Sunday, May 29, 2011

Moral Psychology

In the article "Reconnecting the Means to the End," Dr. Randy Maddox uses the term "Moral Psychology" instead of "The Soul" when discussing the faculties of the Understanding, Will, Affections, and Liberty.  Unsurprisingly given this framework, his thesis equates spiritual maturation with ethical development and focuses on Christ as Moral Exemplar.  There is no place for the role of Faith in this presentation of Christianity, which seems like a lot to give up just to modernize our vocabulary.

A very helpful historiography is included in the article, one which describes what happened in the nineteenth century as Methodists discarded Wesley's conception of the Soul for more contemporary theories.  The debate became fixated on whose argument was the most accurate rather than on whose argument produced the most fruit (i.e., mature Christians).

This history lesson is a reminder that merely swapping out Wesley's terms for something more trendy will not give me a Wesleyan theology if the goal that motivated Wesley's ministry is overshadowed in the revision process.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Church Top Three

This past year I have had the chance to visit many different churches, and I came away from the experience with a clearer sense of what I need from a church-- Praise-filled Worship, Small Groups, and Community Outreach.
  • Praise-filled Worship: I get the most out of worship services where the congregation comes together to praise, give thanks, and acknowledge God as the source of all that is good in their lives. 
  • Small Groups: Meeting with other Christians for prayer, Bible Study, and accountability is crucial to my ability to live out the good gifts I have been given and share them with others. 
  • Community Outreach: I can not say enough about how meaningful I find it to be part of a church that is in ministry to its neighbors.  
In July, I will become the pastor of First UMC in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and I am eager to talk to my parishioners and learn their Church Top Three list.  From my communications with them thus far I know that they also value works of piety and works of mercy.  I look forward to sharing in these Means of Grace with them.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Marks for the Interim Operations Team

Ah, the luxury of a blank screen.  Blogger presents me with just such a screen when I click on "Posting," and I am free to fill this space with whatever thoughts occur to me as I mull over Wesley's relevance for today.  The page is uncluttered.  Within its margins I can adapt Wesley in ways that seem logical and fair and accurate to me without compromising my vision.  I don't have to take anything else into consideration-- not a budget, not a structure, not a staff-- my brainstorming is unfettered by preexisting realities.

The news coming out of the Council of Bishops made me realize that the Interim Operations Team does not enjoy the same luxury.  They are adapting the budget, structure, and staff of the General Church.  They are not going to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.  They are overhauling the current apparatus.

Judging by the press release, the goal "to better align the agencies toward fostering vital congregations" seems to be the criteria guiding the IOT in its task.  The news story does not make clear how the IOT is going to determine which aspects of the general agencies' programs promote vitality in congregations and which do not nor does it define vitality.  Maybe injecting a Wesleyan perspective into this blank space will help.

I have found one of Wesley's doctrinal sermons a helpful reflection on the components of Christian vitality.  The sermon addresses individuals not institutions, nevertheless I think Wesley's standard can be used to evaluate any level of Church structure.  So as more reports come out of the IOT/COB/CT/GCFA, I will be evaluating the recommendations and asking myself the question-- is this likely to promote Faith, Hope and Love (1 Cor. 13:13)?

These three marks of the New Birth are discussed in Sermon 18, and for Wesley they represent the defining traits of mature Christians:
Faith "is not a bare assent to this proposition, 'Jesus Christ is the Lord;' nor indeed to all the propositions contained in our creed, or in the Old and New Testament."  Faith is "a disposition which God hath wrought in [the] heart; 'a sure trust and confidence in God that through the merits of Christ [our] sins are forgiven, and [we are] reconciled to the favor of God'." (par. I.2, 3).  The fruits of Christian faith are a gracious power to resist harmful temptations and an experience of peace (par. I.4-7).

Hope is a sense of assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither suffering, nor crosses nor trials nor afflictions nor death (par. II).

Love for God and Neighbor is the final mark of Christian vitality.  This love motivates the Christian to conform to God's will, especially to the command to do good in the world (par. III).

The IOT can observe which congregations are doing good and might notice when love of Neighbor is expressed as forgiveness of enemies, but what about the other marks?  Faith, Hope, and Love of God are just as important though not as easily evaluated by outsiders.  Wesley used testimonials as evidence that his ministry was promoting these interior marks of vitality.  What would count as evidence today?  How do outsiders confirm that another has experienced faith, hope, and love, and how do they determine which ministry produced the fruit?

