Friday, October 31, 2008

Getting Closer... Getting Worse

As the election gets closer, the number of really misleading emails crossing my inbox increases. I have posted and linked a couple of times already about our higher calling as Christians to not spread falsehoods. See "And Let's Be Careful Out There" and "More thoughts on politics and truth."

Church of the Resurrection's Adam Hamilton has another great addition to the conversation you can read here:

"Christian” E-Mail About the Candidates? at Seeing Gray: Faith, Morality, and Politics in a Black and White World

Your comments are welcome on any of the posts. Are you receiving these emails? Do they affect you differently if they are about your candidate or the other candidate? Do you forward? Do you respond? Do you ignore? Let me know.



Thursday, October 30, 2008

Discipleship Fear and Love

1 John 4:17-18
17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Part of developing an effective system of making disciples is knowing what a disciple is. More specifically, the question is, “what are the marks of a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ?”

This passage from 1 John adds a useful element to the discussion. The journey of discipleship is a journey of sanctification: of being made perfect in love. Let’s say for a moment that a disciple is one who is growing in perfection in love. I do not think it is fair or useful to say that a disciple is one who is already perfect in love. Rather, a mark of a true disciple is that one is committed to growing in love. The scripture shows us that there is a clear relationship between love and fear as we read, “whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

So, is it fair to day that a disciple is one who is experiencing a decrease in fear and an increase in love? Is it possible for one to evaluate for oneself if this is happening?

I think we need to be realistic about where we are in our own walks. I am not close to a place of living with no fear. I don’t know that I have ever met anyone completely free of fear. However, I have met people who refuse to be ruled by fear who live their lives and make decisions based more on love than on fear. I have also met people who I have witnessed moving along the continuum from fear-based living to love-based living.

Perhaps the question will take us back to the martyrs. I would be surprised if those who gave their lives in defense of their faith did so without a moment of fear. However, love won the day.

This might be an important question right now. On the eve of an election, in the midst of an economic downturn, in an age where many are looking over their shoulders for terrorists, how are we acting or reacting as disciples? Does our reaction look any different from those who don’t profess to follow Jesus?

Let me know your thoughts.



Thursday, October 23, 2008

Growing True Disciples

I just finished George Barna’s latest, Growing True Disciples, New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ. Barna is the President of Barna Research Group which does a ton of market research that had been really helpful in developing more faithful churches. I was interested what Barna had to add to the conversation about discipleship systems. Overall, this is a helpful text. But before I get to the really helpful part, let me share a couple of thoughts. First of all, this is not groundbreaking information. Barna’s premise is that churches need systematic approaches to make committed disciples of Jesus Christ. University UMC is pretty aware of that fact. Our Directing Pastor Charles Anderson introduced that premise at University on his arrival. University asked the Bishop to have me join the staff specifically to implement this system. My passion for discipleship happened a few years ago upon hearing the work of Dan Glover who has since written, Deepening Your Effectiveness, Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation in which he makes a solid case for the need of a systematic approach and talks about how to do it. I wrote a paper on the topic last year in which I made the clear point that none of this is new as John Wesley, in trying to revive the life of the Anglican church, created an elaborate and effective discipleship system. None of this is to say that we don’t need another book on the subject. We need a bunch. Most churches are still not getting this and different voices add to the possibility of being heard, but this is not new. So, if you are already convinced and convicted on the need for churches to get back in to the discipleship business, most of this book will just make you feel better about your convictions. But, as you will see below, there are some gems.

One other thing I want to point out is a clear bias in the Barna’s research. I am not using the word bias pejoratively. This is not hidden bias, it is just how Barna bases his research. When evaluating whether or not people are Christian, whether they are living as Christians or have a Christian worldview, Barna and his team use a fairly arbitrary list of factors that I do not always agree with. Barna is pretty clear in his mind what makes a Christian a Christian and what makes a disciple a disciple and I respect that. We should all be a little more clear. However his dedication to those beliefs makes his research something different from unbiased numerical data. For on this, read Adam Hamilton’s thoughts on a book by two of Barna’s Associates, unChristian, by Kinnaman and Lyons. ( Let me just summarize with this: if you and I disagree on what exactly makes a Christian, we will disagree on who is a Christian and who is a disciple and we will have trouble agreeing on how to measure the effectiveness of systems that make disciples.

