Offering the Gospel at Christmas

Have you ever wondered about the inaccuracy of our coffee-table Nativity Scenes? Mixing Magi and shepherds in a stable as opposed to a house is a convenient mixing of the two Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth but just aren’t what the Bible text says. I am leading a 3-week study of the Birth Narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Anyone who has read them know there are huge differences between them.

Matthew has Jesus’ genealogy go back to Abraham, includes 4 very interesting non-Jewish women of questionable initiative and pursuits, has a Joseph-perspective unlike the Mary-centric view of Luke that focuses big-time on Jesus’ birth being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and loves designating the Christ-child as the “Son of David” emphasizing that he is a true king in the Davidic line (2 Samuel 7:16).

Matthew further makes the point that Jesus is the culmination of the promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3 that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” by including the Magi/Wise Men, the foreign astronomers who followed a star and found Jesus after a confab with wicked King Herod. Unlike Luke, in Matthew there are no shepherds, no Song of Mary, no manger, no heavenly host singing, no lack of room in the inn, and Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam, not Abraham.

All this is to say that each Gospel writer has his own perspective and audience because each writer wants a certain group to have a better chance to receive and accept the good news of Jesus Christ. The truth doesn’t change from audience to audience, but what preacher doesn’t want to make their message more attractive by cherry-picking certain recollections that speak more clearly to their primary listeners?

So Matthew differs from Luke. “Son of David” occurs 11 times in Matthew, 4 times in Luke and Mark, and not at all in John. That’s a clue! Matthew wants his Jewish/Gentile church to have an apologetic, an argument to use in their mixed religion and no-religion community that Jesus is the Jewish Savior and the Gentile Savior rolled into One! Sounds like something we need to do as the “None’s” who have no religious affiliation or affinity become more and more numerous.

As much as Easter is the hinge upon which our faith stands or falls, it is Christmas that is the primary season for us to witness to the people in our society who don’t know Jesus. After I attempted last night to cover all the ways that Matthew was trying to make the case for Jesus, I asked the question, “What do we use today to prove to people who Jesus is? Do we use Scripture, personal actions like good deeds, corporate goodness in Christian institutions, personal experience, the miraculous, etc.?” The question still looms, “How do we offer Christ to the world in a way that is both inviting and convincing?”

Do the images, messages, and tunes of Christmas during Advent and Christmas seasons mostly benefit those already in the know, or do they convey the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord in effective ways to nominal Christians, newcomers to the faith, or strangers to belief. I dare say it, I think that we’ve been “preaching to the choir,” and satisfying our own need to have our beliefs reinforced. Before our message is completely drowned out by Santa Claus and “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas,” we must reinterpret the Gospel in a fresh yet timeless manner that compels people to at least consider that Jesus is who Jesus and the Scriptures say He is!

It is my experience that music and sentiment are the best ways to reach people during this season. Longest Night or Solstice Services help people through a season without a loved one. Traditional Christmas carols done in fresh ways via the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Pentatonix are stirring and a valid entrée into people’s need for an emotional, even spiritual, depth to the season. Bottom line, as syrupy and manipulative as it may sound and seem, I think we need to meet people exactly where they are and touch them with the wonder of the season in emotional ways.

I suppose I am admitting that the facts of Christianity aren’t reaching people. They answer questions that people aren’t asking anymore. Therefore, we need to touch the most pressing need and that is on an emotional level. Of course, the facts provide emotional buttressing and support feelings of financial stability and cognitive peace. However, it is sentiment that is measured nowadays when the Fed gauges money policies of contraction or loosening of interest rates. They call it “Consumer Sentiment,” or the “Consumer Confidence Index,” and it largely determines the Fed’s actions.  I suggest that we do the same in our apologetic, our attempts to prove who Jesus is and what only He can do for someone’s life.

What are the arguments, proofs, compelling reasons, apologetics, or rationales that you are using to witness for Jesus? Matthew used one perspective on Jesus’ life to reach his listeners. Mark used his. Luke had his own take for the benefit of his audience, and John another. We better be using or doing something or the culture is going to keep marginalizing the religious aspect of the season and totally miss Jesus. Not a good thing – a terrible thing especially in light of the Good News that everyone so desperately needs.

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At the Brink of GC2012!

Tampa, Here we come! General Conference 2012 is going to be eventful. The means of grace that we call conferencing is something that I look forward to. Will it be holy conferencing?  Yes and no. This isn’t my first rodeo, as the saying goes. As a five-timer I pretty much know what to expect. There will be high moments and low moments: protests, proclamations, wrangling, maneuvering, manipulation, honesty, transparency, duplicity, and the wonderment of first-timers caught in the cross-hairs of our own version of the “Hunger Games.” Quite a few will say, “They call this being the church?” I say give yourself to God first and then to the whole experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t get cynical and don’t react too quickly or harshly when you think Satan has showed up. It’s probably just you or me being us.

My Daddy gave me some sage advice when I thought as a teenager that my wild shenanigans were unique in the annals of time. He said, “Son, do you think that your two older brothers never tried that? Do you think I never tried that? Do you think your uncles and your grandfathers never tried that? There ain’t nothing original about original sin!” That was one of my first theology lessons, and a good one. At GC2012 Jesus and the Bad Guy will both show up and will mostly be seen in us. I would guess that’s been the case at every General Conference. We can think we’re doing something earth-shattering and new that’s never been done before in the history of Christendom and, guess what, it’s probably been tried already. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t. Hey, Dr. Tom Frank already said that the CT/IOT restructuring plan looks exactly like the Evangelical Lutheran one from a couple of years ago. So whether you’re on God’s side or the other side don’t think that what we do in the next two weeks is so important that it can’t be undone in 4 years! Permanency isn’t something to hang your hat on in a church that wants to be a movement more than an institution.

