What is the gospel?

What is the gospel?

By Frank Decker

A defining moment in a Japanese restaurant near my office took place when a number of us from various ministries around the world were chatting about missions over lunch. The conversation was candid and stimulating. After one African leader had shared about ambitious plans to reach Muslims in the northern half of his continent, his rather traditional strategy of extracting Muslims from their cultural context was challenged by a man who had over three decades of experience ministering among Muslims in Asia. “That method hasn’t worked in 1,400 years, what makes you think it will work now?” Our conversation eventually shifted from discussing tactics to identifying the reasons for those strategies as the leader of the Asian ministry looked his African brother in the eye and asked this simple question: “What is the gospel?”

The question, albeit basic, is essential. If a missionary is not cognizant of the distinction between the transcendent gospel of Jesus and the post-biblical traditions familiar to the missionary, then both the biblical message and the cultural traditions will likely be presented indistinguishably together in a package that is presented as if it is the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. This is one reason why I often ask prospective missionary candidates, “What, exactly, is your message?”

The altar call, the sinner’s prayer, church buildings, the distinction between clergy and laity, and the current role of the professional pastor are five of over sixty post-biblical traditions cited in Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. These things are not necessarily bad; they simply are not the gospel. They have helped people live out the gospel in certain cultural contexts, which may or may not be helpful in other contexts. Even the assumption that all believers in Jesus should be referred to as “Christians” is not an inherent part of the gospel message, and is a conjecture that foments the fallacious and even obstructive assumption that Jesus came to start a religion rather than usher in the kingdom of God.

One could argue that even the creeds were hammered out in a particular cultural context; and so they might have legitimately been quite different if they had been initially written, say, in China. And, as E. Stanley Jones has reminded us, our historic creeds are sadly lacking in an important emphasis (or even mention, in the case of the Apostle’s Creed) of the kingdom of God, a crucial element of Jesus’ teaching.

Ever since I entered full-time ministry almost 30 years ago I’ve been revisiting that crucial question, “What is the gospel?” In the process, I began to notice passages of Scripture that give a summary of the gospel message, and began making a list of these “nutshell gospels.” I Corinthians 15:1-8 and I Peter 2:21-24 are two examples from different New Testament authors.

Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd’s research of the content of scriptural apostolic preaching has helped me conclude that a solid, biblical summary of the gospel is this:
• In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus Messiah as the scriptures foretold.
• He died in shame on a cross, bearing our sins.
• He rose again from the dead.
• He is now Lord, which he proves by his Spirit today.
• God’s kingdom will be consummated when Jesus returns.
• Therefore repent, believe, and live as a member of God’s kingdom.

I normally don’t recite these points when witnessing to someone, but I find this to be a helpful outline to keep in mind. It is a message that finds its way into other cultures without necessarily being wrapped in western Christianity. It enables the non-believer to see Jesus rather than a religion. And, while the end result may not look like First United Methodist Church down the street, the point is that people meet Jesus.

Even if the gospel we share is biblical, it is not attractive to others unless the work of Jesus is evident in our lives. Otherwise, the message becomes merely theoretical; a danger in our age of information. In fact, I am convinced that the less we actually experience the living Jesus, the more apt we are to depend on intricate theologies in order to explain his apparent absence as a reality in our lives.

People from all cultures and religious traditions are hungering for Jesus—not necessarily our brand of religion. Whether or not they see him could depend on how we answer the question, “What is the gospel?”

Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.

What is the gospel?

Essential for transformation

By Frank Decker

Perhaps the most significant work for the Kingdom of God is conducted by people who are unlikely to become famous—those who quietly and faithfully serve in places that most others avoid. You won’t see their photographs on the jacket of a best-selling Christian book; nor do they dwell in pulpits that are visible to thousands. And yet they are custodians of lessons that we must know.

In most cultures it is orphans and street children who represent the most vulnerable and sometimes most invisible members of a society. That’s why over the last few weeks I have compiled a selection of comments—in response to questions I asked them—from six missionary friends who serve in ministry to “children-at-risk” in three different regions of the world. These cross-cultural workers range in mission experience from four to fifteen years.

I’m sharing this simple progression of quotes because in these remarks are reminders of what mission is about when it is transformational, having moved beyond the theoretical and into the reality of revolutionizing broken lives, lessons that can reach back into my own world and speak into situations visible from my own orbit.

I find it refreshing to look up from my Bible study or sermon preparation and just sit at the feet of those who are serving in other contexts and listen.
Here are their entries.

