Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Praying Our Way Through Ministry

I’m so pleased by the North Alabama Conference United Methodist Prayer Summit. It’s to be held once again this year at Sumatanga on January 24-27, beginning on Monday morning. If you are a pastor, I hope that you will join in this intense experience of pastoral prayer.

This gathering pleases me because (1.) I had nothing to do with its institution – Paul Lawler and Robin Scott are among those who created the Prayer Summit a couple of years ago, and (2.) my own ministry in North Alabama has reawakened in me a conviction that Christian leadership is so demanding that it can only be undertaken in prayer. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Christian leadership is a form of prayer.

You may have heard me recall that the morning I was elected bishop, an older, experienced bishop whispered to me – as I sat in shock on the stage at Junaluska – “Friend, you have just improved your prayer life.”

It was true. The work that Jesus calls us to do is more than that which can be done through good technique, savvy leadership skills, or even wise corporate management. As Jesus said to his disciples (when they had failed at Christian leadership), “this sort of thing can’t be done without prayer.” (Mark 29)

Therefore our prayer, as Christian leaders, ought to be for the wisdom, strength, insight, inspiration, and empowerment to do the work that Jesus calls us to do. No Christian ministry can be done alone. We ought to pray for ministries that are so demanding, so difficult, that without the constant blessing of, intervention of, and will of God to make them work, they will fail miserably.

Without the empowerment of prayer, ministry too easily degenerates into that which can be achieved by merely human effort. What Jesus calls us to do cannot be done except by miraculous divine intervention. Therefore, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done right now, on earth, in Alabama as it will, through your saving work, one day, forever in heaven……Amen.”

Will Willimon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Making Membership Mean Something

In our determination to start more new congregations among those who are under served by our church, we created The Community Church Without Walls on the west side of Birmingham. R.G. Lyons is the pastor and he is convening a very different and very exciting sort of new United Methodist Church, thereby leading us into new dimensions of urban ministry. Noting the wonderfully high AVM number (attendance as average of membership) at The Community Church Without Walls, I asked R.G. for his interpretation of this wonderful outreach. Below is his reply.

I love R.G.'s distinction between “belonging” and “membership.” The Church Without Walls seems to really be making “membership” in the Body of Christ mean something. Amen!

Hey Will,

A while back I got a letter from you requesting a response about why our attendance is so much higher than our membership. For us, it is pretty simple...we make membership mean something. Everyone who seeks membership must go through a 12 week class and retreat and we have expanded the membership covenant to be more specific in the commitments we are making. So everyone who becomes a member, commits to worshipping weekly in at least one house church (unless sick or out of town or some other emergency that can't be avoided), spend time daily in Bible study and prayer, lives in love and peace with members/attendees of CCWW, and be involved in at least one ministry of CCWW in a hands-on capacity.

I explain membership something like this: "Membership is not about belonging. Everyone belongs; everyone is welcome. Membership is not about gaining special privileges...becoming a member does not mean you get something that non-members do not get. Rather, membership is about a commitment that you believe God is calling you to serve him by serving the church." Something like that.

For us, it has worked very well. I am very pleased that the overwhelming majority of our members have taken this covenant very seriously. So, the reason our AVM is so high is simply because we make membership a high commitment.

R.G. Lyons

Monday, December 06, 2010

Church on the Move: In the Power of the Holy Spirit

This fall I was fortunate to participate in a church wide study of the Acts of the Apostles at our dynamic Canterbury Church.

The Acts of Apostles is addressed to a church in trouble. Reading between the lines of the text, here was a church that was constantly clashing with culture, a church that was holding on by its finger tips, a church with severe money problems. How does Luke, author of Acts, inspire and ignite a troubled church? By reminding them that church isn’t about us in the first place. What is “core” of church, what is the basis of the church’s life and mission? It’s the Holy Spirit descending, convening, and sending.

So much so is the Holy Spirit the chief actor of Acts that some have said we ought to rename it to “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

For instance, if one were to ask the church in Acts, “How did you decide to leap over all traditional boundaries and launch a mission to the Samaritans?” the church could have responded, “We didn’t. We didn’t decide, plan or program any of the Samaritan mission. The Holy Spirit dragged us out of our churches and into that mission.”

After the first martyrdom, the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, a great persecution arose against the church. The church ran away to Samaria. Surely nobody would pursue them there. And while they were there, Philip did what Christians do – Philip told some people about Jesus. To the church’s surprise, the Holy Spirit descended and the Samaritans, outsiders to be sure, were baptized.

My image of the church that appears in the Acts of the Apostles is a church that is being dragged kicking and screaming into ever expanding areas of ministry, breathlessly attempting to keep up with the movements of the risen Lord. That’s evangelism, that’s mission – attempting to keep up with the movements of the Holy Spirit, attempting to keep up and not lag too far behind God’s relentless, restless movement to retake the world.

There is little biblical justification for a church that’s located, situated, bound to one place either geographically or organizationally. “Location, location, location,” was never a statement made by Jesus. How sad that the mission of many of our churches is the acquisition of and the upkeep of real estate.

The major reason given for the non participation in our Conference’s program of fair share mission and connectional giving? Real Estate. It’s a sad irony that our churches that built buildings for ministry have now allowed their ministry to be consumed by buildings.

We have found that when a church attempts to reach a new generation of Christians, Christians under 35, we know of no young Christians who respond to the appeal “Come! Help us to keep up our building!”

As Bill Gandy (DS in Mountain Lakes District) keeps reiterating, “The main difference between a growing church and a dying church is INWARD / OUTWARD.” A Church that focuses mostly on inward concerns falls under the judgment of a God who says, “For God so loved the world that God gave . . . .

In the Acts of the Apostles, the church is always on the move, always pushing out, always outward rather than inward, always being drawn, pulled and pushed by the Holy Spirit into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1).

By God’s grace we are that church. By God’s grace, and the pulling and prodding of the Holy Spirit, we can be that church!

Will Willimon