The Path of Discernment

Over the past month, I have had many conversations with friends and fellow youth ministers who are in a transition time. The questions they ask are often similar: What is the right choice? Is there another option? What does God want?

These are important questions, but sometimes they just aren't clear.  I was walking and praying about this earlier this week in the woods near our church.  For some reason, it is much easier for me to pray while walking outside than sitting still sometimes (imagine that).  As I was walking I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me through my surroundings.  Sometimes, the path of our life is about to turn, and though we cannot see exactly where it is going, we can see that it is turning ahead.  We want to know where it is headed, but cannot because we are simply too far from the turn to be able to see.  In these situations, we have to continue waling our path until the turn becomes clear.

But sometimes, the path opens up and puts us out in an open field.  It is in those times when I believe God is saying that any choice we make is good.  We can stay straight, make a turn, or pause and enjoy the openness.  So, I ask my friends, which is it for you?  Are you on a path that is taking a turn you are just beginning to see ahead?  If you stay straight will you run into a tree? Or, does it feel like all options are open... is it all good?

From: Unpretending

Shavuot and Acts 2

I accidentally prepared for the wrong reading when working on the last video for the New Testament Experience. I figured I'd do a brain dump here and share the wealth.

Pentecost (literally the fiftieth day) is the beginning of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. This is the religious festival that was all about celebrating God giving the law (torah) to the people of Israel (which coincidentally happened fifty days after the Exodus).

If you remember your flannelgraph correctly, you may remember seeing a fire at the top of the mountain. This passage (along with Ezekiel 1-2) is one of the theophanies (visible manifestation of God) that the Jewish people read during the feast of Shavuot. The other main reading for this Festival comes from the book of Ruth. That is interesting because the book of Ruth foreshadows the incorporation of the Gentiles into the people of God as she is not a Jew but a Moabite (who are forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:3 to be part of the Jewish people... they are to be totally separate).

What a beautiful setting for the giving of the Holy Spirit! The festival celebrates the moment when all the people saw a fire on top of the mountain and received the Law that was to help them cover their sin and live in right relation to God once again. Now, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the fire is no longer on the mountain, but separates and rests on them individually. It fills them and they cannot help but cry out! The law that is being celebrated in Shavuot is being fulfilled before their very eyes.

From: Unpretending

Baptism of Jesus (Jewish/Cultural Background)

This is the first of several videos that will explore background information related to the readings for the New Testament Experience series that the Newsong service at my church is doing.  This is about Jesus Baptism found in Matthew 3.  So much information it was hard to decide!  Please email me questions:

This is also the first new post on the updated unpretending blog... see below!
(From: Unpretending)

A New Entry to Faith

I have been in many conversations with people about this idea, and this post is a sort of working out of those conversations in my ow mind. Credit for a lot of this stuff goes to my conversation cohorts: Nick Melton, Jim Kinder, Brad Boland, Jeff Spiler Amanda McNeal, Tobi McMillan, Jon Spallino, Becca Griffin, Bill McLarty, and Chris Folmsbee.

Here is the idea I grew up with regarding how someone comes to faith. We all start from a place of utter lostness to the Gospel. Then, through our life we are exposed to the concepts of God. We consider them, and eventually come to a place where we can sign on to being a Christian. In other words, we come to a place where we can believe the claims about faith made by the Christian organization we are involved with. Once we get there, we begin to grow in the faith learning more and more. We hope that as we grow in faith, our actions begin to change and look more and more like the actions of Jesus.

This conception of salvation and faith asserts that God woos through and to the teachings about Him. This system would say that these teachings are the best way to understand who God is, and when delivered through the community of faith lead the masses into the heart of God. After accepting by faith these concepts, the life of faith is about working those teachings out in our life.

I believe that this is changing. I believe that a time is coming, and may already be here, where the most powerful entry point into the life of faith in Jesus is not through doctrine, teachings, or even a powerful evangelist. I believe that the power of words in bringing people to place were they are able to give their lives to Jesus is waning. I would suggest that the process is turning on its head.

Here's the change: instead of faith leading to action, it is action leading to faith. People begin living out the teachings and life of Jesus (whether they would characterize it as this or not). Through their actions, they begin to be wooed by God through their experience. Then at some point, they discover that what they now believe as a result of their actions matches up with the person and teachings of Jesus and make the conscious decision to identify themselves with that faith. At that point, the cognitive side begins and is discerned and interpreted through the lens of their experience rather than the other way around.

Just as everything else, there is truly "no new thing under the sun." This has been happening, but has not been seen as the primary method. I believe that this needs to be the case soon, but not to the exclusion of the earlier pattern.

This changes how the church approaches ministry and evangelism. The primary "invite your friends" events are no longer hang-out or worship but mission. Instead of having bunches of small groups who are primarily focused on study with a once a month mission project, we have small groups of people ministering in the community each week who have a once a month study project. This is only adapting the old model. I'm sure that this has new innovations ready to be born as it is granted validity as a path to faith.

