Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good To Great

When I came to the North Alabama Conference three years ago, I knew that I was coming to one of the leading Conferences in United Methodism. I did not then know what I do now -- we are leading the church in some vital areas of renewal. The Cabinet and I read Jim Collins' Good to Great as part of our work. While our Conference has a number of areas of ministry that need much work and attention from us, I'm pleased to report that we have more areas where it can be said we are moving "from Good to Great." I think of the following areas where we are doing some great work:

1. New Communities of Faith: Dick Freeman was already leading us in ground-breaking work in planting new churches. Now we lead the United Methodist Church in this effort. 33 new congregations planted in the last decade, 25 more new congregations in the works, including congregations in some of the more neglected areas in our cities.

2. Natural Church Development: We now have a tested, proven program for revitalization of churches, particularly our small, rural, older congregations. Led by Dale Cohen, we now have 80 congregations in process with Natural Church Development and dozens more on the way. The results of this effort among our congregations are amazing.

3. Superannuate Homes: We have long had the leading program for retired clergy housing in the nation -- 133 homes for our honored retired clergy and spouses. This year we begin, under Don Neal's leadership, the Retired Clergy Network to keep our retired clergy connected, supported, and in ministry with us.

4. The Methodist Foundation: Charlie Carlton has created an amazing resource for stewardship with current managed assets of over 35.8 million. This year the Foundation has brought Rick Owen into its capable staff to work with congregations and pastors on financial management, stewardship, and fund raising for mission. The Foundation is one of our great success stories in North Alabama.

5. New Disciples: This past year we made over 3000 new Christians! That's our highest number in recent years. Our emphasis on Sunday attendance, on reaching out to the unchurched, and making our churches more hospitable to visitors is reaping this wonderful result. Our growth in discipleship is one reason that (while we have much progress to make in our giving record) we raised more money for mission and benevolences than in any year past!

6. Institute of Clergy Excellence: Larry Dill led us to secure two million in grants from the Lilly Endowment. This has enabled us to continue and greatly expand our model program for clergy continuing education -- ICE. Building on the long tradition of creative clergy growth and development that was begun by grants from the Dixon Family some years ago, ICE has quickly become a nationally recognized model for clergy education.

7. Residency in Ministry: The Board of Ordained Ministry has spent the last year devising a remarkable pilot program for new clergy recruitment and development. The program will be led by Amelia Sims. Now our three year probationary program will provide our newest clergy with an extensive, demanding, and full plan of mentoring, monitoring, and development. Already numerous Conferences are inquiring into the possibility of enacting the Residency in Ministry in their Conferences. Once again, we are leading the way.

8. Mission: Paulette West continues the great tradition of mission in North Alabama. She trains and sends dozens of Volunteer in Mission teams each year. Our Disaster Response Team, led by James Hassell has become a national model. Our Conference-wide support for mission through the United Methodist Women and our local churches is amazing. Each year dozens of our churches join our missionaries in the field in their work. Thomas Muhomba, whose family was brought to Christ in Zimbabwe by North Alabama Conference missionary, Mildred Taylor, now leads us in our newest mission field -- North Alabama!

At this year's Annual Conference, amid all the work that we have yet to do, let's celebrate all the amazing things that God is doing among us, making our Conference a gift of God to the people of the world. In Christ's name, we are moving from Good to Great!

Will Willimon

Monday, May 21, 2007



To an acculturated and accommodated church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words. He wrote them to us in Birmingham, from our jail, fifty years ago but the words ring true in the church today, perhaps in the church of any age, so let us reflect upon them again in our own day. Let us prayerfully reexamine our church on the basis of Dr. King’s eloquent rebuke of the church that has stopped being an outpost of the Kingdom of God and a sign of Jesus’ politics and instead has become merely the “sanction of things as they are.”

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed in. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), pg. 300.

William H. Willimon
Please pray for our Annual Conference that meets on June 1-2 at ClearBranch United Methodist Church.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Thoughts on "The Jesus Enterprise"

I'm concerned about a book about the church that uses the word enterprise in the title, a word borrowed from business. But I sure want to reach the unchurched. Thus I read The Jesus Enterprise: Engaging Culture to Reach the Unchurched (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), by Kent R. Hunter. Here are some quotes from the book that caught my attention:

Landa Cope, in her excellent book Clearly Communicating Christ, says it this way:

[A] dynamic aspect of [Jesus'] communication was His servant

At some point in history the Church forgot this. We became focused on
our message rather than on serving our audience. The burning question wasn't,
"Where are people hurting? How can we apply the Gospel to meet those needs?"
Instead it became, "Are we being faithful to Scripture? Is that the exact
meaning of those words? Are we communicating in balance with the whole of the

...Jesus didn't come to defend the message. The message of God's
eternal truth is just fine, thank you. It stood before the creation of the
earth, and it will stand when all heaven and earth have passed away (Matthew
24:35). It's people who are in danger! God so loved the world.
pp. 30-31

[The gospel is not simply about meeting my felt needs. Sometimes Jesus
gives me needs I never had until Jesus met me!]

