Author's details

Name: journeyman37
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. emergingumc: Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church — April 15, 2014
  2. United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit — April 14, 2014
  3. emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part I: “We walk sightless among miracles” — April 14, 2014
  4. United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 1 — April 11, 2014
  5. emergingumc: Time for Alarm, or Something Else? — March 25, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. emergingumc: A Tale of Two Church Legislatures: Priming… for a Future with Hope — 4 comments
  2. United Methodist Worship: United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 3: Closing the Last Mile — 1 comment

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Apr 15 2014

emergingumc: Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church

Original post at

By Junior Melo (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
High Internet Use May Account for 20% of the Decline in Religious Affiliation in the US since 1990

I use the Internet more hours of the day than I do not. Much of this is for my work, which involves a substantial amount of time not only producing resources (many of which I research by using the Internet) but also interacting directly in GBOD and UMC-related social networks and chat with church leaders across the globe via Facebook and Twitter. I also use the Internet (Google Hangouts) to meet with my Covenant Discipleship Group when I am not in Nashville, and will even be offering a Holy Saturday service online via Twitter this coming Saturday (April 19, 10 AM ET, #holysat). And I use it personally-- for free texting to stay in touch with family and key friends, to stream video to our Roku player (we don't have cable), and to play a few games on my mobile devices (but not during regular work hours!).  And, of course, there's email. And search.

In March 2014, Allen B. Downey, Professor of Computer Science at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Massachusetts, published "Religious affiliation, education and Internet use" in the online science, mathematics and statistics journal, arXiv, hosted by the Cornell University Library. arXiv is not a peer reviewed journal, but rather an outlet for established researchers with appropriate institutional relationships to publish their work in these fields.

The overall findings of Downey's statistical research ascribed such high correlations (p-values less than 0.01) between religious disaffiliation and three particular factors (religious upbringing, education and Internet use) that unless some additional explanatory variable or variables could be identified, these correlations may be considered compatible with causation. In particular, reductions in the rate of religious upbringing account for 25% of the observed rates of disaffiliation since the 1980s. Increased amounts of of college and graduate education account for 5% of the change. And Internet use accounts for 20% of the change since the 1990s. Rates of disaffiliation are higher, on average, as Internet use increases beyond 7 hours daily.

That leaves 50% of the causative factors unaccounted for. Within the data, there is an explanation for the other 50%-- a lack of generational replacement-- but as Downey notes, that basically comes down to birth year analysis, and birth year, of itself, cannot function as an independent variable. In other words, when you are born can't, in general,  be said to be causative.

I've already noted I use the Internet more than 7 hours per day. I am also a college graduate and hold two graduate degrees (M.Div. and  M.A. in Peace Studies). So it would appear I have at least 25% of the risk factors for becoming religiously disaffiliated. However, both my parents were raised with deep religious involvement, and so were myself and my sister, and both of us in my generation are also deeply involved in the life of the church, so that 25% is more than counterbalanced by the other 75%-- or at least the other 25% if we admit we can't account for the other 50% statistically.

So What?
Why would Internet use correlate so strongly with increases in disaffiliation? Downey's research does not attempt to answer that question.

But among these factors, and with support from Barna's most recent research (summarized here), we might be able to pinpoint better for whom a church's increasing engagement with the Internet might enhance affiliation rather than have no effect or even increase disaffiliation.

The top 4 reasons Barna identifies evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics attend church is a) to be closer to God (43%), b) to learn more about God (38%), c) a biblical call to be with other believers (34%) and because I've always attended church (28%, primarily Roman Catholics). At the same time most who attend admit they've not felt close to God in the last month (80%) or learned anything new about God as a result of the last time they attended (94%). In other words, the two most prominent driving factors for attending worship are not at all being satisfied by doing so.

So it should not be surprising that Barna also finds 40% of those who do not attend say they can find God elsewhere and 35% say the church is not relevant to their lives in any real way.

And where else might some of these folks be finding God or something that seems more relevant to their lives? Barna did not ask this question, but certainly the Internet, and particularly the social Internet, with its immediate feedback of likes and comments on content we post, is a likely candidate.

This might lead church leaders to conclude there's a mandate to reach these disaffiliated persons by using the Internet.

But putting Downey and Barna together might lead to a different conclusion.

Remember, increased Internet use is highly correlated with increased disaffiliation, so highly correlated it might be said to be causative. So it may well be the case that trying to reach people who are disaffiliated via the Internet may either not work at all, or, worse, actually lead to further disaffiliation.

For some, at least.

Just do the math. Persons not raised in the church, a rate that is continuing to rise, are already 25% more likely not to affiliate at all. If they are college educated, that jumps to 30%. Add Internet involvement, and that goes to 50%. And the later they were born, the more likely they will not affiliate at all.

In other words, the odds of a church being effective at using extensive Internet-based engagement with persons (including younger persons) with zero church background for the purpose of leading them to affiliation are not very favorable. At all. You're simply adding one more risk factor for moving people away from church life into the mix.

