Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Living a True Story

October 1, 2017 I preached a sermon that concluded my series on Sharing Your Faith Story. The final sermon was Living a True Story. It is about the final step in sharing with another person the reason for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. The point was that if we are saying that Jesus Christ is lord of our life and all things are centered in him, and we have a  hope that gets us beyond the difficulties of life, then our living must bear that out. How we live, our behavior, matters in telling and sharing our faith story.

Due to emotional issues that came to a head, the sermon and the response to the sermon got beyond my control. There were some issues that developed. There were some emotional burdens that I took upon myself that weren't necessarily mine to bear. And I wrecked my soul.

I am working to be better now.

But I still stand by the sermon. I stand by its word as prophetic and Holy Spirit inspired. It is not easy to hear. It is easier to read. So I am presenting both media formats. Below is the transcript (from YouTube) of the sermon. Below that is the video.

If you are a solid Trump supporter, you will not find this sermon edifying. If you support him and believe in his character differently that I do, then please, do not consume this sermon. There are other messages from others messengers that you will by edified by. This is my sermon. This is what the Holy Spirit inspired within me to proclaim. If you cannot bear to hear that, then I humbly ask that you not respond in hostility.


So far I've talked about four keys to unlocking our faith story; of being able to share it. The first one was to sanctify Christ as the Lord of our life - to put Christ at the center of who we are and everything that we are and move everything else around Christ so that everything in our life kind of flows out from Christ. So that was the first one putting Christ at the center.
Second we need to prepare our story by looking back over our life and asking ourselves how and why we came to believe what we believe and to be able to put that into a small short story that we can tell people.

Third we need to learn to listen to people and hear when they're asking for hope. In particular asking for why we have hope so that we can then share that story with them in that moment when they need to hear why we think that there is something that is above and beyond the life that we have
here on earth.

And then two weeks ago I talked about communicating our faith story. That we need to do that in a caring way. That we need to do that as we tell that story. It needs to represent what we know about God. It needs to represent the goodness and the graciousness of God that has come into our life.

Today I touch on the final key that kind of gets our story into that place where we can share it and the final key is really, actually it goes back and it relates to the beginning of sharing our face story. It goes back and it connects to the very beginning of this process. The last key to our faith story is this we have to live a true story. We have to live a true story.

Our faith is not what we think. Our faith is not what we feel. Our faith is what we live. It is what comes out of our thinking and our feeling. Faith is how we conduct ourselves when we're by ourselves or when we're with others. Faith is how our life is shaped so that when we go forward from that moment of moving into faith it is it is the pattern of behaviors that we live out. When you look through the entire New Testament you realize that faith is not the intangibles of thought or feeling. Faith is the tangibles of how we behave in the world. Faith is that which matters so much to us that we are willing to pattern our lives around it. Our lives flow out of faith.

Peter talks about this and that's kind of where, you know, I've been grounding this sermon series. In this first letter of Peter, and I've been using first Peter 3 13 through 17, where Peter says,
now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good but even if you should suffer for righteousness sake you will be blessed have no fear of them nor be troubled but in your hearts sanctify Christ as the Lord always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you yet do it with gentleness and respect having a good conscience so that when you are slandered those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame for it is better to suffer for doing good if that should be God's will than for doing evil
And Peter right there at the end of that talks about our behavior. He talks about us and what we're doing in the world. And I want to jump back to the second chapter 9 through 17 where he addresses this just a little bit more:
you are a chosen race a royal priesthood a holy nation a people for God's own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light once you are not a people but now you are God's people once you had not received mercy now you have received mercy beloved I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable so that when they speak against you as evildoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation be subject for the lord's sake to every human institution whether it be the emperor as supreme or to governor's as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good for this is the will of God that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people live as people who are free not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil but living as servants of God honor everyone love the Brotherhood fear God honor the Emperor