I don’t want to be too hard on this text. There is a lot of good stuff to be gleaned if you are passionate about making disciples. Because this book is well researched and involves input from a number of churches, there is a lot of useful insights. I love the list of things that did not work, approaches that did not achieve results. I won’t list them all (if you are into this stuff, you will have to read the book) but here are a couple of gems: Trying to produce disciples without having a clear definition of discipleship didn’t work. Seems like a no brainer but there is where Barna’s clarity of conviction that sometimes throws his research off shows its power. I think a lot of churches can’t agree on what a disciple is. So, how do you go about helping someone become one? Here is something else that didn’t work: doing discipleship activities without a long-term strategy that is the foundation for decision making and resource allocation. In other words, in Barna’s words, “discipleship is a process not a program.” I have believed from the beginning of my research that if you try to tack discipleship on as a program offering, you fail. Here at University, how we make disciples affects every decision we make. I am working on budgeting right now and every single dollar needs to be accounted for in terms of the phases of growth in discipleship. This might be the most important point of the whole book and a point that it makes a number of times in a number of ways.

A number of people ask me for help in creating a discipleship system at their church. The question I am starting to offer back is, “does your church want to have a discipleship system” or “does your church want to become a discipleship system?” That is the place I believe we need to start. If we don’t see the main role of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ and if you do not see that as meaning something more than getting them to join, then plans and programs won’t work. However, I believe that if we start with the clear understanding of what a disciple is and a passionate drive to be about that, the rest can fall into place.

Thanks to George Barna for adding to the discussion.



Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Staying Sane

A new report, “Mental Capital and Wellbeing” by Foresight, a U.K. government think tank, shows that there are five things a day we should all do to improve our mental wellbeing. Similar to the way eating enough servings of fruits and vegetables keeps you physically healthy; there are things that can keep you mentally healthy.

You can read a summary of the report here:

“Do five simple things a day to stay sane, say scientists” at TimesOnline

Or the entire report here:

The Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing

But, as way of summary, here are the five things:

Connect - Developing relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors will enrich your life and bring you support

Be active - Sports, hobbies such as gardening or dancing, or just a daily stroll will make you feel good and maintain mobility and fitness

Be curious - Noting the beauty of everyday moments as well as the unusual and reflecting on them helps you to appreciate what matters to you

Learn - Fixing a bike, learning an instrument, cooking – the challenge and satisfaction brings fun and confidence

Give - Helping friends and strangers links your happiness to a wider community and is very rewarding

This was a secular study, but notice that each one of these things is a core piece of the life of an active Christian lived out in the church.

Connect – Developing relationships with fellow journeyers on the path of discipleship for support and accountability. At University we are intentional about this from the beginning. All new members take part in uconnect 101, where we connect to the church and one another.

Be active – Be present in the life of the church in worship, fellowship, study and mission. While some Christians choose to only participate in Sunday worship, the calling is to be actively involved in the life and ministry if the church (see below.)

Be curious – Psalm 8: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

Part of the role of worship is to simply take in the glory of the Lord. When we connect to this, every moment of our lives can be worshipful as we take in the wonder of creation in everything we see and do.

Learn – Part of the journey of discipleship is to learn. We learn not just for information, but for transformation as we study scripture and hope to better understand it meaning in our lives. At University, the Pathway to Discipleship is designed to begin a lifelong journey of learning and transformation.

Give – We offer our prayer presence, gifts and service in response to God to be a part of God’s work in the world. As United Methodists, we give connectionally, knowing that our gifts are at work all around the globe.

So, if you want to stay mentally fit, engage in the life that God has created for us as a community of believers. Your brain will thank you.



Monday, October 20, 2008

That word...

I often point out in my writings and sermons that we have a very strange relationship with words. Oftentimes we have a definition of a word in our head and we fail to check the accuracy of that definition, consider that it has evolved over time, or realize that there are a number of definitions of that same word. I have preached a number of sermons that pretty much focus on one word and our need to clarify our understanding. The words disciple and evangelism are my favorite topics of clarification. They are most often used in a very limited way and this limited understanding can affect how the church does ministry. But this post is not about that.

