Saturday, October 28, 2017
This week we continue our reflections on “God’s Envision for the Future of the Church.” However, this week marks a significant shift in our focus. Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the statistical decline, experienced by the institutional Church in the U.S. We have also discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.
This week, I want to shift focus to the present Church and why I love it so much. My foundational scripture this week is Philippians 1: 3-11:
"I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Biblical scholars[i] believe that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians for two reasons. First, to update and reassure the Philippians about his own situation. Secondly, to commend Epaphroditus to the Philippians, as he returned to them after helping Paul.
When we consider these 8 verses, I believe that they should be read as a love letter from the Apostle Paul to the Philippian Church. This passage reveals a special bond and relationship, which exists between Paul and the Philippians. Paul begins his letter with gratitude, writing that he thanks God for the Philippians, whenever he prays for them. Further, Paul’s prayers are always filled with joy because of the love and support, which the Philippian congregation has given to him. This joy indicates the depth of Paul’s gratitude for the Philippian church.
Paul lifts up their “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now…”. Biblical scholars debate what he means by “sharing in the gospel.” Regardless of the various interpretations, it seems clear that at its core, “sharing in the gospel” refers to the Philippians helping Paul in his ministry. The Philippians have been strong co-workers or partners in the Gospel. Paul may also be referring to financial support provided by the Philippians. Professor Hooker notes that the Greek word which he uses, koinoneo, is used in other letters “with reference to financial contributions.” (See Romans 15:26 2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13. See also Romans 12:13 and Galatians 6:6. Similarly, Paul uses a cognate of this word later in Philippians; see 4:15.)[ii]
Further, Paul is confident that God, “who began a good work…will bring it to completion…” That is to say, Paul believes that the Philippian Christians will continue growing in faith and love, until completed in “the day of Jesus Christ;” that is, the end of the age.
Paul claims that the Philippian Christians “share in God’s grace,” both while he was imprisoned for his faith and in the “defense and confirmation of the gospel.” Notice that Paul does not claim that the Philippians have shared in his missionary work or in the sufferings he has endured because of that work. Rather, Paul claims that they have shared in the grace from God, which has sustained and inspired him throughout his work and suffering. Finally, Paul concludes this passage by remarking about how much he misses the Philippian church and how much he loves the Philippian Christians.
To summarize verses 3 - 8, Paul writes a love letter to the Philippian Church, in which he lifts up the following dimensions:
3. Partnership in the Gospel; or partnership in discipleship
4. Spiritual growth in faith and love, which is ongoing
5. Sharing God’s grace
In the final verses of this love letter (vv. 9-11), Paul closes by offering up a prayer, or blessing, for the Philippian Christians. Paul prays that the Philippians’ love may overflow more and more as they grow in their relationship with God. Paul prays that their love may be informed by knowledge and insight, so that the Philippians may live lives that are “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ...”.
Paul understands that authentic Christian faith changes and shapes the lives of Christians—both individually and in community. Our close relationship of love with the Divine transforms who we are and how we act. For Paul, these transformed lives lead to glory and praise for God. That is, Christians experience a transformation through the love and grace of God. This transformation leads to new lives defined by love, moral purity, righteousness, and justice.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, October 29th. This Sunday, I will use this Paul’s love letter to the Philippian Church as the framework and basis to share my deep love for the congregation, which I have been appointed to pastor. Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come, join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
Over the past weeks, we have been asking, “What Does God Envision for the Future of the Church?” We began by noting that over the past 50 years the American Church has been in statistical decline as measured in terms of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance. We also observed that this statistical decline has been matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society. As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized. This has created a crisis within the Church.
Then, last week we saw that with crisis comes opportunity. A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine. Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis opens us to envisioning a new and better future. But, what counts as a faithful vision for the future of the Church? I suggested that a faithful vision for the future must encompass four distinct dimension of the Church. That is, a faithful vision for the future must include four dimensions of churches as communities of faith:
1. A community of faith.
2. A commitment to spiritual growth.
3. A commitment to mercy, justice, and love.
4. A community which worships together.
As we continue our reflections this week, I would like for us to focus on the inevitable fear and anxiety which inevitably accompanies change and adaptation. With any major change in our lives there is always uncertainty. We don’t know how the adaptation will work out. Will it succeed? Or, fail? We don’t know how a major change will affect us. Will the change hurt us? Or embarrass us?
