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    Entries in United Methodist Church (3)


    Believe, Assume, Deny: The Progression of Losing the Gospel's Centrality

    Though I'm a little late to comment on this entry, Justin Taylor has featured a brief treatment on the rapid loss, decline, and eventual death that takes place in the lives of even once thriving congregations, warning that the same can happen to any thriving church of our day.  Of note, I believe, is his citation of Don Carson, who has written:

    In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague . . . Dr. Paul Hiebert . . . . springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless.

    One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments.

    The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments.

    The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything.

    Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.

    . . . What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? . . . Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, home schooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and countries have a full agenda of urgent, peripheral demands. Not for a moment am I suggesting we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?

    The question with which Carson concludes is crucial: "In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?"  It is true that there are many other matters, doctrinal and otherwise, that can consume our time and attention as we conduct our ministries.  But we must always return to the heart--the undeniable core of the faith--that being, the announcement of the forgiveness of sin through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inbreaking reality of the reign of God, and the future hope of eternity with God.  It has been my observation that the denomination of which I am currently part, The United Methodist Church, is unclear on even this.  More attention is given to methodologies or techniques for church growth, or advocacy on the part of this or that social cause.  Perhaps this is only reflective of my region, or of the websites and blogs that I frequent.  But I fear that United Methodists are unclear on the gospel, both what it is, and how to articulate it.


    5 Years of Service :: Institute 2010 :: God's All Stars

    Keep reading, or perish.

    Not really.  But if you want to know what this picture is about, keep reading.

    My friend Andrew Conard is reflecting on his week at Institute, a camp for youth sponsored by the Kansas East Conference Council on Youth Ministry (UMC), held for the past 99 years at Baker University (see one, two, three, with more to come).  I've been part of this camp for five years.  And this go round, I stepped in to the role of Spiritual Life Coordinator, taking on the responsibilities that come with planning and executing our twice daily worship gatherings.  I had a great deal of help from Michael Hibit, "Music Guy" at FirstLight in Gardner.  Overall, as far as it went with me, I thought we had a great week.

    Institute is, in truth, an oddity.  The camp pulls from United Methodist Churches throughout our region.  In the five years I've been a leader, we've had anywhere from about 60 to 110 in residence at the camp, including our adult leadership.  There are traditions that are carried forward every year.  There is insider lingo.  There is a strong emphasis on the past.  "Newbies" are welcomed as just that, "newbies."  But everyone is in.  Everyone is welcome.  And by the end of the week, there is a sense that we belong to one another.

    This year, our theme was "God's All Stars."  Graphically, the theme worked.  Thematically, each day was a bit isolated, but the theological current of each unit was important and helpful.  The thrust of our worship flowed from God's calling of each person to camp, God's action in the lives on the unexpected and the outsider, the identity of God's people as "boundary crossers" (rooted in our belief that our God crossed a boundary for us by taking on flesh), our unity in the call to one table, the journey of discipleship as a people faithful and obedient, and, finally, our corporate calling to be sent in to the world as heralds of good news.

    I enjoyed preaching each day.  I had the opportunity to tell the story of Esther, Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the Last Supper (Matthew 26), the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), and the Great Commission (Matthew 28).  Each message was a challenge, but I felt that the students connected well overall.

    In addition to our time of worship, the rhythm of camp is dictated by time in small groups, called "Care Groups."  These groups meet together for fun, discussion, and spiritual formation.  A number of our evening events, called "Community Happenings," are also meant to foster a deeper connection amongst those in the Care Group.  Our Community Happenings this summer were "The Amazing Race," "Shoe Olympics," "Sole Man! (Themed Dance)," "Bible Skit Night + Talent/No Talent Show," and "Afterglow."  On Tuesday night we faced a strong thunderstorm in Baldwin City, causing us to move the Shoe Olympics indoors, and to hold the latter half of our evening worship gathering in the dark at Baldwin First.  Everyone adapted well.

