New Room Conference brings new life

The Methodist revival began in earnest in the spring of 1739. Along with London, the city of Bristol was one of the early centers for revival activity. That activity was so significant that it soon became clear that land needed to be purchased and a building erected to house Methodist activities.

What would come to be known as the New Room in Bristol was the first structure built by John Wesley and his fledgling movement. He describes its beginnings in his Journal on May 9, 1739:

“We took possession of a piece of ground, near St. James’s churchyard, in the Horsefair, where it was designed to build a room large enough to contain both the societies of Nicholas and Baldwin Street and such of their acquaintance as might desire to be present with them at such times as the Scripture was expounded. And on Saturday the 12th the first stone was laid, with the voice of praise and thanksgiving.”

We can interpret the name of the new building—the “New Room”—in a couple of different ways from the standpoint of history. The most obvious is that it was literally a new thing, a building newly erected to house preaching gatherings and meetings of the Bristol bands.

The other way to interpret the New Room’s name is that it provided new room for Christian believers to practice the means of grace. It offered a space within the lives of mostly hardscrabble people to gather together that they might hear the word of God preached and share conversation and prayer about their faith journeys.

If you fast forward 275 years, then you’ll discover that there is yet a third way that New Room can be interpreted: as the name adopted by the fastest growing conference of Wesleyan Christians in the world.

Two years ago, Seedbed Publishing began hosting a three-day gathering called the New Room Conference as a way to bring together Wesleyans with a deep passion for revival, worship, prayer and mission. Seedbed’s own motto is “Sowing for a Great Awakening.” The Christian publisher knows that it can’t bring about revival under its own power, but it does believe it can plant the seeds that will provide for revival’s beginnings when God chooses to grant the growth.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-5-39-19-pm

The New Room Conference takes place each September in Franklin, Tennessee. As an attendee at each of the first three conferences, I can attest to its electric growth. The initial New Room in 2014 attracted a little over 300 people. In 2015, that more than doubled to almost 800 people. At the New Room Conference held just a few days ago, there were more than 1,500 people present. In just two short years, New Room has witnessed a 500 percent increase in attendance.

Why is this significant? For a couple of reasons.

The turmoil that the United Methodist Church is currently undergoing is no secret to anyone. The failure of bishops, pastors, and congregations to abide within our common covenant is threatening to rip the church apart at the seams. One spillover effect of all of this tension is that our official conferencing—in Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences and General Conference—tends to discourage more than encourage.

In short, we’ve seen very little of what Wesley meant by “Christian conferencing” in our official gatherings over the past few years. When Christian conferencing is a means of grace, it emphasizes testimony, prayer, conversations about faith and the sharing of a common witness.

What we lack in our official gatherings the New Room Conference has in spades. The preaching, teaching, prayer and worship I witnessed a few days ago in Franklin was one of the most enlivening and encouraging experiences I’ve had in 15 years of ministry.

We are at a turning point in the life of our connection. What we desperately need is new room—to rediscover our Wesleyan evangelical roots and recommit ourselves to the deeply Methodist mission with which we first set out.

No single conference is going to do all of the work needed to gain a course correction in our common life. But the New Room is certainly a start.

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This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s October 7, 2016 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper at this link.

Wesleyan Accent: Our Sort-of Free Will

I wake up on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out and flowers are in bloom. Should I go to the zoo and watch the animals, or would I rather work in my garden? Am I even free to decide?

Most people would say, “Yes, of course you are free to decide.” And I am. In fact, I’ve got more freedom than the freedom of choosing between the zoo and the garden. I could choose to do something else entirely. I could even choose to lie in bed all day with the curtains drawn—as wasteful as that might seem.

But what if the choice is on a different level entirely? How about if the choice is whether or not to love God? To believe in Jesus Christ?

Do we have the ability to choose our salvation?

That is a much trickier question. Click here to continue reading…

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Wesleyan AccentWesleyan Accent provides free and subscription resources for Christian spiritual formation, catechesis, and discipleship in the Wesleyan way. By clearly articulating the Wesleyan understanding of Christian faith, Wesleyan Accent seeks to strengthen discipleship, empower mission and evangelism, cultivate ministry gifts of young leaders, and nurture the professional and service life of young theologians.

Andrew C. Thompson joined the writing team of Wesleyan Accent upon its launch in the Fall of 2013. For the full catalog of his articles on the Wesleyan Accent site, click here.