Will you join me in a spirit of prayer:
Almighty God as we have been brought forth out of darkness and into the wonderful light that is your grace we give you things we thank you that our lives have been transformed from the inside but that inside transformation works itself out to the outside that we may hold special and dear the connection and relationship and love that we have for you but more importantly than that that that love works itself out in and through and around our lives so that others may see how we are in love with you so let our lives be be done in such a way that our faith is visible that those who see us and those who know us will see our deeds as a glory to you in this message me my words be yours that I would speak wisdom and truth according to your will in your world may our lives be lived in such a way that it is an honor to you and a glory to your name Almighty God Father Son and Holy Spirit

For whatever reason, we don't know the specifics of it but for whatever reason, the community around which the church resides that Peter is addressing the community had turned against the Christians. They had begun it, basically a smear campaign. They had begun to spread around the community the word that these Christians were evil; that these people in this community were truly a horrible people. And he says in multiple places throughout First Peter, “you've been slandered”. I mean he comes right out and he says, “look we know who you are. We know your nature, your goodness. We know the quality of you are, so we know that the things that they are saying are not true.” But he looks at what the situation in is he says, “you know if you're going to respond to this; if you're going to respond to the things that they’re saying, there's really only one really potential response. That you have there's only one way that you can respond to the things that people are saying.” And he says throughout the letter the only response to the slander that you are experiencing is authentic Christian behavior. That is the only response to what is being said about you.

Peter knows the validity of what these Christians believe. He knows how they think. Remember Peter was probably in somehow related to this community and they're coming to believe. He was the first preacher on Pentecost. He was the one that stood up and said to those gathered people in Jerusalem this is the Christ, this is the one that we believe in, He knows what they're thinking about Jesus is. He knows how they feel about Christ and what Christ accomplished. He knows how valid their beliefs are.

But he says the only way to respond to what is being said is not with what you say. The only way to respond is in what you do. The answer to the problems that they are experiencing is not communicated by them sparing out the things that they believe. It is communicated by how they behave among the ones that Peter calls the Gentiles.

When we look at first Peter 3 14 through 18 there's a pattern that shapes out there and that's what I've been going through. You know he says first of all you need to sanctify Christ as Lord of your life then you need to be ready with a story to share. Third you need to be ready because people are going to ask you for the hope that is within you. And fourth whenever you communicate that you need to communicate it with caring and concern and being able to to express that that grace that you've received. And finally he says when they slander you, you will be able to prove them wrong.

Grace upon these people because Peter says look you're going to have to conduct yourself the way Christ wants you to be conducted and then people are going to talk bad about you. You need to live an authentic Christian life and then have people talk bad about you because when they talk bad about you that's when you're gonna have the opportunity to explain about the hope you have. When they talk bad about you that's when the openings are going to happen. When they start to slander you and they call you evil and they talk about all of the horribleness that is about Christianity, that's when the door is open to answer a question. This is the hope that I have.

Stop and think about that for just a minute. Has anyone ever told you that your perfect opportunity to witness is when people are bad-mouthing you? Has anyone ever said to you that the time to share your faith is when people are calling you evil? When they're saying you're a horrible rotten person? What do we instinctively think? “Well if they're gonna call me a horrible rotten person, I'm just gonna ignore ‘em. I'm gonna turn the other cheek and I'm gonna go.”

But Peters saying when they slander when they're calling out on you, your authentic Christian behavior is what unlocks the door to be able to tell them about your hope. This is why I said the fifth key is the it goes back to the first. When they start slandering us that's when we work harder to do good. When they talk bad about us that is when we work harder to show them that our behavior is something different. This entire lesson of us sharing our faith story begins with people seeing our behavior. It begins the ability to be able to tell somebody, “this is why my life is the way it is.” It doesn't begin with us being able to bring them into the church and bring them down to the altar and have them kneeling and then we talk to them. That's not where it happens. It happens when they start talking about us and they're saying well you know what? Those Christians don't do any good. And then we have the opportunity to say, “well let me show you some of the good that I can do.” And then they're gonna say “why on earth would you do that.” ... “Here's the hope that I have.” You see how it fits together.

