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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.

Of United Methodists and Beth Moore

Of United Methodists and Beth Moore

From time to time various Methodists get very worked up about the idea that members of United Methodist congregations are using Beth Moore studies in their study groups and Sunday School classes. Via Facebook I encountered an older post regarding Methodists and Beth Moore. That article is actually quite restrained and gentle by comparison to some of the discussion I’ve heard. The author makes some good points, but I think, perhaps, not enough good points.

My first thought is that if you are a United Methodist pastor or church leader and your worst problem is that your members are spending too much time listening to Beth Moore, you should spend some serious time thanking the Lord for your blessings.

It’s not that I agree with everything Beth Moore says. In fact, I likely disagree with a good percentage. I really haven’t bothered to make a list. She’s probably more literal than I am, and we doubtless disagree on matters of biblical criticism. Besides, I don’t particularly like watching videos in a study group or class. I’d rather get together to actually study or listen to someone who is present. So my point is not to be an apologist or a critic — of Beth Moore, that is.

What I’m wondering is why so many people in the church, and particularly the United Methodist Church (since I’m a member), think they can or should control what people hear.

Oh, I know the arguments. We have a responsibility to teach good theology. We have a duty to teach sound biblical knowledge. We are Methodists (or whatever), after all, and that should mean something!

Should it really? I find denominations useful, sort of. They could be a great means of getting us to work together for missions that are bigger than local church congregations. Ideally, they can provide some sort of accountability. I happen to like the United Methodist doctrinal distinctives, which is why I joined a Methodist congregation.

Trouble is, I found out rather quickly that very few Methodists were aware of their doctrinal positions, if it’s proper to call these positions “theirs” if they don’t know what they are. Before I joined my first United Methodist congregation I asked for something that would tell me what Methodists believed, officially and clearly. The pastor gave me a copy of the United Methodist Discipline, clearly with serious misgivings. I loved it. Well, the first 100 pages or so. The rest is well nigh useless, and I’m convinced that most gospel work done by Methodists results from someone ignoring the rules.

After reading that first part of the Discipline, I decided I could get on board with this new church, and so I joined. Then I discovered that Methodists weren’t really acquainted with their own history. The orientation to the church, in which one speaker explained that John Wesley had been influenced by Karl Marx (perhaps with the intervention of Dr. Who, though he made no mention of it), was biblically, doctrinally, and historically ignorant.

The pastor invited me to teach a series on Sunday nights about the doctrine of Christian Perfection. I was interested to note that there are two full statements of this doctrine in the Discipline, and chose to start from that point. As I flashed up my overhead transparencies, I was disappointed to discover that nobody was interested in the fact that there were two statements (really a bit more complicated than that), because they hadn’t been aware that there was even one. I found that growing up Seventh-day Adventist, I had learned more about John Wesley and Wesleyan theology than I would find around the Methodist church.

This was not a matter of personal pride. I had these things drilled into me as a child. I really couldn’t have avoided knowing them if I wanted to. Further, I’d be unlikely to complain about the problem, except for a related tendency I found as time went on.

That related tendency was the idea that we needed to make sure to teach Methodists only Methodist doctrine, thus protecting them from all that other stuff that was flooding the world. If we could just keep them listening to only Methodist teachers, everything would be OK. Unfortunately, I suspect that most crazy ideas have a Methodist champion somewhere.

Now there are a number of non-Methodist doctrines I would love to protect Methodists from. I wouldn’t mind protecting everyone else as well. The whole Left Behind series and related “prophecy” material would be a start. I don’t like it and I don’t even like to have to take the time to respond to it. It’s that bad. In my opinion, of course.

But people are going to hear that point of view of the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature, and I’m going to have to respond. And despite any tendency to wish it would go away, I know I’m wrong to do so. The right response is to do better teaching on other views. If we get people studying for themselves and help them to learn to study well, they will find the flaws in these various trends on their own.

Or they might come up with the arguments that would make me realize I’ve been wrong. Regarding the whole futurist/dispensational view of prophecy, I doubt they will, but they could. The point is that they should have the opportunity to do so.

What’s more, with modern media and the internet, it’s ridiculous to think that you will protect your congregation from hearing things you’d rather they not hear. Telling people they can’t study certain things or hear certain speakers is likely to have the opposite effect.