I just wanted to point out an article in this morning's New York Times that talks about how words can change meaning even while we are not watching. It turns out the word subprime used to be a good thing. Now, not so much. Check out the article here:

Op-Ed Contributor
Subprime, Pre-Slime



Sunday, October 19, 2008

Discipleship - Exploring to Centered

I am off for a few days so I am catching up on my reading, blogs and otherwise. I was not able to attend this year's REVEAL Conference, presented by Willow Creek in response to their research from their REVEAL study but fortunately, through the power of the internet, I am able to read plenty of reaction. Out of Ur has a nice summary of one the sessions in which Bill Hybels spoke about some of the research in a way that clearly follows what we are doing at University. You can read the report here:

Live from REVEAL: Bill Hybels on Self-Centered Christians

At University, we talk about the journey of discipleship in three phases: No to New, New to True and True to Trained. These are paired with what goes on in these phases: A Jesus Meeting, Hearing the Jesus Message, and Discovering One's Jesus Mission. If you are following University this is review and if you have followed the work of REVEAL, the following is review, but look how the phases line up. REVEAL lays out groups in four levels: Those Exploring Christ (the seekers), Growing in Christ (beginning believers), Close to Christ, and Christ-Centered.

So this is nothing new. But, what is revealing is what Hybels considers the most difficult jump in stages: from Close to Christ to Christ-Centered. It is the jump from self-centered to completely Christ-centered. That is a pretty important point. It really gets at the root of the REVEAL findings that just participating does not make one a disciple.

Do this mental exercise: try to identify in your congregation two long-attending people who are both active, useful and knowledgeable. Think of one that would fit that definition of Christ-centered and one that you would consider self-centered. They are likely both people who have served on committees and been involved in many important things in the life of the church, but they are radically different people. Got them in your head? As a pastor, I can easily think of the two and I honestly like and appreciate both, but they are radically different. Here is the question: How did the Christ-centered person make the jump? If you know, you may hold a very important pieces of the pathway to discipleship. Let me know what you think.



More thoughts on politics and truth

I posted a couple of weeks ago about our Christian responsibility, especially during election season, to be careful to not spread rumers. (See the post here: And Let's Be Careful Out There.) Out of Ur, a leadership blog of Christianity Today has tackled the same issue in a quite eloquant way in a recent post. Have a look: Decision '08 at Our of Ur.

Your comments are always welcome.



Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wednesday Nights

I haven't written much about Wednesday evening worship since it started and some who are not able to attend have been asking. The service is called ugrow and I am pleased with its development. From 60-80 people show up each week in the loft on the third floor of our south campus. The service starts at 6:15 and rarely runs past 6:45. We usually sing two songs, pray, read scripture and then talk about the scripture for about twenty-minutes. I offer more of a teaching time than a sermon. People at University have a chance to hear sermons from two great preachers on Sunday morning. On Wednesday, with a smaller group, in a smaller room, we have a chance to dig a little deeper into the scripture - it's background, context and place in the overall message of scripture.

Just a couple of weeks ago we added a new piece. After the service a few people gather in the room to discuss the scripture and the teaching. This is a really unique opportunity to discuss questions about the text or teaching and to share insights and experiences. So far, it really affects my preparation and teaching knowing that what I am sharing is not one-way but rather I will also have a chance to share dialogue on the group. Over the last couple weeks, there have been about ten people for the group. I hope more people will take advantage of this opportunity.

If you live in San Antonio and haven't checked it out yet, I hope you will. I will be on vacation next week and Rev. Leslie Tomlinson will be leading as we continue our journey through Mark's Gospel.



Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Shack

I recently finished William P. Young’s The Shack and after contemplating it for a few days, I am ready to write about.

I get nervous when too many people recommend the same book especially if it is a book that is about God, religion or spirituality. I get nervous because just because a book is popular, doesn’t mean it is good. Often large numbers of people are drawn to things that they want to hear. Just like fad diets that offer change without the discipline or sacrifice, fad spirituality often offers a shallow alternative to real spirituality.