It begins with us doing good, to prove what it is that we believe is true. It is the first chapter of us telling our faith story. Our doing good is the beginning of being able to say this is why our lives are different. Throughout the entire letter of 1st Peter, he sprinkles throughout the writings of these Christians how important their behavior is and what quality our behavior has in our being able to communicate our message. First of all in 1:15 he says you are holy you are to be holy in all of your behavior because God has made you holy. In 1:17 he says God impartially judges everyone according to each one's work so we are to behave we are to conduct ourselves in fear of that judging. In 1:22 Peter says you are to be unhypocritical and fervent in your love for one another. In 2:1 he says we are to put aside all malice deceit hypocrisy envy and slander. In 2:12 he says we're to keep our conduct excellent among the Gentiles so that they may see our conduct and they might glorify God because he follows that up into 15 by saying when we do right we shut up the few foolish people. In 2:17 we are to honor all people and love the Brotherhood. In 3:1 we’re reminded that by our behavior, especially respectful behavior in 3 2, we can win others to Christ. In 3 6 we are to do what is right. In 3 8 we are to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind-hearted, humble spirited. In 3:13 we are to prove zealous for what is good. In 4:4 Peter says you can surprise the Gentiles by not participating in the excesses that they live in. In 4:8 he says we're to keep fervent in our love for one another. In 4 9 we're supposed to be hospitable. In 4:10 we are to employ the gifts that we have been given by serving as good stewards of God's grace.

Do you see the pattern here? It's only five chapters long but in every chapter he talks about the behavior that we are to conduct ourselves in. Peter sprinkles throughout this letter this message about how we are to behave. And we as Christians are to behave as right and holy in loving in all manner of conduct in the world so that when people look upon our lives, when they see us behaving in this manner, even if they are slandering us it can be proven false. Whenever we behave in these loving and good and right and holy ways we have proven that our life is not what we have moved from or what evildoers people say we are. It truly becomes a mark of us living to a different standard. We are supposed to live our life in such a way so that when people call us names, when they think a certain way about us, they begin to scratch their heads and they say well wait a minute I never knew Christians were like that. I never knew that's how they behaved. I've never met a Christian like you before.

Have you ever had somebody who's a non-believer say that to you; have you ever had a non-believer say I never knew Christians acting like that? It should make a stop and think what kind of Christians are they seeing what kind of Christians are people seeing in the world that they've never seen a Christian behave with holiness with goodness with love in the world

I wasn't gonna do this I probably still shouldn't do but I'm gonna get political.
I don't want the word to get in the way.
As of today we stop calling the President of the United States a Christian president. Christian's do not behave the way that man has been behaving. Nothing that he has done has been loving. Nothing that he has done has been good. Nothing he has done has been holy. We stop associating with him today.

Unless he repents for all that he has done, we cannot call him Christian.
Can we can we honestly say that he has behaved in the manner of Christ to people in the world?
Can we honestly say that he is behaved in the manner of Christ for people in his own nation?
Can we honestly say that he is behaved in the manner of Christ for people in his own household?

We stop associating with him as Christians. We associate with him as our president. We have to. And we honor him as such. But brothers and sisters I'm being political because Peter brings it up. We are to honor our Emperor but we do not have to associate with a man who drags down the name and the Church of Jesus Christ.

I am sorry but I have to say this because every time I see a Christian stand up and defend his behavior it reflects on me and he does not represent what I represent. I'm sorry he does not; he just does not. And if I offend you I am truly sorry. I am sorry that I am saying these things but we are not judged by our words we are judged by our behavior. Not just by the others in the church but by the culture around us and by God. We are judged.

If you don't think behavior matters go and read what people are saying about Christians when the president speaks. When they look at the church and they say he represents Christianity what does that say about us? What does that say about us? What does that say about our witness? What does that say about our ability to say I am a Christian? Because I am not judging him as an evildoer. I am judging him as a brother in Christ. And if I was his pastor I would tell him you need to repent. You need to stand up in front of this nation and you need to tell people that you are turning around and going the other way because you're not acting in love. And brothers and sisters I would tell any of you the same thing if you were behaving that way. Why? Because our behavior matters.

