Sunday, February 23, 2014

We All Need To Worship

Some recent opinions in the blogosphere notwithstanding, corporate worship is one of the most important ways in which we come to know and love God more fully. From its earliest days, the Christian faith involved both individual and corporate experience. In baptism we become part of something much larger than ourselves, the communion of saints, both living and dead, who love and serve the Holy Trinity. In Christian worship, we learn more about the faith, build up the faith of others, testify to our corporate identity, and join in the heavenly chorus of worshippers, such as we read of in the fourth chapter of Revelation. When folks say that corporate worship simply isn’t that important, with all due respect, I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s particularly concerning, then, that some people among the community of faith find worship prohibitively difficult. For example, people with autism may find being in a crowd or certain kinds of music or singing to be quite stressful. Some children and adults, such as those with Down Syndrome, autism, or other disabilities that come to bear on intellectual development, may not be able to remain quiet during the parts of the service when it is appropriate to do so. My own son, Sean, who is seven years old and has Down Syndrome, will soon become the center of attention during any church service he attends. The people of our church are very loving and understanding with him, but Sean shouldn’t be the center of attention during worship. That isn’t the point of going to church. It makes it very difficult, then, to take him into a worship service. I know that faced with such difficulties, many parents of children with disabilities simply stop trying to go to church. 

Greg interpreting music for Zach
I recently made the acquaintance of a remarkable young man named Zach Holler. Zach attends Christian Life Center (CLC), an Assemblies of God congregation in Dayton, Ohio. He lives with multiple physical disabilities and uses interpreters to communicate with most people. He also feels a call to ministry, and his congregation and its leadership are supporting him in this call.

Zach delivering the sermon
Zach invited my family and me to attend Gentle Worship at CLC this week. Gentle Worship is a service especially tailored for people with disabilities. I see it as especially helpful for people with cognitive disabilities, but it could be helpful for people across a wide spectrum of abilities. There is music, prayer, and a sermon, all in a very informal and relaxed environment where nothing is really considered disruptive. Sean was able to pay attention for a while, and then he began to get antsy. Towards the end, he was really starting to make his presence known, but it was not a problem. That is the point of the service. People of all abilities are welcome. After the service was over, Sean ran up to the microphone and started delivering his own message!

Sean bringing the word! 
One of the highlights of the service was when Zach delivered the sermon. His father, Greg, served as an interpreter, and Zach blessed us with a rich and thoughtful lesson on the law, sin, and salvation. It was very clear to me that Zach is gifted for and called to ministry. Unfortunately, when people with disabilities do feel a call to ministry, they are often met with disbelief and resistance. It is a credit to the congregation of CLC and their lead pastor, Stan Tharp, that they have recognized Zach’s call and gifts, and are facilitating his leadership in the congregation. 

If you want to learn more about the role of the church in being in ministry with people with disabilities, I encourage you to come to United’s Light the Fire! Conference, which will be held at Ginghamsburg Church on May 8-9. It’s going to be a great event, and we have a first-class lineup of speakers and preachers. I hope you can make it!

Thursday, February 20, 2014 How About Some Evangelism?

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciplines of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Ok. So far, so good.

One would expect, then, the public website of the UMC to serve this end of making disciples. As I look at the website, though, I see the following:

A headline called, “What can a horse teach a pastor?”

There is a picture of Bishop Carcano being arrested.

There is a story on firewood ministry. (Hey, I have to give kudos to this guy.)

There is a story on Black History Month.

There is, in the upper right hand corner, our logo, along with the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertising slogan, surely the greatest evangelistic tool since the invention of the altar call. First tab to the left: “Who We Are,” under which one finds “Church Structure,” “Administration,” “History,” and “Agencies.”

Now, in light of our mission, I find myself befuddled. I think to myself, perhaps the purpose of our public website is to serve as a kind of reference tool that helps insiders to the tradition learn more about our inner workings and denominational news. If that is the case, I would like to offer a friendly suggestion.

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

I’m certainly no marketing expert, but it does seem to me that if we wish our public internet presence to be consistent with our mission, these types of changes would be in order.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What's So Great About the UMC?

I spend a lot of time writing about the UMC. Much of what I say is critical, I admit it. I want to be clear, though: this is critique from within. It is critique derived from a deep love of the UMC and a desire to see us become the most effective we can possibly be in fulfilling our mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I was raised in the UMC, and for the first part of my life simply took for granted that I was a United Methodist. In seminary, though, I asked myself a tough question: do I want to stay in this tradition or do I want to look for another tradition where I fit a bit better? I chose the first path.

There have been a few posts in the blogosphere lately about why people stay in the UMC despite all of the infighting that goes on, so I thought I'd put in my two cents. This is not an exhaustive list, but several reasons come to mind: 

1. Like other Wesleyan traditions, we are heirs of a powerful revival that is still going on through much of the world. Revival is in our bones. 

2. We are the heirs of a profound theological heritage. Wesley may not have been a constructive theologian, but he brought together a very rich set of ideas related to the Christian life. These ideas were rooted in the faith of what he called the “primitive church,” meaning the church of the first five centuries, and which he believed to be derived faithfully from scripture. The emphasis upon holiness and sanctification, new birth, and the power and work of the Holy Spirit are some of the Methodist movement's most valuable theological emphases. I would love to see these take center stage again in our corporate discourse. 

3. We provide an alternative to Calvinists. I mean no offense to these brothers and sisters in Christ, but there are a few roads I can’t go down with them. And these roads are important. They relate to the nature of salvation, the nature and function of scripture, and the character of God. Calvinism is quite dominant in North American Protestantism right now. Pastors such as John Piper and Mark Driscoll have huge audiences. I would like to see Wesleyanism make some inroads into these conversations.

