The Vision That We Have

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin for this Sunday, May 26, 2019 (6th Sunday of Easter, Year C) at Fishkill United Methodist Church.

The theme of the Scriptures today, it seems to me, is one of vision.  With these readings, we are reminded of what is written in Proverbs, “if we are without vision, we shall perish”

Some years ago, I came across a quote from Joel A. Barker,

Vision without action is merely a dream.  Action without vision just passes the time.  Vision with action changes the world.

Paralleling that was quote by Willie Nelson,

“one person cannot change the world but one person with a message can.”

Neither Luther nor Wesley sought to create a new expression of faith; theirs was vision of how to best express one’s faith.  Wesley had a “method” for implementing that vision.

There are those today who say they have a plan for the church, but it is a plan without a vision, one beset by rules and regulations, one without concern for the people of the church and the people who seek the church.  In their plan, if you don’t meet the qualifications as set by the rules they have made, you are not eligible to be a part of the faith.

This attitude, I feel, is the same attitude religious authorities two thousand years ago voiced.  It was the same attitude voiced by their Wesleyan era counterparts.  As a plan based on rules and regulations, it was stiff and formal, with no room to be creative and no room for those outside society.  It was a plan created without love and without a vision for the future.

A sightless world is a limited one, one in which fear and ignorance dominate,

What Jesus did was change the vision of the world, to see a new future.  Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can put that vision into action.

~~Tony Mitchell

“What Does Your Church Look Like?”

I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning (May 5th). The message is “What Does Your Church Look Like?” and is based on the Scriptures for this Sunday, Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend. The message for Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday is “The Gift of Love” and is based on the lectionary readings for May 12th, Acts 16: 16 – 34; Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; and John 17: 20 – 26.


When I began thinking about this message, it was first based on the last lines of today’s reading from Acts,

After she was baptized, along with everyone in her household, she said in a surge of hospitality, “If you’re confident that I’m in this with you and believe in the Master truly, come home with me and be my guests.” We hesitated, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Here was a woman, who at the very moment of her conversion, opened her heart and responded to the Gospel message of Paul. Now, in an effort to understand this moment, I turned to one of my favorite references, the Cotton Patch Gospels of Clarence Jordan.

This translation of the New Testament is a distinctly Southern version of the New Testament written by a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar who sought to make the words of the Bible relevant to the people of the South and in terms that related to the world of the South in the 50s and 60s to the time when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee. Sadly, Dr. Jordan died while working on the translation of John so I am not able to read how the Gospel of John or the other books attributed to John would have been expressed.

This, I think, is important. If you cannot put the words of the Bible into the context of your own time, then the words of the Bible become somewhat meaningless. I knew when I was in high school where the church in Corinth that Paul was writing to was but I am sure that many people in the Memphis, Tennessee, area where I went to high school would have first thought of Corinth, Mississippi, before thinking of Corinth, Greece. And when I hear of Mount Moriah I am as apt to think of the most dangerous streets in Memphis as I am to think of the place where God told Abraham to take his son Isaac.

So it was when I read of Dr. Jordan’s translation describing Paul’s journey through Louisana and Mississippi and going to St. Louis, I could not help but think of my own journey and my ties to St. Louis and Missouri. As a graduate of the University of Missouri, I can relate to the Holy Spirit telling Paul not to go to Kansas. But I should also add that my own journey as a lay servant/speaker began in Odessa, Texas.

So while I was thinking of the hospitality of Lydia and what it means for us today, I was also thinking about my own journey throughout the South and up here in the North. I began thinking about the fact that I can often tell if a particular church that I see before me is a United Methodist Church long before I see the sign in the front. That was the case when I first came here to Sugar Loaf.

Sometimes you can see what you know is a church from miles away. I still recall the first time I ever saw the cathedral in Conception Junction, Missouri rising above the plains of northwest Missouri. I don’t know how far away I was but I could see that it was a church and it was something that I wanted to see up close (I wrote about this encounter for the Fishkill UMC back page in “A Reminder”.

Sometimes, that’s not the case though. There is a church in Springfield, Missouri, that looks like a three-story office building, square in shape and in the middle of a parking lot. It is not that different from the other office building along its street. The only way that you could ever know that it was, in fact, a church (besides the sign) is that the windows on the street side of the building form a cross.

And in the hills of eastern Kentucky you will see houses that could only be best described as run-down shacks; yet they are the homes of active Pentecostal churches.

Now, I have never been inside that church in Springfield, Missouri nor the Pentecostal churches that dotted the roads of eastern Kentucky (probably because I was on my way to my own small non-descript but decidedly United Methodist Church in Neon, Kentucky). I have been inside the church at Conception Junction and can understand why the people built it as an expression of their faith in the late 19th century.

But I also know of the massive cathedrals in Europe, built as an expression of faith, but now, for the most part, lie empty or serve more as tourist destinations than places to find God.

But it is not the outside but the inside of the church that tells you what a church looks like. I return to Lydia and her act of hospitality. Luke, the writer of Acts and companion on the journeys of Paul, probably included that note in his recording because Lydia probably began a church in her own home as did so many others in the early Christian church.

You may recall that many of what are know established United Methodist churches in this country, especially in this area began as gatherings in homes because the religious establishment would not let them meet in churches or build a church of their own.

It was the faith and desire to meet God that brought people together, even when it was perhaps difficult and possibly illegal to do so. And we can only imagine what it might be like to have been invited to visit one of these early home-churches or even a church today. (There was a great discussion on a blog that I follow on whether or not to invite a fellow Christian to one’s church.)

Some of us, I know, first came to church because someone invited us to come with them. Others, perhaps, were dragged kicking and screaming and not necessarily as children (though that perhaps describes my own situation).

There is a pastor in the New York Annual Conference who will tell you about the time before he was a Christian when he was told that he needed to be in a particular church on a Sunday morning for the baptism of a sibling’s child. And he will show you the bulletin for that Sunday that he still keeps on his desk so many years later that reminds him of that day and the lady who helped him get a cup of coffee after the service.

He will tell you how he found that bulletin a few weeks later and how he came back to the church, not kicking or screaming or rather reluctantly, but quite willing. He will gladly show you the spot at the altar rail where he answered the call and gave his life to Christ. This, by the way, was and is a United Methodist Church. It was the church that gave him the push and the backing to change his life and become a minister.

These are the stories that we want and need to hear; of people finding Christ and people, through simple acts helping some one to Christ.

This pastor told his story in that very church a few weeks ago. Unfortunately and rather sadly, there were some in the congregation who did not want to hear the story and who were complaining, before the service was over, how long the service was going. Instead of being time with Christ, church was, for them, a brief moment on Sunday mornings and not to interfere with their daily routine.

My own journey is perhaps a little different. Yes, I was brought kicking and screaming to church when I was in school and I could think of so many Sunday mornings when I was in college when I would have rather stayed in bed. But I made a decision to follow Christ when I was in high school on my own and the Holy Spirit spent much time and energy reminding me of that commitment. And while I may not have wanted to go, I also knew that I needed to be in church on Sunday morning, perhaps for reasons not yet evident.

I do know this; were it not for Marvin Fortel, the pastor of 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, when I began attending college there, my own journey with Christ, let alone my journey as a lay servant/speaker would have taken a different path and I probably would not be standing here today.

His words and his actions showed me the walk that I needed to walk; his counsel and the counsel of others at that time put the Gospel message in the context of my own life and gave me hope for the future. But I also know that Reverend Fortel’s words, thoughts, and deeds, with regards to the civil rights movement and his opposition to the war in Viet Nam which were similar to my own words, were not easily accepted by the other members of that congregation and he was asked to move on.

It does not matter what a church looks like on the outside; what matters is what is in the hearts and souls of the people inside the church. Have they built walls that exclude others? Have they built walls which they think protect them from the world outside but actually lock them in a prison?

The first Christian churches were in the homes of the followers because there was no other place to meet and to meet in public somewhere almost certainly meant the followers would be arrested. The first Methodists in this country met in homes as well because they were barred from meeting in the churches and they built meeting houses because the laws would not allow them to build churches of their own.

They met because they wanted to be with Jesus and help others meet with Him, even when the establishment would not allow it.

But there are no such rules and laws in place today in this country that prevent us from meeting openly in a church of our own, no matter what it may look like.

But what is it that people see. In the Gospel reading for today, Jeuse tells us that a loveless world is a sightless world. The world cannot see Christ if the love of Christ is not present. It was perhaps that knowledge of the love of Christ that prompted Lydia to extend her hospitality to Paul and Timothy. It was that expression of hospitality that allowed one man to get a cup of coffee and begin walking a new path.

It is that hospitality that says to the world that this is a place where one can be among friends and find Christ. John Wesley once said (I hope) that the world was his parish, that his call to ministry extended beyond the walls of the church where he preached.

There is a crisis in this world that is not just a counting of the number of wars or acts of violence. It is a crisis in that we see war and violence as the answer to our problems. We as a society, not just here but throughout the world, are not willing to seek other solutions, even when present solutions do not seem to work.

The other day, I heard Willie Nelson say that one person could not change the world but that one person with a message could. The message that Jesus carried across the roads of the Galilee and to Jerusalem is the prime example.

Many people today see the words of Revelation as the end, the end of everything. For them, these words are dark and exclusionary, meant only for a select few. But John the Seer may have written them knowing that darkness could not win, that darkness and evil will not and would not prevail. If we read the Book of Revelation with the thought that God has won and that evil in whatever form it may take has lost, then we see and hear words that tell us what we must do.

John wrote that the Tree of Life will yield twelve kinds of ripe fruit but who is to pick the fruit and distribute it? The leaves of this Tree are for healing nations but who will heal the nations and the people?

There are people outside the walls of the traditional church seeking to come in and find Christ. Would it be better if, perhaps, the people inside the church were to go outside and show them what Christ is like through their words, their deeds and their actions? What might happen in this world today if we extended the love of Christ to all we meet?

It is a frightening thought but perhaps no more frightening than that first time you came into the church, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps kicking and screaming. Jesus told the disciples

I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.

So we know that we can go out into the world, we know that we can as Lydia did, invite the world into our homes, perhaps not all at once but surely one person at a time.

The call goes out today to follow Jesus, to accept Him as savior. And the call goes out to allow the Holy Spirit into your life, to empower you and provide you with the strength for the task before you.

What does your church look like? I think it looks like each one of us for in each one of us, people will see Christ and we will see Christ in those we meet.

Try To Remember

These are my thoughts for the past week as well as for this Sunday, May 9, 2010, the 6th Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 16: 9 – 15, Revelation 21: 1 – 10, 22 – 22: 5, and John 14: 23 -29.


The title of this piece comes about because of a little news blurb this past week. It was noted that the musical, “The Fantasticks” was something like fifty years old last week and was the longest running musical on Broadway before it closed a few years ago. It also noted that those who backed this musical when it first started received something on the order of a 2,000% return on their initial investment. But as I was reading this little tidbit of information, I was trying to remember the music that was associated with the show.

And then as I tried to remember the songs, a jolt of neurons hit my brain. The song in question is and was “Try to Remember”!

That’s the thing about our memory. We can remember things if we have the right motive or the proper aid. But we also need to have something in our minds that will bring it back to us. As I did some searching about the musical and the songs, it was noted that the late Jerry Orbach was the singer in the musical. Most people only know him as one of the detectives on the television show “Law & Order” and know little about his early acting and musical career.

Along those same lines, I was chatting with a help-desk tech the other day as we were trying to resolve a particular computer issue. It was necessary for me to reboot the computer and as it was doing so, that insidious little piece of Windows music played. I mentioned that I used to have a clip of “Elvis has left the building” that played when I would shut down my computer.

I asked the techie if she knew who Elvis was and she replied that she did. But when I asked her if she knew what band Paul McCartney was in before “Wings”, she couldn’t tell me. That is the way it goes sometimes. What constitutes part of life for some of us is only ancient history for others and it is quickly forgotten after it is studied, if it is studied at all. I wonder how many mothers and grandmothers there are today who are fearful their children and grandchildren will see pictures of them on the Ed Sullivan Show screaming and shouting when the Beatles or Elvis first played?

But my reminiscing about the music of my youth also reminded me of another song and what transpired forty years ago last week. Forty years ago, on May 4, 1970, four students where shot by Ohio National Guardsman. The incident and I think the protests across the nation concerning what President Nixon had ordered done in Viet Nam prompted Neil Young to write “Ohio”. I remember being a part of a protest at my school (Truman State) but I don’t know if we knew that four students had been shot. I also know that very few people today remember that two students were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi that same day.

In light of what is transpiring in this country, both socially, politically, and environmentally, perhaps we should be doing a little more remembering. We, collectively, stood by and allowed our his country to begin an ill-conceived war in Iraq; it was a war conceived in lies and more lies and it continues today. The war in Afghanistan is now considered a separate theater of operations by the Army so that it can transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and call each a separate tour. It promises to be a war that shall go on for a very long time.

I remember studying in my history classes about the “Forty Years War” and the “Hundred Years War” and wondering how a war could last for one, two, and even three generations. Now, as I read the reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and I see how we propose to fight terrorism, I no longer have to wonder. I am watching history develop its own story line in my own lifetime and I am watching my generation, who protested the war in Viet Nam and walked the streets in support of civil rights and free speech stand quietly on the sidelines, not in protest but in quiet acquiescence.

We have, in this country, a selective memory. We will send our troops overseas to fight in a war, bring them home for a short period of time, and then send them out again. Oh, yes, we will celebrate their return; as the song goes, “the men will cheer and the boys will shout and the ladies, they will all turn out, when Johnny comes marching home”.

But we have chosen to forget the darker side of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”; the side goes something like this:

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums,

The enemy nearly slew ye

Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild,

When my heart you so beguiled

Why did ye run from me and the child

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run,

When you went for to carry a gun

Indeed your dancing days are done

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, yhe haven’t a leg,

Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg

Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg

Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again,

But they never will take our sons again

No they never will take our sons again

Johnny I’m swearing to ye


We would rather not know the consequences of our actions because then we would have to face up to the reality of life. And we prefer life where “reality” is a show on television, not what we have to face in life.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Mother’s Day? Well, from my point of view, there are two things. First, one year when I was in school, I gave my mother a pendant that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things” as a Mother’s Day gift. It came from an organization called “Another Mother for Peace” that had formed back in 1967 in opposition to the Viet Nam war. I thought it would have “disappeared” but I discovered that it is still around and it is still very active in the causes of eliminating war as a means of solving disputes between peoples, nations, and ideologies.

My mother wasn’t exactly thrilled with this gift but she knew that it came from her son and she told me that she loved me as her son and would always do so. A parent need not always approve or support their child’s actions and beliefs but they need to love them as a child and as a person. John writes in his Gospel that Jesus said those who love Him will keep His word will be loved by the Father. Those who do not love Jesus do not keep His words.

We have, in this country today, changed the meaning of that love to where it is almost hatred. We no longer love the other people on this planet but would rather ignore them when they come home wounded from war or throw them in jail for coming into this country illegally to find work. The issue cannot be about throwing people in jail because they are here illegally but rather resolving the issues about why these people seek work in this country. We are so caught up in our own self-interests we would rather ignore the real economic problems of this world than try to solve them.

And we do not remember that those who came to the shores of this country some 400 years ago could easily be considered illegal immigrants and we choose to ignore the fact that we essentially stole this continent from its inhabitants.

We have forgotten that Christians were first known by the love they expressed for others in their community and outside as well. In the eyes of many, Christianity is sexist, racist, and exclusionary. The actions of so many today, operating in hate and angry have made Christianity evil rather than good. And we have forgotten that women were a powerful force in the early church. Go back and read the account of Paul’s travels in the selection from Acts as well as his opening remarks in his early letters and contrast that to the operations of the church today. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten what we were and who we were; perhaps it would be well for us to remember.

And to borrow a phrase from the beginnings of the 1970s environmental movement, perhaps we should listen to Mother Earth more closely. We seem to think that we can do whatever we want to this planet but the tragedy and catastrophe that is taking place in the Gulf should be a reminder of what happens when we do not care for this planet properly. We seem to think that the only answer to our energy problems is to drill more holes in the earth’s crust and we have decided that safety is only one part of the equation and that it is to be factored against the cost of production. We have made the production of energy more important than the well-being of the workers. We seek to tap the same old energy sources and run the risk of damaging, beyond repair, the climate of this planet upon which we live.

We take the words that John the Seer wrote in Revelation and make them the end of the earth, not the beginning of a new life (because we fail to remember that the scenario of an apocalypse is a 19th century creation, not the vision of a 1st century mystic). The Seer cared for the people of this earth and he saw a new world, founded on the love that God had for his people and expressed through the mission and work of His Son.

On this day, when we remember our own mothers with flowers and phone calls, let us also remember the love that a parent has for a child. And then let us remember that Our Father in Heaven so loved us that He sent His Son to save us from our sins. His Son’s death on the Cross will not be in vain if we remember why we call this the season of Easter and perhaps it will help us to remember where we have been and what we have so that we can begin anew and complete the task begun two thousand years ago.


Where Are You Going?

This was the sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 16: 9 – 15, Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22: 5, and John 14: 23 – 29.


There are some certain constants in my life. It seems that there has always been a major river close by where I lived (though I don’t know where that river was when I lived in West Texas). There have always been, it seems, hills and valleys as well. And there are the highways. I think I mentioned once before that I had driven the roads north of Whitesburg, Kentucky before I moved there but I could not remember where until after I had moved there.

And there is US Highway 6, which runs east and west just south of Tompkins Corners. If you follow this highway westward, you will pass by the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, the places where I lived and worked while working on my doctorate in Iowa City, which is just down the road a bit.

Our highways have a way of tying together the various sections of this country. US Highway 1, the old post road, runs from Boston to Washington and then on south to Miami. It was the first major highway in the country. US Highway 30, known as the Lincoln Highway, runs eastward from Chicago and was one of the first westward highways in this country. And who can forget Route 66, the mother road? This highway, running from Chicago to Los Angeles and passing through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma is famed in story and song as the road that led the families from depression era farms to the riches of the golden west.

I have always thought that it would be a good way to spend a summer or perhaps even a year driving the US highways starting up on US 1 in Maine and driving the highways in numerical order. I would start up in Maine and drive down US 1 until it intersects with US 2 and then follow US 2 to where it intersects US 3, and so on. I know that it is not completely possible to drive all the highways in a consecutive manner but it might be a fun to spend vacation time trying.

I do know that you can start near Columbus, KS (in the southeast section of Kansas) and drive in sequence highways 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. This will put you in Little Rock, Arkansas. There you can pick up US 70 and follow it west to US 69, which, if you head north, will take you to Springfield, MO. But if you stay on US 70 for a little longer, you will reach US 71. So, here in the heartland of our country is the sequence of highways 59 through 71, skipping 68. It happens that US 68 is goes through part of Ohio but don’t ask my why or how. If you go north on US 71 in search of US 52 for a distance, you will find something interesting. All this driving through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma and you end up about 5 miles from where you started.

This is an interesting drive but I am not sure that anyone would want to spend all that gasoline (especially today) driving around the country if all you do is end up where you started. It is the metaphor of our lives that says we want our journey in live to have meant something. We want our journey in life to have taken us somewhere. Even if we never go anywhere physically in our lives, we want to know that our time on this earth was worth the effort.

For some, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is a representation of that completion of the journey. But for others, it is the fear in the hearts of the disciples when Jesus, after his resurrection, tells the disciples that He is going where they cannot come. How can the journey end that way? But more often than not, our journeys have been like Paul’s, going places that we are not sure of, uncertain of what lie ahead. It is that uncertainty that drives our journey; but it may be how we deal with the uncertainty that determines where we go.

The vision of John, expressed in the Book of Revelation, is seen by some as an escape from the outside world. Many, especially those enthralled with current culture, see in his vision a world that has Christians whisked away from the pain and suffering here on earth to the safety of heaven. The coming of the New Jerusalem brings destruction to the present earth, leaving the true believers safe in heaven.

It may be that one reason this version of the end of the earth is so popular today is that it offers individuals an escape from earth and the problems encountered everyday. People do not want to be reminded while they are in church of all the problems of the earth. This is a day of rest, not a day to solve the problems of the world. And many churches today give the people what they want, an escapist view of the world with a soft and palatable Gospel message.

It is almost seems that many fundamentalist churches see the ending of the earth in an Armageddon fashion as the true nature and culmination of the Gospel. This makes it easy to escape the pain and suffering here on earth. It makes no sense to work for the peace of God on earth and to ease the pain and suffering here on earth, because that would only deviate from God’s plan. Despite Biblical admonitions to do so, we should keep our weapons rather than beat the "swords into plowshares" because we will need them in the final days to protect ourselves. (Adapted from "Are liberal Christians phony?" by David Batstone in the Sojourner’s e-magazine for May 12, 2004.)

This may not be a softer version of the Gospel but it is a version that will allow you to escape from the problems of the world. What it certainly does do is allow one to listen to the Gospel and not feel guilty because there is nothing that can be done. All the pain and suffering in the world are merely portions of God’s plan to prepare the "true" believers for the eventually ascension into heaven.

It is a message that fit today’s "lifestyle" of blaming the other person, of not taking the lead. Today’s modern church makes people feel comfortable and safe because it hides them from the world.

But the Gospel is not supposed to fit within your lifestyle; it’s supposed to change it. If the message of the Gospel that Jesus preached were not lifestyle changing, it would have never been carried beyond the boundaries of Israel. If the Gospel message were not life changing, people would not have called on the disciples or even Paul to bring the message to them and to stay with them. Let’s face it, it was the change in people’s lives that came from the Gospel message that Jesus preached that changed this world. If we want something that will accommodate our lives, we will not find it in the Gospel.

John’s vision of heaven is what it can be on earth, not what it is elsewhere. John sees the reign of God coming down from heaven to a wonderful city here on earth. He visualizes, in Revelation 21, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." New Jerusalem is not simply where we will go when we die; it is also the worldwide political and economic arrangement that God is bringing to reality among those who chose to follow the Lamb rather than the Beast. (Adapted from "System failure" in "Living the Word" by J. Nelson Kraybill, Christian Century, May 4, 2004)

This view of John’s vision puts the Gospel into action. And I think that it is finding adherents in many of what are called the "emerging" churches of today. Those that we call "seekers" are not satisfied with the megachurch model of growth. Such models and their size take away the contact with God that they, the "seekers" are looking for.

They ask basic gut level questions such as "Do you know God, do you live in 2004, do you have a story?" They do not want our answers to be that we know a lot about God but cannot say whether we actually know God personally. They don’t want to know that while it is 2004 outside the church it is 1952 inside the church on Sunday morning. And they don’t want to hear the story of how the church has been chartered since 1968 and that the budget is $256,000 or that we have had ten pastors and thirteen organists during that period.

Today’s "seekers" grew up hearing and seeing a of redemption and sacrifice but saw those who pushed the message living lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They do not want to be a part of that church anymore. They do not want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that because it is there people will come. It may be a sign of the times but these "seekers’ would rather converse with their friends at a Starbucks on Sunday morning than drink coffee in a Styrofoam cup during fellowship time after service on Sunday.

They want to know what it means to be a Christian today. One advocate of this new model of worship, Sally Morgenthaler, suggested that these seekers wanted to know what it meant to be a Christian 2000 years ago. But these individuals are of today and they want to know how the Gospel and its life changing attributes will affect them and apply to them. They want to know who Wesley is and why he is so important to this denomination. They want to know why it is we recite the various creeds. (Adapted from "Worship Transitions: The Road Less Traveled" by Sally Morgenthaler)

Now, I understand where Ms. Morgenthaler is coming from. Many churches do exhibit a time warp, turning back the clock to days long past and holding services that have not changed one word since the day they were confirmed. Some of have said that we need to "modernize" our worship service, bringing in the new songs and new styles.

Some years ago, a member of the congregation came up to me and did in fact ask me why we said the Apostle’s creed each Sunday. His challenge lead me to change the creed that we say each week, if for no other reason that it helps us keep afresh in our minds and our hearts what it is that we actually believe. If our argument against changing the way we worship is that this is the way we have been doing it for twenty years, we seriously need to consider changing it. But, in the same vein, we should look at the instrumentation that we play; we should look at the words we say. But any changes that are made in the worship service must be made to enhance and improve the service, not merely serve as window dressing.

The same is true about the music we sing. I happen to like the old time Gospel songs and try to put them in whenever I can. The greatest argument I have heard against today’s "praise music" is that it has no meaning. And meaning is what the songs should have. The songs are part of the worship and for me, at least, are part of what the message for each Sunday is and should be.

But the central point of the message is, was, and will always be the Gospel. It is the Gospel that leads us to heaven; it is the Gospel message that commands us to love others as we have been loved. In loving others, we are shown the road to heaven, the road that Jesus is showing us today.

Interestingly enough, there are now churches forming that are the antithesis of the megachurches that dominated the 1980’s and 1990’s. Instead of large, megachurches with multiple ministers, people are creating smaller communities of believers. In these new, smaller churches people are trying to find their relationship with God, something that cannot be found in the big churches currently espoused as the growth model. In response to the calls for a more culturally attuned liturgy, many of these "emerging churches" are going back to medieval liturgies or practices and even Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox rituals that precede the Enlightenment.

Those involved want a more interactive, demanding role in the way of the church, not an easier involvement. They are redefining the community of believers that once was the norm of Christianity. One person said, "I’d go to churches that were way too judgmental or too ambiguous. At Spirit Garage, there is no question what we’re doing. We’re talking about Jesus. We’re taking communion. We’re just doing it together, as a journey." (Adapted from "Hip New Churches Sway to a Different Drummer" by John Leland of the New York Times (18 February 2004). Posted with permission on Sally Morgenthaler’s web site – in the time since I wrote this piece, the original web site has been removed.)

The world around us is not a safe place these days. There are countless dangers, toils and snares that we will encounter. I cannot help but thinking that there need to be places in one’s journey where one feels safe and comfortable. But that safety and comfort will disappear when you step out into the real world; it won’t go away without somebody’s effort. And, unfortunately, many churches have become places where such dangers, toils, and snares are encountered, because they have allowed the outside world to come inside its walls.

But it was never intended that the Gospel message be kept inside the walls of the church; rather, it was to be taken out into the world. The church was the place where one could find safety and comfort but also to be recharged and re-energized.

John offers a new vision of the church, of a church that brings the reality of heaven to here on earth. Jesus said a lot about how we should live and the Holy Spirit nudges us and pushes us to put that teaching into practice. The church is not a full realization of the New Jerusalem that John envisioned. But those who follow the Lamb and place our citizenship and loyalty there already live in its transforming light.2

We have a choice to make individually, as a local church, and as a denomination. Just as my favorite Bible selection has to be Ecclesiastes 3, so too is my favorite poem "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. There are two paths before this morning. One is the path that most take, the easy one. But it is not a path that necessarily leads to the Gospel. The other path is not taken often, for it is unfamiliar, different, and unused. We don’t know what is down that path and we don’t always want to walk in that direction.

When Paul was told in his vision to go to Macedonia, he didn’t have any idea of what was waiting for him or what he would encounter as he went there. He and his companions just went, knowing that the Spirit of the Lord was with them as they traveled. So too do I believe that the Spirit is calling you, as a member of this church and Christ’s community, asking today "where are you going?"

How Big Is Your Church?

Here are my thoughts for this Mother’s Day, the 6th Sunday of Easter

(This has been edited since it was first posted.)
I have been thinking about a comment that was posted on my blog the other week. It was that the United Methodist Church was a collection of small churches. I really wasn’t sure if that was a true statement, though most of the churches within the denomination that I have been associated with over the past forty years or so probably would fit that definition. But then I found that this is a rather nebulous definition.

One source told me that 67% of the United Methodist Churches in this country have 199 members or less. Twenty-two percent (22%) have between 200 and 499 members. ( The problem with this study is that it did not identify what the average membership was nor did it breakdown the membership into various sub-categories. I think that it would be nice to have a further breakdown of this information because it goes a long way to show how a church perceives itself.

One church that I was affiliated with considered itself a small church but it had over ninety members. The only problem was that only about one-quarter of the membership was active and, ultimately, one-half of the members were removed through charge conference action for inactivity. Physically, this church was a small church and I think it was this physical size that dominated the thinking of the church. There were also other problems in the church (which was part of the reason for the discrepancy between the active number of members and the total number of members).

A second study that I found indicated that at least 45 churches in our denomination can be considered mega-churches, that is, churches with an average weekly attendance over 2000. ( The membership levels for these churches were not given but we can assume that the membership is greater than the attendance (the previous study indicated that there were ~1200 churches with over 1,000 members.)

It is interesting that we tend to speak of weekly attendance rather than membership.

Lyle Schaller, a noted consultant on the issue of church development, tells us that the number of churches with average worship attendance (not membership) less than 100 actually increased during the period 1972 to 2001. This is contrary to the plans and expectations that such churches would close.

During the same period the number of congregations reporting an average attendance between 100 and 199 decreased. And the number of congregations with average worship attendance over 200 remained essentially constant during the same period. (Adapted from “Two Choices”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 16 November 2003; “What Should Be the Norm?” Lyle Schaller, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003)

That information raises several questions. First, what will be perceived as a normal sized United Methodist Congregation in 21st century? Since 1970, the median size for average worship has dropped from 67 to 55 with 72 percent of all congregations averaging less that 100 or fewer. This is in contrast to the national trend which show that a disproportionately large number of churchgoers born after 1960 worship in large churches. Are people deciding not to become members of the churches that they regularly attend, especially the “smaller” churches because they do not want to be a part of the entire church process?

A third study from several years back indicated what average attendance must be in order for the church to support a full-time minister. Perhaps this was the most telling of all the statistics one can find on church size, growth, and membership, for it suggests what the minimal level must be for a church to remain a church. In the 1930’s a church with an average worship attendance of 45 or more was able to have a full-time, fully credentialed pastor. In the 1950s it took an average attendance of between 75 and 80. Today, the number is between 125 and 135. Fewer than one in four United Methodist churches exceed 125 in their average worship attendance. If the ability to support a pastor is predicated on how many people come to church each Sunday and that number is decreasing, then we do have a problem with the church today.

Some years ago I met Dr. Rose Sims. She was the pastor of a small church in Florida that had been given up for dead when she was assigned to it. She is an expert in bringing back to life churches that have been written off. Brought in to preach the funeral of dying churches, she has found a way to bring such churches back to life.

For her, the two most important steps in reviving a dying church are to first have the people involved with the church do the work and, second, make sure that it was the Gospel that was the central point to the church.

Regarding the first point, there are certain things that only the pastor or the preacher can do but if the people are not willing to work towards the ultimate success of the church, nothing the preacher can do will stop its death.

Regarding the second point, if the Gospel is not present in the message of the church, then the church really has no soul or chance to live. It does not matter how the Gospel is presented, but without the Gospel and what the Gospel means, the church will die.

There are many models for helping churches grow or revive. But many of these models, and I know you have heard me say this before, focus on the church helping people be comfortable with the Gospel. (Adapted from “And Now It Begins”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 18 April 2004)

I do not believe that the Gospel message is meant to make one feel good but rather the Gospel message is meant to take Christ into this world. Peter stood before the crowd and reminded them that they were given the task of taking the Gospel into the world (Acts 5: 27 – 32). That is the same task that we are faced with today. If Christ is not taken into the world, then the problems and troubles that plague the world cannot be fought. If Christ is not taken into the world, if He remains hidden in a room, safely locked away where only a few, select individuals can find Him, then His death and resurrection are meaningless.

The problem is that many people feel that the church owes them something; that their being a member is all they have to do. They want the church to do everything and be ready when they call; they are not comfortable with a Gospel message that calls upon them to be the messenger. They are quite happy with a church that does not venture outside the room; they are quite happy with the safety it provides. But a church that does not go outside its walls will soon die and though it has not happened yet, I fear that churches that use the model presently encouraged will soon begin to die.

One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:

1-Leaders who empower others to do ministry;

2-Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;

3-A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;

4-Organizational structures that promote ministry;

5-Inspiring worship services;

6-Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;

7-Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;

8-And loving relationships among the members of the church.

Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.

This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. It is a Gospel of good news, and how can one keep from sharing the good news?

The noted Baptist preacher and evangelist, Tony Campolo, feels that the decline of mainline churches in today’s society is because they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. The churches that are growing the most rapidly today, the Pentecostal and evangelical churches are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally. (Adapted from “Signs of Things To Come”, presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, 14 November 2004)

Mainline churches have done little in these matters. They believe it, they articulate it but it’s not where their emphasis is. It is why they are dying churches and why the Pentecostal or evangelical churches are growing.

Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it is also the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.

Another article that I read was about the turn around of a small church. In this article Shane Mize writes about the efforts of his church to turn around its decline and keep from closing its doors.

In 1995, his church had nineteen active members. During the first year, the membership did a number of things to change what visitors saw. Some of the things, like changing the name of the sanctuary to “worship center” and creating a songbook with praise choruses, I disagree with. Others, like explaining what doxology means, make some sense when you realize that many of the people seeking a church home are basically unchurched and do not understand the Latin phrases that dominate the worship service.

The success of the program can be seen in the fact that they had twenty-five visitors in the second year of their program and eighty-five visitors in the third year. Eleven of the visitors joined the church in the second year and twenty-five joined in the third year. But, the one thing that stood out as central to the success and growth of this church was the fact that the church made a visible and concerted effort to build an atmosphere of prayer, faith, and community.

He does mention money and he does mention that there were problems. Money was a problem because it was a small church. But it was never a problem, because the people knew that it was a necessity for success. What they did not anticipate and what caused the greatest problem was that with the growth of the church, in membership came change. Not everyone there at the beginning was open to the concept of change. Pastor Mize wrote that the church leaders had to deal with a lot of things solely empowered by their faith and that it was faith that empowered the changes and success that came.

He concluded his article with words probably inspired by Paul’s words today. A church that stops reaching starts dying. Faith, prayer, and love create an environment that produces disciples who live to fulfill the Great Commission. Paul was writing about those who had stopped working because they expected the Second Coming of Christ to be during their time. (“Small-Church Turnaround” by Shane E. Mize, from Net Results, December 1998.)

John wrote the Book of Revelation for seven churches in Turkey. He was writing about what their individual futures were. In a world where Roman tyranny destroyed any opposition (and the church was certainly the opposition), churches which did not focus on the Gospel message and the faith it took were doomed to die. For some of the churches, the temptation must have been very great to be a part of the secular community around them, insuring that they would survive.

The same is true today. The church is part of the community but it cannot allow the community to dictate its survival. For to do so would be to forget its faith, but if faith is protected at all costs, then the church cannot be a part of the community. Faith must be presented to the community, not hidden within the walls of the church.

On this Mother’s Day, 2007, we need to consider the size of our church and what it is supposed to be. Perhaps it is not a physical size that we should focus on and it is certainly not the number of people who come each week or the number of people who say that they are members. Rather, it is the size of the church in our heart that counts the most.

In the reading from Acts for today (Acts 16: 9 – 15), Lydia opened her heart to the Holy Spirit and invited Paul to stay at her home. In doing so, she was the mother to the first church. Those first churches were seen as communities rather than buildings; they were a group of people who worked together for the fulfillment of the Gospel, for the fulfillment of the Good News. Theirs were communities dominated by the love of each member for the others. This is what we need to be in today’s world, communities of believers united in common belief and supportive of each other’s endeavors.

This does not mean that we form social groups with common interests. Communities are diverse in nature and anytime you put people with common interests together, you remove the diversity.

John the Seer spoke of a new church (Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22: 5), one that was always available to all the people. It was a community where sickness and death were no more; it was a community where the residents took care of each other.

There have been communities that tried to do this but they were communities that failed because they built walls and would not let people in. And church that hides behind its walls will always die, no matter how big it might be.

And a church that tries to fit into the world around it by changing the Gospel message to meet the demands of those in attendance will also die. As people come to find the truth in the Holy Spirit, as people come to find that keeping the Gospel for one’s self, they will find that they themselves are dying.

We hear Jesus’ words today – “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14: 23 – 29)

It is not the physical size of the church that I worry about today; it is the size of the church that is in one’s heart. So, how big is your church?