Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Question of Revitalizing our Older Churches

As I wrote last week, as I go about the North Alabama Conference, I repeatedly hear a couple of questions that I would like to attempt to give an answer.  These questions which I fear are based on misinformation or a lack of information.  Last week, I responded to the question, "Why do we start new communities of faith mostly in all white, affluent suburbs? This week,  I'll attempt to answer the question: Why are we starting new churches when we ought to be revitalizing our existing congregations?  I hope my responses will be helpful in better understanding our North Alabama Conference Priorities.

Will Willimon

2. Why do we start new communities of faith rather than revitalizing our older churches?

The answer is WE DO REVITALIZE our existing churches that are willing to move into a new future.  We are now able to provide revitalization help (Natural Church Development) to EVERY church that wants to be part of the program.  Natural Church Development is a Conference Priority and is changing the future for many of our congregations.  To date, we have NO existing, older congregations that have undertaken Natural Church Development, followed the program, and been committed to the process that have not reaped positive results.

Most of our Connectional Ministries staff spend most of their time in congregational revitalization.  And we have had some dramatic results.  A few specific revitalizations projects come to mind.  We have been successful with revitalization projects at:  Calera First, Pelham First (Lakeview), Gadsden Central (Christ Central), University Church Huntsville (Grace UMC Huntsville), Genesis (the relocation of Grace UMC in B'ham).  All of these are relocations.  If some of our older churches will consider relocation they too may achieve new life.  Other revitalizations that come to mind are:  Jasper First, Huntsville First, Tuscaloosa First, Friendship Athens, Guntersville First, Trussville First, Gardendale-Mt. Vernon, Bluff Park.  These are thirteen older churches that have new life.  There are other smaller churches as well.

Warning: Dick Freeman, Thomas Muhumba, and Dale Cohen would have me add: No existing, older churches can be revitalized without risk, commitment, and a determination to be faithful to the mission of Christ no matter what. 

If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live (alas, there is no in between when it comes to churches).  The majority of our churches are not growing, thus we have a huge challenge before us.  Still, our major challenge is not to find good resources for helping a church grow and live into the future; our challenge is to have pastors and churches who want to do what is necessary to live into Christ's future.

While new communities of faith do evangelize more people, tend to be more multicultural, multiracial, and welcoming to new members than existing congregations, and while we are not beginning as many congregations as we are losing congregations (over half of our congregations failed to make ONE new Christian in the past two years!  These are clearly churches that are dying), we are showing good, solid progress in congregational revitalization.

The good news is that we now have a proven, reliable, theologically based program (NCD) for church revitalization and growth and we now have a group of pastors and lay leaders who know how to utilize NCD for the benefit of our older congregations.

Log into our Conference website, look at your congregation's recent record under"Church Stats" and decide if your congregation should be participating in NCD now.

God is blessing our efforts for revitalization.  Thanks be to God!

Will Willimon

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Question of Planting Churches in Non - "Upper-Class White Suburbs"

As I go about the Conference, I've repeatedly heard a couple of questions that I would like to attempt to give an answer. The questions are: Why do we start new communities of faith mostly in all white, affluent suburbs? And, Why are we starting new churches when we ought to be revitalizing our existing congregations?

For the next two weeks, I'll be attempting to answer both of these questions, questions which I fear are based on misinformation or a lack of information. I hope my responses will be helpful in better understanding our Conference Priorities.

1."Why do we plant new communities of faith ONLY in upper-class white suburbs?"

This is a common misconception about our new communities of faith. The simple answer is that we DO NOT plant ONLY in upper-class white suburbs!

Under the leadership of Dick Freeman, in the past two decades we have planted: House of Restoration, Glenn Addy, IMANI, Church Without Walls, Church Across the Street, Tabernacle, Genesis (Guntersville), The Summit (Hwy 431 in Albertville), New Life (on Sand Mountain at Grant, AL), Church of the Reconciler, Albertville Hispanic, Cullman Hispanic, Decatur Hispanic, Riverchase Hispanic, Florence Hispanic, Huffman Hispanic, Big Sandy in rural Tuscaloosa County, Jordan Crossings, Brandon in East Florence. These are 19 that ARE NOT in "upper class white suburbs." Not all of these new communities of faith root. For instance, we worked at IMANI for nearly a decade before we finally decided that we were not going to succeed. However, most of our communities of faith that have been multicultural, multiracial, and are in or near marginalized neighborhoods have succeeded far beyond the national average for new church starts.

We have invested, as a Conference, close to ten million dollars in these new church starts, nearly half of our total investment in new church starts. Our main limitation is pastoral leadership. We simply do not have enough pastors (yet!) who are multilingual or who have gifts for ministry in these settings.

However, some of these churches like "Genesis" in Guntersville are amazing places that are national leaders in ministry in settings where there are many people in need. Jesus has assigned us this mission and, with God's help, in places throughout our Conference, we are stepping up to the task!