Just as interesting as this change in ministry are the implications that flow from this mindset. To a person who experiences faith in this way, anyone who does not actively live their faith ideals is seen as someone who has not met the most basic, entry into faith. To a person who experiences faith in this way, success is not judged on worship attendance but on active ministry. In a sense, one could imagine a church who resources this type of model with an actual priority on the serving piece having more people involved in service than in a worship service.

Do we need to jump ship and start a new church? Not yet, and maybe never. Do we need to convince our existing people that this is the correct method? Not really, it is growing on its own. Neither is better, they just have different emphases. We need to recognize this transition, and be aware of our bias towards the current model and try to experiment with what ministry through this emerging model looks like.

The Way Ahead (for the Church)

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about what the way ahead is going to look like for the Church. You may ask... why me? Well, my only answer for that is that anyone to whom that question occurs should think about it. If that person is in a leadership position in a church, they should think even harder. If that person feels called by God to bring renewal to that same Church, they should not stop thinking about it. I am all three. I think about this a lot.

I think best when I break things down into smaller observations (like thin slicing). After thinking them through, I can usually draw out some salient connections. That is what is going to happen here. Well, that AND this is all about what we SHOULD be doing and where we SHOULD be heading. If you want a list of things we need to stop, that post was just recently written so that this one was cleanly positive.

A practical, active faith

For too long, faith for most people has been about sitting and listening. For too long, we have received and received and received until it has begun to feel totally normal to be spiritually self-centered. I believe that when Jesus said "thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven" he was announcing a core tenant of our faith. He was talking about an outwardly-focused group of God-Lovers who were actively trying to make earth a little bit more like heaven and a little less like the messed up place they used to live. Paul said, let me show you my faith by what I do. AMEN!

We need to DO something. There are hurting, hungry, naked, cold, and ignorant people in a world where there is more than enough food, fabric and books for those not to be problems! I'm not talking about launching multi-national non-profit corporations. I am talking about you and I taking some sandwiches to hungry people downtown, or sending vitamins to an orphanage in Africa.

Small, Organic Community

I think that the way ahead includes a renewed focus on the small. By that I do not mean arbitrarily throwing complete strangers into a small group where they watch some rich pastor on a screen. I mean friends going to get coffee and talking about the Bible. I mean a couple of families finding ways to pray for their neighbors. I mean those groups coming together to worship and break bread together. There's an interesting thing called the Rule of 150 or Dunbar's number. The Rule of 150 basically says that because of several factors (some of which are biological) the largest effective community size is 150. Once it grows larger, people feel anonymous and disconnected. I believe that churches should find ways to respect this rule, and try not to have community gatherings (like weekly worship services) exceed 150. This is not to say that churches cannot be larger than 150, but that larger churches should have as their goal to be gatherings of many 150 groups.

Why? Because when you are in a smaller gathering, you feel like you are part of what is happening. You feel like your presence is missed. You feel like you are NEEDED. That encourages members who are not passive card-punchers but actively-involved shareholders. This is a section that will deserve its own post soon, but I will stop here for now.

A Return to Mysticism.

We believe that, though we are mortals, we can reach out and commune with the creator of the universe. That is a mystical belief. Don't get me wrong, I love science, but our faith exists in the realm of the mystic. For too long we have ignored communing with the Almighty through the ancient practices of Christian mystics and have lost the insight and wonder those practices afford. It is time to recover our mystical roots. It is time to spend an hour in silent meditation on the scriptures. It is time to learn how to truly listen to the voice of God. It is time to follow as the Almighty leads us into places of divine union.

A Primitive Faith

Throughout the centuries there have been movements (Wesley's methodist groups being one of those) that have reinterpreted the message of Christ to a new culture. One of the things I have noticed in my study is that many, if not all, share this idea of a return to what they call the "primitive" faith. By primitive the reformers and theologians have not meant backwards, uneducated, or any other negative connotation we have; rather, they have been calling for a return to Christianity in its original form. This is the same call that was heralded by Hybels, Warren, and others as an "Acts 2" faith. The goal is to recover something that was lost along the path that our religion has taken from Jerusalem to the Internet.

What has been lost? I see a couple right now, though I am sure there are many others. They are the concluding two sections.

Faith Rooted in Heritage and History

This is not just our heritage from the Gospels on, but our roots with Abraham Isaac and Jacob. There was a clear connection, and struggle at times, with the Jewish faith. In fact many of our rituals/sacraments were originally being performed by Jesus and His disciples in a Jewish setting. The baptism was a mikveh. The communion was a passover meal. And on and on.

This is one reason why so many people latch on to Rob Bell's rabbinical teachings. We are hungering for a faith that is rooted in something more than audience analysis and market research. We want to experience the Rock of Ages and see our part in His epic saga. Our teaching and discussion needs to engage with our full, ancient history as much as possible in the most interesting ways. I say everyone should decide on their favorite Rob Bell-type history-rich teacher/preacher and get that teacher's recommended reading list. And read it of course.

