Archive for the 'Revitalization' Category

The Main Thing Is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

That’s my prayer for the 2000+ clergy and lay members of our United Methodist General Conference that convenes April 24 in Tampa, Florida. “God, keep these brothers and sisters focused on the MainThing. Remind them daily that 1) other United Methodists (or variously-labeled Christians) are not the enemy;  2) one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results ; and 3) how they do their business (as those who know and follow Jesus) matters to the watching church and world at least as much  as what they do.”

The Main Thing is not institutional survival. We’ve invested huge amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, dialog, money, and paper in analyzing the denomination’s decline and seeking ways to reverse that decline. (This decline, of course, affects many churches besides the United Methodist Church. Decisions about restructuring, revitalizing (and giving up buzzwords for Lent?) must not become desperate efforts to hang on by our fingernails. Survival-driven decisions are doomed from the outset: “[Jesus said]…those who want to save their life  will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I certainly don’t expect survival anxiety to overwhelm this General Conference. Too many of the members have strong and vital faith, deep commitment, and a burning vision of a stronger-than-ever UMC. I’m rooting–and praying–for them. The greatest obstacle to claiming the future God has for us may turn out to be a deeper anxiety. Call it “relevance” anxiety; “Does anybody care?” anxiety; “Is anybody listening?” anxiety; “Do we matter any more?” anxiety. Large segments of society get along quite well without Christian underpinnings, thank you. Irrelevance, indifference, and apathy might well be a fate worse than “losing our life”.

It’s happening in Europe. In a recent Huffington Post article George Courtauld writes, “There is no question that Britain is becoming a more secular society…the establishment, many politicians and much of the media…dismiss all religions as equally nonsensical, embarrassing and irrelevant…In modern Britain and much of Europe now the religious are regarded as insane or silly.” Sadly, Courtauld’s solution is a book aimed at acquainting us with the Christian customs and traditions that underlie English-speaking civilization. It’s an interesting, helpful book. But a book’s not enough. “When the fullness of time had come,” God didn’t send a book. “God sent his son…”(Galatians 4:4 NRSV)–The Main Thing! A person is relevant in ways a book can never be.

Our UMC’s official language says our Main Thing is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This General Conference will succeed–or fail–to the extent it equips and empowers that mission throughout our wondrously diverse denomiation. Dear GC (and other beyond-local-church folk), please give us some tools, some wisely-focused funding, and some inspiration. Clear away the bureaucratic clutter that distracts us from The Main Thing. And please let the Holy Spirit help you become our cheering section and earn to give us just the right kind and amount of help, which is usually almost as much as we think we need. (Thanks to Kennon Callahan for that wisdom.)

Lest you think this is an exercise in bashing bureaucrats and denominational power players–Whatever happens in Tampa, the future of the church is not in the hands of those folks. It’s in our hands–you and me and folks like us in thousands of local churches. It’s in the way we love and serve our neighbors in the spirit of Jesus. It’s in the way we step boldly into the future believing that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s in the way we dare to pray not only for our brothers and sisters in Tampa but for ourselves and our congregations: Keep us focused on The Main Thing–making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Make us willing to lose our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Free us from the insanity of doing the same old things and expecting different results. Give us holy boldness to follow you in new ways and places. Let the fullness of time come wherever we serve you. Let people see Jesus convincingly and unmistakably through our lives and our life together.”

That embodied (incarnational) love of Jesus will look very different in our different circumstances. How will it look where you live your life and follow Jesus?


Jesus Kissed the Easter Bunny???

“Can anyone tell me why we celebrate Easter?” the teacher asked. A seven-year-old girl answered in her best “Here’s a wild guess” tone–“Because Jesus kissed the Easter bunny?” The teacher was my daughter. Working hard to keep a straight face (and to keep from embarassing the child), she told the girl to be sure she came back the next Sunday (Easter) to learn much more. Karin says this girl [whom we’ll call Janet] attends irregularly, mostly because of her not-very-stable home life.

We laughed about this incident when Karin retold it that night. But underlying the laughter was a sadness. Janet’s confusion isn’t an isolated example. Janet represents countless children who don’t know the basics of the Christian story. They live in a confusing conglomeration of cultural myths (Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, The Grinch,etc.) and elements of traditional religous stories. Their young minds may well hear both cultural myths and traditional faith stories as equally “mythical”. The confusion is heightened when the faith stories are “out of context”, i.e., when they’re not rooted in a family’s consistent faithful lifestyle.

The confusion isn’t only in young minds. My wife went to the store to get some Easter cards–a big-box retailer, not a “Christian” store. “It’s really hard to find Easter cards about Easter ,” she proclaimed upon her return. Her diligent search for bunny-free, egg-free cards that celebrated the Christian holiday in Christian terms had yielded minimal results. Her experience reinforces the uncomfortable truth. Organized religion is increasingly marginalized in our society. We no longer see throngs of traditional Ozzie-and-Harriet families spending every Sunday morning at their neighborhood church. Too many churches have hidden their heads in the sand in recent decades while two and now three generations have grown up with no significant Christian memory. They don’t speak our language–and for the most part, we don’t speak theirs.

