Easy Buttons and The Waiting Place: Trusting God and the Need for Revival

Hearing “That was easy!” from an “Easy Button” from Staples would come in handy with a lot of our current situations. The stock market has taken a tumble, politics has rattled everyone, North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions are frightening, the Artic is clogged with plastic waste, and the list goes on. Then there’s the usual personal stuff: illnesses, financial limitations, emotional struggles, work-related stress, and add graduation to the list. Whether it’s graduation from kindergarten, high school, college, or grad school, we wonder what’s next. What if my friends move or switch schools, what if I can’t find a job? How will I pay off these student loans? What’s the next step in my relationships? None of these questions are easy.

Then there’s the cultural dilemma of a rudderless society. We need a revival that is Spirit-led that begins with repentance. Our flippant devil-may-care “YOLO” – You Only Live Once attitude smacks us in the face every day when YODO is more accurate, You Only Die Once. Kids, youth, and adults of all ages make goals out of things that are so self-centered and oftentimes unspeakable. Our standards of morality have fallen to new lows. We need Jesus more than ever.

My favorite gift to graduating high school seniors for years has been Oh, the places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss. I’ll give them out again this year, but my optimism has been tempered by “fake” or real news. The bias in the news media makes me long for the days of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. I remember clearly the awful daily reports of the number of Vietnam dead. That was terrible, but today’s cacophony of talking heads makes it impossible to compartmentalize our lives to block out the noise. Sports used to be a great escape, but doping scandals and head injury debates make me feel like we’re watching fights to the death by gladiators in ancient Rome.

We can get fooled by placebos that only mask our main malady. I can push my “That was Easy!” button and it doesn’t change a thing. Heck, in my rush to get on and off elevators, I can push the “close door” button countless times to no avail. What most people don’t know is that those buttons don’t even work. They are set with specific intervals so that no one gets caught in the doors. The placebo effect makes us think we’re going somewhere, but it’s really the same-old, same-old. I can go out and buy an Ultra High Definition 4K Television and fool myself into thinking how sharp and crisp the picture is when all the while it doesn’t matter. My cable provider can’t handle 4K, so there you go. It’s a sham.

So, Dr. Seuss, the places we’ll go don’t look that great right now. What are we to do? If you know anything about Seuss’ book then you know that he identified what he called the “most useless place.” It is “The Waiting Place.” For maybe the first time I think the author is wrong. In these tumultuous times, a waiting place might just be the best place to be. Instead of purchasing or chasing placebos for what ails us, why don’t we wait? There’s a Bible verse in Isaiah 40:28-31 that says that “those who WAIT upon the Lord will renew their strength…” Amen to that!

Our society is into pushing the instant gratification button, and it doesn’t work with elevators or much of anything else! We think we can control all of life’s variables, and we overlook the best source of real peace and joy: Jesus. It doesn’t get much plainer than Matthew 11:28 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Our frantic frenetic world needs to wait on the Lord, pause, quit rushing here and there, and cast our cares on the Lord.

I Peter 5:6-11 says the same thing another way, and speaks volumes of good advice to me: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Another Bible passage that helps me wait and listen for God comes from I Kings 19. The prophet Elijah was about to give up and was in hiding and waiting in a cave while his enemies pursued him. In the midst of his waiting, God spoke to him: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then the Lord spoke, but not through the powerful wind, nor the subsequent earthquake, nor the fire that came next. After the fire came the Lord’s “gentle whisper,” sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” Let us be like Elijah and, though our foes be many, let’s listen for God’s whispers each day. He will speak, not in huge ways usually, but in gentle whispers.

We need to cock our ears toward God and be attentive. Our world and especially American culture needs to get right with God. We need to repent of our own foolish efforts to fix our problems. We need to shut our ears to the shouts of doomsayers, and we need to listen to God. We need to wait on the Lord, listen to his direction and follow his will. Just maybe, if we wait long enough, we’ll hear God’s still small voice and there will be grand places that we will go! Listen!

So hear this blessing from Jesus in Matthew 6:25ff: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink or wear…Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us turn to the Lord and mean it more than we ever have before. It’s time!

Oh The Places

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When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,

tim

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The Night the Devil Came to Church!

I heard of a lady who wanted to paint her back porch’s walls and ceiling and didn’t want to mess up the floor. She carefully laid out a drop cloth, taped it down, and went to get her painting supplies. When she came back the drop cloth and all the tape had disappeared. She wondered what in the world had happened until she noticed a pile of plastic twirling around on the ground in her backyard. It seems a snake had come up on her porch and got entangled in the drop cloth. The snake went on its way but couldn’t shake off the plastic because of the tape. In fact, the harder it tried the more ensnared it became.

Sounds like me and my personal efforts to shed some of the crud in my life. I’ve seen it in church, too. Church is where we ought to know that we can’t save ourselves. We need Jesus. I remember a cartoon showing the crucifixion scene depicting Jesus saying, “If I’m okay and you’re okay, what am I doing hanging on this cross?” It’s Easter season in the church, but we don’t act like it. We want to fix ourselves rather than let God do it.

I was preaching revival services in the small South Carolina town of Wagener, and one night we all got a jolt. A lady had brought her boom box to play recorded music as her accompaniment. She finished singing, the offering was taken, and I had started preaching when I noticed that a snake had crawled out from behind the boom box. The lady later surmised that she had left the boom box out in her carport while she went back inside her home giving the snake ample time to crawl into the empty battery compartment. Nevertheless, the snake slithered off the front pew and started heading toward the pulpit and me. I stopped preaching and asked the ushers to immediately come to the altar. They looked at each other like I was crazy so I emphatically repeated my request. They walked up and saw the snake. One of the ushers stomped the snake and the other picked it up while it was still wiggling like crazy. The crowd gasped and some swooned as the ushers escorted the snake outside. I went back to preaching. The next night the place was packed. It seemed like the whole town got wind of the “devil” coming to church and they wanted to see what was going to happen next.

Oh, the devil still comes to church. In John 13:31-38 Jesus tells his disciples he’s going to leave them and to love one another. Peter wants to know where he’s going and says he’s willing to lay down his life to follow Jesus. Jesus tells him that Peter is going to deny him 3 times before the rooster crows the next morning. How like me and maybe quite a few folks in church? We talk big and before the sun comes up, we’ve blown it. We need Jesus or we get tangled up worse in our own failures.

Sure, we need to do our very best to live Christian lives, but if it weren’t for grace we don’t have a chance. The Wesleyan matrix of grace is so descriptive of our Christian hope. God woos us through prevenient grace that comes before we even want or expect it. Justifying grace is when we are regenerated and reconciled to God. Sanctifying grace is that continual process of God making us into Christ’s likeness. It’s all grace from start to finish!

C.S. Lewis was asked why so many Christians seem less than perfect. His reply, “You should have seen them BEFORE they became Christians.” Absolutely, the devil comes to church every time we enter, but, thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we can be a saint every time we leave. We can either slither in and slink out, or we can walk out into the world filled with grace and hope.