May 31, 2011

A Question on the Rapture and the Media

Amidst the brouhaha surrounding the whole failed prediction of the end of the world, several of the media outlets that reported on Camping's prediction (along with other venues where the conversation occurred) spoke of it specifically as a rapture prediction, which was Camping's language I believe. The thing that strikes me as peculiar is that the idea of the rapture seems generally to have been presented as normative and typical of Christian belief. This is odd because the idea of the rapture is a relatively recent development in the history of Christianity. The theory spread largely through the efforts of a man named J.N. Darby in the first half of the 19th century and was then popularized largely through the widespread use of the Scofield study Bible, the notes of which advanced Darby's rapture theory. So, if you consider the number of Christians through two thousand years of Church history who have believed in the rapture, you are looking at a relatively small percentage of the universal Church - only a select group from the last 150 or so years.

So, here's the question. Given the reality that the rapture is a relatively recent innovation, why is it so often presented in the media as typical of Christian belief? Now perhaps I'm hearing the wrong reports, but from what I've seen the observation seems accurate. My hunch is that the media simply lacks precision when it comes to theological ideas, language, and the history of Christian belief, but one might expect a good reporter to read up a bit on the history of the ideas on which he or she reports. Whatever the case may be, there are a majority of Christians through history who have held and presently hold distinctly different ideas about the coming of Christ. I find it somewhat peculiar that we didn't hear much about all that in the conversation surrounding the rapture prediction.

I'd like to hear from you. Did you hear any reports that discussed the history of the rapture theory as a context for discussing Camping's prediction?
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May 24, 2011

Destruction or Freedom? Thoughts on the End of the World

So I've held off saying anything about the recent end of the world predictions because, according to eschatologian and friend, Chad Brooks, it's easier to make fun of bad eschatology than to be in the process of developing a good one. I certainly don't want to fall prey to that critique. It would be all too easy to jest and mock giving only in the appearance of taking pot shots to garner page loads. But I've decided to post briefly now with the goal of using the recent end times mania as an opportunity to engage in that process of developing a good eschatology. So, the following is not so much on the folly of such predictions, though that critique will be present, but on what strikes me as peculiar about the standard end of the world story in contrast to the biblical story.

The rather straightforward story of Christian scripture is that God created a good world to be populated and overseen by creatures who bear his divine image. Sin and death ravaged that originally good creation and left it in bondage to decay. In Christ, God is committed to the salvation of his image bearing creatures who are instrumental in the ultimate rescue of all creation. The story of the Bible both begins and ends in a garden where God dwells with his beloved image bearers.

In contrast, end of the world predictions often take this straightfoward story and press it uncomfortably into an elaborate scheme that has the appearance of biblical fidelity but is in reality far from it. The notion that the faithful will escape the utter destruction that is coming on the world and its evil inhabitants is usually typical of this approach. Such destruction, though, would be the culmination of creation's entropic bondage, not freedom from it. Creation will certainly be transformed, but transformation is not annihilation.

One peculiarity is that the church has, for centuries, maintained good biblical eshcatology in her liturgy. The Gloria Patri preserves in song the hope of God's intention for creation:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
World without end. Amen. Amen (emphasis mine, of course).
Week by week, the faithful have gathered to sing of God's commitment to uphold and redeem the work of his hand. God has not and will not abandon his creation. Instead, he promises to liberate it from bondage to decay. The second coming of Christ will certainly be the end of the world as we know it, but it will hardly be the end of the world.
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May 17, 2011

Young Pastors' Network Reflections: Strategic Planning

I have the privilege this year of being among 44 young United Methodist pastors being mentored by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter as a part of the Young Pastors' Network 2011. YPN is a "leadership development school" that includes six days together at key events and ongoing interaction through the use of social media. Last week we all met at Ginghamsburg Church for three intensive days of learning and mentoring. It was like drinking from Niagara; I'm continuing now to reflect on and process the things I learned.

One topic we covered that made a significant impact on my thinking was strategic planning. I was struck by the way in which Hamilton and Slaughter both developed very specific plans, though often quite different plans, to implement their respective visions. Fruitful ministry does not just happen; it is the result of planning and implementation.

After some ongoing reflection, the thing that strikes me is that I didn't have a class on strategic planning in seminary. I didn't learn how to build a comprehensive strategy that would bring cohesion to the mission and ministry of the local church. I think seminaries are attempting to compensate for this lack with courses on Christian leadership, but those classes cover a range of topics related to leadership. They do not necessarily put strategic ministry planning in the core of the basic divinity degree.

Now let me be clear. I'm not bashing seminary here. My time at Asbury Theological Seminary was a hugely important part of my ministerial training, and I look that time with fondness and appreciation for professors who made a significant investment in me both inside and outside the walls of the classroom. And every pastor has the responsibility of continued learning after graduate school in order to cultivate continuing effectiveness. 

