Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?

Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated.  Acts 15:39

On January 3 a diverse, 16-member group of United Methodist bishops and other leaders released a nine-page “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.” This proposal, if passed at the May General Conference, would preserve The United Methodist Church while allowing traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination.

Progressives were unhappy, to put it mildly, with the outcome of last year’s General Conference. The delegates passed the ”Traditional Plan” which continues the ban on the ordination and marriage of gay and lesbian persons. As a result, decades of fighting escalated even more.

When it comes to human relationships, God desires nothing less than unity. Paul wrote letters to churches divided over differences, reminding them that there is only head, that being Jesus Christ. And yet one sad way to measure Christian history is through its history of division. People dissatisfied with a denomination leave and form their own. Protestants left the Catholic Church. So did the Church of England. The Methodists left the Church of England. Now traditional and progressive Methodists are seeking a separation.

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Engraving of John Wesley Preaching Outside the Church

Both history and logic dictate that the dissatisfied group leaves if they can no longer tolerate the status quo. So why are the traditionalists the ones to leave? They have the majority vote. They have church law on their side.

These are painful and confusing times for United Methodists, so information is crucial. Before concluding that progressives are forcing the traditionalists to leave, consider the following:

Years ago the traditionalists began noticing the growing divide between traditionalists and progressives. They have been proposing plans for separation long before the 2019 Special General Conference.

John Yambasu, a traditionalist bishop of Sierra Leone, began the private talks that led to the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of traditionalist United Methodists, had already taken steps toward forming a new denomination, long before last year’s Special General Conference. For example, they have already drafted policies and doctrines.

So if the protocol passes, why would the traditionalists leave and not the progressives? Rev. Keith Boyette, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association explains. “Our witness and message is much more important than a name.” Rather than force progressives to leave the United Methodist Church, the traditionalists have agreed and are prepared to leave the denomination voluntarily.

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What Determines a Church’s Direction? Memory or Imagination?

…he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

Huntingtown United Methodist Church needs both. I have served churches that were planted in the late 1800s, so I understand the power and value of memory. Memory shows a church how they thrived and grew in the past. Many ministries continue because of the powerful memories associated with them.

But if memory is the default position of HUMC, we will lean heavily upon the familiar and predictable, rather than take bold new steps.  This is sad and ironic, as church memories tell stories of how past leaders once pushed past the limitations of their memories, and imagined new ways to be faithful to Christ in a changing world.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_Question_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_questionnent_Jésus)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot

Jesus confronted a religious system steeped in powerful memories. He honored tradition, but he demonstrated the power of imagination by rethinking traditional beliefs and practices.

  • Worship was not just about observing Sabbath rules, but offering one’s self completely to God all week.
  • Freedom from sin was not just a matter of following rules, but making sure one’s heart was right with God and neighbors.
  • Traditions can honor God, but not if they keep us from demonstrating love, mercy and compassion.
  • Loving neighbors is not just about those near to us and similar to us. Our neighbors are also those who are different, and can make us comfortable.

While writing my annual pastor’s report to Church Conference I examined my work as a pastor, and wondered what could happen if we pushed past the limitations of our memories and used our imaginations. What is a person or group at HUMC…

  • sees the needs of one of our missional partners, develops a passion for that ministry and forms a team that creates a bolder vision for that missional partnership?
  • sees a homeless person, is overwhelmed with compassion and senses a call to start an outreach ministry to the poor at HUMC?
  • looks at our church building and envisions improvements that create a welcoming environment, enhances our ministries and communicates our mission?
  • looks at the empty house next door and envisions a food pantry or a youth center to increase our outreach?
  • drives by a neighborhood with homes in disrepair, and forms mission teams that make a local impact?

These are a few examples of ways I can imagine HUMC fulfilling Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and answer our call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” (Matthew 28:19-20; Micah 6:8).

What keeps us from doing these things?  In my Church Conference report I delved into many reasons why we struggle to walk by faith and not by sight.

Our first step towards new ministry and vitality begins with inviting the Holy Spirit  to inhabit our hearts and minds, and give us God-sized imaginations.

