Transforming Congregations Celebrates 25 Years

By Karen Booth –

Karen Booth

Booth

This year Transforming Congregations will celebrate its 25th anniversary as a renewal and reform ministry within The United Methodist Church. The event will be marked with little public fanfare, which is fitting since much of Transforming Congregations’ mission has been done modestly and “behind the scenes.” But that doesn’t mean that those efforts have been inconsequential. For the last two-and-a-half decades, Transforming Congregations staff and volunteers have persistently advocated for a traditional, biblical sexual ethic within the denomination and the broader church and culture. And though their message sometimes seemed to be muted or lost in the hubbub created by advocates from the other side, their efforts over the years have born much good fruit.

Rev. Robert Kuyper, an ordained Elder in the California-Nevada Annual Conference and the founder of Transforming Congregations, told the story of the ministry’s birth in his book Crisis in Ministry: A Wesleyan Response to the Gay Rights Movement. In the summer of 1987, the Annual Conference voted to declare itself a Reconciling Conference. Committed to the “full inclusion of lesbian and gay men in the life of the conference,” leaders promptly announced a marriage enrichment weekend for same-sex couples.

Amid the fallout that followed — withheld apportionments, threats of pastoral complaints, and ugly infighting — Kuyper pondered and sought a better way. The Holy Spirit led him first to a woman who had successfully overcome her lesbian tendencies and from her to hundreds of other men and women that were likewise dedicated to resisting and overcoming their same-sex attractions. He had never before heard these kinds of stories of transformation, nor had he known of the so-called “ex-gay” ministries that had helped them.

Excited by his new discoveries, Kuyper shared them with his colleagues in the Cal-Nevada Evangelical Renewal Fellowship proclaiming “somebody ought to do something!” After intense study and discussion at their fall retreat (which Kuyper led), the attending clergy concluded that both homophobic (fearful, hateful and rejecting) and accommodationist (uncritically accepting and affirming) responses to homosexuality were both contrary to Scripture. Instead they discerned a “better way” — the one for which Kuyper had yearned, a truly compassionate approach that offered the hope of transformational healing to those struggling against unwanted same-sex attraction and behavior. The new movement would be called Transforming Congregations, and Kuyper was commissioned as coordinator through the laying on of hands and prayer.

Though he expected to focus primarily on the issues within his own Annual Conference, Kuyper soon connected with United Methodists in Eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere who were already involved in, or interested in doing, the same kind of ministry. Subsequent volunteer and paid directors (Ron Dennis, Jim Gentile and msyelf) continued to build on Kuyper’s strong foundation. From that initial handful of pastors and churches, Transforming Congregations has grown to several thousand individuals and congregations — mainly United Methodist, but also Lutheran, Assembly of God, community and independent churches in the United States and overseas — that theologically affirm a traditional biblical sexual ethic, that believe in the power of Jesus Christ to transform sexual confusion, brokenness and sin, and that partner with the national ministry through their prayers and financial contributions.

At its fall 2001 meeting, the Transforming Congregations Board of Directors discerned that God was giving the ministry a broader vision and call — to reach beyond a singular focus on homosexuality to encourage “transforming ministry to all persons affected by relational brokenness resulting in sexual sin.” After some more discernment and “fine tuning,” the current mission statement was adopted in 2008 — “equipping the church to model and minister sanctified sexuality” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7) through biblical instruction, personal and public witness and compassionate outreach.

As long as ministries of sexual sanctification remain a primarily parachurch concern and effort, The United Methodist Church and the Body of Christ as a whole will fail to meet the needs of uninformed, trapped and hurting people. So Transforming Congregations’ overarching goal is to provide local church and other Christian leaders the knowledge, resources and skills they need to effectively minister grace and truth to the sexually confused, broken and sinful in their congregations and communities.