• You know, these kids have faced so much loss and displacement at such a young age. First they may be sent to a shelter, then moved from the shelter to an orphanage, and then at a later age to yet another orphanage.

Popular society here tells our kids that they are worth nothing. “What good can come of an orphan?” So, sometimes we lead them in an exercise to just be quiet and “ask God what he thinks of you.” They are usually shocked by the messages that the Holy Spirit conveys to them about how highly they are thought of by God.

• We serve as foster parents to five former orphans, all of whom in their relatively young lives have experienced more significant life events than most of us ever will. Some never met their earthly father, which often negatively affects their perception of God. Rarely did they hear encouragement. I believe the most effective act of parenting we can do is to encourage them with simple words of affirmation, such as, “I believe in you,” “you are special,” or “I knew you could.”

We thought our kids were too messed up for God to help them. That was before we reached a turning point in our ministry that caused us to realize that we had to depend on the power of God.

• Our orphan ministry is about relationship and loving and bringing some little spot of something pleasant and nice into the kids’ lives…. But what is necessary for there to be actual change in the orphan’s life? Supernatural, divine intervention is the ONLY effective thing. The problems these kids face, the pain in their lives, and the self-destructive survivor instinct that drives every decision they make cannot be encountered by mere human intervention. Their only hope is for the Lord to touch and restore those broken places inside. The cycle has to be broken and only Jesus can do it.

Inner healing will take time, as their level of trust is understandably low, but that is why we believe inviting these children to live with us as family in our home is the best kind of ministry we could imagine. It gives us daily chances to speak words of truth and healing, and enabling the Lord to take back what may have been lost. He does the healing, and He is faithful and able.

A sign of progress for them is not the absence of struggle in their lives, but when they are “struggling successfully.” Early in our ministry we felt that we had to come and rescue them every time that they fell into a “pit.” Now we see growth when they have learned to trust God to lift them out of that pit. When we see this, we know that they are growing.

The last thing these kids need is empty, ritualistic religion. But the greatest tool you can give them is intimacy with God. Intimacy with God destroys the work of the devil.

Missionaries in three regions giving testimony to the same axiom: The reality of the living Jesus brings inner healing, victory in spiritual warfare, and the assurance of one’s adoption as a child of God. These are essential elements for a ministry of transformation, regardless of the context.

What is the gospel?

Making Men in Juárez

By Elizabeth Glass Turner

The Los Angeles Times ran a photo depicting a bloodied corpse lying prone on the ground, a victim of the infamous drug cartel violence in Juárez, Mexico. The caption described Tierra Nueva, the area where the shooting occurred, as “a graffiti-stained neighborhood of dirt streets and concrete shacks in south Ciudad Juárez.”

But that’s only part of the story.

Juárez, commonly known as one of the deadliest cities in the world, has mourned 4,900 of its citizens killed in just the last two years. Nestled at the crux of New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, its sister city across the U.S. border is El Paso, Texas. Two prominent drug cartels fight for control of Juárez, leaving thousands dead—often innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. According to The El Paso Times, the FBI fears that El Paso gangs may, “join the cartel power struggle”—bringing the war onto U.S. soil.

A frequently overlooked subplot in the violence, Juárez is what author Daniela Paniagua calls the “city of femicide of the western hemisphere.” She continues, “the people of Juárez set about constructing their own monument—a series of pink crosses memorializing ‘the Labyrinth of Silence,’ a desolate area where hundreds of women have been ‘disposed’ of over the last decade. Gazing across the Labyrinth, a ‘massive monument of Christ on the Cross’ stands erect, symbolizing faith and protection. Locals question if the victims have looked up toward that depiction of Christ’s suffering that towers above their brutally beaten bodies and pleaded for His mercy. This Mexican border-town, founded on prosperity and faith, is estranged from its original principles and has become known as the City of Lost Women.”

In addition to the stark number of dead men and women, the systematic intimidation of citizens and law enforcement officers alike includes burning houses in the Valley of Juárez, and—early this April—a Catholic church.
One source explains that the “drug war in Mexico has its roots in many of Mexico’s other problems—lack of economic development, Mexico’s authoritarian past, its celebration of machismo, and its weak civil society and compromised rule of law.”

Bridges & Rites of passage
Plenty of contributing factors complicate the gritty violence that plagues Juárez, but one factor that propels the violence exchanged among drug cartels continues to be machismo—the sense of one’s own exaggerated manhood. Machismo is often affirmed by gang acceptance through rites of passage that frequently include violent crime.

