By: Christa Meland
Watch video of Bishop Ough's full Episcopal Address
Read full transcript of Bishop Ough's Episcopal Address
Bishop Bruce R. Ough’s Episcopal Address Wednesday morning encouraged Minnesota United Methodists to live expectantly by claiming and putting into practice the dynamics that led to vitality, growth, and missional passion in the primitive church.
“Our Journey Toward Vitality is producing much kingdom fruit,” Bishop Ough said. “There are many signs our congregations are growing in our capacity to love God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world.”
The Book of Acts is a lively record of both the means (or methods) and the ends (or fruit) of God’s Spirit activity in and through the first-generation church, said Ough. Likewise, the record of the early church in the Book of Acts is a contemporary blueprint for the means (or methods) and the ends (or fruit) of the Holy Spirit’s activity in and through each of us.
The fruits are clearly identified in the second chapter of Acts: Persons were demonstrating wonders and signs of God’s kingdom-inverting and kingdom-multiplying power. Persons were receiving the good news and being saved. Persons of all nations, races, tongues, and life circumstances were added to and included in the faith community.
In terms of the method that gives rise to the of fruitfulness, Ough pointed to Bishop Robert Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.
Radical hospitality: Out of genuine love for Christ and for others, Acts 2 Congregations take the initiative to invite, welcome, include, baptize, teach, and support newcomers as they grow in faith and become part of the Body of Christ, Ough said.
Although we continue to see a decline in the number of people received into membership on profession of faith in the Minnesota Conference, there are positive indicators of our radical hospitality. In 2016, we saw an 11 percent increase in the number of youth and adults we baptized and a 3.5 percent increase in our racial/ethnic and multi-racial membership.
Passionate worship: Out of a deep desire for people to be fed, forgiven, healed, and transformed, Acts 2 Congregations conduct worship that creates expectancy, that moves people figuratively and often literally to their tiptoes, eager to drink in the Spirit, Ough said. They understand that people are searching for worship that is authentic, alive, creative, and enthusiastic.
Only 23 percent of our 350 congregations are showing growth in average worship attendance, Ough said. This number needs to be at least 40 percent in order for us to become a conference growing in average worship attendance. He pointed to Minnetonka UMC as an Acts 2 Congregation that has built its growth in numbers and vitality around the practice of passionate worship (watch video).
Intentional faith formation: Out of a concern that people grow in their love of God and neighbor and be formed into the image of Christ for the sake of the world, Acts 2 Congregations ensure that all followers of Jesus, from grandparents to toddlers, mature in faith and grow in discipleship through learning, nurture, and accountability in small groups, Ough said.
In Minnesota, the total number of small groups, including Sunday school, increased by 4 percent in 2016. We also had an 8 percent increase over 2015 in the number of young adults in small group ministries (on top of a 5 percent increase last year). Nearly 25,000 persons participated in Christian formation groups through our congregations in 2016. Ough pointed to Hilltop UMC in Mankato as an Acts 2 Congregation in which intentional faith formation within small groups is key to its growth and vitality (watch video).
Risk-taking mission and service: Acts 2 Congregations help persons identify and claim their unique mission and service, said Ough. They challenge unjust systems that impoverish and dehumanize persons. They take risks to engage the hurts and hopes of the world precisely because the Holy Spirit compels them to incarnate Christ’s unconditional, self-denying, life-giving love.
The total number of Minnesota United Methodists engaged in mission has increased 6 percent since 2014—and the number of people sent out on Volunteers in Mission teams increased by 13 percent in 2016. Our congregations served 259,834 persons through community outreach, justice, and mercy ministries last year—representing a 15 percent year-over-year increase.
Extravagant generosity: Acts 2 Congregations invite people to align their hearts and resources with God’s purposes. They have discovered that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the body of Christ, and expands Christ’s mission, said Ough. Acts 2 Congregations model that generosity and understand that it is at the heart of discipleship.
In 2016, Minnesota churches gave $10.7 million, including apportionments, to serve others; this represents a 4 percent increase from 2015. We now stand at more than $3.7 million given or pledged to our Reach · Renew · Rejoice initiative.
All of these provide evidence of the Spirit’s work among us, but the infusing of the Spirit goes far beyond just numbers, Ough said. The work of the Spirit is to fill what Pascal called the “God-shaped emptiness inside us.”
“We are incorporated into God’s mission—we become a part of God’s reconciling, transformative mission—through the Holy Spirit living within us,” Ough said, adding that his unceasing breath prayer is simply, “Come, Holy Spirit. Come; fill me.”
Standing in the way of such fullness, however, are any number of things that might crowd the space in which the Spirit might work. Fears, doubts, and feelings of insecurity block God’s ability to flood churches and leaders with imagination. Deceit and resistance to change stifle God’s purposes. Exclusionary practices, prejudice, scarcity, and complacency also keep God’s people from living fully and joyfully.
“Here is the gospel truth: When our hearts are filled with the fullness of God…they overflow with love,” said Ough. “The love must go somewhere; it cannot be contained. That is what happened at Pentecost. This is what gave rise to the Acts 2 church. This is what fueled the Christ movement. When the God-shaped emptiness that only God can fill is filled with the fullness of God, everything is turned upside-down.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church