And then there’s the question of whether you really have anything better to teach at all. I’ve heard this type of complaint from people who couldn’t construct a sound biblical argument in a room full of commentaries (even if they ignored the commentaries!). They simply wouldn’t know. But they can tell whether a teacher’s denominational credentials are in order.

I recall one church that had a young adult class that was growing and getting popular. There were young adults who didn’t even attend church who were coming to the class and enjoying the discussions. The church leadership, clearly dismayed at the success of this class, decided they needed to bring it under control. They were reading and discussing unapproved books. So they found a teacher who would follow the party line, and thus managed to reduce the membership of the class to zero in a mere four weeks.

Another Methodist church wanted Methodist materials, but in their absence was prepared to gut some Southern Baptist materials, removing reference to such dangerous doctrines as salvation, so people would, at least, not hear the gospel message from a Baptist perspective, even if no Methodist perspective was to be offered instead.

I’ve mentioned growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the church I encountered censorship rather regularly. In order to keep apart from the world it was important to read SDA materials and to stick with the SDA agenda. I was watched when teaching to make sure I wasn’t leading people astray. I kind of expected that kind of censorship due to the nature of the denomination. Since other churches were leading people straight to the Mark of the Beast, we obviously shouldn’t be listening to anything they said, lest we too go whoring after the beast and his image.

I’ve heard both liberals and conservatives claim that all censorship is done by the other camp, but my observation is that both have a tendency to decide that they’re correct. That’s actually not a bad thing. Surely if one thinks one is wrong one will change one’s view. The problem is that certain people decide that they have to impose their rightness on others. Not persuade, impose. And that’s going to fail.

So my suggestion to a pastor who hears that a group in his church is using Beth Moore studies is to first rejoice that they care enough to study. Then if you object to some of the content you should first make sure you know what it is and what is being taught, and then teach what you believe is right. Do it vigorously, make it relevant, and show your love of scripture as you do so. One thing that came out clearly in the post I linked and in the comments is that people appreciate Beth Moore’s love of scripture. I know from experience that if you are teaching from your heart and you have paid the price in study and prayer time, people are going to listen when you teach.

Do you, as a pastor, exhibit that same love? Can your congregation tell that you’re seriously studying, doing your best to understand, and sharing what you have learned? Do they detect that you have spent time on your knees when your preach or teach? Or is your only real response to point them to a list of Methodist (or other denominational) doctrines?

There is a group in the Methodist church, as there was in the Adventist church in my youth (and friends tell me still is), and I suspect in every church, who consider “but it’s not Methodist!” a good argument. But there are less and less of these people. You need a better argument.

I believe that there are plenty of people in the United Methodist Church (I wonder why I keep typing “untied” for “united” and having to correct myself) who love scripture and love to learn more. There are plenty more who are hungry to hear and want to learn how to study. You’re not going to draw them away from one source without providing another.

But even more importantly, if they hear the scriptures taught in different ways, from different perspectives, by people who truly love to study God’s word, they’re going to be enriched by it. Even if they come to the conclusion that some of it is wrong.

Especially if they come to the conclusion that some of it is wrong.

Starting with the Local Congregation – or with Me

Starting with the Local Congregation – or with Me

Dave Black responded to my previous post on the United Methodist Church by referring to some thoughts he has had on his own denomination. I want to quote them here, since Dave’s blog doesn’t make linking to a particular entry possible.

7:55 AM Noted Methodist blogger Henry Neufeld ponders the question, How to cure the UMC? He asks:

How much time needs to go into preserving the organization? Is such time well spent? Those are questions that concern me these days.

For what it’s worth, Henry, I once pondered a similar question regarding my own denomination. The bottom of the bottom line for me?

I came away from the convention with a new realization that a Great Commission resurgence will not begin at the denominational level. It will end there. A Great Commission commitment must begin in our homes and marriages, and then in our local churches, each one of them. This is clearly the pattern of the book of Acts. The church at Antioch, the world’s first missional church, is proof of that.

I hope that all of this gets sorted out at the denomination level (and I predict that it will, eventually). But even if it doesn’t, there is nothing to keep me and my local church from doing all we can to help advance God’s kingdom on earth. (From Dave Black Online)

I have found that the concerns of people who are seeking to be servants and missionaries in different denominations are remarkably similar. We have some doctrinal differences, but we struggle with issues of getting the church active. I believe that if we get people studying the Bible, praying, and seeking the unity of the Spirit, doctrinal differences will tend to fade to the background. They’ll either be found to be non-essential or we’ll discover where we each need to change. I think we can be very patient with “erring brethren.” After all, we are ourselves erring brethren, almost by definition!