Short answer: Targeting the "never-affiliated Nones" with "internet church" isn't likely to accomplish much.

Okay, how about those "Nones" who had been affiliated, but now have dropped out, including that 59% of Millennials Barna notes have dropped out at some point.

They were affiliated at one point. That's significant. But even when they were, the vast majority of them weren't getting out of church what they said they would value most about it. So they've already left. Maybe they're finding that somewhere else. And from Pew we know that 72% of those who have disaffiliated say they aren't interested in reaffiliating or being part of any group larger than their immediate circle of friends, ever. If they're using the Internet, and likely they are,  they've got that additional 20% "drive away" factor in play. So again, the odds are low online strategies will be effective at generating renewed affiliation.

What these two bits of evidence taken together may say, then, is the primary value of church social media and internet sites may be far more for increasing ties with "insiders" than evangelizing or seeking to reactivate those who have become "outsiders."

So that leaves those who have been raised in the church and have not disaffiliated. For these people, and perhaps primarily for these people, the negative effects of Internet use on church affiliation may not outweigh the overall "affiliating" forces already in play. Let me suggest further, to help strengthen these affiliating forces, that online strategies for reaching and supporting these people aim squarely at the two highest factors Barna identifies for attendance-- getting closer to and learning about God. If the congregation focuses its efforts online in providing what the affiliated say they seek the most but clearly aren't getting in worship or educational opportunities (getting closer to and learning about God), it may be positioning its online ministries for maximum effectiveness.

The key in this is the church making its online ministries clearly part of its ministries, its web of communications, its work of community building within its life. Such online ministries needn't be members-only walled gardens, but the value they add needs to relate to the specific ways those already affiliated with the congregation can give witness and support to getting closer to God and learning about God as part of that congregation.

Internet: Use It... Wisely

When the Online Communion Conversation was convened in Nashville last fall, and then when the Council of Bishops acted on the recommendations of that panel of church leaders, practitioners and scholars, probably the biggest message most people heard was the call by the Council of Bishops for a moratorium on all online sacramental practice.

But that was not our first recommendation.

Our first recommendation, and in fact the first one the Council of Bishops approved in November 2013, was that:

"The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection."

In other words, while the most widely spread outcome may have suggested United Methodists were some sort of Luddites regarding online ministries, the reality is quite the reverse. We were calling for and the bishops agreed to dramatically step up the excellence of United Methodist online ministries worldwide.

Excellence in online ministries involves not just excellence in their technical platform and execution-- and we absolutely were seeking that!-- but also and most importantly excellence in their results toward our mission as a church-- to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What I think the recent studies from Downey, Barna and Pew show, fairly definitively, is that the most likely arena in which United Methodists (or anyone in the US) will be able to develop online ministries that enhance affiliation, and so, we trust, discipleship, will be in those that focus first on amplifying the capacity of all the affiliated in our congregations, of every age and ability, to get closer to God and learn more about God, both individually and collectively.

What do you think?

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Apr 14 2014

United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Original post at

Incarnation: Scandal and Foolishness, or Power and Wisdom?

"But we proclaim Messiah crucified, a scandal to Jewish people, foolishness to the goyim, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah, the power of God and the wisdom of God"  I Corinthians 1:23-24

I have to admire Paul's gutsy honesty here. He takes standard Jewish and Greek understandings with utter seriousness, and does not misrepresent or twist them to make them fit the gospel he proclaims. 

The Christian doctrine of incarnation, that, as the gospel of John puts it, "The Logos became flesh and pitched tent among us" (John 1:14) simply was sheer foolishness, something completely incoherent in the standard Heraclitian/Platonic ontologies of the day. How? Because the entire ur-narrative of these Greek ontologies depends on Logos/Reason/Word/Wisdom remaining at a remove from the ephemerality, instability, and chaotic nature of material reality. Only at such a remove could the Logos become an informing, constraining principle of such material chaos. Communication was possible between the two, but any actual communion or intermingling was inconceivable. It was simply obvious, in this ur-narrative, that if the Logos were to become material, even worse, to become flesh, the most unstable and ephemeral of all material realities, all hope of order, civilization, even coherence itself would be lost.

Likewise, within the very narrative in Genesis from which we derived the biblical ontology we began to unpack in the previous post, there is a very significant additional agenda in place, one which likewise sees the co-mingling of human and divine realities as a source of chaos and destruction. Creation happens in Genesis 1 precisely because the God keeps dividing one thing from another, creating boundaries which give room for each differentiated thing to have its place. The "Fall" in Genesis 2 happens in large part because humans have grasped after the knowledge of the Deity. The flood narrative beginning in Genesis 6 identifies a major cause of the contagion of violence ruining all creation as the "Sons of God" having offspring with "human daughters" generating the Nephilim, a race of superior warriors (Genesis 6:1-5). Later, God takes decisive action to end the efforts of humans to build a tower to reach heaven. Story after story, this message rings clear: God is God and humans are not and cannot ever expect to be God. Any notion of a human becoming God or God becoming human is therefore not simply foolish (Greek), but blasphemous. Calling Christian notions of incarnation a scandal to mainstream Jewish theology informed by the Torah may, indeed, be an understatement.

