“Offer Them Christ” (A Response to the Recent Pew Research Report)

revjktullosheader1I remember when I was taking classes to become a lay speaker before I went into the ministry. In the initial class, I will never forget that our instructor said that the best thing we could do when we preach is to do what John Wesley instructed his early preachers to do: “Offer them Christ.” This instruction meant when we spoke we should give the hope of Jesus Christ to the congregation. As years passed and I studied more of John Wesley’s teachings and theology after I entered pastoral ministry, I began to realize that Wesley’s instruction could actually be summed up in another way: “Offer them Christ and nothing else.”

I find the fact that the church in the US has long forgotten its mission to be very sad and, honestly, pathetic. I often hear and read people lament about the “good old days when everyone went to church” being gone but, let’s be honest: Many people looked at church attendance as a means to an end that had nothing to do with glorifying God. There was a time when going to or not going to the “right church” could cost someone a job, standing in the community, or a customer at their own place of business. Church attendance was looked at as a social norm because it was expected. Often, one attended a church without really being a Christian. They were Christian in name only but their private lives reflected anything but discipleship. This is the epitome of cultural Christianity in the United States.

After the 1950s, this began to change and Christianity in America began to decline (so says the experts). So, every so often, a group like Pew Research will conduct a survey to find that there are fewer people who identify as Christian. Next thing you know, preachers are screaming from their pulpits about “the world getting to our kids” or blaming the decline on some group that they personally oppose. Church growth “gurus” will start coming up with books they can sell and programs they can pitch to stave off the decline. Bloggers will blog (yes, I realize the irony of my own actions here). Pearls will be clutched and hands will be wrung with worries about, “What if the church dies.”

Well, what if it does? I’ll tell you what will happen: God will still be on the throne and the kingdom will continue. That’s what if.

When we look at the state of the American church versus the early church and the church in the so-called third world, it’s no wonder that Christianity in the US is “dying.” Years ago, the American church took a faith based on a middle eastern Jewish divine man and turned it into something that could be used for personal gain and political clout. A prime example of this is the rise of the so-called “Religious Right” through Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Christianity became equated with politics and parishioners and preachers were just fine allowing this to happen because this meant they had power too. If you want to look at where the decline began, it was around that time after the 1950s and 1960s where people became disillusioned with this junk and began to turn away from the church and from God altogether.

I can’t blame them.

If I believed that God merely wanted me to be the head of a social club that endorsed certain brands of politics and helped people achieve wealth, I would turn away too. I would never have entered the ministry and likely would have never been a Christian in the first place. The gospel is about Jesus’ work resulting in the reconciliation of us to God and to one another and for the hope of all things being made new and set right. God does not care how we vote, he only cares that we love him with all of our being because he first loved us. He further wants us to love one another as we love ourselves.

Our mission is not to go forth and make sure only certain politicians and parties win elections, our mission is to go forth and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Our mission has nothing to do with prosperity and everything to do with preaching and practicing grace. But, yet, the church forgot this. We let ambition take over our pulpits which impacted the pews. A lot of people got tired of it, left, and have not returned.

In other words, we did this ourselves. May God forgive us.

The way this situation changes is not what many would like to hear. It’s not going to be another program, a multi-campus church plant, or even by having a pastor that wears the right clothes and looks a certain way. The only way to stop the decline and to win people back to Christ is to do what John Wesley taught his early preachers. Offer them Christ and nothing else. Forget the ambition, Forget the politics, Forget the prosperity. Just preach, teach, and live the teachings of Christ. Stop alienating one another and blaming other groups for the church declining. Reconcile.

We need to practice what we claim to preach. We need to get back to our roots.

Pew Research Report on US Christianity
An excellent article from Rev. Sky McCracken in response to the Pew report.

It’s Time to Return to Jesus

“When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, ‘You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.’”

Luke 3:7-9 (NLT)

Dear Fellow Christians:

We gotta talk. And this isn’t going to be easy.

We all know about the recent goings-on with ICE raids and immigration issues lately so there’s no need to rehash that here. That isn’t the point of this letter anyway. What I want to talk about is how we have responded to these situations. Just to make sure you’re aware: People, children, actual human beings made in God’s image are impacted by these raids, deportations, and detainments. I have to be blunt: We have been anything but Christ-like in how we have addressed the people involved. Many of us seem to believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to consider immigrants to be sub-human and even to condone their mistreatment. Here are just a few actual statements from people claiming to be Christians that I have witnessed on social media just over the last several days:

“They’re illegal! They have no rights!”

“I shouldn’t have to feed children of ILLEGALS!”

