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A UMC House Church

A UMC House Church

nt church booksOne of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.

Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!

Link: Local Church Pastors

Link: Local Church Pastors

Since I’ve been talking about churches and leadership, I thought it would be useful to point to this article on UMC.org: Local church pastors on the rise. As usual, I think we’re behind. My personal belief is that the whole system of education we’re using, including degrees is well past its prime. If we made use of all the resources available, there would be no reason we couldn’t make better opportunities available for local church pastors to improve their skills.

But my experience with local church pastors suggests two things: 1) For every local church pastor who has a weakness, there’s very likely an elder who also has a problem, and 2) Local church pastors also have skills in ministry that many of your full elders do not.

I’m just not that enamored of the wonders of seminary education. But it’s not the education we need to get rid of. What we need to do is restructure the means and time when education is delivered, received and applied.

Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

Via Allan Bevere I located this interview with Scot McKnight, in which McKnight makes a number of interesting statements. The one that caught my attention most was:

… A proper kingdom theology leads people to the middle of the church, not away from it. So it makes a difference when church is on the decline and people are saying they are committed to the kingdom but not so much to the church. You can’t have kingdom without church.

First let me note that I am a very churchy fellow. Except when I was not a (practicing) Christian, I have been a member of a church congregation, and those congregations have largely been deonominational. I’m the sort of person who finds a church in the phone book when traveling on a weekend, and goes and worships with a local congregation. I’m a member of First United Methodist Church of Pensacola, who, I am sure, would rather not be blamed for what I say! First UMC is not a perfect church. I’m sure that can be said of all the First UMC of ____ congregations around. Nonetheless the gospel is preached there, and much good ministry is accomplished.

Second, Allan Bevere is a friend, and co-editor of the Areopagus Critical Christian Issues Series published by my company, Energion Publications. I like Allan. What’s more, I agree with him on many things, especially what he said about this topic.

Third, I found very little that I disagree with theologically in Scot McKnight’s comments.

My problems are largely practical. It’s all well and good to tell people to connect with the church. I’ve been doing that myself. In fact, I find that most people who are struggling spiritually have one thing in common—they’ve lost that connection.

But here are some of the reasons I’ve heard just recently for not connecting with local churches:

  1. The church lacks convictions. Face it, fellow Methodists (I’ll leave the rest to check their own surroundings), we’re not a church of terribly strong convictions. When I was looking at joining a United Methodist congregation I was told by one pastor that he didn’t care what I believed. If I wanted to “enjoy their fellowship” I could join. I’m not sure whether he wanted me to abstain or lie during the membership vows.
  2. The church has convictions, but people can’t live with those convictions. I’m not referring to any particular issue or any side of any particular issue. I’ve heard this from people across the theological spectrum. Really!
  3. The church is so little oriented toward kingdom work of any variety (any of the five elements to which McKnight refers) that the person doesn’t how he or she could work for both the kingdom and the church.
  4. The church is so fractured, that people have a hard time identifying what is actually Church.
  5. The church behaves as though it is a kingdom in the throes of a civil war.
  6. The king is, at most, a figurehead.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I have personally felt elements of all of those things. Of course the kingdom and the church should overlap, but sometimes I feel that the theologians and preachers are hammering the people who are trying to accomplish something for the kingdom, as problematic as that may be outside of the church, while the churches (to be distinguished from Church) continue to fail to make it possible to accomplish much of anything. It often sounds like people should be able to find and identify a good church, one that will truly be part of the kingdom, without any particular guidance. When they get there, the reason they should stay is that they need the church, whether or not it is functioning for them.

Now I’m sure readers are going to get all tense about the phrase “functioning for them.” I believe that the primary issue in finding a local congregation is discovering the place where, and from which you can best serve Jesus. This is necessary because we don’t have a single church. Paul didn’t write to the Corinthians about our sort of problems, because we’ve gotten much worse. Not only do we have divisions; our divisions are institutionalized. So I have to locate a church congregation where I can be part of the Church, and thus carry on kingdom work. The followers of Cephas, Apollos, Paul, and Christ have separated themselves into different buildings with signs and trademarked logos.

Once I find this congregation, I’m as likely as not to be pushed into various congregational or denominational programs to make sure that I’m properly socialized to the way that particular congregation does business. I recall being pursued early in my time in the United Methodist Church by folks from the Lay Speaker program. I needed to be certified before I spoke. I needed to coordinate before I spoke anywhere, because I might be seen as representing the UMC. But I wasn’t being invited to speak for Methodism. I had other things going on. Once I’ve checked off the boxes, the congregation wants to make sure I’m doing things for that congregation. Perhaps we should recognize that people gain skills in other churches, other denominations, and even in their secular occupations.

Now because I am fully convinced of what Allan and Scot are saying, I will find that congregation and I will be a member, and I will make my kingdom work part of Church. What I won’t do is find myself stuck with that congregation or denomination. If I can get together with other parts of the Church irrespective of denomination, I’ll do so. But we get back to “functioning for them.”

I’m seeing a great deal of hostility to any notion that a person should get something out of church. But the fact is that if you don’t get something out of church, you’re not going to be doing any ministry from church. No, you shouldn’t be self oriented. You should look for a place where you can serve. But a church congregation (and the whole church), should be a place where we serve one another. We give and we receive. And if we don’t receive, we won’t be giving for long, I don’t believe.

That’s one of the problems with our expectations of pastors. The actual job description for our pastors—I mean what you’d get by following them around and describing what they actually do, not the paperwork lies we use—is both ungodly and stupid. Nobody can do the job. We put men and women into a place where nobody can truly succeed. Those who do succeed at all remold the job. I do not mean to denigrate the many fine pastors I know who are doing wonderful kingdom work from their church congregations. The problem is that we require them to be paragons just in order to succeed. We make every effort to destroy them. That’s the extreme of giving but not receiving.

(Yes, Jesus said it’s better to give than to receive. But if we have an entire Church of people giving, there will be a lot of receiving going on as well!)

It isn’t wrong for a couple with children to want to see that the church congregation they join will help them raise and nurture their children. It’s not wrong for a person who is ill to hope to be visited, encouraged, and prayed for. It’s not wrong for missionaries to want a home base that will actively support what they do and who will want to listen to their stories when they return. It is not wrong for the elderly members to expect that they will be helped and respected in their declining years. All of those things involve the congregation “functioning for” various people. If I want to support children’s ministry, the elderly, service to the sick or imprisoned, or engage in social action, why would I join a congregation that shows it’s intention not to do those sorts of things?

But, object many of my fellow churchy folks, there are good congregations out there. People should be more determined. They should seek out the right congregation. They should find a way to serve! They can start those ministries!

And here you’re expecting the non-theologically trained, non-church-oriented, ordinary people who just want to get about doing good to fix your church first. If the church is spending 70% or more of its budget just maintaining the machine, why would someone who really cares about the poor, for example, decide to join up and handle the problem before they do what they are called to do? That’s what we ask of many of them. We are dedicated to the buildings, to the structure, to the programs, and to the traditions, so they should come on board and be satisfied with just a tiny percentage of the effort and money of the church going to the sorts of ministry to which they are called.

I don’t believe that the solution to our church problems will come by persuading this generation that they need to come on board and solve our problems before they can do kingdom work. Those of us who are in the church need to be prepared to be radical. Sometimes one must acquire buildings, but very frequently one must get rid of buildings. If a church is failing, it may well be time to shut it down.

I’m not opposed to paid staff. But our paid staff should be people who help get the rest of us out doing ministry. For example, I would be very sorry to see a scholar-pastor such as Dr. Wesley Wachob at  my home church in a bi-vocational ministry. I think the best use the church can make of him is in a full-time teaching role. But his job (and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t understand it this way, but don’t blame him for my words!) is to get another 3,000+ of us out there doing ministry, not as paid ministers, but as every member ministers. (Every member in ministry is a good Methodist program. Too bad “every” is such a small number in so many cases.)

Do I have a solution or is this just a rant? Well, I admit it is somewhat of a rant. But I do believe that each of us who are in the church can make a difference by being different. Have convictions. If you don’t know what they should be, study. Learn. Be prepared to stand aside and see things done differently, even in ways you don’t think will work, as new people come in the door. See the church everywhere believers may be found, and not just in your congregation.

And for the 21st century in particular, realize that social relations are different now. I hear moaning in church about a decline in people knowing one another as aging church members (and I must admit these aging church members are my age!) talk about how social media is ruining everything. They ought to be in church or at our Sunday School party, but they’re on Facebook. Yes, indeed! They’re on Facebook. And that’s part of their social circle and how they connect. And because I want to be able to connect with the current generation and those between, it’s one of the ways I connect. Many of my closest friends now I met through electronic media, some long before it was called social media or the internet became so universal.

For example, I met Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on the CompuServe Religion Forum in the days when I had to dial-up a CompuServe outlet in order to connect. Elgin is now one of my authors. He spoke some years ago at a pastor’s conference I was coordinating. It all started through non-traditional media. It was through Elgin that I met Dave Black, who I now count as one of my closest friends. They’re part of the Church, I am connected to them, and it didn’t start in a church fellowship hall.

Then there’s Allan Bevere, who I know is committed to the church and is committed, I believe to all the types of ministry I’ve discussed and more. Further, he’s willing to be in the heart of the fray. I met him via blogging. In fact, I think our earliest exchange involved him telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about! We’ve met in real life since, but it all started among the blogs. He, in turn, introduced me to Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor in Michigan, who is also one of my authors and the lead editor for a series I publish. My point here is not to invoke these people in support of my views. Rather, I’m pointing out that there’s a whole new way of congregating in the 21st century, and we churchy folks need to get used to it. It may not just be an adjunct to what we consider “real” socializing. It’s more likely a new reality.

All of these people are in the Church with me, as I see it.

I don’t think the concept of the church is out of date. The media may change, but the idea is there. What we need to do is truly practice being the body of Christ in whatever place and by whatever means there are at hand. In doing so, we need to be radical, in the sense of pulling up by the root those things that keep us from doing what we need to do. Our theology on the importance of the church won’t bring these people in. I hope it will convince us that we need to get real about the message and practice of the gospel.

In Which I Am Completely Unhelpful about UMC General Conference

In Which I Am Completely Unhelpful about UMC General Conference

Allan Bevere has carried on a discussion about the 2016 UMC General Conference, in which he is partially responding to another Energion author, Joel Watts.

I have to agree with Allan that closing the floor is unlikely to help. I’m not sure anything will. I see individual United Methodist churches accomplishing things for the gospel. I don’t see the denomination doing so.

One of the favored activities of Christian bloggers is to advocate one form of church organization over another, but that’s not the real question. Methodist can talk about how churches without an episcopal structure have less accountability. Churches that choose their pastors locally can talk about the constraints of a heavy bureaucracy. But the real question is whether whatever structure we’ve created will have Jesus at the top. I’m completely unconvinced that any structure whatsoever will make that certain. Reorganizing won’t help.

I think listening to the Holy Spirit is what will really help, but even I don’t hear the same things from the Holy Spirit that all my friends do, so some holy conferencing needs to take place until we get to Acts 15:28, where the same thing “seems to the Holy Spirit and to us” before we have any solutions. And I don’t mean uniformity. I mean fellowship in a diversity that is still part of God’s kingdom.

But before that happens we’ll all have to be much more broken and humble, definitely myself included, than we are right now.

Allan Bevere and a Third Way

Allan Bevere and a Third Way

Recently on Facebook Allan Bevere commented that he had taken the road less traveled and now he didn’t know where he was. Sometimes I think I resemble that remark.

But wherever Allan is, we may be neighbors, as he talks about a third way, avoiding liberal/progressive and conservative, in this interview on the WesleyCast. I’ve been thinking about writing something about the danger of moderate pride as well. It’s easy to sneer at all the people who post their overdone political notes on Facebook, with the reason of the moment that the world is coming to an end. But then there is the complacency of having the wisdom to avoid all such overblown statements.

But there are a number of key elements that I think are important. Perhaps I’ll have to make some overblown statements of my own. At times one may need to be a bit over the top in order to get people’s attention. Allan’s comments are largely on current issues in the United Methodist Church, but they have wide applicability.

So here are some key points, in my own words. (Listen to the interview for Allan’s take on them):

  • It’s not about always choosing the middle way. It’s about seeing all the ways and then choosing what works. That’s why I’m sometimes told I’m not moderate, but rather liberal or conservative. I take the fact that I’ve been accused of both fundamentalism and liberalism as a good thing.
  • It can be just as important to understand why I make particular choices as it is to make the right ones. I think being accidentally right is not particularly helpful. It’s hard to repeat!
  • As Christians we should be about connection first, I think. Allan’s suggestion of having communion together more often would be very, very helpful. The problem is, we don’t always regard those who disagree with us as Christians. Perhaps the idea of “open communion” should be pushed more vigorously. Breaking bread with someone is not an endorsement of all their views. It is simply a statement that one desires fellowship.
  • Let’s examine the roots of our beliefs more closely.
  • Let’s examine the priorities of our beliefs more closely. For example, I find it interesting that many Christians believe that movies with explicit sexual scenes are unacceptable, yet will accept extreme violence. Is this the result of our cultural prejudices or of considering what is good for our spiritual lives?

Well, those are some random thoughts. Mostly I want you to listen to Allan’s interview and hear what he has to say.

 

The Problem with Church Debates

The Problem with Church Debates

It hit me on Sunday as I was listening to a fine sermon for Pentecost at my home church, First United Methodist Church of Pensacola. Rev. Bob Sweet was enumerating a number of things the Holy Spirit might do for us, changes we should all make. A number of his points elicited laughter, because we all felt a bit guilty. Then he hit “stop gossiping.” This time the laughter was loud and noticeably nervous. You know why? Because everyone knew we weren’t going to stop gossiping.

And then it hit me. The real problem with our church debates is that most of us know we’re debating the meaning of divine commands which we have no real intention of obeying anyhow. I’m not talking about things we disagree with, so we don’t do. I’m talking about things we all agree we ought to do, but never get around to doing.

Those are the things I need to look at in my own life. What about you?

In Which I Question My #UMC Membership Vows

In Which I Question My #UMC Membership Vows

There’s been a great deal of talk about schism in the United Methodist Church (#UMC) over the last couple of days. It hasn’t disturbed me in the way it has disturbed many of my friends, but it has made me ask this question: Why?

No, not why might we have schism. Why don’t I care more?

I’ve said before that if I left the UMC, it would doubtless have something to do with apportionments. I don’t have a problem with the basic concept, and unlike many, my problem is not that some of my apportionments might support someone who takes some particular stance on homosexuality. I’m sorry, but in a complacent, self-satisfied, rich, apathetic, and unaware American church, a church that is spending much more on maintaining its institutions than on building the kingdom of God, I can’t convince myself that homosexuality is the most important issue we have. How we treat other people, yes. Institutional rules, no.

Here’s an example. Via Allan Bevere (also an Energion author), I discovered the suggestion that the United Methodist Church officially embrace the Nicene Creed, which we apparently don’t. The problem? It would take us a minimum of eight years to accomplish this mission. Then we’d be protected from false doctrine, like all the other churches who embrace the Nicene Creed. Oops!

Don’t get me wrong. I do, in fact, embrace that creed. I’m just thinking that having our general conference debate the issue for the next 8+ years isn’t really going to help us much.

I think it’s my view of denominations. I think denominations are should be a good way for us to group our resources so we can be more effective in building the kingdom of God. Single congregations have some limitations in terms of resources, so they need to work together. I didn’t (and don’t) think it’s necessary or good for all our connections to be within our denomination. I don’t think it’s a good thing when we build our denomination instead of building the kingdom. I think that the amount of time, effort, and money, not to mention words, that is spent on institutional issues indicates that our priorities are not right.

The question I’d ask about schism in the UMC is this: How can we get on with the work of the gospel with the least disruption?

Let’s forget about who owns buildings, and who we like and who we don’t. Go about it in a Christ-like manner. Let people form the institutions they think they need. I personally doubt I’d like either half of a split UMC, but I don’t have to like it. I just have to find the place God calls me to minister. It’s as likely I could find a congregation where God called me to be after as before.

And if you don’t mind, I’m a Christian first and a member of a United Methodist congregation second. As a Christian, I’m going to go right on embracing the Nicene Creed. Don’t go it alone? I’m not. There are hundreds of millions of Christians who do so along with me. We don’t need another eight year debate.

That’s my primary loyalty. To the gospel. As long as I’m a part of a United Methodist congregation, I’ll support it with my prayers, presences, gifts, service, and witness. But if God calls or the institution falls, I’ll go right on following where the Lord leads as best as I can.

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The Adventist review has a taste of Barry Black’s testimony, which makes excellent reading (HT: Dave Black Online).

As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist I find his story very interesting. In his career, he was fighting not just racial but also religious discrimination. Some people thought he shouldn’t be in his positions because he was black. Others thought his faith was a problem. His story is well worth reading.

I want to reiterate a few things I’ve said (perhaps too often) about being an ex-SDA. If you’re currently an SDA and you’re thinking of moving to another denomination, check your reasons. If, like me, you find your beliefs incompatible with your denomination, I consider it completely appropriate for you to find an organization you can support more wholeheartedly. In fact, I find it inappropriate for you to remain at that point!

There are several things to avoid, however:

  1. Leaving the SDA, or any church, because of personal issues with people. Those will be with you no matter what organization you join.
  2. Being dishonest with yourself about your reasons for leaving. Often point #1 leads people to claim some other reason, perhaps without even realizing it. You’re going to find people problems in all organization that have people. I don’t like the people of the United Methodist Church better than I did those of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What I like is that I am more free to carry out ministry in the UMC, and that I also find its doctrinal positions much closer to, though not identical with, mine.
  3. Living with a legacy of hate. People leave denominations or even local church congregations angry. That’s not good for you. You’re not sticking it to your former church by remaining angry. You’re sticking it to yourself.
  4. Don’t live your life as an ex. I call myself ex-SDA when I need to talk about the SDA church and my relation to it. I don’t think of myself that way on a regular basis. I’m a Christian who is now a member of a United Methodist congregation. I used to be a Christian who was a member of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Whatever any of the members of these congregations may think of me, I consider them all brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not some sort of paragon of virtue who experiences no anger or resentment. I just do my best by God’s grace to confess it and leave it behind. I don’t enjoy being called an apostate, but I’m not going to let it define me or my attitude(s).
  5. Always go to, not away from. Find the place where you will be able to be what the Lord wants you to be and serve as the Lord wants you to serve. Then go there. The physical journey is the same, but spiritually it is a much different thing.

These are just my recommendations. They were brought to mind by the story of Chaplain Black’s colleague who told him to change denominations as a career thing. I am impressed, though not surprised, by Chaplain Black’s response. He was absolutely right to stick with his convictions. I believe God honored him for that. I’m thankful for his testimony.