“Look! I am doing a new thing…” (Isa. 43:19a)
Change never comes easy. And yet change is one of the only constants in our life. People come and go in our lives. We move to new places and begin new jobs. We raise our kids and they eventually move out on their own to live their own lives independent from our constant care.
And sometimes our beloved churches enter into a new season of ministry where the familiar things change so that new life can spring forth.
This past Sunday, Aldersgate United Methodist Church voted to enter into a new season of ministry as it will merge with Cokesbury and Speedwell United Methodist Churches effective in June 2016. This decision did not come without much discussion. Over the past few weeks there have been conversations in living rooms, small group meetings, and on Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour. People have asked questions, shared thoughts, and bore their hearts as we considered such a life-altering change. Even those who voted to support this change did so with a heavy heart knowing it would mean saying goodbye to many familiar things they have always associated with being a part of the church.
Needless to say, it was a bittersweet day filled with a variety of emotions. As pastor, I do NOT take it lightly that so many struggled with this decision. Likewise, I do not take it lightly how so many have stressed and worried about our future for so many years. Aldersgate has been in numerical decline for many years now. And financial resources are becoming more and more of a worry. The blessing of a great facility has become a double-edged sword as the building has become more and more difficult (and expensive) to maintain. I am grateful for the courage of so many who made the difficult decision to merge with these other two churches even when it means changing the ways we’ve always seen ourselves as the church. This church is filled with brave saints of God.
For those who do not know, let me share a little about this merger process and what we hope the end result will be.
The joining of Aldersgate, Cokesbury, and Speedwell will, in effect, create a beautifully diverse congregation made up of roughly 50% Caucasian members and 50% African-American members. The vision of a diverse and exciting worship experience will be led by laity and staff who reflect the beauty and diversity of the community. The move would bring Aldersgate and members from Speedwell into the building currently occupied by Cokesbury with the Aldersgate campus still being open for existing ministry (mostly mission) for the time being. Beyond that, there are many, many details yet to be determined and we have 10 months to live into this great change together.
Probably the most exciting (and scary) part of this change process is that these churches will be living into the meaning of resurrection. They will, in effect, be dying to what they have always known in order for God to raise them to new life in this new church. There is a lot of pain and joy that will accompany these next 10 months. And we will need lots of prayer. But I couldn’t be more proud to be the pastor of these courageous saints at Aldersgate who are electing to do something so wild, so risky, that it can only be described as the holy work of discipleship.
May we live the words the hymn writer offers as a gift of grace over these next 10 months:
“In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
Pittsburg Steelers Linebacker, James Harrison, seems to be everybody’s favorite dad these days. The news story caught fire last week that he took away his kids’ trophies for participating in a track and field meet because he wanted them to earn one. It seems simply participating in a sport isn’t enough for this elite athlete/dad – you need to win for it to count.
Over the years I’ve read the countless articles saying we’re raising an “entitlement generation who thinks they need a trophy for everything.” I’ve heard the complaints about how this is terrible for a kid’s work ethic (because you need to know how to sweat and work when you’re 5). To be honest, I’ve always felt the same way. Who do these kids think they are getting recognition just for showing up?
But then again…
For every parent who gripes about this “trophy generation” I want to ask:
I’ll admit that I’m at the front of the line among competitive parents (and my kid is only 3). But when I stop and take a step back – and maybe even watch how much her little 3 year old self loves simply playing soccer or doing gymnastics – I might be lucky enough to remember that I’ll gladly take a closet full of “Congratulations! You Tried!” trophies if it means raising a kid who knows how to give her all, finish what she starts, and how to love every step of the journey…even when she doesn’t always win.
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
(Isaiah 21:6 KJV)
A lot of ink has been spilled (or digitally typed, I suppose) about Harper Lee’s new (old) book, Go Set a Watchman. Supposedly, this was the original book she submitted for publishing only to have it rejected and to be told that she should write more about the flashbacks Jean Louise has to her childhood that are sprinkled throughout the book.