What I must keep in focus is simply this: God hasn’t called me to solve all the problems of the church. He hasn’t called me to make sure everyone else is fulfilling the great commission. He has called me to be transformed by looking to Him, and to fulfil my call to service.

I don’t mean that I can “be the church” alone. Rather, I can do a much better job of being part of the body if I’m spending more time correcting my own manifold flaws than I spend trying to correct those of others. Much more time, in fact!

Curing the United Methodist Church

Curing the United Methodist Church

No, not that type of curing. Fixing it. Making it healthy and productive.

Practically every day I find in my inbox, or on one of the various feeds I follow, an article on how to fix the dying United Methodist Church. While there are many disagreements on details, generally everyone agrees that the church is, in fact, dying. Everyone agrees that something must be done! Beyond that, we don’t have nearly as much agreement.

Today it was United Methodist Insight with an article by United Methodist pastor Teddy Ray. In it he notes that there were three substantive changes made at the 2012 general conference and that the judicial council has now struck down all three of them. This illustrates the difficulty of changing a very large structure. Pastor Ray is not ready to give up yet. He links to a number of other articles he has written, in which he tries to point the way to a better future.

One thing he recommends, and I agree, is to avoid getting stuck with committee appointments unless you truly believe you can do some good there. It has been a long time since I’ve been invited to sit on a committee and felt that it would be useful. That’s not a matter of boycotting committees. It’s a matter of carefully considering where you can do the best ministry.

As do many other writers, Pastor Ray comes to the conclusion that reforming the United Methodist Church, but that it might be done and he thinks it’s worthwhile. I’m not sure that his reasons, enumerated in Why I am (Still) a Methodist, are enough. I really appreciate Wesleyan theology, but at the moment I must confess that the main reasons I am still a Methodist are just three: 1) My current congregation has many positive aspects to it, 2) I don’t know where else to go with my theology, and 3) what reason do I have to assume I’d do any better?

How much time needs to go into preserving the organization? Is such time well spent? Those are questions that concern me these days.

Connectionalism and Dysfunctional Churches

Connectionalism and Dysfunctional Churches

I have made a few negative comments about conference dashboards keeping statistics on membership, apportionments, and other activities available to anyone who wants to read. I continue to question whether these numbers really tell the story of the health of the churches. There are, I believe, some very large and growing churches that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

Nonetheless, I think we have a problem with accountability in the United Methodist Church. When I took my new member class in my first United Methodist congregation, I recall the teacher, who made a number of historical errors, emphasized connectionalism. But if I were to go by his discussion of it, connectionalism means simply that we all go help one another as needed; nothing was said about accountability.

Those who are pushing the statistical approach are, I believe, responding to a very real problem. Pastors and church congregations in the United Methodist Church can go on indefinitely violating the discipline of the church or refusing to take necessary actions to make their church successful, while expecting that others will take up the slack.

That is what happens when a church continually fails to pay its apportionments. Now I’m not 100% a fan of apportionments as they are currently implemented, but they do represent a critical element of connectionalism. We put our money together to accomplish things we can’t do separately. Whatever reforms the system might need, the basic concept is sound, and more importantly if you have such a system, and some churches don’t do their share, all suffer.

This means that we need accountability as part of our connectional system. Churches need to be accountable to those who support them. In a more congregational system, an older church barely hanging on while slowly dying would have a hard time getting people to send money to help. A United Methodist congregation that refuses to take necessary actions, and continues to fail to support the team will nonetheless benefit from the resources of the denomination.

We should be willing to give money to support the mission of the church. But supporting a church that is willfully imitating a sinking ship sliding under the waves is not mission—it’s bad stewardship.

In addition, dysfunctional congregations continue to be part of the witness our denomination gives regarding Christ. Our “brand” can be tarnished by the actions of any of our churches. In the case of a denomination, tarnishing the brand also provides a negative witness—tarnishes the brand, so to speak—of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

My problem is that statistics can and generally do fail to get the entire picture. You can have good statistics and still not be building the kingdom of God. I welcome moves to make pastors more accountable. I think more could be done to make churches accountable as well.