Will Willimon

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

He Came Back...To Us!

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe,…he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised;… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Mark 16:2-7

Mark says that on that first Easter, women went to the tomb to pay their last respects to poor, dead Jesus.  To their alarm, the body of Jesus was not there.  A "young man, dressed in a white robe" told them, "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified?  Well, he isn't here.  He is raised.  He is going ahead of you to Galilee."

Here's my Easter question for you:  Why Galilee? 

Galilee?  Galilee is a forlorn, out of the way sort of place.  It's where Jesus came from (which in itself was a shock -- "Can anything good come out of Galilee?").  Jesus is Galilee's only claim to fame.  Jesus spent most of his ministry out in Galilee, the bucolic out back of Judea.  He expended most of his teaching trying to prepare his forlorn disciples for their trip up to Jerusalem where the real action was.  All of Jesus' disciples seem to have hailed from out in Galilee.  Jesus' ultimate goal seems not to focus on Galilee but rather on the Capital City, Jerusalem.  In Jerusalem he was crucified and in Jerusalem he rose.  Pious believers in Jesus' day expected a restoration of Jerusalem in which Messiah would again make the Holy City the power-center that it deserved to be, the capital city of the world.  Which makes all the more odd that the moment he rose from the dead, says tod ay's gospel, Jesus left the big city and headed back to Galilee.  Why?

One might have thought that the first day of his resurrected life, the risen Christ might have made straight for the palace, the seat of Roman power, appear there and say,  

"Pilate, you made a big mistake.  Now, it's payback time!"

One might have thought that Jesus would do something effective.  If you want to have maximum results, don't waste your time talking to the first person whom you meet on the street, figure out a way to get to the movers and the shakers, the influential and the newsmakers, those who have some power and prestige.  If you really want to promote change, go to the top. 

I recall an official of the National Council of Churches who, when asked why the Council had fallen on hard times and appeared to have so little influence, replied, "The Bush Administration has refused to welcome us to the White House."  How on earth can we get anything done if the most powerful person on earth won't receive us at the White House?

But Jesus?  He didn't go up to the palace, the White House, the Kremlin, or Downing Street.   (Jesus never got on well with politicians.)  Jesus went outback, back to Galilee. 

Why Galilee?   Nobody special lived in Galilee, nobody except the followers of Jesus.  Us.

The resurrected Christ comes back to, appears before the very same rag tag group of failures who so disappointed him, misunderstood him, forsook him and fled into the darkness.  He returns to his betrayers.  He returns to us. 

It would have been news enough that Christ had died, but the good news was that he died for us.  As Paul said elsewhere, one of us might be willing to die for a really good person but Christ shows that he is not one of us by his willingness to die for sinners like us.  His response to our sinful antics was not to punish or judge us.  Rather, he came back to us, flooding our flat world not with the wrath that we deserved but with his vivid presence that we did not deserve.   

It would have been news enough that Christ rose from the dead, but the good news was that he rose for us.

That first Easter, nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead.  They saw him afterwards.  They didn't appear to him; he appeared to them.  Us.  In the Bible, the "proof" of the resurrection is not the absence of Jesus' body from the tomb; it's the presence of Jesus to his followers.  The gospel message of the resurrection is not first, "Though we die, we shall one day return to life," it is, "Though we were dead, Jesus returned to us." 

If it was difficult to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, it must have been almost impossible to believe that he was raised and returned to us.  The result of Easter, the product of the Resurrection of Christ is the church -- a community of people with nothing more to convene us than that the risen Christ came back to us.  That's our only claim, our only hope.  He came back to Galilee.  He came back to us.

In life, in death, in any life beyond death, this is our great hope and our great commission.  Hallelujah!  Go!  Tell!  The risen Christ came back to Birmingham, uh I mean Galilee.

William Willimon

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thinking Resurrection

Gerhard Manley Hopkins has a poem in which he inserts the prayer, “Easter in us.” He uses the noun Easter as a verb. “Easter in us.” Let Easter get in to us, come where we live, permeate our souls.

Which sounds not only grammatically, but also theologically strange. But perhaps that’s how the resurrection feels to us - as an active verb, not a passive noun. Luke has a fast paced account of the startling events of Easter. The women arrive at the tomb and in amazement discover he is not here, he has risen. Then Luke turns to what happens later in the day.

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmau, talking with each other about all these things that had happened. As they were talking and discussing Jesus himself came near but their eyes were kept from recognizing him….”

They didn’t know Jesus. Two of his closest disciples didn’t know him! It had only been three days since they had dinner with him. Now, on Sunday afternoon, they didn’t know him.

Here is our question for today, class. Why didn’t they know him? Luke says, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Yes. But why?

Every now and then some sweet person will say something to me like, “I just don’t get it. God has never spoken to me. When I tried prayer, I was just talking to myself. This whole religion thing just seems like so much hooey.”

Perhaps their “I just don’t get it” may not be a testimonial to lack of intelligence but rather to their possession of a particular kind of intelligence.