A year ago, CNN reported that, “the violence involves beheadings, running gunbattles, and discoveries of mass graves and huge arms caches. Police and public officials have been gunned down in broad daylight. The cartels’ enforcers boldly display recruitment banners in the streets.” The report further elaborated that, “the beheadings started at the same time the beheading videos started coming out of Iraq. It was simple machismo. The Sinaloa [cartel] guys started putting up videos on YouTube of them torturing….”

While gangs actively recruit young men in Juárez and other border towns, other high school students attempt to cross the bridge daily from Juárez to El Paso, where they study. Parents pray for their children’s safety and hope they will be spared a life of violence.

A couple of decades ago, one such boy was Jose Luis Portillo, one of ten children raised in Juárez. He earned enough money selling cigarettes on the streets to attend a United Methodist high school in El Paso, where he learned English and felt called to ministry. After he graduated from John Wesley Seminary in Monterrey, Mexico, Portillo worked at a church in Juárez. Volunteers helping to build the church saw people living in cardboard houses. When they asked how they could help, Portillo partnered with Volunteers in Mission to build concrete block houses for the families.

While the murder rate in Juárez escalated, Jose Luis Portillo established Proyecto Abrigo (“project shelter”) in the southern Juárez neighborhood of Tierra Nueva—the same “graffiti-stained” neighborhood where the Times photographed a casualty of the drug cartel violence. Since 1992, Portillo has been responsible for the construction of more than 1,000 small block houses for the poorest citizens.

The bridge Jose had taken to school every day, back and forth across the U.S./Mexico border, helped to steer him away from becoming another faceless cartel foot soldier.

From Juárez to The Woodlands
Eleven hours east, the Rev. Rob Renfroe had a conversation with a man at his church—a congregation Rob had served for about a year at the time. “He told me a story about a man who was in our church. The man was vice president of a bank in downtown Houston,” recalls Renfroe, the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, as well as President and Publisher of Good News. “He’d been in church for a number of years and had never really connected deeply spiritually, was driven to succeed, and used alcohol to help him cope with life. He ended up losing his job, his family, and then finally ended up living on the streets, and died disconnected from everyone who had ever cared about him because of his alcoholism.”

“Rob, we had this guy in our church and nothing ever really grabbed him spiritually and changed his life,” the man said to Renfroe. “And we’ve got other guys sitting in the pews, they come and do their Sunday morning duty, but the rest of their life is disconnected from their spirituality, and we need to do something.”

The result of this conversation was the initiation of the men’s ministry “Quest,” designed to engage men who were marginally involved in church—at best. This exploration of manhood and faith isn’t as simple as it might appear at first.
“Part of the challenge is to be able to talk to guys in a way that makes them feel comfortable as men,” Renfroe explains, “that doesn’t make them feel like they have to fit in to some stereotype of the good little Sunday school boy, but that lets them be real men and enjoy things that men enjoy in a way that honors God.”

Renfroe is the first to acknowledge that he might not be the typical “guy’s guy.” He says he doesn’t hunt or fish or fix anything around the house, but he has discovered that “if you challenge guys and treat them as if they are real people with heart hungers and deep needs and a desire to be better—if you let them be men, then God is able to do great things.”

In stark contrast to the bloody streets of Juárez, Quest addresses men’s need to be both godly and masculine through an eclectic array of hands-on ministries, meetings, and conferences. While Quest has convened twice a year for eight years—holding meetings for eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring—small groups allow men to continue to grow their practices.

Additionally, a ministry called “Destination Manhood” pairs volunteer mentors with at-risk youth. Although the original commitment for mentors was to spend an hour a week with a young man, activities have expanded to include camping, fishing, and trips to college sporting events so that young people can imagine themselves pursuing a college education. In a haunting reminder of the young men targeted by drug cartels, Renfroe explains, “one of the boys has even spent time in jail during the time that one of our men has mentored him, and really does need someone there with him. These are boys who would be lost if one of the guys in our church wasn’t taking a real, active role in his life.”

The men of Quest also participate in “Rehab for Humanity,” a service to the elderly and poor in which volunteers provide home repairs. After one Quest meeting in which 58 groups of men were given $100 to “invest in the Kingdom,” one group that had decided to provide home repairs instead felt called to partner with a community organization to build an entire new home for the recipient.

The best gift
But it’s the trips to Juárez that connect the men from The Woodlands UM Church to Jose Luis Portillo and Proyecto Abrigo. Mission trips are not new to The Woodlands. Under the leadership of Dr. John Hull, the church’s missions pastor, the congregation sends more than a dozen teams annually all over the world. But Renfroe and Hull felt that the trip to Juárez could have a huge impact on the men of the church. The first 100 men from The Woodlands UM Church went on the four-day excursion in 2007.