But Janets (and Jameses) keep showing up  every Sunday morning. Somebody in their life thinks they should be there. God keeps giving us new chances with these children (and the adults in their lives). Our wise/foolish God trusts us and our “perfectly imperfect” faith communities to be the source through which they experience Limitless Unconditional Love. Here are some things we can do to be ready for Janet and James next Sunday:

1) LET’S GET OUR STORY STRAIGHT. Let’s learn our story well enough to be able to tell it to one another–and to a stranger. Let’s be sure our leaders,  teachers, and families (in all their diverse forms) know the basic stories of our faith and why those stories matter.

2) LET’S LOVINGLY HELP JANET LEARN THE STORY. “Be sure to come back next week” was a good start.  Janet doesn’t always have control over that. Inexpensive children’s books that tell the Christmas and Easter stories are readily available. Keep some on hand to send home. A teacher might give it to whoever picks up Janet with a  brief explanation–“Janet was curious about this. We covered as much as we had time for. Perhaps you could help her at home.” Or a teacher might ask the whole class to work together to tell the story.

3) KEEP WORKING ON OUR WELCOME. Many newcomers are remarkably uncomfortable about their first visit to a church. Little things we take for granted can turn them off. Special care and attention  can “seal the deal” and touch them deeply because they aren’t treated that well anywhere else in their lives.

4) DARE TO MAKE THE CHANGES NECESSARY TO MAKE ROOM FOR JANET, JAMES, AND THEIR FAMILIES. Most folks in nearly every church I know say they want to reach Janet, James, and their families. But when ” crunch time” comes and we face the reality of adjusting programming, Sunday schedule, worship styles, and $pending, tremendous resistance arises. I’ve seen it happen too many times in too many places. Janet and James are important–but not important enough to disrupt my comfort zone in my church.

Whose church?? Maybe that’s the problem. When we really get that part of the story straight, all the other pieces will begin to fall into place. Janet, James, and their families will be more welcome than they ever dared to hope. All of us will be amazed by the depth and power of the God whose love we know in Jesus–who never kissed any bunnies as far as I know, but loves them just the same as he loves every one of God’s creatures–including you, me, and Janet.

What a Concept (Revised)

[Something strange happened on the way to the “publish” button. My work-in-progress launched too soon. I’m not sure what you got, but here’s what I intended to share. Thanks for your patience.]

I heard today about a group called “Red Letter Christians”. The “Red Letters” are the ones that identify the words of Jesus in many Bibles. (Yes, I know the technical issues that make this les-than-accurate. But let’s set those aside for now.) Red Letter Christians think Jesus meant what he said. They believe following Jesus means walking his talk. In their own words, “The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” (Follow this link to learn more:

What a concept! Being a Christian means taking Jesus at his word(s)–especially the ones that make us squirm. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) may well have  inspired more weasel-words from those who call themselves Christian than any other Bible passage: “He meant these words for the Twelve, not for everybody.” “He was talking about life in the coming Kingdom of God, not the real world.” “These are ideals, not prescriptions for daily life.” Jesus’ first disciples thought Jesus meant just what he said. The early church thought Jesus meant what he said. Throughout history a lot of folks (like Gandhi), who’ve said they’d be Christian if the Christians they knew were more like Jesus, have believed Jesus meant what he said.

Clarence Jordan ( thought Jesus meant what he said.  Clarence was born into a middle-class white family in Talbotton, Georgia in 1912. As a young man, he was deeply disturbed by the racial inequality and injustice he saw. His concern led him to a Ph. D. in New Testament Greek at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1938. But he didn’t take refuge in the academic world. In 1942 he and his wife and another couple moved their families onto 440 acres outside Americus, Georgia. They started what they called “Koinonia Farm”, an interracial Christian farming community. What were they thinking in the Deep South in 1942?? “To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Somewhere between 70 and 85% of the churches in this country are declining in attendance and membership. Most of them are looking for answers. They say they’d love to reach unchurched people, especially “young people”.But most of those folks want nothing to do with playing church. Most of what’s on a typical church’s weekly calendar has no connection with their lives. They are unchurched (or de-churched) because they believe Jesus meant what he said and they haven’t found a church that looks and acts it does. But when they do discover a church that takes them seriously as persons and takes Jesus at his word(s), they’re all in!

Want to revitalize your church? Lose the gimmicks. Run off (with Christian love) that expert with all the answers who’ll head home about the time you’re trying to sell his miracle cure to the folks who never trusted him anyway. Center your life together around Matthew 5-7. Read the Sermon on the Mount together–slowly, reflectively, prayerfully. Imagine what “taking Jesus seriously” looks like in your lives and in your life together. Explore the life of Clarence Jordan and other Christians who’ve made the Sermon on the Mount the centerpiece of their discipleship. Don’t just sit there and study. Identify a step you feel called to take. Start with a very small step. Now give one another the gift of mutual encouragement and accountability. Dare to ask God to form you into people and a church that looks and acts like Jesus. What a concept!