Monday, October 24, 2011

God and A Church on the Move

I had the privilege (Just six years ago.) of receiving Sherry Harris into our Conference after her great seminary run at Vanderbilt. She had a great ministry at Vestavia, UMC, then in June was appointed to our dynamic Wesley Memorial in Decatur. I’ve watched Sherry utilize the Transition Teams approach to her First Ninety Days, a program of pastoral beginnings that has been pioneered in the Northwest District. In less than three months, Sherry has been able to give dynamic leadership to Wesley Memorial, in great part because of her careful, energetic strategies as a new pastor. I asked her to give a brief narrative of her work. - Will Willimon

As I reflect on the First 90 Days of my new appointment at Wesley Memorial UMC in Decatur, Alabama, I realize the connecting theme is movement. Thanks to the leadership of Superintendent Mike Stonbraker, the Northwest District has a process to allow both the receiving church and new minister to “hit the ground running” and get moving! Wesley’s transition team was invaluable as we met together to share the vision and the needs of the church before our first Sunday together. Like many of our churches, Wesley Memorial found its neighborhood changing demographically while 85% of the membership moved into different areas of the city. The choice was clear: Should Wesley Memorial relocate the church closer to its current membership or find fresh ways to be the church in a changing neighborhood? After months of prayer and discernment, the congregation decided to stay put and move out into their community in brand new ways. It was a faithful and bold decision.

The scriptural record reveals to us a God of movement who always reaches out to humanity in transforming love. God’s church must do the same, so Wesley Memorial decided to go back to the basics together. Wesley 101, a sermon series and bible study (adults, youth and children) based on The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk taking mission and service and extravagant generosity, energized an entire congregation.

The results have been amazing. Fueled by extravagant generosity giving is on the increase for both the budget and special projects. After realizing our campus signage was confusing to first time guests, all of Wesley’s buildings now have large and user friendly signs. Radical hospitality continued with an update of the church’s nursery and parent pagers to provide even better child care. Members of the congregation decided to take a risk and volunteered to serve in Scout Reach, a program to bring the benefits of scouting to boys in deprived neighborhoods who ride the school bus to Wesley Memorial every Monday afternoon. The church community garden provided fresh produce to church members and those in need and there are plans to widen its impact even more in the next year. Three new Sunday school classess are in the works and over a dozen new people have committed their membership to the community of faith at 1211 Westmeade Street SW. Worship continues to grow in passion and in numbers.

As the minister of a church on the move, I am humbled by the energy and momentum I witness each and every day. But the power behind Wesley’s movement into the community is best described by a new member of the church. When asked why he wanted to join Wesley Memorial, he replied, “My wife and I believe the Spirit is on the move here and we want to be a part of that movement.” I thank God each day that I am allowed to serve a church willing to take risks and move forward in the Name and Spirit of Jesus Christ. I look forward to seeing where God will lead the church named Wesley Memorial UMC in the months and years to follow.

Sherry Harris

Monday, October 10, 2011

Unnatural Gratitude

Christians are made, not born," said Tertullian. No Christian virtues are innate. Nothing about following Jesus comes naturally. Therefore, so much that the church does for us is formational, educational, and transformational.

Take the virtue of gratitude. Don’t let anybody tell you that gratitude is innate. Why else would parents need to instruct their child, "Say thanks to the nice lady for the candy – or you will be punished?"

A primary task of the church is to take otherwise normal, innate, American tendencies and to re-form them in the light of Jesus.

What comes naturally in our culture are words like "mine," and "I earned it and deserve it."

Thus I found to be one of the most moving worship moments in Duke Chapel was when, as people come forward at Communion, we taught communicants to hold out empty hands for the blessed bread. What’s natural is tight–fisted gripping of what we think is ours. What’s Christian is open-handed generosity.

It’s natural for us to grip what we’ve got rather than to give. Americans and American churches are keeping a larger percentage of their income than in previous decades. About a fourth of our congregations find it impossible to part with about 13% of their intake for the benevolent, mission, and administrative work of the church. It is completely natural for people to say, "Let’s keep most of our money here in our church, why pay our share of Connectional Giving?"

This is unsurprising in a culture that has a too expansive view of what’s "mine." What is remarkable and can only be attributed to the activity of the Holy Spirit is that three-fourths of our congregations expend more than a fourth of their income on those outside their church. Amid all the legitimate needs they have within their congregation, they know that the purpose of the church and its ministry is beyond the bounds of the congregation.

Thus, one of the requirements listed for a District Superintendent in North Alabama is to tithe. Clergy lead congregational giving through their own giving. Actually a tithe is a job requirement for every follower of Jesus!

