Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation: A Book Unwritten

I was researching a sequel for the book mentioned in one of the previous installments of this series until very recently when my life took a decidedly different turn. It was to be titled “What Ever Happened To The Methodist Excitement In Texas?” and would examine the decline of our denomination in a once great bastion of Methodism, Washington County, in hopes of reigniting the fervor we were once known for.

My inquiries into how and why a centerpiece of Methodist activity could diminish to the degree that we have were met with experts answers like, “demographic shift” or “change in population density.” My retort is that the population in Washington County has multiplied several times over during our denomination’s decline here – we have just lost our willingness, and apparently our ability, to evangelize.

When I point out to the experts that a denomination that is experiencing an even greater rate of decline than our own (Lutheran) still has two dozen churches thriving in rural Washington County their response is that they are of traditional German heritage indigenous to the area. Yet, we Methodists established a university here (Blinn) dedicated to training German-speaking preachers for the German Methodist Conference churches here and elsewhere, so that excuse doesn’t really hold water either.

It is quite easy to sit behind a computer and postulate reasons for the position that we’re in. But by buying into this cultural norm, we as a church have evolved into “Those who believe that evangelism is all about slick website, mass mailings, and posh facilities…” as our D.S. points out. Those who ascribe to such values “can continue in their fantasies that such strategies will actually usher in the kingdom” but in reality it will only serve to speed the church’s decline.

Clearly our history demonstrates that we are more than capable as an evangelistic church but that we have drifted from our roots. It long past time that we embrace our Wesleyan heritage and put it into practice rather than merely taunting it for advertising purposes. We will become effective in kingdom building only when we move out of our comfort zones and begin authentically living out our faith as the evangelists we were once where.

As for me, I’m moving out from behind my computer to embrace the good work that the Lord has given us. I may never get that book written but I now realize that there is a far more important One that I need to share with the world.


What are some of the ways that you believe the church could authentically live out its Wesleyan heritage?

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation: A History Lesson

While the Methodist circuit riding preachers followed the Westward expansion of the frontier in the new Republic of Texas something else was occurring a few miles South of the original seat of government (Washington-on-the-Brazos) in Chappell Hill. Not one, but two Methodist colleges were established there in an effort to address the higher educational needs of the republic, and a short time later, the new state.

Washington County, and especially Chappell Hill, continued to figure prominently in the unfolding events of Methodism as six Texas Annual Conferences had been held there by 1882. By that time a third Methodist-affiliated college had been established in nearby Brenham for training German-speaking Methodist ministers as that was then the dominant ethnic group in the county.

While Chappell Hill may have served as the epicenter of conventional and educational Methodist activity near the birthplace of Texas, new churches began springing up all over rural Washington County as result of the circuit riders activity. As churches became established and clergy became available pastors were appointed to serve these “stations.”

During this process, however, something happened to the culture of these churches over the years. No longer reliant on strong lay leadership to hold the church together until a circuit riding preacher would return and share a strong message tinged with evangelistic fervor, they submitted to the authority of the appointed pastor. Having relinquished the welfare of the church to clergy, the laity was no longer empowered to determine the life of the church.

Almost all of these rural churches were on a circuit with the appointed pastor dividing his time among a number of churches and unable to effectively invest significantly into the life of any one specifically. The revolving door of the appointment system led to lack of continuity in clergy leadership which was compounded by the leadership vacuum in the ranks of the laity. With no one to take “ownership” of the churches they began to fail and close.

Even the once great bastion of Methodism, Chappell Hill, watched their colleges close and the church served as a part time appointment on a circuit with two others and membership drop to just a handful. Today, out of the dozen or so churches that once existed in Washington County only a third remain. Two are now full-time appointments while the other two are served part-time on a three-point circuit and continue to struggle with an uncertain future.


Do you see the CLMs helping to revive the evangelistic fervor of the circuit riders in our churches today?

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation - Evangelistic Excitement

While the views of our D.S. and my personal perspective were shared in the previous two installments of this series, this one references a publication of the Texas United Methodist Historical Society. It is entitled The Methodist Excitement In Texas and was published in 1982 as a history of Methodism dating all the way back to the colonization of the then-Mexican province led by Stephen F. Austin.

The book draws its name from a letter Austin wrote as result of noise “excited Methodist preachers” made in public preaching and the threat that it presented to keeping the peace in the province of a country where Catholicism was the state religion. Introduction of Protestant beliefs in Austin’s colony would place him in contempt with Mexican authorities; hence, he penned these words to Josiah H. Bell in 1829: “It will not do to have the Methodist excitement raised in this country.”

