Sometimes, Distraction Is a Choice

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Over and over as the chasm between conservative, centrist, and progressive factions within the United Methodist Church has been growing, the word that keeps being thrown around over and over is: “Distraction.” On both sides of the theological aisle, churches have left with “the distraction of the continued debate on LGBTQ inclusion” cited as a primary reason. They claim that the “distraction” of the debate has prevented them from effectively ministering and otherwise working for God’s kingdom.

Has it, now?

My response was (note: I have protected my Twitter account so my response is copied and pasted):

I have maintained throughout that anything is only a distraction if one allows it to me (sic). Anyone who says any of this has kept them from doing the work of the kingdom is admitting thay they have allowed the enemy to win.

Here’s the thing: Ministry must still be done regardless of our desire to engage in endless debates and discussions over human sexuality. Now, I’m not saying that these conversations aren’t important. What I am saying is that when one chooses to make this the sole focus of their life, then, yes, they are distracted from the work that God has called us all to undertake.

“Distraction” is a choice.

The truth is, all of this is only a distraction if we one allows it to be. For me, I have discussions about denominational things from time to time, but I spend much more of my time talking about Jesus and the gospel. I do this because I have chosen to not allow human sexuality debates to be what keeps me from ministering to the people in my midst and to those outside it I’m able to reach. Simply, anyone who cites the “distraction” of LGBTQ inclusion as why they want to leave or why the church should split is admitting defeat. At the end of the day, no matter how many pieces the UMC is carved into, things are going to continue to come up. If it’s not LGBTQ inclusion, it will be something else later on. Then what? Are we going to keep splitting and not doing God’s work because we’re “distracted” by something new?

Citing “distraction” is an admission that one has allowed the enemy to win. You better believe the enemy finds this hilarious, a joke at your expense. Or, perhaps, at the expense of your witness.

Let’s do better, church.

Rescue the Lost Sheep

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A few years ago, I attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker made a statement that I often recall: “God is in the rescue business.” One of the occasions where I found myself thinking of this statement was in a conversation this morning with one of my friends, who said, “I don’t like churches because of my issues and hang ups and what happened to me growing up there. I’d absolutely feel safe in your church. And that’s what’s important. Taking in the lost sheep and helping them feel like they have a sturdy shelter again.” Honestly, a statement like this is something every Christian ought to long to hear, that someone has even an ounce of faith because of their witness. Especially as a pastor, I like knowing that someone has rekindled their faith because I allowed them the space to explore and safely ask questions and express doubts. As a shepherd, my job is to seek the lost sheep and bring them safely into the care of Jesus, the great shepherd.

Unfortunately, especially in the western world, Christians seem to have lost sight of the mission and of who God really is. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinner (Luke 5:32). Yet, this doesn’t stop many Christians from judging who is and is not worthy to attend their church. The idea often seems to be that people must all be alike and think alike in order to join a particular church. Here’s the thing, though: That’s entirely a modern construct. From its earliest days, the church – as in, the collection of people – was meant to be diverse in its make up and perspective. If you look at Acts 2 and other parts of the new testament that reveal the look of the early church, you’ll see that they were people from all sorts of places, walks of life, and outlooks. Some were totally convinced of Jesus being the Messiah while others had their doubts. Some were certain of how to express their faith from their Jewish background while others had never been Jewish and had no idea what was going on. Now, we want homogony in every facet and if a “sheep” wants to come to a particular pen who doesn’t fit with the other sheep, then that sheep is often ignored and sent back out into the world even more hurt and scarred than they were when they walked in.

In such churches, any sheep who does not look and think the same as the current sheep aren’t welcome.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is a perfect example of what evangelism is supposed to be. The Pharisees aren’t happy that Jesus has been associating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” because, as the Pharisees saw it, they were not worthy of being loved by God. They had decided that these “sinners” were not welcome. Jesus uses the example of a shepherd who tends a flock of 100 sheep leaving 99 to find the one who wandered away and brings the lost sheep back. There, the sheep who wandered off and was malnourished, dehydrated, and injured can be cared for and healed. Jesus closes out this lesson by saying, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT)

This is the job that Jesus wants His people to carry out: Find the lost sheep and bring them home, even if the sheep don’t quite “fit.” Bishop James Swanson once said in a sermon, “Being together does not mean being and thinking alike.”