Since there is uncertainty, we seek to avoid adaptation and change. Even though the status quo may no longer be working; even though it may clearly harm us, there is something comfortable about the status quo because the status quo is a known. By contrast, change and adaptation is always uncertain and, therefore, risky. As a result, it is natural to resist change and adaptation. We seek to avoid the unknown and uncertain. Change and adaptation are inherently risky.
There is good reason to be prudent with change and adaptation. We should never change just for the sake of change. Instead, we should carefully assess and weigh the risks before embracing change. On the one hand, we should avoid the extreme of recklessness; throwing caution to the wind and plunging into change without first counting the costs and assessing the risks. On the other hand, we should also avoid an extreme caution which paralyses us and prevents the implementation of needed adaptation. We must chart a middle course between extreme recklessness and extreme caution.
Yet, what if it is God who is calling us to change and adapt?
My reflections this week are informed by a scriptural passage from Joel 2:28-29.
“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
For much of my life, I have not fully understood this passage from the prophet Joel. I have always skimmed over the first part of the passage and focused on prophecy, dreams, and visions. These are important concepts in the passage. Yet, note that they are framed at the beginning and ending with these words from God: “I will pour out my spirit.”
“I will pour out my spirit.” This promise is critical to understanding the entire passage. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier provides the critical interpretative key, when she writes: “God promises to pour out the Spirit, on ‘all flesh’ …The Spirit of God throughout the OT was a gift of power, given in order that the recipient might do a particular job for God…”.[i] In other words, when God calls upon us to change and adapt; when God calls upon us to undertake the risks and uncertainty of change and adaptation, God also provides the power and ability to change. When we are confronted by fear and anxiety in the face of needed change, we should also be re-assured by the faith that God will provide the power to change and adapt. God will provide a way. We just need to trust God.
However, trusting that God will provide can be a bigger challenge than the discomfort which comes from change and adaptation. You see, I prefer to rely upon myself, rather than to trust others—even God. I have spent my whole life relying upon myself and my abilities; trying to be independent and self-sufficient. From an early age in American culture, each of us is taught to stand on our own; to take care of ourselves and our own; to be independent. Unfortunately, a byproduct of that self-reliance is difficulty in trusting others, especially God.
As I have reflected on my own inability to trust fully, I have come to see that my lack of trust in God is fundamentally a form of agnosticism. That is, my reluctance to trust that God will guide and sustain me through important changes actually boils down to a small residue of doubt in God and God’s providence. Thus, to recognize the need for change and to trust that God will guide us through that change is actually an opportunity for spiritual growth. It is, fundamentally, an opportunity to grow in our Christian faith; to become deeper in our faith by developing a stronger capacity to trust that we are not alone. God is with us.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, October 22nd, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “A Vision for the Future of the Church.” Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier commentary on Joel in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
This Sunday, October 15th, we continue our series exploring the future of the Christian Church in general and the future of Christ United Methodist Church in particular.
In my initial post on this topic last week, I focused on the crisis facing American Christianity. Over the past 50 years, the major statistical measures of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance have all been in decline for Christian churches. For instance, over the past 30 years, membership in The United Methodist Church has declined by approximately 2 million people, from 9 million to 7 million. During this same period of time, there were similar declines at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, the congregation where I serve as Senior Pastor.
This statistical decline is matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society. As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized. We can say with confidence that the Church is in crisis.
Yet, with crisis comes opportunity. Based upon history and my experiences in life, I believe that frequently an individual or organization must suffer a catastrophic failure before gaining the vision and drive to achieve phenomenal results in the future. It is easy to slip into the complacency of the routine; to follow the same patterns again and again because they have always worked in the past and, as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When we slip into the complacency of the routine, we no longer see new and different possibilities. Further the complacency of the routine provides security and assurance. As a result, we become resistant to change; we find ourselves saying, “But, we’ve never done it that way before.”
