Thursday, July 30, 2015

Our Future Might Be Unforgetting the Past.

I know "unforgetting" is an awkward word. I borrow it from sacramental theology: when we try to define ἀνάμνησις/anamnesis in the communion liturgy - "do this in remembrance of me," it's probably better to place the emphasis on "unforgetting" rather than simply "remembrance." We who are Christians know what Christ did for us... but sometimes, we take it for granted and forget. So, we occasionally need to UNforget.

I occasionally get asked as a district superintendent and someone who is involved in the larger Connection of United Methodism, "What do you think will happen in the next 10-20 years with the Church." I am cautious to be a predictor of the future, because a lot of people who have done so have missed, and missed badly. One prediction I remember well: "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share." (Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, in the 4/30/07 edition of USA Today). I bet he'd like to have THAT one back. However, I'll chance having egg on my face - it will wash off if I'm wrong.

1. Pastors and churches are going to have be converted to be more than just flexible - we're going to have to be adaptable. It is obvious that collectively, the UMC is failing to make disciples in the U.S., and we have been failing for a very long time. The urgency is quickly coming before us as we will see churches close, resources dwindle, and our ability to do ministry on a global or even national level is going to force us to be a lot more creative. We'll have to make some very difficult decisions about what we can sustain versus what we will have to let go. My fear is that sexuality is going to continue to take up precious time and energy at General and Annual Conferences, and very little will be devoted to mission, discipleship, and clergy and lay leadership. Sexuality is important, but regardless of whether we change our stance or keep the stance we have, it will make little difference to the Kingdom of God if we fall apart as a denomination. The outside world could care less about our internal squabbling, but it does take note of our absence in making a difference in the world. Any outsider who might have watched the last General Conference online probably didn't watch for long; if they wanted to watch a good fuss they'd tune to CSPAN instead: their audio is better, the video resolution much tighter, and the connection more reliable. We are not making a good impression on the world when they watch us fight amongst ourselves - why would anyone want to join us?

2. Leaders are going to have to lead. To quote Bob Farr: "The church isn't going anywhere if the pastor is not willing to lead... You were not ordained and sent so that you can follow that congregation wherever it wants to go." (from Renovate or Die, p. 17). The other thing is that clergy and laity have to see themselves as co-leaders. Methodism started as a largely lay-lead movement. Circuit riders made their rounds, but it was lay leadership that directed each small community/church/society to grow in faith, discipleship, and number. Farr reminds us of the basics: (1) Radical hospitality, (2) Passionate Worship, (3) Intentional Faith Development, (4) Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and (5) Extravagant Generosity. Lay and clergy have to do those things together and practice them well. Being pastor-led and lay-led doesn't mean we need to pastor-centered or lay-centered; we need to be Christ-centered. It ain't about us. Jesus spent three years teaching the disciples just that. Wesley made that clear to the first Methodists that we are to serve instead of being served.

3. We need to "unforget" our past. Methodism began as a movement within an already-organized church, based on the basics: holiness, piety, grace, discipleship, mission, relationships, spiritual direction, covenant, and accountability. They relied on these more and relied less on buildings, business meetings, and trying to be all things to all people. They developed leadership. They embraced discipleship because they knew that disciples are made through being formed, not just by showing up. That's how we began as a movement. As I've shared before, John Wesley envisioned this movement doing a 180º from the way the Anglican Church was doing (or more accurately, NOT doing) church and discipleship. Unfortunately, I think we've done a 360º - and we're right back where we started.

The work that Elaine Heath and Bishop Ken Carter have done for us to think out of the box in planting new faith communities that might not have buildings, but nonetheless take the timeless message and mission out into the world into new places with new people "on the ground" in ways that defy traditional ways of doing church, bear looking at and thinking about. Several from the Florida conference were in England last week observing the work of "Fresh Expressions," a process that helps transform communities and individuals through resourcing and multiplying new ways of being church. We United Methodists have the structure and connections to do this better than anyone! Are we willing to do it, and make the needed shifts, for the sake of making more disciples? It reminds me of another Bob Farr quote: "Successful churches do what unsuccessful churches refuse to do." Ouch.

The early church was extremely counter-cultural. So were the early Methodists. We might consider being crazy-weird for Christ instead of being lockstep with society.

4. At the same time we need not trash everything we're presently doing, because some leaders and churches ARE thriving and growing. Instead of scoffing and being critical, we ought to be sharing our best practices with each other. This is when we United Methodists are our own worst enemies - we ought to have a franchise mentality instead of a rugged individualism mentally; if someone at another church is doing something better than we are, maybe we ought to embrace it! And if we're doing something well, we need to be willing to share it with others. Some in-depth prayer as a local church might help us understand what God wants us to do in this place, at this time, for this neighborhood... even if that means ditching what we might love so much but doesn't really do anyone else any good. Jesus warned us about being salt with no flavor. Wesley feared us becoming a dead, lifeless sect.