Would planting a seed count?  Could an agency argue that in theory a program should help people come to faith and use probability of fruitfulness as a reason to justify funding?

And what about at the local level?  How could local congregations prove that their members are growing in faith, hope, and love?  First-person accounts of transformation could be one way, especially if those stories are corroborated by others who have noticed their friend's change of behavior.  Would Cabinets accept these narratives, along with statistics on attendance and offerings, as evidence of effectiveness in ministry?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Skype Covenant Group

I'm a member of a covenant group that meets using Skype's group video application.  We are all in the Nebraska Annual Conference, and this format allows the five of us to continue meeting no matter where in the State the Cabinet might send us.  At times there are technological glitches that interfere with our conversation, but on the whole this group does fill a need I've felt ever since reading Dick Wills' book, Waking to God's Dream.

Before he became a UM bishop, Dick was the pastor of church that organized its adult members into accountability groups.  The rule that governed group discussions was simple: identify a spiritual practice that you want to observe and for which you want the group to hold you accountable.  Each group member picked a discipline (prayer, reading scripture, fasting, visiting the sick, etc.) and, at the next meeting, everyone reported on their efforts to engage in regular spiritual exercises.

This isn't the Methodist General Rules (Using the Ordinances was discussed but not Do No Harm and Do Good).  Bishop Wills argues that his format is more democratic and that's why he prefers it for an American congregation.  I think the Bishop's model is great for beginners, those who are new to accountability groups.  His groups can be a way to introduce Wesley's concept of the Means of Grace to a congregation.

The Skype group was organized in March so we're still getting used to each other and this method of covenanting.  We have a Facebook group page that allows us to stay in touch with one another outside of the Skype sessions.  I'm curious if anyone else uses technology in connection with a Discipleship group and what the experience has been like.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

No Other Foundation

The title of this post is a reference to Wesley's Sermon 17, "The Circumcision of the Heart," II.4, "Our gospel, as it knows no other foundation of good works than faith, or of faith than Christ. . . ."  This is the phrase that came to mind as I reviewed the Proposed Vital Congregations Planning Guide.

Congregational leaders who use this manual are encouraged to make worship, prayer, and Bible study part of the planning process.  To facilitate a Congregational Ministry Plan Bible study, nine passages of Scripture are recommended (p. 4):
  • Matthew 28:18-20, The Great Commission;
  • Matthew 22:36-40, The Great Commandment;
  • Acts 2, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church;
  • I Corinthians 12, the healthy church is one body and it is the body of Christ;
  • Ephesians 4:10-13, Christ has gifted the church through a variety of gifts;
  • Galatians 3:28, all are welcome in the body of Christ;
  • Luke 10:25-37; the parable of the Good Samaritan;
  • Micah 6:8, righteousness and justice are the expectation for God’s people;
  • Luke 4:17-21, Jesus announces his ministry, which is a calling for the body of Christ today 
In order to make this Bible Study more Wesleyan, another passage should be added to this list, one that emphasizes faith in Christ as the starting point for any ministry plan.  A passage such as 1 Corinthians 3:5-12 fits what I have in mind.  I'm open to other suggestions.  The addition could look something like--
  • 1 Corinthians 3:5-12, No Other Foundation
I'm imaging a planning team meeting where the members are sitting around a table with their Bibles (paper or electronic) open to 1 Cor. 3 and they are discussing questions such as what does it means to have faith in Christ, what would it mean for their church to build on that foundation, what would a plan for ministry look like that started at that point, what would church programing look like if every program rested on that foundation?

Adding this passage would make the Bible Study more consistent with Wesley's own religious experience.  He alluded to his struggles as a minister in Sermon 2, "The Almost Christian," I.13.  While he was at Oxford University he did no harm, did good, used the means of grace, and sincerely tried to follow God's will, yet these actions did not make him a Christian.  Likewise, his ministry in Georgia was full of activities but still lacked vitality (Journal, May 24, 1738, par. 9).  When he stopped expecting his religious work to make him a better person and instead put his faith Christ, that's the point when he became an effective minister. 

What other aspects of Wesley's doctrine need to be included in the Bible Study?
And can anyone tell me why the file name for the proposed guide is "A Congregational Ministry Plan for 2009"?  It appears that this guide was written before the Call to Action report and later adapted.  I'd like to know if any church used the 2009 version of the guide and what kind of results it produced.