This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Christ the King Sunday (C), 21 November 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20 and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

I spoke last week (“Signs of Things to Come”) of the two responsibilities of the church, the social and personal responsibilities of the church in today’s society. Now, some might say that I spend too much time on the former while never speaking of the latter.

I have and I will always feel that my relationship with Christ is what allows me to speak out in this world, to speak out against injustice and oppression. I grew up in a world where the Bible and the words of God were used for injustice and repression. So it is that I think that it is my own relationship with God through Christ that allowed me to escape that view of the world and fight for a world of equality and justice.

In the words of Jeremiah, Jesus came to this world to take care of those that the world had forgotten. We seem to have forgotten that particular piece of prophecy in today’s world. Many churches today seem to think that this passage applies to the relief of oppression in the world and they hold onto that view at the expense of their own membership. For these churches, there is no church but the one outside the walls. Other churches, perhaps in response to the whole-world view of other churches, feel that the shepherd role applies first and foremost to a church’s own membership. For these churches, the world outside the walls doesn’t exist.

But the fact of the matter is that both worlds exist and any church that ignores one in favor of the other will, in the long run, suffer the consequences for its ignorance.

In a recent article comparing the nature of members in traditional, mainline churches and evangelical, fundamentalist churches, it was discovered that mainline churches favor traditional family values and are made up of traditional families. The members of the evangelical or fundamentalist churches are apt to be non-traditional, single parent families. You might think it to be otherwise, based on the most recent public events.

But the fact of the matter is that the traditional mainline denominations have difficulty adapting to the nature of the society outside the church and are not always willing to make the changes needed. The reason that these non-traditional families attend the non-traditional churches is that they get the one thing that they are missing in their lives, acceptance and love.

You may disagree with this idea but stop and think about it for a moment. These individuals are experiencing difficult family situations and are looking for a community that will help them get through their life. There is admittedly a dichotomy here. Evangelicalism holds up a traditional ideal of the family but has more non-traditional families, whereas mainline Protestantism holds up a more liberal ideal but has more traditional families in the pew. Churches may speak of being open and welcoming but whom do they welcome? To whom will the doors of the church open?

Jeremiah’s words are angry words and they were directed at the rulers of Judah. Jeremiah is merely acknowledging earlier pronouncements given in Ezra. And whether we care to admit it or not, those words are directed at this society where we have been given many of the same tasks that the leaders of Israel were given. And just like the leaders then, we have failed now.

But it is also interesting to note that the same Hebrew words that produce the phrase “bestow punishment”, used several times in this passage, also produce the phrase “bestowed care.” And God, in bestowing punishment on the people of Israel for failing to hold to the covenant promises, also provides care for those in need and suffering. The final part of this passage from Jeremiah is the prophecy that Jesus will come and He will be the one and true King of all people.

I think that the one thing that we have to consider is that no church, be it mainline or non-traditional, can presume to hold to one line of thought if its actions are opposite or not consistent with that thought. I think that is what has caused much of the problems with the mainline denomination; they hold to a liberal view of life, yet exclude or deny that view to many who seek it.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is another example of Paul having to deal with problems in a local church. And again, it has to do with how the people have interpreted the original message. The commentary that I use indicates that the church in Colosse focused on six things:

  1. Ceremonialism – the adherence to strict rules about the kinds of permissible food and drink, religious festivals, and circumcision.
  2. Asceticism – the carrying out of strict rules to the extreme
  3. Angel worship – this was not necessarily a belief in angels (which was okay) but rather a worship of the angels themselves as suitable replacement for God (which can never be okay).
  4. The depreciation of Christ – in the false teachings presented to the Colossians, Christ as our Lord and Savior was reduced in stature.
  5. The development of secret knowledge, – this was the idea that not everyone was entitled to the knowledge of the resurrection.
  6. And, a reliance on human wisdom and tradition – the false teachers were implying that salvation could only be obtained by combining faith in Christ with secret knowledge that only they, the teachers, could gain and with man-made regulations concerning the activities that one undertook in church and in daily life.

It is not likely that what many churches are doing today compares to the problems of the church in Colosse. But much of what is done in many churches today (and I am not going to split the difference between traditional and non-traditional churches) is very similar. We don’t spend time focusing on the single most important fact about why we are here – that Christ is King and Our Savior.

I think we hide that fact. I think we would rather focus on the church as a building and an entity on its own. But, if we stop and pause for a moment and think about why we are here, then we have to realize that which Paul emphasized in the portion of his letter that we read today. For Paul, our focus should be on the simple fact that Christ is the one and only King.