A United Body of Christ

There is nothing more odd to me than the sometimes hair-splitting, sometimes joking and sometimes venomous separations that exist within the Body of Christ. When I read the writings of the early church fathers, I see a constant conviction to ONE church. The people closest in time to Jesus' incarnation saw this as something worth fighting and sacrificing for. Huge compromises and incredibly long discussions centered around preventing any sort of significant split or schism.

Sometimes it seems like we couldn't be further from that commitment. What does that breed? The competition that I address in the post "10 Things Churches Need to Stop." I believe we need to rekindle the passion to break down the walls that separate Protestants and Catholics, Eastern Orthodox from Messianic Jews and come together as the Body of Christ. I think this diverse palette of expressions all supporting each other and coming together to make positive changes in our world will be more of a witness to the power of God than almost anything we can do.

Is this naive? Probably. Is this overly optimistic? Definitely. But this is the way it needs to be! Those who feel this way need to start acting together. We need to start collaborating. By our actions of unity we will expose the foolishness of separation and live into what I think was a clear passion of Jesus, the disciples, the apostles and the early Church Fathers (Jn 17:21, 1 Cor 1:10, etc). Will we ever again live in a world where there is a single church with a single man at its helm? Probably not, but we can connect these severed limbs and become a viable organism again. It will be hard; it will take a lot of work; it will make everyone involved repeatedly furious. But, it is necessary if we are to be the Church God desires.

The Way Ahead

Here's what I am proposing. Since it is clear to almost every person considering the issue that we are either in the middle of or coming to the end of a huge cultural shift from the modern age to the postmodern one, we need to change now. I believe we need to start acting so that we can make some mistakes and find the right path as soon as possible that leads to a clear expression of Christianity in a postmodern era. Do we abandon all that has worked in the past? Absolutely Not! Much of that is needed to help us make the transitions, and I believe a good bit will need only minor tweaks.

We cannot afford to allow our faith to become irrelevant and die because we were afraid to try new things. There is no excuse for our fear of the unknown to stop us from reaching a world full of people who need Jesus but have no interest in the current expression of Christianity. I don't know about you, but I refuse to watch the only viable hope for mankind suffocate because we are afraid some people might join a different church. Nor will I allow this transition to be as horribly wounding as the Great Schism or the Reformation. This must be a healing. It must be a rejoining.

I guess what I'm saying is: not on my watch!

10 Things Churches Need to Stop

Before I start, I must be clear about where I am coming from. I have two things from which to draw... a good bit of experience (12 or 13 years) as a professional minister and I am part of the next generation of leaders whose mindset will have to see the way forward. Nothing more, nothing less. This post is not about my current church. It is about all churches. It is about my heart for renewal in my denomination. It is about trying to be part of the solution. Although the church I am serving is doing quite well, I see churches failing all around me and am concerned for the longevity of Christianity as we know it if churches do not change. My whole goal is to find the larger things that are hindering us from remaining in the center of the movement of God in the World. My next post will be more about that.

10 Things Churches Need to Stop

1. Tracking Spiritual Growth - Spiritual growth could possibly be the most individually unique thing there is. When have you ever met someone who responded to the question, "How did you grow closer to God?" with something like, "I was muddling through, until I met my church's Goal of [insert arbitrary measure of spiritual growth here] and began to grow closer to God?"

The truth is: God is pursuing us! He takes what we offer and builds on it. I believe that we experience God the way he made us to experience Him. Some people have a super-consistent personality and some people have a much more scattered personality. Therefore, some people will get up at the same time every day, do the same spiritual practice, and grow step by step. Others will do something in the morning, then something the next day in the evening, and then nothing. The next day, they will do two hours of intense something. Who's to say which is better? Not Me! We need to stop trying to quantify spiritual growth so that we can measure our church's effectiveness. We know the things that connect people to God... those haven't changed in thousands of years! Why not just try getting people to grow rather than getting them to conform to some arbitrary, rigid structure we have created?

2. Being Church-Program Pitch Men - I recently noticed a colleague in ministry's Facebook stream... every post was some variation on: "I am so [insert annoying superlative/adjective combo] about [insert name of church program] because of [insert reason or mysterious saying that you would have to come to find out] see you there at [insert time of program]." It made me acutely aware of how much of my passion and energy was spent promoting our programs instead of really displaying the amazingness of who God is. I felt guilty.

This is mostly directed at professional ministers. If the only reason people are coming is because they received three phone calls, four passionate pleas from the pulpit, three letters, two reminder cards, and one door hanger, the program isn't meeting a need! Why not take all that energy and proclaim the brilliance of our creator?

3. Labeling - Look, the only people who know what "missional" or "attractional" or "ecclesial" mean are uber-church-geeks. These terms are as useless as they are meaningless. Our world is in a state of change (see here and here) we do not have a solution, or know exactly how we will need to do ministry in the future to minister in that world. Attaching to one of these ideas as if it is the fulfillment of something is just short of crazy, and broadcasting that to the world is even less rational.

As an aside... we need to start using words for our programs that mean the same thing to non-Christians as they do to Christians. For example, only Christians know that "contemporary" refers to using screens and songs written or revised after 1985 rather than something/someone not being dead.