And if we stand up and we say well I'm a Christian and then we turn around and we behave in unloving ways how does that reflect on a God who is love? If we say we are a Christian and yet we stand up and we belittle and we demean and we tear apart the lives of people, how does that represent a God who heals and puts back together? If we stand up in our lives and we tear apart what is good and holy and loving how does that represent a God who is good and loving?

It is not about what we say. It is not about the songs that we sing. It is not about how good our talk is. It is not about how many times we say the name Jesus Christ. It is about how we treat people. That's Christianity. That is faith.

Faith is not what we think. It's not what we feel. It is how we live. Peter does not sprinkle throughout the letters of this or throughout the words of this letter the reminder that how we behave matters just because he thinks about works righteousness. He says if we are going to live in a culture that continues to slander us, if we're going to live in a culture that continues to demean our witness, if we're going to continue to live in a culture that wants to rip apart everything that we say that we stand for, then our behavior matters. And we must show them that we do good. We must show them something different so that by our behavior we can show those words to be foolish; so that by our behavior we can turn slander into truth; so that we can prove zealous for doing what is good and they will look at us and they will say maybe there's something to that because I've never seen a Christian behave like that.

If I've offended you today I'm truly sorry... I will not repent for what I said. I will not go back on what I said. We are called to a higher standard of behavior in our lives. We are called to a different standard of living in the world. And if we are going to call ourselves by the name of Jesus Christ, we're to live a true story.




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Yesterday I commented on the life cycles that churches go through. There is birth, life, and death. All three are part of the experience of being a community. I also made the implication that death is the outcome for a church that cannot change to adapt to the change in community around it. One of the statistics that was brought up during Annual Conference this year was the positive growth that we have seen in our Annual Conference in the area of hands on mission. Everything else in our work as churches has declined. Our attendance and Sunday School/Christian education has declined. Our membership has declined. Our financial giving has declined. But the time and effort people gave to DO something has increased significantly.

This is a change that churches need to adapt to or die.

If a church believes that showing up to sing archaic or peppy songs is drawing new people in (or even connecting with long enduring people already in the church), then it is wrong. If a church believes that the preacher or Sunday School teacher or the evangelism committee is going to convince new people (or even long enduring people already in the church) to invest in the life of the church, then it is wrong.

People are active. People want to know that what they do makes a difference. People are doers. The days of passive church are waning. There are some hold-outs. There are plenty of churches that believe that the work of the kingdom involves hymnals and quiet time for 45 minutes. But the statistics seem to point that those churches are missing the change of the community around them. Active churches are seeing engagement. They are connecting with people. If a church makes the effort to DO something, they are going to attract new people (and long enduring people who have been wanting to DO something).

Missions is a loaded term. It conjures up trips to some far off place, staying in uncomfortable lodging, getting dirty and stinky, and being generally in a unfamiliar environment. Or it springs the old stereotype of going to Africa to bring the gospel to primitive people. Missions were replaced with missional giving to help people feel better about not going "out there" and to give the false impression that they were doing something. But that isn't what mission is about.

The Kingdom of God is about making lives better for people. And that begins right where you are. There are people around us that need to experience the Kingdom. It doesn't take building a cement block house in Mexico or running a clinic in Central America, or teaching English in China. There are hungry children in our neighborhoods. There are people whose houses are not safe to live in. There are people who feel that no one loves them, cares about them, or remembers them. Those are people in the field ripe for the harvest of experiencing the Kingdom of God. And it doesn't take traveling to a foreign country. It doesn't take getting dirty. It may be a little uncomfortable. It may require a little effort. But it is what makes a difference in people's lives.

Churches can change and do this. It doesn't require a startup fund to do some of these things. You don't have to be trained (but it may help prevent doing something stupid). It only takes a desire to see the church as a community that can DO something.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles of Churches

Every year at Annual Conference, we vote on the discontinuance of churches within the boundary of the AC. It is never a cheery moment. It is a reminder of the nature of life and death. This year, Bishop Nunn commented on that cycle of life and death of churches. I believe that churches need to be aware of their life AND death.

