Why I’m Not Looking Forward to Annual Conference

Next week, members of the Kentucky Annual Conference will gather in Covington at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center for Annual Conference. The three-day event is typically a “family reunion,” where friends gather to reconnect, worship, and discern where God is leading our movement in the coming year.

I’m usually excited for this annual gathering. This year, however, I dread going to annual conference.

It has nothing to do with fighting Northern Kentucky traffic. It has nothing to do with my annual search for an affordable meal option. It even has nothing to do with the long lines for coffee during breaks.

It has everything to do with the current state of our denomination. We are in a state of infighting, which is not healthy for the long-term mission and vitality of the church. Continue reading

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A Prayer for Unity in Restless Times

One of the joys of being a United Methodist pastor is leading my congregation towards a deeper appreciation and understanding of the sacraments of communion and baptism. I firmly believe that each time we celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism that it gives us a time to reflect on what they mean for us and how they call us to live today.

Our liturgy helps us in this. Each time we gather to celebrate communion, for instance, we do so through a prayer we call “The Great Thanksgiving.” It is a beautiful prayer that reminds us of God’s faithfulness, Christ’s passion, and the power of the Holy Spirit that equips us to be the church today.

There is one portion of the prayer that always seem to move me. A portion that reminds me of the difficult and challenging life that God calls us to in this time we find ourselves.

By your Spirit make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Continue reading

Extravagant Generosity 1 Timothy 6:17-19: Generosity for the Mission

Today we begin an important season in the life of our church. This is the day we officially start our stewardship campaign for this year. During the next four weeks we will look at this idea of stewardship through the lens of generosity. We will ask ourselves a very important question: What does God ask of us in response to the many blessings we have been given?

We all come to a stewardship campaign with different thoughts and expectations. Perhaps our initial thoughts or expectations are that this season is simply about finances and maintaining the church resources. True, stewardship campaigns have a lot to do with our finances and we will talk a lot about finances. However, a stewardship campaign goes beyond the financial. A stewardship campaign is a reminder of God’s blessings and a challenge to take a big step of faith and trust in the Lord.

It is a reminder of God’s blessings and our call to care for these gifts. Genesis 1 helps us to understand this. Where there was once nothing God created this world. The Lord created each of us to reflect the God’s very image. Part of this creation is the fact that God provides for our basic needs. Acts 14:17 echos this and talks of how God provides for things like food. The Lord is the true provider of our homes, finances, resources, and everything that we have.

Because what we have is given to us from the Lord it comes with some responsibility. This means we are to care for what we have been given. That is the essence of stewardship. Genesis 1:28 serves as a call to stewardship. The words remind us that God has provided various resources to us, and we are called to care for them in acknowledgement that we have is truly God’s. We are not simply takers of things, but we are caretakers of God’s resources.

This idea of stewardship comes with a challenge. The challenge is for us to take a risk, a big step, and see how God is calling us to use our blessings to bless others. Nothing happens in the life of the church unless we are willing to go where God is leading us. Stewardship reminds us of this. Stewardship is a reminder of our call to see ourselves in a mission to serve our community in the same way Christ loves us – without expectations, reservations, or fears. Stewardship challenges us to take a step of faith and trust that if we go where God leads that the resources to love and opportunities to serve will come together in some holy ways.

For the next four weeks, I hope this image of taking a big step will be on our hearts and minds. What are we willing to risk for the kingdom? How is God calling us to share with what we’ve been blessed with? Where are the places God is calling Trinity UMC to be generous in order to be a blessing throughout Latonia, Covington, and throughout Northern Kentucky and the world? My prayer is that this will be a life changing time for you, your family, and our church. I also pray that this season will unify us around a common mission and purpose to be used by God to bless and love others, because we first have been blessed and loved.

We start by trying to understand this idea of generosity. The Biblical meaning of generosity goes much deeper than its book definition. When we think of generosity, we think of our willingness to share what we have with someone else. Why? What motivation is there for someone to be generous, especially in this individualistic and isolated culture that we live in where we are sometimes disconnected from the needs of those around us? If we ask the world, our culture might say that the motivation of being generous is that it is expected or so that you might be seen as a good person. However, these are generated through self-guided principles that is centered on a form of generosity that is about us instead of the mission to serve Christ and love others.

Biblical generosity goes much deeper. 1 Timothy 6:17-19 gives witness to our calling to be generous in response to how God has blessed us with. Paul writes these words to Timothy as part of his commissioning to ministry. The entire letter is a discourse on what Paul hopes Timothy will express in his ministry to Asia Minor.

