2017 Episcopal “Vital” message inspires, motivates

Editor’s Note: Bishop Gary E. Mueller gave his Episcopal Address on June 19, 2017 during the Arkansas Annual Conference held at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas. More than the theme for the event, Vital focuses on four ministry areas considered to be central for congregational vitality: accountable discipleship, personal stewardship, faith sharing and the Conference initiative, 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger. Readers of the Arkansas United Methodist readers will see each of these topics explored in the coming months, beginning with this issue’s special section on 200,000 Reasons. Because of the significance of Vital!, we will provide Conference Lay Leader Karon Mann’s address and the Youth Address in upcoming issues of the Arkansas United Methodist.

“It is good to be back with you.  I fell in love very quickly with the people of Arkansas and grew in my deep appreciation of the mission and ministry and vision you have and so it really is an honor and a joy this day to share my fifth episcopal address.

In the most recent issue of “Legacy” published by the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, Jim Argue writes about why he so values this annual gathering, he said:

“In a few weeks, many of us will come together at Annual Conference for holy conferencing, worship, and to conduct the business of the UMC in Arkansas. But that’s not what makes it one of the best times of year for this PK (preacher’s kid). I cherish Annual Conference as a time to catch up with my extended family, United Methodist family.”

Jim is right. This is a family gathering. And what a family we are. We are a family comprised of all kinds of people from all kinds of places with all kinds of experiences—including people with whom who you might not normally spend time, people who have a radically different way of 2017 Episcopal “Vital” message inspires, motivates understanding the Christian faith, and people whose life experiences could not be more dissimilar than yours.

We are family that intentionally, and I want to underscore that, intentionally, has entered into a covenant around the Wesleyan understanding of how we live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a deep understanding of connectionalism, our shared doctrine and discipline and the sacred promises we make when we join the church or are ordained as clergy.  

We are a family related by blood. Not in the sense that we are all cousins, although I discover more and more every day just how many of you are indeed cousins. But because we are related by Jesus’ blood that has transformed us and saved us and called us to live together in his Body.  

We are a family under a great deal of stress, let’s just be honest about that. We live in a culture characterized by a hateful “us versus them” mentality, a world plagued by terrorism and a church rocked by issues growing out of significant differences concerning human sexuality. Not only that, we seem to have fewer and fewer answers because there are fewer and fewer basics upon which we can agree. So here we are, Arkansas Conference, at our annual family reunion. And at this reunion one of the most important questions we must answer is, ‘What kind of family do we want to be?’

We can choose to be a cynical, fearful, paralyzed, dysfunctional and divided family. But I don’t think that’s the choice we are going to make; in fact I know it’s not. And here’s why: because of who we are. And that’s what I want to talk about.

Remembering who we are. We are a family rooted in the simple reality witnessed to in the third chapter of John’s Gospel that changes everything about everything,

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

but may have eternal life.17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Remember this, remember who we are, Arkansas Conference. We are a family that claims our primary identity as disciples of Jesus Christ who understand that Jesus has made us part of His Body and this means, it is not an option for us to say that what matters to us as individuals is more important than what matters to Him.

Remember who we are, Arkansas Annual Conference. We are a church that has experienced spiritual revival so powerful we are compelled, we have no choice, we want to gracefully, passionately and joyfully reach out to those around us.

Remember who we are, Arkansas Annual Conference. We are a church absolutely overjoyed to be part of the Holy Spirit’s work of creating vital congregations that are filled with passion, and energy, and joy. Remember who we are, Arkansas Annual Conference. And in case you need help remembering, this is what we look like! [Video shown of several “glory sightings” around the Conference]

Do you remember now? Isn’t it wonderful! We actually probably could have had a video that lasted not just a minute and a half but an hour and a half. That’s just a little bit of who we are. We are a family of vital, living congregations making a real difference in the lives of members, but also increasingly in the community outside our church doors. Vital congregations fueled by the Holy Spirit so that people find themselves doing things they could never imagine doing on their own. Vital congregations that are vibrant, passionate, energetic, excited, enthusiastic, hopeful and fruitful in their unique context. Vital congregations clearly focused on our mission. Vital congregations that are aware of the issues and challenges facing them, but always, always, always choosing to make the main thing the main thing—and the main thing is making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world. Vital congregations and this is why we are at this Annual Conference. Vital congregations that want to create more congregations that are even more vital.

So how are we going to be that kind of conference that creates more congregations that are more vital? And how are we going to do it with a passion and a longing and a deep commitment.

I recently read a wonderful little book entitled, “How to Make Your Bed,” by retired Admiral William H. McRaven. His premise is that there are 10-and these are his words- ‘little things that can change your life…and maybe change the world’, and you start by making your bed every day. I’m glad this book wasn’t around when I was a kid.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Admiral’s words and he is spot on. Taking care of the basics dayafter-day, month-after-month and year-after-year is what we need to do if we’re serious about creating more vital congregations that are more vital.

So here is Mueller’s list of five things that will result in more congregations being more vital.  

• Start doing those things that bring about vitality: implement a discipleship formation process, know your community and reach out to it, grow in stewardship and equip laity. Vitality doesn’t just happen. It takes prayer, intentionality and hard work. And while you are here at this Conference, you are going to be blessed by four amazing teachers who will help you know what to do to inspire you that you will be ready to hit the ground running when you get back home.