We don't have a long history in the USA when we talk about churches. I have been in church buildings in Russia that are hundreds of years old. Many Oklahoma churches are celebrating their century + anniversary lately. And 100 years is a nice number to mark. But when we think about all of the churches that have come and gone in 100 years, 200 years, or even the last 1900 years, then the number of churches that have been birthed, lived, and died, we have to be honest about a cycle that happens with churches.

Now, I know that no church wants to think about dying. A church is a place of memories, powerful moments of sacred life, life transitions, and people who we love. As followers of Christ we concentrate on life, new birth, and resurrection. Death makes us a little uncomfortable at times (most times). When we talk about the death of a church, it seems as painful as losing a friend or family member. It is necessary, though, to look at the probability of our church's death.

Death is not always a bad thing, though.

A church is born out of the community that surrounds it. A community is then born within the church. There is a pattern that we can see in churches. Eventually a change happens and the community inside the church loses connection to the community outside the church. It is possible for a church to reconnect with the surrounding community. Maybe the community surrounding the church has changed nature. People move or demographics change and the community is no longer what it was when the church was birthed. A church has to "die" to what they were in order to stay in contact with the new community.

It is prideful and ego-filled to assume that the community surrounding the church should change to meet the community identity within the church. The reality is people from the community will seek out a place to belong that identifies with them or is willing to adapt to who they are. If a church refuses to change (die to self), they will not be able to connect with the community among whom they reside. And as long as a church will not adapt to the surrounding community, it will have to honestly accept that its death (closing its doors) is imminent.

Dying to self is not a bad thing. It is what all Christians must do in order to be in connection with Christ. Dying to self is the only way to receive Christ as Lord. Getting ourselves out of the way makes it possible to follow Christ along the Way. That isn't a bad thing.

And adapting to the community does not mean forsaking fundamental Christian identity. It means slaying sacred cows that stand in the way of being a welcoming community. It means killing behaviors that exclude new people, strange people, different people. It means letting go of "that is how we have always done it" to be able to connect with newer innovations that may actually be better. It means allowing the attitude of "our way is the right way" to die its full and final death.

But death is still sad.

It is possible to experience a "good death" and it will still be sorrowful. It may be necessary for something to die. It doesn't wipe out the life transitions or sacred moments. Those were days of life and new birth and resurrection. The death, as good or inevitable as it may have been, is still a time of grief. It deserves to be recognized and grieved over.

That happened for me at Annual Conference this year. One of the first churches that I served as a Local Licensed Pastor was discontinued. The Stuart UMC was one of three churches that I served in the year between college and seminary. It was a wonderful church of good people. It was one of the places I felt the affirmation to continue in ministry. Lisa and I were showered with love and gifts before our wedding. I learned to preach through distractions (like preaching with a child on my hip who wandered to the front of the church).

This was the third church that was discontinued that I have served. It was a sorrowful and painful time of grief. I had to face the futility of ministry in knowing I gave of my life and it wasn't enough to continue the church. I poured myself out, but death was still inevitable.

But ours is a faith of new birth and resurrection. My prayer is that somehow a new community will give birth to a community within a church that can share life and sacred moments in Stuart, Alva, and Camargo.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - What is the UMC? part 5

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - after the fact

Where does the UMC exist?

I think this question has been at the center of our exploration of mission and purpose for a number of years. It has been central to our Annual Conference through structural change, leadership change, and focus of vision. It has been, and still is, a center of our current struggles as a denomination. The issue of existence relates to identity, structures, priorities, and connection to one another as United Methodists.

Four things come to mind:
  • Does the UMC exist as local congregations that are resourced by a structure and system?
  • Does the UMC exist as a structure that is resourced by local congregations?
  • Is it regional entities that are connected to a global fellowship?
  • Is it a global system that is made up of diverse (and disparate, contrary) units?
These are not questions that should answered with yes or no, and then be done. These questions are meant to focus our attention on what they mean for our life together as United Methodists. The answer is yes to all of them. At various levels of our identity, each of these are true and applicable statements. But the burden that each question puts upon our identity and existence needs to be duly and heavily considered.

