“Are You Coming In or Going Out?”

Some thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter (Year A, 3 May 2010) 

As I read and pondered the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I was struck by the contract between them.  The reading from Acts speaks of a welcoming community; the reading from the Gospel speaks of a welcoming Christ.  And yet, in the 2nd lesson, Peter talks about the suffering one is going to receive for being a Christian. 

And as I thought about that, I continued to think about how the church today is going to respond to the issues that society faces today. 

Like so many people today, I have quite a few friends on Facebook.  Of course, there are members of my family.  But there are those whom I went to either high school or college with them or I knew them before Facebook existed.   

I share something in common with each of my Facebook friends.  But I have found that I do not necessarily share the same beliefs that some of those on my friends list have.  I suppose the proper thing to do would be to drop those with whom I do not share a common belief set and whom I have never met. 

But then I would only have a distorted view of the world on Facebook.  For example, I would not know that I am being persecuted for being a Christian or that other religious groups are receiving preferential treatment.  Apparently, I didn’t get that memo.  I also didn’t get the memo detailing the various and sundry conspiracy theories that lurk beneath the surface veneer of society. 

It is interesting and somewhat frightening to see what many of these will post.  But is what more frightening than the hatred they preach, the false information and conspiracy theories that they push is that they claim to be Christian, believing in the power of Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. 

And in today’s world, I cannot see how one can espouse a doctrine of hatred and ignorance and claim to be a Christian.  Perhaps you can but I don’t share that view of the world.  How do you explain someone who proclaims to be a Christian but hates the world?  How do you explain someone who attends church on Sunday and is a pillar of the church but who ignores the cries of the needy during the week or even, as I discovered growing up in the South, works against the goals of Christianity during the week? 

There are, perhaps three types of Christians in the world today.  The first can be called a separatist.   

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity.  For these individuals, if it is not clothed in Christ, it is not part of their lives. They will be at Christian groceries, eat at Christian restaurants, shop only at Christian stores, and listen to Christian music. It is a life separate from others.  But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them. And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. 

The second type of Christian is a conformist.  These individuals adapt their thoughts to the world, making sure that no one knows that they might go to church on Sundays. And it is quite easy to see that many of their friends would be surprised to know that they are Christians because there is no evidence to suggest. Religious conformists use religion when it is convenient for them. Christianity is something done on Sundays; Mondays through Fridays, one must be a realist and you cannot be a realist if one is a Christian. 

The third type of a Christian is a the transformist. Such individuals seek to make faith a part of the prevailing culture; they use their faith to change the culture, not for the purpose of a self-proclaimed religion but for society. John and Charles Wesley could easily be thought of as transformists.  

Transformists understand that you cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Their faith is integrated with their live and their love for God is shown by their love for people. (Adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner; first published in “A Door That Swings Both Ways”

For me, those who say that they are being persecuted for their beliefs are quite easily separatists.  Theirs is the only world that counts; as I have written before, they see the sanctuary as a protection from the outside world. 

And yet today, we do not meet in the sanctuary.  The sanctuary now extends beyond the walls of the church into our homes and yards and throughout the world.  These must be frightening times for separatists and conformists alike.  For the separatists, the outside world which they don’t want to enter their lives is now very much a part of their lives; for the conformists, the lessons of Sunday now become the actions for the week.   

If I am not mistaken, the community of believers that formed the community outside Jerusalem did not prevent anyone from entering or being a part of the community.  Yes, they did “throw out” some who did not want to follow the rules of the community, but they also realized that some were not able to do that.  Theirs was a community of hope and promise. 

I am not interested in building a new community; I am interested in making sure that the community in which I live is one in which all can live.  I want a community of hope and promise.  I know that it will not happen tomorrow or even within the next few weeks.  But there will be a time in the next few months when our gatherings will be in person rather than online.  It will be a moment when we must decide the future of our faith community. 

As I looked at the lectionary readings for today, my focus was on Jesus is the Gatekeeper.  For the separatists and the conformists, He stands at the Gate, letting only a select few, locking the Gate to keep the sheep safe.  But if Jesus taught us anything, it was that the traditional view doesn’t always work. 

Yes, Jesus stands at the Gate but not letting us in but directing us to go out into the world, to transform the world.  Locked behind the Gate, we are protected from the ravages of the world, but we cannot begin to transform the world. 

God does not expect us to venture into a world unprotected, but He does expect than when it is time, we will leave the safety of the sanctuary.  Between today and that time, we must decide if we are going to go in or come out. 

A Door That Swings Both Ways

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 15 May 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10. Next Sunday, May 22nd, unless something really dramatic happens on the 21st, I will be preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY (location of church) at 9:30 and then traveling down the road to its partner, Red Hook United Methodist Church (Location of church) to preach at 11:00.  You all are invited to either service (or both). The title for my message is “Did I Miss Something?”

The other day Andrew Conrad posted a question on his blog concerning the Gospel passage for today (John 10: 1 – 10) – from “Scripture Monday: John 10:9”

I was stumped with this question. If Jesus is the gate . . .

  • What does it mean to come in and go out?
  • Where is the pasture found?

I replied by saying

Can we assume that we are free to enter into a relationship with Christ and just as free to leave the relationship? The pasture would then be the world outside the sanctuary of God’s kingdom. The challenge, of course, is that we can stay within the sanctuary of God’s Kingdom but nothing would ever get done. When we venture outside the Kingdom’s walls, we risk the chance that we will be sidetracked by the voices of others. We can easily be lead astray by those voices.

Andrew’s response was

The freedom to enter and leave (the) relationship with God makes good sense. Perhaps it is related to the encouragement to be in the world but not of the world.

Now, as I thought about this, I thought about how one develops a relationship with God. Our own relationship is, by nature, a private one but we live it in a public way (or at least we should). How many people in this world today want Jesus to be a true gatekeeper, letting only certain ones into the safety of the sanctuary? These individuals want the gate closed and locked so that all those inside can be safe and secure.

There are many, perhaps more, who do not want to come it. Oh, they seek the safety that being inside brings but they also know that they those who are inside will not welcome them. They are not welcome because there is something about them that the people inside don’t like.

But it isn’t just who comes in and who stays. If the gate is closed so that no one comes in and no one goes out, how does the business of the church get done? How is a relationship with God developed if no one can come in or go out? Remember, if you lock the door so that no one can come in, you have prevented yourself from getting out.

Kary Oberbrunner, in his book The Journey Towards Relevance, speaks of three kinds of Christians today. There are the separatists, individuals who live a life separate from society. For these individuals, if it is not clothed in Christ, it is not part of their lives. They will be at Christian groceries, eat at Christian restaurants, shop only at Christian stores, and listen to Christian music. It is a life separate from others.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them. And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic.

There are conformists, individuals who adapt their thoughts to the world, making sure that no one knows that they might actually go to church on Sundays. And it is quite easy to see that many of their friends would be surprised to know that they are Christians because there is no evidence to suggest. Religious conformists use religion when it is convenient for them. Christianity is something done on Sundays; Mondays through Fridays, one must be a realist and you cannot be a realist if one is a Christian.

Fortunately there is a third type of individual, the transformist. Such individuals seek to make faith a part of the prevailing culture; they use their faith to change the culture, not for the purpose of a self-proclaimed religion but for society. John and Charles Wesley could easily be seen as transformists. Transformists understand that you cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Their faith is integrated with their live and their love for God is shown by their love for people. (Adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner)

Now, when one reads the passage from Acts for today, one might get the opinion that the members of that early church were separatists. But separatists would have nothing to do with the world outside the church and it is very difficult to grow when you cut yourself off from the world. An examination of Christian communities in this country would tell us that if you are not constantly recruiting members, then your community will slowly die. And the history of the early church tells us that the way that they lived (why is the early church was called “The Way”?) brought people in and did not keep them away.

For the church of today to grow, it must go out into the world. But it must be careful that it doesn’t become a part of that world. Rather, it must find ways to transform the world, utilizing the teachings of Christ.

Yes, it will be difficult. Not only does the world not want to be transformed, too many Christians do not want to be the transformers. There are times with our feeding ministry that it is easy to get depressed. But then when you see lives transformed, when someone whom society has cast aside says to you, “Thank you for a wonderful breakfast”, then you know that a change has occurred.

You have to ask yourself where you are in this process. Is your church like the early church, filled with celebration and harmony? Is every meal a celebration of life and God’s presence in the world? Or is your church worried about the bills that have to be paid? Is every meal that the church offers seen as a means of getting extra income so that a particular bill can be paid?

Is the door to the church closed so that those inside are protected and safe? And while it may keep people safe and secure, when the door was closed, was Jesus left outside, unable to get in?

Or is the door to the church open so that people can come in to find God and people can go out to take God into the world? The door to the church, like the door to the soul can swing shut or it can swing open? Which is it to be? The door swings both ways and you have to make a decision about the direction you want it to go.

“Why Do It?”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 17 April 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10.


Why do it? Of course, the question should then be “do what?” In light of the Scripture readings for today and what is going on in the world, why would anyone want to be a Christian? Well, if current research is correct, regular weekly attendance at a religious service will result in increased survival and a boosted immune system. It is not clear just exactly how this works but it does seem as if something in religious attendance, be it the group interaction, the worldview or just getting out of the house, is beneficial to the health of many, especially the elderly. (From “Hit the pew and live longer” in Context, May 2005)

Of course, this could explain in part why Peter writes about the pain and suffering that early Christians had to endure. It does seem ironic though that while there may be a correlation between attendance and health, we are not always willing to let people know that we attend church and consider ourselves Christian. Even today, the mere act of professing to be Christian is apt to cause one to be ridiculed and possibly persecuted.

For many, I guess, the secret is not to publicly profess one’s faith. That way, you can keep your health. But it is sad that many Christians today, especially those that believe in the power of the Gospel as a message of hope and promise, don’t speak out. This means that the only words that those seeking Christ are likely to hear are from the spectrum of life which come from individuals who preach hatred, division, and exclusion.

It was interesting to hear Jane Fonda speak of becoming a Christian but being afraid to tell her husband, Ted Turner, for fear that he would talk her out of it. She made note of the fact that he did not care for Christianity. But like many who seem to have a strong appearance on the outside, the demands of life wreck havoc with the inside. And we are often shocked when someone so strong on the outside collapses under the pressures of life. So despite what she knew would be pressure from others, she made the journey to Christ.

Similarly, one of the most influential items in the journey of our own John Wesley was his trip to and from America. He could not endure the trip across the Atlantic, despite the public appearance of a strong faith. Even he could not understand how the Moravians, through simple prayer, were able to endure the hardships of the crossing. It is that seeking of peace that brings people to church. But why do they not stay?

They find churches such as the Baptist Church in Florida, that ask members, such as the judge in the Terri Schiavo case, to leave simply because they did something that the congregation disapproved of, in this case it was because they did not like his ruling on the issue of the feeding tube. Each day we hear of other Christians who claim that the only solution to the problems of the world is a return to an Old Testament life. While the laws of this land may have been derived from the laws of the Old Testament, we must also realize that Jesus came as a fulfillment of the law, not the enforcer of it. Jesus came as an embodiment of the law because of those who were more concerned about the law than they were about the lives of those who must live under the law. It was this dichotomy between what was preached and what was lived that led John Wesley to break away from the structure of the Anglican Church and begin the Methodist movement.

Those seeking a church home find that all churches and denominations profess the same belief but say that the other churches are not true believers. It seems that as the number of churches in a given area multiply, the weaker each individual church’s ministry and witness becomes. One pastor noted that the more he and members of the congregation visited homes in the area where the church was located, the more resistant to evangelism people became because another evangelism team from another church had visited with them not more than ten minutes before.

What should be a great opportunity for the presentation of the Gospel has quickly become nothing more than marketing for the masses. Each visitor to the church does not want to hear the message of the Gospel in terms of how they can help others but rather how the church can help them? It turns pastors from preachers of the Gospel message to peddlers of the Gospel. Like Jacob, who found ways to trick his uncle Laban out of his sheep, pastors today have to resort to a variety of marketing techniques in order to entice people into the church.

It should be noted that Jesus warned us that the road would be difficult. The little flock that formed when they heard His voice in the wilderness would be frequently assaulted by thieves and misled by hirelings. He even prepared us for the likelihood that there would be a few goats mixed in with the sheep. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005) But because the road is difficult, we sometimes do not want to walk it. We do not want to hear the truth that accepting Christ as our Savior is sometimes a hard choice to make; we do not want to hear the truth that the road we must walk is not one paved with gold (in fact, it is likely to have more potholes than anything else); we do not want to hear the truth.

Think about it. What were we asked to do after September 11, 2001? We were asked to go shopping? Shouldn’t Christians have said, “That seems awful silly to me.” We have spent the last three and one-half years telling everyone that the world changed on 9/11/2001. But the world changed that first Easter Sunday back in 33 A. D. Our lives as Christians should be focused on the changes in the world in the light of that Sunday morning some two thousand years ago, not vice versa.

We have lived with death as a common part of life for three and one-half years and as a result, we are a nation living in fear. We do not want to think about death or the prospect of death. The last few weeks have reinforced that.

We did not stop to think about what happened on September 11th or what was happening in Florida. We saw the attack on the twin towers as war, when it was simply murder. If we had treated Osama Bin Laden as a murderer rather than the commander of an army, we would have ended this thing three years ago. Instead, we have allowed a war against terrorism to expand into a war in Afghanistan and then a war in Iraq. Now, the dead are coming home and we are afraid.

A young woman lies dying in a hospice in Florida and because her family could not agree, we as a nation are now afraid to die, for fear that we will not be allowed to or because we might be forced to die. And the politicians and the preachers with the loudest voices are saying that it is all because we are not a Christian nation.

Is it no wonder that those who seek Christ cannot find Him? Another recent study that was mentioned in my reading noted that while the majority of teenagers in American consider themselves religious and believe in God, they cannot explain the basic tenets of their faith. While there is an absolute historical centrality to the belief of salvation by God’s grace in Protestant churches, including the United Methodist Church, many conservative Protestant teens show no understanding of that concept. It also appears that other historical doctrines about the nature of God and revelation are unknown to teenagers.

Teenagers also feel that nobody is actually required to be religious. They can do whatever they want. Religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences. Religion becomes something interpreted from the view of modern culture; it is something that is quickly becoming a vision of “divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” God is not needed in this approach to life.

Such a formation of a belief comes because people do not know where to look or who to ask for information about God. They do not know where to look, and like the disciples who could not understand Jesus when he talked of the shepherd and the flock, they do not understand how there can be one church but many denominations.

But if we go back to the beginning, we see that we are called to follow Christ, not out of fear of bandits or from frustration with His hirelings, but rather out of love. This church was founded by the love of t he shepherd for His ship and it is held together by the love of the sheep for the shepherd and for each other.

It is understandable that the way of love, as expressed by Christ, is hard, especially since it does not appear to be enough. This is particularly true when the word is bandied a bout so carelessly and in such a way that it has no value. Sayings of the Bible become trite and banal. We cannot see love in the church because we are convinced that there is no love in the church. But the church was founded on the simple fact that God loved us and our love is based on that one simple fact.

We also are convinced that it is not possible to find love in the world, let alone the church, because it is a long process. It is easier for the thief to climb over the wall than it is to walk around and open the gate. Getting to know and love Jesus, to hear His voice, takes time.

This process is also hard. Peter’s commission to become the shepherd was contingent on his three fold declaration of His love for Jesus. It was a love that would ultimately require that He be willing to lay down his own life. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005)

So why do it? Why should we seek to find those who are seeking Christ? Why should we even think about publicly professing our faith more often? Why should we spend time this week saying hello to strangers and inviting them to be a part of this community? Because, as Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered for standing up and facing oppression and evil, wrote,

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (From the May, 2005 issue of Context)

So why do it? Because it is the calling of Christ to bring the good news of the Gospel to the world so that others may hear it as well.

“Why Are We Here?”

This is the message that I presented at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 25 April 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10.

At this point, I had served Neon for six months but the situation required a change in my life and a move to New York at the end of May.  As I wrote and spoke in this message, I was trying over the course of the next five weeks to prepare for the change and pastor and a possible renewal of the church.


Two weeks ago, after I learned that Pam Ison would be my replacement, I had an opportunity to call her and talk about a number of things that I could do to help her. And I was flying to New York later that week, I began to think about how the next five sermons would go. From one standpoint, I have to look at the sermons almost as one item because, with everything that is going on, I almost have to work on the last three sermons together.

The vision that Pam has for Neon United Methodist is one that I have and one that I am sure that every one of you has as well. And I found out yesterday that this vision of building the church in Neon is one shared by both the District Superintendent, and Bishop.

So it was that I as flew to New York last weekend, I was thinking about what I could say to make that vision clearer. Then when I came home from school Tuesday evening I found out about the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.

I suppose that these shootings were a little closer to home because I was a freshman in high school in Colorado at a school probably about 30 miles from Columbine. And as a teenager, the son of a career Air Force officer, I knew some of the loneliness that the shooters felt.

In my case, I moved from school to school each year. That made it very hard to develop friendships that would last. And because friendships are a central part of the high school experience, not having them makes one very lonely.

Why those two students decided to take such violent action is something that I don’t think we will every truly understand. But I think it is important that we know what we can do, even here in Neon, so that no one, child, youth, or adult feels the need to take such drastic action.

In the Epistle reading for today, Peter speaks of the persecution that Christ endured and asked us how we would respond?

“For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

If we are aware of God, then we can endure all that others do to us. What those students did was wrong and anyone who feels that the only way to get attention is to do something violent is also wrong. Doing something wrong just because others do you wrong is never a justification for actions.

So what are we to do? There are those who decry society’s impact on students saying that it is because society has allowed violence to be such a part of our day to day life that violence is seen as the only alternative. Yet, in condemning society, these critics fail to realize that we are society. It is the easiest thing in the world to criticize. Now is not the time for criticism; now is the time for action.

I keep meeting people who say that the problem with schools today is that we took prayer out of the school. But I wonder about that. Schools are continually being asked to do that which the parents should be doing. I also question how valid a prayer in school can be, especially in today’s diverse society. After all, with all the denominations, can we agree on a prayer? And with the possibility of Jews and Muslims, how can one prayer be from the heart? The problem is not within the schools but within each of us.

Keep in mind that every time a sinner came to Jesus for forgiveness, Jesus asked them to change their lives. Be it Nicodemus, the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman about to be stoned, after meeting Jesus, they changed their life. Jesus did not criticize; He asked that they sin no more.

In the Gospel reading today, John writes “that sheep follow him because they know this voice.” In this parable, the sheep “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not the voice of strangers.” But in today’s society, how do we hear the voice of Jesus? How do we come to know Jesus?

Last night, Ann and I spoke about our growing up and we both agreed that it was because we knew God as a loving father that we were able to endure the loneliness that came from being “different” from our classmates. Back in February, I told you that I came to Christ as a freshman in high school and I know that it was that single decision that provided the strength and foundation that I needed later in life.

When I started college in 1966, the first decision I made was to have my church membership at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. That was because I knew that I need Christ in my life, especially at times when I would be alone. As I look back on my life and the wandering through the wilderness my soul endured, I know that it was Christ’s presence that made the difference.

The responsive reading for today, the 23rd Psalm, was very much appropriate for today. David wrote of the comfort that the shepherd provided to the lambs, “he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” And in a time when many dangers existed, David knew that God would protect him, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”

Why is Neon Church here? What are we to do? In the reading from Acts today, the new Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The reading speaks of them being together and having all things in common.

The saving of souls, as described in Acts, was a result of the people of Christ coming together for the common good. There are two questions that kept coming up as I thought, prayed, and prepared for this sermon. How can those who felt left out hear in the din of today’s society the voice of Jesus calling them home? Society is loud and as hymn #348 tells us, Jesus is softly and tenderly calling. There must be a place where people can hear that call. This is the place. There must be an alternative to feeling alone and left out. This is the place.

As we go out into the world today, I want you to think about what Neon United Methodist Church can do. I want you to think about the question that this sermon is about, “Why are we here?” And I want you to spend time in prayer each day, asking for God’s support for this church. Lastly, you know someone who has been searching for a calmness in their live, you know someone who should be coming to Neon United Methodist Church. I would like you to invite your friends to join us on May 23rd, as we gather together on the Day of Pentecost like the early church did some two thousand years ago.

Reinventing the Wheel

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter.


As I read the passage from Acts for today (Acts 2: 42 – 47), I am reminded how much the church of today differs from the beginning church. No matter what version of this passage you read, the message is the same.

New International Version

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The Message

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.

They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel

They were all bound together by the officers’ instruction and by the sense of community, by the common meal and the prayers. A great reverence came over everybody, while many amazing and instructive things were done by the officers. The whole company of believers stuck together and held all things common. They were selling their goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of one’s need. Knit together with singleness of purpose they gathered at the church every day, and as they ate the common meal from house to house they had a joyful and humble spirit, praising God and showing over-flowing kindness toward everyone. And day by day, as people were rescued, the Lord would add them to the fellowship.

The people shared not only a meal but their goods and belongings. This is most definitely not what we are doing in today’s church.

Now, it should be noted that there were those in the early church who felt that Christ’s return was imminent and they stopped working. On a number of occasions, Paul had to chastise members of churches for their failure to keep working for the good of the group.

It appears to me that we are trying, when it comes to the nature of the church today, very desperately to reinvent the wheel. We seek models of the church that will reinvigorate or revitalize the church. This comes at a time when religion in general is under question, both from within the church in general and from outside the church.

From within the church, we have questions about the nature of the church. None of these questions reflect the history of the early, post-Easter church. Is the church to be the moral police, enforcing rules that determine salvation? Or is it to be the moral conscience, bringing people to awareness? Again, reflecting on the reading from Acts for today, it would seem that the growth of the early church came from the presentation of information that offered hope and a promise, not an enforcement of rules and regulations.

It is also apparent that the view of the church from the outside is one that sees a determination by those inside the church to foster a society of rules and regulations. The rise of atheism-oriented materials and the seeming disdain for the role the modern church has had in society can be, I think, directly related to the view of the church as closed to society, rigid, inflexible, and fixed in a time long past.

In a time when there are serious questions being asked in society, when divisions between people because of race, gender, social and economic status are growing wider by the day, the church should be working to bring people together, not tearing them apart. At a time when people are called seekers, churches should be among those who are helping to answer questions, not simply forcing a fixed answer.

Now, this is not going to be a theological conversation. It is not even going to be a philosophical conversation. The role of philosophy, religious or otherwise, is to provide assistance in a person’s ongoing quest for truth, not to allow a suspension of rational thought by providing you with a final and absolute answer. It is evident that, as a society, we are quite unwilling to seek the truth, preferring to develop it from our own point of view. In today’s Gospel reading (John 10: 1 – 10), we are reminded that there is only one entrance into the Kingdom. For those of us who profess to be Christians and whose lives are a reflection of the early church, the gatekeeper is Jesus Christ.

But what if you are not a professing Christian? What if you are a professing Jew or Muslim? Are you barred from Heaven? I don’t believe so but that is because if you profess to believe in God from the context of another religion, then the rules or practices that apply to me do not apply. And that is the catch. If you profess to believe in God but your life is not a reflection of your profession, or if you have no profession of belief in God, then you are like the one in the Gospel reading who seeks to gain entrance by climbing over the wall. I would also add that those who seek to choose the best of all religions while ignoring the worst of the same are no better than one who professes belief but does not act on that profession.

In response to this, many churches are examining their processes and trying to figure out how the church can be more relevant in today’s work. There are at least three models for church growth. I have previously discussed these in “Opening the Circle” so I won’t go into the detail of each model.

But now a new model for church growth is emerging and it is known, coincidentally, as the emerging church matrix. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the “seeker-driven, big church” model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside. For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours.

If “seeker services” were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and wine, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on the modern technology.

What I found most interesting in this discussion of the emerging church is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more than offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (1)

I will admit that I have not quite figured out what is meant by the terms “emerging church” and “emergent church”. I once wrote that I thought such churches were associated with coffee houses. If the church had a coffee house associated with it, or if a coffee house had a church associated with it, then it was considered an “emerging church”. (2)

However, I discovered that there was more to this “movement” than the location of the worship. I came across an article by Hal Knight (“John Wesley and the Emerging Church”). This is an interesting article because it points out that Methodism, from its inception, is essentially an emerging church. This is interesting because emerging churches are considered a relatively new phenomenon and Methodist churches are considered traditional.

There are clearly differences between emerging churches and the typical Methodist church of today. First, as Knight pointed out, the emerging church tends to be diverse and decentralized and averse to static structures and fixed ideas. It is also driven by an increasing dissatisfaction with the assumption and practices of many churches.

But they also understand that discipleship is meant to closely follow and emulate the person and ministry of Jesus. And while many people express Christianity as I did last week (water at birth, rice at weddings, and dirt at funerals), most emerging churches see the mission of the church. They see that they are to be communities who participate in the mission of God in the world.

Emerging churches also reject many of the dualisms that dominate the traditional churches of today. They tend to see all of life as potentially sacred and all culture subject to transformation and renewal by the Kingdom of God. Emerging churches are alternative communities. No longer do people go to church; they are the church.

While emerging churches hold to the authority and primacy of the Scriptures, it is more of a narrative than a reading. With a narrative reading, the church is able to draw upon a broad scheme of things and offer more diverse forms of worship. Finally, there is a sense of what some call a generous orthodoxy. By this, truth is not something that is captured and mounted on a wall like a stuffed trophy but rather exemplified by the community of believers.

Each point in this description of the emerging church has a Methodist counterpoint, a point developed by John Wesley almost two hundred and fifty years ago. Wesley developed the Methodist Church of his time in response to the needs and demands of society and the lack of response by the church of that time.

The needs and demands of society today are quite easily the same as they were then. But, since we are often a society that tends to forget what it is that got us to where we are today, we have forgotten what it is that we have done and what we are supposed to do. In his first letter, Peter reminded his readers that Christ bore the pain of our sins so that we would not have to do so.

We need not reinvent the church because we want to respond to the needs and demands of society. All we have to do is remember what the church was at its beginning and what the Methodist Church was at its beginning. All we have to do is do what has been done in the past and we will find the success that was then and can be tomorrow.

(1)  Adapted from “What Comes Next”

(2)  See “A New Beginning”