“The Bible says to obey the laws! God is judging them and their children!”

“Illegals have to sleep in cages? BOO HOO!”

Seriously, church? Seriously?

When John the Baptist made his proclamation that I quoted from Luke 3 at the top of this post, people like that were what he was calling a “brood of snakes.” Pharisees. People who saw other people who were different from them as less-than. People who said that people deserved to be treated poorly. God’s word teaches us many things about how we are to treat immigrants, children, and people in general. But lately, it seems that we have been willing to put all of that aside and to trot out some verses from Romans 13 (out of context at that) as justification for treating people as if they are trash with the argument of “they shouldn’t have broken the law.”

We have committed a grave sin and it’s time to repent. That sin: Trading our humanity and compassion for political ideology. We have sold our souls for party allegiance. We have made Jesus into a muscle-bound, American flag-waving caucasian in order to fit our political aspirations.

The facts are: All people are made in God’s image and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Children should not be traumatized on the first day of school by coming home to find out that mom and dad have been taken away. And for Christians, there is simply no justification for thinking that anything to the contrary is acceptable. It’s not. I’m not arguing against having laws (though I believe our immigration laws do need an overhaul), I’m simply pointing out that we have gone down a very dangerous road of denying dignity and basic rights to people. This is not what Jesus would find acceptable. If you actually read the gospels and pay attention, you may find that Jesus has more in common with these immigrants than He does white America.

It’s time to repent, church. It’s time to remember who we are and to go back to our first love. It’s time to take off our hats, put away our torches, stop being afraid of people who are different from us, and truly be people who love. We simply can not claim to be Christians and continue to believe that conflating our faith with a particular brand of politics is acceptable in God’s eyes. It’s not. In fact, we are taught that this is dangerously close to the line of idolatry.

May God forgive us.

General Conference is Here

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The lead up to the specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been fierce. I have recorded my thoughts here several times on the various plans, Judicial Council decisions, and the actions of organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (and even gotten more than one “talking to” about it). But now, the time of speculation, commentary, and wish making has come and gone.

General Conference is here.

While I have been outspoken about a lot of this, I’m afraid that my ultimate hope has been misunderstood somewhat. Here’s what I want for the United Methodist Church: A fresh movement of the Holy Spirit to overpower all of us – the delegates, clergy, laity, and everyone – and cause us to once again bring about the kingdom here. Yes, I would love for us to find a way to continue in ministry together but I also realize that God’s kingdom is much bigger than the UMC. That’s the thing: We are supposed to be about kingdom work. We need to get back to the work of evangelism.

While some disagree, the biggest problem in the UMC is a lack of evangelistic zeal. We have been so distracted by debating about LGBTQ inclusion that I fear we have forgotten our first love. Regardless of what happens in Saint Louis, we have got to get back to our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We – and I definitely include myself – have been distracted for far too long.

When the delegates have all gone home and we are calculating the fallout from Saint Louis, the “last, the least, and the lost” will still be there in the world. They are thirsty for redemption and for new life. No resolution, plan, or debate is going to save them; only Jesus Christ can do that. It’s up to us to reach out and show that love to them.

I have my convictions and I am prepared to stand by them. Support your chosen plan, make your voice heard (with the knowledge that it’s the delegates who will ultimately decide). But no matter what does or doesn’t happen, can we all agree that we have got to get back to work for Jesus? If nothing else, I hope we can agree on that.

I am praying for our delegates, the bishops who will preside, and for the church as a whole as General Conference begins. I hope you will too. Below are some ways to follow along in real time if you would like. Above all, pray… And then act.

Streaming link
Social Media Hashtags: #UMC, #GC2019, #UMCGC

Learning about Outreach from Sears

gettyimages-810465192Although this quote is often attributed to the great Albert Einstein, it was actually a resource from Narcotics Anonymous that first contained the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I find this statement coming from a group that works with addicts interesting. Addicts are addicted to a substance and will do anything to score their next fix. They do this to feed the need inside them but also to keep up their status quo. People with addictions become so focused on getting their next fix that they ignore ways to truly remedy their situations and to get lives back and keep on looking for their fix. One of two things will happen: They will kick the addiction and begin living better lives and maintaining healthy habits or they will literally kill themselves trying to find the next fix.

Unfortunately, much the same can be said about the church.