A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine. Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis open us to envisioning a new and better future. With crisis comes opportunity. So, despite the staggering statistical decline of the Church, I am extremely optimistic about its future. I believe that the Church will shrug off its complacency of the routine and experience a renewal that is not only statistical and social, but also spiritual. This renewal must begin by trying to envision a new future for the Church that is faithful to God.
How do we envision a faithful future for the Church?
To envision a faithful future, I believe that we must begin with the fundamental structure and pattern of the early Church, as summarized in Acts 2: 42-47:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2: 42-47)
In this description, I discern four distinct requirements for envisioning a faithful future for the future Church:
1. A Community of Faith. The early church was a community of the faithful. In Acts’ summary of the early church, it says that the first Christians devoted themselves to fellowship; that they broke bread together in their homes and shared their food with glad and generous hearts. Most importantly, these early community of faith were growing “day by day.” While contemporary churches frequently cultivate community among their members, these communities are not growing “day by day.” Instead, many communities of faith are stagnant or declining. In addition, most communities of faith are very homogeneous, in terms of race, economic class, and social perspective. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the most segregated hour in America was the Sunday hour of Christian worship. A faithful vision of the future of the Church must include building communities of faith, which are “diversity oriented” and radically inclusive.
2. Committed to Spiritual Growth. In the early church, the first Christians were constantly listening to the apostle’s teachings. The apostles were the living eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, the contemporary situation is different, but spiritual growth remains an important component of the church. Much spiritual growth occurs through Bible studies. Other types of studies are important, as well, such as studies of spiritual practices or of special topics. We also grow spiritually by learning from different perspectives.
3. Committed to Mercy, Justice, and Love. The first Christians shared their possessions in common with one another and distributed goods to everyone as they had need. Essentially, the first Christians lived in a religious commune, sharing with one another. Our context in the twenty-first century is radically different. Yet, a commitment to mercy, justice, and love remains. By mercy, I mean the care of those who have severe needs. Mercy ministries include feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming the stranger or refugee. Mercy ministries may also include visiting those in prison, sitting with those who are lonely, or comforting those who are grieving. Sometimes, it is unfair political structures or an economic system, which has been rigged so that it deprives persons of the resources which they need to care for themselves. So, out of love for all human persons, Christ’s disciples must work for justice, so that everyone may have the basic necessities needed in order to care for themselves and thrive.
4. Worship Together. Finally, the early Christians prayed together, spent time in the Temple together, and praised God together. In other words, the first Christians worshipped together. For most of church history, Christians have worshiped in the similar manner and time, without much diversity. However, in the twenty-first century, churches developed several different styles of worship, as well as diversifying the times and places in which we worship. This is an important development because Christians have different tastes and preferences for worship. One of the challenges for envisioning a faithful future for the Church is to expand the scope of worship, so that it is more inclusive of different people and circumstances.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, October 15th, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “”A Vision for the Church.” This Sunday, I will discuss these four criteria for envisioning a faithful future, as they may apply to Christ United Methodist Church. Christ United is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, October 7, 2017
This Sunday, October 8th, we begin an exciting and timely new sermon series, entitled: “A Vision for the Church.” In this series, we will focus on the future of the Christian Church in general and the future of Christ United Methodist Church in particular.
What is the future of the Church?
In the American Mainline Protestant churches—which include United Methodists—the prospects do not look good. Over the past 50 years, the major statistical measures of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance have all been in decline. For instance, over the past 30 years, membership in The United Methodist Church has declined by approximately 2 million people, from 9 million to 7 million. During this same period of time, there were similar declines at Christ United Methodist Church, the congregation that I serve as Senior Pastor. For instance, membership at Christ UMC declined from 1407 in 1985 to 879 in 2016. Similarly, average weekly attendance declined from 433 in 1985 to 280 in 2016.