One of these hopes was tied to what people would do with their riches. Paul is writing to an area, perhaps Ephesus, that had a lot of riches. He was trying to help them see what true goodness looks like. In those days, goodness was connected to how much money you had, similar to how we can sometimes view goodness today. To have money in those days usually meant having connections to the Roman Empire. Those who were rich likely believed they had it all and were good people because of their financial wealth.

However, Paul wanted them to see something else. Having a life based on material wealth was no life at all. The reason is that riches will fade and resources will come up short. Being rich, Paul says, is not what defines a person as “good.” Having more wealth is not the ideal definition of our lives. Pope John Paul II wrote something similar. He said, “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being,” and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.”

Goodness is not defined by what we have. Goodness in the kingdom of God is defined by how wiling we are to be generous with what God has blessed us with. That is the message Paul expresses. Generosity is a fruit of a spirit that is a powerful response to God’s blessings. Paul says the Christian life is to take our blessings and use them to do good. We do this by being generous of ourselves in the lives of others.

When we do this we reflect one of the things that best defined the early church. They were not connected by what they had, but a desire to love Christ and share their blessings with each other and those in need. There are two key passages in Acts that define the early church as a community of sharing with each other. In Acts 2:45, we read that the early church sold their possessions and gave to those in need. Acts 4:32 echos this and says no one saw what they had was their own, but was something to share with others. Paul wants the church, both then and today, to continue in this. The desire for the church should be to be people who see their resources as tools to help care for the needs of their community and the larger world.
That is not just extravagant generosity, but it is deep and holy generosity. A generosity that sees others as important as ourselves and looks for ways to help the poor, the forgotten, the neglected, the abandoned, the struggling, the addicted, and so many others within our community. They are all around us. Generosity calls us to go out and find them.

When we do, we will do works of righteousness that are founded in a principle of serving Christ while loving others. That is why being generous is so important. It is a crucial way of loving Christ and loving others. Christ calls us to be a living response of love that is not based on seeing Christ in the lives of others. As Matthew 25 reminds us, when we care for others, when we love them, when we help them, we are truly serving Christ and receive the blessing.

This is true goodness! True goodness is by being generous with what we have so others may experience God’s love and grace. This is the type of mission that is part of a foundation of a healthy, lively, and powerful church that seeks to love Christ and love others. Can you imagine if every church, big or small, sought to be generous and see Christ in the lives of others. Can you imagine the lives that would be impacted and the hope that would be shared?

Could you imagine if we continued to be generous in how we live out our mission here at Trinity? In your bulletin, there is an insert that expresses just some of the things that we do to care for others in our community. These are some of the ways we have been generous with what God has blessed us with. We have cared for the people around our church through our Open Gyms and participation in the Summer Feeding Program. We have reached out to Ida Spence and shared our gifts and presence with them. We have helped to feed people in our community and have provided school supplies for children in need. In so many ways, we have been generous with what God has blessed us with, whether it is our time, our money, or our presence.

Being generous has defined who we have been. It can also define who we are today and tomorrow. God has blessed us as people, as families, and as a church in indescribable ways. It may not always seem like it, but we are blessed. That blessing calls us to go and be a blessing to others, to be generous with our selves, our money, and our presence, so others may feel the depths, widths, and heights of God’s love for them.

What is the big step of being generous that we can make today? Everyone of us are faced with a moment to take a step, to take a chance of faith, and to go where God might be leading us in being more generous. I know it is scary. It is hard to let go of what we have. It is hard not to be fearful that we will be used or taken advantage of. It is hard not to feel like what we do doesn’t matter. But, what if we took that big step regardless. What if every day … every day we commit ourselves to be a people, to being a representation of the love of Christ,  who are defined by our generosity? What if we took a big step and say at Trinity United Methodist we are going to be a people who are defined by our generosity and our desire to love others in the ways that Christ loved us?

Could you just imagine the lives that would be impacted and the hope that would be shared?

Teaching Infant Baptism in Rural America

If there was a seminary course that focused on “things you do not discuss” in the church, I believe infant baptism in rural America would be on the syllabus.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I failed to take that class. I probably wouldn’t have attended it if it was offered. I believe in teaching the difficult and embracing the challenging. That means teaching why I support infant baptism.

Infant baptism is a frowned upon practice in some rural communities in America. Defined by a belief in the practice of believers baptism, infant baptism is seen as going against Scripture or a bad theology. It is one of the United Methodist Church’s practices that prevents some in rural America from understanding our theology and mission. It is also one of the least understood practices.