Regardless of Austin’s preferences the “Methodist Excitement in Texas” only intensified. Methodist circuit riding preachers followed the Westward expansion of the frontier as new settlements were established. Much fruit was borne from the fervor of all of this evangelistic activity. Soon Methodists became a major political force in the delegated conventions of 1832 and 1833 to propose changes to Mexican regulations.

Later, Methodists would be a part of the shaping of what would become the new Republic of Texas. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Methodists, as well. If the spread of Methodism was undaunted by the anti-Protestant requirements imposed by the Mexican government during the colonial era, it caught on like wildfire during the time of the republic: “During the time of the republic, the Methodist preacher – whose denomination claimed more than half of all church members in the republic – took the lead in moral reform as he had in education.”

Clearly, Methodism had become a dominant force in the development of moral, ethical, and religious beliefs in the new republic. By claiming over half of all church members in the entire country the Methodist movement had the ability to shape the destiny of an entire country with its doctrinal beliefs. And, from the back woods to the frontier, the circuit riding preachers dedicated their lives to doing just that.

In lieu of circuit riding preachers, how do you see CLMs reviving “Methodist excitement” in our churches today?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation – Part Two

One Sunday back in January Calvin and I worshipped at a little rural church tucked back in the woods at a very remote location up in Williamson County. Calvin had served this church in the early '60s though he was never officially appointed as the pastor. Indeed, in spite of the fact that it was no longer served, this little church soldiered on miraculously without an appointed pastor and refused to close. Calvin was serving a church in a nearby town when he responded to their request to hold services at the little rural church on Sunday evenings. Because of their tenacity he gladly complied with their request.

Unfortunately, Calvin's decision generated some hard feelings at the church that he was serving and as result he was moved to a new appointment the following June.

Ironically, the church in town closed a couple of decades later and the little church in the woods flourished beyond anyone's wildest expectations. In fact, Calvin and I had returned to the little church that day in January for the dedication of their new building which more than doubled their square footage. Amazingly, it appears they may outgrow this new space within 5 years!

How can one explain the paradox between the two churches, the one which once flourished only to close, and the one which all but closed but now continues to flourish? Could it be that, in spite of leading expert opinion claiming otherwise, location really doesn't play a significant role in church growth after all? What then, IS the determining factor? Try this radical concept on for size: A church which authentically lives out the Great Commission while possessing a passion for the Greatest Commandment at the heart of its culture.

Travels with Calvin and my service as CLS have taken me to a number of different churches, some flourishing and others in serious decline. Predictably, I've discovered that those churches which actively engage in outreach with their community have a vibrant, spirit of anticipation of fruit being borne from their efforts and a sense of expectation of blessings to come. A big part of their success is just attitude with the remainder being a willingness to leave the confines of the four walls of the church and engage their community.


Where do you see the church authentically living out the Great Commission while possessing a passion for the Greatest Commandment at the heart of its culture today?

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation – Part One

During a recent visit with my mentor, Calvin, he drew my attention to the article written by our D.S. on the front page of our District Newsletter entitled The Church's Mission: A World That Is Lost. The article speaks to the decline of the church as result of it seeming to have lost its mission focus: taking the Good News of Jesus Christ OUT to a lost and hurting world. The article states that churches both large and small will continue to decline (and die) because of their failure to understand this reality.

Indeed, with rare exception the prevalent vision in a number of local churches seems to be one inwardly focused on the escalating plant maintenance issues associated with aging edifices, compounded by the tough economic times in which we are living. But hey, who can blame us - we're just being good stewards of that which has been entrusted to us to care for, right? That argument might hold water for the 'bricks and mortar' issues of the church, but the central focus should never be consumed by the building with the steeple, but instead on the souls of the people. While only a few of us are called to serve on the board of trustees, ALL of us are called to serve as the ministers of the church, reaching out to those in need of the Gospel, all around us.

Calvin had drawn my attention to the newsletter article because of the reference our D.S. made concerning the remote churches in rural locations that defy demographic standards and church growth expert's predictions by continuing to bloom right where they have been planted. This conflicts with conventional wisdom which dictates a move into major population center in order to maintain an effective ministry to the masses. So, how can this occur when we have many churches in decline while prominently planted within well established population centers?

The article continues "there are a significant number of folks in the congregation who do not believe it is an imposition to be concerned about others' spiritual well-being, concerned enough to dare to bring them to the fellowship of the Body of Christ." Truly,

this is the mindset required to genuinely live out our call as the authentic church. Unfortunately, all too often the paradigm shift required to relinquish a bricks and mortar centered version of ministry to one which embraces this mission focus is regarded as too radical by many of our local churches with aging congregations already in crisis.


How do you see CLMs serving as a catalyst for change of the prevailing inwardly-focused culture and empowering our churches to embrace the mission that we have been called to?