(to be continued)

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Illness, Pain and Reviving the Church

“My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

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Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin

God does powerful work through small things. But there is an important difference between small and shrinking; between passion for people and ties to tradition. I see 2 barriers (though not the only ones) to reviving one’s soul and reviving a church: one is spiritual and one is physical/emotional:

  1. Churches panic and look for quick fixes, rather than enter a season of repentance, spiritual discernment, and greater faithfulness. (More on this in a couple of weeks)
  2. People are overwhelmed by sickness, injury and pain. Doctor visits, medical treatments, hospital stays, new medications, grief, loss, distress. They all bring suffering, test one’s faith, and limit one’s ability to serve.

I’m preaching on The Bible and Chronic Illness (#2), and sharing from pastoral and personal experience.  I was diagnosed with Epilepsy when I was in 5th grade, and have been on medication ever since. Like all disorders and diseases, the body resists medication, so other treatment options are considered.

When I was in 18 years old, I went from being passionate about Christ and His church, to being disappointed with God. Doesn’t God heal? I wrestled with this biblically, which is the basis for my 2 part sermon series. Here’s an important passage from Paul that helped me, can help you and our congregation:

“I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

We don’t know what Paul’s illness was, but he suffered from a chronic condition. It was severe enough for him to plead with God to take it away. People with a chronic illness will have days like that.

Paul’s illness hampered his ministry but not his passion and vision. He traveled and planted churches when he could, and wrote pastoral letters when he couldn’t.
Churches supported him and his ministry when his health failed (Galatians 4:14). Churches thrived, the Gospel spread like wildfire and the world was transformed.

Illness is a reality that affects us all. It can keep us from functioning the way we want, but it doesn’t have to keep us from having a passion for Christ and a vision for his church.

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What do people know about us?

My current sermon series on Daniel ends with the most popular story about Daniel: The Lion’s Den. The retelling of the story tends to focus on what stands out the most: spending the night with flesh eating felines, and waking up to talk about it. The takeaway: God delivered Daniel, and God delivers us.

Daniel's Prayer 1865 by Sir Edward Poynter 1836-1919

Daniel’s Prayer, Sir Edward Poynter

That’s certainly true, but it’s not the main point. The most important part of the story is Daniel’s witness, his testimony. What did people (especially his enemies) know about Daniel?

  1. He was prosperous. (enemies hate that).
  2. He was a man of integrity.
  3. He would not compromise his faith.

His enemies observed these, and tried to use #3 against him. They manipulated King Darius to outlaw all prayers except those directed to him (vv.6-9).

How did his enemies know that Daniel would not compromise his faith, but continue to outwardly express his faith? See 6:10:

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 

Daniel’s prayer was not just a single act of righteous disobedience, he was just doing what he always did. What did people know about Daniel’s faith? They knew he was dedicated to daily prayer, because he did it publicly. They knew that he would not compromise his faith, despite the cost.

What do people know about us?

Do people ask us to pray for them, because they know we are dedicated to prayer? Do people ask us questions about Jesus, because they know we are dedicated to reading Scripture? Do people see our church as having programs that benefit its members, or as a people that exists for the sake of our community and the world?

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Tree Surgeons, Jesus and the Church

Our last parsonage had a huge grove of trees in the backyard, several of which had grown to about 25 feet.  We loved their shade and the privacy they provided during the summer. In the fall, however, the trustees noticed they needed attention. The branches were getting thick and rubbing against each other and there were quite a few dead limbs.

I know virtually nothing about trimming trees, so I was glad when the trustees had a tree surgeon inspect the trees. He told us that some posed a safety risk and needed to be removed. Other trees were basically healthy, but they needed pruning. Many trees were no longer beautiful, no longer producing fruit, and served no useful purpose.

Jesus uses a similar analogy for our churches:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)

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Christ the True Vine, 16th Century Greek Icon

There are negative and positive aspects of this passage, although both involve painful processes.

As hard as it might be to admit, disciples and their churches are not immune to even the worst kinds of sin and evil. Paul writes these words to churches, not to ‘sinners’:  “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Colossians 3:5). Like dead branches on a dying tree, these must be removed completely. Prayer, fasting, seeking forgiveness and repentance are not purely negative: they help a church thrive.

