Twenty-five years, a Look Back

This next week, December 10th, will mark the 25th anniversary of my ordination. Twenty-five years, where did the time go?

When I look back over the last twenty-five years I have to say that ministry has changed a great deal. Many of the issues the church faces today were not even conceived of when I was in seminary in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Mainline denominations are challenged as never before to remain relevant in a fast shifting culture. When I was a young adult pastor we were talking about how to reach the X Generation. We never really figured that out and now the Church has moved on talking about how to reach millenials.

The job of pastoring a local church has become different and more difficult. In most churches pastors are dealing with stagnant or slowly shrinking membership and budgets. National denominations are also feeling the pinch and are being tempted as never before to place their emphasis on attractional programming rather than strengthening our focus on make disciples, that is committed mature Christians.

Some churches believe that if they just get the right pastor all their problems will be solved. Some denominational judicatories believe if they just find the right revitalization program that it will fix their problems.

But really in twenty-five years I’ve not seen the real need for the institutional church change all that much.

What the Church needs to be doing is focusing on discipleship rather than just membership. When the Church focuses on membership you attract people through the front door and then watch them walk out the back door when they realize that there is no deep end in the pool. Shallow faith can attract but it can’t maintain faith.

The problem is that focusing on discipleship doesn’t bring instant results, automatically fix the budget, or immediately bring up the membership numbers for the local church or the denomination.

But if we don’t lead people into the deeper waters of lasting and life long discipleship then ultimately the faith of Jesus Christ simply becomes like cotton candy, something that tastes good for the moment but ultimately disappears and is unfilling and unsatisfying.

What I’d like to see the Church in the world learn in the next 25 years is that there are no shortcuts to being the Church God wants us to be. There are no quick fixes. There are no easy solutions. There is just the ever present reality that people need a deep and abiding relationship with God and that it is our job to do all we can to help people find that relationship. If we don’t do that job then we’ve failed to do what God put the Church here to do in the first place.

More about discipleship in a future post…

Milestones of God’s Grace

I started this blog almost three years ago to talk about God leading me to change the direction of my ministry and became a pastor in the United Methodist Church.  For those of you who have read my posts you probably have noticed that my posting has been much less frequent in recent months.  Well, life has just been both good and busy.  

I have been blessed these past nine months to serve in my new appointment at Grace UMC in Sioux City.  It has been a lot of fun getting to know the people of Grace, learning my way around Sioux City, and working in ministry with my new charge.  As the same time I have been continuing the process of working with the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church to complete my transfer of orders to the UMC and seek recognition as an Elder in Full Connection.  

Part of the requirements of receiving such a recommendation involved me completing courses in UMC history, doctrine, and polity.  I completed all of those classes in February of this year.  Also in February I had what will probably be my last meeting with an examining committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry.  And I am pleased to say that the BoOM has recommended me for full membership in the Iowa Conference!

This means that my name will come before the Clergy Session of the Conference in June for a vote.  If I receive an affirmative vote from those eligible to vote in the Clergy Session I will be an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC.  

For me this is a milestone in a lot of ways.  It is a milestone in completing the process with the BoOM.  In that process I felt very encouraged and affirmed while the examining committee members continued to ask good questions, seek understanding of my ministry and calling, and make decisions about my progress in the process.

It is also a milestone for me because, as I’ve shared many times now, I have felt for a long time that God wanted me to be a United Methodist serving God in a UM local churches.   I’ve shared here in this blog how I believe God nudged me and guided me over the years into a Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith which led me to seek out the UMC as my church home.

Each Christian tradition has its strengths.  But what has continued to attract me and continues to pull me into the UMC has been John Wesley’s teaching and understanding of Grace.  God’s gracious love, described by Wesley as Prevenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying continues to capture my heart and my imagination.  What Wesley called the scripture way of salvation with its emphasis on the work of God’s grace in each of our lives throughout our lives colors and enriches everything that is best about United Methodists.  