I have been pastor to congregations that did not see themselves as United Methodist. Yet they received pastors appointed to them by the Bishop. They contributed to ministries that were important to them that were possible only through the Annual Conference. They occupied property that was not theirs (even though they chafed at this). They represented a desire to be more congregational in operation, yet they could not stand without the support of the structure and system they were part of.

I have been a member of the Annual Conference and have had to remind structural representatives that what works for some churches doesn't fit every church. Representatives of Annual Conference agencies have shown expectation of every local church to react the same way. But sometimes there are not the resources. The expectations we have on a local church for ministry or outreach or full connectional giving are unrealistic when there are 4 people who attend regularly. The expectations that are laid on a congregation to use technology or media resources to do the administrative work when there isn't a computer, technological resource center, or even reliable technological infrastructure ignores the fact that Oklahoma is behind the times and that parts of Oklahoma are barely into the 1980's when it comes to technology and communication media. The conceit that we have in saying that every church should shoulder its fair share of the ministry, while not paying adequate attention to the deficits of the local congregation in financial resource is to be blind to our current reality.

I have been part of a history and tradition that has said that we have boundaries that unite us. There is a Discipline and order to how we work. But there has been a lot of talk of doing things differently because we think differently. We in the USofA do things much differently (and I have heard some ego saying "better")  than other parts of our fellowship around the world. I have heard plenty of voices saying, "Hey, if they want to act that way, then they should leave and find their own way instead of disrupting our way."

And I have spoken in multiple places of the division that exists within the UMC. It is contrarian at its extremes. All 4 sides are pulling against one another. They all want a UMC that is defined by their own definition, their own view of identity. I don't think that I'm too far off base when I say that those who lie closer to the middle are being broken as much as the denomination is being stress. And by middle I mean people like myself who are related to persons in all 4 camps. There are some of us who know what each side is saying and are empathetic to what they are wanting to accomplish.

Until we determine what the UMC is, and all agree that is what the UMC is, it may all be a series of running debates.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Hard Question. Part 4.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written after returning home from Annual Conference.

The Circle of Care represents our ministry to children in the state of Oklahoma. We operate homes and foster care programs to give children a safe place to belong and a nurturing environment to help them grow healthy. Circle of Care does great work. They announced that they want to build new houses where there aren’t houses to grow this ministry. There is a need for ministry like this happen in the state. Oklahoma has a terrible foster care and child welfare record. There are more children who need a place to belong than there are places for them to go. And we have a strong ministry history doing this work through Circle of Care.

As we move into a reality that asks “what is vital?”, how could we say no to this work? Our overarching mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And there is transformation that happens through children ministered to through Circle of Care. But does that directly impact our declining state? Does the work that they do alter our future course?

Business models are horrible ways to approach ministry. But when we start talking about building homes and increasing support, there is a need to consider returns on investments. What is a life worth? I don’t know that we can weigh what the future potential of a child is over their lifetime. But I know that we have to ask the hard questions going forward. This is one of those subjects. This will present an overwhelming task for our future. I don’t know how we could possibly say, “No, we can’t pay for this ministry to continue.” But as we continue to decline, it may come to that decision and declaration.

Vital ministry isn’t easy to tack down. It is no easier to define than effective ministry. For every child that is a success, that would be a vital ministry. But there is no question that a lot of resource will be paid out to make that child successful. And it will happen in the context of churches continuing to dwindle down in attendance and financial resource.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The mission. Part 3.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was begun during Annual Conference last week.

In the Conference Lay Leader report, we heard that we have been desiring the exact same thing for 55 years: to make disciples. In 55 years, we have not found an effective way to do what we claim is our purpose and what we have been entrusted with as our legacy by Christ. And 55 years ago, there was a respect and honoring of what the church represents. Today, that respect is gone and the church does not hold the honor it once did because it is deemed to represent something completely different in the hearts and minds of many. Even within our congregations, there is no wide scale interest in increasing the discipleship of members. Neither is there a sense of urgency in seeking out persons who may be marginally or non-religious. The prevailing attitude remains where it was 55 years ago: people who are seeking something will come to church. That is no longer a viable perspective.

