It’s Still About Your Church

It’s Still About Your Church

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

I am ready to admit something I’ve been in denial about for a long time. Even though I’ve invested a great deal of blood, sweat and tears trying, I simply cannot fix what’s broken in the United Methodist Church. I can’t fix the polarization that now imprisons us. I can’t fix the outcome of this May’s General Conference. And I can’t fix the uncertainty we face as a church.

Even more significantly, the Holy Spirit has helped me realize I don’t have to fix the church. It belongs to Jesus, and he’s got it covered. This doesn’t mean I’m stepping back, shrugging my shoulders and saying, “It’s going to be what it’s going to be.” Rather, I will be focusing on what Jesus is calling every United Methodist congregation in Arkansas to do – becoming the most Jesus loving, disciple-making and sharing Jesus’ love church you can be.

I love the United Methodist Church and the way of being Christian it shares. But ultimately, local congregations matter more than denominations – even our beloved United Methodist denomination. People need your local church, not a denomination. Your community needs your local church, not a denomination. And most importantly, Jesus needs your local church, not a denomination.

This means the single most pressing task is enabling your church that has a unique location, is filled with a unique group of people and possesses a unique history to become the church Jesus wants you to be – a vital congregation that makes disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

Embrace your identity. Your church is literally the Body of Christ. So act like it! Love Jesus, follow Jesus, grow in Jesus, be transformed in Jesus and share Jesus in ways that make it clear whose you are. Get serious about investing in those things that form you as the Body of Christ: prayer, Bible study, involving people in intentional discipling groups and reaching out to your neighborhood in ways that touch real people in real ways with real love.

Live out your purpose. Jesus uses your church, and the disciples in it, to continue his mission of making disciples, forming disciples, and equipping and sending disciples to transform lives, communities and the world. Help people discover their spiritual gifts, bless them and then unleash them in your congregation and into the mission field that begins right outside the doors of your sanctuary.

Demonstrate the difference Jesus makes. Almost every congregation has figured out how to thrive with a diverse group of people who have perspectives that are diametrically opposed. Don’t see this as a problem; see it as a wonderful opportunity to show how Jesus brings together people who normally wouldn’t give each other the time of day. Keep people worshiping together on the same pew, praying together, studying together, serving together and caring for each other.

I want to be absolutely clear about something that some people may consider to be a scandalous idea. Yet I am convicted of its truth. The future of your church is not dependent upon what happens in the United Methodist Church. Don’t let the uncertainty, or brokenness, paralyze you. Move ahead boldly and confidently. Your church will still be part of the Body of Christ. Your church will still make disciples of Jesus Christ. Your church will still form deeper disciples. And your church will still equip and send disciples to transform lives, communities and the world.

The painful reality is that we United Methodist Christians face an uncertain future. As Jesus leads us toward it, I want you to know something. I consider it an honor and a privilege to walk with you. I believe in you. I trust you. And, most importantly, I love you.

It’s Still About Your Church

Meet at the Manger

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

While I can’t know with certainty, I have a feeling the first two Christians probably had a theological discussion over their respective interpretations of the faith. Not surprisingly, similar discussions have continued ever since, because faith is ultimately something very personal.

These differences, however, have taken an ugly turn recently. A huge gulf has opened between those who are more conservative and those who are more liberal that mimics the polarization gripping our nation. The result is the church now seems to be in full-blown battle mode.

Why is this happening?

I think it is because we have ideologized the Christian faith. We no longer primarily understand our faith in terms of our relationship with Jesus, to other believers in the Body of Christ and to the world based on how he teaches us to treat others. Instead, we have reduced Christianity to own personal belief system defined by our theological understandings, political preferences, cultural perspectives and a good dose of arrogance, which leaves little room for anyone who does not think like us.

The particularly insidious part of this ideologization of the faith is how easily we convince ourselves that those who disagree with us have bad beliefs and, therefore, are bad people. Because they are bad people, we feel justified in stereotyping them. The more we focus on our crude characterizations of them, the more they become the enemy. Since we are in a battle of right versus wrong, we have to protect ourselves and be victorious. Because they are the adversary, we can do anything to them we wish without a shred of remorse. And on and on and on, until we are trapped in a cycle of polarization, disdain and fracture. If you have any doubt whether this is an accurate picture of reality, just take a look at the current state of the United Methodist Church.

