Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Risk (4th of 6 parts)

This is the fourth installment of a 6-part series on the points I made in my Superintendent's Address in June. These are six things I am deeply passionate about and encourage our pastors, lay people and churches to be serious about them as well. In this year's charge conferences, these will comprise our main talking points during our time together.

Our reality
In many, if not all, of our churches and ministry settings, we’re finding that a lot of the ways we do things are no longer relevant. The world is constantly changing. Technology is developing at a very rapid pace. The demographics in our communities and neighborhoods have shifted dramatically over the years. Many of the buildings and spaces we have are no longer used in the ways they were meant to be used, and sadly, they sit unused or underutilized. Many of our methods of ministry and mission are just not pertinent anymore. Even our churches' standing and role in the community are no longer what they used tobe.

We need to come to terms with this stark reality that if we do nothing to change our ways, we risk obsolescence within a generation or two.

A call to innovation and creativity
Hence, I call us to risk being innovative and creative in our ways. Ultramarathon runner and environmentalist Ed Ayres in his book, The Longest Race said, "Maybe the most effective way to fend off institutional fatigue or collapse, and to bring rejuvenating life and energy, is not to further tighten the grip of an institution on the hardened rules and ideologies that define it now, but to regenerate some of the creative spirit that formed it in the beginning."

What if we try something new? What if we risk being creative and innovative? I use the term "risk" because, as we all know, people who do new things to disturb the stale status quo get into trouble.

It's like the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb
The two main characters, Phineas and his brother Ferb, are two young boys wanting to transform their boring, "business as usual", uneventful summer day into "the best day ever!" And so they innovate and get creative. They come up with crazy, out of this world ideas inventions to transform their "normal" toys. So every day (episode), when an idea comes to mind, Phineas start out by excitedly saying, "Ferb, I know what we're going to do today!"

But then there's Candace, the older sister, who has made it her personal mission to keep the status quo; to keep her brothers from innovating; to keep them from having the best day ever! Every episode, she's out to bust her brothers and tell their mom about their inventions.

In order to move forward, I believe we need to have more Phineases and Ferbs in our churches and less of the Candaces. Sadly, the converse seems to hold true.

Ed Ayres continues, "Maybe the greatest function of idealism is not to guide the way to a utopian outcome but to help us reinvigorate or re-create our institutions when they have grown weary. Utopias never happen, but revolutions and rebirths sometimes do." We are after all Easter people. Our's is a story of resurrection and new life after death. We have to start seeing innovation and creativity as necessary for rebirth.

What's God up to?
Now, we do not just innovate for innovation's sake or be creative for creativity's sake. There has to be a compelling reason why we innovate and become creative. Of course, one might argue that the staleness or irrelevance of our ways is reason compelling enough. But I call us to an even greater reason, and that is paying attention to what God is up to.

What's God up to in your church and in your community? Where is the Spirit of God moving in your midst? The next question is vital: "How can you take part in what God is up to in your church and neighborhood?"

As Paul Knitter, as quoted by Fr. Richard Rohr, said, "If we can truly be mind-ful of what is going on in us or around us--that's how we can find or feel 'the Spirit' in it. Then our response to the situation will be originating from the Spirit rather than from our knee-jerk feelings of fear or anger or envy. And whether the response is to endure bravely or to act creatively, it will be done with understanding and compassion--which means it will be life-giving or life-creating."

To be mindful of what is happening in us and around us and act creatively. To be mindful of what God is doing in our churches, neighborhoods and communities and act accordingly. To be mindful of where the Spirit is moving and finding ways to be part of it. Friends, this is our call to innovation and creativity.

What is God birthing in your church and community and how can you be a part of itWe believe in God as creator. We also believe that we were created in the image of this creator God. Hence, the creative juices that are in God who created the universe flow in our very veins. I come alive whenever I am able to do something creative!

The Garage
Microsoft has what's called "The Garage" which is an incubator for fresh, new ideas. It is an innovation zone. It is where crazy, outrageous, out-of-this-world ideas are given a chance to be heard, tested, tried and even funded.