The greatest revelation I have had this year at Annual Conference is the honesty I have heard about the division we are experiencing. I believe that there is some honest declaration of division that exists. And it is causing fear and denial to a greater degree. While we are clearly stating that there is division, there is also a louder cry “we must be united”.

I am completely torn. I have commented in writing and conversation that there are 4 sides in the current dividing atmosphere of the United Methodist Church. The sides are represented by the general description: traditional/conservative, progressive/liberal, united without reference to our differences, and united with respect to our differences. These last two refer to a simpler generalization of “we must be united in spite of our differences” versus “we can be united and maintain our differences”. I argue that we cannot sustain our way forward in this type of environment. I argue that we cannot currently find a common ground because the sides are distancing themselves from one another. I argue that in this environment, we will not be able to continue to work together in ministry. And our witness is only going to continue to decline among the general population.

I do not desire the division and/or dissolution of the United Methodist Church. I dislike the divisions that exist. I believe that we are limping along, and will continue to limp along, in anything that we attempt until there is some clear decision made on how we will move forward into the future.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Budget. Part 2

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written last week during Annual Conference.

During our pre-conference budget session, we heard that the budget is being cut by less than 2%. That number is a very conservative response to the deficit we experienced. And it will not be adequate for the continued decline we will experience. Please understand that I am not being pessimistic. I am stating projections that are based on trends that cannot be reversed swiftly. We are declining in people and financial support. We are losing ground in the effort to draw people into our churches. These declines are going to continue for some time. We may see some relief with a rebound of oil and natural gas industry. That cannot be guaranteed, though. And it will only address the financial shortfalls many of our congregations are experiencing. What we can be certain of is that for the next few years, the numbers will slide below the previous year’s. The budget will not be sustainable for too much longer by making minor adjustments. There will come a point when we have to ask the hard questions of what will we cease to do.

But that question of doing does not have to interfere with our being. We are fully capable of continuing in ministry as United Methodists. It may just mean that we do smaller things together and center more things within regional partnerships of churches. Even the district model may be too bulky. There is no effective way to have our southeast, southwest, and northwest districts in ministry together in their respective areas. I believe that we will be required to draw 3, 4, 5, or 6 churches together to make an impact in their region.

I believe one area that will be necessary in the near future (before my retirement) will be returning to a model of ministry that resembled the early circuit riding ministry of frontier “churches”. I put that in quotes because the concept of church will need to undergo a transformation. Ministry will have to be relocated in the members who make up the church. There will not be a pastor available to the congregation full time. It isn’t that we won’t have pastors. Churches will not be able to support a pastor by themselves. It will require that multiple churches together support a single pastor. 3, 4, and possibly 5 churches will need to partner together to support a clergy person.

But if the congregations will become the center of mission, then we have to face the reality that the Annual Conference will not be able to do as much. Some ministries will cease to function. There will need to be a discernment of what is absolutely necessary as a structure. Will that mean that our favorite ministry will be discontinued? It may. And I am not the one to answer the follow up question: which ones? I am more convinced that starting at zero may be the most effective way. By starting at 0 ministry, we swiftly discover the necessities. I realize this is not practical. But neither is continuing to meet the realistic decline with unrealistic adjustments.

Reflection on Annual Conference 2017 part 1

Reflection of Annual Conference 2017. This was written a week ago during Annual Conference.

Each year at Memorial Day, United Methodists from across Oklahoma gather to discuss ministry and functions of administering the life of the people called United Methodists in Oklahoma. Each year we hear reports of what has been happening and looking forward to future efforts.

I am writing this as I sit in session. Contrary to my reputation, I do attend. There are years when it is more difficult to do so. I struggle with my role and my effectiveness (or perceived lack thereof). I struggle with identifying with colleagues. I struggle with being inferior and not worthy of the calling to which I live into every day. This year I am more positive than some years. But I am still struggling.

As I listen to colleagues in United Methodist mission, I think there is a sense of struggle as an Annual Conference. There is an air of unease among the gathered people. There are questions about the future of how we will go forward. There are questions of how we can afford the ministry we desire to do. There are questions of expanding ministry in a period of declining resources. And there are questions of how does a church with significant differences and mounting divisions continue to work together under a single banner of United Methodism.