My heart hurts – indeed, it breaks – that it has come to this. What is more, there are days I have little hope that things will improve. And, yet, I cannot give up because God is calling us to break this sinful cycle, Jesus is molding all Christians into his body, and the Holy Spirit is working to bring together what we have rent asunder.

So what can we do?

What if all progressives, traditionalists and those somewhere in-between were to meet at the manger this Christmas? To get back to the heart of our faith. To remember God loves us so much God sent the only begotten Son right into the mess of the world to save it. To look – truly look – at those gathering with us, and see them as the light of Christ child illumines their faces. To allow the Holy Spirit to bind us together through the Christ child. And to join hands to wonder, worship and share the Good News of a Great Joy in real ways with real people in real life.

I confess I’m not exactly sure what will happen if disciples who are estranged from each other actually decide this is an idea worth trying. But I know that it will make a much-needed difference. And maybe, just maybe, we can experience how the power of the poignant words we sing each Christmas Eve can do what we seem incapable of doing on our own,

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

A letter from the bishop

Gary E. Mueller, Bishop of the Arkansas Conference

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We are only weeks from the Special Session of General Conference in St. Louis Feb. 24-26. I must confess, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Just as I don’t know what it will mean here in Arkansas. Or how you’re going to react.

Like you, I’ve noticed these weeks preceding General Conference have been marked by an increasing level of uncertainty. And that this uncertainty is leading to greater anxiety. And the anxiety sometimes is devolving into polarization, demonization and people saying things they normally wouldn’t say.

It’s sad. But we don’t have to remain victims of this state of affairs. We can still choose a different path. We can pray more diligently. We can engage in holy conversations, especially with those with whom we disagree. We can continue to seek to discern God’s Will. We can expect God to do something new that no one yet has imagined. And we can remember several bedrock realities that will remain true regardless of what General Conference decides.

  • God is still God.
  • Jesus Christ still brings the salvation every human being needs.
  • The Holy Spirit is still at work in new, creative and unexpected ways.
  • God’s unconditional, invitational and transformational grace is still the most powerful force in the universe and should shape everything we do as Jesus-followers.

The United Methodist Church in Arkansas still is called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.

Of course, things will be different when General Conference adjourns on Feb. 26, 2019. While I can’t predict exactly how, I know this. Some of you will be pleased, while others will feel betrayed; some will be ready to move ahead, while others are ready to move on; and some will experience healing, while others will live with broken hearts.

Yet when all is said and done, I want to affirm as strongly as possible that I remain hopeful about our future. Not because I’m in denial about what’s going on, optimistic by nature or trust in our ability to put things back together. But because God gives me hope. After all, Easter Sunday follows Good Friday.

Eternal life follows death. And a new heaven and a new earth follow the turmoil of pain and struggle.

The Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church is an amazing group of churches filled with faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And the fact of the matter is that I have fallen in love with you these past six years I have served in your midst. I will continue to love you – regardless of what happens and regardless of how you respond. That’s why I want to ask you to join me in a simple prayer every day between now and Easter Sunday: Lord, I pray that all of us who are United Methodists in Arkansas will continue to love each other in the strength, truth and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We pray this in his name. Amen.

May it be so!

Grace and peace,

Gary E. Mueller

My favorite nativity

Gary E. Mueller, Bishop of the Arkansas Conference

Every year as I unwrap my favorite Nativity from its storage box, I inevitably spend a few moments reflecting while I put all the figures in their proper place. Quite frankly, and somewhat surprisingly, it’s always a bit depressing as I remember how often Jesus remains stuck in the manger as merely a sentimental figure, how our culture has tamed the power of what God has done by rebranding Christmas as “the most wonderful time of the year,” and how too many people have reached the heartbreaking conclusion that Christmas has lost its power to bring desperately needed hope.

But I don’t remain depressed for long because the words of Matthew’s Gospel literally shout out, “This baby born to Mary is Immanuel, God with us.” And so I start rejoicing in this reality that seems utterly preposterous and impossible to explain, yet boldly proclaims that God has personally entered into the world in Jesus. Jesus whose birth we celebrate — but who also brings salvation to the world — promises to be with us until the end of the age as we follow him and is the Lord of all life.