Today, Sears – once a mainstay of the American economy – filed for bankruptcy protection to restructure its debt. This move will result in at least 142 stores being closed which means many people will be losing their jobs and some towns will be losing yet another storefront. There are plenty of reasons for Sears to be in this position but what all of this boils down to is that Sears kept doing the same things they had always done in order to keep their loyal customers without reaching out to new ones. The management of Sears refused to modernize their operation in order to appeal to new people and to meet their needs that were being met by the likes of Walmart and Amazon. Sears would have been wrong to change their core, which was selling things at reasonable prices while providing stellar customer service but had every opportunity to change how they practiced this core function. Instead, their strategy consisted of denial and continuing to seek their next fix in order to maintain their status quo.

The American church is in a similar situation. I grow tired of reading article after article decrying the church and of how we are decreasing in relevance every single day. Most congregations thrive on trying to maintain their status quo and fail to adequately reach out to others in their midst who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Often, their idea of “outreach” consists of keeping tabs on people who have left and inviting them back. This is necessary but when such is the main focus of outreach activities, this misses the mark of what outreach is supposed to be.

The message of the gospel should never be changed or altered in order to sound more appealing. The core teachings of the church should remain unchanged. But, the way in which the church seeks to reach out to people with the gospel should be up for consideration of how it can be done more effectively. Gone are the days when people flock to their neighborhood church just because it’s there; those days are never coming back. Now, the church has to find ways to go to the people instead of expecting people to come to them. The church has to discern ways to meet the needs of people today and not the needs of people 40 years ago. Doing what worked 40 years ago but doing them better may sound like a good idea but look no farther than Sears to see that that is a terrible strategy.

We have biblical and extrabiblical examples of the need for the church to go to the people. Sprinkled throughout the gospels and much of the New Testament are examples of the people being approached by the church rather than the other way around. Jesus drew crowds but the people were not making pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Bethlehem to see him. Instead, he and the twelve traveled extensively to minister to people. Jesus also sent the disciples out to minister. He never once uttered, “build it and they will come.” Paul likewise traveled extensively to preach the good news and establish house churches. John Wesley, at a time when doing so was not seen as appropriate, went to the fields and market crosses in small towns to reach the people that the church saw as inferior.

Somehow along the way, the American church got the idea that people would come to them. This worked for a time. But now that being part of a church is no longer socially necessary, many people are not as apt to go to the church without an invitation of some sort. That invitation often comes in the form of substantial, prolonged, and personal outreach. The church must go to the people. The church must embrace the people in their midst without expecting them to look and act just like them. The church must live out the teachings of Jesus Christ.

While the mission of the church should remain the same, the method needs tweaking.

HT: Shannon Blosser

Mental Illness Comes to Church

adult dark depressed face
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a typical Sunday morning and the people are filing into the worship space at First Church in Some Town, Some State. The music flows, prayers are lifted up, and the Holy Spirit is very much present. The pastor comes up and delivers a well written and well prepared sermon and even throws in some humor to help drive the point home. Perhaps the people look upon the pastor and think that this is a person who has it all together, someone who doesn’t have many problems. Perhaps people in the congregation who are so inclined follow the pastor on social media and enjoy the engagement the pastor provides, the inspirational quotes, and the humorous posts they share. The pastor regularly makes posts about fun things they have done with their family, community events they have attended, church events put on, and such. In the pictures, the pastor is always smiling. Their words are always positive, uplifting, and give not one indication that anything is wrong in their lives. The pastor has it all together, they are among God’s favorites, and there is nothing bad going on.

Or is there?

Just from looking at your pastor, you may not know that they have some internal battles going on, battles that they have faced for up to their entire life. Specifically, they may have an invisible illness that seeks to destroy them, a disease that is raging in their brain and spreads to the entire body. If we knew that this person who did not look sick but actually had a disease such as cancer, we would be quick to encourage them in their treatment. But when the disease is not cancer but some type of mental illness, the reaction is often not as supportive. Many try to hide their struggles and live as normal of a life as possible. With the wonderful medications we have available today, counseling, and other means of psychological assistance most of the time people who struggle are able to live normally. But sometimes, the struggle gets harder. The patient – especially people who are in positions of ministry – dare not cry out for fear of being judged unfit for their position or as somehow not Christian enough. So, they struggle as quietly as possible until one day they get tired of the voices in their head telling them they are worthless, unloved, and a bad pastor. The person becomes so desperate to end this pain and – in their minds – improve the lives of those around them that they consider ending it all by killing themselves. And sometimes, they succumb to this disease and go through it.

This even happens to pastors such as Rev. Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA.

Rev. Stoecklein took his own life last weekend. The Instagram post from Inland Hills Church began to go viral and eventually made its way to my timeline. As I read it, I felt a lot of emotions. Mainly, I felt sadness for the congregation, his wife and children who must now deal with this tragedy, pick up the pieces, and move forward. The second place emotion was fear. Rev. Stoecklein’s suicide hit home for me because, like him, I’m one of the 1 in 6 Americans who struggle with mental illness. For both of us, this illness take on the forms of depression and anxiety, disorders I have struggled with for over a decade.