• Value numbers: worship attendance, professions of faith, first-time visitors, people involved in discipleship formation groups, baptisms, participation of young adults and those involved in mission. Now I know all the problems with numbers and I know some of you just hate numbers. And I will be honest, there are times I hate them too. In fact there are times I hate them so much I try telling my cardiologist that my cholesterol numbers don’t matter, but he knows they do and I know they do. And the same thing is true for us. Numbers tell us what we need to know, they help us know what questions to ask, they help us learn who we are so we can become who God’s calling us to be.

• Celebrate stories of transformation: stories involving real people in real lifethat range from the way someone’s individual life has been changed to how a church has reduced childhood hunger in its neighborhood. You know what matters to God is how real people have been transformed in real ways through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, transformation is not an intent, a plan or even numbers—it’s how Jesus’ followers, and that’s you, it’s how Jesus’ followers go all in so that God’s will becomes just as real in the lives of individuals and communities and the world as it already is in heaven.

• Innovate and experiment by trying new things in new ways. Sometimes I think the culture of the church is we want to be comfortable, we want to feel pious, we want other people to think we are holy and spiritual. Well look, it’s not about how comfortable we are, it’s not about how pious we are, it’s not about how we fulfill others expectations of how good United Methodists do things. The world is dying.

People are suffering. They don’t know Jesus’ love. It’s time that we get over our comfort, over ourselves—and get about the work of reaching out beyond our comfort zone to go into the world. If you want to reach addicts, which we are called to do, then you’ve got to go where they are. If you want invite hurting people into the churches, you’ve got to know their pains and reach out to them not the way you want them to be, but the way they are. If you want to reach ‘the nones, dones and never been theres’, you’ve got to be willing to go where they are— and sometimes that means doing things that United Methodists don’t normally do. Like being willing to experiment with new ideas like ‘Beer and Hymns’ or ‘Tavern & Theology.’ If we are so serious about Jesus’ love that we believe he came to save the world and if we have experienced that ourselves we will let nothing be a barrier to sharing it, period. And if we fail to innovate and experiment, we may feel good but we will be good and dead.

• Seek spiritual revival like you mean it. Couple of years ago we had a big emphasis on spiritual revival. That was not a program that was done when the year was done. Keep seeking spiritual revival, day in and day out, because you know in your soul that no congregation can be vital without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit unleashing you to do what you otherwise could never do on your own. Spiritual revival is not just something you seek because you know it’s biblically, spiritually and religiously true. Spiritual revival is reality itself, ultimate reality. It is God’s life and it is so real and it is so important, you’ve got to be willing to bet the future of your life and your congregation’s on it.  

Many of you are aware of my personal journey since becoming your bishop five years ago. For many of those years that journey involved a great deal of pain, struggle and heartbreak. You were with me every step of the way; and you were loving me through it even when you were not aware that was what you were doing. Then my dear Karen came into my life and blessed me, and we are experiencing a brand new life filled with joy and hope and a journey God’s taking us on through grace and new life.

I know what it means to experience life moving from just surviving to thriving, and I want the congregations of the United Methodist Church in Arkansas to experience the very same thing. Some people say—maybe even some of you—that the United Methodist Church is dying in small towns, can’t reach out to people of color, is clueless when it comes to the young, has lost that Holy Spirit induced fire-in-the-belly and is about to implode over issues of human sexuality.

Well, I don’t believe it. In fact, I believe from the bottom of my heart that more and more congregations can become more vital so that dying churches can come alive, fearful church members can become excited disciples and going-throughthe-motions-congregations can experience new life, hope and joy.

So how is it going to happen? I want to share a wonderful quote from a letter John Wesley wrote to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777, Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw, (I’m not sure if whether that was a curse word in Wesley’s time) whether they be clergymen or laymen (clergywomen or laywomen); such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

That’s it. That’s how we move to become more vital so there are more vital congregations becoming more vital. We need to believe Brother John. And what we need, what I need, what I long for is a group of vitalizers to step forward. And, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about you. You are that vitalizer! And I want to say when I walked in this room after taking a quick break just before we began, I looked down and most of the preachers and Annual Conference lay professionals who have been year after year were sitting in the back. You know who was sitting in the front…stand up front row, turn around! (Refers to the youth lay members.) I need vitalizers! The Arkansas Conference needs vitalizers! Jesus needs vitalzers! And, quite frankly, I don’t give a straw if you are a saint, or someone still trying to figure out what this Christian thing. I don’t care if you are young or old. I don’t care if you are lay or clergy. I don’t care if you have sensed God calling you for a long time or are just this moment hearing it. All I care about is that you are passionate about the way God can use the people called Methodists to make an eternal difference for Jesus. I am absolutely serious about this. More than you can ever know.

And I think—no, that’s not right, I know—that you are ready to step forward, not just 1, or 10, or 100 as Mr. Wesley talked about but 1000, and I know it because I know who we are, Arkansas Conference. We are a people deeply committed to creating more vital congregations that are even more vital so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.

Come, Holy Spirit! Flow among your people here and in all the towns and cities of Arkansas! And fill us to overflowing with your vitality! Say it with me: Come, Holy Spirit! Flow among your people and in all the towns and cities in Arkansas! And fill us to overflowing with your vitality! Stand now and say it like you mean it: Come, Holy Spirit! Flow among your people and fill us to overflowing with your vitality! May it be so! Amen!”