I am also empowered and enriched by the sacramental theology of the UMC.  I was reminded again this Sunday in Communion how much my heart is warmed by the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving and in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup.  There is something so right and so heavenly to bend down on one knee so that a small child can take a piece of bread and dip it in the cup with a joyful smile on her face as she is told that the body of Christ was given for her!  There is such Holy Spirit power in the voices of the congregation declaring as one that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”  Some Sundays I can only think to myself, “it just doesn’t get any better than this!”

Yes indeed, I am deeply honored that the clergy of the Iowa Conference will consider my credentials this June, and I am deeply blessed to be serving the Lord in the Iowa Annual Conference of the UMC and here in Sioux City at Grace Church.  I am very glad to be a United Methodist!

May each of you be blessed as we continued to celebrate the Risen Christ in these Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season.  “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!  Alleluia!”

Mea Culpa!?

Confíteor Deo omnipoténti et vobis, fratres, quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.  Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem, omnes Angelos et Sanctos, et vos, fratres,oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum.

Translation in English

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,that I have greatly sinned,in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault,through my most grievous fault;

Thus we find a prayer of confession used in the Roman Rite of the church and the originas of “Mea Culpa.”

Lately I feel like the Church is being asked to say “Mea Culpa” about a lot of things in our society, some of which can be honestly placed at the feet of the Church but also many of which the Church has no control over.

Right now the Church and the culture are in a time of huge social changes which may have the greatest changes on the ministry of the church since the Reformation.  Phyllis Tickle, author of “Great Emergence” sees the Church as being in a cycle of change which happens about every 500 years.

The culture is changing around us at an astounding pace and the culture of the Church is having a very hard time keeping up with it.  So it has become fashionable in some circles to blame the Church for these changes.  You hear phrases like “the church isn’t relevant,” “the church is behind the times”, “if they 1950s ever come back my church is ready!”

Yes, I do believe we are in a time when the Church has to look hard at its ministries and make changes to continue to be able to share the loving gospel and grace of Jesus Christ with an every morphing and changing world.  Yes, sometimes the church is resistant to that change and Christians are distressed by the need for change in a social structure that they have come to depend on and are comfortable with.

But, it is not fair to blame the the good people of the Church for the changes that are happening in our society, nor is it fair to make hard working, God loving, people serving, ministry active, self-giving, self-sacrificing Christian people feel guilty or bad about themselves because they are having as much trouble as anyone else in this world figuring out why the world is so very different than they knew growing up in the church.

In Iowa Conference’s most recent Orders meeting the speaker, Peter L. Steinke the author of “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What” talked about the importance of non-anxious leadership.  He talked about how tough it is for people to deal with the fact that they rules of the game have changed for them mid-ministry.  He talked about what he calls “leadership in anxious times.”

Well it appears to me that one of the first steps in being a leader in anxious times is to quit trying to place blame for what has changed in world and instead look to how we can work to be the best witnesses of our faith for Jesus Christ that we can be in a world that is confusing not just for Christians but for everyone.

Gil Rendle, another Alban Institute author, taught in a course on Appreciative Inquiry that I attended a few years ago that the way to plan for the future of the Church is to work from our strength, to work from our positives in ministry, to find out what we do well and seek to emphasize, grow, and expand on our strength until those strengths fill in the weak gaps.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on the idea that we can do more when we look at our growing edges rather than obsess about our failures or about our inadequacies.   While there are some places where the Church can honestly say “mea culpa” there are many places where the Church has helped the poor, fed the hungry, ministered to the needy, visited the sick, helped the dying, administered the sacraments, taught our children, worshiped the living God and met the needs of its members and the community.  For these things we have nothing to apologize for!

Let’s stop expecting the Church to say “Mea Culpa” and start asking where we can best grow to share the gospel to a world that still needs it.