In his book “Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality,” Rob Staples discusses the theological history and tradition that informs our practice of infant baptism. He focuses on five areas that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, used in articulating his support for infant baptism.

  1. “Infants are proper subjects of baptism because of the sin of Adam in which all persons participated (169).” In other words, we were created pure in the image of God. Adam’s act of disobedience altered that creation. This is what is known as “original sin.” Humanity is not as it was intended because of this act of disobedience. The same is true for infants, which makes them appropriate candidates for baptism.
  2. “Baptism is proper for children because of the continuity of the covenant of grace God made with Abraham (169).” The covenant with Abraham was confirmed with circumcision, which was a ritual that was done very early in the young child’s life. Baptism serves as the “seal of the covenant established by Christ,” which means it is available for infants (170).
  3. “Small children should be brought to Christ, and that therefore they are capable of coming to Him and being admitted into the church (170).” With this line of thought, Wesley builds a theology around Matthew 19:13-14. In this passage, Christ calls for the children to be brought to him.” He also says we should not “hinder” them from experiencing Christ. Part of this includes, Wesley believed, the administration of baptism. If children are to be brought to Christ in a relationship, how can we deny an infant baptism?
  4. “If they (Apostles) baptized infants, then infants are proper subjects of baptism (171).” Wesley, as well as Martin Luther, looked at the ministry of the Apostles in Acts and assumes that infants were baptized, especially in references to entire households being baptized. Staples also makes references to Peter’s Pentecost sermon of the promise being given to the children in Acts 2:39, which would likely include infants.
  5. “Wesley finds support for infant baptism in the practice of the church (171).” Wesley looks at the entire history of the church and sees that no theologian denied infant baptism. If they did, they would have wrote about it.

Of course, baptism is both a divine and human act. It is the divine act of God’s grace working in our lives, and it is a human act of our recognition of God’s activity in us. With infant baptism, the parent makes the announcement of recognition of what Christ has already done in the child’s life by dying for the child’s sin on the cross. Christ’s grace doesn’t begin to work on us the moment we believe, but is present in our life from the time we were being developed in the womb. This makes infants eligible for baptism as much as an adult.

There is much we can say about infant baptism. We could write posts after posts on the subject. That being said, we should not ignore deep theological principles simply because they might go against the prevailing practices of our communities. You gain more respect in a community for being open and willing to discuss these topics than you would by running away from them.

What is True Relevancy?

Every pastor and church leader is reminded of one unfortunate truth. That is that young people are leaving the church or not coming to worship. We are having a difficult time, regardless of the denomination, in reaching the current young adult generation.

There have been suggestions, answers, and attempts to solve this problem. Each come with their proclamations that this is the way that God has ordained, that it will bring young people in, and will change the direction of the entire church. While these attempts have all been different, there has been some commonality. For the most part, the attempts to reach young adults have focused on the idea of relevancy.

The search for relevance in the church has been true to the word’s definition of seeking “social applicability.” In reaching young adults, the church has sought for ways to make the message of Christ applicable to their needs and to make worship entertaining and enjoyable. The church has sought to become more politically aligned with young adults, regardless if they are conservative or liberal. It has attempted to create worship spaces that are more comfortable, such as doing away with pews and adding more comfortable seating. As well, it has tried to use things young adults are interested in and tried to make them Christian in nature.

While these ideas, and others, were developed with the purest intentions, none of these gets to the heart of what it means for the church to be relevant. These ideas are contextual in nature, which means that these ideas seek to engage the larger culture, but they are not relevant. True relevancy is much deeper than marketing schemes, outreach strategies, and worship space design. It is about a vision that guides our ministries and the mission of the church. True relevancy is about a deep engagement with the Triune God that seeks to cultivate practices that produce a worshipful way of life.

It is only when we are seeking a deep relationship with God that we can be relevant. The message of the Good News of Jesus Christ is relevant to the needs, issues, and concerns of a broken world. It is the church’s mission to share this message with the world.

True relevancy, then, is about truth. In our postmodern world, we have a difficult time with a statement that is based on a certain set of beliefs being true. The Christian faith is based on a certain set of doctrines, which we hold to be true, such as the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In reaching younger generations, we have shied away from our historical roots and our doctrines to make the church more acceptable. This is the wrong approach. When we take time to teach the depths of our doctrines, and why we believe these statements, we see that these truth statements say much to us today, about how Christ is at work today, and about the mission and life of the church. As pastors, if we desire to be truly relevant then we must be willing to teach what we believe and why we believe what we do.

