Sunday, February 1, 2009

Blog Has Moved

Friends, the Rankin File has moved to I hope to hear from you there.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Experiment: Re-Claiming the Wesleyan Tradition

Kevin Watson at has started an experiment to see how much social capital Methodist bloggers have. This experiment was prompted by the feeling among some Methodist bloggers that United Methodism does not always do as good a job as it could at getting the Wesleyan message out there, particularly on-line. So, he wants to see how many views a YouTube video can get if Methodist bloggers work together to promote it. The experiment is to see how many hits the video will receive in two weeks.

If you want to participate you can: First, watch the video below. Second, copy and paste this entire post into a new post on your blog and post it. Third, remind people about this experiment in one week.

Based on the results of the experiment, Kevin will get in touch with the folks at Discipleship Resources and let them know the ways in which Methodist bloggers are often an underused resource.

Here is a link to the video:

Re-forging a Broken Link: College and Seminary Curricula

For quite some time, I've been puzzled by the lack of attention the college years receive when UM church leaders talk about theological education. This comment, from Resurrecting Excellence, by Greg Jones and Kevin Armstrong, is on target with why I'm baffled: "Indeed, one of the problems of training contemporary clergy is that formal education often has to do so much with 'remedial catechesis' (emphasis added) that it is unable to do the work it is actually best equipped to do." You can find this remark on page 114.

I wholeheartedly agree. Seminaries should not waste time with remedial catechesis. Their curricula are graduate-level. They rightly assume an already-established foundation of faith and knowledge. Furthermore, "graduate-level" means more than academic skill. Seminary is not the place to find oneself spiritually or work out one's problems. It's certainly OK if people go to seminary for these reasons, but the main aim, like medical school or law school for those professions, is to prepare people called to lead the church. Therefore, seminary students ought to have an adequate degree of spiritual maturity, wisdom and theological understanding when they arrive. Their hearts should be already clearly shaped by the Gospel and they should be advancing toward Christian maturity.

The college years are the perfect time for what Billy Abraham calls "university level catechesis." If we paid more attention to this period in students' lives, there would be no need for remedial catechesis in seminary.

So, how do we improve the situation? As usual, the proposal is much harder than the critique. However, I think it would surely help to start a conversation between interested college and seminary faculty, along with Deans. For example, let's talk about what college curricula should provide and what seminary curricula should not duplicate. And let's agree to a plan that works toward this kind of curricular clarity.

To take any step in this direction will require some institutional and denominational courage. It would mean, perhaps, that seminaries will have to say no to more applicants. Many seminaries (most?) admit almost all applicants. The seminary for which Greg Jones is Dean is not one of them.

I realize that my suggestion has certain financially ominous implications. In the short run, it would adversely affect some seminaries' revenues. It likely would shrink the pool of available clergy to supply parishes. I think it's better to go this way, however - to tighten academic requirements and expect more from colleges - than to continue with the current broken system.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Lesson on Decency from NPR

If you catch National Public Radio at certain times of the week, they do a little segment on what listeners are saying in response to some feature they've done. The one I caught today took on their coverage of the Israel/Hamas tragedy (war is always tragic).

Poor NPR can never get it right. One listener heard one story that spotlighted Israel's struggles. Another heard a piece a day later (or the day before, I don't remember) on the plight of the Palestinians. Neither heard both and both lambasted NPR for "biased reporting." Hm.

I've heard NPR do this segment many times. They simply report the comments of the listeners, acknowledging (sometimes with a bit of whimsy and sometimes with a tinge of irony) the limitations with their reportage and always thanking listeners for the comments and always inviting more.

One can take the cynical route and conclude that NPR is simply using this tactic as a sophisticated form of marketing or something. Still, as a Christian who is quite willing to share his opinions on any number of topics - even ones about which I know practically nothing - I find this NPR action very instructive.

NPR knows the business they're in. They accept without rancor what goes with the territory. They're courteous to their listeners and they don't get defensive with unfair characterizations of their reporting. And most importantly, they do a great job of resisting the temptation to have the last word.