Our job is to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them to Jesus to be made whole and healed. It doesn’t matter what we believe is “wrong” with them or how different they are, it’s still our job to show them to the rescuer. We don’t get to pick and choose who comes to the table because it’s not ours; the table belongs to Jesus.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

“Rescue the Perishing,” a hymn by Fanny Crosby

The New Worship Wars

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I remember several years ago that one of the big churchy buzzwords (or maybe “buzz term” would be more appropriate) was worship wars. Basically, this was a term used to describe the struggles many congregations faced about traditional versus contemporary music in their worship services. Many churches opted to have separate traditional and contemporary services and, often, the result was turf wars over which service was better or which service’s attenders mattered more. Some opted to have blended styles of worship with contemporary and traditional music, liturgy, and other elements mixed together. The result of the blended approach has often been the fans of contemporary and traditional approaches arguing amongst themselves over which style was proper and appropriate. Still other churches have opted for either traditional or contemporary only styles of worship which has often resulted in people opting not to attend a particular church due to their worship style. I want to note that, in my experiences, the arguments for or or against contemporary or traditional worship have been rooted in personal preference and not in anything related to biblical teaching or to church tradition (remember: There was a time when even the organ was considered “contemporary”) and the resulting strife was anything but glorifying to God.

The church has always been involved in such debates since there has been a church. Ever since this thing called “the church” has been in existence, we have been arguing about everything from the proper way to baptize to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. While many of these arguments don’t become major in the sense that it can impact the entire church, we see a new front in worship wars emerging: In-person versus digital/online and hybrid forms of worship. Almost daily, I’m seeing posts on social media decrying one continuing to engage with their church virtually. Such posts essentially have the same message: “You have to come back to church,” as in physically and in-person. The strong suggestion is also made that virtual forms of worship are fake and that one who engages digitally is not actually worshipping.

Baloney.

Now, I know not everyone will agree. People will quote scriptures like Hebrews 10:25 as proof that not going to a worship in a physical space is invalid. Participating in the life of the church is vital but there are many more ways to do this than simply occupying a seat on Sunday morning (and if that’s al one does, they’re not really engaged). We have many ways by which we can participate in the life of the church and engage in worship – attending in-person services and activities are just one of the ways we can connect with one another.

First, let me present some anecdotal evidence: I and many of my brothers and sisters in ministry have been able to reach far more people by live streaming our services and using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom than we have ever been able to reach from our pulpits and our buildings. While people are obsessed with things like views on Facebook, there are ways to estimate who’s truly engaged online and who simply spends a few seconds watching and scrolls away. On average, my two churches have an addition 10-30 people engaged online every Sunday morning, people who would not be with us in any way otherwise. These are people who may not be regularly connected to a church and, somehow, found the Facebook page. One of my churches has even seen someone with no apparent connection to the congregation begin giving occasionally through our online giving platform. For all we know, this would have never happened otherwise. Colleagues of mine have told of similar events within their contexts.

I recently attended the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (as in, Adam Hamilton’s church) and found some great insights about digital and hybrid worship. Barna Group has done extensive research on preferences of digital, physical and hybrid worship and discipleship activities. What was revealed to those who attended a break out about digital and hybrid worship was:

  • While 52% of all churched adults surveyed preferred primarily physical gatherings, 35% preferred a mix of both (hybrid).
  • 41% of Gen Z prefers physical while 37% prefer hybrid (only 13% wanted digital onl).
  • 42% of Millennials prefer physical while 40% want hybrid (again, 13% preferred digital).
  • For Gen X, 47% prefer physical while 39% want hybrid (wow!).
  • Baby boomers: 71% prefer physical gatherings, but 24% want a mixture.
  • The biggest take away: A total of 87% of churched digital discipleship participants feel that digital forums for discipleship provide a safe space to speak openly,
  • Source

Here’s the bottom line: Most people still prefer to gather physically (yes, even younger people) but significant portions of each generation group want a hybrid approach. One reason is being able to still interact with worship even if they can not be present at the time of worship. There’s also more: People also feel more free in asking questions and having more open dialogue online rather than in person. As an introvert, I completely understand as sometimes asking the tough questions in physical groups can be very intimidating. Reality is, some physical spaces within the church are not safe for tough discussions. With the modern tools at our disposal, we have opportunities to be more real with one another. The people have spoken: The winner of this latest incarnation of the worship wars is “both,” not just physical or just digital.