4. Showing one generation the door - We need the wisdom of the older generations, the stability of the middle generations and the vision of the younger ones to be the Body of Christ. What would happen if we stopped defending the sub-interests of one group or another and sought ways to sacrifice our preferences for the health and unity of the church?

5. Segregation/separation - Really? There's less than 5% of your church that are of a different race than you? There are no poor/middle class/rich people in your church? Why have we become so centered on our niche that we cannot worship in gatherings that come anywhere close to resembling the body of Christ? I have no idea how to fix this, but we look like hypocrites when we say that these things do not change a person's standing before God, but worship in homogenous groups. I am definitely part of the problem. I am praying and thinking about this. I would love to hear your solutions.

6. Wasting Resources - The world is hungry; most of the chocolate in the checkout line was harvested in part by slave labor; the fourth leading cause of death in the third world can be solved with sixteen bricks and a bit of mortar; there are 2 million children in the commercial sex trade; even though the earth produces enough food for everyone to eat well, a child dies every five seconds from hunger. If this is the case, why is there a church with a custom-made sony screen that splits in two on a track to then become two screens on the side instead of the middle? Why do we spend so much time on petty problems like the color of the flowers outside the church? Why are we not sending a bottle of over the counter medicine per family per month to people who need it?

7. Building - Let's face it, with very few exceptions, we are not building works of art that proclaim God's glory. We are building glorified Wal-Marts or office buildings. If Churches need to expand, there are plenty of those buildings that are sitting empty and need to be used. What's better, if things go south, a church is never in the place of having to keep on going because they are obligated to pay a mortgage! That may sound extreme to some, but when we lived in California, I knew of MANY churches, with 10-20 members, that were renting rooms to whoever was willing so that they could pay the mortgage.

8. Making and Publicizing 5-year plans - Things are simply changing to quickly to be able to see that far into the future. We need to not commit to long range plans. I believe that we need to become agile and focus on the more immediate 12-24 months so that we can respond to this tumultuous time. That is not to say that we become directionless or stop thinking ahead. Instead, I suggest that we keep our longer-range plans close to the vest so that they can be tweaked or scrapped without everyone feeling like an earthquake just happened.

9. Mislabeling fun, Christian-attracting events as "outreach events" - We need to be reaching out to a hurting world, but an Easter pageant or Christian concert just doesn't do that. That reaches Christians. While it is important to have times where we have fun and enjoy the creativity of the body of Christ, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that these fulfill our call to the non-christian world. In short, we need to find ways to introduce a hurting world to the Almighty Healer.

We need to be about identifying needs and then using our resources to meet those needs. Over the last month, I have watched as students in our youth group have started everything from prayer groups at their schools to collecting unused food at the end of the day at their schools to give to the hungry. It takes very little effort to find a need and meet it, but it does take effort. It takes a transformation in our mind from faith being about me receiving to faith being about me giving.

10 Being Competitive - I recently observed a couple of ministers intentionally targeting committed believers (at several other churches) who were plugged in and passionate about their faith community. There is not other way to say it except that this is absolutely wrong! The field is so vast, the lost are so many that it is wrong at the least and sinful at the most to intentionally compete with other churches for the found. If churches are doing this, they must stop, and turn their eyes from the barns to the fields! Everyone has people who move from one place to another, but when enticing those believers is your growth strategy... it has to stop.

I am looking forward to a post I am working on called "The Way Ahead" in which I look back on all that God has done in our Engage in the Movement campaign (not capital). In a way this is the mirror image of that post.

A Shift in Authority

I have mentioned in another post about the periodic cultural shifts that have occurred in the Church throughout history. It seems that about every 500 years or so, we have to refigure who we are and how we understand our faith because of fundamental cultural shifts that are happening. I was pondering this as I was rereading (listening is more accurate) the book Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. His goal in the book is to find a way that we can allow the multiplicity of doctrines to not divide us, but unite us.

That being said, he was pointing out that in the medieval church authority resided in the church. If someone asked why you believed something, you said that you believed it because the church or priest told you. He went on to describe how in the modern time, the authority shifted to the Bible. However, we are now entering time when the focus of the authority for belief will shift again, and I believe I can see a bit of the direction it is taking.

I believe that the focus will shift towards the community of believers. In other words, when someone asks why you believe something, you will not say because the church says so, or even because the Bible says so, but because the community (body of Christ) has consensus. This feeling comes from several places.

One of the more recent developments in church History is the movements called the "waves of the Holy Spirit" From these moments several thriving denominations (though they may not want that label applied to them) have arisen. One of the key differences between these movements and current mainline denominations is their comfort with the revelation of the Spirit over and above (though generally not in contradiction to) the Scriptures. In addition to this is a growing cultural trust in the "Wisdom of the crowd" (think Wikipedia and Digg) which basically says that if enough people agree on something, it is probably right. Combining these in the realm of faith, you get a system of authority that is based on a melding of divine revelation and wisdom of the crowd.