Of course, Paul isn't even addressing incarnation, per se, in the quote taken above. He is rather dealing with the heart of his proclamation in Corinth: Messiah crucified. Corinth was the active capitol of Greek culture and economic and political power in Paul's day. Athens was more of a cultural heritage site at that point. Corinth was also home to a significant Jewish diaspora community. Following an executed man, an ephemeral man judged not worthy of continuing life by his peers, was thus, indeed, foolishness to the Greeks. And it was sheer scandal in mainstream Jewish interpretation to claim Messiah, one of their own, had or could have been been crucified, for "cursed is anyone hanged on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Paul makes a very different claim. Messiah crucified is "Messiah the power of God (Jewish) and the wisdom of God (Greek)." The gospel is the announcement of the paradoxical reversal of expectations that actually fulfills the true hopes of both cultures, Jewish and Gentile, which is to say, of the whole world, the cosmos.

Christians, with John and Paul, do proclaim Jesus as Word made flesh, God incarnate, and as Messiah crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. Both were and are foolishness and scandal when our earliest Christian ancestors declared them. Both still are. We, with Paul, still need to own this.

But in owning this, we need not retreat from the claims of incarnation or Christ crucified, raised and returning one iota. Because our ur-narrative is not a narrative of an ordering principle that must remain at some remove lest chaos ensure, and whose core work of ordering is the work of differentiation. Our ur-narrative is that narrative's reversal, the undoing of entropy, not by remove or further differentiation but by fully-restored fellowship. Our ur-narrative, starting with the birth of the church at Pentecost, is of the full restoration of all things in all their variety, variability and even ephemerality, reading backwards from the undoing of Babel toward the ultimate undoing of the Fall. That which was set apart into isolation as a check against chaos is brought back into full communion, a communion that reflects the full diversity within the original creation but no more of the hostility set loose at the Fall. Our ur-narrative leads back to the possibility of God looking upon all things in all their ephemerality, fleshliness and variety, and delighting, as they delight, completely, announcing an eternal "Tov meod!"

Now, this vision of restoration, of ultimate Shalom, of Tikkun Olam (the healing of the world) is not and never has been foreign to all forms of Jewish philosophy or religion, then or, perhaps, especially now. Incarnation and our proclamation as Christians of Jesus as crucified Messiah remain scandalous. But the ur-narrative of the restoration of all things by God with us is one in which Christians and at least some Jewish denominations may be increasingly able to collaborate.

The Outpouring of the Spirit and Christian Biblical Ontology

There are three moments in United Methodist ritual where we especially embody our theology of incarnation, grounded in our biblical ontology. These are baptism, Holy Communion, and ordination.

In all three, our collective prayer, led by an authorized presider, says "Pour out your Spirit on X, that X may be Y."

At Holy Communion we pray "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and upon these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

At ordination or consecration we pray, "Almighty God, pour upon Name the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/an elder/a bishop in Christ's holy church."

And at baptism, which lie beneath and grounds the life of the whole church, and so grounds both Holy Communion and ordination, we pray, "Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory."

Always at these pivotal moments we call upon the action of the Holy Spirit, the one ever-moving over the face of ever-moving waters, the Spirit whose breath and whose outpouring of gifts never ceases.

And in all of these pivotal moments, what we seek is for the Spirit to start something new or afresh in us, to initiate a flow the Spirit will ever sustain, but we may or may not continue to abide in.

Starting, though not completed, at baptism.

In none of these cases in our theology as United Methodists, including baptism, does the Spirit's action begun absolutely guarantee the outcome desired. Neither baptism nor ordination conveys any sort of "indelible mark" or "permanent alteration of character" in our lives or conduct.

Likewise, with many other Protestants and Anglicans, we deny transubstantiation, not because of any ongoing rebellion against Roman Catholic theology per se, nor any longer out of any proximity to the actions of the Council of Trent that led our Anglican forebears (and Wesley, copying them) to take such a strident stand against it as a doctrine that "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament" (Articles of Religion XVIII). Rather, we deny transubstantiation because our biblical ontology has no need of any "essences" or "substances" as a hedge against the contingencies and ephemeralities of our own material, fleshly state, or that of the bread and wine on which we also seek the Spirit's blessing. Instead, we are assured by Jesus, God in our flesh, that the living God in whom we trust pours out the Spirit freely and abundantly to all who ask (Luke 11:13).

