Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Quotes from Mike Slaughter

Last week, I posted about Michael Slaughter's inspiring teaching at Annual Conference. Here are some nuggets from our time together.


"How can anything God created be evil? It's not evil. It's broken."

"The hope is not in the organization, but in the organism of the church."

"Jesus saved us to get heaven into the world."

"If its not good news for the poor, it's not the gospel."

"The church will win, maybe not in my lifetime but I lay my life down for that victory."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beyond Cruise Ship Evangelism

This quote from Michael Slaughter was shared at Annual Conference and it resonated with my soul. He was also there to teach and encourage and was a real highlight of our time together.


Strategic planning and programming during the height of the 1980s and ‘90s church growth era were driven by an “attractional” model of evangelism. The mantra was “build it and they will come.” We built quality programming for every age and life stage. It was well targeted to meet the needs of the young baby boomers and their growing families. The church mastered slick marketing campaigns that scratched the itches of the “me generation.” We built buildings that resembled the shopping malls they frequented and pioneered contemporary worship styles that rivaled the bars from their college days. The mega-church became the idolized model of success and numbers in the pews the measure of effectiveness.

But somehow in the cycles of programming, capital campaigns, concerts, and Bible studies we forgot an important truth: curious crowds don’t equate with committed disciples. Many of us in our well-intentioned efforts had done well in attracting crowds who were bringing Jesus into their soft-secular worldviews instead of being transformed into his. We thought it was working yet all the while the church as a whole continued to decline at escalating rates. And many who had come into the church continued to worship at the altar of self-indulgence, materialism, and indifference.

The church must make a major paradigm shift from attraction evangelism to mission evangelism. In simplest terms, this is what Jesus meant when he said that all people would see that we were his disciples through the demonstration of our sacrificial love. Attraction evangelism parallels the marketing strategy of a vacation cruise line. A cruise is a hedonistic experience of extravagance and excess. Okay, so maybe I have never been on one, but my parents have gone on thirteen cruises in the last ten years; I feel vicariously bloated every time my dad talks about the buffets.

Have you ever been on a cruise? A cruise ship is a self-contained fortress of programming for every age and interest. The experience is intensely planned and organized. It has a hierarchical structure that is staff-driven (captain and crew). The staff serves the vacationers, the vacationers only concentrate on their own enjoyment, and no one is worried about what’s going on outside that ship. Sound familiar?

Mission evangelism, on the other hand, parallels the priorities and focus of a mission outpost in a challenging place of great human need. Unlike the self-contained programming model that has been practiced by many growing churches in the past, the mission model is dependent on networking. The missional church is actively creating partnerships with social agencies, public schools, government and non-government organizations, as well as other faith groups. Mission evangelism is experimental and flexible. Like Lewis and Clark mapping an uncharted route to the West, missional churches plan and resource as they go, and those who participate vision and seek those new horizons alongside their leaders.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung put it this way: “A Church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling….[We must] play down our longing for certainty, accept what is risky, and live by improvisation and experiment.” The attraction model is deficient and inefficient in its overdependence on professional staff.

The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. (I prefer to use the term servant instead of volunteer because volunteers serve at their own convenience while the servant serves at the discretion of the one who calls.) The rehabilitation work that continues to go on along the Gulf coast is a powerful example of the unrealized potential of the unpaid servant. Over 90% of all of the work being done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is being done by faith-based organizations.

The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. The missional leader’s job is to inspire, equip, and enable that passion to be used for God’s kingdom.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Searching for hope amid our dark night of the soul

This is my column which was published on June 14, 2012 in The United Methodist Reporter.

You might prefer to read it in The United Methodist Reporter


By Steve West, Special Contributor…

Some United Methodist leaders have been gloomy in recent weeks. They feel that General Conference, the massive every-four-year gathering of denominational leaders, failed to produce change.

There was, in the works, a dramatic overhaul of the agency structure, aimed at downsizing and simplifying. Many feel the present system of agencies is too expensive and top heavy for a declining membership, and less and less relevant to the mission of local churches and average members. I agree.