I am not saying that I agree with this idea or even that I believe it is inevitable, but is feels generally correct in where it points. Like it or not, there will be a shift in the basis of authority within Christianity over the next fifty years or so. It would behoove all Christians to pay attention and help guide this to a place that is healthy, sustainable, and relatively orthodox. If not, no complaining when it doesn't go the way you want it to later!

Mary, the Garden, and a New Eden-View

I am preaching (or preached depending on when you read this) this Easter Sunday (7am!) on John 20. One thing that I did not (or will not) have enough time to talk about is this interesting bit of the story.
First things first, John is not a haphazard author. He is very intentional about how and where he uses words and details. That being said, there are two interesting qualities about the resurrection narrative that we will miss if we aren’t careful. When talking about the tomb where Jesus is buried John says, “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.” (John 19:41) When Mary is in the tomb chatting it up with the angels, she turns and “thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’" (John 20:15b).

What is the obscure detail we hear? Garden, garden, gardener. John is trying to point toward something. He is trying to paint the resurrection as something far beyond that moment. He is painting it as the birthing of something sown at the very beginning of The Story. It appears that he is announcing a return of the gardener… a return to (of) the garden.

How can that be? Wasn’t the Garden of Eden perfect? If it was, and this is about returning to the garden, then something messed up because we all know that our world is far from perfect. I think there are two possible solutions (both of which could be simultaneously true).

First is the way many would instinctively deal with this. We would say that John was talking about the fixing or returning to a spiritual state that had been broken since the fall of man and can now be mended through Jesus. In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection allows us to have true forgiveness and a relationship with God the Father.

Another way to understand it has its roots in the Hebrew language. Our understanding of the garden flows from a Greek dualistic view of the world (light and dark, good and evil, perfect and imperfect, etc.). This was not the way the Jewish people viewed the world. Without chasing that rabbit trail, we can recognize that they have a fundamentally different view of some things than we do. Perfection is one of them.

The Hebrew language does not have a word for “perfect.” In fact, the word we generally translate as perfect (tam/tamam) means complete/whole, and is relational meaning suitable/mature. In other words, it is not a static state.

In the Greek understanding the Garden of Eden must exist in a relatively static state of perfection because any change would mean one of the two states was not perfect. However, if we look at it through Hebrew eyes, we see that the Garden was suitable, mature. It was complete in the sense that someone who has completed puberty is a finished with their physical maturing and ready (physically) to create offspring or in the sense that the turkey has completed cooking because the little plastic thingy popped out. The Garden in this understanding is no longer perfect in the Greek way of thinking, but good. (I think it uses that term somewhere in the story)

That changes things. When Jesus rises from the dead, it doesn’t instantly bring guilt and condemnation in a new level because now we can be perfect (again?). Rather, it brings hope that we do not have to continue in a downward spiral. We do not have to fade into the darkness as the stone rolls over the cave. No! We can break out into glorious light as Jesus brings us once again to a place where we can mature spiritually. Where we are no longer stuck in some infinite spiritual adolescence (yikes!), but can get past the voice changes and tripping and get to the real life of being a follower of God the Father.
Like I said, two options. Both can be true. Or either. You must listen to Him, and I trust that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to reveal the truth to your soul. As for me, I’m always discovering His truth and my own error.

Bit o' Trinity

The trinity is a difficult subject to understand because it is so far beyond our experience of life, but at the same time, it is core to our belief as Christians. I recently wrote a theology of mission for seminary in which I took by best hack at a concise expression of my understanding of this doctrine. The emphasis here is on concise. It means no more and no less than what it says, for more, it would require hundreds of pages to work out all the implications as many books have attempted. My hope is that sharing it here will cause you to take a moment to ponder the nature of the being of God. Questions welcome.

Before we get into the specifics of mission, we must recognize the underlying concepts from which it flows. Key to this entire venture is the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is important as it places at its core the person of God. Two aspects of the trinity that are key to mission are connection/relation and sending/reaching out. What is difficult about understanding the Trinity is its nature of being three distinct beings that are simultaneously one being. This idea is echoed in the phrasing the Bible uses to describe marriage in Genesis 2:24 where it figures the result of the marriage relationship as being that the two individuals “will become one flesh.”[1] Is it referring to a literal organic connection that causes them to be joined as one organism? Of course not. Rather, it is trying to symbolically represent the depth of relationship that two beings experience in the consecrated marriage relationship. If we take this conception and apply it to the Trinity, we can understand it as saying that the three beings are so closely and deeply related as to become one. The most useful semantic conception of this for me is to say that the Trinity is the personification[2] of relationship.

