Way, Way Back to the Future – Envisioning a New Spring (Part 3) ©

On June 21, at the 2021 annual meeting of the Central Texas Conference (CTC), I delivered what I believe will be my last episcopal address to the CTC – “Way, Way Back to the Future: Envisioning a New Spring,” I have been sharing a printed version via a series of three blogs. This is the third in that series. Part I in the series was first posted on June 25 and served to set the context of our time and culture and offers my perception on what I’ve termed “The Hunger of Our Times.” In Part II, I shared my understanding of going back to our future in a new spring for the life of the church and the Christian movement in the United States. In this, the third and final installment, I continue my thoughts on going back to our future and offer strategies on how we as a conference and denomination can recover a sense of communal discipline along with a biblical and theological recovery of the Gospel as we move Forward to a New Spring.

  • Bishop Mike Lowry

Moderators Note: Please note that a video of Bishop Lowry’s full Episcopal Address to the 2021 Central Texas Annual Conference is available at the end of this post.
Forward to a New Spring

A quote from Thom Rainer in The Post-Quarantine Church outlines a way forward through the way back to the future. “Get ready to begin the journey. From my perspective, the church is entering the most amazing and exciting days it has seen in decades—maybe even in centuries. Though the path will not always be easy, we can expect future days of great opportunity.”
I return to a concept introduced in the first of these three Way, Way, Back to the Future posts – following the North Star of purpose. The North Star of purpose is driven by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It is given to us by the risen Lord for the sake of this disease stricken world. This is and remains our Wildly Important Goal, our WIG.  I love the way 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.” – Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (p.86)
Let me offer some key markers that we might employ as elements for moving forward to a new spring from the earliest Christians in the Roman empire:

  1. Clear Christological identity -> Jesus is Lord!
  2. Sacrificial in service
  3. Wise in witness

Read the way the Apostle Paul put it in the opening chapter of his letter to the beloved Philippians. 

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” Philippians 1:27-30 NRSV

Did you catch verse 29? Dr. Clifton Howard, assistant to the Bishop, recently called it to my attention. “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Did you get that!? “The privilege” of suffering for Him! 
An additional key marker of faithfulness along with the three I have already mentioned was assumed by the earliest Christians and put firmly in place by the leaders of the Methodist revival.   Both embraced the use of small groups for discipleship formation. The first small group was made up of 12 disciples who became the apostles - the sent ones. In the Gospel of Mark, we read, “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7)
Those called Methodist under first Wesley and then Asbury’s tutelage in the Americas were required to be a part of a “Class Meeting” for their own spiritual growth and discipleship training. The importance of this “marker” or “signpost” is why the Cabinet has moved small group formation to the top of the list of metrics we look at …. after we have first examined the narrative stories of transformation in a congregation’s discipleship life. As I have shared before, we are not asking you to do what we do not do. We, as a Cabinet, meet regularly as a Class meeting. None of the “business” of the church is allowed. We share scripture and ask, “how is it with your soul?”

Calling Us Back to Center

Moving Forward to a New Spring necessitates a biblical and theological recovery of the Gospel.  The earliest Christian witness and the Methodist revival both focused on what God was doing in and through us, not what we humans are working at. The focus was on God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
I am tired of a spiritually atrophied Unitarian United Methodism that acts as if the Holy Spirit is not real.
I have had it with a vague deistic theology which condescends to Jesus as an interesting teacher but denies his kingship. 
The Lord is calling us back to the center of the Christian faith in the great doctrines of the incarnation, sin, salvation, and sanctification in both their personal and social dimensions. Wesley’s dying breath was anchored on the incarnation. “The best of all is that God is with us.”
Step back and ask yourself, when is the last time you heard (or preached!) a sermon on salvation? When is the last time, you were challenged to explicitly turn your life over to Christ the Lord/leader of your life above and beyond your own transitory preferences? 
Recently, the Cabinet read Alan Hirsch’s book Reframation. In the book, Hirsch highlights three aspects of salvation in today’s culture – salvation related to

  1. guilt, or
  2. shame, or
  3. liberation 

All three are historically a part of the Christian doctrine of atonement or soteriology (the “way” of salvation). Furthermore, the early Christian Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explicitly refused to limit salvation to simply one element or aspect of life (i.e. sin as related only to guilt) but lifted as the center of orthodoxy the greater understanding of core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation, sin, salvation, the church, etc.  It is past time we go back to teaching the essentials of our faith. (I highly recommend Phil Tallon and Justus Hunter’s book The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way for both Sunday School classes and a preaching series.)

