Monday, December 29, 2008

The Baby Jesus Among Neighbors in Need

On Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before Advent, we always read from Matthew’s gospel, the twenty-fifth chapter -- Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment. At the end, when the King sits on the throne, all shall be judged on the basis of how well we responded to the needs of “the least of these.” Christ is encountered in giving the cup of water, the loaf of bread, in visits to the sick and imprisoned. Jesus is served by deeds of mercy to the “least of these.”

The parable is typical of the Savior who was born in a stable, the King of Kings who came among us as one of “the least of these.” Christians learn to encounter Jesus incognito, in the form of those who are marginalized, pushed to the bottom, neglected.

In my visits to dozens of United Methodist congregations this fall I’ve been impressed by the sort of people who are formed by listening to stories like the Great Judgment and the babe who is born in a manger. They are people, these Methodists, who, though their church is tiny, gathered a ton of food for Angel Food ministry. They got organized and built this year, by my count, about a dozen Habitat Houses. They welcomed the homeless into their churches and they continued work on the devastation of Katrina. In a year of economic stress, dozens of our churches, large and small, have postponed anticipated building expansions or staff increases and pastors have forgone salary increases so they can pay 100% of their fair share of Conference ministry support. They have put the needs of poor children, and overseas missions, and a wide array of benevolences ahead of their own.

Why, in a society that encourages much self-centeredness and personal acquisitiveness, did these Christians buck cultural trends and take responsibility for the needs of people who weren’t among their own family or friends? I think it was because they know by heart the story of the Nativity, the story of a God who came among us as a helpless, needy baby, born to peasant parents, lying in a feed trough.

“There are many of you,” Martin Luther scolded his sixteenth century German congregation, “who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the little baby!’…You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem…. Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.”

Christ gave us himself, present in the needs of our neighbors. The one who was born in a Bethlehem stable commanded us to care for “the least of these.” We cannot see Christ, we do not truly worship him or follow him without obeying him in our acts of mercy to those in need. Thanks be to God there are thousands of Alabama United Methodists who not only believe the Bible, but obey it as well, who not only love Christ, but see him in the neighbor.

Merry Christmas.
Will Willimon

I'm convening a Bishop's Summit on Ministry to the Marginalized on the morning of February 19, 2009, here at the United Methodist Center. If you are working in ministries with those in need, please mark your calendar now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Effective Churches

Earlier this year our Conference Lay Leader, Ellen Harris and I participated in a conversation, with Jurisdictional leaders on what makes for an effective congregation.

What are some of the main characteristic of a growing, effective church? I thought they devised a fascinating list. How does your congregation embody, or conflict with, these characteristic?


  1. Love their particularly community. Their pastors have found a way not only to love their congregations but also their neighborhood. Effective pastors help their congregations move beyond love of themselves, turning their congregations outward.
  2. Rise above mere contentment with things as they are and do what is necessary to expect and welcome change, disruption, and movement, similar to that of the Risen Christ.
  3. Find a way to welcome the stranger and to practice radical hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ. They find a way to be as interested in those who have yet to join the church as those already in the church.
  4. Have a clear sense of their primary purpose and keep focused on their primary God-given missions.
  5. Enable lay leaders to lead, not just manage. Lay leadership that feels a strong sense of responsibility for the future of their congregation.
  6. All have a strong, change oriented, gifted pastor.
  7. Make growth a priority and figure out how to grow.
  8. Keep focused upon Jesus Christ as the originator of, and the purpose for the church (rather than church as just another human oriented institution).

How does your church answer to these qualities of effective churches? What specific steps would your congregation need to take to live into the future in a different way?

William H. Willimon

Monday, December 01, 2008

Church Growth Keys: Multiracial, Happy, More Males Active

Kirk Hadaway is a veteran church observer of mainline church growth and decline. Recently, Hadaway released the results of a study he completed on mainline churches. I think it has real relevance for our work in North Alabama:

Congregations interested in increasing their weekly attendance would do well to make a plan for recruiting new members, become multiracial and make sure that serious conflict doesn’t take root. That’s the message of an analysis recently released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. The “FACTs on Growth” report, based on data collected in a 2005 survey of nearly 900 congregations, found that congregations reporting growth in worship attendance between 2000 and 2005 tended to exhibit certain common attributes.

Multiracial congregations had a better chance of growing than those predominantly consisting of one racial group. Some 61 percent of multiracial churches said they had experienced growth, while just 31 percent of predominantly Anglo congregations said the same.

But even more important may be whether people in the pews, no matter their race, actually get along with one another.

“Whether or not a congregation finds itself in serious conflict is the number one predictor of congregational decline,” writes C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church and author of the report, released in December. “This finding points out the need for conflict resolution skills among clergy so minor conflict does not become serious, debilitating conflict.”

Conversely, congregations were most likely to grow if they:

  • had a clear mission and purpose as a congregation
  • conducted “joyful” worship services
  • adopted a specific plan for recruiting new members
  • had changed worship format at one or more services in the past five years
What’s more, congregations were likely to grow if men constituted the majority of active participants, said Hadaway.

Among congregations in which at least three out of five regular participants were men, 50 percent reported growth, but among churches where no more than two in every five regular participants were men, only 21 percent said they had experienced growth.

“As American congregations become increasingly populated by women,” the report says, “those congregations that are able to even out the proportions of males and females are those most likely to grow.”

-- Excerpts from Christian Century, January 23, 2007, p. 14

Will Willimon