What I find most interesting about The Shack is that it has been criticized by some as being that sort of fad spirituality. Reviewers have claimed it represents bad theology, false doctrine and even heresy. I just have to say that I don’t find that to be true. Some defenders of the book have responded by saying that it is only meant as a work of fiction, but to me it is something more. The Shack is an allegory. An allegory is an extended metaphor where the characters or objects reflect a deeper meaning outside of the narrative itself. In fact, noted author Eugene Peterson reflects this sense of allegory in his quote that is on the cover of paperback edition by comparing this book to another allegorical work when he writes, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” (I also wonder if it is any coincidence that the author happens to mention, seemingly in passing, another allegorical work on page 19 of the paperback edition when he writes, “Glancing at himself in the mirror, he thought he looked a little like some rough sailor out of Moby Dick.” The point of the book is not to present a doctrinal or theological view of who God is and how God acts but to paint a picture that points beyond itself that may allow us to better understand and comprehend our God who is never fully understandable or comprehendible.

All that said, The Shack is an astonishingly good book. I was hooked from the outset by the author’s ability to paint pictures of truth as he described the joy that can come from storms that interrupt our routine and allow all affected to take a collective sigh at the forced reprieve from the pressures of life.

I don’t want to comment too much on the storyline since I want to leave it be experienced. And I do recommend experiencing it. Depending on your theological worldview, there are parts that may make you nervous and there are parts that may be true epiphanies. The book may help you consider your own image of God and your own theology of grace, redemption and suffering. Whether you agree with the picture the author paints or not, it is a good thing if it helps you to look beyond the story to increase the depth of your own understanding and relationship with God.

The Shack and other titles read and recommended by our clergy team are available at The Word Store on the south campus of The U.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Living Better Through Technology

As a part of the CCBlogs network of The Christian Century I have been either consciously or unconsciously trying to raise the level of my weblog postings. However, that may be causing me to curtail a staple of the weblog, random observations of the world I live in. So, let's get back to normal.

Google, in their continuing effort to make the web a better place (and take over the world) has been adding new features to their web-based email service, Gmail. My new favorite feature is called "Mail Goggles." You can read about the feature here: Google tool to keep emails sober. The tool is intended to help you avoid any late night, regrettable emails by asking you to solve five math problems before it will send your mail. You can adjust the filter to kick in at days and times you are more likely to send and unfortunate email to your boss, girlfriend or other recipient.

I am taking my chances and leaving the filter off. However, I have asked Google to work on one more feature. There are a few people in my life that I would like to require to solve a few math problems before they can email me. I will let you know when it is available.



Simply Christian

Occasionally I read a book that is so good that I have a lot of trouble sitting down to write a review for the blog. My weblog reviews tend to be short, quick blurbs just to let readers know what I thought of the book and whether or not I would recommend it. Some books deserve a lot more. Some books have a level of importance and complexity that call for a more systematic, intentional review. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, Why Christianity Makes Sense, is a book that deserves such a review. Unfortunately, in this space, it still just gets a blurb.

I am hesitant to recommend a book to everyone. I realize that people are in innumerably different places in their lives and spiritual journeys and different things might be more appropriate at different times. But I think I can offer Simply Christian to everyone. This book is an excellent read for people who are looking at Christianity for the first time. It is an incredible intermediate text for people who are looking to add a depth of understanding to their faith. It is also an indispensible tool for mature Christians who are always in need of review, focus and the ability to better articulate their faith to others. (In University’s Vision Map, this book would be useful for people in all three stages: meeting, message and mission.) It seems that these multiple audiences are what Wright had in mind. His aim, he writes, “has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside.” (from the introduction, page v.)

Simply Christian, while a fairly comprehensive overview of the faith, is not just another text on the tenants of Christianity. Wright tackles the subject through the lens of three possible understandings of the intersection of heaven and earth, with a clear indication of which he understands as true and helpful. I love this approach as I see our lack of clarity in how we interact with God as undermining our overall theology and therefore negatively affecting how we live as Christians.

Enjoy the book. If you have read it or if you read, I hope you will offer your comments.

Simply Christian and other titles read and recommended by our clergy team are available at The Word Store on the south campus of The U.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Some Reading Time

On the recommendation of a colleague, I finally carved out some time to read this week. I finally finished N.T. Wright's Simply Christian. It is an amazing book and I will post a review in the next couple of days. Like much of America, I am also finishing up The Shack. Expect that review soon too!

Back to reading!