Nonetheless, a lot has happened in the world of the Finch family and Maycomb, Alabama between the two novels. And a lot has changed in our world over the last 55 years since Harper Lee last graced us with her writing. What’s even harder to swallow, maybe, is that while much has changed, Watchman is a glaring reminder that much remains the same.
We join now adult Jean Louise Finch as she returns for her annual 2-week visit home to Maycomb, Alabama from the big city of New York that she now calls home. In many ways comforted by the way things in Maycomb never seem to change. Even though the scenery is slowing becoming more modernized, “the same hearts beat in new houses” (p. 46). She even reacts negatively upon seeing the new fangled neon signs and whitewashed walls lining the familiar streets. “Conservative resistance to change, that’s all,” (p. 46) she tells her childhood friend and adult love interest, Hank. Those words, “resistance to change,” would come back to haunt Jean Louise for the rest of the novel.
The most widely publicized (and criticized) revelation in this novel is that one of our nation’s most upright and beloved literary characters, Atticus Finch, has himself succumbed to the cultural pressures of “separate but equal” as Jean Louise finds him attending, of all things, a Citizen’s Council meeting where white leaders – people she grew up admiring – sit and listen to a man spew one of the most racist and hateful dialogues in recent literary history. It’s there that Jean Louise discovers not only her father’s complacent, but his support, for such things as he introduces the speaker for the day. For Harper Lee to tell us Atticus Finch has a racist streak is just beyond comprehension. She might as well have said Mr. Rogers had a drug problem or Kermit the Frog ran around on Miss Piggy. It’s almost too much to bear.
And yet, in one bold and beautiful literary move, she makes Atticus (now aged) one of the most complex characters in literature. Here is a man who stands for justice and upholding the law, but he’s not comfortable with the Supreme Court overstepping their boundaries and the NAACP advocating to overturn certain societal norms. Here is a man we all grew up knowing for his courage and compassion, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And now we’re told he believes white people are superior and that the purpose of living for black people is to “adapt to white ways” – which Atticus says they were doing fine, “traveling at a rate they could absorb” (p. 247). I’m sure there will be literary courses designed around a comparative study of these two books.
The main thrust of the novel is Jean Louise struggling to grow into her own person and exercise her own conscience separate from her father, Atticus, who had served as her moral compass her entire life. The themes of conscience and justice take center stage just like in Mockingbird. But the themes of progress and change show how the times have affected our characters and their development. I would spoil a chunk of the novel telling all you all of the twists, turns, and changes Jean Louise goes through. Suffice it to say, Go Set A Watchman, is a much more complex (albeit less balanced and seamless) novel than its beloved predecessor.
The biggest takeaway for as a native Southerner is how complicated and horrific and perfect Harper Lee paints us all as a people who stridently hold to our beliefs even at the expense of listening to or getting to know someone who might be different. As Jean Louise’s eccentric uncle reminds her and the rest of us, “You’re a bigot…not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” He asks Jean Louise, “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out” (p. 267). We’re all bigots in some form or fashion.
As a white, male, native-Southerner I don’t like being faced with the reality that I have a bigot streak in me. In fact, I don’t like it when people who aren’t from the South try to label all Southerners and Southern culture as bigoted. I don’t like it when Christians get labeled as bigots when they say intolerant things about other religions (hello there, Franklin Graham). And I don’t like it when straight people get labeled as bigots when they don’t give a full-throated endorsement of same-sex marriage. But here’s the thing: There’s a bigoted streak in the South. There’s a bigoted streak among Christians. There’s a bigoted streak among those who don’t support same-sex marriage. And there’s a bigoted streak among those who love to label anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions as a bigot. There are conservative Republican bigots. And there are progressive Democrat bigots. We’re all bigots when you get right down to it.
The beautiful turn Harper Lee offers in this novel reminds me of the saying the great white Baptist preacher from Mississippi (and Civil Rights leader), Will D. Campbell once uttered when he was challenged to sum of the gospel in 8 words or less: “We’re all bastards. But God loves us anyways.”