The nature of the person(s) of the Trinity is not the singular important attribute to the discussion of mission. Quite applicable in this discussion is the dynamic of the Trinity as sending/reaching out. The most useful description of this has come through the writing of Killian McDonnell. His description is both clear and concise: “One model of this dynamic is God reaching through the Son in the Spirit to touch and transform the world and to lead them in the Spirit through the Son back to God.”[3] Here we see the Father as continually reaching and receiving, the Son as continually sending and channeling, and the Spirit as continually connecting and directing. This flows directly from the scriptures as Jesus is seen almost as the hand of God in John 5:19.[4] Though God sends the Son, his sending is not complete in the Son, but as the Son sends the Spirit,[5] or more accurately, the Father sends the Spirit in the name of (through) Jesus.[6] The theological peculiarities of this model are not as important as it expressing the core reality that can be seen throughout scripture; namely, God is constantly reaching and sending. If we are to be His people, and are called to strive to display the image of Him that He has placed within us by becoming more and more like Him, we must echo his sending and connecting. This is the spring from which flows the river of mission. It is the divine source for all that we do to bring God’s Kingdom to earth.

[1] Genesis 2:24 NIV
[2] This is not personification in the sense of the literary device that gives human qualities to inanimate objects, but in the sense that the trinity expresses relationship by creating a being that ex explained best by relationship. It is personification in the sense that is personifies (embodies, epitomizes, is the incarnation of) relationship.
[3] Killian McDonnell, The Other Hand of God: The Spirit as Universal Touch and Goal. (Minnesota: Michael Glazier Books, 2003), 3.
[4] In this verse it says that what the son does, the father also does, in a sense as if Jesus is the physical expression of the reaching of God into the world.
[5] Acts 1:4,8
[6] John 14:26

The Great Restructuring of the Methodist Church

The following is most of a paper I have written for my seminary UMC Polity class on the upcoming amendments being voted on by this year's annual conferences. For links to more online resources, please see the end of the post, and please forward this to your friends and pastors so that we can all be well informed.

In the summer of 2008 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church passed several amendments that focused on the most significant restructuring since the merger that created the denomination. The amendments came from proposals of a six-person task force that were amended and then strongly endorsed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table and focused on the global structure of the church. This paper seeks to explore the purpose and implications of the twenty-three amendments that implement the regional conference structure by looking at all sides of the conversation surrounding the amendments. I will start by looking at the amendments themselves, then at the reasons put forth by those who are supporting the amendments, then at the same for those in opposition followed by the proponents’ response to those objections. I will conclude with my observations on the implications for the church at large.

Explanation of Ammendments

Of the twenty-three proposed restructuring amendments, most simply deal with changing verbiage in the discipline from “central” to “regional;” however, there are five that make more than superficial name changes. The first such amendment is amendment four. Besides the aforementioned name change, this amendment deletes “for the church outside the United States” when referring to the central (now changed to regional) conference in paragraph ten of the constitution. This means that the regional conferences will be a church-wide structure that includes the churches in the United States. Next, amendment ten together with amendment twenty-three extends this concept by altering paragraphs twenty-eight and thirty-eight respectively to make the setting of boundaries and number of regional conferences a General Conference decision.

Amendment 13 is the most significant of the amendments as it grants many powers to the regional conferences of which there are six significant powers to point out. First, for those regional conferences in which there are no jurisdictional conferences, the regional conference will have the task of electing bishops to serve that regional conference. Second, the regional conferences have the power to create boards “as may be required” opening up the possibility for large organizations related to general conferences. The third significant power is that regional conferences decide the number and boundaries of the annual conferences. This seems to be in conflict with ¶27.4 that assigns the same power to Jurisdictional conferences. The next power of significance allows the regional conferences, subject to the General Conference, to adapt the Discipline to the conditions in their respective areas. The fifth significant power given to the regional conferences in this amendment is the power to appoint a judicial court “to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapter or new sections of the regional conference Discipline.” The phrasing here implies that the regional conferences’ judicial court will rule in three areas: 1. Rules, 2. Regulations, 3. Revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference discipline. The final significant power assigned through this amendment is the appointment of an appeals committee to hear appeals from pastoral trials.

The last significant amendment is amendment twenty-six. This amendment establishes a college of Bishops for each regional conference. In those regional conferences without jurisdictional conferences, the college of Bishops would arrange the plan of Episcopal supervision for the annual conferences. For those with jurisdictional conferences, that power would remain with the Jurisdictional conference.

The Supporting Argument

Now that the amendments and their changes are clear it is important to understand the rationale and purpose behind them from those who created and support their propositions. The common reason pointed to by all supporters is the globalization of the United Methodist Church. Proponents point to the fact that our church structure reflects an ethno-centric viewpoint that places the United States at the center with all the other nations as affiliates to the United States’ denomination. Bishop Scott Jones points out that for twenty-five percent of the denomination, their main language is French . Tex Sample offers that by 2012 over 50% of our denomination will exist outside the United States calling our current structure “colonial.” In addition, he points to the Korean and South American Churches becoming autonomous Methodist churches as a symptom of this problem. Kristina Gonzales captures the spirit of all of the supporters’ understanding of this structure when she says that our current “language, processes and structure really marginalizes our central conferences.” Reverend Johnathan Wanday, a member of a central conference, calls this a “bold step from the leaders of the church to make every body feel that they are equal in our communion.”