Next: Ordination and "Sacramental Authority"

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Apr 14 2014

emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part I: “We walk sightless among miracles”

Original post at

Over the next six posts, Mike Mather, pastor of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, shares how he has come to focus locally, listening for and learning to see the abundance of God's work already in progress among the people of the congregation and neighborhood where he is appointed to serve.

A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:
Days pass,
Years vanish,
And we walk sightless among miracles.

Hello Reverend.  Miss Rose is often out in the inner city, in her housecoat and tennis shoes sweeping the street, picking up trash.
Her caramel complexion fits in well in this block. It blends with the pink of her worn robe and the salt and pepper gray of the sidewalk.

She has a toughness and gentleness, easily holding that tension. Shes seen it all and then some. Shes no innocent. Shes known blood to run in the gutters. Shes heard the shouts, then shots, so loud as to be unnoticed.

Shes tall and the years have not bent her much.  Perhaps its all that walking, striding into the future.  She has cared for her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.  she now shares.  In her 80s she continues in the work of building community.

Piece by piece she picks it up and places it deep inside. Its alright. Shes bringing it together in ways, allowing the beauty to shine through. The glorious in the gritty.

She steps into the street. She looks both ways. Empty patchwork fields and an abundance of homes fill the street. Children, families, and papers swirl around her feet. The Spirit blows and the papers dance, sometime out of her reach. She watches, she knows where its headed.

Crushed cans and broken glass are part of her collection. She gathers up the broken and damaged and brings it home.

She watches from her porch.  Sunflowers in the front yard, broken pavement opening to the brick from generations ago.  Some homes have fences, some have none.

On her porch late in 2008 she sat and dreamed about a black President, a smile on her face.

Young people walk by as she picks up trash. They notice, but dont say anything. They walk with the easy (unknowing) confidence of the young.          They see and dont see.  Just like me. Their feet land heavy. Hers seem to glide. They laugh and talk loud. She smiles and says little. Every once in awhile they reach down and pick up a piece of paper.

Here is the slow, steady, steadfast work of community. She builds it on broken pavement. Sure this foundation is strong enough.
She sees the beauty and she wants to make it shine. She sees the strength and she wants it in power.

Kids play curb ball as she cleans the street.  They see her as in a mirror. This is how we care for one another.  We see the beauty, and build on it.

There are people doing such work, every day, all the time.

Can we see?

Miss Rose, sunflowers in the front yard, beans blossoming in the back. She knows how to grow things.

Young people notice her, while others - television reporters, teachers, preachers, even neighbors - tell them how bad their neighborhood is.

She steadily, daily, cleans the street. Does she keep it clean? No. She does her part. An invitation to others to do theirs. A witness.

Miss Rose, smiling, reads to children at the church.

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Apr 11 2014

United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 1

Original post at

by Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources, GBOD
Convener, The Ordinal Task Force, and Editor of the Ordinal for The United Methodist Church

Big, big words.

Especially the second, one, "pneumatology," right? I mean, unless your into systematic theology, when's the last time you ever used that term? And unless you're a philosopher, theologian, organizational theorist or liturgy geek, when's the last time you ever used the word "ontology?" And when you used either one, did anyone else in the room understand what you were talking about? Did you, really?

And to put ordination and pneumatology and ontology into the same phrase-- isn't that what Roman Catholics and Orthodox would do? Why in the world would a Protestant, much less a United Methodist, try to do that?

Well, let me tell you why this United Methodist does that.

It's all about the middle term-- pneumatology-- the study of the work of the Holy Spirit-- and how that informs what I think is a biblical ontology, as opposed to a Greek philosophical ontology, that does begin to enable even United Methodists to make ontological claims, and not just functional claims, about the nature of the Christian life and of the church, and consequently about what is at stake in ordination.

And, by the way, all of this is already present in our current ritual of ordination, and pretty much has been since we inherited its underlying form and function from the Church of England via John  Wesley and the actions of the 1784 Christmas Conference.

We'll get to all of that later in the series.

But right now I want to get actually to the third term-- ontology.

Why "Ontology" Weirds Us Protestants Out

Ontology, the study of being, weirds out Protestants in large part because pretty much all of our roots as Protestants (including our Anglican heritage) has been about separating ourselves from what we perceived to be an over-commitment to Greek philosophy in the theology and practices of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Now let me say this. We were not wrong. Rome really had wedded itself to Plato and Aristotle at that time, and ended up doing that even more explicitly and profoundly in some of the final documents and decisions issued by the Council of Trent (mid-16th century). Transubstantion was one of those. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Anabaptists alike cried foul on making this a doctrinal necessity precisely because the very structure of the argument was utterly Aristotelian (with, as we shall see, a Heraclitan and Platonic background), and nowhere to be found in scripture. Anglicans, and Methodists (who adopted much of the Anglican Articles of Religion) went so far as to say, "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions" ("Of The Lord's Supper," Anglican Article 28, Methodist Article 18). \

The heart of the objection to transubstantiation is ontological. The claim in the Roman Catholic doctrine was that the substance, the very being (hence, ontology!) of the bread and wine was changed in or by the celebration of this ritual. Since our Anglican and Methodist forebears could find no support for this idea in scripture, they threw out that claim wholesale.