Renfroe describes Tierra Nueva as a place where “thousands of people live in little hovels outside the city in desert slums. They live out there and the government sells them a little piece of land for $4000. Interestingly, they pay per square foot, with no electricity, water, or sewage, the very same amount we pay here in The Woodlands per square foot. Yet The Woodlands is a high-end, planned community. Most of the people who come there are from southern Mexico. They come to Juárez for the ‘opportunity’ to work for a dollar an hour in the factories there on the border. That is a step up for them, so they save their money to make a down payment on this land. Then they build shelters—from cardboard, pallets, plywood.”

The men from Quest are aware of the urgency behind the work trips: they have heard about the dangers to the residents, not only of Juárez cartel violence, but also of the extreme desert temperatures. Because so many shelters are patched together with wood and other flammable material, open flame fires are not allowed to heat the homes during the frigid desert nights. Renfroe recounts learning that a baby froze to death one night because the family could not heat their dwelling. With the construction of a rudimentary concrete block house, however, residents are able to use propane to ward off the freezing temperatures.

The Proyecto Abrigo houses, built by teams like the one from The Woodlands, measure 12’ by 24’. When the 100 men arrive, they are organized into teams, which are aided by maestros, who show the team how to mix mortar and cement, and how to lay the blocks. Often, when able, the family assists the team with the construction of their new home. When the project is complete, the team and the family celebrate a house dedication.

More than 350 men from Quest have been a part of four trips to Juárez where the work teams have built 30 houses, in addition to working on a school.
“Many guys express their spirituality by doing with their hands, and often churches have a hard time of finding a way for men to serve God in a way that feels natural, that uses their masculinity. This trip has been very beneficial to our guys, in addition to meaning a lot to the people who live there. It helps fulfill that natural desire to provide and protect that’s kind of built into men. They’re really grateful for the opportunity.”

Whatever distance exists between Juárez and The Woodlands has evaporated for Bob Leilich. “This is the first time I’ve been on a mission trip like this,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world and I have seen poverty. There’s always been a disconnect to me to see poverty—there’s so much of it you tend to ignore it. Well, I found out on this trip that these are real people. They are happy people.”

One experience continues to haunt the volunteers. “There was a family who’d been living in a cave before they got their little shack. Their home had been flooded when a river flooded its banks,” reports Renfroe. “They got enough money together to buy this little piece of land. So we built this concrete block house for them. One of the great things is that they can now have a propane fire to stay warm at night. At the dedication, we gave them gifts, finished praying, and this old man is standing there. And his kids are having a house built next to him, and he held up his Bible, and said, ‘This—this is the best. Out of all God’s gifts, this is the best.’ That really spoke to us; it reminded us that for people who don’t have anything, what gets them through is the sense that God is with them, that God loves them.”

Providing shelter
In the midst of the valuable outreach that Quest teams and others provide for Juárez residents caught in the crossfire, a new issue has emerged. Recently, the State Department renewed a travel warning to U.S. citizens bound for Mexico, especially for the northern states like Chihuahua. The recent murders of Americans working at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico have only fueled fears. An article by Mallory McCall in The United Methodist Reporter describes the growing problem faced by churches that have sent work teams in the past.

“In light of [the] violence, some churches are rethinking their south-of-the-border mission projects, and some have eliminated trips to the Juárez area altogether… Flower Mound United Methodist Church in Texas, for instance, has not taken its annual family mission trip to Juárez in two years. ‘It breaks my heart not to go back, but we just don’t think it’s safe,’ said Mike Farmer, a member who has been to Juárez 10 times and helped build 25 houses.”

The Woodlands United Methodist Church is still considering whether to continue sending the Quest work teams to Juárez. “The terrible thing with all this violence is not just that drug dealers are killing drug dealers, but that innocent people get killed. But what’s happened to the people who live in these little hovels is that groups like ours are not going down there,” says Renfroe. “Many, many churches cancelled last year. They’re not getting homes because of this kind of violence. It really shows you how violence spreads out and hurts and creates victims who aren’t in any way connected with the drug trade.”

Janet Hunt, director of community ministries at Suncreek UM Church in Allen, Texas, told The United Methodist Reporter that “it’s the joy and gratitude of the people that make the risks worth it. ‘They live around this fear and violence that they hear about every day on their news, but yet they’re just worshiping the Lord,’ she said. ‘It humbles you and makes you realize what’s important in life.’ She’s concerned that peoples’ needs will go unmet as volunteers back out. In 2009 Proyecto Abrigo set a goal to build 200 cinderblock homes; instead they built just 21.”