    Each year that I serve at Institute I continue to be amazed at how God is at work at the camp, even when administratively details have been overlooked, new adult staff are attempting to recover from a sense of disorientation, and an amalgam of teens are thrown together who otherwise might not connect.  I've been so privileged to connect with select student leaders in the Conference.  I've been humbled to have a number of those students listen to me, take me quite seriously, and join me on the path of discipleship as together we follow after Jesus.  I've made some great friends, served with some great leaders, and have witnessed the changing of lives.

    If you're still wondering what that photo is above, that is my friend Reid as Abraham, preparing wood for the pyre before ascending Mt. Moriah, with his son, Isaac.

    As I look back on this year, I'm still convinced that we could improve in preparing leaders to lead the camp, we could take a step back and evaluate just what it is that everyone takes for granted everyone knows, discover ways we could make camp a more welcoming environment for "newbies," and articulate a vision that has the leadership looking forward at what Institute can be, rather than investing the majority of our energies preserving and dwelling upon what Institute has been.  But even in spite of some of the limitations, there are great strengths to the ministry that has taken place there.  No doubt.


    Deep Church, Part 2 :: Evangelism

    This post continues a series I kicked off yesterday on Jim Belcher's Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.  As I have stated, I think Deep Church is an important book.  Scot McKnight has called it one of the best books chronicling the emerging movement, of which there are few.  As an additional surprise, among the books endorsers are both Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell, two contemporary Christian leaders speaking from very different corners.  The book engages with other important voices making waves within North American (and wider) sectors of Christianity, including Brian McLaren, DA Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball.  For many of you these are familiar names with just enough diversity to pique interest.

    This diversity of voices should reveal that Belcher is sincerely listening.  He is taking a variety of voices seriously, considering himself an insider and an outsider in both traditional and emerging camps.  He sees the "emerging" leaders protesting against the following: (1) the traditional church's captivity to Enlightenment rationalism, (2) narrow view of salvation (how you become saved, not the life one lives as a Christian), (3) belief before belonging, (4) uncontextualized worship, (5) ineffective preaching, (6) weak ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and (7) tribalism.  Keep in mind that the answers provided by emerging churches vary greatly.  Belcher classifies these different emerging groups as: (1) Relevants (theologically conservative, updating worship styles, leadership, etc.), (2) Reconstructionists (more orthodox, but rethinking church form and structure), and (3) Revisionists (question key doctrines and offer alternatives to accepted dogma).

    Hopefully introducing these categories helps to provide a little bit of context.  Belcher's survey of the emerging and traditional landscape is helpful, as is his treatment of "Mere Christianity," obviously a takeaway from C.S. Lewis, but more fully understood through Thomas Oden's The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity.  Belcher finds the heart of Christianity within the creeds (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian) and establishes a common ground for unity therein, a move which has its critics.

    Now, I'll discuss Belcher's discussion of evangelism within Deep Church.

    One of the problems I have encountered among the connections I have made within United Methodism has been a great discomfort with evangelism and a shying away from identification as "evangelical."  Many seem to be asking, "How is the good news about Jesus to be announced within my ministry with integrity, remaining true to the biblical story, inviting conversion, yet spoken humbly?  How do I persuade, and not coerce my hearers to believe the gospel?"  Many I have met do not want to be associated with the political connotations the word evangelical carries within the United States.  Others are very uncomfortable making any exclusive claims about Jesus, thinking that being a Christian has more to do with advocating for the right social causes rather than any doctrine or dogma of salvation in which such practices might be rooted.  My friends will know that I see this as an immense problem.  I stand with John Howard Yoder in believing that the term evangelical, however problematic, cannot be abandoned (see discussion in Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World).  And I believe that the word itself should say something concerning both our message and our way of life.

    So, how do we communicate the gospel, demonstrating content and lifestyle?  How do we bring people into contact with our communities so that they can hear, witness, believe, and live in accordance with the good news about Jesus?

    Belcher notes that one of the protests of the emerging church concerning evangelism is the idea that someone must believe before they are able to belong.  He puts it this way, "Simply put, the emerging church does not like the traditional church's insistence that belief (adherence to certain doctrines) must precede belonging (being part of the community)."