Sure, I take it all very seriously and I believe in miracles. I’m going to Tampa with faith and expectancy. I’m just trying to take a “chill pill”  and blow off some steam before I get there. We all want the Call to Action to work but let me repeat that I am convinced we cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution. I don’t care if it’s the CT/IOT plan, Plan B, MFSA or whatever “new” thing we attempt to come up with in the General Administrative Legislative Committee. Certainly, structure can impede or facilitate making disciples, but in my little corner of the world our deficit in evangelism is not due to bloated agencies or whether or not the pastor has a guaranteed appointment. Our problems are on the personal want-to level. We do what we want to and most around here would rather talk about sports than Jesus.

I guess my point is this to everyone headed to Tampa. Blow off your steam now, rest up, and don’t be shocked if we witness the same-old-same-old. Hey, I’m already a little bumfuddled that all the fancy language and stuff in the slick “Call to Action” booklet that we were sent is hodge-podged in at least 3 different legislative committees. The non-residential set aside bishop is petition #20314 and it’s in Superintendency. By the way, the petition’s rationale is a bit contrary to what I’ve seen recently that says the set-aside bishop is primarily intended to help the Council of Bishops. The petition’s actual rationale says, “A fulltime Council president will give face, voice, leadership and continuity in strengthening and aligning the United Methodist Church’s mission and implementing the Call to Action. It will aid in reconnecting our Church local to worldwide. It will facilitate our work ecumenically as well as in public arenas. This petition …”  Anyway you slice it the rationale for a non-residential COB president sounds a lot more than just sitting on the sidelines and helping the COB – face, voice, aligning the church’s mission, implementing the CTA. Methinks the Book of Disipline (Par. 509.1,2) says that the face and voice of the UMC is General Conference. Just saying.

Then there’s petition #20980 that will be in General Administration. It is the meat of the CTA in terms of restructuring, but the power to allow the 15-member Center and GCSO to run the church is tucked away in petition #20374 and #20375 and they are both in the Conferences Legislative Committee. These two are constitutional amendments that will allow the GC for the first time in our history to delegate its authority to lesser units of the church.  One petition’s title is “Action Between General Conferences” and the title of the other one is called “Action on Funding Between General Conferences.” Yes, indeed, it would be grand to be more “nimble” (Any guesses on how many times we’ll hear this word at GC?) and be able to rearrange structures, agency mandates, or budgets between GC’s, but the last time I checked General Conference is in charge all the time, not just when it’s in session.

Anyway, I’m trying to get it all out of my system now so I can be a part of the coalition of the willing when I hit Tampa. As Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” We’re at the brink. Ready or not, here I come, with both eyes wide open!

Giving People a Reason to Drink

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So the innovation versus renovation conundrum is still driving my thoughts this morning. I’m reading a book, Renovate Before You Innovate, by Sergio Zyman that really illustrates the value of both, but especially doing the innovation AFTER you renovate. His premise: Know your core principles, values, strengths and then you MIGHT consider tinkering. His thought is that “Doing the New Thing might not be the Right Thing.” Neither he or I aren’t advocating against risk taking and daring to do something different. The suggestion is not that we figure out what new idea we can propose and pass off on people, but that we answer what people’s needs are.
Sometimes what I think I need and what I really need are two very different things, but, wow, with a birthday coming I would really love an Apple iPad. I sat next to someone in a meeting and couldn’t keep my hands off of it. I think I just might need one. We call Apple innovative, but they are really renovative. They start with what consumers want  versus what they can make and hope people will buy. Renovators start with known needs and are adaptive. Innovators can get so far outside the box that they are answering questions that nobody is asking and that is called futility.
Remember “New Coke”? Well, Sergio Zyman was in charge of introducing it, and it was a flop. Rather than building on Coca Cola’s strengths (“Good Bones”) of authenticity, continuity, and stability; the folks at Coke decided to counter the Pepsi Challenge by innovating and ended up destroying real Coca Cola and came up with a Pepsi-Look-A-Like that was a flop. In Zyman’s words, “What we really should have been doing was giving consumers a reason to drink Coke instead of mindlessly repeating that Coke was part of their life or that it was an advertising icon.” Gosh, sounds like the UMC and many institutions that are trying to decipher the 21st century terrain. Coke reconnected with its customers and 72 days after “New Coke’s” introduction, they went back to the original formula. They innovated and failed. They renovated and succeeded!
Renovation isn’t doing different things; i.e., rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Renovation is doing better things with your strengths, building better things out of existing things. Renovation starts with the assets that are already on hand and delivers a product that people desire. Innovation starts with trying to find out what a company can make and then hopes somebody will buy it. It’s a lot easier to sell what you know you can make with existing assets to people you already know who need what you’re offering.
Does our world still need the Gospel? Well, yeah. Take a look around. The need is evident, but what day is easiest to travel around the city streets of Columbia? Sunday. So what are our core values and strengths that can help us renovate the church? I could answer in a lot of ways, but I’m just going to pick one for today – Community. Facebook isn’t community although it’s better than nothing. Nothing better meets the yearning of one soul to know another soul than real face-time. Communities of faith can provide the small groups, the worship experiences, the festivals, block parties, Bible studies, and pot-luck suppers to help people meet one of their most basic needs: community. What is your faith community’s greatest strength? Offer it and say “Hello!” to relevancy and give people a reason to drink from the Gospel waters!