One in the Spirit, One in the Lord

First United Methodist Church in Cedar Falls in a very exciting time in our ministry and it is an exciting time to be serving in the church! The church is in the midst of an exciting building program which is going to give us knew tools for sharing the love of Jesus Christ with our community and with each other.

But even more important than our exciting building project is the work that the members of the church are doing in our TEAM Christ envisioning process looking and planning for the future ministry of our church!

First United Methodist Church has the distinction of having been in downtown Cedar Falls for a long time! We were the first Methodist Church planted in Cedar Falls. We are old enough to have a cornerstone which proclaims us as the “First Methodist Episcopal Church,” a denomination that merged with other Methodist group in 1939 to form the Methodist Church and again in 1968 with the Evengelical United Brethren for from the United Methodist Church.

At times in our advertising we have emphasized “First” as our identity. But as we come into a new era of the church being here “first” isn’t nearly as important as being “United.” So as part of our vision under the leadership of our Pastor Steve Williams you may notice us emphasising the importants of being a “United” people.

We are United Methodists, we are diverse denomination with people of many backgrounds who have grown up in my places in many kinds of churches or maybe no church at all. We want to be a church of Open Doors, Open Hearts, and Open Minds. We want to be a church that welcomes all in the name of Christ. So we have an open table where all can share in the Supper of the Lord, we have an open understanding of God’s grace believing that it is God’s desire that all experience God’s love and care no matter who they are.

There is an old chorus which I believe may have originiated with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers that says “We are One int the Spirit and one in the Lord and we pray that our unity may one day be restored.”

That is the spirit in which I see our church becoming “united.” We are finding ourselves more and more united in purpose, united in fellowship, united in the grace of God, united in a desire to serve God, united in worship, and united in service.

In our membership vows as United Methodists we promise to support our church with our “prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.”

Being first is a great thing! But being United in the Spirit and One in the Lord is even better!

Stepping Out in Faith

Last week First United Methodist Church in Church Conference decided to move forward with its building and rennovation program. This program has been in the works for a number of years but in the last two the church has made major steps forward in honing the vision and raising funds for this very important project.

In the building plan a new addition will be added to the building which will include a new entrance, a new welcome area, a new coffee fellowship area, a new nursury, chapel, and meeting room. The sanctuary of the church will be renovated and brought up to date, the chilren’s area will be remodeled and the offices will be moved and redesigned. It is an exciting and historic project!

Through the process the building committee and the church have captured a vision for how God might use our church in Cedar Falls, how we might expand our ministries, and how we can work to be a light for Jesus Christ in our community.

The history of First UMC is that this is a building church. It is a church that has build new facilities but also a church that has built ministries in this community. It is a place where generations have been baptized, confirmed, and raised up in the faith of Jesus Christ. It is a church that teaches people how to act on what they believe.

Now First UMC has taken another step of commitment and stepped out in faith to say to Cedar Falls that we are here, we want to grow and help you grow. We want to contribute even more to this community. We want to share in your faith want and growth in faith. And we want to let you know that all are welcome to come and share in Christ’s love and grace and at Christ’s table.

We walk by faith and not by sight because we believe that if we do what Christ calls us to do he will help us to meet the needs of others in the name of Jesus!

We will be breaking ground on July 3rd following a 9:00 a.m. Transformation Worship Experience with the entire church. Meet us on the church lawn as we commit not only to transform our building but also to let the transforming power of Jesus work in our lives!

I Believe….

I am in the third week on a sermon series in Transformation Worship at First UMC Cedar Falls called “I Believe…”  It is a sermon series based on the outline of doctrines taught in the Apostles’ Creed.  (If you want to remind yourself of the content of the creed click on the tab “ecumenical creeds” at the top of my blog.)  The series is in a response to a request that I preach about basic Christian beliefs.  I cannot think of a simpler easier to understand summary than the Apostles’ Creed.