4. We have a strong intellectual tradition. United Methodists and their forebears have established numerous fine institutions of learning, particularly in North America, but also in other parts of the globe. We value education, including theological education. Intellectual inquiry into the nature of the faith comes naturally in our tradition. 

5. Our understanding of holiness is both personal and social. Now we have to be careful here. When Wesley talked about “social holiness,” he wasn’t talking about what we would call “social justice” today. What he meant was that we don’t come to lives of holiness by ourselves, but in community with other people who were also devoted to personal holiness. In other words, we need each other. Our Christian fellowship helps us to know God more fully.

6. That having been said, the people called Methodists have long been known as advocates for a more righteous society and social change. Have we always done this? Of course not. But social engagement is in the DNA of United Methodists, going back all the way to John Wesley himself. 

7. We ordain women. Some of the most inspired and Spirit-filled ministers I have ever met have been women, and God is raising up women as powerful leaders all around the world right now. To deny ordination to these people who are called by God is both unfair and unwise.

8. The most important reason that I remain with the UMC, however, is that I believe that God is at work among and through us. If I didn't believe this, I'd be gone. Why do I believe it? I see it over and over. Yes, there are the statistics about church decline.... Yes, there are churches that are as lifeless as a rock.... But there are also vibrant congregations--in the U.S. and abroad--filled with the Holy Spirit, where lives are changed. As a seminary dean, I go to a lot of churches, and let me tell you: God is not finished with the United Methodists. 

Look, I know there are problems. I write about them all the time. Nevertheless, as someone wiser than me once said, “All denominations sin. We just sin differently.” And even as we are cognizant of our sin, it will be well for us to be aware of our virtues.

Why Do We Have the Bible We Have?

I came across this video of D. A. Carson explaining how the Christian canon came to take the shape that it did. While I might quibble with a few points, I think his explanation is quite helpful and historically accurate. I hope you find it beneficial. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The “Local Option” for United Methodists (Another Post That Is Not About Sex)

You may have read the recent story in UMC news about the 24-hour suspension (without pay) of two pastors who performed gay weddings.  Critics of this decision will argue that the penalty in this case is so light as to embolden others to follow suit in disobedience to the Discipline. It seems likely that this trend of ecclesial disobedience is going to accelerate, particularly in conferences in which the bishops side with the progressive moral agenda.

What is emerging in all of this is a de facto “local option” for annual conferences. Regardless of what the Discipline may say, annual conferences generally determine whether a particular disciplinary statute has any binding force on their members. The only way that this could be avoided would be for the matter to be appealed to the Judicial Council, and for the Judicial Council in turn to rule that the annual conference's decision is not in keeping with church law. The thing is, a minor suspension is in keeping with church law. The Discipline does not stipulate a penalty. Therefore, the local option will likely hold for the foreseeable future.

One wonders if this is a large step toward congregationalism. In other words, if annual conferences are free to abide by or largely disregard particular decisions of the General Conference, why should charge conferences feel bound to the decisions of the annual conferences?

Perhaps this is the only way to salvage what’s left of the “connection.” Perhaps the only way to maintain The United Methodist Church is to decentralize its authority. Let’s be clear, though: there are real dangers in moving in this direction. There are larger consequences of rejecting the authority of the General Conference. Nevertheless, that is our current course. I hope the powers that be are taking these consequences into consideration as we move forward.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

First Person Narratives: People with Autism and Down Syndrome

One of the most important concepts of the disabilities movement is that people with disabilities should be at the "speaking center" of the conversation. In other words, it is crucial that people with disabilities speak for themselves and take the primary role in defining the conversations and various agendas that will affect them. 

Unfortunately, this can be quite difficult for people with disabilities related to cognition and neurodevelopment. Access to first-person narratives from such people can be harder to come by. Below are two videos. One features Sondra Williams, whom I heard speak at a Joni and Friends event last year. Sondra is autistic. The second features a woman with Down Syndrome named Karen. 

If you want to know more about these and other conditions that can create serious challenges for the people who live with them, the best way to do so is to listen to those people. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Super-Strong Opinion About the Creation Debate

I couldn’t watch it. 

I just couldn’t do it.

Those of you who did watch it... I know you had your reasons. I respect that. I'm not criticizing anyone here. 

It's just that, after so many years of watching fruitless debates in the church, I may be constitutionally incapable of watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham engage in a debate, the outcome of which is all but predetermined. (Side effects may include headaches, blurred vision, hiccups, vomiting, and hair loss.) 

It’s not that I don’t think creationism and evolution are significant matters (though I honestly don’t spend very much time thinking about them). It’s that a debate about creationism vs. evolution between an agnostic and a man who funded a museum dedicated to creationism doesn’t hold much promise for fruitful dialogue. One party is not willing to acknowledge that God exits. How, then, could he possibly come to the position that God created anything? The other party has an epistemological commitment to scripture whereby anything that he understands to conflict with scripture must be wrong. How, then, could he possibly come to the position that anything the Bible says is incorrect?

Is the purpose of a debate like this to find common ground? That can’t happen given the presuppositions of the two parties. Is its purpose, then, for one party to prove another wrong? That can’t happen either, for the same reason. So the only real result can be that partisans of each side of the debate receive a set of arguments based upon the presuppositions that gave rise to the debate to start with.

Am I wrong? I admit, I didn’t watch it. But I don’t see how it could have gone any other way. 

I'm probably wrong. 

Let me know what you think.