As Western culture continues to spin out of control sexually, it is critically important that Christians understand the role that sexuality and moral behavior plays in the sanctification process — the journey into personal purity, wholeness and Christ-likeness that is essential to maturing in faith. Many, including even some evangelicals, dismiss The United Methodist Church’s decades-long battle over human sexuality as trivial, a minor distraction that keeps us from our true mission of making disciples. But a cursory reading of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters to the early church, indicates otherwise.

For example, in 1 Thessalonians he writes that sexual immorality (and his readers would have understood the Greek word to include both same-sex and opposite-sex behaviors) is to be avoided.  In most other respects, the Thessalonians were faithful believers. They were respected throughout the broader Christian community, they had experienced powerful works of the Holy Spirit in their midst, and they had suffered persecution for their beliefs.

Even so, they still apparently failed to live sexually redeemed lives. Paul assures them that they can never hope to be fully sanctified unless they willingly submit their sexuality to God’s transforming work of grace.  And he warns them that failure to do so will displease God, insult the Holy Spirit, and blur the boundary between Christianity and the rest of the pagan world.  Poll after poll has shown that when it comes to pornography addiction, extra-marital affairs, teen sex or divorce, those who claim to be Christian demonstrate little difference from the rest of the world.  Unless the church commits to “cleaning up its own act,” those trends are likely to continue and perhaps even worsen.

Transforming Congregations believes that a biblical understanding of human sexuality is key to developing an effective response. So our website (www.transcong.org) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/UMTransformingCongregations) contain reviews and recommendations of print and audio-visual resources, along with other links to helpful articles and websites. Archived editions of the Transforming Congregations educational journal can also be found there, as well as information about our speaker’s bureau of folk who are available to preach or teach at church services, study classes or other events.

The church is called to contend for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints,” and that includes taking a stand for and speaking out about the biblical truth about sexuality. Christians are also called to be “salt and light” in a dark and decaying culture. So across the years, Transforming Congregations staff, board members and affiliate volunteers have not hesitated to share their “personal and public witness,” their testimonies of freedom and healing from the bondage of sexual sin — whether that’s to a large group at a special lunch gathering at General Conference or one-on-one with someone who shares the same struggle. Since the battle for truth is being fiercely fought throughout the Body of Christ, Transforming Congregations networks with other renewal and reform organizations to defend biblical morality. And though the ministry does not take direct secular political action, we occasionally alert people to pertinent cultural and public policy issues.

But knowing biblical truth, and even speaking out about it, is not enough. Christians also need to reach out with compassion to a sexually compromised world. Many churches are hesitant to get started; they are uncertain how to even begin to prepare. Transforming Congregations has developed a ministry model and workshop called “Forward into Ministry” that can help in that regard. The workshop is not a packaged program or a “one size fits all” because the Holy Spirit calls and empowers each church in unique ways to address the specific needs of its congregation and community. But the practical suggestions will help ensure that a solid foundation for ministry is laid.

Through PowerPoint and video presentations, lecture and discussion, and small group interaction, attendees are challenged to consider the joys and challenges of this kind of ministry and to develop a preliminary plan for implementation in their local church. “Forward into Ministry” has been presented in 45 to 90 minute formats at large conference gatherings and as half-day events in District, local church or other community settings. Attendees report that the workshop has not only provided good, practical suggestions for ministry, but has also challenged them about their less than charitable attitudes to the morally wayward. More information about the six-step model and workshop can be found on the Transforming Congregations website or by calling the national office (608-325-5712).

Transforming Congregations is once again poised for a new move of God in 2013 and beyond. Its recent merger with Good News promises to strengthen and broaden both of the ministries. Good News’ commitment to providing the best and most biblically faithful resources to the local church makes for a good fit. And Transforming Congregations’ focus on sexual sanctification will help to expand work in that area. All of us are “on the same page” as to what needs to be done, and we’re moving forward with anticipation, watching hopefully for what our Lord will do among us and within The United Methodist Church.

Karen Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. She is also the author of Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution (Bristol House).

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