Sunday morning is never going to go away (nor should it) but the church will evolve into a mix of digital and physical, and not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.

In these discussions, one must also be careful not to discount those for whom digital is really their only option. We are still in a pandemic. Some people are simply not comfortable gathering in public spaces right now (this is a choice we ought to honor, not mock or try to persuade otherwise) and still others who have weakened immune systems who would surely die if they contracted Covid-19 or some other sickness. When we make statements that say “it’s time to come back to church,” we are not being sensitive to these groups (made up of people made in God’s image).

We must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their choices for their own health, regardless of our own preferences.

The church has an opportunity: Resist the changes taking place and fight against it (which history should teach us does not work). Or, we can meet people where they are. Social media has a lot of bad stuff happening on it but, like anything else, it comes down to how we choose to use it. We can choose to use social media and other online platforms to meet people where they are, which is largely on social media. For a prime example of someone who excelled at meeting people where they are and communicating with them in ways that were accessible, see Jesus.

Let’s put down our weapons of worship warfare and pick up our ability to love. As long as one is engaged with God – regardless of whether that takes places in a pew or on the couch – they are bringing him glory. Let’s do the same.

A TL, DR Sermon: The Lost Sheep

Matthew 15:21-28
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Going into my final year at Asbury Seminary, I did an internship where I worked with some of the homeless population in Lexington, Kentucky. The experience was a profound eye-opener that had a major impact on my life and my ministry. Among the lessons I learned was that much of what we think we know about the homeless is untrue and there are many systematic problems that prevent them from more quickly getting back on their feet. I was also reminded that the homeless that society – and the church – tends to often shun are seeking God and are just as precious in His sight as anyone else. Oh, that we would all be reminded of this from time to time!

The texts I chose to preach on this week were part of the Lectionary, but I also believe that choosing just one for such a time as this was not adequate. I believe these texts give us two important truths: All people are beloved by God and are worthy of being invited to His table, and the calling to seek the lost sheep never expires.

The gospel reading starts soon after a group of disciples is sent off on a missionary trip for the first time. Jesus instructed them not to go among the Gentiles. This text can often be used to justify bigotry but I do not believe Jesus did this as a judgment against the Gentiles. Rather, I believe He knew that the disciples were simply not ready ready effectively minister to the Gentiles and Jesus needed to show them that the prejudices that Jews held against Gentiles were wrong and sinful.

This is where the Gentile woman comes in. The fact that Jesus illustrated to His flock that she, too, was worthy of love and receiving grace and mercy. This was the beginning of their eyes being opened to the reality that God’s kingdom is not just for certain people, but that He desires for all to have a chance to know Him.

In the reading from Romans, Paul is teaching that not only does the call to seek all of the lost sheep never expire, but that God has not abandoned the Jews in favor of the Gentiles as many of them thought. Paul was saying that, yes, the Jews still matter to God, but so do the Gentiles. Until they understood this, the Jews would continue to hold these age-old prejudices against the Gentiles and consider them inferior. Yes, the Jews still matter but so do the Gentiles and so does anyone else made in God’s image (Spoiler: That’s everyone!).

In God’s eyes, no one is inferior. I believe these two texts together are trying to teach us that. Who are the lost sheep that you need to invite to the table? Let’s stop acting as gatekeepers to the Kingdom and instead act as guides who show people the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

A TL, DR Sermon: “YOU Give Them Something

(I’m at new appointment – more on that another time – and we have not been meeting in-person for nearly a month due to COVID-19. For people in my midst who don’t have reliable internet access and are unable to watch our worship service recordings, I’ve been including condensed versions of my sermons for the worship bulletin. Here is this week’s. I will be sure to include them here starting now. I hope you find a blessing from my ponderings. – Jonathan)

Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NLT)

One of the most common questions for pastors right now is, “How should Christians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What should our witness be?” I believe this is an excellent question, because what we see playout on social media and elsewhere by people who state that they are followers of The Son seem to be anything but a positive response. I believe Jesus calls us to exhibit sacrificial compassion in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.

