Where do you even begin?

On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of woman paid for their participation.

This might not be news outside of my neck of the woods. I bring up here because of the interesting history of the fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.

It is not really news that fraternities are hives of immorality. I know that. But reading the story did get me wondering how many of those young men had been raised in Christian families. How many of them ever give a second of thought to the Alpha and Omega after whom their organization is named?

There has been outrage over this incident. There have also been a fair number of defenders of the frat arguing that the morality police should keep their nose out of good, clean, consensual fun. This happens everywhere, they say. What’s the big deal?

It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people?

Not the healthy but the sick

Thoughts come to me in odd places some times.

I was sitting in the back of a used bookstore in town Wednesday night. I was just sitting and listening to the people in the store. Downstairs, a group of teenagers were playing a role playing game, laughing and joking and reveling in being nerds. Upstairs, the staff were talking about Russian translations and high school classes and various other topics.

I found myself musing about what it would mean to witness to the gospel in that place at that moment, and I was instantly aware of the barriers that would make that difficult, not the least of which being that none of those people at that moment had any sense at all that they were in need of good news.

I prayed for them as I sat there and this thought came to me. I recalled Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I’ve read and heard that passage from Isaiah many times, but Wednesday night I found myself wondering if we should hear this as Jesus talking to the church about our target audience: the poor, the captive, the “blind,” and the oppressed.

Or maybe it is just a message for me and not the church. Or maybe it is just my own squirrel brain at work playing tricks on me.

All over my Facebook feed the last couple of days, people have been sharing this article by Carey Nieuwhof about reaching people who don’t think they need God. It seems like pretty good advice, but I wonder if maybe it is missing the point in a way.

People who find their lives comfortable and live indifferently to God have never been a very ripe field for harvest. This has always been the case. Read Deuteronomy 8 if you don’t think God knows this. Read virtually of the rest of the Bible for further confirmation. There is a reason the prophets were met with stones and chains.

As I ponder these things, I think of the way the early Methodist movement made its greatest impact among what John Wesley called “plain” people. Could it be that the ones who responded to Methodist preaching were people who had found the “happiness” their society offered them unattainable or false?

I recall Jesus Christ saying that he came not for the healthy but the sick. Is our chasing after people who see themselves as well-adjusted and basically comfortable a misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry?

Of course, a great counter point to my argument are all those beautiful and packed mega-churches sitting right in the heart of some of most affluent communities in America. Rich and powerful people have spiritual needs, too, I’ve been told more than once.

But I can’t shake this thought that my most effective moments in ministry have been with those who are already conscious of their suffering or unhappiness or pain. Perhaps it is just not my gift to shake the sand that so many people build their lives upon. When God has used me the most, it has been with people already aware that the flood waters and storms have washed away what they had been building their life upon. Could it be that discontent is the soil in which the seeds of faith find root?

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

Whitefield or Spong?

A pastoral colleague made this observation in passing recently. He noted that more entrepreneurial and risk-taking congregations tended to be ones with more “conservative” theology, by which he meant theology that looked a lot more like John Wesley and George Whitefield than John Shelby Spong.

I’m sure this is not a universal truth. I’m sure there are some Spong-loving congregations that do all kinds of new and risky things to reach new people. But I do wonder how true the the observation might be.

It does seem logical that a group of people who share a mission that places a strong emphasis on evangelism — as most “conservative” churches do — would be more likely to say results matter more than the methods by which those results are achieved. You could expect that to foster a spirit that favors more risk-taking.

What has your experience been? Do congregations that make evangelism a center piece of their mission tend to be more open to risk-taking?

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Distinguished evangelist: Mark Beeson

Here is a story e-mailed out by Riley Case. Whatever your reaction to the Confessing Movement, this is a fascinating profile of a United Methodist elder’s path from church camp to mega-church.


By Dr. Riley B. Case

The Sunday I visited Granger Community Church (United Methodist) in Indiana the pastor, Mark Beeson, was concluding a four-part series on “The Bridge.”  The eries was on sin, Jesus Christ, the cross, and salvation.  For three weeks two platfors stood on either side of the stage, one representing God and one humanity.  The space between was the chasm of sin.  For three weeks sermons dealt with how to bridge that chasm.  On the fourth week there was a bridge, representing Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to the Father.  At the close of the service, while an old camp meeting hymn was sung, “Come, Ye Sinners Poor and Needy” (set to contemporary music) persons were invited to walk to the platform and give their hearts to Jesus by walking across the bridge.  In the several services nearly 400 made the walk.

It is not often that one hears of nearly 400 persons making a decision for Jesus Christ in one church on one Sunday. But that is the sort of thing one could expect to happen at the Granger Church. While the news is not always encouraging within United Methodism this is something to celebrate. Beeson became Granger’s founding pastor in 1986.  Today this mega-church worships over 5,100 each week on three campuses.  The church has a major ministry in inner city South Bend.  It has trained hundreds of pastors in India.  It has an effective ex-offenders ministry.

This year the Foundation on Evangelism awarded its Distinguished Evangelist of the Year award to Granger’s pastor, the Dr. R. Mark Beeson.  Thus Beeson joins such giants as Eddie Fox, Ed Robb, Adam Hamilton, and Jorge Acevedo, some of the past recipients, as persons who have done outstanding work in the United Methodist world in evangelism.