Like a tree with dying branches, churches must go through a process of “pruning their programs” in order to thrive. Programs and events that effectively served the community for years eventually become internal traditions. While they have powerful memories attached to them, they no longer serve the mission of the church in a changing world.

The concept of pruning is clear in John 15. God calls us to prune that which does not bear fruit. We need to understand the effectiveness of our ministries both in hard numbers and spiritual impact, and then be willing to prune thoughtfully so we can focus our time, talents and treasure on what matters most to God.

We might agonize over how this might hurt the church and its people. Whether it be our personal habits or church programs, pruning is a painful process. So, we must remember 2 things: 1) God is the gardener (or the tree surgeon); 2) Removing old branches makes it possible for beautiful, useful and fruitful branches to grow.

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Are Christians Persecuted?

I’ve been preaching a series titled “Leaving Good Things Behind.” Acts shows us that for a church to thrive, Christians must even leave good ministries

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The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Gustave Dore

behind. The apostles delegated their ministry for widows to 7 men so they could focus on preaching. One of them, Stephen, was killed on the job. He spoke out against the authorities and became the 1st Christian martyr.

On May 11, Vice President Mike Pence warned a crowd of Liberty University (my alma mater) students to prepare to be shunned for their faith: “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now.”

Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by ISIS. American Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as a part of a persecuted people even today.

American society grows more secular, while public symbols of Christianity disappear from the public square. Christian influence has disappeared from public education.  We hear stories of college faculty shaming Christian students, zoning laws that restrict building expansion, tensions between Christian values and public policy, and of course the war on Christmas.

Films like God’s Not Dead and Persecution, and books like Todd Starnes’ God Less America and the Left Behind series reinforce this American persecution complex.

But American Christians should not confuse their gradual loss of political influence and privilege with persecution. They still receive deference that is taken for granted: holidays in the academic calendar, prayers at presidential inaugurations, and the right to a hearing when unfairly treated.

The New Testament tells stories of actual martyrs who did not play the victim: As Paul died in prison he writes to a young preacher, “share with me in the sufferings for the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Stephen showed boldness and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

Jesus did not promise a life of fairness and privilege, so let’s not complain when we don’t get it.

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Are There Zombies in the Church?

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Several years ago a parishioner recommended that I watch The Walking Dead. I found season 1 mildly entertaining, but could never understand why there was a 2nd season. How many stories can you tell about people who think they are alive, but are actually dead?

Jesus didn’t use the word “zombie,” but he seemed to have a category for religious people who do not realize they are spiritually dead.

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Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Jesus has a late night conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who recognizes that Jesus was sent by God (John 3:2). Rather than affirm Nicodemus for his insight, Jesus bluntly tells him that he is spiritually dead and needs to be brought to life (John 3:3). Pharisees were the most religious group at that time. They took prayer and purity very seriously. Nicodemus was not just a member of this group – he was a leader. And Jesus says he is a walking, religious dead person.

This isn’t the only time Jesus used this category.  He used it when he spoke with a would be disciple in Luke 9:59-60, and to describe the prodigal son in Luke 15:24. They were spiritually dead, and needed to be brought to life.

Nicodemus devoutly practiced his faith and taught other people how to, but he was among the walking, religious dead. He didn’t need to improve his religion, he needed new life. He needed to be born again.

We can be a faithful Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic and still be among the walking, religious dead. To those, Jesus would say, “You don’t need a new or improved religion, you need a new life. You need to be born again.”

The prophet Ezekiel provides a wonderful image of becoming spiritually alive (36:26-27):

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws  (36:26-27).

The heart of stone is unresponsive to spiritual truth, the need for repentance, the power of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. In the new birth, God replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  Our dead, spiritual boredom with Christ is replaced by a heart that responds to spiritual truth, experiences the healing power of Jesus, and lives a life that glorifies God.

Since the way we experience all of this is through faith, the walking religious dead are invited, in the name of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, to receive Christ as the sin-forgiving, life transforming Lord of their lives.