In media such as radio and TV, where constant sarcasm has replaced humor, where people are exposed and defamed on an almost daily basis, where pundits second-guess everything and call it "analysis," where verbal violence is accepted as a matter of course, NPR (whatever you think of their biases) is a steady, faithful witness to plain, common human decency.

Christians, let us learn the lesson. Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute or despitefully use us. When the high school valedictorian makes the news for suing the local school administration because they made her drop the God-talk from her valedictory; when we vociferously protect our rights while lambasting the ACLU for trying to uphold someone else's; when we cut up somebody who doesn't agree with us then cry foul when what goes around comes around, we do not honor the One whom we say we love.

Many good and useful outcomes might arise if Christians - opinionated ones like myself - would learn this lesson of decency and humility in our witness. We should engage the culture. We should state our opinions, using all the appropriate means available. We should even use sarcasm and satire, but always with the NPR lesson in mind: let us never cross the line of common human decency.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Barnes & Noble Reality Check

The Sunday after Christmas, I was browsing the religion section at a Barnes & Noble in Oklahoma City. The "Christian Inspiration" shelves were a hodgepodge of darn near anything, going light years beyond what I think of as inspirational. Some good books, I found there, several I'd like to read (e.g. Scot McKnight's Blue Parakeet). Some other books that I've read (e.g Tony Jones' The New Christians). And then, of course, a spray of all sorts of books, from smarmy sentimentalist glop to apocalyptic rants (e.g. John Hagee) to the enlightened conspiracy theories of various Dan Brown knock-offs.

Then I ran across this book, with a cover that seemed to fit, entitled Dirty Word: The Vulgar, Offensive Languages of the Kingdom of God, by Jim Walker. I scanned the back cover. "He's the pastor of Hot Metal Bridge," I thought to myself with some excitement. I had heard of Hot Metal Bridge, a cutting-edge United Methodist ministry in Pittsburgh, PA. Then I looked at the publisher: Discipleship Resources. "Wow!" I thought. "How unusual it is to find a Discipleship Resources book in Barnes & Noble."

(Just in case you don't know, Discipleship Resources is the imprint of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. They publish all manner of books on various - you guessed it - topics related to practical Christian discipleship.)

And then I caught myself listening to myself: "How odd to find a Discipleship Resources book in a Barnes & Noble." How odd. How sad.

How do I say this? My little "moment" reminded me of just how out of it we United Methodists are when it comes to impact outside our denomination. I don't know how many titles from Discipleship Resources that you have found at a Barnes & Noble. My very superficial quick-search turned up exactly zero additional ones. If anybody can show me otherwise, I'd be happy to have you change my mind.

Many United Methodists talk as if our legacy of influence (the 19th century up to the middle 20th century, mostly) were a reflection of the way we are now. But outside of United Methodists, who listens to United Methodists? Who is reading our authors? Our scholars? We have some outstanding scholars and some great church leaders who are also authors. But really, who is reading them outside the denomination? By comparison to other, national-level Christian authors, we are vastly under-represented.

We'd better wake up. We have to quit just talking to ourselves. I'm not at all worrying about denominational prominence or even survival. Frankly, I don't care much about either. But we do have something very important to share - and to share it broadly. We have stuff to say that people need to hear. But we have to find a way to say it that connects.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Campus Ministry Conundrum

This week I'm in the Houston area (The Woodlands, ya'll) at a campus ministry conference called "Refresh '08." It is the third annual "Refresh" and it is a joy to hang around 160 or so dedicated Christians interested in college ministries and young people. We've heard great speakers, experienced edifying worship, attended helpful workshops and have enjoyed spending a lot of time connecting with one another.

I've been in campus ministry long enough that these folks really feel like close friends. Of course, I see some of them only at this event in a year's time. For you United Methodist clergy types, it's like going to annual conference (perhaps a tad more fun). It is NOT like annual conference in terms of acting on business items. The goals of "Refresh" are three: (1) be refreshed,(2) get connected with other college ministers and (3) find resources for your work.

For a research project I'm beginning to build, I looked at the Census Bureau statistics online to try to figure out just how many college students there are in the United States. I need to get back to the site, but I think, if I found the right number, there are almost 16 million college students in this country. Sixteen million. Did I say sixteen million?