But in a late ruling by the Judicial Council, a compromise reorganization plan that passed General Conference was deemed unconstitutional. One delegate told me that I couldn’t imagine how disillusioning it was to work so hard and then be told on the last day that all would be undone. He added, “You might as well just take a 2012 sticker and put it on your 2008 Discipline. Why buy a new one?”

I hope that disappointment will be redemptive, leading us to do a better job of working things through next time. Perhaps it simply wasn’t time yet for major change, and the meeting was part of a larger overarching journey. Sometimes in our history it has taken two or three General Conferences to do something of major proportions. I have been interested in monitoring online responses, some of which have been highly anxious, offering unhealthy blame and finger pointing. Some doomsayers say the church is headed toward a colossal dismantling.

I passionately believe in Wesleyan spirituality and see God’s Spirit moving everywhere in our church. I love and serve with my whole heart, but you must know that I don’t think of General Conference as the definition of “church.” The church is where two or three or are gathered in his name, where the Holy Spirit is alive and Christ is present.

I don’t believe that in this period of institutional decline, we can hold onto life as we know it. If certain aspects of our institution fall apart, that’s OK.

No escape

I have seen several articles and open letters after General Conference expressing the frustration of leaders in a system riddled with institutional anxiety. But the one that resonates with my soul is “We need ‘call to holiness’ more than Call to Action” by Sarah S. Howell (see Reporter, April 13).

With Sarah, I believe that we are experiencing a dark night of the soul. That’s not a bad thing. It just is, and like mid-life crisis or grief, it’s something we have to go through to find our hope, to be made new, and get to the place God would call us to be. It can’t be avoided or escaped, as much as we’d like to try.

The language of the dark night of the soul comes from deep in our spiritual heritage. It is a place that feels a void of God’s presence, yet it is pregnant with meaning as we let go of things we have held onto. For the denomination, it’s been a long 40-year night. But the problem is not unique to the United Methodist Church. This dark night is part of the larger, overarching decline of American Protestantism.

Proponents of our anxious efforts to keep the institutions propped up sometimes lack the wisdom of seeing the larger picture of where we are spiritually and what God might be doing during this time of the dark night.

Perhaps most of us can’t see past our own favorite issue, which we think is going to fix the problem. So we work, work and work harder to change the system. Some of the changes are good, but may not address the larger issues of relevance in contemporary culture. The idea that working harder will turn the church around is a new form of works righteousness.

There is no way around this dark night with a flashlight, and there is no one thing that we can do to fix it. Some UMC leaders get caught in a tailspin of anxiety, working diligently for a solution; but the reason we are declining in number is the same reason that ALL mainline denominations in America are declining.

It’s not an institutional issue that institutional reform will fix. It’s a spiritual issue. We need to plunge into a new mystery, a revolutionary revival. And it appears a cross will precede the resurrection. That’s our story, isn’t it?

The cross ahead

On the local level as well as the global level I see the Spirit at work in amazing ways. Our membership is growing like crazy in Africa. We each have a candle to light in our corner of the world, and I see vibrant and wonderful things going on in the local church. Let’s keep the Spirit alive as we bloom where we are planted, knowing there is a disconnection between the institution and the local church.

I’m not sure how long this dark night of the soul of American Protestantism will last or where it will lead, but I find hope in the language of the dark night. One thing I’m certain of. Working harder doing what we’re doing won’t turn institutional decline around.

The only uniquely Christian understanding of transformation is that it involves a cross and a resurrection, and you can’t work hard to create a resurrection. I’m afraid of what taking up the cross might mean for our beloved institutions, but I know that when a cross happens, God is in it. And something new and beautiful will emerge, even if it hurts.

The Rev. Steve West is senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, Ala.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More Mountain Bike Meditations

When I clicked past age forty, I had a sudden, surprising, compelling yearning for the trail. I started with four wheeling and have morphed to mountain biking. I presently go bike in the woods at least once a week.