Also cited as a reason for the changes is the fact that, because of our current structure, a lot of time of the General Conference and the boards of the General Agencies is taken up with U.S.-only issues. In fact, Bishop Ann Sherer states in a video created by the Task Group on the Worldwide Nature of the Church that over half of the work of the General Conference is focused on U.S. Issues adding that “eighty percent of the book of resolutions concerns the United States.”

One of the reasons repeated across all the proponents is that it has been to long of a wait since a proposal in 1996, some tracing the process back to 1964 , and we should not put off such important legislation any longer.

Proponents of the amendments point out that a study committee, chaired by Bishop Jones, has been appointed to bring enabling legislation to the 2012 general conference to flesh out how this structure should work, practically. Jones promises as the head of that committee, they will follow the guidelines given by the General Conference to the best of their ability. The reasoning behind passing the structural changes separate from the practical implementation is because doing both at one general conference, in the words of Bishop Jones, “gets really confusing, that’s hard.”

The Opposing Argument

The amendments are not without their opponents. The chief concern among the opponents is the vagueness of the amendments. In direct conflict with Bishop Jones reasoning of passing the structure and implementation separately, those in opposition see vague wording and open-ended powers that could be easily abused. Maxie Dunnam says that “No one knows what the regional conferences that will be created by these amendments will vote on… We have no idea what issues will be handled separately by regional conferences.” Basically, the opponents do not favor altering the constitution until they have seen a plan of how a restructured church will enhance unity, growth, and development. This repeated concern is that the church is being asked to establish a new structure without knowing how that structure will be implemented. They call to wait until the task force brings its report to the 2012 General Conference. Then, the church can alter the constitution to reflect the needs of how the new structure will operate.

In response to the limiting of the U.S. issues in General Conference and other church-wide agencies, Maxie Dunnam is concerned saying, “we are better in the United States when we hear the perspectives of the poor and the voices of diversity on the issues that are before us here.” He sees the respect that the central conferences have for the Bible challenges the U.S. church to live closer to God’s will for His people. Similarly, Eddie Fox sees this as establishing a national church. His concern is that this idea violates one of the core tenants of Methodism: the connectional system.

Another concern is the implications of creating another level of bureaucracy with its associated agencies, employees, and most important: cost. Eddie Fox is particularly concerned with there being another layer of bureaucracy separating the local church from the general conference asserting that it will have a negative impact not just because of the separation or cost, but also because of the time it will demand.

Possibly the most serious concern of the opponents is the ability of the regional conferences to appoint their own judicial councils and appeal committees. The concern here is that different parts of the communion would begin adopting different practices and beliefs that would ultimately result in schism. Dunnam compares this move to the structure of the Anglican communion and cautions against a similar schism to the one occurring in that communion occurring in the United Methodist Church being a serious possibility in the future because of the potential decisions of these bodies.

The final critique from the opponents of the amendments strikes at the heart of the purpose of these amendments to move away from a U.S. centric model. They assert that these amendments did not come from the persons the amendments claim to help, but were proposed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. They claim that the ammendments were made without serious input from those in the central conferences, and are an example of the “colonial” mindset Tex Sample refers to. In fact, Jerry Kulah, a District Superintendent from Liberia, says that the African church was not consulted on this matter. These opponents suggest that if changes in the United Methodist Church’s structure need to be made, they should be made “not for the church of developing world, but … with the church of the developing world,” asking them to take the lead while we listen.

Response to Opponents

This debate is as lively as one would expect on issues of this level of importance and consequence. Those in favor of the amendments, chiefly Bishop Scott Jones, have tried to address all of the concerns brought by those opposing the amendments. In regards to the need for input on U.S. issues, Bishop Jones cites the difference in the ways churches are planted in developing world and the need for more than one hymnal as examples of the need for separate regional conferences and conversations. In response to the idea that the regional conferences will be more bureaucracy he says, “That’s not the case, there is no level of bureaucracy contemplated here.” Bishop Jones clarifies that statement by saying that the proposal is that regional conference will take up part of the time that is used currently General conference by meeting immediately afterwards. In regards to the concern about a Judicial Council, he says, “That’s not true… there is one Judicial council for our church.” He clarifies this statement by saying there may be “groupings” that talk about issues only relevant to a particular region. When talking about the proposals originating with the people to whom they claim to help, Scott says that the proposal was sent to the central conference bishops who unanimously approved it; additionally, he asserts that the central conference bishops pushed these organizations to make a proposal “something like this.” It is not clear in his statements where in the process the bishops of the central conference were asked to approve what was going on, but is clear that they were not the ones designing the proposal. Finally, Bishop Jones adds that these amendments are completely neutral with regard to the issues of human sexuality, and that will have to be decided by the General conference .

My Observations

It is not something I take lightly to say, but Bishop Scott Jones is being less than truthful in several of his claims about this legislation. First, the idea that regional conference is not additional bureaucracy is patently false. As illustrated in the aforementioned explanation of the amendments, the regional conferences are more than a meeting that happens after general conference as the bishop suggests (in fact, that piece of information is to be found nowhere in the proposed amendments); rather, they are able to have boards “as may be required” to fulfill their mission of promoting “evangelistic, educational, missionary, social-concern, and benevolent interests and institutions of the Church within their own boundaries.” That alone illustrates the bureaucracy that will be created by and around these regional conferences without even going into all the other powers previously discussed that are granted by amendment 13.