United Methodism has a number of large, significant congregations but very few that qualify as “mega-churches,” which for our purposes might be defined as churches with over 5,000 in attendance, usually “seeker-friendly,” often new church starts, almost always contemporary in style.  The Beeson story might help to explain why there are not so many mega-churches: in brief it is because:

1) Mega-churches are almost always evangelical in orientation, an orientation frequently not affirmed by United Methodist leaders.

2) Mega-churches are almost always pastored by unusually gifted, creative pastors, the kind that are often alienated by UM institutionalism.

3) Other UM churches and pastors often are not supportive of mega-churches because they see them as a threat.

Mark Beeson as a Christian was birthed by the (former) North Indiana Conference through its camping program (as was Michael Coyner, now bishop of the Indiana Conference).  In 1962 North Indiana enrolled 3,200 senior high youth in its Institute programs and 1,147 junior high youth in its Camps Adventure.  The camps were successful because they were district based and had clergy involvement.  They were also evangelistic, especially the junior high camps. Denominational outsiders, who sometimes served as consultants, were often critical because the camps didn’t seem like camps.  Their critique, especially for junior highs, was that Camp Adventure wasn’t really camping. It was more like–in today’s terms–a glorified Jesus Festival.  There was much more talk about Jesus than nature.

No matter.  Hundreds, thousands have been won to Christ.  One of those was Mark Beeson who was saved, anointed, and called to preach all in one week at Camp Adventure.  He has never deviated from that call.  And part of that call was to give back to Camp Adventure and to the church what was given him.  For the next forty years, and even today, Beeson has preached and ministered and been committed to junior high camp.  If the mission of the church is to make disciples for Jesus Christ there is no better place to begin than with youth and at camp.  When Granger found itself without a youth director not long ago, the lead pastor, Mark Beeson, took over the program temporarily.

Because he was such a gifted communicator Beeson would soon be called upon to work in as many youth camps as his schedule would permit.  Never a very patient person he was ready to go to the challenge, which was pastoring, which he probably would have done at age 16 if he had been allowed.  Age 16 did not work but age 18 did.  The superintendent had a church, Cammack, ready to close but he gave them a last chance with a recent high school graduate, Mark Beeson.  The church grew from 30 in weekly attendance to 65 in three years.

But United Methodist pastors have hurdles, like seminary. Some students thrive in seminary, some do not. Mark Beeson did not.  This was the early 1970s, a period of radicalism in the UM Church.  When Beeson came in talking about Jesus they thought him far too enthusiastic.  They called him charismatic before he even knew what the term meant.  He expected opportunities for spiritual growth and Bible training.  What he got at his UM seminary was professors who smoked and cursed, and who seemed mostly interested in Viet Nam, inclusive language, and discounting evangelicals.  Beeson transferred.

The Board of Ordained Ministry was the next hurdle.  Boards of Ordained Ministry do not take well to flamboyant, independently-minded candidates who talk frequently about the will of God.  The board felt Beeson had a rigid (i.e., evangelical) theology and “authority issues.”  They also did not want pastors who might end up being “lone rangers.”  He didn’t fit the institutional mold.  Beeson was delayed.  He needed a different attitude.  But he had friends who gave him encouragement, and he made it through.

Then came the issue of the new church start.  The North Indiana Conference did an unbelievable thing in the mid-1980s.  It went outside the denomination and brought in Carl George of the Fuller Institute for Church Growth and Evangelism.  George’s message, which at least some in the conference bought into, was that the key to church growth was in new church starts, and the old method of building a first unit and waiting for people to show up, was no longer a workable strategy.  What was needed was “skunks” (church growth had its own language), unusually gifted, highly creative, highly motivated pastors.

Several pastors thought they fit the description, including Mark Beeson.  Beeson on his own got further training; he also did research on the Granger area, an area of population growth between South Bend, Elkhart, and Mishawaka, Indiana, where he believed a church should be planted.  The conference leadership was not pleased, for various reasons.  Beeson had pastored a conventional church that had not gone well.  Again the charge of “lone ranger” came up. Pastors don’t usually make their own appointments.  When Beeson said he had been called to start a new church a superintendent replied, “We’ll tell you when you’ve been called.”  Like many areas in Indiana this location seemed to encroach on other churches’ parish boundaries.  Elkhart, a city of 42,000 had 14 UM churches.

Beeson, and others, were aware of what had happened to Beeson’s brother-in-law, Joel Hunter, in Indianapolis, just a couple of years before.  Hunter had grown the Mt. Auburn Church to an attendance of 1,800 and the church needed to expand and build.  The superintendent and bishop were not pleased with Hunter’s ministry. Hunter was too evangelical; his dreams seemed unrealistic. Nearby UM churches believed they would lose members if Mt. Auburn expanded.  Through the Board of Church Locations Mt. Auburn Church was denied permission to expand and, by implication, to grow.  Hunter left the denomination and went to Florida to Northfield Church in Orlando which grew from an attendance of 200 to over 10,000, the largest church in Florida.  Hunter was hardly a right-winger; he prayed at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

In the end Beeson’s appointment was made to the Granger new church start. Perhaps no appointment was so thoroughly debated during the time I served on the cabinet, as this one, but as it was said, if the conference was going to bring Carl George in as a consultant, why not listen to him?  There have been bumps along the road.  An associate left and took part of the congregation.  The economic slow-down hit the South Bend- Elkhart area hard (President Obama made two visits). But the gospel is preached and disciples are being made for the transformation of the world.

(If you want to see an example of the worship at Beeson’s church, you can see a recent service including baptism here.)

The missing generation

This is a video I will watch again. It is a talk about how to contextualize the church in 21st century Britain. It speaks to us, too.