Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry June 6, 2016 PART II – “A Relentless Focus on the Mission” As we move into a new quadrennium the pathway before us is clear. We must retain a relentless focus on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[1]  The big three will remain the big three.
  1. Christ Centered
  2. Focused on the local Church
  3. Development of a new generation of lay and clergy leadership.
Retaining a deep Christ-centered emphasis, understanding that we live in the embrace of God as the first person of the Trinity, our next step is to embrace the fullness of our great Trinitarian doctrine and heritage with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Our mantra is the Holy Trinity; God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I intend to deliberately help us widen our understanding and sense of the Holy Spirit as God active in our midst this very day!  I intend to do this without giving an inch on being Christ-centered.  The two naturally go together!  I love the way our conference teacher, Alan Hirsch, puts it in his book The Forgotten Ways:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”[2] The Discipline of the United Methodist Church calls the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[3]  I remember when we received the Towers-Watson report in the Council of Bishops back in 2010. Fred Miller, a world renowned expert in institutional leadership, growth and change who led the exhaustive study of the United Methodist Church, made the first key recommendation that there be a 10 year intense focus on the local congregation.  Under questioning by the bishops after presenting the report, he admitted that they would have recommend a 30 year focus on the local church if they thought we could stick with it.  This is that important.  It’s about the local church!  The local church doesn’t exist for the Conference Center.  The Conference Center exists for the local church. To this end, strategically we will continue the focus on congregational transformation as represented by the Center of Evangelism and Church growth through transformational efforts like the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) as well as other transformation ministries such as Holy Conversations, individual consultants and the like. As a part of this emphasis, we will continue to lift up the stories - the narratives if you will - of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of individuals and congregations.  Consider this one, taken from the recent (and continuing) WeAreMore emphasis. Along with this emphasis, we now have solid research that indicates that a congregation (including the pastor(s) and key lay leaders) who can articulate a clear coherent path to discipleship is significantly more fruitful in all five major areas of congregational vitality (worship attendance, professions of faith, small group development, missional outreach with the poor and those in need, and extravagant generosity through Connectional Mission Giving and second mile offerings). Bethesda, Acton and First Fort Worth are three examples in the North District alone. The first time I read about seeing a clearly articulated path to discipleship put out by a congregation was at a workshop at Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Arizona. They were public about pointing back to Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church.  In that book Warren outlines the baseball diamond approach to discipleship used at Saddleback Community Church.  First base was worship attendance.  Second base was bible study and prayer. Third base was mission involvement with the poor and those in need.  Home plate was sharing the faith evangelistically with others. To my current regret, I and others dissed their approach. We critically noted that few people follow a rigid linear approach to discipleship formation.  Some start with Bible study; others are hooked first through mission work at home or abroad.  There seemed to be as many approaches as there are people to approach.  You know what?  We were both right and terribly wrong.  Discipleship formation is not linear.  One size emphatically does not fit all!  People are unique – duh!  And yet!  The clear delineation of a path is crucial to learning and growth in discipleship. It reminds me of my son playing T-ball at age 5. One of the kids knocked the ball off the T and headed to third base.  Our left fielder was too busy picking dandelions to pick up the ball.  One of Nathan’s buddies hit ball and took off into center field!  (I have no idea why!)  Nathan only seemed to care about getting the promised snow cone at the end of the game (win or lose).  I can remember sitting in the bleachers in a three piece suit (having come from conducting a funeral service at a nearby cemetery) in the heat of a humid Corpus Christi, Texas summer with the Gulf of Mexico on my left and the T-ball field in front of me laughing so hard I almost fell out of the bleachers.  But you know what, the kids learned baseball. Something similar happens when a clearly defined path to discipleship is articulated. We’ve discovered that a clearly articulated path to discipleship, even if overly simplified, is vastly superior to the alternative of being unable to cogently and briefly (in an elevator speech) summarize the elements of you and your church’s path to discipleship.  Even the kids that ran to third base and center field were at least engaged and learning baseball.  By way of analogy we need to trust the laity to figure it out and adapt.  They will learn.  Think of the insightful brilliance of the missional slogan Texas Wesleyan University has adopted – Smaller. Smarter.  It tells you all you need to know.  If you come to TWU you will get a quality education in a small classroom environment geared to your learning. Therefore, I am publically instructing every District Superintendent to ask every pastor and every church council at their Charge Conference or some other appropriate local congregational setting to articulate and share their specific path to discipleship along with the strategic steps to move people forward in their discipleship development. If you don’t have one, your DS will work with you to come up with one.  Furthermore, I will ask every DS to report those strategic paths to discipleship at the Cabinet Inventory prior to our beginning the appointment process next February.  (Hear me carefully, if you don’t know or are not sure, ask!  We will pour gallons of help into the engine of your congregation’s disciple making system if you ask.  We work with the coalition of the willing!  You will not be abandoned but aided; however, you have to ask.  Accountability will be expected by all involved, which includes us at the Conference office.)  We need to think this through and more importantly pray this through. Together we will learn!   [1]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91 [2]               Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 86 [3]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91