The problem is they thereby, though perhaps unintentionally, tended to throw out any and all ontological claims the church could make about itself, if not as a matter of official policy, at least as a matter of "guilt by association." The association was something like this: Rome is bad for insisting on a Greek philosophical grounding of core doctrine. And the kind of Greek philosophical argument used in transubstantiation is an ontological one. Therefore it's all bad-- Rome, Greek philosophy, transubstantiation, and, with it, ontology.

What I'd like to posit is that the Bible actually has very robust and rich ontological traditions that aren't Greek, and that actually could and (I will suggest in this series) should inform our conversations about sacraments, ecclesiology, and especially within the latter, ordination. In other words, rather than taking simply a "we don't talk about ontology and ordination in the same sentence except to deny any connection between them," what I want to take on in this series is how a recovery of biblical images of being/Being may not only enable us to talk ontologically about these things again, but indeed to re-invest them with far richer theological imagination.

But to get there, I recognize it's probably important to start with the foundations of the Greek tradition we're (rightly!) weirded out about.

Heraclitus, Plato, and Anxiety about Ephemerality

I wish to start by making a claim I expect to be challenged on a bit by lovers of the Greek tradition, but I will make it anyway. At the heart of the Greek philosophical tradition lies a persistent and deeply rooted anxiety about ephemerality.

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus is "Twice into the same river one cannot step." In asserting this, Heraclitus was not simply talking about rivers and the fact they were constantly changing. He was really talking about the nature of reality itself. He was saying there was in fact no constancy, no stability, not even an illusory stability in anything we can see or experience in the material world. And for him, this was a huge problem, the most dreadful sort of problem. Because without stability, there could be no real order, and without order, we were left to nothing but chaos.

This is certainly an anxiety-producing conclusion, if the the material reality, as we observe it, were all that existed. But, he says, since we also observe some kind of order in this constantly changing material world, that implies there must be some ordering principle, some Reason that gives coherence to all of this. And that Reason he called Logos (in Greek, logos can mean word or reason). Still, since the material world is only and always flux, despite the presence of the Logos, we cannot rely on the material world for true knowledge (i.e., knowledge of that which actually enables life and civilization) unless we know the Logos. If we know the Logos, we have true and worthy knowledge available to us. Even if we do not know the Logos, though, it remains the case that the Logos is what gives us an "indelible character" and establishes our fate as material beings in an ever-changing material existence.

Already in this account of Heraclitus's philosophy, we see the framing of the terms and some of the language that will subsequently inform the ontology of Plato and through him Aristotle and much of the rest of the classic philosophical Western tradition. We see already here the outlines of an ontology grounded in what Plato and Aristotle will call "substance" or "essence" (Being) as the source of the Ideal (Plato) or Real (Aristotle), an ontology in which materiality and changeability are marginalized as shadow (Plato, Parable of the Cave) or "accident" (Aristotle). The only thing that matters is what matters eternally, and the only thing that is eternal is Logos or Being itself.

Nephesh Hayah and the Delight of God

Biblical ontology starts in a very different place. There is no anxiety at all about ephemerality. Rather, there is delight in it! In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, God keeps calling these "living beings" (nephesh hayah) into existence, and saying about them, "This is good!' This word "living" (nephesh) both in Hebrew usage and especially in the context given in the first creation story is precisely focused on what keeps moving around, squirming, teeming, changing. And God keeps saying about all of this, "This is good!"

Finally, at the creation of human beings, among a number of other forms of "nephesh hayah," at the end, when all is created, God's affirmation of all of this, including all of this intrinsically material and changeable stuff, is "This is very good!" (tov meod!) All of it. Everything. Every thing. Every nephesh hayah, including but not limited to humans, and everything else, too. And humans, given the image of God whether male or female, they were included.

So what is the image of God? What can we learn about it in Genesis 1? What does God look like that could be passed on to us? We never see the Creator who speaks, but we do see the Spirit of the Creator from the very beginning. And what is the Spirit doing? Moving-- hovering-- ever-flowing over the face of the ever-moving, ever-stirring, ever-changing waters. So if we are to infer anything about the meaning of imago Dei from the story in which it occurs, what we must infer is that God is known precisely in change and creative interaction. Change, ephemerality, is not a bug-- but perhaps one of the most prominent features of God and creation, and perhaps the feature that gives it so much of its exceeding goodness.

Biblical ontology then, this notion of living being that bears the image of Being (God), is thus as far from anxiety and as close to delight in movement, variety, flux, change and the variations of matter and flesh as it can possibly be. Our very life from God's breath-- Spirit ever-moving over the ever-moving waters-- even our contingency-- all delight!

Next: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

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Mar 25 2014

emergingumc: Time for Alarm, or Something Else?