5. Ordained Clergy are going to have to set clericalism and educational bigotry aside, both in how we view lay leadership as well as view our colleague pastors who are licensed local pastors. Our "experiment" with requiring a master of divinity degree to become an elder (only in place since the late 1950's) may be an experiment that has not yielded the results we hoped. While the analogy was once made that "we want our doctors to have a medical degree, why wouldn't we want our pastors to have a divinity degree?", that analogy has of late fallen apart, as the medical community has shifted primary care to nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, who can diagnose, treat, prescribe medicine, etc. It's not about dumbing down, but realizing that requiring an M.D. may be overkill for much of what most of us expect and need when we're sick. We are in desperate need of "primary care" pastors, who can lead congregations to be formed and transformed.

Complicating this for ministry is the fact that the costs of a seminary education are getting to the point where only the upper-middle class to upper class will be able to afford it, while those of lesser means will have to carry an indebtedness that is irresponsible stewardship. And as we've also come to realize, there is no correlation between a master of divinity degree and pastoral effectiveness or a work ethic that is required in this season. Some licensed local pastors have proven just as capable of growing dying churches into medium and large membership churches, who are vital and effective in making disciples. We may need to revisit clergy education in this new season - and may find that the old model of mentor/apprentice may be more appropriate than the present pedagogy of an academic environment. This is NOT to be construed as anti-intellectual, but rather calling for a shift in HOW we educate our clergy in this season. At the present rate of tuition inflation, fewer will be able to afford to go, and a dwindling student enrollment will cause seminaries to shut down if they are not adequately endowed; it simply cannot be sustained. We are going to have more and more pastors, first- or second-career, who answer the call but go the local pastor route. Jesus asked simple fishermen to drop their nets and follow him. Wesley said, "Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth." (That goes for clergywomen and laywomen too).

Amidst these foretellings, I am more hopeful than ever about the future of the Church because I believe we are going to be forced to focus on the majors and essentials of the faith - rather than the minors - and to unforget our past. Experience tells me that there are many, many people who are hurting and NEED what we have as Christians that we take for granted: assurance, hope, love, peace, and healing. While I've seen churches close in the district I serve, I've also seen transformation happen in people and in churches, who are embracing (1) what they were made to be, and (2) why they are located in the places they are located.

God is not done with us - we just have to be willing to accept and engage the present reality toward the future: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Illusion and Denial

I am a shade-tree mechanic, and occasionally wrench a little on my motorcycle and old BMW convertible. My first car was a 1967 VW Beetle, and it was easy to work on: a flat-blade screwdriver and an adjustable crescent wrench would take care of 85% of the repairs needed. One day I was driving it and the accelerator cable snapped near the pedal. I didn't have what I needed to repair it, so I looked and found an old flashlight on the shoulder of the road. I took a battery out of it and propped the throttle open with it in the engine. While I burned some of the clutch out of the car, I managed to get home, where I fixed it easily.

Today, there's no such thing as an accelerator cable. It's been replaced with electronic throttle control (ETC). There's no mechanical connection between your accelerator pedal and the throttle in the engine. Even my motorcycle has ETC. Your pedal (or on a motorcycle, the throttle handle) has a sensor module, which sends a signal to an electronic control module (ECM) that has a computer chip in it, which then, after going thru several algorithms taking in consideration temperature, altitude/barometric pressure, oxygen, and how much load is being pulled, finally sends a signal to the throttle valve to open and close.

The illusion is that when you press down on the gas pedal, it pulls some cable that goes straight to the engine and speeds the car up. But in actuality, a control module does all that. We are not as in control as we think we are.

I recently watched one of the most interesting movies: "Pieces of April." A wayward daughter (Katie Holmes) invites her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) and estranged, dysfunctional family to her Lower East Side of Manhattan apartment. It's a short movie, premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2003, and filmed on a budget of $300k... with an all-star cast. It's earthy and not for the faint-of-heart, but it does not disappoint. I won't ruin the movie for you, but in short: it's about a dysfunctional family and estranged daughter who's trying to redeem her life and relationships amidst long memories and short tempers. It was a strong reminder to me that all families and relationships have elements of dysfunction and scarring. Perfect families, perfect churches, perfect denominations, perfect governments - all an illusion. To think otherwise is denial.

It might be a good idea for all of us to be reminded of this from time. We're all dysfunctional. Our
families, our churches, our relationships - none immune from dysfunction. And to compensate, we tend to live in various states of illusion and denial. The cure for a hurting world isn't critique and bashing - it's the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ. It may not always be returned, but it must always be given. You don't have to compromise your beliefs to live charitably and lovingly.

One of the things I've learned through spiritual direction and counsel is this: you've finally grown up when you can love - and forgive - your parents and family. God knows we probably need their love and forgiveness for stuff we did and do. What would it hurt to extend such to the family of God?
I mean, Lastly, love me not in word only, but in deed and in truth. So far as in conscience you can (retaining still your own opinions, and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand. And you may certainly go at least this far, that you speak honorably wherever you are of the work of God by whomever he works, and kindly of his messengers. And, if it be in your power, not only sympathize with them when they are in any difficulty or distress, but give them a cheerful and effectual assistance, that they may glorify God on your behalf. - John Wesley, Sermon, "On a Catholic Spirit," 1771.