Moving from Revival to Discipleship

From Revival to Discipleship“Spiritual revival is never an end in itself. It is, however, essential for deep discipleship becoming a reality.”

Bishop Gary Mueller spoke those words as a part of his Episcopal Address at our recent Annual Conference session in Hot Springs. It was one of the main points that he shared as a part of his reflection on the relationship between revival and discipleship.

Understanding that relationship is critical for us if we want the fruits that come from spiritual revival to prove lasting in their effects.

Focusing on spiritual revival as an end in itself would be a big mistake for us. The word “revival” itself means new life. To be spiritually revived means to be given new life by the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit gives life, it is always for some good purpose.

The good purpose for which the Spirit gives life is, of course, the purpose of following Jesus! It is discipleship. So when we find ourselves given the gift of spiritual renewal, we should always be asking how that renewal can lead us to grow in our discipleship to Christ.

One other aspect of the bishop’s message shouldn’t be lost on us: his strong conviction that revival is the fuel that brings discipleship to fruition. Trying to live the life of discipleship without the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit would be like trying to bake a loaf of bread with no yeast in the dough. The grace that the Spirit gives us serves as the ongoing power for the Christian life in every respect.

Revival and discipleship in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John gives us a wonderful image to help us understand the spiritual rhythm of revival leading to discipleship. When the resurrected Jesus appears to disciples in the locked room on Easter day, he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Immediately thereafter, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This scene in the Gospel of John is a perfect image for this year’s Annual Conference theme: “From Revival Flows Discipleship.” Jesus gives revival to the disciples by breathing out the Holy Spirit upon them. He restores them from the fear and failure that they experienced prior to Easter morning. By giving them the Spirit, he gives them new life.

In the midst of his gift of revival, Jesus also shares words with the disciples that point them to the purpose their revival should serve. The Father sent Jesus, and now Jesus sends them. He sends them into the world to witness to the salvation Jesus brings through their own faithful discipleship.

Discipleship in the Wesleyan class meeting

So what is our next step if we want the revival that God is offering to us to move us into a deeper discipleship in our own lives?

One of the highlights of our Annual Conference session was a resolution passed on Tuesday afternoon. Its stated purpose: “Encourage the Formation of Accountable Discipleship Groups in the Local Church.”

The text of the resolution affirms our Wesleyan tradition of small-group discipleship formation. It then encourages local congregations to form small groups for women and men based on the early Methodist class meeting.

The class meeting was the most widely used small group in the early Methodist movement. Originally it was a group of 10 to 12 people led by a class leader. Its chief activities were faith sharing and prayer, and the question that the leader asked each class member during the weekly meeting was, “How is it with your soul?” Class members had the opportunity to share their joys and their challenges with one another. They prayed together. The purpose of the gathering was, in Wesley’s own words, “to watch over one another in love.”

Small groups based on the class meeting model are exactly what we need for revival to flow into the discipleship in the Arkansas Conference today. It is through the faith formation that happens in Wesleyan small groups that discipleship is given the rich soil in which to take root and grow.

There are aspects of discipleship that need to be carried out beyond the prayer and conversation of small groups, of course. There is evangelism and mission, worship and study, education and pastoral care. Yet if small groups are done correctly—on the authentic Wesleyan model—they provide a foundation of faith formation that can serve as a springboard for all these other elements of discipleship.

Sometimes the work that we do debating and voting on resolutions during the Annual Conference session is much ado about nothing. Resolutions typically don’t require concrete action by the Conference. They are statements of the Conference’s opinion on this or that matter. But I believe the resolution passed in Hot Springs encouraging all local churches in Arkansas to embrace the class meeting model in a contemporary context is something much more.

If we want to be faithful to the Savior who gives us the reviving gift of the Holy Spirit, then we will heed his call to be sent out into the world to live as his disciples. And the foundation of that life of discipleship will be found in small groups committed to engaging in the serious work of faith formation. The Conference has endorsed such a path. Now let’s follow it.

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This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s July 8, 2016 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper at this link.