Original post at

By Denelson83. CC-BY-SA-3.0 "

Alarming Findings

The latest findings from Barna about church attendance and the reasons people say they attend are sobering, to say the least.

Among them:
  • 51% of adults surveyed said churchgoing was either not very important or not important at all
  •  59% of Millennials (30 and under) who grew up in church have left the church at some point
  • Overall average weekly worship attendance has declined from 43% in 2004 to 36% today
  • Roughly 40% overall, and just over 50% of Millennials have not attended church in the past six months at all, with a notable and continuing rise in non-attendance beginning around 2010.
  • Those who do attend church most often say they do so to get closer to God (47%), but less than 20% of these report having felt close to God during the past month
  • The second most frequent reason cited for attending worship was to learn more about God (27%). Yet 61% of those who attended report having learned nothing new since the last time they attended.
Overall, this picture comports with the findings of a January 2012 Barna report  which found 2/3 or more of those attending at least once a month said their participation in a congregation affected their lives only marginally, if at all.

It's Probably Even Worse than That

You are reading that right. My strong hunch is what Barna is reporting now may actually be wildly better on some measures than what's actually happening in our congregations.


Because much of this research is based on self-reporting, whether online or through interviews.

And self-reporting of religious participation has been shown to be over-stated by a rate close to 50%.

More than this, the linked article just above by Presser and Stinson in American Sociological Review shows there had been substantial over-reporting for at least thirty years leading into the late 1990s, all of it tending to show an average attendance rate somewhere around 40%. That Barna found an overall decline from 43% attendance in 2004 to 36% in 2014 is still fairly close to the 40% "sweet spot" expected for self-reported attendance.

What Presser and Stinson also show is that when self-reporting is done without the pressure of an interviewer asking a direct question, such as via some forms of online reporting, also used in this study, over-reporting of religious participation becomes a less dramatic factor. 

Responding with Alarm Won't Help... Much

The real numbers are far worse than even what Barna is reporting, yet I'm advising not responding with alarm?

Why not?

Because alarm doesn't help us much. Alarm makes sure we know something is wrong, and may get us moving to do something about it. But the state of alarm itself gives us almost no clues how to make it any better. It tells us to move (or it paralyzes us!), but often makes it impossible for us to discern where or how. It gets us stuck into fight, flight or freeze, when what we may need most is focus.

Questions to Help You Focus Where You Are

And let me suggest the focus begin not at some macro level, with high-level consultations or programs others design to "fix" your situation.

First off, the data gathered by Barna are from so many different contexts that they may provide little actual insight into any particular context, including your own. If you want to learn from Barna, don't go generic. Go local.

Begin at the level of your own worshiping community and the people of the neighborhoods and social networks you and they inhabit. Ask Barna's kinds of questions right where you are. Learn from Prosser and Stinson about the mistake of direct interviewing for some of these indicators. Design an instrument people can fill out on their own, maybe on the Internet, away from any "social desirability pressure bias" a direct interview in any form will generate. Here are some sample questions related to the findings listed above.

1. Did you attend a service of worship this past weekend?

2. Did you attend a service of worship last weekend?

3. In a typical month, how frequently do you typically attend worship? __1 __2  __3 __4 or more times per month

4. Have you attended a service of worship anywhere in the past six months? 

5. On the following items, rank their importance to you on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all important, 2 = somewhat unimportant, 3= neither important nor unimportant, 4= somewhat important 5 = highly important).

a) Attending worship weekly
b) Attending worship regularly (once per month or more)
c) Participating in a small group (other than Sunday School)
d) Participating in a choir or other musical ensemble or solo role
e) Participating in a Sunday School or other spiritual education class
f) Participating in an outreach ministry of the church
g) Participating in an administrative committee of the church
h) Living out my religious beliefs in daily life (work, school, wider community, etc)

6. If you attend worship, please give your top three reasons for doing so, in order.
(Free response)

7. Which of these reasons were satisfied when you attended worship most recently? How frequently were these satisfied within the past month? Within the past year?

8. How much would you say your participation in a congregation affects your daily life? Not at all? A little? Some? A lot? A significant amount?

Demographic Questions (all open-ended)
1. Age
2. Sex
3. Culture(s) you identify with most (ethnicity, interest groups, etc.)
4. Relationship status
5. Relationship to this or any congregation

These questions presented in an online format, not a direct interview, could help give you a snapshot of how the kinds of indicators Barna was testing actually apply where you are. And they'll likely lead you to ponder more questions, depending on what you find. Keep following the questions that surface, and focus not on fixing, but understanding these elements of your contexts the best you can.

You can learn about attendance and some values people place on congregational life from the questions above. But there's also another kind of focus to cultivate, one that precisely involves direct interviews and deep listening. This is about listening for the abundance of gifts people have, love to share, and freely share with one another all the time. This kind of listening is about cultivating focus, yours and theirs, on the discipleship to Jesus they actually live, day by day, with its gems and warts alike. And so it's about cultivating focus on what God is doing in your midst in and through their lives. 