Juárez has proven to be a cataclysmic training ground both for the machismo of drug cartel soldiers and for the deepening appreciation of masculinity as a unique gift of God to the men of Quest. As for the families of Tierra Nueva? For the time being, they, along with the rest of Juárez, will have to continue trusting that God will be their shelter in the midst of the cartel chaos.

Elizabeth Glass-Turner is a freelance writer. Passionate about robust, sacramental faith and avid reader of murder mysteries, she resides in central Kentucky with her husband, newborn baby, and two dogs.

Quest, the men’s ministry at The Woodlands, is now in its eighth year. All of the Quest materials can be found at www.thewoodlandsumc.org/content/quest-message-archive.

What is the gospel?

Haitian Methodists, UMCOR assess volunteer needs

By Linda Bloom

The Methodist Church in Haiti and United Methodist Committee on Relief are identifying “suitable projects and assignments” for volunteer teams wishing to assist with earthquake recovery in Haiti. Both groups are asking volunteers to delay their arrival in Haiti until those assessments are complete.

Evaluations in the six church circuits most affected by the earthquake are being made to determine the extent of the damage in church communities and beyond, according to the Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church in Haiti.

“Suitable projects and assignments for volunteer teams wishing to contribute to the recovery effort will not be identified until this process is complete,” he wrote in a January 28 letter to the United Methodist Church.

Paul estimates work teams for priority projects probably could schedule trips for late March and April, once the emergency relief and debris-removal phase is completed. Rehabilitation work also needs to be completed at the Methodist Guest House before the building can host volunteer teams again.

Paul expressed deep gratitude for the outpouring of love and support from United Methodists. “You have kept us in your prayers and we are grateful. You have sent donations through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. We thank you for your generosity. You have expressed your selfless interest in volunteering your time to come to Haiti to help with the recovery effort and we look forward to welcoming you.”

Once areas for relief and rehabilitation are prioritized, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission “will be integral in the long-term recovery of the church and communities in Haiti, and opportunities will soon be available to come and help in meaningful ways,” he wrote.

UMCOR executive Melissa Crutchfield expects medical personnel, structural engineers, and architects will be among the skilled volunteers needed at the beginning of the recovery process.

Debris removal must be done before rebuilding can begin and UMCOR and the Methodist Church in Haiti are among the groups organizing cleanup teams of local citizens in cash-for-work programs.

Structural engineers and architects are among the skilled volunteers who can contribute to what most likely will be a national rebuilding plan, Crutchfield points out. “It’s critical that we have some experts to lay a solid foundation,” she says.

In time, however, many types of volunteers can partner with the Methodist Church in Haiti in both spiritual and practical ways through the earthquake-recovery period. “I believe there’s an opportunity for volunteers in the longer term for rebuilding not only the church structures but the church community,” Crutchfield says.

Donations to support UMCOR’s Haiti Relief efforts can be made to Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance #418325. You can donate online, or write checks to UMCOR with “Advance #418325 Haiti Emergency” in the memo line. Checks can be put in church offering plates or mailed to: UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. The entire amount of each gift will be used to help the people of Haiti.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.


Fallen UM mission leaders remembered in Haiti
By Kathy L. Gilbert

Walking up the curving driveway to the Hotel Montana, Melissa Crutchfield stopped several times to pick flowers.

Crutchfield, United Methodist Committee on Relief international disaster response director, was on her way to a memorial service for two United Methodist executives and friends who died in the hotel after being trapped inside during the January 12 earthquake.

The Rev. Sam Dixon, top executive of UMCOR, and the Rev. Clinton Rabb, executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, both died from their injuries. The January 22 memorial service occurred at the same time a funeral service for Dixon was taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabb was remembered January 23 in a service in Austin, Texas.

Dixon and Rabb went to Haiti to discuss projects to improve life in the impoverished island nation. They were in the hotel when the quake hit. Both men were trapped for several days in the rubble before rescuers found them. The initial elation at their discovery turned to grief when neither mission worker survived.

“This time last week, we thought they were alive,” Sharad Aggarwal, another colleague from UMCOR, said as he walked inside the hotel gates to the service.
The Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church of Haiti, and the Rev. Marlo Despestra, also an official with the church, coordinated the service that was attended by Crutchfield, Aggarwal, and the Rev. Edgar Avitia Legarda, an executive with the mission agency. The three are in Haiti preparing the way for UMCOR to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake.

The private service began with the singing of “Amazing Grace.” While Paul prayed, a search and rescue team was still working to recover bodies from the rubble.