Wesleyan Accent: The Word and The Spirit

“Whate’er his Spirit speaks in me, must with the written Word agree.”               –Charles Wesley

Many of the more contentious arguments in the church today are over social issues. That has certainly been the case for the United Methodist Church — the church I call home. Nowhere have the UMC’s internal debates over such issues been on clearer display than during its recent General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The General Conference is the representative body of the 13+ million-member UMC. It meets once every four years. General Conference equips the general church for ministry by ordering its life and funding its ministries. It is also the body within the church that has the authority to write or alter canon law, which for Methodists is held in our Book of Discipline. So at least theoretically, the General Conference can vote to change everything from the church’s doctrinal understanding of the Trinity to how a local congregation handles estate bequests (though in the case of core Christian doctrine the bar on any substantive change is much higher and more complicated than a simple majority vote). Click here to continue reading…

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Wesleyan AccentWesleyan Accent provides free and subscription resources for Christian spiritual formation, catechesis, and discipleship in the Wesleyan way. By clearly articulating the Wesleyan understanding of Christian faith, WA seeks to strengthen discipleship, empower mission and evangelism, cultivate ministry gifts of young leaders, and nurture the professional and service life of young theologians.

Andrew C. Thompson joined the writing team of WA upon its launch in the Fall of 2013. For the full catalog of his articles on the WA site, click here.

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation in the wake of Orlando

Dear Church family,

By now we have all learned what happened in the early morning hours of this past Sunday, when a domestic terrorist pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS) entered a nightclub in Orlando and proceeded to kill 49 people and wound 53 others. Orlando police eventually killed the attacker after a 3-hour standoff.

The sheer magnitude of this atrocity is overwhelming — may God have mercy on us. The loss of life makes the Orlando massacre the greatest single mass killing by an individual in American history. There have been many issues raised in connection with it in the media over the past few days: the fact that that the terrorist was targeting gay and lesbian people (given that he attacked a gay nightclub), the ongoing debate about gun control, the role of social media in allowing terrorists to glamorize acts of violence, and the mental pathologies of the particular man who carried out the attacks. All of these issues are important and worthy of discussion. Yet at heart I think they are symptoms rather than root causes.

There is a root cause, though, and I think it is important to name it. What motivated the terrorist who attacked the Orlando nightclub — according to his own statements — was a commitment to radical Islam and a desire to inflict punishment on the West. We could easily list out a tragic catalog of other attacks inspired by radical Islam over the past several years. In this country alone, that includes the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the 2015 Chattanooga attacks, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, and, of course, 9/11 itself. Those are just the incidents that have received the most media attention: because they involved so many deaths, or because they involved attacks on military installations, or because they were so brazen in the way they were carried out. There have been many other similarly motivated attacks besides.

The root cause of the Orlando tragedy and so many others in recent years is a clash of cultures. In the West, we have a foundational commitment to liberty that guides our attitudes towards religious freedom, economic opportunity, and personal self-expression. We certainly don’t always agree with one another — but insisting on a conformity of belief or practice is not what our culture is grounded upon. It is rather grounded upon the idea that a people should be free to seek out their own fulfillment and that a society of free men and women is ultimately stronger because of that very freedom. One might say that the history of the United States of America, while far from perfect, is a testament to the fruits that liberty produces.

As a Christian pastor, I believe that religious liberty, in particular, is essential to my own ability to preach the gospel and guide others to faith in Jesus Christ. I can speak in the name of God with the assurance that no government organization or other outside group is going to censor me. I can lead my flock in the ways of discipleship even when those ways are out of step with the broader culture, knowing that no one is going to arrest or imprison us because of it. Because we share a right to the freedom of assembly, we can gather each Sunday for worship knowing that nobody can place a padlock on the doors of our church to keep us from doing so.

The culture represented by those who have carried out heinous acts like the one in Orlando is nothing so broad as “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic,” and we should be careful about the language that we use when we are talking about it. I have had Muslim friends and acquaintances at various points in my life, and I’ve been enriched by those relationships. During a 2007 trip to Egypt, I experienced Muslim hospitality over meals and meetings and was humbled by it. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims are just as desirous of peace, compassion, and mutual understanding as anyone else is very important.

Yet there is a particular strain of radical Islam that sees itself as being in fundamental conflict with Western values and beliefs. In some cases — including two different incidents in Libya from 2015 when ISIS executed dozens of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians — the proponents of radical Islam frame their conflict as being between their own faith and that of Christianity. This is the radical Islam of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. And whether the terrorists who embrace it travel to our country from abroad or are domestic terrorists who “self-radicalize,” the danger that radical Islam represents to us is the same. Its culture and our own are simply incompatible.