I believe this is just one of the lessons we learn from what we call the Feeding of the 5,000. First of all, we need to know that the number was actually much higher because only the men were counted (the women and children present were not counted at gathers back then). Jesus likely fed closer to 10,000 – or more – people with five loaves of bread and two fish! People tend to get lost in the “how” of this miracle but I believe the more important question is, “Why?”

The writer of Matthew tells us why in verse 14: “He had compassion on them.” We have to remember that this is just after Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed so He was in the midst of grieving the loss of his cousin and friend. This grief may not be unlike the collective grief we’re experiencing now.

I believe there are several reasons why Jesus responded in the way that He did and I’m sure I could preach several sermons on this passage. The lesson we most need now is His example of sacrificial compassion. When Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something,” He wasn’t trying to pass the buck because He didn’t feel like performing a miracle, rather He wanted them to know that sending people away in their time of need is not how a disciple ought to respond to a need.

How do we respond in the midst of crisis, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or something else? We show compassion, even to the point of personal sacrifice. That’s why we do things to protect our neighbors: It’s not out of a desire to make a political statement but out of a desire to make a moral statement, to give a strong witness for the love of Christ. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and showing compassion is one of the ways which we do this.

Remember: Even Judas ate, had his feet washed, and sat at the right hand of Jesus – the place of honor – at the Last Supper. If Jesus can show the one who would betray Him this much compassion and mercy, what could we do?

Let’s go and do likewise.

Expending My Ministry

TL, DR: I’m offering myself as a consultant – at no cost – specifically to smaller congregations that want an online presence and (1) don’t know where to start and (2) can’t afford a paid consultant. I’m also offering a webinar on the basics of live streaming this week. More information on this can be found here.

Ever since I answered God’s calling to pastoral ministry, I have been seeking ways to incorporate my past experience. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, I have noticed that my previous experience in video and audio production have been very beneficial as I have had to make streaming my primary means of preaching and teaching. Rewind a bit: Even before the pandemic, I have seen the need for churches to embrace streaming, social media, and other technologies such as podcasting to reach new people for Jesus. Research shows that people will check out a church online before visiting in-person. Experience has reinforced this, as almost every person who has visited a church that I’ve been the pastor of first found us online and checked out a sermon before attending a worship service.

The reality is this: Congregations and pastors that do not embrace technology are not reaching people other than those who are already sitting in their pews. Online ministry is essential in the 21st Century. Yet, the task of beginning any sort of online ministry can be daunting. There are consultants who try to sell their services, convince congregations that they must have Hollywood-quality equipment and have marketing companies to manage their social media. Smaller congregations especially do not have the means to use consultants in the first place and, the ones that do decide to use one, often become intimidated and overwhelmed. My issue with consultants is that they often have a one-size-fits-all approach and assume that what works in the megachurch will work in the rural congregation. These consultants are out of touch with the reality of the church, which is that the majority of which have an average weekly attendance of 50 or fewer and do not have a ton of money to spend.

Enter Strangely Warmed Media Group.

Strangely Warmed Media Group has been a vision of mine for a few years now but was not something that I pursued. This changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially now, I am seeing that the need for consultants with a heart for the small and rural congregations are essential so this is why I have decided to launch this new aspect of my ministry. God has shown me that using my previous experience in broadcasting in service to the church is part of my call to ministry.

I want to help congregations and pastors who want to do online ministry well but do not believe they are capable and I believe I can help because I have been there and have had to overcome many of the challenges they face.

Just to be clear of a few things: I’m not charging for any of this. This is a ministry that I want to offer to the wider church. This is not going to be a full time venture for me. I see Strangely Warmed Media Group being a resource. I will do occasional webinars and teachings (more on those in a moment) as well as some short-term coaching. I envision this ministry pointing people in the right direction for things such as equipment and giving advice on running social media as opposed to being in active management of assets.