    I've noticed this problem among leaders I speak with.  Younger leaders are reluctant to mark out boundaries for the community that establish "in" and "out" groups, wanting everyone to equally belong.  Older leaders have wondered why there isn't more emphasis on hard and fast boundaries between who is "Christian" and who is not.  One group wants everyone to feel welcome.  The other wants clarity concerning who is committed and who is curious.  Both emphases have merit.  

    As a former youth leader and current volunteer, I have been fairly comfortable leading a group that has permeable boundaries, mixing students who have made commitments with those who have not, inviting everyone equally into a deeper and deeper relationship with God.  Distinctions are not always hard and fast; commitments sometimes ebb and flow.  But this never stopped me from loving everyone, and never has stopped anyone from feeling a shared sense of adventure.  More fixed forms of ministry with older persons do not seem to have this type of comfort.

    How does Belcher deal with the tension?

    Belcher turns to the ministry of Jesus, and fleshes out his revelation within the context of a conversation with a friend of his named Steven Cooper.  In discussing Jesus' ministry, Cooper notes that there appear to be three major movements within each of the synoptic gospels.  First, Jesus walks with his disciples in Galilee.  Second, Jesus travels with his disciples south toward Jerusalem and prepares them for what is to come.  And thirdly, Jesus enters into Jerusalem, marching to the cross.  Jesus doesn't take his disciples to Jerusalem until they have been well formed and trained to know his identity.  In the first movement, Jesus is training his disciples so that they know who he is.  Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners.  They are part of his community.  He performs miracles, tells stories, challenges the authorities, and eats with people.  But before heading south to Jerusalem, Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and hearing their answer, prepares them concerning the death he is to die and the actions they are to take following his brutal end.

    What does this mean for ministry?  What does this look like?

    Belcher uses "centered-set" thinking as a model.  Jesus is at the center--the Well from which we are directing people to in hopes that they will drink deeply.  The boundaries of the community are wider.  They include those who are Christian and those who are not.  Jesus began his ministry with a large number of people, and as they followed him, he would challenge them to be not just fans, but committed participants in his kingdom (John 6).  Belcher illustrates it this way, using the spiritual journey of a member of his community, Jason, as an example:

    For almost three years at two different churches he hung in the outer circle of the centered-set church.  He learned about Jesus, his mission, his life, his power to save and the call to be part of the kingdom.  He experienced Jesus' love in community with Jesus' authentic followers.  As he came into contact with Jesus in the sermons and the lives of other believers, he was challenged by the Word and the Spirit to decide who he believed Jesus was.  The full gospel was clearly laid out before him each week in the service and small groups.  Eventually, Jason stepped in to the inner circle.  When exactly this happened, I don't know.  Neither does he.  But at some point he moved from just belonging to believing.  And when he did, he became a member.  He made promises to the community, we made promises to him.  As he moved deeper into the inner circle, he joined the leadership team and sought training and discipleship.

    This sounds ideal.  And I'm sure this is something most people reading this blog perceive as common sense.  But one thing that is critical in cultivating this type of environment concerns what stands at the center.  In your ministry, is it Jesus?  Or something else?  A political cause?  A social justice initiative?  A particular hermeneutic or approach to reading the Bible?  A pet doctrine?  Your denominational identity?  Or your ego?  What stands at the center?

    When I return to thinking about evangelism and my experiences with church leaders, particularly within Methodism, I think all of the above questions cannot be missed.  Let's invite people into a relationship with Jesus.  This, of course, will require a fresh reading of the gospel.  It will require not just a return to John Wesley, but a return to the New Testament.  When we do so, I think our people will find themselves moving in unexpected directions.  They will begin to seek out the marginalized and the outcast.  They will also begin to see that their friends, family, and neighbors have deep needs that only Jesus can meet.  They will feel compelled to share Jesus with others, not just with an evangelistic or doctrinal formula, but as a way of life.

    Read the book.  Check out the chapter.  And think about how you invite others into the community--how you announce the good news about Jesus and invite others to believe the gospel.  It's part of our mission.  And we have much to learn from both the emerging and traditional camps concerning our approach to evangelism.