But accountability is going to take more than reading the numbers. It will require people with good discernment who can see the context, make the necessary decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. It may be difficult. We may prefer to find some objective measure, but it is still necessary. An objective measure of a subjective set of values will, by nature, be deceptive.

In critical ways, the church is not a business. Thus my call is for accountability carried out by human beings who exercise all their discernment and wisdom and seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

 

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A United Methodist Pastor on Revitalizing Dead Churches

A United Methodist Pastor on Revitalizing Dead Churches

Out of This World: an Assessment of Christian CommunityThere are many days when the United Methodist Church discourages me, and I wrote a post yesterday with that sort of feeling. But there are two things that regularly encourage me: Encountering vital small congregations, and meeting some of our young pastors.

Via another young pastor, Geoffrey Lentz, who is doing wonderful things at First United Methodist Church and especially with our ICON service, I met one of these young pastors through my publishing work–be warned that I’m going to push his book in this post just a bit–Darren McClellan. His book is Out of This World: An Assessment of Christian Community, and in it he evaluates a church congregation through interviews, and then looks at some suggestions to improve the way in which we handle such things. It’s a slightly edited version of his Princeton Doctor of Ministry dissertation.

It’s with our paid/team imprint EnerPower Press, because it was submitted as a simple dissertation printing. Had it been submitted for traditional publishing, I might well have decided not to take it due to the size of the potential audience. In terms of quality, the manuscript need have no apologies (nor the author).

I’m not going to comment extensively on this, as it’s hardly my field, but in it, Darren starts with a view of discipleship derived from both Bonhoeffer and Wesley, and then allows the anonymous church members to express themselves on how this worked in their church. He then gives some specific ideas for reform in the church, and finally addresses suggestions to churches, to new pastors, to district superintendents, and to bishops. This may be a bit ambitious, but such directness is needed to prevent what Darren calls “vocational homicide.” That’s a strong term, no doubt, but my observation is that there are many people in the church who are guilty of that charge.

For my United Methodist readers, and any others interested, I’m going to put this book on sale for direct purchase. I see that the Amazon.com price today is $18.99. I’m going to put it at $18 shipped via Energion Direct. I’ll leave the sale price up for two weeks. I have some on the shelf here ready to ship.

At the same time, bloggers who are interested in reviewing it can e-mail to request a free review copy. The only requirement is that you do review it. There’s no requirement as to how you review it, but if you receive a free copy, I want to see your review. Oh, and the government wants you to note that you received a free copy.

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Dashboards, Discernment, and Responsible Leadership

Dashboards, Discernment, and Responsible Leadership

Logo of the United Methodist Church
Image via Wikipedia

Yes, that’s a big collection of topics, but I think they’re connected. John Meunier links to an excellent post by Dan Dick, which you should read before you read this one. The topic here is the conference dashboards in United Methodist annual conferences, such as this one for the North Alabama Conference.

I do have substantial problems with the church dashboard, including a great deal of the way in which the statistics are presented. I also am concerned about numerical measures of success in the church. It’s quite possible to build up numbers and be missing the mission and ministry of the church, and the proclamation of the gospel message. Some people will leave a church that is aiming for full commitment and discipleship. At the same time, as Dan Dick pointed out, some people’s professed disdain for such numbers is the result of laziness. But all of this has been thoroughly discussed amongst the Methodist blogs.

It seems to me, however, that the use of these numbers on conference dashboards is just a symptom of a certain retreat from personal responsibility. I don’t mean by this that our United Methodist bishops are off trying to avoid hard decisions. Rather, we are systematically trying to codify and quantify so much of human behavior and organizational policy that not only can avoid taking personal responsibility; they must.

For example, in my district, the district superintendent has 53 churches for which he is responsible, and the conference as a whole has more that 600 pastors, for which our bishop is responsible. Each year, pastoral appointments are made by the bishop, with the advice of the cabinet and many people in the churches, for those 600 churches. I think the temptation is going to be very strong to put some kind of simplified set of numbers on performance. The more details you have to consider, the harder it is to make a choice.

What I wonder is how often a bishop could get by with ignoring the numbers because, let’s say, one pastor is making better disciples, even if his numbers (for some reason) didn’t look as good. Could the popular pastor with the watered-down message be overlooked in favor of the pastor with the harder message of sacrifice and service? I recognize here that the pastor with the good numbers may be an effective disciple maker. I know some pastors in that category. The pastor with the bad numbers may be either lazy, or much more likely simply too beat up by parishioners, the system, and the unrealistic expectations we have for pastors that he is, in fact, performing badly.