In short, I want to take my experience and pass it along.

I have launched a website which can be found at swmediagroup.net. On there, you will find that I am offering two webinars over the next couple of weeks: One on the basics of streaming and another on effective social media. There is no cost for either and you can register right on the website. If you can not join live, a video will be uploaded to YouTube (channel coming soon).

Again, I see this as an expansion of my current ministry. I don’t want to use this as an extra source of income (hence why I’m not charging money for this) nor will I be changing careers. Rather, this is another component of my ministry that I want to offer to the wider church. Just as Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed on Aldersgate Street and just as he proclaimed that the world was his parish, so too is the world our parish. God wants to use us to warm as many hearts as possible. Often, the tool to do this is social media and streaming.

I’m no expert by any means but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Simply, I recognize that online ministry is essential in 2020 and I want to help others do it well.

Racism and Conspiracy Theories are Incompatible with Christianity

As I scroll through social media, I’m disturbed by much of what I see. What we’re seeing is an unprecedented time in world history where information is so easily shared and, at least for the most part, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, this also means that the ease of sharing false and misleading information is also easy. Constantly, I’m seeing Christians share articles that call into question whether or not COVID-19 is real and even how the entire virus was a conspiracy by the Democrats (how this would even be plausible, I have no idea). One video even went to great lengths to try and connect Kobe Bryant’s death to COVID-19 (the mental gymnastics needed for that gave me a headache).

The sharing of racism is also easier than ever. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery has exposed a lot of racism on social media. The father and son who claim they believed he was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood have been arrested due to a viral video clearly showing that all that occurred was the senseless killing of an unarmed man of color who was only jogging through a neighborhood. Yet, people are defending the actions of these two men, actions that amount to a lynching, which were fueled by the ugly sin of racism. Ahmaud Arbery was shot for being a black man in a white neighborhood.

I’m shocked at the number of Christians who participate in these hijinks. And, pastors: Some of you are the worst.

People are dying because of racism and the denial of medical science. There have been numerous killings of young black men in particular simply for being black and for being in the “wrong place (people like Ahmaud Arbery have just as much right to be jogging down the street as anyone else). People are believing the pseudoscience and outright lies contained in conspiracy articles and videos such as “Plandemic” and are dying because of their distrust of valid, peer reviewed scientific fact (in addition to common sense). The Christians who are sharing these articles are bearing false witness, a false witness that can literally end with someone needlessly dying.

Scripture is clear about a lot of things and speaks clearly to the larger issues surrounding racism and the spread of conspiracy theories. Moses gave this as part of the law: “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Jesus further clarifies in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 that all people are ultimately our neighbor. In other words, to quote the great philosopher Harry Potter: “One mustn’t tell lies.” When we spread conspiracy theories or partake in racism, we are telling lies about our neighbors, in addition to putting our neighbors at risk. God’s law can be boiled down like this when he was asked which commandment was the greatest: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

When we hate our neighbor because of the color of their skin, we are breaking God’s law. When we share conspiracy videos that foster distrust of the medical community and are based on nothing more than a series of coincidences, quakary, and are motivated by personal gain from fame, we are breaking God’s law. We are failing to love our neighbors when we refuse to accept facts that don’t fit our wants and desires because we are putting them at risk.

Christians, we have to do better because to do otherwise is sin.

Pastors, I want to talk to you (and myself) for a moment: Our words have a lot of power. People will take what we say as gospel more often than we perhaps realize. If we use our social media to shed doubt on a racially motivated killing or to spread lies that deny established medical facts then we are leading our people astray. People could die because of your actions. Have you ever considered that? Have you considered that people could not take precautions against COVID-19 because you share a video or an article that sheds doubt on a global crisis? Have you considered that could lead them to their death? Pastors, stop spreading these articles and videos. Stop being silent in the face of racism. Doing otherwise does mean that you are neglecting your office, abusing your power, and being irresponsible with your flock. Fact check. It takes all of thirty seconds to disprove almost all of the conspiracy theories floating around by simply using Google. As for racism, scripture is pretty clear on that. If you cast doubt on racism, it’s not me you have a problem with.

