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.

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

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.



Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson

I just finished reading Rumors of God by Darren Whitehead (Willow Creek) and Jon Tyson (Trinity Grace Church: NYC). More than anything else, this is Whitehead and Tyson’s attempt at describing what the Christian life looks like in 2011. They cover a range of topics including: abundant life, God’s dream for humanity, generosity, love, grace, freedom, commitment, community, justice, and hope.

For me, the strength of the book comes in two areas.  FIrst, they do an excellent job of describing our modern context. For instance:

Ironically, the culture grows increasingly more “spiritual” while the church grows increasingly more practical.

In another passage they guess the dreams of many modern Americans,

You would like to have more money – financial stability. A comfortable living environment would be nice, perhaps a newer car. You’d have a progressing career, be respected in your field. You’d like to have emotionally healthy friends, who are energetic, encouraging, spontaneous, and fun. Maybe you’d wish to change something about your appearance – lose a few pounds, be taller, more athletic. If you’re single, you might desire to find a life partner, someone supportive, kind, and attractive (not just on the inside. Maybe you want to have kids. Or maybe you already have kids, and you want them to be well-educated, high-functioning, successful, well-mannered children who do better in school than your friends’ kids.

They then helpfully compare this with God’s dream for our lives.

The second thing they do very well is tell stories of grace and transformation from their communities. In several places they describe people whose lives have been utterly reshaped by the Gospel.

Overall, the book is well-written and clearly communicates their central concept that the Christian faith is remarkable and thriving even in a world where people are more skeptical than ever about the Christian faith. I’d recommend this book most to people who are trying to teach the gospel to a modern audience in ways that are engaging and simple.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thoughts from a Social-Media Free Lent

During Lent, I observed a fast from two of the most popular forms of social-media, Twitter and Facebook.  My Twitter feed did post an occasional automated update from my blog, but other than that I didn’t use either site throughout Lent. To make it easier on myself, I deleted each of those apps off of my iPhone and removed them from my bookmark tabs on my web browser.

I promised to share a few observations about what I noticed during this social-media free Lent, so here are a few notes I jotted down as they occurred to me during Lent and some of my quick thoughts on each of them:

  1. I read more. As many of you have probably experienced, social-media can be a big time waster. When I had free time, I’d often take a few minutes to check Facebook and Twitter, and those few minutes would turn into thirty very quickly. In the past, I spent a lot more of those moments reading whatever book was lying around. During Lent, I found myself reading a lot more, which is something I really enjoy.
  2. I found my way back to blogging. One of the strangest things about social-media is the way it reshapes the way you think. During the time I’ve used Twitter, I’ve blogged far less. Over the course of this fast, I have had more extended thoughts and even waded back into the blogging world. I think Twitter probably forces you to atomize your thinking into bite-sized pieces. While this might force you to be more clear, concise and precise, it does not encourage longer and deeper development of ideas. 
  3. It changed the way I communicated with my family and friends. My wife (who is not on Twitter or Facebook) really appreciated my fast. She told me she enjoyed knowing things before the rest of the world did. There were times she would run into people who knew things about me before she did. She said she really enjoyed being the first to know stuff and running into people who had no idea what I had been doing by reading my Twitter and Facebook updates. I’ve noticed it has been rewarding to share my “interesting thoughts” with my family before I share them with the world. This was pretty eye-opening for me and will change the way I use these tools in the future. I think I allowed social-media to be a substitute for good communication in other relationships too. During the fast, I texted and spoke to friends and colleagues far more than I had been doing. That has been refreshing and good for me.
  4. Less public whining – my fast caused me to whine less. It’s as simple as that. During Spring Break, I took some vacation time, and my kids were sick for several days. Had I been on Facebook and Twitter, I know I’d have posted things like, “great vacation, except for the kids being sick every day…” For whatever reason, we’re quicker to whine via social-media than we are in real life. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve also noticed that I’ve had a higher opinion of others who I’m close to that use social-media as a place to vent in their lives. I’m not saying we have to only post positive things, but we have to be careful or we can craft a persona online that doesn’t capture the complexities of who we are as people.  For example: there are people I feel a little closer to because I don’t follow their posts and updates. Maybe that says more about me, but I think I appreciate them more as people and not as the caricature they present online (intentionally or accidentally).
  5. I need to think more before I Tweet – being off of social-media reminded me of the importance of a “cooling off” period for a variety of situations. It’s easy to post something you find funny in the moment that you regret saying later on. Other times, people (myself included at times) will post something cryptic in the heat of the moment of disappointment or frustration that they then regret later on. This fast has reminded me of the importance that our words have and will help me be slower with my Tweeting “trigger finger.”