By putting the results of these two ways of cultivating focus side by side, you and they together, where you are, may begin to develop some clues about what congregational life that better supports and grows the discipleship they have or long to have might look like.
And then, together, where you are, aligned with the Spirit's empowering your "second focus" reveals, you might be led to the right next steps-- steps grounded not on fixing problems or meeting needs, but on amplifying the abundant gifts already present among you better than you do now. 

Next: Examples of "Second Focus" listening from a United Methodist pastor

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Mar 10 2014

United Methodist Worship: United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 3: Closing the Last Mile

Original post at

-- by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, GBOD

As we have seen in Part I and Part II of this series, the findings of the 2013 United Methodist Baptism study show the majority of our US congregations use our established ritual as provided (58.1%) and teach something about our baptismal vows in connection with preparing them or the congregation to celebrate services of the baptismal covenant (71.2%). 

However, a substantial minority (16.7%) reports materially altering our ritual in ways that may misrepresent our understandings of the sacrament and the roles of laity, deacon, elder and pastor in the sacrament. 28.8% apparently do not teach the vows even in connection with confirmation or membership processes. And it appears few of our congregations or clergy intentionally teach the vows of the baptismal covenant as norms for ongoing, accountable Christian discipleship in any setting other than baptismal or membership preparation.

Given that we do not typically "police" the use of our ritual, that our ritual is only 25 years, that our official teaching document on baptism is only 18 years on, and that the majority of our active clergy were trained at a time prior to our current ritual and teaching, I'd like to think these statistics may point to more of a "last mile problem" than any more basic failure of communication of our doctrine and practice, on the one hand, or any willful attempt to avoid or reject our doctrine and practice on the other.

Still, when we have so tightly identified our mission as a denomination with discipleship, and when baptismal vows (including the basic affirmations of the creed) are understood to be the basis for growing in discipleship as well as professing membership, we cannot dismiss these rates of variance nor the need to "close the last mile."

So how might we do that?

Teaching Interventions

Clergy and Leadership Formation
All of our United Methodist seminaries already include the meaning and practice of our baptismal ritual and "By Water and the Spirit" as part of the required curriculum for United Methodist students taking required worship courses. These are also included in the standards document for United Methodist worship courses created and approved by worship professors at UM and University Senate approved seminaries and housed with the Office of Clergy Formation and Theological Education at GBHEM.

Greater attention to these matters in a more uniform way is also needed for those preparing to function as clergy in licensing schools and Course of Study. And since these persons are often tapped as supply pastors as well, attention should also be given to Lay Servant Ministry training programs, particularly on the Certified Lay Speaker track, Certified Lay Ministry programs, and the training provided as part of the Lay Church Planting Network. For each of these a required course linking baptismal vows and discipleship may be designed and implemented.

Lay Formation
Based on the findings above, the primary place where laity encounter the baptismal vows is in the context of preparation for baptism or professing membership and in the services of the baptismal covenant themselves. Curriculum supporting membership and confirmation classes would thus be a significant leverage point for teaching and encouraging baptismal living. New materials could be created, or such curriculum currently in use could be revised to call much greater attention to the fundamental relationship between the baptismal vows and our own discipleship.

However, simply "front-loading" the relationship between baptism and discipleship (and thus the mission of our Church) into baptism or membership preparation classes does not ensure ongoing growth in living as disciples of Jesus Christ. The relationship between the vows of the baptismal covenant and discipleship needs to be woven into the fabric of the worship, mission and education/formation ministries of every congregation.

It appears the worship life of our congregations does generally include such teaching and modeling, at least around occasions of baptism and reception of new members. Some UMW curriculum has effectively drawn attention to the relationship between mission, outreach and the baptismal vows, but more could be done in this regard to ensure the baptismal vows and mission education and activities are directly linked to each other and to basic Christian discipleship. Other education and formation ministries may need substantially more attention. Perhaps the Curriculum Resources Committee may be asked  to include in its Scope and Sequence an identification of age- appropriate processes for guiding teaching and modeling of living the baptismal covenant. Perhaps the CRC may also be asked to evaluate proposed new curriculum items in part on the basis of how well they support helping persons grow in faithfulness to the baptismal vows.

Leadership/Communications Interventions
How has the mission statement of The United Methodist Church become so well known by so many United Methodists? It is because leaders at every level of denominational life have communicated it consistently and repeatedly since its adoption in 1996. Bishops have built sermons around it. Annual Conferences repeat it together. DSes remind congregations of it at charge conference. DCMs and other annual conference leaders make constant reference to it. United Methodist Women promote it as actively as they do their own mission statement. Lay leaders and pastors in local congregations teach it to their congregations and use it as a tool for both determining and talking about the ministries the congregation undertakes and often as part of annual stewardship campaigns. The words "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" have thus gone viral and become ingrained in many United Methodists.

