“When we remain in Jesus, his joy is our joy, and we discover fully mature, fully complete joy for our lives,” Bishop Ough told members of the 2018 Annual Conference Session.
He then asked: “What is Jesus’ big idea, around which all his praying, teaching, healing, miracle-working, dying, and rising is aligned? What is the one thing Jesus wants his disciples to get, to comprehend, to live, to make known…‘so that the world may believe that God sent him?’ (John 17:21b)”
He points to Mark’s gospel. One of the scribes asks Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” In response, Jesus recites the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God and the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
“Love First is about remembering that God alone is God,” said Ough. “Love First is about staying in love with God.”
But, Jesus quickly adds a second commandment to the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the scribe asked for only the first commandment, Jesus refuses to separate what is inseparable. He puts the two into one. For Jesus, genuine fulfillment of the Shema will result in genuine love of neighbor.
Bishop Ough invited all 250 Dakotas United Methodist churches to grow old loving God. “Let us make the first and essential commandment of Jesus the very core of our lives, and the very core of our congregations.” If we do, he said, we will become Love First congregations, a Love First conference, and a Love First movement.
Love First congregations
Bishop Ough shared three of the most distinctive characteristics of Love First congregations. They:
• Live the United Methodist way: Love First churches actively assist individuals to live as United Methodist Christian disciples. They intentionally encourage, invite, and equip people to embrace and live a life of personal holiness and social holiness—to embrace the piety of loving God and to engage in the kingdom work of loving all of God’s people. Love First churches encode this Methodist DNA in the souls of those they disciple. Ough pointed out that our Methodist ancestor, John Wesley, not only set the mark for a United Methodist disciple; he gave us three general rules to help us live a faithful life in response to Jesus’ first commandment: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. “These three simple rules…are the hallmark of the Wesleyan Christian disciple and the Love First church,” Ough said. “We are the ones, who by our own practice and teaching of these three simple rules, can demonstrate the dynamics of a Love First church.”
• Tell their Jesus stories: Love First churches encourage and enable their members and constituents to tell their Jesus stories. This is our why story: why I love Jesus; why I follow Jesus; why I love my neighbors; why I seek the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; why I stay united to the vine; why I work for peace and justice and healing a broken world; why I maintain the unity of the church; why I strive to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God; why I have given my life to encouraging others to have faith; and why I continue to say “yes” every time Jesus calls. “It is in experiencing, remembering and telling our Jesus stories that we come to learn our true identity,” Ough said. “Our Jesus stories, our why stories, our declarations of who Jesus is in our lives and the world, are the only foundation upon which the kingdom of heaven on earth can be built—not our programs, not our structures, not our finances, not our human cleverness or even our human teaching, but our Jesus stories.”
• Generate Love First fruit: Love First churches generate Love First fruit. They know it is not enough to say they love God. They know it is not sufficient to say that they love their neighbors. Love First churches put their love into action: They build transformative relationships. They go to the edges. They are radically inclusive. They seek out the lost, the least, the lonely, the left-out and left-behind. They lead people to Jesus. They love justice. They walk humbly with God.
Journey Toward Vitality
God’s vision for every congregation in the Dakotas is to provide joyful expression to Jesus’ core missional imperatives: to love God and neighbor, to reach new people, and to heal a broken world, said Ough. And, in looking at 2017 numbers, there is evidence that being intentional about these imperatives is bearing fruit within our conference:
• People professing their faith in Jesus through our churches increased by a whopping 112 percent.
• Total professing membership increased 2.4 percent.
• Weekly average attendance in Sunday School or other weekly education classes increased by 17 percent.
• People served by our community ministries of outreach, justice, and mercy increased 11 percent to 193,954 individuals.
• We are engaged in 18 church plants and multiplication projects across the Dakotas Conference.
• For the seventh consecutive year, the Dakotas had an increase in average worship attendance—which grew by 5.5 percent.
“I desire to spread God’s love to every person in Dakotas; don’t you?” said Ough. “The Dakotas Conference is going on to perfection in love. This is a journey that lasts a lifetime…This is a journey to become Love First congregations…When our conflicted, divided, broken world looks at the people called United Methodist practicing the three simple rules, they will exclaim, ‘Look at how they, in all of their diversity, love Jesus, love one another, and love us! They are a Love First church! There is hope for the world!’”
Download a complete script of the Episcopal Address here.