Altogether, I found more time to do things I enjoy and noticed some of the unique temptations that social-media has to offer. My Lenten fast was a good discipline and taught me some important lessons. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.  Also, if you fasted from social-media over Lent, I’d love to hear what you learned in the comment section.

The Value of Tradition

I was fortunate to get a Kindle back in February for my birthday, and I have really loved it. One of the unexpected surprises with this new gadget has been the opportunity to read some of the great classics that I’ve never read. The big one I’m working through right now is Moby Dick, which I started right after Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

I’ve always believed that creativity is aided by reading apparently disconnected works and seeing the things that tie them together.  That’s what I always loved about taking several different classes simultaneously during seminary. Unexpected connections are often the place where we find true inspiration and creativity.

In reading these two books, I came across two quotes that I really appreciate that offer a unique perspective on the value of tradition. The first is one that I have heard before,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.  Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton

The next is one I hadn’t heard,

Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

These two quotes were important reminders to me that we lose an important voice when we forget or ignore the wisdom of those who have gone on before us.

Marks of Discipleship and Effectiveness

I’ve been really fascinated with a conversation happening between Kevin Watson and John Meunier regarding measuring effectiveness in ministry.  Here are the basic premises for the discussion:

  1. Numerical growth is one way to measure effectiveness and faithfulness.
  2. Faithfulness and effectiveness do not always result in numerical growth.
  3. Drawing a crowd is not the same thing as gathering a congregation.
  4. Sometimes we can substitute winning praise and approval for faithfulness.
  5. Therefore, how do you measure faithful ministry?

Kevin suggests the means of grace (prayer, searching the scriptures, communion, fasting, and Christian conferencing/community) as a key to discerning whether or not a ministry is both faithful and effective.

On one hand, I totally agree with Kevin.  Living the faith is central to my life as a minister.  If I am not searching the scriptures daily, meeting weekly with my small group, praying faithfully, etc. then I am not the person I am called to be.  When I fail to do these things, I notice more frustration and confusion about the core commitments I have as a Christian and a minister.  These practices allow me to know the difference between faithfulness and going through the motions.

However, I think he’s even closer to answering the original question when he mentions trying to be more concrete about what faithful fruit looks like.

Here at Church of the Servant, we have recently started sharing the results of our vision work with the congregation.  Included in that work we have a series of “marks of discipleship” that are intended to help us discern whether we’re helping people down the road of discipleship or not.  We’re not interested in simply “drawing a crowd.”  We want people to actually become disciples.

Here are those marks, which are prefaced with the phrase, “A Servant:”

  • worships weekly
  • prays daily
  • gives faithfully
  • loves God’s word
  • embodies God’s love through service
  • grows through small group relationships
  • shares their faith with others

Of course we’re careful with how we teach and share this.  These are not the way to establish a relationship with God.  That only happens by accepting the grace of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, these are several of the places God has promised to show up and meet his people.  These are faithful ways to respond to and grow in God’s grace.

Over time, we will use these marks to determine whether or not we are succeeding at the call God has placed on our lives as a community of faith.  It’s one thing to just have more people.  It’s another thing altogether to have more and more people falling in love with God’s word, connecting in deeper spiritual relationships, and embodying God’s love through service.  While it’s a challenge to measure these things, we can actually count the number of people who are using the resources we provide (bible reading plans, small group involvement, missional participation, etc.) to make educated guesses that they are meeting God in these means of grace.

We’re convinced that can lead to both effective and faithful ministry.