“They came to help us,” Despestra said. “It must have been a very painful time, they must have suffered a lot. We don’t understand why or ask God why. The God who created us is with us now.”

The small gathering said The Lord’s Prayer together.

“We commit their souls to God and his Son. We know one day we will have the privilege of being with them in heaven,” Paul said. “The Methodist Church in Haiti is grateful for their service.”

Crutchfield left the small bouquet of pink, white, and red flowers on the rubble.

Kathy L. Gilbert is a news writer for the United Methodist News Service on assignment in Haiti.


Clinton Rabb celebrated for making a difference
By David Briggs and Linda Bloom

A mission leader who died serving one of the world’s poorest nations was remembered as a friend and advocate for the most vulnerable of God’s children.

More than 700 friends, family, and mission workers from throughout the world packed University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, January 23 to celebrate the life of the Rev. Clinton Rabb, 60, who died from injuries received in the rubble of the earthquake that struck Haiti January 12.

Tears, some laughter, and moments of profound silence filled the two-hour service that took participants from the plains of Mongolia to baptisms in Russian prisons to the darkness of post-quake Haiti as witness after witness spoke of the passion for life and faith of the director of the Mission Volunteers program at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

“As we are gathered here this day, the occasion of our worship is the death of Clinton Rabb. The purpose of our worship is to give thanks to almighty God for his life and for life eternal,” said Bishop James Dorff, who leads the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference, where Rabb was a clergy member.

In an emotional presentation of a plaque to the Rev. Suzanne Field Rabb, Clinton Rabb’s wife, Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona said the Methodist Church of Columbia wished to pay homage to the man who loved all people, “especially the smallest of this world.”

“No one,” Cardona said, “has love as big as those who give their life for their friends.”

The Rev. James Gulley, an UMCOR consultant who was trapped with Rabb and Sam Dixon, struggled to control his emotion at times as he spoke of the ordeal.
Although Rabb was pinned down in the rubble with his legs broken, Gulley said, he would spend much of his time trying to lift up Dixon to make him more comfortable by creating a makeshift bed of plaster and laptop bags.

That strength, and his resilience through days of agonizing pain and vicarious suffering, gave hope to his colleagues that Rabb would survive. At one point, as rescue workers struggled to free him, Rabb told a reporter, “Please tell my wife that I deeply love her.”

“I can’t answer the question of Job, of why some people suffer and die and others do not,” a shaken Gulley said at the memorial service. “We all will someday meet again.”

“There is a deep abiding grief, one that would extinguish the stars and dismantle the sun, with the knowledge, ‘My beloved Clint is dead,’” Suzanne Field Rabb said.

“He was my north, my south, my east, and my west,” she said. “I thought my love would last forever.”

Clinton Rabb served as a pastor and chaplain for the denomination’s Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference before joining the mission agency in 1996. He created the “In Mission Together Church to Church Partnership Program,” which links congregations, annual conferences, volunteer efforts, and mission personnel.

David Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service, Nashville, Tennessee. Linda Bloom is a news writer based in New York.


Sam Dixon remembered for life of service
By Linda Bloom

Hundreds of worshippers celebrated the life of the Rev. Sam Dixon, the leader of the United Methodist Committee on Relief who was on a mission of mercy when he died in the rubble of the Haitian earthquake.

Friends and family, United Methodists from agency leaders and bishops to North Carolina colleagues and missionaries in the field, gathered at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 22, 2010, to remember a life given in service to others.

“Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?” the Rev. William Simpson said in a moving eulogy referring to 2 Samuel 3:38.
Simpson, Dixon’s former pastor and a close friend, noted that Dixon died on the birthday of the slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. I believe that fits Sam Dixon,” Simpson said.

The Rev. James Gulley, an UMCOR consultant who was trapped with Dixon and four other colleagues in the rubble of the Hotel Montana after the earthquake, told the story of their ordeal in a voice occasionally broken by emotion.

“There were moments of hope, moments of anger, moments of humor, moments of despair,” Gulley said. Gulley said Dixon’s last words to him were, “Please tell my family I love them,” and he named his family members one by one.

“You could not be in his presence and not have a sense of his passion for his faith and for his work,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

Dixon, 60, had served as the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s top executive since 2007.

A world traveler for the business of mission, Dixon went to Haiti to discuss projects to improve life in the impoverished island nation. When he walked into the lobby of the Hotel Montana on Jan. 12—just moments before the earthquake would bring the building crashing down around him—he was anticipating a working dinner with five colleagues.