Are we truly disciples? Are we truly committed to Christ? Then we must be committed to loving our neighbors regardless of the color of their skin. We must be committed to sharing the truth and encouraging people take pandemics seriously. We have to practice what we preach and claim to believe.

Racism and conspiracy theories are incompatible with Christian teaching and belief. There’s simply no way around that.

Imagining What’s Next in the Methodist Movement

John Wesley preaching at the market cross in Epworth, England.

There was a time – 2016 to be precise – that I was completely against any sort of break off within the United Methodist Church. Part of me still wishes to find some way to maintain some sort of unity, but my views have softened as the years have gone by. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward has been completed, a special session of General Conference voted on proposals, and yet the in-fighting has continued until it has reached a fever pitch. My opinion now is that a separation of some sort is going to be in the best interests of all parties so that we can continue doing the work of God’s Kingdom. I could give plenty of “hot takes” of what this should look like, but there’s really no use in engaging in such. There are plenty of others who are eager to do this (if you don’t believe me, just search the #UMC hashtag on any social media platform).

With an inevitable split becoming apparent, I have been keeping my eye on what could be next. The Protocol on Reconciliation Through Separation that has been drafted and proposed by a group representing the spectrum of theological thought within the UMC, while not perfect, seems to be the most equitable means to end the fighting and to move forward. Since the Protocol has been released, I have been watching for proposals for changes within the UMC as well as proposals for new denominations. The only significant work toward a new expression of Methodism, at least as far as I know, has been done by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

WCA has released two portions of a proposed Doctrine and Discipline for a new traditionalist church. The first section deals with doctrinal standards and clergy deployment. I gave some thoughts and a proposal for changes to their proposed clergy deployment strategy a couple of months ago. In speaking with someone involved with WCA leadership, my proposal was well received by those who read it. I’ve also had conversations with other pastors who I know to be aligned with orthodox theology and they expressed similar concerns to the ones I conveyed, that is that women and persons of color would have a difficult time securing placements under a modified call system. In addition to my thoughts on the proposed clergy deployment system, I offered these thoughts on the proposed doctrinal standards:

I find that their doctrine seems spot-on with expressions of orthodox Methodist/Wesleyan belief. High regard for the sacraments – including baptism of children and babies – is retained and other important Methodist distinctives are contained. I like that WCA has incorporated the creeds as foundational doctrinal standards as well.

The doctrinal standards are solid and strong, and a great representation of Wesleyan theology. In the draft, I noted no fundamentalist bent or overt attempt at excluding anyone. From where I sit, I believe any true Wesleyan would be hard pressed to find anything in the doctrinal standards they disagree with. In fact, this section is almost identical to the current Book of Discipline (with the draft’s inclusion of the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed being notable exceptions).

Since that time, a second section has been released that details credentialing of ministers and a few details of how clergy are to conduct ministry. As with the first section, I like the work that has been done, particularly in providing multiple pathways by which one may be ordained an Elder. Theological education is absolutely required – as it should be – but how one obtains that education is much more flexible under the proposed Discipline. There will still be required subject matter and approved schools but even a clergyperson who completes a course of study outside of a traditional seminary education may have an opportunity to obtain Elders orders. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction, one that will allow more people to be ordained as an Elder with less debt that if they had attended seminary.

I have written previously (here and here) of expanding the role of the licensed local pastor (LLP) within the UMC. Under WCA’s proposal, local pastors would be ordained as Deacons and be granted sacramental authority when serving as the pastor in charge of a local congregation or charge. As mentioned above, one obtaining their theological education by course of study would be an option in seeking ordination as an Elder. There is currently an option for an LLP to become an Elder within the UMC, but the candidate must obtain a bachelor’s degree and complete additional seminary-level coursework in addition to the standard course of study. In theory, the additional material could be incorporated into the standard course of study, thus enabling a clergyperson to be ordained in a more timely fashion. Likewise, Provisional Elders would also be ordained as Deacons – a practice that ceased some years ago in the UMC – and would be granted sacramental authority while serving a two year residency in preparing for ordination as an Elder.