What if all our churches become innovation zones? What if our churches become safe spaces where fresh, new ideas are welcomed and given a try; where the Phineases and the Ferbs are listened to and given chances and where the Candaces are open to change.

What if we give up the fear of failure  and really try-out new stuff, instead of sticking to the old ways that do not work anymore? Are we stuck in old ways of doing things? What if we allow space for creativity and innovation to thrive in our different ministry settings instead of suppressing these ideas for fear of failure or replacing our beloved yet obsolete practices.

The Challenge

What is something new your church is doing? This is a question I will ask all of you at charge conference. It is something I hold myself accountable to, as well.

May we risk leaving our comfort zones and move into innovation zones. May we truly foster a culture of experimentation and creativity. May we truly be sensitive to what God is up to in our churches and communities and may we strive to do whatever it takes to be part of it.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Disciple (3rd of 6 parts)

The third point I made in my Superintendent's Address (which I continue to make now) has to do with the first part of our mission as United Methodists: "to make disciples of Jesus Christ."

What to do with those we welcome
In last week's blog post, we talked about cultivating a culture of genuine welcome as one of the six priorities I would really want our churches to be serious about. The next questions then is: What do we do with those we welcome?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (par. 122) outlines the process for carrying out our mission as follows: "We make disciples as we:

  • Proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • Lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • Nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley's Christian conferencing;
  • Send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • Continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ."
There is a lot that needs to happen after welcoming if we are to be true to our mission of disciple-making. After people are initially welcomed, they need to feel that they are continually welcome the next time they come. As they feel more and more welcome and at home in our spaces and among our people, they will start looking for ways to engage. They will look for ways to be involved, to learn, grow and be nurtured. They will seek to answer questions about faith and life; about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit; about worship and communion; about baptism and giving.

Are our churches ready for them when they get to this stage? Does your church have a system that grows people from first-time visitors to disciples who are transforming the world (as our process above suggests)? Do we have a discipling model in place in our churches? Or are we just living from week to week, Sunday to Sunday, doing business as usual.

Why a system?
I must say that I am not at all impressed by just the sheer number of activities and programs a local church has in a given week or month. I always look for a storyline, a thread that connects these activities as part of a greater purpose or system. A church may be an "Energizer Bunny", having multiple things going on seven days a week but if any of these are not part of a system for making disciples, then the church is just wasting valuable energy, talent, resources and time.

Everything- Bible studies, craft and other interest groups, Sunday Schools, week-night classes, confirmation programs, youth group, children's ministries, auctions, garage sales, bake sales, cake walks, coffee hours, potlucks, choir, praise band, garden group etc.- everything has to play a part in your church's system of making and growing disciples.

Sometimes, all it takes is designing the discipling system and plugging in what we already are doing into the different steps in the system. Many of the programs will fit naturally. Some may need to be tweaked in order to play into the system.  Other times, though, we come to a realization that one or more of our beloved church programs has no role to play whatsoever in our discipling systems and we are just wasting our resources on them for the sake of keeping "traditions". Churches need to ask the question: What part of our disciple-making process does this program/activity play?

To be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us, we need to be intentional about what we do as churches and how these programs fit into our system of making disciples that would in turn help us fulfill our mission of transforming the world.

Beyond teaching to discipling
Fr. Richard Rohr said, "You can give people all the pious Christian teaching you want, but without a transformation of consciousness, they don't have the energy or the capacity to carry it out." Jesus modeled this. He went beyond mere teaching/transfer of knowledge, to discipleship- inviting people to apprenticeship, to grow and learn and be transformed through a process or a system. While genuine transformation is something between a person and God, our call is to create a healthy environment where this transformation can happen. 

Our goal in having intentional discipling systems is to grow Christian disciples who will be part of this movement of transforming the world. And every church, given their unique context, will have a discipling system different from the rest.

How are you making disciples in your church? What is your disciple-making system?

I challenge us to live a culture of discipleship. May we be more intentional and systematic about our making disciples. 