True relevancy is also about relationships. The church that is truly relevant, or vital, is the one that is encouraging its members to be in small groups. These formation groups foster relationships and create opportunities for accountability. We are not Christians in isolation, but in community. We need the support of others, and the church must be a place that promotes relationships. As we become a culture more defined by social media, I believe the church’s advocacy of small groups will be one of its most defining cross-cultural messages. That is because with small groups we are reminded of our need of community, our need for relationships, and our common bond with one another.

True relevancy is about a life led. We cannot proclaim to be “relevant,” if we are not willing to be followed by Christ. Leaders must be disciples as they seek to disciple communities in faith. How we live our lives matters. Our actions is the greatest indicator of what truly guides and motivates our lives. The church that desires to be truly relevant is the one that doesn’t just preach the Word, but also lives it out. It must be a both/and. We need both the verbal proclamation of the Word, and the Word lived out in community in the shared experiences with others.

My deepest desire is for the church to be truly relevant. That is our hope. It will only come when we are true to our faith in Jesus Christ and not when we are seeking to be like the world for the sake of numbers.

I Am Not the Church’s Savior

I am 32.

According to most Christian researchers, writers, and church leaders, I am the future of the church. I am the person who will “save” the church from its membership decline, from its lack of vitality, and its structural problems. I am the one who will lead people back to Christ, create new ministries that reach to the broken and lost of our world, and find ways to be relevant to a media-obsessed culture. I am the person who will redeem the church in our culture.

As a young adult (someone under the age of 35), I am the considered as the “answer” for all the church’s problems. We are told that we are the future. The people in the church, especially pastors, who are to take charge, take the lead, and fix what has been handed to us. We are to bring our fellow brothers and sisters along with us, and redeem the church. We are marketed as such by our church leaders who, rightly so, want to reach the young adults who are missing in our congregations and church life. We are proclaimed as the church’s hope.

I have a problem with this, because I am not the church’s savior. I am not the church’s solution. I am not the answer to any one set of problems.

What I am is a servant who is seeking after God’s own heart. I am a disciple. I am a leader. I am a pastor. I am a teacher. I am a writer. I am many things, but what I am not is the church’s solution or answer.

Why do I feel this way?

First, the church already has a savior. The church doesn’t need me to act as “Jesus” and save the church. We need the church to believe Jesus is alive and is present through the Holy Spirit. Vitality in the church will come when we are in relationship with Christ and are desiring to be led by the Spirit in our communities and world. It will not come through marketing schemes that seek to make the church more appealing to younger generations. The church must be relevant, because it seeks to be an authentic and transparent community that seeks to live in a faith relationship with Christ and in community with one another.

Second, we must be unified together. One of my biggest struggles with the focus on young adults being the future is it ignores the contributions of older generations. I am saddened when the church fails to listen to the needs and concerns of older adults simply because of their age. Our older adults have much to contribute to the life and vitality of a congregation. The church should not ignore others because of a person’s age. This is ageism and it has no place in the church. The church of Jesus Christ should not be segmented into factions that puts older adults in one corner and youth and young adults in another. A vital church focuses on all people.

Third, it’s not about me. Many of my fellow young adults have embraced the idea that we are the church’s future and have attempted to grab the leadership mantle with both hands. This is a mistaken approach. You lose your ability to speak to all people when you seem to be more interested in power and authority than true change and engagement. As pastors and leaders, regardless of our age, we must remember that it is not about me. It’s not about what I want for the church. It is about being the church that Christ has called us to be and living in response to that calling. This might mean that our dreams are never fulfilled and our agendas are never accomplished. Many of us might need to spend time wrestling with that. If our dreams and goals are not fulfilled would we feel as though we were obedient to the Kingdom? In other words, is it about me or is it about Christ?

I expect to be a leader and a voice in the church for a long time. I hope that I will be influential and a servant to Christ in that role. However, I am not your savior. I am not your solution. I am not the answer.

I am merely a servant seeking to lead others to Christ and proclaim the name of Christ in our communities.

Reflections on the 2012 UMC General Conference

Later this afternoon, the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will come to a close. The two-week conference, which is held every four years, dealt with several important issues, such as restructuring, guaranteed appointment, and homosexuality. It also dealt with other issues that will not receive as much attention, which includes a change in the amount of money in the Ministerial Education Fund pool, a change in the apportionment formula, and a change in clergy pension.

While it will take some time to fully evaluate the impact these decisions and others will make on the global movement of the United Methodist Church, there is one trend that developed from General Conference that we must address.

That is we are more defined by political thought than we are by our faith in Jesus Christ. Continue reading