Instead, he was trapped for several days in the rubble of the hotel, pinned under a concrete slab. Rescuers eventually found the group and four colleagues were saved. They worked to free him, but it was too late. Dixon’s death was announced on Jan. 16. A fellow Global Ministries staff member, the Rev. Clinton Rabb, was pulled out but died later from his injuries.

Dixon had served for 24 years as a pastor before joining the Board of Global Ministries’ staff in 1998. He became executive director of the United Methodist Development Fund in 2001, then was elected to lead the board’s unit on evangelization and church growth two years later. In that role, he also supervised programs in mission education and relations with mission partners.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. Ted Avery, a freelance writer from Durham, N.C., contributed to this story.


Crossing boundries to share the gospel
By Robin Russell

In 1990, Rudy Rasmus was saved from a life of running a bordello with his father. Two years later, he and his wife launched St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, with just nine members.

The church has more than 9,000 members now—3,000 of whom are homeless—with 400 baptisms last year. Mr. Rasmus credits the church’s evangelistic mindset—a “radical response of love”—for the growth.
“People who need the system most are crying out for change in how the system works,” he told about 615 attendees at the Congress on Evangelism in New Orleans, January 5-8.

One of the keynote speakers at the annual event, sponsored by the Council on Evangelism and the General Board of Discipleship with the support of the Foundation for Evangelism, Mr. Rasmus told the audience that before he became a Christian, he didn’t have much use “for church or church people.” He recalled sitting in a church pew for five years waiting to see if the gospel really was true.

“There was something about this Jesus that began to change my heart,” he said. “I could no longer do or say things I used to do or say!”

He’s never forgotten his experience of finding God’s grace. He calls evangelism “love with skin on it.” And he sports a beaded goatee to make unchurched people feel more comfortable at St. John’s.

“People really need Jesus. People really want Jesus. So what’s the biggest barrier? Church folk. More specifically, preachers—which is why I wear the beard and look like a musician.”

He reminded conference attendees that Jesus came “not to condemn the world but to save it,” and that means acting more out of love than fear. St. John’s works with the marginalized and the poor, he said, yet there are no bars on the church’s windows. In the 18 years he’s been pastor, the church has never had a break-in.

“Whatever we’re afraid of grows large in our minds. It is that much more difficult to see that person as a neighbor,” he said. “It’s time for a revolution. And Jesus was the ultimate revolutionary.”

Racial boundaries
The conference drew United Methodists from across the connection—clergy and laity who are particularly interested in evangelism and outreach. Keynote speakers included Bishop Minerva Carcaño (Desert Southwest); William Paul Young, author of The Shack; the Rev. Jim Walker, co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the Rev. Kendra Creasy Dean, associate professor at Princeton University.

Bishop William Hutchinson (Louisiana) welcomed attendees to New Orleans, where he said United Methodists have had to learn to overcome racial, ethnic, and social status boundaries as they rebuild their devastated city together.
“The lives of the people in this great city have been disrupted and changed forever.…New Orleans as you knew it, no longer exists.…Cities all along the Gulf Coast were laid waste. The houses of worship were not spared.”
Residents who were dispersed from their homes and then scammed by unscrupulous contractors have had to depend on their faith communities for help, Bishop Hutchinson said. Yet some churches were reluctant, at first.

“There was to be no mixing of the established neighborhoods.…We don’t cross over into those other neighborhoods—even in the faith community,” Bishop Hutchinson said. “You want us to do what? Merge ourselves to that church? We don’t even speak to the people of that church, much less merge our worship services with that church.

“It’s so easy to go back to the way things were. If post-Katrina New Orleans has taught us anything, it has taught us that we have to return to life by another way. We cannot do it like we once did.”

Young adults respond
Jeffrey Hooker, 25, pastor of Immanuel United Methodist Church in Waltham, Massachusetts, a first-time attender at the Congress, said there are no youth in his congregation. But he still plans to use some outreach ideas he learned in a workshop: “Do youth group things” with older adults. Go bowling, have a pizza party, and encourage them to bring a friend.

“A light went on in my head,” he said. “We’ve got to change the culture of the church. ‘Evangelism’ is a dirty word in religious circles. It’s really just the calling of people, calling out the lost to be saved, offering a truth you can share.”

Kara Eidson, 27, an associate pastor at First United Methodist in Lawrence, Kan., and a provisional elder who hopes to be ordained in June, said she struggles with the “in-your-face” style of evangelism that includes handing out tracts “to save everybody regardless of whether they already attend a church.”

“I’m very passionate about reaching out to the unchurched,” she said. “I want to see us getting more involved in building relationships. We want to reach those who serve with us.”