Even more seriously, this statistical decline has recently been accelerating. For instance, the number of adult members in all Mainline Protestant Churches, including the United Methodist Church, declined by five million, from 41 to 36 million, during the seven-year period, from 2007 to 2014. Simultaneously with the rapid decline in Mainline Protestant Christianity, there has been rapid growth in the religious “nones,” those individuals who claim no religious affiliation. During this same 7-year time period, religious “nones” increased by 19 million! The religious “nones” can be subdivided into three broad groups: (1) atheists, (2) agnostics, and (3) people for whom religion is simply unimportant in their lives.
In surveys exploring why religious “nones” were no longer affiliated with a church, the Pew Research Center discovered several explanations, including the following:
· “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”
· “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”
· “Religion is the opiate of the people.”
· “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.”
· “Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.”
· “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.”
· “Because I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business…it’s all about money.”
· “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion.”
Clearly, if the Church is to have a future, then we must adapt and change to be better in ministry to the world. The habits, viewpoints, methods, and attitudes that worked effectively for so long are now obsolete and ineffective. Churches must begin moving and changing, if they are to reverse this decline and begin to thrive again.
I’ve included a riddle in my Proclamation this week: “What Do Sharks and the Church Have In Common?” The answer is that both sharks and the Church must continually be on the move—or, they die. Marine biologists tell us that some species of shark—including the great white shark, the mako shark, and the hammerhead shark—must continually swim without rest, throughout their lives. These sharks are called obligate ram ventilators. They no longer have the ability to pump water through their gills, while at rest. Instead, they must continually swim in order for the water to pass through their gills, enabling them to “breathe” and take in oxygen. Presumably if these sharks ever stopped swimming, they would asphyxiate and die. Thus, these sharks must continually move in order to live.
Churches are like these obligate ram ventilator species of sharks. If churches become satisfied and complacent with the status quo; if churches stop adapting and innovating, then they will die, as well. Churches stop moving when they become complacent, self-satisfied, and inward looking; that is, when they cease to be faithful to God. Churches that are faithful to God are constantly on the move, looking for new ways to adapt and change in order to ministry for completely and effectively. These churches are constantly asking, “What is God calling us to do now?” What new ministry or program should we be starting? These churches are continually looking for and moving towards new opportunities. They are willing to take risks, try out new possibilities, and be uncomfortable in response to God’s call—these churches are constantly on the move.
While changing and adapting may force us to move beyond our comfort zones, the Church at other times in history has faced a similar path. In our scripture reading this week, the early church faced a similar challenge, requiring change and adaptation. The story is contained in Acts 15: 1-2, 6-12. In this chapter, the early Church faces a critical question: Must a Gentile first become a Jew, in order to become part of the early Christian Church? It seems that some Pharisaic Christian extremists in Antioch believed that Gentile converts must become circumcised in order to be included as full Christian brothers. These purists became embroiled in a heated argument with Paul and Barnabas. So, it was agreed that Paul and Barnabas would travel to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and Church elders.
Although this question had been discussed and decided earlier (see Acts 11), it clearly was still open in the minds of some of the early questions. So, at a Church Council in Jerusalem, the matter was discussed again. In this Council, the Apostle Peter gave the group clarity, when he argued that, “…we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).
Rather than clinging to the established attitudes and customs from before, the early Church made a commitment to adapt and change in order to take advantage of a new possibility opened up by God: the conversion and response of many Gentiles to the Good News of God’s love.
Although the statistical decline of the American Church seems daunting, I believe that this decline simultaneously offers new possibilities for the Church to conduct a rigorous self-assessment and make some much needed changes and adaptations. As a result, I have a vision for a rejuvenated Church that emerges with revitalized faith, energized to share the Good News of God’s love and empowered to help establish God’s Reign on earth.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, October 8th, as we begin this very important series of reflections on “”A Vision for the Church.” Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
 Michael Lipka, “Mainline Protestants make up shrinking number of U.S. adults,” Pew Research Center, 18 May 2015, at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/18/mainline-protestants-make-up-shrinking-number-of-u-s-adults/ accessed online 4 October 2017.
 Michael Lipka, “A Closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones,’ Pew Research Center, 15 May 2015, at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones accessed online 4 October 2017.
 Michael Lipka, “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind,” Pew Research Center, 24 August 2016, at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind accessed online 4 October 2017.