LLPs would also have full voice and vote on all matters within the annual conference. I believe this is a major positive, something I have also championed in the past. What remains unclear in the proposal is whether or not LLPs will be eligible to serve as delegates to General Conference (this portion of the proposal has not been released yet). The ability for LLps to serve as clergy delegates to General Conference is something I believe is essential, as LLPs currently provide a significant amount of the pastoral ministry within many annual conferences (in Mississippi, LLPs outnumber Elders), therefore ought to be able to participate in shaping the overall ministry of the church.

Overall, I like the work that has been done in this proposal (with the noted exception of the proposed clergy deployment system). Of course, we must remember that what has been presented is a proposed draft so nothing is final. Assuming that WCA’s proposed church is formed, the convening body would still have to approve a discipline, doctrine, polity, etc. Also, a split is not even final, as General Conference is the only body that can actually initiate the work of an official separation of any sort (and as of today, the UMC’s General Conference will not meet until sometime in 2021).

Diversity of thought is not necessarily a bad thing (more on that in a moment) but it’s become clear that those whose interpretations of marriage differ will continue to focus on the issue to the detriment of the mission for Christ. While I lament separation, I acknowledge that this may be the best course of action for the long term. However this shakes out, I would hope that any denominations that form as a result of a separation can carry on some mutual ministry. Missing an opportunity to have an eccumenical relationship between two bodies with the same roots would be a real shame.

I remember a sermon that Bishop Swanson gave at Central UMC in Meridian sometime leading up to General Conference 2019. I’ll never forget a statement he made: “We don’t all have to think alike to be together.” When I wrote previously of diversity, I was talking about a lot of things: Diversity of race, gender, and, yes, theological thought. Not everyone within the universal church of Jesus agrees on every single facet of theology and doctrine, yet we are all united in Christ. In my mind, a snapshot of the kingdom is our unity in Christ in spite of our differences in opinion. I have my convictions but that does not mean that I can’t minister to or be in ministry with someone whose convictions are different than mine.

I hope you will join me in praying into whatever is next in this movement called Methodism. Let’s lean in to how God is working during this time and join in that movement. God is not done with us yet.

“We Don’t Need to Stream:” Lies Churches Believe

I want to tell you a story about a guy named Vlad. First, you need to know that Vlad is not this man’s real name, it’s an alternate identity he crafted for himself as part of his hard rock lifestyle. Vlad is a guy from Kentucky who found the Facebook page for the church I was serving while I was in seminary. At some point, I noticed that this guy named Vlad was liking the streams of the sermons from our services. Soon after that, he reached out to chat about faith and I came to realize that he had experienced a lot of judgment and hurt at the hands of the church due to his hard living. Finally, one of my final Sundays in Kentucky, he showed up to meet me in person and to experience a service in-person. We lost touch a while back but I continue to pray for him and give thanks for his being receptive to God’s grace.

All of this happened because of streaming.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, I’ve had some conversations with pastors who simply do not see the value in streaming. The excuses run the gamut from a lack of equipment to “my people don’t use Facebook.” I get that there are true challenges for some churches and people to be able to stream but the vast majority can be overcome with a little creativity. We don’t need fancy productions and equipment. As for people within the congregation not using Facebook or being receptive to streaming, my experience has been that that is not entirely true. In fact, when I first started to really look, I was surprised at the people within a congregation that do use social media more than I was at who does not. I can promise you, if you believe streaming is of no value because your people aren’t using social media, you might be surprised.

Also remember that we don’t stream only for the people who are currently in the church. Consider the Vlads of the world who might discover your stream and decide to check out your worship service or even Jesus for the first time.

There has been much discussion on how the church will come out of the pandemic and whether or not we will cling to the lessons we have learned during this time. I pray that we do. I pray that we continue to embrace new ways of doing worship and discipleship. Your website and social media are the virtual front doors of your congregation. Continue to welcome people and to invite them to your physical doors but know that virtual you is the first taste most people will get of you and your congregation.

