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.

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.

Post-Ordination Post

Last Wednesday night’s ordination service was an event I’ll always remember, even though I think I’ll spend a lot more time processing exactly what happened there. Fortunately, I can go online and watch the service if I forget anything!

On Sunday, I wore my stole for the first time. It felt good after having held off for three years during my probationary (yes, yes provisional) period to wear it. I know that everyone feels differently about this, but for me it was a tangible sign of my new identity as an Elder in Full Connection. Strangely enough, I do feel a little different after the whole experience of ordination, even though I can’t quite explain it.

Other than my ordination, Annual Conference was pretty typical this year: hours of reports and lots of coffee with friends. The only other new experience was seeing the beginning of a new quadrennium. There was a little bit of political intrigue as the Board of Ordained Ministry is electing a new Chair person. As for me, I serve on two different committees. I’ve been on the Mission and Service Ministry Team since 2006, and now I’ll be serving as Vice-Chair of that committee. I’m also on the Young Adult Council, most likely because I’m 31.

It feels strange not to think about anything related to preparing for ordination. After all, this has been an important focus for nearly eight years of my life. However, now I’ll be shifting to focus more on my D.Min. I’ll be flying out to Madison, NJ in a couple of weeks to begin the on-campus portion of the degree. I’ll be taking a methods course, an exegesis course on Job, and a course on prophetic leadership. I’m looking forward to the extended time for study, but I’m not looking forward to being away from my wife and kids.

Well, I think that’s it for now. I’ve been reading a terrific book I read at AC called Evangelism after Christendom by Bryan Stone, and his discussion of evangelism as a MacIntyrian “practice,” has me really giving some thought to our conference’s new “strategic plan.” It seems to me that the distinction between goods internal and external to a practice could really help us think more clearly about what we’re doing and why. Maybe I’ll throw a post up on that in a couple of days. Until then, grace & peace!

Appointment Watch ’08

It’s that time of year again. Earnest hobbyists across the denomination have their highlighters and conference journals mapping the annual migration of the United Methodist Elder. Ahh, the sweet smell of spring, U-hauls, and the itinerancy.

After three years of watching this annual migration, I’ve decided it’s a good idea to announce the appointments as soon as they are set. With a quick Google search, I’ve found several conferences who are doing this very thing: Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. I’m sure there are several others, but I didn’t take the time to look them up.

Even though I’m curious about the reasons these conferences made the move to public announcements prior to Annual Conference, I still think this is a good idea.

This kind of openness in the process can’t help but limit some of the speculation that goes on. It also seems that lay people might want to have access to this information in order to keep track of clergy who’ve served their congregation or even those who answered the call from within their congregation. Finally, most of this stuff ends up making the rounds anyway. It seems that making it public as soon as it’s announced to the churches is just the next logical step.

Any potential problems with doing this?

Proof that I Was at General Conference

On the way back into General Conference after lunch one day, a lady approached me and asked, “Would you like to receive a blessing?” I was a little taken aback, but I said, “Sure!” She reached up and made the sign of a cross on my head and spoke a short word of blessing. I walked on in the Conference Center.

Strangely enough, I got a message from my buddy Robert today saying, “Check out this picture; I think it’s you!” Sure enough, that’s me getting anointed at General Conference.

GC Anointing

After getting back from GC, I’ve been doing some thinking about what I saw and experienced there. Fortunately, I was too busy today catching fish with my kids to write any long-winded posts.