Some of my friends in this work have - by the usual standards of measurement - huge ministries: several hundred students coming to a mid-week worship and engaged in small groups for discipleship and other practices of spiritual growth and ministry. They are the mega-churches of campus ministry. For others, the scope of their ministry is smaller, but no less significant. When I hang around these folks and listen to what they're doing, I envision their students. They're doing some really amazing things. I see the fruit of the ministry (some of their former students are now in campus ministry, or local church ministry, or on the mission field, or - perhaps the best - engaged in radical Christian discipleship in "secular" jobs). When I think of those sixteen million young people and the efforts of my friends and colleagues to reach some of them, my heart swells with joy.

But something else is going on at this conference. It is a common theme among us. Why are (especially) erstwhile mainline denominations - in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary - so fatalistically detached from the mission field that is college ministry? Why do we hear so much about new church starts (by the way, how are we doing on them?) and don't see the field white for harvest among college students? Clearly, there are committed, interested, leaders, from the top of our United Methodist Church to the grass roots. We have two bishops attending our event. God bless them! Yet, I've also talked to denominational executives who are working hard and constantly frustrated by the lack of movement. Some of us have stood around in little knots, this week, during breaks, verbally scratching our heads about the inertia.

So, on the one hand, we can rejoice in the tremendous work that is happening. I thank God for concerned individuals working so hard to make a difference. On the other, when we go back home, save for a few notable exceptions, we will get back to work within an ecclesial (United Methodist) context that largely ignores us.

That is the conundrum of campus ministry.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Pet Peeves

I know it's the most ridiculously wrong time of the year to be talking about pet peeves, but I've got 'em. Here's my Christmas list.

1. The sappy Christmas music that my favorite radio stations start playing right after Thanksgiving. OK, once in awhile I chuckle at some of the more farsical ones, but mostly, I'm just irritated. I heard Christmas stuff on the radio even before Thanksgiving this year! Which leads me to my next gripe.

2. Most of us Christians completely ignore Advent. That's partly what bugs me about Christmas music. I used to get in a little trouble when I pastored in the local church. I made my congregations actually sing Advent hymns (there aren't very many in our UM hymnal) during Advent. They are, except for just a handful, little-known. We want to jump right to "the good stuff" with Christmas, so we skip over all the yearning and desire and awareness of our need that Advent draws out. And then, of course, immediately after December 25th, we quit singing carols and stop celebrating too soon. Which leads to my next gripe.

3. Truthfully, the churches that do practice Advent seem to want to avoid all that "second coming" stuff about Jesus that Advent brings up. If you read the lectionary passages from the Gospels, it's not about "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." It's about Jesus the Coming King. If we actually paid attention to the Advent scriptures instead of reading them through all the nostalgia associated with Christmas, we might more passionately worship the Newborn King! Which leads to my fourth gripe.

4. The liturgical calendar, which is something to which we should pay attention, gets treated more cyclically than linear-ly (clearly not a word, but oh well...) and we lose sight of history almost completely. The result of this theological amnesia is that remembering and preparing for Jesus' birthday becomes the focus of our Advent. We start looking only backwards and praying for "Christ to be born in our hearts again," which, on its face, is not a bad sentiment. It just means that we're looking in the wrong direction. We should be looking more toward the future and the full coming of the Kingdom. Which leads to my final gripe...for now.

5. Why do we reduce everything to slogans? "Jesus is the reason for the season." Yes, good reminder, but so pathetically shallow if that's all the farther we ever go. "Happy Birthday Jesus." I'm telling you, there ought to be some sort of ecclesial ban on putting this one on a church sign or board or bulletin!

Christmas gets close and all the pop-culture practices fairly nearly cause all of us - even and especially Christians - to miss the point. Christmas is ultimately much less about Jesus' birthday remembered than it is about the Incarnation of the Word of God. It's not just a day on the calendar that we have romancticized to the point of nauseum and sentimentalized into meaninglessness. It is (along with the resurrection) the most startling, unexpected, "impossible," awesome event that has or will ever, ever, ever take place.

Now, before you go off on me as nothing but an old scrooge, consider this truth: the good is the enemy of the best.