A lot of Christians do not realize that in the same time frame in which the ecumenical creeds were being formulated to answer doctrinal issues of the day the church was also deciding which books would end up in the canon.  The canon is the list of books which are found in the Bible.  In particular the Nicene Creed and issues around the incarnation of Christ were very much a part of the discussion at that time.

The canon didn’t just drop out of the sky.  The Church chose books which were in use of the church, were believed to have Apostolic authorship or connections, and which taught the faith of Jesus Christ as taught by the church, Christ, and his Apostles.

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church declares that the scriptures are the primary source for our doctrine and that we utilize scripture, tradition, experience, and reason as we work out our faith life together.  It is important that we have these bedrock teachings on which to give a basic foundation to our faith.   Certainly there is a lot of room for differences of viewpoint and understanding.  But there needs to be a basic outline of agreement which defines what it means to be Christian just as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith of the EUB outline for us what it means to be United Methodists.

I believe that these faith statements are vital because connect us with the historical church, they remind us of the priorities of faith of the early church, and they give us a framework on which to begin the difficult and important task of Biblical interpretation.

In the coming weeks I will be preaching about Christ’s death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, what it means to be part of the holy catholic church, and finally the eternal life which we can all experience through the love and grace of Christ.

While someone may think that a sermon series of basic Christian doctrine could be dull, it should not be.  We should be excited to talk about what we believe and how it has changed and is changing our lives!

I Believe!

Finding a Passion for Holy Living!

Right now I’m in the process of taking a course on United Methodist History.  I’m currently reading about the early years of John and Charles Wesley’s ministries.  And, though I’ve read about them before, I am again struck with John Wesley’s passion and drive to seek to live a holy Christian life.  His careful journaling of his daily activities including his triumphs and his failures show us a man who to the very fiber of his being wants to be what God wants and created him to be.

I am not yet to the part of Wesley’s experience where his “heart is strangely warmed.”  And this is before Wesley has developed his understanding of grace, particularly Prevenient Grace.   So I know that he is in the early stages of his spiritual development.  But I am reminded also that another reformer, Martin Luther, was also very concerned with pleasing God and holy living.

And it makes me ask the question, where has our passion gone for seeking to be a holy and set apart people as Christians?  Some Christians seem to focus on the moment of justification and once they feel like they’ve had a justifying experience with God they feel like they are “saved” and no longer have to worry about God stuff.

In other words we’ve turned being a Christian into a transaction or a commodity.  Much of our Christian culture tends to think of salvation as something in the past.  And this thinking of our faith as a past thing kills any desire for holy living.

Others become discouraged and believe deep down that God really can’t change them.  They have missed the gospel message that what God is about isn’t a transaction or a done deal in the past but about making us into followers/disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are to be a community growing and learning in God’s grace.

But we can grow in God’s grace because God provides us, as Wesley called them, omeans of grace.

By means of grace Wesley meant “By means of grace I understand outward signs words or actions ordained of God and appointed for this end to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing justifying or sanctifying grace.”  (Sermon XVI Means of Grace.)

He listed as ordinary means of grace prayer, searching the scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper, and healthy living.  He also lists baptism, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy.

As Christians we should be attending daily to our prayer lives, reading, study, and hearing sermons from the Bible, participating in the sacramental life of the church, ministry together, and doing good to and for others in the name of Jesus.

The Christian life isn’t a spectator sport.  It isn’t a club we join to then sit on the sidelines.  As one of the recent UMC emphasis called “Rethink Church” says we should think of church not as a noun but as a verb.

We need to recapture and re-emphasize John Wesley’s focus on holy living, through both personal and social holiness.  It isn’t enough to just become a Christian any more than it is just enough to be born.  We must have a passion for growth, maturity, and change.  It are to seek after the goal of being made perfect in love.

Would that we would all recapture the passion of the reformers for not just knowing Christianity in our heads but living faith of Jesus Christ in our hearts and with our hands!