I'm wondering, however, whether this is a place where seminaries need to find creative ways of providing students with training for developing and implementing a strategic plan for the local church.

I also wonder if this is something that even can be accomplished in the typical way we've done seminary. By virtue of their vocation, many (if not most) seminary professors have not been pastors in local churches where they've had to develop and implement a long-term plan for carrying out the mission of the church. Again, the goal here is not to be overly critical but to consider whether this is a limitation of the traditional way we've trained pastors.

So, what's the solution? Well, Hamilton and Slaughter are making a contribution by gathering young pastors together to teach them the basics of  strategic planning. Beyond that, perhaps seminaries need to look at partnering with local pastors and churches who have demonstrated that they can plan and implement effectively to take a vital role in the training of upcoming clergy. I think some schools and churches are already engaged in such partnerships, but I also think that we need to find ways to make these partnerships the norm rather than the exception.

I'd like to learn from you on this. Pastors, do you have a strategic plan for the church you serve? Where did you learn how to create such a plan? Has it been fruitful? What resources did you use? Can you recommend any helpful books?

Laypersons, do you know whether your church has such a plan? If so, what is your role in implementing the plan? Has the leadership of your church been effective in communicating the plan?

May 6, 2011

A United Methodist Archbishop?

Earlier this week, the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church voted to create a presidential position that would not come with the usual responsibility of oversight for a geographic area. The proposal is that the Council would elect one of its own to a four year term as President of the Council. This person would serve as the chief ecumenical officer of the denomination and be responsible for the strategic direction of the Church. The Council is currently presided over for a two year term by a bishop who also oversees an Annual Conference in a geographic area.

The proposal presently remains just that, a proposal. As a constitutional amendment it would require a two-thirds majority vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds majority vote of the members of the sessions of the Annual Conferences. No small task, and rightfully so.

The Council's vote on this proposal was not unanimous. Heather Hahn, in an article written for the United Methodist News Service, helpfully summarizes some of the takes on the matter. And both sides make some good points. Serving both as bishop of an Annual Conference and as Council President makes for a great deal of responsibility. But the concern that those Conferences located outside the United States might not have equal representation is valid as well.

There is another matter that didn't come up in the article. There seems to be a rising tide of concern about the institutional bureaucracy in the United Methodist Church. Many members of local churches feel disconnected from the denominational hierarchy. They are concerned about denominational boards that often appear to have their own agenda rather than that of the Church and its members. They worry that more effort is put into preserving the institution than fulfilling the mission of the Church to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

And there is indication that the denomination has heard this concern. We have been recently encouraged to reflect on ways to reroute resources to increase the vitality of local churches rather than propping up institutions that haven't been vital for a long time.

At a time when there is significant disconnect between the people in the pew and the denominational level administration, does it seem wise to add this another level to the denominational structure? Is this the right move given the lack of trust that many United Methodists have when it comes to the Church's leadership?

I'm not saying its a bad idea. In fact, I really do think the position may have some potential to be helpful. I just wonder about the timing of this move. Will the laity's confidence in our denominational leadership be increased by this proposal at this time?

I go back and forth on this. So, I'm curious to hear from you. Do you think this is a good move? Or not? Why? Would you rather see resources put into a new President of the Council of Bishops? Or somewhere else? Where else? Are there alternatives for aligning the strategic direction for the Church? What are those alternatives?

May 2, 2011

Evangelizing the Church

The new issue of Preaching is out and contains my article "Evangelizing the Church". Here's the intro:
If you are like me, there may have been a time in your preaching ministry when you thought the gospel was really only for evangelizing unbelievers and did not need to be a part of every sermon on a weekly basis. After all, aren't we to be moving on from the milk of elementary teachings to mature spiritual meat? If we address the basic gospel on a weekly basis, are we not hindering the growth of our people into deeper biblical truths?

This was the rationale behind my understanding of the place of the gospel in preaching. In thinking the gospel was only for evangelistic purposes, I did not necessarily incorporate it into every weekly sermon because those sermons were directed primarily to church members who already had heard the gospel and professed faith in Christ.

Then I came across Romans 1:15. Once again, Scripture overturned my preconceived and erroneous notions, this time with regard to the gospel and its function in the church. In Romans 1:15, Paul expresses his eagerness to "preach the gospel" to the Christians in Rome, whom he already has addressed as "beloved of God" and "saints" (v. 1:7).

The Greek word translated as "preach the gospel" is a form of the verb euangelidz┼Ź, which is where we get the language of evangelism. So, a legitimate and literal translation of Romans 1:15 could read, "I am eager to evangelize you also who are in Rome." This translation clearly reveals the importance for Paul that the Christians in Rome hear the gospel again in order to grow in their Christian faith.

Having been confronted by Scripture with an understanding of the gospel that did not fit my thinking, I was forced to reconsider the function of the gospel in Christian preaching by asking: What does it mean to evangelize the church?