But the content of those words, what "make disciples" points to, what disciples look like, and how this is intimately related to the baptismal vows has not yet been communicated in nearly so pervasive a way.

So perhaps its time for leaders at every level to take up an active communication campaign linking discipleship to the vows of the baptismal covenant, as the Discipline (Para's 122, 216, 217 and 221.1) and "By Water and the Spirit" already do. Adding a few words to the way we communicate the mission statement may be one effective way to do that. After all, that was how "for the transformation of the world" was actually added to the mission statement in 2008.

So let me take a stab at what those words might be. "To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Any other ideas? Please add them in the comments.

If enough leaders in enough places start adding these four words or something like them  to the mission statement we now have every time they said it, or even a lot of times they said it, we will have created the basic link between discipleship, baptism and mission that we already have "on the books"-- but not yet in our lips or in our hearts.

And once we get it in our lips and in our hearts, I think we'll find lots of ways to get our "heads around" how to get living the baptismal covenant more into our systems for worship, mission, education, formation and leadership at every level.

So say it with me: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Again: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

One more time: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

And now-- ask your pastor (or if you're the pastor, ask yourself!), your lay leader, your worship leader, your church music leaders, your Christian Education director, your deacon (if you have one), your SPRC chair, your Church Council Chair, your DS, your DCM and your bishop to start saying this is worship, in meetings, in strategy sessions, at Annual Conference, in newsletters, newspapers, in print and online, whenever they cite the mission of the church. Let's make this thing go viral! Then maybe by 2020, if not by 2016, we can get it into the Discipline as well.

Organizational Interventions

Truly centering the life of a community on living out the vows of the baptismal covenant would be fairly disruptive for the life of most congregations. As I've written many times and in a variety of ways over the years on the emergingumc blog, congregations really haven't been set up for the level of discipling and discipleship these vows actually demand of us, for over 1600 years. But discipling groups, such as the early Methodist Societies with their class meetings and bands, actually were.

So if we're going to look at changing the overall culture of the Church to be more focused on actual discipling and discipleship, congregations may not be the first place to start. Experimental small groups that are Accountable, Connected, Missional and Embodied (ACME) about living out the vows with each other might be a better place to start. These groups might be like Covenant Discipleship groups, 5-7 people whose covenant is to ask and help each other grow in positively answering the questions of the baptismal covenant: Will you:

1) Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedess,
2) Reject the evil powers of this world
3) Repent of your sin
4) Accept the freedom and power Christ gives you
to resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form they present themselves
5) Confess Jesus as your Savior
6) Put your whole trust in his grace
7) Serve him as Lord
8) All of the above in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races
9) According to the grace given you,  remain faithful members of Christ's holy church, and
10) Serve as Christ's representatives in the world;
11) As you join together with the whole church in professing the Christian faith in
a) God, the Father Almighty
b) Jesus Christ, his only Son, or Lord, and
c) The Holy Spirit;

12) Be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and
13) Participate in the ministries of the local congregation with your prayers, presence gifts, service and witness.

Such a small group or set of small groups could be one way by which a congregation or a group of congregations in an area could pro-actively "nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care." It would certainly be an intense form of "surround{ing] them with a community of love and forgiveness" in which persons "pray for them that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life."

There needn't be any "program" for such groups. They could meet informally, once per week for an hour or so, and simply ask themselves the questions of the baptismal covenant, report progress made and support needed, then pray for each other's continued growth in sanctifying grace. Given the number and scope of the questions, they might be divided up, three or four per week, so that in the course of the month all 13 would be covered. 

Since these already are our baptismal vows and the ground of our discipleship, no special permission would be needed simply to start such groups with a few others who are willing to give this process a try for a few months, and see what happens. It would also be good to have the support of the pastor, and nice (but not mandatory) for the pastor to attend if not lead one such group and help in organizing others so such a growth group is not perceived by the pastor or other church leaders as a threat, but as a "voluntary society" of folks who are committing to help each other grow in holiness of heart and life, using the baptismal covenant as their guide.

Where Can You Start?

These are three discreet but inter-related paths you, the congregation, and the larger systems of The United Methodist Church could pursue to help solidify not only the understanding and practice of the sacrament of baptism, but its intimate connection with lifelong discipleship and so the mission of our Church.

You don't have to pursue all of them at the same time. You don't even have to pursue all of them yourself at all. Indeed, you may have a path I haven't mentioned that would better suit your context and the gifts and calling the Spirit has given or will give you.

But I'd like for you to consider which one (or ones) of these (or others) you could begin to pursue now, starting today.

We don't get to any larger goal, nor does any organization successfully close its "last mile gaps" without starting where it is and taking the next step, and then the next, and then the next until the gaps are closed.

So where can you start?

And what step on this journey will you take, starting today... so more and more of us will be part of the fulfillment of our mission:

To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world.


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