But can the leadership determine this with accuracy in all (or nearly all) cases? Would they be willing to send the less popular pastor to a larger church?

It seems to me that collecting statistics is valuable, though I think someone well qualified in analyzing data should rework the conference display. I sense a few cases of deceptive use of numbers. Most importantly, the numbers are not related to the nature of the existing church body and the community in which it is located. All of that requires personal knowledge such as cannot be collected remotely.

But what if such information was collected and available? Would our leadership be willing to act against popular pressure? I see this as a common problem in leadership, at least in the United States today. We have a problem making a decision and standing up for it. Of course, in employment situations, the decisive leader may well have to present statistics as evidence in court in order to justify a decision.

That’s one reason for “zero tolerance” policies in so many cases. “Zero tolerance” means that people in leadership don’t have to make responsible, nuanced decisions. But “zero tolerance” is just the extreme case of avoiding responsibility. Putting it all on a set of numbers is another one. It’s a trend I don’t like, even though I recognize it as a response to the other extreme–a complete lack of accountability. (I have tremendous respect for Bishop Willimon, for example, whose dashboard I linked as an example. Yet I’m still not happy with it.)

I ramble because I don’t know a solution, other than to say we need leaders to take responsibility, and we need to make sure we know who is responsible for what, so they can be accountable. I also think we need to bring leadership closer to the local church so that each person in leadership is responsible for a reasonable number of people and churches. That would allow individuals to seek out all those nuances that back up the numbers.

I don’t know the solution, and since I am neither a pastor nor a church administrator, and have avoided most church committees, I am probably the wrong person to propose one. What I do believe is that, though structural changes can help, the answer doesn’t lie in precisely how the church is organized. There are congregational style churches that are just as dysfunctional as any Methodist church whose bishop sent the “wrong” pastor.

What we do need is a change of our personal culture, from that of an organization that must maintain itself to one of gospel driven discipleship.

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An End-Timely Dilemma

An End-Timely Dilemma

A couple of months ago my company, Energion Publications, began distributing two previously published books by Edward W. H. Vick. As I normally do, I planned to publish my reflections on these books here. Time has been in short supply recently, and I haven’t gotten to them.

The Adventists Dilemma

But fortuitously, one of the books is The Adventists’ Dilemma, and relates to the end times, so what better day could I have to publish some notes on the book than May 21, 2011, the day on which Harold Camping says the rapture will occur. Now as I write this, it’s already past 6 pm in many places, and thus Camping’s prediction is, predictably, failing.

As usual, this will be more my reflections on the topic of the book than a formal book review. In fact, it won’t resemble a formal book review at all. Since I now distribute the book in question, and thus have an interest in selling it, you should also not consider this unbiased. It is, however, a subject in which I have great interest.

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is also Dr. Vick’s background. There’s even a family connection. He replaced my uncle, Don F. Neufeld, as Greek teacher at Canadian Union College, now Canadian University College. Seventh-day Adventists have a very strong emphasis on eschatology. Indeed, the word “Adventist” in their name refers to their belief that Jesus will return soon.

The church came out of the Millerite movement in the 1830s to 1840s, which resulted in two disappointments, the first in 1843, and then the second–the Great Disappointment–on October 22, 1844. Those who are predicting Camping’s response to his disappointment today might consider the Adventist response at the time. One of those responses became the investigative judgment doctrine in Seventh-day Adventism, which maintained that October 22, 1844 was an important prophetic date after all, but that the event which took place was in heaven and thus we couldn’t see it. The time was right, but the event was wrong. (For those interested, this all came about through interpretation of Daniel 8:14, badly out of context in my view.)

But Adventists generally, and particularly Seventh-day Adventists, decided they had been wrong to set a date for the second coming, and so the dilemma I reference in the title is not based on setting dates. Rather, it has to do with the idea of proclaiming the “soon” coming of Jesus Christ. To quote from the book description of The Adventists’ Dilemma,

If you use ‘soon’ in the ordinary sense, you can’t go on saying that the Advent is soon. If you say that the Advent is ‘soon’ in a qualified sense (meaning ‘in the unknown and indefinite future but not long into that future’) the claim is meaningless. So the claim that the Advent is soon is either false or meaningless.