“We don’t need to stream” is a lie straight from the enemy to keep you from reaching more people than you ever could only from your pulpit.

May we not forget these lessons and may we continue to embrace them. Only by continuing to embrace these new opportunities will the church come out of the pandemic stronger than when we entered. The Vlads in your midst are not going to come to you, you must go to them. From the largest congregations to the smallest, it’s time for us to embrace new opportunities at reaching new people for Jesus.

An Open Letter to Pastors Still Having In-Person Worship Services

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

First, you need to know that this comes from a place of deep love in Jesus Christ. My intention is not to start a fight or to bash you. However, I need to have some real talk for a minute. If you’re continuing to have worship services with your congregation in your building, you’re not making good decisions. These choices are anything but faithful or loving. You’re putting your people in danger and for what? To show how devoted to God you are? If that’s your idea of faithfulness, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a Methodist and, like any good Methodist, I believe there is credibility in John Wesley’s General Rules for the early Methodist Societies. Wesley came up with these rules as a summary of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The rules are:

  • Do no Harm
  • Do Good
  • Attend to the Ordinances of God (or: “Stay in Love with God”)

How can we justify placing our people in harm’s way? How are we doing good when we expose our parishioners to a disease that could kill them? How are we attending to God’s ordinances by taking such a big risk? The short answer to all of these is, “We aren’t.” Thinking that we are somehow immune to a disease like COVID-19 is arrogant and prideful. As I saw on social media post just this morning:

“The blood of Jesus is a vaccine against sin, not against viruses.”

COVID-19 does not care how strong your faith is. COVID-19 does not care big, small, or loud your church is. There has been a direct link to churches and the spread of COVID-19. Again I ask: Why are we being so reckless?

Pastors, we have got to love our people enough to shut this down. We have got to love God enough to not put our people in harm’s way. Doing so does not please God. Frankly, you can throw all the scripture (and I’m sure a lot of it way would be used way out of its context) you want at me but we do not please God when we mistreat our flocks in such ways. Are we not shepherds, whose jobs it is to care for the flocks that we have been entrusted with? Sometimes being a shepherd means doing what’s best for our people even if they don’t like it. Sometimes it means saying no. In this season, being a good shepherd means telling our people to stay home.

If you’re having drive up services and think this will keep the virus from spreading, well, I don’t believe you’ve thought this through. I considered doing this at Easter and then I researched it further. Upon studying, I decided that even a drive up service was not a good idea. Mississippi’s United Methodist Bishop, James Swanson, sent a note to pastors strongly discouraging such gatherings. First, depending on who you ask, these gatherings may violate shelter-in-place orders and bans on gatherings over ten people. Second, let me give you a hypothetical situation to consider:

Let’s say there are people in cars next to each other and have their windows down (reality is not everyone is going to leave their cars cranked even if there is low power FM). One of them coughs and the droplets go into the next car. Say someone walks through the droplet field when they go to the bathroom. And say any of them have severe underlying conditions. You’ve not only infected people but probably killed someone all in an attempt to be faithful.

Even if you give instructions to remain in vehicles or to keep windows up, there’s no guarantee that people will do this. And, really, what can we do to compel people to follow these instructions? Not much, and really nothing concrete.

Is this blood really what we want to have on our souls and on our hands?

I love being together as much as anyone else and I miss this terribly, but I love my people more. I want them to be as safe and healthy as possible, which is why I have indefinitely called off all in-person activities at my churches. My love for my people is why I’m taking advantage of modern technologies like Facebook Live, which I count as a gift from God, to facilitate worship and discipleship. Keeping my people away is the best way I can love them right now. This does not mean that I like making such decisions but these decisions are ones I know needed to be made.

I know you love your people too. I know you want what’s best for them. But please consider suspending in-person activities as an act of love. Perhaps you’re afraid of resentment, being undermined, or losing your job. I get it. But, as I stated above, sometimes being a shepherd means doing what’s best for our people whether they like it or not. If you decide to start using Facebook Live and I can help in any way, please reach out. You can also read some thoughts I’ve already posted about streaming here.

Do no harm. Love your people enough to tell them to stay home.