In her journey of self-discovery, Jean Louise Finch delves into the complicated places of her own conscience as she struggled with seeing her father and other loved ones as the flawed, equally complicated beings they are. She dares to listen even when it hurts and even when she could never bring herself to agree. Harper Lee’s 1955 novel rings as true today as it did in the days she first wrote it – we’re all a big, complicated mix of good and bad, righteous and bigoted, sinful and holy.
Needless to say, the Watchman has seen us and has told us who we are. The question is, once we discover and admit that truth, can we actually trust one another enough to listen and even love in spite of it all.
The longer I serve in a local church, the more I become aware how much our physical spaces – the spaces we use for worship, teaching, fellowship, and service – say a lot about the souls of our congregational life. We may not always pick up on this, especially if we’ve been a member of a church for many years. A place can become home quickly and we grow accustomed to the feelings we gain by being present while missing the details of the space itself. Nonetheless, these spaces become sacred as we share life together in them.
Church buildings have played a big role in the history of American Christianity. Once America was finally settled in the mid to late 1800s, church buildings became the pride of every local church. Without realizing it, we began to shift from a missionary movement (a church always on the move as new land was settled) to a stationed institution with brick and mortar and permanence in a local community. In the 100+ years that followed, buildings became bigger and bigger in order to accommodate more people, growing incomes, and the love and pride that comes with being an active member of a local church.
All of this was going well until somewhere in the mid to late 20th Century when church membership decline became noticeable. Now that we’re in the 21st Century, decline is not only noticeable, it’s painful. And all the while we have these big, aging, beautiful yet hard-to-maintain buildings our faithful mothers and fathers in the faith left behind.
With fewer people occupying our buildings and resources that continue to decline, what’s the faithful thing to do?
Well, we could just double down on our efforts to resurrect the church of the past. We could continue to hope for the good ‘ole days to return and pray that people will once again fill our pews. While we’re at it, we might even pray that Sunday morning become culturally sacred again and that people act as if attending church is the thing any good, upstanding citizen would do with their time.
Or we could prayerfully seek what new place God might be leading us into – even when it might involve our church buildings.
A Modest Proposal
What if we encouraged more churches to give their space away? Yes, you read that correctly. What if God is leading us into a season of downsizing our physical space? And what if such a season will free us to become a church on the move again?
I want to offer three changes that I think could take place if we creatively and strategically downsized or shared our church’s physical spaces:
Andy Stanley asks this question in one of his leadership talks: “What’s the biggest challenge the Church faces, that if it were possible to overcome, it would be a total game-changer?” Stanley says the answer is buildings. We make our buildings too sacred. Change seems impossible when it comes to physical space. Too much emotion gets tied up in buildings. But Stanley also reminds us the kingdom of God is full of bounty – the only problem we face is how that bounty is allocated.
How is God’s kingdom calling you to consider new and creative ways to use your physical space? Is there a ministry in your community that needs a new home? Is there a way to meet some need in your community by giving some space away?
How is God calling us to see our buildings and how we use them as more than just possessions, but rather as gifts we are carefully entrusted to use for the sake of God’s growing kingdom movement?
It’s that time of year again for many churches and pastors – time to say goodbye and hello. It’s a bittersweet time of year, really. On the one hand, change is exciting. New pastors mean new ideas. New churches mean new people to develop relationships and share ministry with. On the other hand, change is really hard. Some pastors are leaving great churches filled with many close friends – friends who have shared life’s ups and downs. Some churches are losing pastors who have meant a great deal to them – pastors who have shared life’s ups and downs in a variety of ways.
As a pastor who is not moving this year I want to share a prayer for all pastors and churches who are experiencing transition. I know it’s hard and exciting all at once. Know that none of you are alone. And as John Wesley reminds us, “best of all God is with us.”
Almighty God, You who called the universe into bring, You who formed our inmost being and called us to be your people:
We give you thanks for you constant presence. Through seasons of constancy and even change, you are with us – calling us into deeper waters, calling us together in your spirit of unity, calling us out of ourselves into the world to serve others.