As the New Year approaches, we are faced with choices. Shall we, individually and collectively, make the decision to follow Christ, to acknowledge that He is our one and only King? Or shall we make the decision to keep going as we have been going, trusting in our own judgement? We do not know why the two criminals were crucified on the same day as Jesus. It might have simply been for expediency.

We know that the Romans and the Jewish Church Council certainly had no understanding of what was to transpire that day. To them, Jesus was just another criminal for whom punishment must be meted out. But for us, the act of crucifying Jesus was the symbol of care being meted out; it was a sign that God cared for us.

For the one criminal, wise to they ways of the world, Jesus was just like him, a common criminal and sentenced to death. There was nothing but punishment to be gained. But the other criminal understood, even at the moment of his own death, that Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of man.

We can be like the first criminal and accept the punishment of life that we are given. Or we can see Christ as our Savior, as did the second criminal, and be given eternal life, free from slavery to sin and death. We can know that Jesus’ crucifixion was the bestowment of God’s care for us. The choices are ours to make, what shall they be?

“Priorities For Life”

This was the message I gave at Walker Valley UMC for Christ the King Sunday, 25 November 2001 (C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.

Whether we know or it, this Sunday marks the end of the year. Of course, I am not talking about the end of the calendar year but rather the liturgical calendar. The church calendar is marked into four seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and the Sundays after Pentecost (sometimes known as Kingdom Tide). This Sunday is called the Christ the King Sunday to mark the end of Kingdom Tide and the beginning of Advent.

It is one of those quiet Sundays on the calendar since we really don’t do anything big or spectacular with it. Perhaps we should. After twenty-five weeks in the Kingdom Tide, perhaps we should do something to celebrate. But then again, our celebration of Christ’s birth begins next week and to celebrate this week might be shade bit too much.

But we should stop and reflect what Christ’s presence in our lives means, for if nothing, that is what this Sunday is really about. What does Christ’s presence mean in our lives and what are we going to do because of it?

Jeremiah warns the people of Israel to beware of those who would not do what is required of them. What kind of shepherds would neglect their own flocks? At the time that Jeremiah spoke, the people of Israel were going through bad times. The government of Israel had essentially forgotten what its mandate was; it had forgotten what it meant to lead the people.

But God had not forgotten His covenant with the people; He had not forgotten his people. At a time when hope was needed, God would send them a leader, a shepherd who would take care of His people.

This passage from Jeremiah points out that God would finish what He started. For a people who needed love, God would see that they had it. If it were forgiveness that they desired, it would be given. If it were power for living that was needed, they would discover it.

God would keep the promise of the covenant he made with them. God would right the wrong, defeat the power of evil, and bring peace and joy and life to them all. The people of Israel would have a kingdom where all would be equal and would treat each other with love and justice.

In a time of darkness and fear, God would save them. No longer would they have to fear other nations. God would keep them secure. No one or no nation could ever destroy them. The protection of God would never be defeated. They would be safe in God’s arms.

The people of Israel sought a king would could make them safe and secure. We know now that the King that Jeremiah spoke of, the shepherd who would watch over his flocks and protect them from danger and trouble was the Christ. In Christ all the prophecies could be seen. Christ would deal wisely with the people, even when the earthly kings did not. He came to meet our needs, to provide lave and forgiveness and grace for our lives. Chris was, is and will always be sufficient for our needs.

Jeremiah pointed out that Christ would execute justice and righteousness. He opposed injustice, mistreatment of others, sinful living. He would call on the people to love one another, to meet the needs of the less fortunate, and to live as disciples of His Kingdom.

He provided salvation for all. If we put our lives in the hands of Christ, nothing can pry us loose from them. Christ will hold us tightly, keeping us secure through eternity.

Today we are faced with a decision. Which king shall we serve? There are plenty of earthly kings who promise much. Sometimes they carry names like materialism, pleasure, success or fame. All promise much, all promise to bring safety and security; but, in the end, none of these deliver what they promise. Yet Christ delivers what He promised.

Paul pointed out to the Colossians what it is about Jesus that truly makes Him the Lord of all people. Paul pointed out first that only Jesus had the power to rescue people from the darkness of sin and bring them to the Kingdom of light.

Second, in our desire to find security and safety, we seek that which we can know. There have been many attempts to describe God, to know what God is like. As our Savior, Jesus came to this world to give us a glimpse of God. God is revealed to us through the heart and mind of Christ Jesus. Through his acts of compassion, his merciful forgiveness, his sufficient grace, and his sensibility to human need, Christ reveals a portrait of God different from the one of a powerful agent of wrath, far removed from this world. Jesus showed us God as a loving Father who cared for us all.

Finally Paul reminds us that Jesus has authority over both the church and the individual. No matter what we may think or feel about the power of an individual, no person is the sole captain of their own soul; all are called to live their lives under the control and authority of Christ Jesus.

Paul concluded his letter by reminding us that Jesus came to reconcile us with God. As our Savior, Christ is involved in bringing everyone into a right relationship with God. He is the device by which we can communicate and move into fellowship with God.

To me, one of the most dramatic moments of Christ’s live here on earth was that moment depicted in the Gospel reading for today. For it showed what Christ was all about; why he came to this world and lived among us. Two criminals were hung by Jesus to die the same long, slow, painful death of crucifixion that Jesus would die. One of the two thieves still saw the world in earthly terms, seeing the power of the Messiah in selfish terms, only in terms of what it could for an individual.

As Paul pointed out, we are not the captains of our soul. To see power in terms of what it can do for us limits what that power can do. And the thief who mocked Jesus along with the soldiers could only see power in terms of what it would do for the individual. That thief was like a lot of people today who see power in terms of what it can do for the one.

But the other thief understood that he was on the cross for what he had done; he was on the cross because he sought to security through his own devices. And he realized that it was all of naught; that nothing he could do would save him from the punishment he received. But he also understood, even in the throes of pain and death that Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation was his for the asking.

As we begin the celebration of Advent we are asked to think about what Jesus means to each of us. We are asked to think about the role of Jesus in our lives. What are our priorities? How shall we live our lives?

The message for today is one of hope and promise. At a time when things look darkest, when we feel that there is no hope, we are asked to consider what our priorities are going to be. If we put aside all that this world around asks us to do, if we understand that our celebration of Advent is a celebration of the hope and promise embodied in Christ, then we begin to understand what our priorities should and must be.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the Sunday when we are reminded that the one priority in life is to follow Christ, to open our hearts to Him who would be the servant King. Today we are asked to evaluate our priorities in life and choose those which enable us to be faithful servants of the King.

Not just me and Jesus

Thanks to John for posting the link!

John Meunier

Talbot Davis, a Methoblogger and megachurch pastor in North Carolina, recently posted the rough version of a sermon he recently delivered that culminated in an invitation to Christian discipleship.

I appreciate him doing this because it is nice to be able to see how a pastor works through a sermon to arrive at this spot. I think we all benefit when we can see how others work. I particularly liked the warning Talbot gave to people before he gave is explicit call to Christian discipleship.

Here it is from his preaching text.

Now: I’m going to give you an opportunity in a few minutes to do just that. But before I do and in order for me to be faithful to the gospel and to this Gospel of Luke, I have to let you know up front: it’s NOT just about you and Jesus. That’s not salvation. I’d not be…

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“The End of the Christian Year Numbers Game”

I had some questions come up the other day that I am trying to answer. In light of the Call to Action and its perceived reliance on numbers, what is the relationship between the number of people who are members of a particular local United Methodist Church and the number of people who attend each Sunday? Is there a particular percentage that says whether or not the church is healthy and growing?

I know that there was a number bandied about a few years ago that said that a second service was possible when a certain percentage was achieved for the first service.

And what do you do about the inactive members on a church membership list? Are we going to keep them on or will we ultimately remove them before death does it for us?

Is there any concern in the Call to Action to reach out to those missing members or are we concern about just getting more people?

Just some thoughts as we come to the end of a liturgical calendar year and begin the part of the new year when attendance picks up and we may or may not meet our financial goals without the need for the traditional end-of-the-year fund raiser and bake sale.

“What Time Is It?”

This was the message that I presented for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (B), 16 November 1997, at Pleasant Grove UMC, Brighton, TN. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20, Hebrews 10: 11 – 14, and Mark 13: 1 – 8.


This has been week with rumors of war and the possibility of war. For some, the prospects of a war in the Middle East are the precursor to the End Time. But, as Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel reading for today

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Now, I see the visions of Revelation as a warning of what can happen if we are not careful, if we are not aware. Throughout this particular passage in Mark, Jesus was constantly reminding his disciples, and that includes us, to be alert to the possibility of deception

“You must be on your guard” (v. 9),

“So be on your guard” (v. 23),

“Be on guard! Be alert!” (v.33),

“Therefore keep watch” (v. 35) and “Watch! (v. 37)

There will come an end time but it will not be through wars or famine or other destruction but when we allow ourselves to be deceived, to be distracted by society, when we lose the vision of Jesus’ sacrifice in our hearts. The writer of Hebrews spoke of this very point when he spoke of the priests and their daily sacrifices.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.

Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The problem for the Israelites was these daily sacrifices had become routine, something expected by society but not done from the heart. As a result, they had no meaning. When your spiritual activities are done in this manner, they, too, lose their meaning.

It is times like these when the outside pressures start pushing on us that we might easily forget where the center of our activities lies. But it is also the one time in our lives when we need to realize that Jesus went to the cross for each of us. When the pressures of the world seek to drive us away from God, that is when we, more than ever, need to “draw nearer to God.”

The writer of Hebrews established five conditions for drawing “near to God”. First, we must have “a sincere heart.” This means our undivided allegiance in the inner being. As St. Teresa of Avila wrote

Likewise, I have already said that we cannot speak with God and the world at the same time. And that is what one does who say her prayers and, at the same time, listens to conversation going on around her or thinks of whatever comes into her mind without checking the thoughts. Sometimes, however, no matter how much a person tries she cannot control these distractions, either because of some indisposition, particularly if she is inclined to be melancholy, or a weakness of mind. Sometimes, too, God allows his servants to have stormy days for their greater good and, although they are distressed are seek to calm themselves, they are unable to do so. No matter what they do, they cannot pay attention to the words they are saying. Their minds cannot concentrate on anything, but wander so haphazardly as to seem a prey to frenzy. From the pain this causes them, they will know that the fault is not theirs. Let them not be distressed, for that makes matters worse; and let hem not tire themselves seeking to infuse sense into an understanding which is, at the moment, incapable of it. But let them pray as well as they can and even not pray at all, but consider the soul to be sick and give it some rest, busying themselves in some other act of virtue. (From “Way of Perfection” by St. Teresa of Avila)

Each day we should spend a few moments in prayer but this time should only be for prayer and we should not allow there to be any distractions.

Second, we must continue to hold the “full assurance of faith.” Faith that knows no hesitation in trusting in and following Christ. We must have no doubt about trusting Christ. I am reminded of what Wesley said when he came to Christ at Aldersgate.

Here was Wesley, having been a minister for a number of years but having a sense of failure for the work that he had done, stating that in his heart he knew that Christ had died for him, to save him from his sins. This is the assurance that we must understand and hold to.

The third point is hold unswervingly to the path of Christ. Hannah was tormented by Penninah yet she did leave God behind.

Fourth, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on.” Through our prayers as a congregation, we continue to let people know that they are thought of and even when things are tough, there is someone/somewhere to turn to.

“Let us not give up meeting together.” The Greek word translated “give up” speaks of desertion and abandonment (see Matthew 27: 46; 2 Corinthians 4: 9; 2 Timothy 4: 10, 16). Throughout the early days, Paul was constantly encouraging the new churches to continue, even when the struggle seemed hopeless. Even today, our presence here today shows that we can continue.

The conclusion to all of this is simple. The end time will come when we allow the outside world to take over our lives. But it will not happen as long as the center of our live is Christ.

Only by denying the world can you live in it, that only by surrounding yourself by an artificial, self-induced quietude can you live in a spiritual life. A real spiritual life does exactly the opposite; it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response. (“Reaching Out” by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

What do the scriptures tell us? First, do we spend time in prayer and meditation with God? Is time such that there are no distractions and interruptions?

When Hannah went to the temple to ask God for a child, her concentration was so strong that she was not conscious of what she was doing. That is why Eli thought she was drunk. But through her devotion, through her faith, her prayer was answered.

The early church felt discouraged at time, we all feel that way. Now, I entitled this sermon “What Time Is It?” because, for some, it is the End time. But as we close today, I ask you to consider your relationship with Christ, to ensure that no matter what else might happen, that your relationship is strong and healthy.

“Amazing Grace – The Power of The Holy Spirit”

This is the first message that I ever gave as a lay speaker. During a lay speaker class, I was asked how long it took to write my first message and I replied “three years.” I began thinking about being a lay speaker in 1988 but it was not until 17 November 1991 that I ever put together on paper the words for a sermon. Interestingly enough I never thought about the relationship between the title of this message and the fact that I was at Grace UMC when I gave it. I focused more on the hymn and what that hymn meant. That Grace UMC would make the turn around that it did (six months before this message, it was thought that the church was going to die; it survived those rough times and prospered over the years) is amazing and perhaps this was a way to foretell that.

Following the lead of my pastor, John Praetorius, I chose a reading and a text (as I have pointed out before, I didn’t start using the lectionary until 1995). I chose Matthew 28: 10 – 20 as the Scripture reading and 1 Chronicles 17: 16 – 17 as the text for my message.

The song “Amazing Grace” is an interesting one, both for its music and its message. This song is based in part on John Newton’s own life and experience (The Hymns & Hymn Writers of the Church, Tillet & Nutter, 1911). That experience can be understood from the passage from I Chronicles he used as the basis for the song:

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in thy eyes, O God; thou hast also spoken to thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast shown me future generations, O Lord God! (1 Chronicles 17:16 – 17)

At one point, he was a ship’s captain; more to the point he was a slave ship captain. One day, while on the regular run from Africa to the American colonies, he decided that what he was doing wasn’t right. He then turned his ship around and took the would-be slaves back to Africa. This was a rather dramatic move on his part, one that many people would have been afraid to make. Even Newton might have been afraid to make such a move, but the Holy Spirit gave John Newton the power to turn his boat around without fearing the consequences.

Saul also felt the power of the Holy Spirit when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. More importantly, it was the same Holy Spirit which directed Ananias to go to Saul and help him.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosed to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:10 – 17)

Now Ananias may have been afraid to go see Saul on his own. After all, here was a man who had the power to throw Ananias in jail for simply believing in Jesus. But, with the power of the Holy Spirit, he was able to go to Saul.

It was the same power of the Holy Spirit which lead John Wesley to question his own faith and how the Church of England ministered to the people of England. Without that Power to lead him, it would have been very difficult for Wesley to lead the Methodist movement.

We have all felt the power of the Holy Spirit at some time in our lives. The first time it came to me was in the form of my mother’s right elbow. When I was 12 and my family was living in Montgomery, Alabama, I grew tired of my mother elbowing me to keep me awake during the sermon. As a result, I decided to sit by myself. During that time, I begain to think about what it was to be a Christian. Shortly after we moved to Denver, Colorado, that summer I approached George Eddy, the pastor at the 1st Evangelical United Brethen Church in Aurora, about studying for the God & Country Award given by the Boy Scouts. Under his tutelage, I earned that award and joined the EUB church in 1964. Even today, that still rates as one of my personal achievements. I am also convinced that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit that lead my family and I here from Odessa, Texas and to this church. I did not know about Grace Church until I walked by it while visiting the campus during the summer.

What these stories show is the impact the Holy Spirit can have on individuals. It is that power which change’s one life and gives them the strength to change others. The idea of leadership within the church is what this Sunday is about. Jesus, through his disciples, has empowered us, as the laity, with the task of ministering to the world:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:18 – 20)

Finding leaders for the church has always been a problem. Consider Moses’ reaction to his nomination by God to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt:

But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who make him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. (Exodus 4:10 – 13)

Today is Laity Sunday, a day on which we honor all those who serve the chruch. Leadership is not limited to a select few, but is the responsibility of all members of the church. After all, when anyone joins the church, we as members also reaffirm our vows to “uphold it by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 48 (1989))

While I am a relatively new member of Grace Church, I still have an appreciation for its 130 year history. This is the most crucial time in that history. It is a time when this church can grow and expand its ministry in the neighborhood and the city. From the Talmud, we read

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (I believe that I first saw this quote in Making of a President – 1960)

This is Grace Church’s time. Through the Holy Spirit, we are called to carry out the mission of this church.

How do we meet this challenge? First, our Church Conference is December 8th. As a member of the church, you are entitled to vote on matters before the church. We have started an Estimate of Giving program and you can return that card so that the church will be able to plan its budget. If you sing in the choir, serve as an usher, serve as a greeter after church, serve as a Sunday School teacher, or help with Fellowship Time between Sunday School and church, you serve the church. There are many other ways to help the church meet this great challenge.

The question that we as members of Grace Church must answer is “Are we willing to lead Grace Church in its mission and growth.” This is the same challenge John Newton faced when he turned his boat around and Ananias faced when he went to help Saul. If we do as John Newton, Ananias, John Wesley, and others have done and let the Holy Spririt guide and direct us, then we will be able to understand the meaning of the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace”:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

“Altar Call – The Rebel Version”

As I have often written before, I am Southern born and Southern dead and when I die I will be Southern dead. I have also stated that there is much of the South and its traditions that I will not follow simply because they run counter to what I learned in church on Sunday mornings growing up in the South.

So, in part, this is a statement about what I learned about church worship growing up in the South. It is also a statement from the rebel in me that questions authority and the design of the present United Methodist order of worship. That may not be a good combination but the United Methodist church has reached a point in its journey where it must make a decision and it is a decision that will probably determine the balance of the history of the denomination.

In his post “Souls or churches?” John Meunier asks if pastors should be more concerned with saving souls or building churches? Are we more focused on the group of individuals who make up a particular United Methodist Church or are we interested in the individuals who make up the group?

One possible answer, provided by the bishops’ Call to Action is that we need to be building churches and vital congregations. As John points out,

It feels as if the central concern of the denomination these days is the second, the group. The Call to Action is explicit about this. The goal of our energy should be creating vital congregations. Pastors are called to build a strong, vibrant, sustainable organization. This is what I hear.

But you need people to have a strong, vibrant, sustainable organization and that means that you have to be interested in the individuals who make up the organization. And how do you bring the individuals into the church? What is the nature, the business of the church? Is it programs for the people in the church and the community or is it the presentation of the Word of God to the people from which they will draw their strength and courage to build programs that touch the lives of the people in the congregation and community?

I would suggest that it is the latter though I am afraid that a reading of the Call to Action would suggest that the people will come if you create programs (I thought that only worked for a ball field in Iowa). I wonder if this is not the beginning of another “faith versus works” debate.

But this is not what this is about; rather, this is about how we get the people to the church in order to even begin a “faith versus works” debate.

In an earlier piece last week, “Five Principles of Christian Worship”, John Meunier noted that Hoyt Hickman noted that there were five basic principles of worship:

  1. God’s Word is primary.
  2. Active congregation participation is crucial
  3. Spontaneity and order are both important.
  4. Worship should be relevant and inclusive
  5. Worship is communion.

Now, in response to John’s request for thoughts on this, I noted

I think that the key comes from what the congregation says after the service. Did the way the service went, its music, its words, the message, the environment, speak to that people in such a way that they came to know God just a little bit better.

In response to a comment that I believed supported my comment I added that the thought that we needed to change the order of worship and get away from the model, printed in the Book of Worship that has the offering following the sermon.

Taylor Burton-Edwards pointed that

The order in the hymnal without communion includes a call to discipleship following the sermon, then prayers and acts if thanksgiving including an offering, then a robust act of sending. So the offering is not intended to be the immediate response to the sermon nor the final act of worship before dismissal.

But I wasn’t thinking nor did I believe that I was writing about a call to discipleship. Rather I was speaking or at least thinking of that call that was so much a part of my Southern heritage, the call by the pastor to come to the altar to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.

I wrote

I will admit that I missed that section of the order of worship. Admittedly I am more comfortable with services that end with the sermon, in part because of how I was raised and in part because, in my own mind, I see the call as the beginning of the ministry. If I were not doing communion, I do not want anything to distract from that call.

Now, having said that, I wonder how many pastors know how to make an altar call as opposed to an invitation to discipleship. I know that when I am scheduled to go somewhere as a lay speaker I have never seen such an invitation in their order of worship.

Also, as I look at the section in the Book of Worship that deals with the response to the word, I don’t read the Invitation to Christian Discipleship as an altar call.

And this leads me back to what I said at the beginning – if you make a call to the people to come to the altar and accept Christ and then you do something else, you totally ruin the moment. I have seen a United Methodist pastor do just that, make an altar call, complete with the appropriate music, and then totally ruin the moment because he had to deal with the offering.

If worship is to bring us to God, then we have to think about the path we take.

John Meunier responded

Tony, my experience as well is that it is hard to (do) the Word and Table order of worship well when you do not have the table (Communion) that day. I’ve had members of congregations say exactly what you have said here about the offering being the last thing they do before they head out the doors.

When the service is built around two big tent poles (Word and Table) and one of those is missing, the service does kind of sag at one end.

Taylor Burton-Edwards responded

Don’t let poor practice by others deter you from better practice yourself!

You’d be exactly right about the possibility of ruining the flow if you went from “altar call” (or however a call to discipleship may be embodied) to offering. Huge mistake.

So the question becomes, what DOES make sense in terms of flow after a sermon-altar call sequence? Prayers of the people might make a lot of sense just then. Then from those prayers, a time of thanksgiving. Then from that time of thanksgiving, including thanksgiving for the work the Spirit is doing in the lives of those who responded and offering integrated into this as a sign of our thanksgiving. And then sending.

It’s important as we consider the altar call, however, to remember that Wesley’s altar calls were designed to lead people to join a trial class meeting. Why? Because “there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.” Whatever was begun in the “crisis of decision” is likely to be stillborn or experience “spiritual infant mortality” if these persons are not immediately connected to a community that will sustain and challenge what has been begun to continue. See my piece on this, here: http://emergingumc.blogspot.com/2010/11/end-spiritual-infant-mortality.html

It was Burton-Edwards’ first comment that got me to thinking about writing this piece. It is the balance of his last comment that perhaps leads me to the next part.

First, you have to understand how I have come to my concept of the worship experience. I have been developing and designing worship services of some sort since I began working on my God and Country award in 1964. I know that I received guidance from my pastor at 1st EUB but the logistics and mechanisms were mine.

When I began lay speaking in 1991 I followed the practice of my pastor and used the order of worship that he had developed. I do not know when the present order of worship was first presented to the United Methodist Church; I encountered it in 1995 when I began serving three churches of the Chataqua Parish in southeast Kansas.

But it wasn’t explained to me as the United Methodist recommended order of worship. Rather, I got the impression that it was developed as a way for the pastor to get from the 1st and 2nd churches on Sunday morning to the 2nd and 3rd churches. The lay leaders at both the 1st and 2nd church both told me that it would be okay for me to leave during the offering as that is what the pastor before me had done. But 1) I was supposed to provide leadership for the whole service and 2) I had 30 minutes to travel the fifteen miles between churches so I declined the offer and stayed.

For as long as I can remember, the order of worship in churches where I was a member had the sermon last and perhaps a moment where the pastor made that call to the people to come forward and accept Christ.

I know that when I was sorting out my own thoughts about Christ and His place in my life, altar calls and especially the persistent ones (where the pastor tells the organist to play another verse of “Jesus is tenderly calling” or a similar hymn) turned me off to the whole notion. In fact they still do but that’s for another time.

When I took on the Walker Valley assignment in 1999 I was faced with the challenge of turning a church around and I didn’t see how I could do it without having some sort of question at the end of the message/sermon that perhaps would result in an altar call, a response from the people.

Now, let me say at this point that I recognize that when a service includes communion, communion is the response of the people and I don’t fiddle or change the order of worship.

I also recognize that I am in the minority on this. But I don’t understand, even with the thoughts that Taylor Burton-Edwards put in his comment how you can even think of responding with anything but the altar call. Thoughtful consideration and the inclusion of the prayers of the people aside, the last thing the people have in their mind when they leave is that they were asked for hearing the message.

For me an altar call is spontaneous; you can make plans for one but you don’t know how it is going to go until you get to it. Having anything after that totally ruins the moment.

My wife was a teenager in the 50s and she still remembers watching the Billy Graham Crusade on television and the emotion that swept over her when, in that wonderful baritone voice of his, he would make the call for the people to come to altar and accept Christ. How can one even begin to think of doing anything after that?

What bothers me the most, I suppose, is Burton-Edwards’ comment about not letting the poor practices of others prevent me from better practices myself. I hope that I haven’t done this but I also know that I have never seen any pastor up here make any sort of altar call in the space between the sermon and the offering.

Nowadays, as a certified lay speaker/servant, when I responsd to a request to cover a service for a pastor I am often told that the order of worship is fixed and that it cannot be changed. For the most part I get to pick the hymns and prayers and they put them into the service in the appropriate places.

I would think that most United Methodist pastors today, thought they may be aware of the section in the Book of Worship that deals with the call to discipleship, skip it when doing their worship planning. I would be willing to bet (but don’t because I am a Methodist) that most pastors today don’t even know how to do an altar call. I am still working on it myself and I am pretty sure that if the pastors don’t know how to do it, lay speakers called upon to fill the pulpit for one or two Sundays don’t know how to do it.

I might add that unless something has changed in the past year that I am not aware of, there is nothing in the lay speaker/servant training that covers this area.

So I am faced with the dilemma of trying to do what I feel called to do while having to deal with a process that does not allow me to answer my own calling.

And we are back to how to get the people into the church? If we cannot call the people to Christ after the message, how then will we ever answer the “Call to Action”?

I will agree with Taylor Burton-Edwards that any individual who responses to an altar call must be immediately connected to a community or the moment is lost. But again, if the altar call is not at the end of the service, the moment is very easily lost in the prayers and offerings that follow. This suggests that there must be a plan in place as a matter of response.

But before you have a plan of response, you have to get the people to respond. And it goes back to preaching the Word and presenting the Word.

“Power to the People”

This day started early today because we wanted to get to the polling place as soon as possible. I was the 10th person in my ward to vote! Now, I am not all that crazy about knowing what number I am because, in theory, one might figure out which ballot was mine and then determine who I voted for.

But since there were quite a few people from other wards and districts voting, the probability of determining my vote was reduced.

It wasn’t like it was in 1980 when 1 person in my town voted for the Communist Party candidate and everyone assumed that it was me. The fact that I had a “John Anderson for President” sticker on my car should have told them something but I guess not.

I had planned on doing a write-in vote this year but circumstances (a 4-year old grandson) made that a little impractical. As I have stated in my blog before, I voted for a 3rd party candidate. Some will say that I wasted my vote but since both major parties pretty well wrote off New York, I used my vote to insure that one of the third parties would be able to remain on the ballot.

The only way that there will be any preceptible and visible change in this country is when we vote. And it isn’t just in the national elections every two years; it is in every election. One of the poll workers told us that today was going to be a mad house but no one votes in the city and local elections.

All politics are local and if you do not vote then you lose your power.

One’s vote, however cast, is the expression of the power of the people.

“Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”

For a period of time I collected statements that I thought were interesting or caused you to think (see “A Collection of Sayings”). I should probably put some of following observations on that list but they are here because this piece follows “Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”; of course, it is entirely possible that some of the statements there could easily fit here as well.

In 1990, as part of our research on the nature of computer networks and computer literacy Marcin Papryzcki, George Duckett and I suggested that the on-line courses would be developed as a natural progression in computer technology. But the development of such on-line courses and the change of real and physical classrooms into virtual classrooms has done little to facilitate learning. The drill-and-practice problems that seem so common place in the real classroom are now part and parcel of the virtual classroom.

Three years ago, in “The Future of Education”, I first published the idea that on-line learning was not necessarily going to be a boon to education. In December of 2009, I wrote “The Grinch in the Classroom”, in which I wrote about the ways to improve our schools and it wasn’t by putting our schools on-line. I noted in January (“The State of Education – 2012”) that there is research to show that on-line education doesn’t necessarily work.

The following observations are an out-growth of those thoughts:

  1. No matter what type of technology one is talking about or using, be it a computer (main-frame, desktop, laptop or mini), a calculator (with or with graphing capability), or a “smart” phone, two things are certain:
    • The device in use is only as smart as the person using it.
    • If you are using the device to gather information or solve a problem and you know nothing about the problem, you are apt to get the wrong answer as quickly as you can get the right answer and not know the difference.
  2. Much can be said about productivity software (word-processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, database, etc.) but it still remains that
    • If you cannot spell, spell-checkers are of no-value and if you cannot write, neither are grammar checkers.
  3. We have the technology to change the world but the technology by itself can do nothing. Students in America have the same technology as students in Egypt but I have yet to see the ground-breaking changes in America that took place in Egypt and other Middle-East countries during the Arab Spring of 2011.
  4. If the tasks that you will be doing do not require technology, then learning new technologies does little to prepare you for those tasks.
  5. Based on this author’s experience at various community colleges and four-year schools, while students at both the pre-college and the college level are well-versed in texting and other similar communication methods, they are unable to translate those communication skills into writing and the use of word-processing programs. This may be very anecdotal in nature but when you see the same thing occuring in a variety of settings, one may presume a certain degree of truth to the observation.
  6. The advent of the personal computer has also seen the development of hardware and instrumentation for the chemistry and physics laboratory. Much development has gone into developing experiments that utilize the instruments. But, while some students may be comfortable using hardware in experiments, there is some reluctance or inability to include the output of said experiments into a formally produced lab writeup. Often times, the printout containing experimental data is stapled or otherwise attached to the lab writeup/report. Students may know how to prepare a document and they may know how to use a spreadsheet but they do not know how to utilize both at the same time.
  7. Even with the advent of on-line document sharing processes, most students do not know how to work together cooperatively. I am not sure that most instructors know how this works either and if they do not know how to share documents, they are probably unwilling to let their students do it.
  8. I truly believe that most instructors are not capable of utilizing the computing power of their desktop machine to its maximum capability. Even with the prepared database of questions that most text publishers provide, most instructors could not create individualized exams that would allow students to work together without cheating.
  9. On-line instruction is the next “big thing”, especially in college instruction. It allows perhaps an unlimited number of students to take a course at any time while not worrying about classroom size. It would appear that all the instructor has to do is maintain a reasonable set of office hours.
    • Yet, many instructors are given only rudimentary instruction in the use of the on-line instruction software and there is very little interaction between student and instructor or other students in the classroom.
    • The one good point is that students do have the opportunity to post thoughts and comments about items being covered in the course but there is very little “real-time” interaction.
    • Despite the rise of on-line instruction, much of the work is still essentially drill-and-practice work with very little instructional creativity involved. Most text book companies will provide the materials that can be uploaded as the course work material and simply transpose the problems from the end of the chapter and the back of the book to subsections on the computer hard drive.
  10. In courses that require laboratory time, there is no ability to run “real-time” experiments. And we will not go into the nature of safety and liability when experiments are encouraged but can only be done in uncontrolled and definitely non-scientific environments.
  11. Final observation – We need to focus on doing something with what we have, not simply creating new applications or devices. And if we don’t start doing that soon, we will not have anyone capable of creating new devices.

Clearly, there are some people out there who are creative; we would not have the state-of-the-art technology that we do. And one only look at the Mars Rover “Curiosity” to know that there are some people who can envision ways of utilizing technology to obtain new information. But the ones who did create “Curiosity” are not the ones in school today and those are the ones where the focus needs to lie.