Why did I feel fear? Because this could have easily have been me.

To be clear, I have never been suicidal and I at least would like to think that if I found myself in that position I would have the wherewithal to cry out for help. Having said that, one thing I have learned from both firsthand experience and from seeing others struggle is that mental illness can make one do strange things. I have had days where I could not get out of bed to even brush my teeth because my mental illness had zapped every bit of motivation from my body. These bad days are rare; most days you would not have any idea that I have mental illness. Most days, I appear perfectly normal (well, normal for me).

Mental illnesses such as depression are real diseases, as real as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. It’s well beyond time that the stigma that exists about mental illness be ended, to have real and honest conversations about mental illness. People like me who struggle are not crazy. We are sick. We need help. We need love.

It’s time for the church to step up and give love and acceptance to people who struggle instead of judgement. Platitudes such as “You just need to pray more” or “You’re not sick, the devil is trying to steal your joy,” while well intended, are unhelpful and are actually harmful. Collectively, the church recognizes that diseases are real and generally encourage the faithful to seek treatment. But when it comes to mental health, this has not been the case. The church has generally preached that mental illness is purely a manifestation of a poor spiritual condition rather than a brain disorder. This, also, is harmful and toxic. This kind of thinking has caused more spiritual harm than almost anything else. To think that someone is depressed or having anxiety due to being in sin is a ridiculous notion and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It’s not enough to just want to “pray it away.” In scripture, prayer is always followed by action. We have to act. We can no longer ignore mental illness and pawn it off as someone’s sin or stress.

The church must be a safe place for all of God’s beloved.

I am one of the 1 in 6. So was Rev. Stoecklein. I don’t know all of the details of his situation and it’s none of my business. But I would hope that he was surrounded by love, prayer, and was at least attempting to seek help. The harsh reality is, sometimes the voices telling a depressed person that they are worthless win. Let’s do what we can to be louder than the voices.

We do this with love.

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!

Are We Almost or Altogether Christian?

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennen Manning

For the last few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series called The Words of Wesley. I am preaching a few of John Wesley’s sermons but they are somewhat shortened and are in modern language as opposed to the “King James” English that Wesley used. Today’s sermon was “The Almost Christian” where Wesley discussed the attributes of one who is an “Almost Christian” and one who is an “Altogether Christian.” Wesley’s message can be boiled down to say that the Almost Christian seems to be doing everything that a Christian ought to do – going to worship, appearing to reject sin, even praying, etc. – but they lack a sincere faith. A sincere faith and desire to truly serve God are what separate the Almost Christian from the Altogether Christian. In other words, Almost Christian looks and even sounds Christian but they are merely going through the motions for nothing because they lack faith.

In preparing for this sermon, I began to think of cultural Christianity. I have written about this before and how I long for the day when cultural Christianity is dead. I still long for that day. It was not that long ago – and somewhat this is still the case – that churches were filled with people who were only there out of expectation or as a means of material or political gain. Using the name of God for personal gain is nothing new but, as I wrote in my previous article, there was a time when one could suffer in business and politics if they did not attend any church or even the right church. If we take a good, hard, and honest look at why so many people attended worship services in the so-called “good old days,” we find that personal gain was a major motivation.

‘Merica.

Wesley’s sermon makes one take a good, hard, and honest look at their spiritual life to decide if they are truly an Altogether Christian. Toward the end, Wesley asked the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England that day a series of questions. For me, this one is the one that really strikes to the heart of whether or not one is an Altogether Christian.

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?

So much of what certain people who proclaim Christ engage in can be perceived that the answer to the question above is a resounding “no.” There are so many among us who are using the name of Christ as a means to gain political points. We have church choirs singing political propaganda songs under the guise of a worship anthem. We have an extreme end of a certain political party who insist that they are the only ones who are the true Christians in the political realm.

They may say this but the way they treat the poor and the marginalized say otherwise.

I don’t intend to go off on a political tangent but I do want us to think about whether we are truly part of the church and claim the name of Christ strictly as a means of personal or political gain. If we do the right things, say the right words, and have no motivation other than looking good than we are maybe an Almost Christian (if we are anywhere close to Christian at all). But if our motivation is nothing but the glory of God and we desire nothing but Christ, if we can truly ask ourselves the question above and shout a resounding “yes!” then we are an Altogether Christian.

So are you Almost a Christian or are you Altogether a Christian?