The Church is Changing

           

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org. 

We live in a world where the church is no longer the center of the community.  This situation is our greatest challenge to reaching people with the love of Christ. A time existed not too long ago when it was much easier to get people to be a part of the church. Tod Bolsinger told of a conversation with a church member in Alabama. The man told Bolsinger that not too many years ago they didn’t have to worry about worship attendance, because if you weren’t in worship you knew your boss would ask you on Monday morning where you were.  Today involvement in church is not at the top of most people’s priority list. However, that doesn’t mean God is any less relevant.  

            We live in a world with four types of people as they relate to the church. First, people will be moving into our community looking for a church home.  If they visit with us, there is a good chance they will stay.  Second, there are those who have, for whatever reason, become dissatisfied with their current church.  If they visit with us, there is a good chance they will stay. Since worship attendance in North America has been declining for the last fifty years, these two groups will be getting smaller and smaller. The third group is those people who have given up on church.  They may have been hurt by the church or feel the church is not relevant, or for a whole host of other reasons they have left the church. Most of these people have given up on the church, but they haven’t given up on God. The final group is those people who have never been involved in the life of the church or if they have it has been sparse.  These two groups will be more difficult to reach and will take a different approach to ministry than the church is offering today.  Unlike the first two groups, the last two are increasing in numbers. These are the ones when asked about religious affiliation on a survey will mark “none.”  They have been labeled as the “nones.”  

            We live in a unique time in the life of the Church. We are at one of those 500-year intervals when the Church is going to see a dramatic shift.  We have a choice to approach the future with fear and dread or with anticipation and excitement.  I choose to approach the future with anticipation and excitement. It is exciting to be living in a time in history when God is going to do something new in the Church.  We have the opportunity shape the future of the Church if we have the courage to follow where God is leading.

            Congregations will need to offer two parallel tracks of ministry in order to reach people in all four groups I described earlier.  One track will be to continue to do what we are doing now.  Current forms of ministry are still speaking to a large number of people.  This will be the easier part of ministry now and in the future. The second track will be ministries that will reach the people in those last two groups.  This will be much more difficult.  Ministry in this track will require an abundance of experiments most of which will fail.  We will learn from those failures and try again until we find a way of successfully sharing the love of Christ.  One thing is for sure, the ministry in the second track will not be centered around having people come into our building.  Those ministries will begin with relationships where people live, work, shop, and play. These ministries will require a plenty of patience.  

            We may despair with the obstacles before us, but we serve a God who knows no obstacles.  May we see opportunities and not obstacles as we journey with God into an exciting future for the Church.  God is about to do a new thing and I want to be a part of it.  

The Courage to be Welcoming

            I preached at our Eastwood Campus on Sunday, August 18, so, there is no Facebook video of the message.  Therefore, instead of adding one more thing to the message I will share a synopsis of the message. 

            The message was The Courage to be Welcoming.The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with the Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners.  In response to the Pharisees complaining Jesus tells three parable The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son.  All three parables are about something of value that was lost, but then found and the celebrating that occurred. I chose to focus on the lost son – The Prodigal Son. 

            This is a parable about scandalous grace.  The full impact of this parable is only understood when we understand first century Middle Eastern cultural values. It was expected even demanded that children would stay with their families to work the land and care for their parents. So for the younger son to ask for his inheritance was completely unheard of, it was greatly offensive to the father. It was an insult and shameful to ask for the inheritance. It was like saying to the father I wish you were dead. However, it was even more out of character that the father would agree to give him the inheritance. Any other father would have told the son you’re out of your mind, get back to work. 

This would have been a land-based economy. A family’s wealth would have been their land. The land would have been sacred. So, the father would have divided the land gave the younger son his portion which he promptly sold, again a great insult to the father, one’s whole life and identity was tied to the land. To sell the land was to completely reject one’s family identity. He then took the money squandered it away in the foreign land. So, for the father to receive the young son back with such a welcome would have been a grace filled moment, a moment of scandalous grace. This parable would have been shocking to Jesus’ hearers, it would have been so out of character to be almost unbelievable.

The younger son after squandering all his heritance found himself with nothing. The only job he could find was feeding pigs, which would have been the worst possible job for a Jew. The son realized his father’s hired hands had more than he did. He decided to go home confess his sin and ask his father to hire him as a servant. However, when the father saw him coming he ran to his son put a robe on him, a ring on his finger, sandals on this feet, killed the fatted calf and threw a party for his son who was dead and is now alive, who was lost and is now found.