Grant that those pastors bring called into new waters might hold fast to unending love and mercy as a buey – a love that promised to hold onto us even as we go where your Spirit leads us. May the churches that receive them be communities of mercy and grace.
May the churches experiencing loss and change hold fast to the promise that your mission is bigger than any single pastor, local church, or annual conference. Grant that such a promise would bring both comfort and discomfort – comfort in a season of change and discomfort as it drives us all to love you and each other more.
Strengthen us to be your Church in all times and seasons of life – a place where all are truly welcomed and embraced in your love (even new pastors and church members); a place where we find ways you are active among us and calling us to join in your saving work (even in communities that weren’t our top choice to move to); a place where the story of your love and grace and mercy are embodied (even if it comes in shapes and sizes and languages that are new to us). We offer our prayers in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why are these things important? Why do we do things in this particular way? Why does any of this matter?
These are questions I’ve never a church, annual conference, or even The United Methodist Church as a whole ask before. Simon Sinek brilliantly points out that there are three circles of questions leaders must address and each circle (or question) goes deeper than the previous one. Most of us ask the first two questions all the time – What sorts of things are we to be about? How do we do these things? Church leaders know we have a purpose for existence. If you’re a United Methodist, then you definitely know we have a process to tell us how we are to do things (committees, structures, endless rules on procedure, etc.). But what struck me by this talk is the fact that we rarely get around to asking the deepest and most difficult question of all – Why should any of this matter?
At the local church level, most of us could answer the “what” question – What sorts of things are we to do? Some would say, “make disciples.” Others might say, “be the church.” Still others would say, “bring people to Christ” or “preach, teach, and serve.” Most churches would even answer the “how” question – How do we go about doing these important tasks? Maybe some would say, “baptize people and teach them the ways of Jesus.” Another answer might be, “engage people in spiritual disciplines or service.” As United Methodists, we have an entire Book of Discipline that tells us just about every way possible to go about being the church and local churches are expected to abide by these pre-prescribed procedures.
But why is any of this important?
This is the season where United Methodists everywhere gather for annual conferences across the Connection. And I can imagine that most gatherings would do a good job of telling us what our mission is (“to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world). Many are probably trying to get us excited about our mission by sharing ways we can accomplish it (different ways of being active in ministry).
But how many conferences are getting to the question of why this is important?
In his TED Talk, Simon Sinek notes that the circles order reflects the places in our brain where we comprehend what’s going on around us and learn. And it should come as no surprise that the “why” question correlates with the limbic system in the brain. We can talk about “what” and “how” because those questions touch on parts of the brain where language is easy to attach to brain activity. But the limbic system is different. This complex system of the brain deals with things like passion, motivation, impulses – the stuff we know is there but is really hard to put words on.
Maybe Simon Sinek is onto something here for we United Methodists – maybe we never get around to the “why” question because it’s hard to talk about? The only trouble is, by definition, the “what” or “how” of being a Christian motivates no one. In other words, the question of “why” is the only true motivator for new people to care about what the mission of the church is all about. This is the stuff we share in testimony. It’s the stuff that’s hard to put words on (transformation always is). It’s the stuff that brings us to tears and makes our hearts swell.
No one outside of the church cares about mission statements and bumper stickers.
No one outside of the church cares about structures and doing things a certain weird way for no better reason than, “we’ve always done it this way.”
No one cares that we need new members and more money to continue to survive as the church.
No one cares about any of this, that is, until they know WHY we exist in the first place. And by the way, we inside the church could stand to spend a little more time with the “why” question too. If all we do is talk about what we do and how we do it, then the only motivation for being the church is to take care of ourselves and those who agree with us or understand us. That’s a sad, and dare I say it unfaithful, reason to exist.
Why are we called to gather as the church? Maybe that answer begins in the fact that the God who calls us and saves us, says we can’t keep that gift – we have to live the sort of life where we give things like love, mercy, and forgiveness away to others. And as Simon Sinek would remind all good leaders – we have to begin with the “why” before we move on to the “how” or “what.”