I have never really excelled at sports, but I do love being one with the trail. I'm not the fastest or the youngest and I don't travel the farthest. But I'm getting stronger and more confident each time. It's good for my heart. It's good for my soul.

It's a feeling that I can't describe. It's not that the obstacles aren't there. I navigate the roots, I roll over the rocks, I pedal hard up the hills, I brush against the trees, I notice the breeze. I'm aware that parts of it are hard and parts are pure fun. But the trail is not about the bumps, obstacles, and heavy breathing. It's about the journey. No rock, tree, root, or bundle of leaves is what I'd call fun. In fact I must be crazy to enjoy them. But what I enjoy is the total experience.

The trail is not a summation of all the obstacles any more than life is a bag full of problems or the modern church is by definition a host of its issues. The whole experience is what is utterly amazing. I've spent too much of my life thinking that it's all about overcoming obstacles and not enough of life captivated by the total experience. But in my midlife journey, I feel the call of the wild. Renew me, Lord.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Meditation on a Civil War Ancestor

I spent a little time over Memorial Day Weekend perusing family history, particularly on one of a dozen ancestors on my tree who served in the military during conflict. None of them died in war, and they lived to have children (otherwise they wouldn’t be my ancestors!). But I have cousins on my tree that did give the ultimate sacrifice.

In this season of midlife spirituality, I’m aware of a kind of inner integration going on in my spirit as I honor ancestors and learn from the hard lessons of history. I spent many of my early years as a pacifist and still believe in Jesus’ call to be a radical peacemaker. But as I have matured, I have grown to accept some war as “necessary evil”. I consider myself a just war theorist, upholding Christian values but regarding some conflicts as justifiable and appropriate. It has been a journey for me.

This weekend, I explored the family story that my great grandfather, George Hamby, had been in the 1st Alabama Artillery in the Civil War and was a prisoner of war. I confirmed that his name was indeed on the muster roll for Company E of this battalion, and learned the history of how he was captured. His unit was stationed at Fort Morgan, which fell during the Battle of Mobile in August of 1864. 400 Confederates were captured, including George Hamby, who was then imprisoned on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi. My great grandpa later worked in the cotton mills during Reconstruction and had a large family, including two sons who were Methodist preachers. One of them was my grandfather, Rev. C.P. Hamby, Sr.

Part of the maturity of spirituality is integration, holding onto the solid principles of Christ, and still integrating the history of who we are into the whole. We discover that life is not so either-or, black and white. There is, ironically, for those of us that descend from the wrong side of the Civil War, a lot of “gray” to embrace. It is part of the story of Southern tragedy. Though the institution of slavery was clearly a most heinous crime against humanity, we are left with a mixture of pride and tears.

I pray that all of us, in our spiritual quest for integration, can ultimately return to sort of a second naïveté. Life really is ultimately about becoming more Christ-like. In the midst of every trial, and the insanity of all the conflicts that rage in the world, we are a people who overcome and become. That is our core identity.

Pictured is Fort Morgan, Alabama

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Prayer for Unity at Annual Conference

This morning, as we observe our theme "ONE," I have the opportunity to lead our Annual Conference in a prayer for unity. Here is my prayer.

Lord Jesus, in your last hours on earth, when the shadow of the cross was hovering heavy over you, you chose not to stand up to violence or orchestrate resistance. Instead, you did something much more daring. You had a “prayer meeting” with your disciples.

You prayed for them, but not for them alone. You prayed for ALL those who would come to believe in you, because of their word. That’s me, Lord. You prayed for me, and you prayed for one each of us gathered here in North Alabama. You prayed that we might be ONE, and you prayed that through our UNITY, the world might believe.

Lord, we haven’t “lived your prayer” very well, have we? In twenty centuries, we have been riddled by scandalous disunity. Today is no different. Your prayer remains the unfulfilled longing of your heart. But now is the time, Lord Jesus. Here we stand, ready. Build bridges across all that divides us, so that though we don’t all think alike, we might all love alike.

Through the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, wipe out our sins, renew our minds, and enkindle our hearts that we might blaze the trails of peace.

In your blessed name we pray, Amen.