Additionally, though there is a semantic difference between court and council, it is difficult to imagine how Bishop Jones’ assertion that there will not be Judicial Councils appointed by regional conferences could be seen as truthful since amendment thirteen grants the following right to the regional conferences: “To appoint a judicial court to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference Discipline enacted by the regional conference.”

Though it is true that there is no specific act in the amendments in regards to the issue of human sexuality, it does not take a lot of creativity to see how these new structures and rules could and, if history is any indication, would be used by those who desire change in those areas to affect their desired outcome. One could imagine a scenario where the criterion for ordination, which Bishop Jones already noted must be different for different areas of the world , might be interpreted as needing to be opened to practicing homosexual persons. With the regionalization of the church, the debate at general conference would be not only over homosexuality but also over the authority of regional conferences in the area of ordination criteria.

Besides the concern of those in the developing world over not being consulted in a meaningful way in the design of this system, what is clear in this conversation is that the proposed amendments are far too vague. They grant broad power to these conferences to interpret the discipline and make judicial decisions without clarifying what areas are “off limits” to those bodies. They also give to the General conference the power to change the boundaries of and create regional conferences by a simple majority vote which opens up the option of there being separate regional conferences even within one country ( e.g. a western U.S. conference and an eastern U.S. conference) without specifying the process by or reasons for which those changes are to be made. It even causes the discipline to conflict with itself. In short, it is my opinion that the passage of these vague, incomplete amendments is far too dangerous to be considered a viable option.

Links to online resources:
The amendments and resources for download by the authoring group.
Maxie Dunnam on YouTube
Bishop Scott Jones on YouTube
Eddie Fox on YouTube
Tex Sample on YouTube
Jerry Kulah (Liberian D.S.) on YouTube

The Seven Last Words of Jesus

The tenebrae service on good Friday is the only service in the church year that is supposed to be a service of mourning. The rest of the year we celebrate the risen Christ, but in this service, on this day, we mourn the death of God. This is the reading for that service. A warning, it is powerful. Take time to imagine each scripture. Easter will come, but for now, mourn.

Luke 23:33-34 -- When they came to the place called "The Skull," they nailed Jesus to the cross there, and the two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Jesus said, "Forgive them, Father! They know not what they do."

Luke 23:39-43 -- One of the criminals hanging there threw insults at him: "Aren't you the messiah? Save yourself and us!" The other one, however, rebuked him, saying: "Don't you fear God? Here we are all under the same sentence. Ours, however, is only right, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong." And he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!" Jesus said to him, "I tell you this: Today you will be in Paradise with me."

John 19:25-27 -- Standing close to Jesus' cross were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there; so he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that time the disciple took her to live in his home.

Mark 15: 33-34 -- And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Elo-i, elo-i, lama sabach-thani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

John 19:28 -- After this jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture0, "I thirst."

John 19:29-30 -- A bowl was there, full of cheap wine mixed with vinegar, so a sponge was soaked in it, put on hyssop and lifted up to his lips. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished."

Luke 23:46 -- Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.

Christ has died.

Scapegoats & Yom Kippur

In my sermon I talked (or am talking depending on when you are reading this) about the Jewish ritual of the Day of the Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is full of symbolism that points to Jesus and helps us understand His sacrifice for us. As a matter of fact, all of the Jewish feasts in the Bible have a messianic nature to them, but that is a whole class I teach from time to time. I digress.

The scapegoat bit happened at the end of the liturgy of Yom Kippur. After the scapegoat was selected, there would be a crimson piece of wool tied to its horns, after offering all the other sacrifices, the high priest would place his hands on the head of a scapegoat, symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the goat, and pray, "I beseech You, O Lord; Grant atonement for the sins, and for the iniquities and transgressions which the entire house of Israel has committed against You, As it is written in the Torah of Your servant, Moses: 'For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you from all your sins - before the Lord you shall be purified'." The congregation responds with the words "Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom, for ever and ever."

Then, the scapegoat was taken out into the desert to a place called Azazel where the priest would push the goat off of a cliff. Before he did that, he would take a piece of the wool that had been tied around the goat's horns because once the goat had died, the wool would turn white fulfilling the scripture, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall whiten as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool" (Isaiah 1:18)

Hebrews 9:11-14 talks about Jesus being the replacement for the goats used on the Day of Atonement. Dying once and for all for the forgiveness of sin.

What is interesting to me about all this is that we still use this term to refer to people who are blamed for the wrongs of others. This happens often in families. Saying "If it wasn't for your ________ I/they wouldn't be so _________." The problem is that no other human can take the consequences of your sin for you. The only one that can do that is Jesus. He did it once and for all. He is the only scapegoat that will stand up under such a heavy burden. Maybe it's time for you to unload... don't worry, He can take it. He already did.