There are no easy answers to what I am describing here, though I think keeping in mind the actual root cause is important. That’s not to say that the symptomatic issues I mentioned earlier are unimportant. Far from it. Yet I would counsel us all to understand what is fundamentally at stake with clear-eyed vision and courage.

My own heart has been troubled by reading story after story about the Orlando massacre since last Sunday. I have been praying for the victims and their families, and I hope you will do that as well. I have also been praying for all of you — something which as your pastor I will continue to do always.

Yours in Christ,

Andrew

 

 

Watching from the Walls – Elizabeth’s Surprise

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015Our third sermon in the Watching from the Walls series is “Elizabeth’s Surprise,” which focuses on Luke 1:5-17 and 39-45. In it, we find that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth receives a double surprise — the jolt of John the Baptist leaping in her womb, and the jolt of knowing that her son would be the herald of the Savior himself.

In Episode #14 of our Behind the Sermon podcast, we set the stage for Elizabeth’s Surprise and talk . You can find that podcast episode at this link.

Here’s the sermon, courtesy of Youtube:

 


 

Watching from the Walls – Joseph’s Challenge

Our third sermon in the Watching from the Walls worship series this Advent is “Joseph’s Challenge.” It focuses on the challenge that learning of Mary’s pregnancy meant to Joseph, and especially the way that he chose faithfulness to God over adherence to the world’s standards of how he would have been expected to react in the situation he faced. The sermon text is Matthew 1:18-25.

You can find episode #13 of our Behind the Sermon podcast at this link. That podcast episode is linked to the sermon on Joseph’s Challenge and can serve to set the context of the sermon. (It’s also a great way to get to know my colleague Todd Lovell and I a little bit better!)

Here’s the sermon on Joseph’s Challenge courtesy of Youtube:

 


 

Watching from the Walls – Mary’s Unusual Visit

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015The second sermon in the Watching from the Walls worship series is “Mary’s Unusual Visit.” It centers on the conversation between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary when Gabriel delivers news to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus.

Episode #12 of our Behind the Sermon podcast is connected to the sermon on Mary’s Unusual Visit. You can find that episode at this link. Todd Lovell and I discuss the meaning the Incarnation—the act by which God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—in our salvation.

Mary’s Unusual Visit takes Luke 1:26-38 as its text. Here’s the sermon:

 


 

Watching from the Walls – Longing for Jesus

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015Over these days leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post the sermons from our Advent worship series on “Watching from the Walls.” I’ll also post the episodes of the Behind the Sermon podcast that go along with each sermon.

You can find the Behind the Sermon Episode #11 at this link. In that episode, Todd Lovell and I outline the worship series and talk a little bit about the image of the “watchmen on the walls” in the Old Testament and what that means.

The sermon, “Longing for Jesus,” begins the Advent worship series. The Scripture text is Isaiah 62:6-7,11-12. Here’s the link to that first sermon:

 


 

It’s All About the Food!

Book Cover Front_It's All About the FoodA retired telecom executive moves with her husband to small town Mount Ida, Arkansas. Their plan is to live out their golden years in happiness. Then, tragically, her husband dies much too soon. She later answers a call for volunteers at a local food pantry, partly to fill the void left behind by her husband’s passing.That move leads to the beginning of a journey — both personal and practical — to discover just what has happened to food in America.

Pat Smith’s new book, It’s All About the Food, is a wonderful guide to where the American diet went wrong, why that matters to you, and what you can do about it. (That’s a riff on the book’s subtitle and is totally accurate regarding where this book will take you.) The stories, wisdom, experience, and downright practical advice that fill this book’s pages together offer a wonderful entry in the healthy living and sustainable foods genre. Readers of Michael Pollan, Melissa Hartwig, Pamela Smith, and Gillian McKeith will engage Pat Smith’s writing and perspective with profit and enjoyment.

Part of Smith’s power is in her ability to weave together a story about wanting to help the economically disadvantaged folks in her community together with a personal quest to find the causes and treatments for her type 2 diabetes. In the process she’ll take you from Mount Ida to Austin, and from the family farm of her own childhood to the food mega-industry of the present. Smith writes as a dedicated Methodist laywoman whose interest in helping people make good choices about food and lifestyle is at least partly borne out of her deep Christian faith—something that I appreciate, and which connects her with a significant strand of the Wesleyan tradition.

You can find It’s All About the Food on Amazon at this link.

For the It’s All About the Food’s Facebook page, click here.