The church teaches us in various ways that most of what we have came to us, not through our hard work, but as a gift of God, grace. We have what we have in trust. We are assigned responsibility for others beyond our immediate family. None of us is a self-made person. We’re all connected in a web of Christ-given responsibility.

These are strikingly unnatural truths that only a loving church can teach. Thus on Sunday at your church, the offering may well be the most demanding (and revealing!) act of worship.

Will Willimon

Every week you can see the spiritual health of your church by logging into the North Alabama Conference Dashboard. There you will see the most reliable indicators of spiritual vitality, not only your church’s participation in Connectional Giving but also professions of faith, baptism, attendance, and service to those in need.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Passing of a Preacher

When you enter the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham - one of Alabama's great institutions - you are welcomed by Fred Shuttlesworth. You will be welcomed to this shrine of the Civil Rights Movement by a preacher. Fred bragged that his head was harder than the batons of the Birmingham police. For decades this straight talking, hard headed preacher not only preached but enacted the justice of Jesus Christ. In so doing, Fred was a model for all later generations of preachers in Alabama.

Fred was not known as widely as some Civil Rights activists, mainly because he never stopped being a pastor who daily cared for an active congregation. He was a preacher first, a political activist second, basing his challenges upon his pastoral convictions. We knew him as a man who changed our state for the better by standing up, speaking up, and acting up for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reading some of the spurrious biblical interpretation that appears on our Conference website in our current discussions about our state's Immigration Law, interpretation that picks out a couple of Bible verses (often from Romans 13) and uses it to justify all sorts of nontheological subserviance to the state, I give thanks that we live in Alabama. That is, we live in a place where, in a time when horribly unjust laws had been duly passed by our government, a few hard headed, straight talking preachers stood up for the higher law of God. What a blessing to serve God in a place where God raised up a faithful witness named Fred.

Will Willimon


We’ve had a lively debate around our Conference related to the Alabama Immigration Law. My objections to the law are based upon biblical convictions and are shared by many of our leaders, particularly those who have an evangelical passion to reach the world in the name of Jesus. One of these leaders is John Bailey, who leads missions at our Asbury UMC in Madison. I thought John had a thoughtful meditation on the theme of our “illegal” status before God, a status that has been rectified by the cross of Jesus.

Will Willimon

The recent debates over Alabama’s immigration law have revealed divisions among Christians. Many people who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior have taken up ranks on both sides of the issue. It is always disconcerting to see how, once again, the followers of Jesus are divided over an issue that touches the core of what Jesus calls us to be. I often wonder if we are fully aware of what it really means to be a Christian. I have a dear friend who likes to ask this question about everything we face as Christ followers. His question is this, “what does the Good News of Jesus Christ have to say to us in this issue?” Looking at all things through the lens of the Gospel gives us the perspective we need to have as Christians in whatever we face. It is worth asking what the Gospel has to tell us as we consider the debate over Alabama’s immigration law.

It will be good for us to remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about making good people better, strong people stronger or nice people nicer. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self improvement program. The Gospel is about Jesus coming to live among us to set the captive free, make the weak strong, raise the dead to life and to proclaim the lawbreaker innocent. (See Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19) The Gospel tells us that we were all enemies of God, far removed from God’s love and mercy. God, in the person of Jesus Christ came that we may move from enemy to child and even friend of God. What is more, Jesus sends His followers into the world in the same way He was sent. (See John 17:18) This is a foundational truth that I am afraid that many who profess the name of Jesus have either forgotten or have never fully understood. This foundation is critical, because if the foundation is not right, everything that is built upon it will be wrong.

One of the arguments being put forth by those who advocate for Alabama’s immigration law is that the people the law is focused on are illegal. This fact is not up for debate, these people are indeed here illegally. What the Christian must ask, then, is how he or she will view these lawbreakers? Do we look at them as ones who are impacting our way of life and should be excluded? Or, do we look at them in the same way that God views us, as lawbreakers who will be treated with mercy, compassion and Grace? I submit that your understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may impact how you view these lawbreakers in our midst. If you understand the Gospel to be about making good people better, you may view the illegal with scorn and contempt and be pleased to see them sent home. If you understand the Gospel to be about God reaching out to a lost, rebellious and lawbreaking people with overwhelming mercy and compassion, you may grieve to learn that fellow lawbreakers are being treated poorly at the hands of those who profess Christ. I encourage all who profess the name of Jesus as Savior and Lord, to seriously consider your understanding and experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and look at this law through the Gospel lens.

John Bailey

John is a certified evangelist and provisional Deacon in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is appointed to serve as Director of Missions at Asbury UMC in Madison.