There is among us a sort of intelligence that has been wonderfully productive of all sorts of things - bridges, penicillin, fax machines, quantum physics, Britney Spears. And yet that same intelligence - so enamored with empiricism, facts and figures, and common sense - has its limits.

As Douglas Sloane, in his book on higher education puts it, in American universities, at least since the early 1900’s quantifiable thinking (statistics, matter, money) has reigned supreme while qualifiable thinking (thoughts of beauty, right and wrong, good and bad) has had a rough go of it.
Augustine, as a bright young man with a superior classical education, confessed to Bishop Ambrose that he had tried to read the Bible but frankly, he was unimpressed. To him the Bible seemed like woefully inferior literature, crudely written, poorly edited.

“You young fool,” replied Ambrose. “You can’t get it because when you read in the Bible about ‘fish,’ you think ‘fish.’ When you read ‘bread,’ you think ‘bread.’”

Ambrose explained to him the spiritual depth of scripture, showed young Augustine levels of meaning beyond the surface appearance of things.

Thus, years later, after entering this strange new world of the Bible, Augustine is sitting under a tree in a garden. He hears a child singing, “Take up and read, take up and read.” Is it the voice of a child or an angel? By this time his imagination is so excited, his consciousness so heightened that he can’t tell the difference. He does what the voice says, takes up the Bible, flops it open to an obscure passage from Romans, and his life is changed forever. After that, we call him “St. Augustine.”

This week I’m speaking at Wake Forest University. When I was a college chaplain I realized that the students with whom I worked were quite smart but were also those on whom we had spent years of education, and a fortune in tuition, beating into him the notion that the world is flat. A tree is a tree. A mystery is to be explained. A miracle is to be disproved. Everything going on out there is the result of some easily discovered material cause and everything going on in here is due to something your mother did to you when you were three.

It’s the modern world - closed, fixed, flat, demystified, disenchanted and dull. Don’t expect surprises and, if by God grace a surprise really occurred, don’t expect to get it because you’ve lost the means even to know a surprise if you got one.

Why didn’t they recognize Jesus when they walked along the road with them? We get defeated by the limited, officially sanctioned, governmentally subsidized world view. Death blinds us, tells us that the world is closed shut and, if there is an intrusion, an invasion not of our own devising, we don’t get it.

Two followers of Jesus are trudging along the dusty road seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when suddenly the risen Christ joins them incognito on their journey. The Risen Christ is to them a stranger. By the time they reach the end of their journey, they have moved from discouragement and despair to hope and faith. That’s the road each of us, if Sunday is half true to its promise, gets to walk.

The Road to Emmaus is the way. That was the first name for the church - The Way. The church, when it is half true to its promise, is a group of people on a road where, wonder of wonders, the Risen Christ meets us.

If you want to experience the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in your life, where you live, just get up in the morning and put one foot in the front of the other and head down the road. Follow the way. But please, go with a bit of imagination. Walk with the expectation of the possibility of surprise.

John Dominic Crossian says that there are three different places in the Holy Land which claim to be the Village of Emmaus. Three places! Furthermore, says that there is no record of any village called “Emmaus” in any ancient source. The only place in all of the writings in the New Testament where we hear of the Village of Emmaus is here in Luke’s Gospel.

He says, “Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is everywhere.”

Emmaus is wherever in your life journey, as you are on the way, either at church, or in a dormitory, at a family dinner table, where by the grace of God your eyes are opened and you see the Risen Christ present. Easter in you.

William Willimon

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Going Deeper Spiritually

During a great workshop with Tom Bandy at Friendship United Methodist Church (thanks to Mike Stonbraker and Hal Noble for making this happen.), a layperson asked, “What do you do when you want your church to grow but your pastor just won’t lead in evangelism?”
I thought Bandy would respond to the question with, “you need a different pastor,” or “you and the Board get together and insist that your pastor get busy.” Bandy said none of that. He responded, “If you want to change your church or your pastor, you need to go deeper spiritually, you will need to pray more and go deeper in Scripture.”

Wow. An organizational/management guru like Tom Bandy telling us we’ll never grow organizationally without growing spiritually? Lord help us if we think we can be faithful to Christ and achieve our priorities as a church on our own. Nothing Jesus commands us to do, does he command us to do by ourselves? This is Christ’s Church, not ours. Christ’s mission, not our program.

We ought to set our Conference priorities so high, ought to hold ourselves accountable to such lofty expectations, ought to demand such dramatic results, that if we do not go deeper spiritually, we will utterly fail.

Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a church move from maintenance to ministry, from decline to growth, from the chaplain to the church members, to a mission mover to the word where someone in leadership had not explained a new dimension of spiritual depth. It’s a God thing.
When I was made bishop, that day Bishop Marion Edwards hugged me and noted, “Friend, you are just about to experience a new dimension in your prayer life.”

I found this to be true.

William H. Willimon