.  Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

As we assembled in our more contemporary worship center, it was the most raucous Ash Wednesday service I’ve ever been a part of.  Little girls were dancing in the aisles as we sang.  Kids were literally cheering the images Jeremy shared – images of the bread and cup, and images of the cross!  And somehow it was a beautiful picture of what it must have been like in the solemn fast that the leaders of God’s people called so long ago – the aged, children, and even infants gathered to consider their lives.  Even then, responding to God’s call to repentance, the children must have giggled in the crowds.

There was an incredible beauty in being able to tell tonight’s assembly that their lives wouldn’t last forever, and then to be able to share the paradoxically good news of the cross.  God is incredible, and even as we enter this season of discipline and examination in preparation for Easter, the joy of Christ was present.   Tonight we gathered the people, we called for a Lenten fast, and the Lord indeed left a blessing behind.

Servant Walk Curriculum

Several folks have been asking me about the Servant Walk curriculum, so I thought I’d post one of the handouts we use each Sunday.  This link (OK, I’m working to fix this) should take you to a Google Doc version of the PDF that I send to each of our teacher/facilitators. OK, so Google Docs doesn’t support sharing PDFs yet, so I’m going to try to post pictures of the PDF at the end of this post. We also print out the curriculum for each of the classrooms.

Right now, we’re going through Bill Hybels’ “Just Walk Across the Room” as a congregation, so you will see references to his book here.

FYI – we have already shared this with a congregation in the Northwest Texas conference, and I dream about ways to make it avaliable, if they find it useful, with smaller congregations in other UM Churches.


Top Ten Differences – Small Town to Megachurch

Sometimes people ask me, “So Matt, what’s it like serving in a Church that is 5.85 times bigger than the town you grew up in?”  OK, maybe no one else actually took the time to divide the membership of the church where I serve (7086) by the population of my hometown (1211 in the year 2000), but I like to be accurate.  I guess that’s a leftover from my research days.

So, without further delay, I thought I’d give you the top ten differences between serving in a Megachurch vs. serving in a smaller two-point charge (total combined membership around 180).  These are in no particular order.

  1. I no longer can tell the difference between visitors, members, and long-time regulars by looking at the crowd on Sunday morning.  In fact, I see completely new people every single Sunday and most days of the week.
  2. I used to preach all the time and teach occasionally.  Now, I teach all the time and preach occasionally.
  3. Believe it or not, I now work with a much smaller budget!  Before, I was involved in the finance committee, administrative council, etc. for two congregations.  That meant I was in some way directly responsible for every dollar of the congregation.  Now, I’m responsible in a direct way only for my departmental budget (roughly 7 percent of what I oversaw before).  Of course, I do think that I’m responsible for the larger budget as I teach the meaning of giving and discipleship, but let’s not get too technical here!
  4. Within that vein, I no longer handle any charge conference forms or end of the year reports.   Before, I handled (either directly or indirectly) the reports and charge conference for two congregations.
  5. One of the great benefits of my new setting is working with a staff.  In our case, that means working with an incredible staff, and I would write that even if I knew none of them would read this. 🙂
  6. In the rural/small town church you find yourself much more connected with pastors of other UM congregations.  I do miss the fellowship that took place when I saw the other pastors of my former district at district events.  I had heard about this before, and it seems to be true.
  7. I now own a home, even though this still hasn’t sunk into my mind.  My wife and I have either rented or lived in a parsonage for the first nine years of our marriage, so we still sometimes say, “oh my goodness, we own this place!”
  8. In the rural/small town church, you’re never really off work unless you’re out of town.  Here, when I’m at home, for the most part I’m at home and not working (at least not in the sense of being on the phone or running back and forth across the street to the church building).  It is a little different doing all of the pastoral care for two congregations and then being on a staff with a full time department of pastoral care.
  9. Before, I saw someone from church nearly every single time I went to the store or post office.  Now, believe it or not, our congregation is large enough this still happens quite frequently.  However, sometimes they know me and I have no idea who they are!  Again, this is different!
  10. Finally, I want to end with a similarity.  In both places,  I have been incredibly impressed with the genuine faith, love of God, and passionate conviction within the people who worship in the congregations I serve.

I wondered if I could get to ten when I started this post, and I realize now that I could have probably written at least 25!  So, consider this the first ten things that popped in my mind.

Thanks to John Meunier, who suggested he’d be interested in reading something like this when we were chatting on Facebook the other day.

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.

YouTube Experiment

Kevin Watson at has started an experiment to see how much social capital Methodist bloggers have. This experiment was prompted by the feeling among some Methodist bloggers that United Methodism does not always do as good of a job as it could at getting the Wesleyan message out there, particularly on-line. So, he wants to see how many views a YouTube video can get if Methodist bloggers work together to promote it. The experiment is to see how many hits the video will receive in two weeks.

If you want to participate you can: First, watch the video below. Second, copy and paste this entire post into a new post on your blog and post it. Third, remind people about this experiment in one week.

Based on the results of the experiment, Kevin will get in touch with the folks at Discipleship Resources and let them know the ways in which Methodist bloggers are often an underused resource.

Here is a link to the video: