Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Vital Congregations: a dialogue to inspire churches with ideas for ministries of vitality - Part II

The following is part two in a five-part series based on a dialogue begun at the 2015 Susquehanna Annual Conference around stories and experiences of congregational vitality. The team that presented included Pastor Janet Durrwachter, Rev. Rich Morris, Rev. Dr. Randy Willis, and Jaime Carpenter. The video of this session (held Friday morning, June 12) and a full transcript can be found at tinyurl.com/susumcAC2015.

It’s all about Jesus
Rev. Rich Morris, Hicks Memorial UMC, Duncansville
(edited transcript)

I know this isn’t ground-breaking news but it’s still all about Jesus. It was all about Jesus yesterday, and it’s still all about Jesus today, because he is the Lord of life. And the transforming power of God is only accessed by faithful disciples who follow Jesus in the kingdom life.

He is the Lord of life, he is declaring that the school of life is in session, and he invites us to enter into life with him today. He is Savior, and he is one who calls us to step into the kingdom today; not to wait until after we die, but today. And his kingdom preaching was [that] now is the day of salvation — today is the day that we enter into life with him.

I am also convicted that nominal faith produces nominal life. Early in my pastoral ministry I observed good church people behaving badly. I don’t know if you have ever observed that. I remember the very first administrative board meeting I attended as a new pastor. The treasurer threw her books across a table in anger at someone else, and I sat there agape, thinking what have I signed up for? What is going on here?

I continue to wrestle with the question of why the church that I pastor fails to produce authentic disciples. I ask the questions, what about our life together is good, and what is not really helpful? And I realized that the usual way of doing things is not producing the disciples that we need.

For example, I discovered not all of our Sunday school classes are actually spending their time engaging the Scripture. They are talking about other stuff. I thought, well, what needs to change here?

I realize that it starts with me, and the rest of our leadership as a church. So, as the leadership of the church, we try to make our expectations clear about what a disciple looks like and what a disciple does:

  • A disciple worships weekly with the church, and daily in his or her life. 
  • A disciple is in a small group to study Scripture. 
  • A disciple grows in spiritual practices. 
  • A disciple tithes or grows toward a tithe. 
  • A disciple serves in the larger community. 
  • A disciple witnesses for Christ all the time. There is no separation between the sacred and the secular. We are on-call all the time, giving a witness for Christ.

We expect the leadership in the church to model this so that we have a right to ask this of our folks.

I’ve been asked by people in my church  — long-time church members, church members that I’m friends with personally say to me, “Rich, do you really get up in the morning and open your Bible?” And I say, yeah, that really happens. And that can happen for you. People want to know if it’s possible to live like Jesus today. They want to see if anyone is living it.

As for reaching new people with the gospel, I feel like for the past thirty years we have been crying out to the culture, hey, come join us, we are just like you, we are just like you, we are just like you. And they finally believed us. They said, you’re right, you are just like us, so why should we come to church? I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be culturally relevant. I think my church seeks to be that. But in critical ways the church is called to be counter-cultural. For example, Tim Keller says that Christians today will be different from the culture in several key areas: in how we use power, in how we use money, and how we express our sexuality.

Have you ever wondered if celebrities on TV actually [use] the products they endorse? Have you ever wondered that? In the church we endorse a product, but perhaps we are not [consuming] what we are selling either. Perhaps the way we do church has no relevance and power for daily living. What people really need to see are Christians actually living and becoming like Jesus Christ.

Now anytime you talk about high standards of discipleship you open yourself up to charges of hypocrisy and self-righteousness and criticism, but the grace of Jesus Christ is not only the power to forgive us but the power to change us. Can I have an amen, church?

To focus on Jesus and the church is to do the things he did; to do what he is doing; to emulate him in discipline and practice. Things like prayer, solitude, service, study, fasting, worship, and celebration.

So at my church we are trying to introduce new people to these age-old disciplines. We do this through small group ministry. And as Janet Durrwachter so aptly said, we haven’t arrived. We do some things poorly, and we’re trying, and struggling, and growing.
We did a church-wide read-the-Bible-in-a-year program, and that was such a blessing for so many people to do this for the very first time in their lives — to read through the word of God from beginning to end together. And there are some that couldn’t do it in a year — I have a group that’s reading the Bible in four or five years, but they are sticking with it.

We focus on inter-generational ministries so that we are teaching and mentoring each other across age groups.

An example of this is, the first Sunday of each month at two of our three Sunday morning worship services we have something that we call family worship. And that just means that we are all there together. We don’t send the kids to Sunday school. We don’t send them to children’s church like we do other Sundays. But we are all together worshipping. And so we try to create our worship experiences so that the generations are interacting together and worshiping together. We challenge our whole church to memorize Scripture each Sunday by giving memory verses in the bulletins that correspond to the message.

It can be challenging, because we have a lot of kids. Since children’s ministry is a strength for our church, we take it outside the building into the neighborhood through something we call Backyard Club. It is a weekly, kind of mini-VBS that we do at a local housing project. We’re there to teach them about Jesus. We’re there to model how people of Christ treat each other, because their default is fighting and anger anytime anything goes wrong. One day a boy threw a piece of pizza at a girl. It wasn’t a big deal, until the parents got involved, and then it escalated.

The kids of the project are used to having churches send vans and busses in to ship them out to their building for a time, and then return them. We’re not going to do that. We come to them, because we know Jesus is already there where they live. And we want to be there with them.

Methodists give lip-service sometimes to John Wesley, and we have our favorite Wesley quotes, but are we doing the things that he did? Are we rising to pray, to study God’s word? Are we giving sacrificially? Are we serving? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

We live in a time where this ancient wisdom is fresh every morning for those who would enter in to following the Master of the school of life. It takes time and effort to lead Bible studies, to train new leaders, to model what a follower of Jesus actually does. The world’s great need today is to see Christian’s live authentically like Jesus. This is what the Holy Spirit blesses. This is where power and transformation is found. This is the church that is vital.

Look for part three in the next LINK or go to tinyurl.com/susumcAC2015 for the video and full transcript.

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