But, you may ask, doesn’t the Bible speak of the return of Jesus as “soon?” Doesn’t this same dilemma apply to the New Testament writers? Dr. Vick believes it does, they noticed, and they dealt with it. Since he spends three chapters on it, I’m only going to quote two snippets in summary:

Jesus as a Jew spoke to his generation. Jesus’ message to that generation was, Your opportunity is here and now. It must now be seized. It will pass. Jesus’ words sponke again to the early church. Your opportunity is here and now. You must seize it. It will pass … (123-124).

…Whatever the struggles ahead, the assurance of triumph, God’s triumph, makes the present full of meaning and full of hope (125).

The one weakness I see in this book is simply that Dr. Vick takes a very long time dealing with the issue of the meaning of “soon” and many who are not Adventists as such will find the material on the movement’s history and on recent Seventh-day Adventist responses on eschatology to be excessive. On the other hand, for those interested in those topics, the weakness is a strength.

I have shown little interest in Camping’s predictions, because they are so obviously wrong. But my question is whether we don’t both leave some Christians vulnerable to this sort of thing, and also provide an unnecessary opportunity for ridicule by failing to deal sensibly with eschatology. Some people will be concerned with end times whether we like it or not.

I went from growing up in the SDA church where eschatology was king, we all could quote verses from Daniel and Revelation to support our beliefs about the end, and the soon coming of Jesus was a firm conviction, to the United Methodist Church, where very few people had a clue. Now you may justifiably point out that I regard the Adventist “clue” as wrong. The problem on the Methodist side was not incorrect eschatology, but rather an eschatological vacuum. One Methodist minister even told me about inviting an SDA minister to teach Revelation to his congregation because, he said, “they know so much about it.”

But the issue here is not SDA or non-SDA, but rather just what your congregation will believe about eschatology in the absence of some good teaching. If you ignore Revelation, what will your congregation believe? In my experience, the answer is that those who care will follow someone on TV or in popular books, and that means the “left behind” eschatology.

I remember the first time I was invited to teach a Methodist youth group. This was a seminar offered on a day off from school, and the young people were selected–the most interested. I was to teach them about Bible backgrounds and Bible translation. I completed my presentation and opened it up for questions. What did they ask? Was I pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib.

Now most of their parents couldn’t have defined the terms, but these kids had heard them. They were quite surprised to find out I didn’t believe in either the rapture or the tribulation (in the sense of a seven year period of tribulation), and discussion died. I must not know much about Revelation!

But I found the same thing with the adults. People either knew nothing of eschatology, or they had absorbed popular culture on the topic. To them, Revelation was the left behind series. They had no idea there was any other way to look at things.

And there is where we mainliners have failed, I think. In the absence of sound discussion of the available scriptures and evidence, people will jump on just about anything that is confidently asserted and clearly proclaimed. While most Methodists are unlikely to go with a particular date, many are going to ride the “soon” bandwagon right off a cliff.

There is a sense in which imminence trumps immanence. We lose the motivation to live our lives for Jesus based on the fact that he is present with us now, because we’re too concerned with when he’ll return and end everything. We sing “soon and very soon, we’re going to see the king” when we should be sing “now and truly now, we always see the king.”

God’s ultimate triumph is our hope, but God’s presence now connects us to that hope and should motivate us to proclaim that presence and kingdom, the one that is with us while the earth continues.

I’d like to suggest that we need to make sound eschatology a regular part of teaching and preaching. I don’t mean by this responses to predictions like Camping’s. Explaining how wrong other people are, even if they are indeed very wrong, still leaves a vacuum. What we need to do is proclaim the positive message of eschatological passages. While we’re doing that, let’s put the emphasis on the good news, which is not how many people will be left behind or how many will burn in hell, but rather how many people we, as the body of Christ can reach with God’s grace and help acting as Christ’s body.

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Dave Black Has a Question on Ministry

Dave Black Has a Question on Ministry

The Jesus ParadigmYou can find the full context at The Jesus Paradigm (extracted from Dave Black Online). But here’s just the question itself:

When will appeals for vocations to the ministry end? And when, in their place, will the church encourage all of its members to seek God’s will for the area of ministry in which they can most effectively be used by Him?