There is only one way to begin to make any sense of this. God is so passionately in love with humanity God decided to risk plunging into the mess and muckiness of life to give us what we absolutely need but can never get on our own. This is not just church talk from a bishop. It is personal — deeply personal — because my soul longs for this kind of love in the midst of my own failings, questions and pain; I suspect yours does as well. And it is why I pray you will be filled with the true joy of Christmas that comes from experiencing that you do not have to find God and convince God to give you something — God has found you and offers you amazing grace!

I’ll continue to stop by my favorite Nativity every day for the next several weeks until I put it up for another year. But more importantly, I’ll let it remind me of the eternal truth that God’s Christmas gift to us comes in the most unlikely of ways; through an infant born of Mary, a carpenter from Galilee who was an itinerant preacher for just three years, and the Son of God who died on a cross for the entire world. I hope you’ll find some time to stop by your Nativity and be reminded, too.

Merry Christmas!

Growing Together in Christ: What Kind of Church Do We Want To Be?

Gary E. Mueller, Bishop of the Arkansas Conference

What kind of church do we want to be? In a sense, it’s so audacious to think I could possibly answer such a question that I need to repent for even considering trying. But it’s also so important that it’s essential to try, even if I fall short.

The question about the future of the church is never merely theoretical because many of us have lived our faith in the United Methodist Church and long for it to be as vibrant and faithful as possible. It is never asked in a vacuum, but in the midst of real life that involves everything from the upcoming 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, to the reality that our church’s place in the culture has moved from being privileged and at the center to marginalized and at the edges, to the painful admission that we continue to grow smaller and older in spite of all our best efforts. And, perhaps most importantly, it can never be reduced to simplistic answers that revolve around defining the church merely by a theological stance, worship style or size.

So, here is what I hope United Methodist churches will be like in Arkansas in the coming years. Some of what follows is fully developed and some still a vision yet to be grasped. Some of it has staying power, and some probably needs to be tossed aside. Some is ginormous in scope, and some may be insignificant. But that’s okay. Such is the nature of seriously listening to God, immersing myself more and more in the deepest pain and longings of the world, and going deeper in my journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I pray we will be a church rooted in the 2,000-year-old Orthodox Christian faith that is shaped by the Wesleyan understanding of grace – Jesus’ unconditional, invitational and transformational love. Think what a difference it could make if each of us grew for a lifetime into the riches of the Christian faith and were filled with such compassion that we cannot wait to share with others the blessings of salvation, healing, hope and joy that we have received as a free gift when we needed it most.

I long for us to be a church so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to do things we otherwise would never do. Think what a difference it would make if we could not wait to get out of ‘our church’ to share Jesus’ grace in a snarkified culture, were united in Christ in a polarized world and took Jesus to the people instead of waiting for them to come to us.

I hope we will be a church that is so passionate that we are willing to invest, innovate and take risks to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine what a difference it would make if we took to heart that Jesus selected ordinary people as his disciples, sends the Holy Spirit to empower us, and is still telling us to go out and make disciples with boldness because he is with us always.

I pray we will be a church that is so authentically humble we take Jesus absolutely seriously, but not ourselves. Think what a difference it would make if we were to listen as well as talk, receive as well as give and welcome as well as seek.

I hope we will be a church that lives out the Wesleyan heart that transformed America. Imagine what a difference it would make if we truly ‘see all the people’ and go to them because we care so much that they experience Jesus’ love in real ways that we work to make an actual difference in the lives of those who are hungry, sick, struggling to find hope and suffering oppression.

I want us to a church that grows. Imagine what a difference it would make if towns where churches are closing become towns where churches are growing, if members were growing into disciples, if congregations were growing in their ministry with the people right outside their doors and if churches were growing in the number of people worshipping, participating in intentional discipling groups, being baptized and professing faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

When all is said and done, all we really have is Jesus. He is the Shepherd, and we are the sheep. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He is the head, and we are his body. Imagine what a difference it would make if we were passionately in love with Jesus, proclaimed him as Lord and Savior, made him the reason for our being and were so serious about him that we actually tried to live the way he shows us.

We would be Jesus’ church not just in name, but in spirit; not just on Sunday in the sanctuary, but every day out in the world; not just with those with whom we feel comfortable, but with those on the edges; and not just as another institution, but as the Body of Christ that shares his saving, healing and joyful love with a world that longs for it even if it doesn’t know it yet.

May it be so.