...When asked why they return to a church they visited, most people respond that they did so because it was a friendly church and the worship services seemed relevant.

...On the front end, they are more interested in knowing if Christianity
works. In other words, they want to know if God makes a difference in your life.
p. 32

[Friendliness? A faith that works? Is this all that Jesus
Christ is Lord means?]

An enterprise ministry can be
defined as: identifying and meeting felt needs in the culture, genuinely caring
for others, building relationship bridges, and communicating the gospel in a
relevant way.
p. 33

[Sometimes the gospel sounds as if it is 'irrelevant' when it is simply
true. We live in a culture of deceit so sometimes we don't know what's
'relevant' until the gospel tells us. We are not the ones to judge what our real
needs are or what's truly 'relevant' to our lives. That's God's business.]

Is it just me? I find all of these statements extremely problematic in the light of the biblical witness. True, I've taken these out of context but they seem to me to be dangerously, exasperatingly out of touch with the Christian faith. We are to reach people, not just in order to sign the up for our volunteer organization, but we reach people in the name of Christ, reaching them to be part of a countercultural, divinely initiated community called church. The purpose of the church is not friendliness, or meeting my needs, the church is not a means of getting what I want but Gods appointed, created means of getting what God wants.

The church is God's enterprise, if you must use that language. It is not the result of our savvy communicative technique but a work of a triune God who is determined to have a people.

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Christ Means Change

Easter keeps happening, even though we are now four weeks after Easter, every time someone is converted to Christ. The Christian life comes neither naturally nor normally. Little within us prepares us for the shock of moral regeneration that is occasioned by the work of Christ among us. What God in Christ wants to do in us is nothing less than radical new creation, movement from death to life. This means that ministry among the baptized tends to be more radical, disruptive, and antagonistic than we pastors admit. We are awfully accommodated, well situated, at ease in Zion , or at least disgustingly content with present arrangements. We reassure ourselves with the comforting bromides of a lethargic church: Everyone in Mainline Protestantism is in decline, everyone has become geriatric, even the Baptists are losing members, people can’t change, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Sociological determinism has got us. What's to be done?

Despite our settled arrangements with death, as an African American preacher friend of mine puts it, the gospel means, "God is going to get back what God owns." C. S. Lewis spoke of his life before his conversion as "before God closed in on me." Conversion, being born again, transformed, regenerated, detoxified, is God's means of closing in upon us, of getting God's way with the world, despite what that reclamation may cost God, or us.

Deep in my Wesleyan once warmed heart is a story of how a priggish little Oxford don got changed at Aldersgate and thereafter. John Wesley’s life was well formed, well fixed by a host of positive Christian influences upon him before the evening on Aldersgate Street. Yet what happened afterwards has led us Wesleyans to see his heart “strangely warmed” as nothing less than dramatic ending and beginning, death and birth, a whole new world.

Such a story, fixed deep in our souls, challenges a church that has become accommodated to things as they are, the cultural status quo. It stands as a rebuke to a church that has settled comfortably into a characterization of the Christian life as pleasantly continuous and basically synonymous with being a good person.

Scripture enlists a rich array of metaphors to speak of the discontinuous, discordant outbreak of new life named as “conversion.” “Born from above,” or “born anew” (John 3:7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23), “regeneration” (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), “putting on a new nature” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul contrasts the old life according to the flesh with “life according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-39). Baptism tries to tell us that the Christian life is at times discordant, dissonant, and disrupting. When one joins Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn. One might think people would get the message. But, as Luther said, the Old Adam is a mighty good swimmer. A conversionist faith is so disconcerting, particularly to those for whom the world as it is has been fairly good. Those on top, those who are reasonably well fed, fairly well futured, tend to cling to the world as it is rather than risk the possibility of something new. For all these economic, social, and political reasons we pastors tend toward the maintenance of stability rather than the expectation of conversion.

New Creation

Paul was stunned by the reality of the resurrection -- the way God not only vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, but also thereby recreated the whole kosmos. In Easter, an old world had been terminated and a new one was being born, so Paul was forced to rethink everything that he had previously thought, including ethics. Much of what Paul says about Christian behavior was formed as his testimony to the resurrection, an event that he had experienced within the dramatic turn around in his own life. Whereas Jesus did Easter at the empty tomb, Easter happened to Paul on the Damascus Road.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed
away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
(2 Cor.

Verse 17, in the Greek, lacks both subject and verb so it is best
rendered by the exclamatory, “If anyone is in Christ - new creation!”

Certainly, old habits die hard. There are still, as Paul acknowledges so eloquently in Romans 8, “the sufferings of the present time.” It makes a world of difference whether or not one knows the resurrection. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also now conscious of their citizenship in a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being born among us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know. And that makes us different.

Crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead - and in our continuing conversion, he takes us along with him toward new life.

William H. Willimon