So how does your church or conference address the question of “Why”?
Some “Why” Questions that might lead us to change:
The sentiment around the church today is a longing for some sort of renewal or, to put it in more churchy terms, a revival. As a Southerner born and raised just due east of the buckle of the Bible Belt, revival is a term I’m familiar with. I can remember my home church hosting revivals when I was a kid. It was a time where we had worship beginning on Sunday evenings (because back then we all came back to church on Sunday evenings anyways) and we met for 2-3 evenings in a row. We often brought in guest preachers and maybe even enjoyed some special music as part of our time together. But make no mistake, the purpose of a revival was to spark a sense of renewed fervor and vitality in the spiritual lives of all in attendance.
I’ve recently heard that word, “revival,” repeated again and again at Methodist gatherings and meetings. And it made me wonder: What does the revival (or renewal) we long for in The United Methodist Church look like?
At the heart of revival, of course, is change. The hopes of a revival is to provide space for a spiritual change to occur in someone’s life. But if being Christian teaches us anything, it’s that change must be BOTH internal AND external. In other words, if change is to take hold in our lives, then nothing remains the same.
So if we believe this applies to individuals, and that such a change is essential to live a faithful life, doesn’t it also apply to our churches and systems of being church? In other words, when we pray for revival in the church, do we take to heart the need for change to take hold in EVERY aspect of our lives together, including the very ways we go about being church?
When we pray for revival or renewal in the church, are we willing to hear God’s voice calling us to change, even if it means radically changing the ways we organize, build and use buildings, and relate to each other and the world around us? Organizational management and change consultant, Margaret Wheatley, reminds us, “Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” If you’re an active leader in the church, I think you’d probably agree we’re experiencing a “dark night” as membership and attendance continues to decline. And we can mourn the loss of “the good ‘ol days” when people just magically showed up at our churches and everyone organized their lives around a Sunday that included worship and three meetings, bible studies, or circle gatherings throughout the week or we can offer ourselves to the change God is calling us to even if that means relinquishing those idols of how we’ve been church for so long now.
What sort of change is God calling your church or district or annual conference to embark on? How are you being called to do things differently for the sake of God’s mission? Margaret Wheatley offers us more wisdom: “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”
Maybe God is calling us yet again to articulate a common vision. If you’re a United Methodist, then you’re probably already shouting at your computer screen, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!” Yeah, but how? The creation of a mission statement does not ensure that mission happens, even if people memorize the phrasing. The how question is the true kicker for churches and our denomination – How will we go about being a faithful church to the mission of connecting people to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that lives are changed on an ongoing and continual basis? And maybe the how question also leads us to an important distinction – Are we about the business of living into God’s mission or are we about the business of building and playing church?
A couple things should jump out:
First, in order to go about this mission in a 21st Century world we can NOT use 19th or 20th Century methods. For example, building buildings as a sign of success is something the church has done for centuries. And now as we experience a season of decline, we’re saddled with the burdens of buildings that are way too big and way too expensive to keep up. If a 21st Century world is more migratory less tied to buildings, then why do we insist on continuing to build buildings or do everything in our power to fill the ones we have?
Secondly, the very nature of mission insists that we move – move out of our buildings, move out of our aging ways of doing things, move out of our comfort zones. If mission calls us to move out, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to get people to come in to where we already are? The act of counting weekly attendance and membership might have something to say about the affect worship has on the life of a local church, but it says very little about what people do after they leave the worship service. Why not spend more time connecting with the community around us instead of just supplanting and sequestering people off into our buildings. God is doing amazing things outside of our churches and we really ought to take notice.
I guess maybe I’m trying to ask this: If we pray for the revival of the church, are we praying for a season of change in EVERY sense of the word, or are we just praying for things to go back to the way they once were when we had more butts in seats, dollars in the bank, and people who centered their lives on the well being preserving our buildings and programs?
Needless to say, that’s a question that I hope will continue to haunt us at every turn.