We so much like to identify with the younger brother. We like to have the assurance that regardless of what we did God will welcome us home with scandalous grace. The focus of parable is almost always on the Father and the younger son. The older brother is usually an afterthought. 

Remember Jesus told the parable in response to the Pharisees complaining because they were offended that Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners. I believe the older son is the point of the parable. The older brother was offended by everything his younger brother had done.  The younger brother had offended and insulted not only his father, but the entire family. Therefore, the older brother refused to go into the party and welcome his brother home. 

It is little more prickly for us to identify with the older brother.  Who offends you? Who is it that offends you, that would make it difficult for you to eat the person whose theological position is different than yours, person whose political views are different than yours, the person whose cultural values are different than yours, the person who doesn’t look like you or speak your language and the listgoes on.

            Who is it that you or we as a congregation need to extend scandalous grace?  We live in a polarized world and if a Christian and/or the church cannot offer scandalous grace and receivethose who offend us, who will? We need to set the example for our community and the world. 

However, it takes courage to be welcoming to those who offend us.

*I do not remember where I read the information about first century Middle Eastern culture values. I apologize for no footnote giving credit to the original author.

Fear Does not Disappear

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

            In my message Sunday I gave a definition of “courage” as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear.  After the 11:00 service Dean Donohue offered an alternative definition that I like much better.  His definition was courage is the strength to face a difficult situation even in the presence of fear.  The definition I used indicates that courage replaces fear while Dean’s definition states that even in the presence of fear we can have the strength to act. I obviously didn’t think through my definition sufficiently.  Courage doesn’t make fear simply disappear.  We may still have a racing heart, sweaty palms, a knot in our stomach, but are still able to take the first difficult steps.  If we wait for all feelings of fear to disappear, we may never act.  

            God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline. (2Tim. 1:7) Our fear comes not from God but from trusting in our own human strength. When we trust only in our own strength and abilities, we have good reason to fear. However, God has given us a spirit of power to stand in the face of fear and do the task before us.

            If you are radically rethinking the direction of your life, and you determine your life needs to go in a new direction you will need courage. We cannot face a life changing events without the courage to face down our human fears.  An important point to consider, is a new life direction initiated by God or is it just something you want to do.  Sometimes it is helpful to at least acknowledge our fears, they may have something important to tell particularly if we are changing direction for selfish reasons.  Even when we initiate change fear can be present and when change is thrust upon us, we are more likely to experience fear. Regardless of how life change comes God gives a spirit of power to face down our fears.  

Navigating Our Journeys

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

The question from yesterday’s message was, “Do we have the courage to take the inward journey of self-examination and the courage to take the outward journey of acting on what we discover?”  We do not take the outward or inward journey alone; the Holy Spirit journeys with us.  It is impossible to successfully navigate the inward journey alone. God gives us, through the Holy Spirit, the spirit of power, love and self-discipline.  None of us are prefect, so without the spirit of power we will be too fearful to truthfully acknowledge our imperfection. The inward journey will reveal the aspects of our lives where we are fruitful and with those discovers we can celebrate.  However, the same inward journey will reveal where we have failed.  

            We can rejoice in our fruitfulness and ignore our failures, but this approach leaves us stagnate. The only for us to grow is to learn from our failures and correct them. Our outward journey will require some action on our part. The necessary actions will be challenging, if not we would have already been executing them.  The same Holy Spirit who gave the power to look inward will also give us the power to act. 

            Receiving the promised spirit of power assumes a very important component.  Most of us believe in God or some concept of a god. We have no problem professing what we believe using the Apostle’s Creed either out of rote or conviction. However, belief is simply the intellectual accent to an idea, concept, or doctrine. Belief falls just short of where we need to be to receive the spirit of power needed to live as fully committed followers of Christ.  We need to be able to trust God with our lives.  

            Believing in God is one thing, but to fully trusting God with our lives is something completely different.  Where is your trust; in your own abilities and intellect, in your wealth, in your job, in another person, in blind hope?  All of these things can fail you; God is the only one that will not fail you.  We may think God has failed us in the midst of a tragedy, but that is a result of faulty theology (which is more than this post can address). Trust means being able to honestly pray a prayer of indifference. 

            The prayer of indifference is not about being apathic it is about being willing to trust God with our lives regardless of what may come. The prayer of indifference is Mary’s prayer, “Let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) Praying a prayer of indifference and more importantly being able to successfully navigate our journeys require us to trust God.