Good question. But before I look at it, it brings up an interesting phenomenon I’ve noted in the church. My wife was mentioning to me how every pastor she has ever talked to about testimonies in the church service (having someone other than the pastor talk a bit on Sunday morning) says it sounds like a good idea. (Hint: Read 1 Corinthians 14.) Yet nobody ever actually does it.

Similarly in youth ministry, I’ve encountered many, many people who think young people should be more involved in the church in general, including leading and speaking, but it rarely happens. I recall one church that agreed generally in a meeting that the young people should be made welcome in the service with the adults and allowed, even encouraged to speak. But it didn’t actually happen.

Thus back to the call to ministry. I can’t remember anyone I’ve talked to who doesn’t agree that every Christian is called to ministry, to service. There’s some disagreement as to the distinction of different calls, for example, is a call to full-time ministry substantially different from a call to teach Sunday School? But when it comes right down to it, much of the ministry is done by the professional staff.

I recall a conference at which my wife Jody and I were both speakers. The other speakers, three of them, were all ordained. We were teaching about prayer. During the last session, the local church pastor made a call for people to come forward for prayer, and invited the pastors to come forward and pray. Odd, isn’t it? Is prayer a function of the ordained clergy? It reminds me of a former bishop here who was speaking at our church. He remarked that he really loved to have people praying for him who weren’t paid to do it!

In the Methodist church we have a long, daunting process through which we put young people who are “called to ministry,” but we’re pretty random about anything else. When I first discussed how I could serve in the United Methodist Church, already equipped with an MA in Religion, the only thing the pastor could think of was to become a candidate to be a pastor. When I pointed out just how little my training or gifts had to do with pastoring a church, he had no idea what to do. I worked at it and found a place, but the church as a whole didn’t know what to do with me.

Then there’s the multi-page survey, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but cannot possibly be the only thing we use to get people involved. Some people won’t identify their own gifts. I wouldn’t have checked a box for children’s ministry, for example, yet I’ve been invited to teach the third grade class at my church twice so far this year, with good success. (If you know me, you’ll realize that all glory for that must go to God. It’s a miracle!)

I think there would be an incredible transformation of the church if we just began to do the things we all know we ought to.

So I have a different question: Why is it that we don’t do these things that we’ll all generally agree we should do?

 

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On a Virtual Seminary Education

On a Virtual Seminary Education

Spire of First United Methodist Church
Image by unca_cthulhu via Flickr

Jason Byassee explains why he voted to allow up to 2/3 of seminary credits to be taken online in his United Methodist conference (HT: Joel Watts).

Readers of this blog will already be aware that I believe it’s inevitable that the majority of education is delivered by virtual means. Not only that, I think this is a good thing. I think it will make it possible to deliver a higher quality education. There is always resistance to new technology, because it takes away from our old standard ways of doing things. But instead of fighting such technology, which is still just a tool, we need to find ways to use it to make things work better.

I think our current concept of a university, a college, and a seminary are doomed. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing good in those concepts. There are experiences that do need to be carried out together. But those classroom lectures with hundreds of students ignoring the professor can be replaced by more efficient means, and we can spend our money, and the precious time of quality teachers on the most important things.

For example, I recall preparing lessons for my later classes while occupying a seat in a class on Daniel and Revelation, and then getting a comfortable ‘A’ in the course. I could have learned more by spending those hours online. Could the professor have done better? Absolutely. But he also had to deal with about 50 students, so detailed discussion of all points involving all of us would have been impossible.

On the other hand I would not want to exchange my time studying Greek exegesis with Dr. Sakae Kubo for anything else. There we had half a dozen serious students, and we made that time with an expert count.

Dr. Byassee comments on hands-on education, such as learning how to take the hand of a dying person. There’s where I think even seminary fails. I have talked to many seminary graduates who are uncomfortable praying with a member of their congregation when they graduate. They have to become comfortable as they pastor. Here the local church needs to be involved. I wonder why a young person, especially one contemplating full-time ministry, would be allowed to get through their youth in church without learning how to pray with one another.

I’d think strong local church involvement plus a good online program with additional time spent in person at a seminary (weekends, weeks, months, sabbatical years) would be a good formula. All of those elements should be lifelong, and not just during a time of preparation.

In my view, social media and virtual education will only hurt us if we don’t learn how to make the best of the resources available.

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