Emerging Ministry in the Little Ice Age ©

Among the many, many acts of faithful discipleship by CTC churches who are reaching out in the name of Christ during the COVID-19 pandemic is one shared by West District Superintendent Lisa Neslony. According to Lisa, Oakdale UMC is driving around “handing out Mother’s Day toilet paper gifts!” (see image right) It’s a narrative that stands out as both quite simple and funny.
Together, we are seeking to faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Together, we are sharing in life-sustaining and enhancing worship.
Together, we are offering outreach ministry to the hungry, hurting and homeless, and compassionate care to all we are able to reach.
This is good and holy as a faithful expression of the Gospel of Christ. I would suggest that what we are experiencing is an emerging, hybrid path of discipleship. The path to discipleship will be transformed as we move through this period of disruption, change and challenge.
One of the observations coming from the Cabinet room is that healthy* churches will do well and unhealthy churches will struggle and possibly die. (*Health is defined biblically and theologically by a simple coalition of being both faithful and fruitful.) Let us together remember a couple of key biblical insights.
First, the Lord will lead us through this time of challenge and crisis. Consider again the great Exodus story: 
“The Lord went in front of them during the day in a column of cloud to guide them and at night in a column of lightning to give them light. This way they could travel during the day and at night.  The column of cloud during the day and the column of lightning at night never left its place in front of the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)
Second, God will work in us, with us and through us bringing us to a new dawn. Faithfulness will be found in a path of discipleship formation, which is born of following Christ. Consider again the guidance we receive from Holy Scripture. 
As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” (Matthew 4:18-19)
“We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28)
Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.  (Philippians 2:12-13)
As we continue to consider how our churches engage in effective ministry during and coming out of the Little Ice Age, I wish to share some observations from the 50,000-foot level and then move down to the ground with some intensely practical suggestions.
A View from 50,000 Feet Up
The season in which we find ourselves – this coronavirus storm is not just a blizzard we can “wait out.”  This season of COVID-19 pandemic hits us as almost a “perfect storm.” The last embers of cultural Christianity (what we have called Christendom) are cooling into inert crumbles of coal dust. The philosophical climate of radical individualism combined with a hedonistic addiction to the pursuit of personal pleasure salted with partisan vituperatives and soaked in personal arrogance is leading us culturally (and often individually) far from a Christian submission to Jesus as Lord. 
In the United Methodist Church, we are being hit with at least three, and more accurately, four storm surges which batter our institutional structure.
  • Storm Surge 1 is the COVID-19 Pandemic we are now experiencing. 
  • Storm Surge 2 will be the experience of a rebound surge in coronavirus infections and deaths as we re-open too early. 
  • Storm Surge 3 involves the coming schism of the United Methodist Church over deep doctrinal and ethical issues which will hit full force with the upcoming postponed 2020 General Conference and the (in my opinion, necessary) passage of the “Protocol of Separation.” 
  • Storm Surge 4 is the aging decline of the membership of the United Methodist Church with its associated fiscal crisis. 
Bluntly, we are not going back to “normal.”