Generational boundaries
In morning Bible studies, Bishop Will Willimon (North Alabama) stressed that the church shouldn’t ignore those who are younger than the average membership. After all, he said, Jesus was a young adult, yet he carried the “full revelation of God.”

He urged United Methodists to do more than simply “caring for the people who were previously saved in another generation and calling that ministry.”
“Why have we set up a whole organization to benefit the spiritual needs of one generation?” he asked. “…We’ve lost a sense of the Cross as the radically transforming sign of the embrace of God.”

Bishop Willimon urged United Methodists to practice the “spiritual discipline” of spending at least an hour a week with someone who’s not a Christian. “How sad when we crank down ministry to those who have already heard and who are no longer shocked by the gospel,” he said.

“We’re in the middle of a supernatural movement of a God who is determined to get back what is his. Nothing is going to stop the movement of the Holy Spirit. And one great thing about being a Christian is you get a front-row seat on the machinations of an amazing God.”

Robin Russell is the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter. This article was adapted from her lengthier story in the Reporter. Reprinted with permission of The United Methodist Reporter (www.umportal.org).

What is the gospel?

Releasing your loved ones to serve

By Frank Decker

“For what are you willing to die?” That was a sobering, yet defining query asked of me by an older pastor during the early days of my ministry. I now find myself asking aspiring missionaries that same question.

Though an unpleasant subject, it is the type of question that can serve as a filter, especially in the charting of one’s future. If I believe I am willing to offer my life in service of the gospel, but am not willing to make that level of sacrifice—simply pursuing a life-enriching adventure in another land—it may help me discern my commitment to missions in light of the risks of ministry in the developing world. And, sadly, the sudden deaths of mission officials from our own denomination in the Haiti earthquake has served as yet another severe reminder that cross-cultural ministry is often hazardous.

Furthermore, as undesirable as it is for a new missionary to consider the subject of danger overseas for one’s own life, the thought is especially unwelcome to parents with children as they contemplate missionary life as a family. Perhaps that’s why I was provoked by the question of a seemingly well-intentioned lady who asked while we were preparing to depart for our first term of service, “Are you going to take this little girl to Africa?”—apparently astounded that we would actually consider bringing our two-year-old (our only child at the time) with us to a developing nation. In retrospect, I am grateful that I did not respond with what I was thinking, “No, of course we won’t bring her to Africa. We are going to put her in a kennel for the next seven or eight years.”

Despite my sarcasm, I was convinced that God was calling our whole family to missionary service and, in my zeal, I tended to dismiss worries expressed by others about my family’s safety by categorically storing those concerns in my mental “lack of faith” file. Accompanying these thoughts was my lack of appreciation for the apprehension of extended family members; an uneasiness that was exacerbated by the fact that our only child at the time was also the only grandchild on both sides of our family.

In the wake of these discouraging detractions to our missionary aspirations, we clung to a devotional thought by Oswald Chambers: “If we obey God, he will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience.”
And yet, to be perfectly candid, I did have nagging, subterranean fears about my family’s safety in a strange land. I knew stories of missionaries who were killed or died from foreign-born illnesses. And it didn’t help that our specific assigned field of service had historically been known as “the missionary’s graveyard.”

I believe the enemy of our souls seeks to employ undue fear as a potentially debilitating weapon, and he knew that my greatest fear was the loss of a child. I subsequently learned that another tactic he uses is condemnation when, a few years later, a sense of guilt became my unwanted companion when our second child, born while we were overseas, tested positive for tuberculosis as a toddler.

Now my wife and I live in the States and our three children are grown. In recent years we’ve seen each of them serve on overseas missions without us and in that process have begun to realize the depth of what our parents felt when we moved to a new country more than 20 years ago.

I had coffee yesterday morning with a colleague who has two adult children serving in different regions of Asia. He told me that one of them, a civilian working in Iraq, felt his bed shake last week when a bomb went off near his home in Baghdad. I asked, “How do you deal with that?” He smiled and said that he and his wife often recall the quote by the renowned missionary David Livingstone, “I am immortal ‘til my work is accomplished.”

Livingstone died in Africa of dysentery and malaria, ill for the final four years of his life. Likewise, there are no guarantees that we, nor the ones we love, are immune from suffering and death on the path of obedience. And yet, the same God who gives us the wisdom to answer the question, “For what are you willing to die?” is able to provide the greater grace needed when we contemplate the costly obedience of those whom we love—whether that grace is provided in the form of divine protection or eternal perspective.

Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society.