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Welcome (2nd of 6 parts)

As indicated in the title, this is the second of a six-part series on the points I made in my first Superintendent's Address in June. These six points represent what I am most passionate about in our common ministry here in Alaska. These are six areas I am hoping that churches and individuals will be serious about.

That's My Spot!
A good number of years ago, a Filipino couple came to Anchorage as immigrants. Being active and devoted United Methodist leaders back home, they went to one of our UM churches here in the city. They arrived as the service was about to start. The sanctuary was half full and there were a lot of empty pews. They picked a spot close to the back.

Just as they had gotten settled and were reviewing the contents of the bulletin, an Anglo couple wearing name tags (obviously members of that church) arrived, stood by the pew where the Filipinos were seated and sternly said, "That's our spot!"The newcomers apologized and gathered their belongings. But instead of moving to a different pew, they made a beeline for the door, never to set foot in that sanctuary again.

They were embarrassed and truly felt unwelcome in a United Methodist Church that proudly proclaimed in their bulletins that "All Are Welcome!" When I met them shortly after my family and I arrived in Alaska, they were already involved in a church of a different denomination. (Thankfully, when they went back home to the Philippines after they retired, they went back to being United Methodists in their home church.)

It's easy to get angry about this story and at the unwelcoming couple. But before we point accusing fingers and try to find out where it happened and who did it, I believe the greater questions that needs to be asked is an introspective one: How many times have I/we actually said to someone new, "That's my spot!"? How many times have we felt our "spots" in church (i.e. positions of leadership, ways of doing things, favorite church programs, belief systems, etc.) being taken by someone else, especially someone fairly new, not realizing that there is actually room for all of us.

All are welcome?
Most if not all of our churches claim that "all are welcome" there. But is our welcome genuine? When we say "all", do we really mean "all"? Or is there a fine print somewhere that says "all" means "all who think, act, look, dress, worship, pray, serve, speak and live like us. All of those are welcome."? Or perhaps the fine print reads: "All are welcome as long as they don't take our 'spots'."

Are ALL truly welcome in our churches and faith communities? If so, then it begs the question: How are we welcoming them? How are we welcoming the OTHER into our midst? How are we welcoming our Alaska Natives, Native Americans, millenials, young families with young children, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, immigrants, people of color, the Nones (people with non religious affiliation) and the Dones (people who are done with organized religion)?

The Sacred Circle
Our theme at annual conference was "Restoring the Sacred Circle". God's family is a sacred circle that includes everyone and excludes no one. How do we truly restore and keep this sacred circle? How can we continue to draw the circle wider?

There is a well-known Vietnamese saying: "In order to fight each other, the chicks born from the same mother hen put colors on their faces." Vietnamese buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, "Putting colors on our own face is to make ourselves a stranger to our own brothers and sisters. When will the chicks of the same mother hen remove the colors from their faces and recognize each other as brothers and sisters?"

When will we as the church, the body of Christ, remove the colors from our faces and remove the colors we have put on the faces of others and recognize each other as sisters and brothers? Another way of putting it is: When will we get rid of the fine print in "all are welcome"?

What's their story?
In the movie Amistad, there's a scene where Abolitionist lawyer Theodore Joadson seeks the legal advice of John Quincy Adams in defending the rights of the African slaves (click here to watch it). Adams asks Joadson, "What's their story?" He challenges Joadson to look beyond Slavery as an issue to learn the specific stories of the individual slaves he was defending: "Who are they? Where did they come from? What are they good at? What is their family like? What are their concerns? What is their story?"

What's their story? This has been a guiding question and principle for me in welcoming the other. I always push myself to find out what their story is. I try to go past the labels to look at the people and listen to their stories. I challenge you to do the same. You'll be surprised what you'll learn. I believe its a way of "removing the color from our faces" and "getting rid of the fine print."

I challenge us to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome as individuals and as faith communities. When we say "all are welcome" in our churches, may our "all" really mean "all". And as we do, may God's kingdom truly come "on earth as it is in heaven!"

Your fellow disciple,