One of the better ways to conceptualize what is going on in the life of the church has been pioneered by Andy Crouch and others in their brilliant analysis of “Leading Beyond the Blizzard.”  (see my April 6 blog post for more on this outstanding work) As demonstrated in the diagram below, we are already past the blizzard and into the winter. 
 Rev. Meg Witmer-Faile, Associate Director of the Lamar Smith Center for Evangelism, Mission & Church Growth, recently offered a few pertinent quotations that I’ll share here:
Resilience: The capacity of a system or enterprise to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances. We can embrace resilience by holding to our core purpose, being adaptive, authentic, remarkable, relational. “Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill.”  (Tim Hartford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.)
“Crisis is an accelerator” - Carey Nieuwhof
(Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Lamar Smith Center for Evangelism, Mission & Church Growth, regularly publishes Endnotes, which is consistently outstanding and worth attentive reading. If you don’t already receive Endnotes, send an email to cindiblackburn@ctcumc.org and request to be added to the mailing list. Mike also has recently released a wonderful four-part video and podcast series on Reimagining the Way We Do Church that I also highly recommend you take a few moments to enjoy and absorb.)
Concrete Practical Suggestions for “On the Ground” Ministry
I find myself reminded of that in times of trouble, crisis and desperate need, God does God’s greatest work. These are great days for Christians and for the life of the church! I truly believe the Lord is calling us to a time of extraordinary faithfulness and courageous witness. Following are seven elements that I believe are vital and necessary for our churches to build and sustain engaging ministry during and out of the Little Ice Age. 
  1. The first hardcore element of engaging ministry in the little ice age (our current historical context) is do not let the “back to Egypt Committee” rule the day.  (see Exodus 16:1-3) Clamoring to return to the old “normal” is comforting, even compelling but it is also a serious mistake. With respect for the fear generated in this time of crisis and in a grace-filled manner, listen to those advocating a return to the old ways and share a response guided by faith and not driven by fear. Together, we are on an Exodus journey to a new land.
  2. In the hecticness of this time of “shelter in place,” the workload for many has grown not shrunk. As such, a second piece of intensely practical advice is found in the phrase “let prayer be your first response and not your last resort.” We must fight the infusion of anxiety which pushes us to action without prayerful thought and reflection. One of the significant implications of our growing time pressure is that it threatens to squeeze out time for thinking and praying. I recall the title of a book I read years ago, Too Busy Not to Pray (written by Bill Hybels formally of Willow Creek Community Church). Yoked with greater, not lesser, quiet prayer time, is the need for time to think and carefully reflect. The importance of quiet time to reflect and pray is counter-intuitive but critical.
  3. Third, we must embrace a strategy of growing bigger while being smaller. The vital need for evangelistic outreach must not, cannot, be neglected. For starters, it is a mission imperative given as a commission from the Risen Lord (see Matthew 28:18-20). At the same time, we know that the early Christian movement accomplished exponential growth in faithfulness and fruitful, world transforming discipleship through embracing small house churches in conjunction with large revival gatherings and even field preaching. It is worth noting that the initial Methodist movement came into being in a time of labor crisis in England. 
  4. A fourth area of focus it to remember that the key component of John Wesley’s revival of biblical Christianity was the Class Meeting. Methodists, using the model of the earlier Christ followers – the apostle – gather in “classes” of 8 to 12 for worship, Bible study, prayer, service to those in need and pastoral care while “upholding one another in love.” I cannot over emphasize the development of small group ministry on a wider scale for worship, study, service, prayer, and witness. Through such a biblical strategy the original Methodist Movement grew exponentially bigger by being smaller. Deploy small group ministry (a modern re-implementation of the Class Meeting) as a basic vehicle for the vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. One example might be found at First Methodist Mansfield, where leadership is envisioning 1,000 house churches tied to the mother church. 
  5. The days of casual cultural Christianity are over.  Growth in our teaching ministry is essential.  This will involve once again teaching orthodox Christian doctrine, holiness of heart and life (sanctification) in ministry to the hungry, hurting and homeless along with committed evangelistic faith sharing.  On an intensely practical level, collectively United Methodist Churches must move beyond a “program church” model.
  6. Pastors must once again become circuit riders. The new circuit rider pastor will be multiplying their teaching impact by “riding” from Zoom room to Zoom room. Similarly, the spiritual care and feeding of our congregations will involve circuit riding pastors who reach out through things like Facebook, FaceTime and social media “Hangouts,” along with medically appropriate, in-person contact. Spiritual guidance, formation and exhortation should be embraced once again. The Wesleyan question of “How is it with your soul” must be re-appropriated as a regular part of our conversation with pastors and parishioner’s alike. Electronic Circuit riding pastors with reach out far beyond normal physical boundaries to provide a new avenue for witness and conversion. One church in the Central Texas Conference now has a regular worshipping group in Germany. Evangelism and life transformation are happening in creatively different ways!
  7. Missional outreach in love, justice and mercy will increasingly become both more local and more global. This trend has been underway for at least two decades. In the “Little Ice Age Church,” we will see it accelerated even more. Practically, this means vibrant churches will be engaged in hands-on ministry with the poor and those in need in their immediate neighborhood to an even greater degree. Simultaneously, the growth in small mission trips around the world to those in desperate need will increase as we slowly open back up. Recent examples in the Central Texas Conference are ministry in places like Maua, Kenya and Latvia. It is vitally important that faithful Christians engage in local and global ministries and missions as a “both/and” not as an “either/or.” Healthy congregations will instinctively understand that local and global go together (each expression enhancing and supporting the other). Unhealthy congregations will seek to make missional outreach an “either/or” corruption of the gospel.
There is more to be said, shared and discussed on how we together engage in ministry in this “little ice age.” Let these seven be a starting point for prayer, reflection and discussion. With them, I suggest a succinct focus.
  • Protect the core mission while being flexible with methods and structure.
  • Reimagine!
  • Employ Prototypes – Experiment!
  • Create Capacity – Husband cash and financial resources in way that is directed to the future and not to the propping up of the past.
Together we will move into a new dawn for the faithful church of Jesus Christ (and the Wesleyan/Methodist Revival). The Lord is going before us.
The Lord went in front of them during the day in a column of cloud to guide them and at night in a column of lightning to give them light. This way they could travel during the day and at night.  The column of cloud during the day and the column of lightning at night never left its place in front of the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)

On a related matter I wish to share with the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference that I have written a letter urging our U.S. Senators and Representative from Texas to work together for strong, non-partisan and non-political leadership and response to the continuing COVID-19 crisis to ensure the health, safety and well-being of all citizens of Texas and the United States as well as those from others nations who happen to live within our borders at the present time. We need sound and wise advice based on the best medical science available and not any one person’s political desires.  We need leadership that is committed to the welfare of all people and not just those of a similar outlook.” 

Bishop Mike Lowry,
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church