Firm Core / Flexible Strategies

As we move forward, a crucial way to think and pray about our future in a new spring is to guard the core while being flexible in strategy. For years, we have done just the opposite. We’ve been loose and even indifferent to the core while being rigid in strategy. The early church, as well as the early Methodists, held firmly to the doctrinal core of the Christian faith and were wide open on strategy. Wesley was so flexible on strategy that he went so far as to embrace field preaching, which he considered “vile” (his word, not mine).
Recently, we witnessed a fascinating example in a secular setting of a Christian guarding the core while being astonishingly flexible in strategy. It took place in a courtroom during the sentencing of the police officer who shot Bothem Jean. Judge Tammy Kemp guarded the core of the law with justice in the guilty verdict but exhibited gospel-laced flexibility in offering Amber Guyger a hug and a Bible at sentencing. 
Another intensely practical example might be found in our Forward to a New Spring strategy adopted at our last Annual Conference. We are engaged in an experiment moving from five geographical districts to three district areas and buttressing our district ministry with part-time teams made up of the DS, the District Administrator, an Assistant DS, a Discipleship Coach, and a Student Discipleship Coordinator. At this point (approximately five months in), it is hard to tell if this is the best way to move forward. A review of this strategy is needed next year. This review should be governed by holding to the core mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ while being flexible in our strategy relative to the number and organization of districts.
A necessity in moving forward to a new spring, regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as progressive, traditional or moderate, must involve the recovery of a working discipline in our life together. This is an uncomfortable subject in today’s rabidly individualistic culture, but I invite us again to look back to our future. Indeed, I would go so far as to assert that we must recover a sense of communal discipline or we shall surely perish. Clergy, this starts by honoring your ordination vows. Laity, membership in the United Methodist Church is not a right but a privilege. Both carry commitments not just made to other humans but made to God!
I have on my desk a “class meeting” ticket,” which used to be a basic part of being a Methodist.  To recover who we truly are – those who are methodical and disciplined in their faith walk – will mean that our church “membership” will be less than our average worship attendance. (I note that it is the opposite today.) The earliest Christians held the concept of church discipline so deeply that they debated the issue of readmittance to worship of those who had proved apostate or unfaithful. 
Please read the following carefully: grace must abound, but it cannot be cheap.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s profound insight should resonate with the core of our being and the practical essence of how we go about being “church” together. Pouring out his life as a martyr in resistance to Hitler and Nazis, he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 47

“Let All That You Do Be Done in Love”

And now I come at last to that element of which I am reluctant to speak. I have come to believe that if we are to find a way forward to a new spring as a denomination, as the Holy Spirit is leading us, we must engage in some form of denominational separation. Famously John Wesley once said,

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. -  John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism”

Painfully, this is too often largely the truth in the United Methodist Church of today.

Our internal church struggle, which I take to be doctrinally important and serious, is damaging the witness of us all. We need to set each other free. It is time we move forward to a new spring through a grace-filled separation that would allow for shared ecumenical ministry and the possibility of a coming back together in the future. A litigious fight over property and position benefits no one and damages the advancement of the kingdom of God towards which, I trust, we all work and pray for. I believe the best way to accomplish this is through the so-called “Protocol” that will be voted upon at General Conference in 2022. However, I call for respect and fairness towards all who might disagree with such a judgment.
To those of you who insist on some version of unity at all costs, I remind you that we came into being by separating from the Church of England after the Revolutionary War in 1784. I would further ask, based on a historically irrefutable reading of church history, that if you really believe in unity at all costs, then why are you not already a member of either the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic branches of the Church universal?

Do you recall the word of the Lord as it comes to us from the Prophet Isaiah? The first part of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, are pre-exile and call the people of God to renewed faithfulness and prophesizes judgement if they do not repent. Second Isaiah beginning at chapter 40 is a word from the Lord to a people in exile desperately seeking deliverance and a new future of faithfulness. In the 43rd chapter, we hear this word of the Lord. “But now thus says the Lord, . . . Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. ... I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:1, 19

Presiding at what I believe will be my last Annual Conference as bishop, I think this is where we find ourselves no matter which camp we place ourselves in. We are wandering in the wilderness as a church, and we know what deserts are like. May the words of the Apostle Paul to the contentiously troubled church at Corinth provide guidance to us all.

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Click on the player below to view Bishop Lowry’s final Episcopal Address to the Central Texas Conference – or visit vimeo.com/568613914 to watch/download.