As we move through the business of Annual Conference, I am making observations. There are things that rise to the surface of my thinking. Things to which there are no easy answers for or solutions to achieve.  I will share some of these observations here and post my understanding and own reflections as I am able.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Who is feeding the church?

Working through the sermon for this week, I ran into a question that really needs to be processed in the larger arena of a church. Who is responsible for a disciple's spiritual "feeding"?

The impetus for this thought really grows out of the complaint I have heard too often: I am just not being "fed" at this church/by this pastor?

I have my suspicions on what is meant by this. It isn't a reference to potluck dinners, either. It has to do with the subjective sense of having desires or expectations met. When the desires or expectations are not being met, it would seem to make emotional sense to seek those desires or expectations out somewhere else. There are two questions that need to be asked, and a really hard illustration to prove this wrong.

First the questions we need to ask:
  1. Is the church not fulfilling its purpose to help one another grow and mature?
  2. Is the person participating fully in the effort to become mature and to grow?
The answers to these questions will bring us to action points. If the church is not fulfilling its purpose to help each other develop into the maturity of Christ, that is evident from New Testament expectations, then a local church needs to change its operation. There are plenty of churches who are falling short in this arena. We notice these churches by the decrease in mission and the increase in social gatherings. We can get a hint that a church may be the reason when the use of energy is about meeting the wants of the present congregation instead of the congregation seeking out the needs of the community around them to do something about them. We know that a church is moving in this direction when Bible study and accountability are exchanged for "political" rallies and parties.

There are churches than need to tighten up on the purpose that they are mandated with: make disciples for Jesus Christ. That is stated by Christ when he tells the disciples to go into all the world and baptize and teach. That is the purpose made clear through Paul's teaching on the body of Christ. Churches can fall down on "feeding" the people who make up its members. If the answer to the first question is no, then a church needs to refocus on why they are there.

If the first question seems to be a fair "yes" then we move to the second question. Participation is mandatory on the part of individuals. When a person is baptized, their connection to a body of believers carries a responsibility to active participate in the life and ministry and work of that church. We do not join churches for the membership privileges. We join a church to participate in the body of Christ. We become a part of the ongoing work of Christ's mission in the world. It is a never-ending effort to bring the kingdom of God to the world. We are part of the mission to transform lives and bring release, restore the broken, heal the wounded, and bring hope to the hopeless. The kingdom mission cannot continue in a given area unless churches in that area are filled with active, participating disciples. If the answer is no to the second question, then the person is individually accountable to failing in their promise as a follower of Christ. They need to repent, step in, and do something different.

If the answer to both questions is no, then I believe we are seeing a vacuum of Christian witness. If the church is not building people and individuals are not participating at any level, then no one is doing the work of Christ in that area. And if neither want to change, then it is best to close the door, wipe your feet, and move on to using your time in for more productive things (according to your own needs). Christ can bring life back to the dead. If there is no desire to become something new and different, though, Christ won't do anything. To bring more of the same life to a church will only produce more death of spirit.

Now for the hard illustration.

Leaving something wherein a commitment was made just because desires or expectations are not being met is not the answer. The illustration to look toward is a marriage. When a couple get married, there are desires and expectations that each carry into that marriage. If there is no communication of those, then fulfillment of those are only going to be accidental. If there is communication regarding desires and expectations, and they continue to be unfulfilled, then that requires intervention and accountability or transformation of those desires and expectations. If neither party is willing to change, then it is likely moving toward divorce. But I would ask if they were ever truly married to begin with. If they were only interested in serving their own desires and moving for the fulfillment of their own expectations, they were never married in a true sense. They were only seeking after a servant to meet their needs.

The church is made up of people who are supposed to sacrifice their own needs, their own way, to serve the Master and Lord. The Lord has made it clear that serving him requires serving others, sacrificially. If we are not joining churches to serve others, then we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned. If we are joining a church for our needs to be met, we will go very hungry.