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Is the Resurrection Ridiculous?

Many people think so.

Artwork in the 18th century reflected the growing skepticism towards miracles. Halos and angels began to gradually disappear. Only what can proved by reason or scientific experience can be trusted. While there is openness to spirituality, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is still a hard thing to swallow, even for many Christians.

It always has been, and understandably so.

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Paul in Athens, Raphael

The 1st Christians weren’t illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn’t know that corpses don’t rise from the dead. Mary Magdalene assumes that Jesus’ body was moved (John 20:15). Most people continued to believe that (Matthew 28:13-15). The disciples dismissed her story as nonsense (Luke 24:11).

Even when the disciples believed, skepticism persisted. Religious authorities were horrified by the idea (Acts 4:2). Greek intellectuals mocked Christians for believing it (Acts 17:32). Festus, the regional governor, thought people were insane for believing it (Acts 26:24).

One reason I believe the disciples’ claim about a bodily resurrection is their disbelief – and that of their critics. There was nothing to gain from preaching such a ridiculous message: they paid a terrible price when they proclaimed the resurrection. Most of the disciples suffered and died for their beliefs.

In the end, Peter challenges each one of us to “judge for yourselves” (Acts 4:19). Not just if the resurrection is believable, but if Jesus is a resurrected Lord and Savior. If we truly accept this, it should change everything about our lives, just like the original skeptics.

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Can Churches Perform Miracles?

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. – John 14:12

I’m trying to imagine being one of the 12 disciples and hearing this. They had witnessed Jesus performing signs and wonders: Healing the sick, raising the dead, multiplying food and controlling the forces of nature.

That’s a pretty high bar, and Jesus was being serious in John 14:12. These greater works were related to both Jesus’ going to the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s coming (John 16:7). When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they healed the lame, the blind, the paralyzed, and the sick, just like Jesus. They cast out demons. They spoke in unknown languages, were unharmed by poisonous snakes, and the ground shook when they preached. Even their shadows, and the handkerchiefs they touched produced miracles.

Peter and John Healing the Lame ManNicolas Poussin

Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, Nicolas Poussin

These works of the Holy Spirit are described throughout the book of Acts, as the church took root and grew rapidly (e.g. 2:4; 5:15; 8:39; 9:36-42; 19:12; 20:9-12; 28:3-6).

What if Jesus’ words were also meant for the modern Church? Not just his theology and ethics, but also His promises that His people will perform signs and miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit? His words in John 14:12 seem incredible to me, but not just because they test my faith in the supernatural and mess with my theology. They also force me to examine my own weaknesses, sins and shortsightedness.

I have seen churches use modern technology, management techniques, and creative programming, and they can produce positive results. They can also offer security and predictability. They allow the programmers a certain amount of control over the outcomes.

Is this what spirit-filled ministry is supposed to do? The Holy Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus, is like the wind – although we know it’s there, we don’t know where it is going (John 3:8). In other words, when and where the Holy Spirit moves is neither predictable nor controllable.   

There are no prepackaged programs that allow churches to set aside our seeking the direction and power of the Holy Spirit. We should take very seriously the implication of the book of Acts: ministry should not be attempted without the Holy Spirit.

Consider the inspired words of a Eastern Orthodox bishop:

Without the Holy Spirit…

God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is an organization,  mission a matter of propaganda, Christian living a slave morality.

With the Holy Spirit…

The risen Christ is here, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity, mission is a Pentecost and human action is deified.

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Is Splitting Up All Bad?

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:39-40).

We need partners in ministry: The Great Commission is not a solo mission. Churches, not individuals, are God’s primary instrument for transforming the world. We need brothers and sisters in Christ, but what happens when irreconcilable conflicts occur?

In Acts 15:36, 3 years after the 1st missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas agreed to return to the mission field. They could not agree on whom to take with them. Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark but Paul wanted to leave him behind because he had abandoned them on a previous journey.

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Paul and Barnabas Split, Jacob Jordaens

Who was right? Barnabas seems to focus on giving a high potential leader a second chance. Paul’s seems to focus on the demands of the mission. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t take sides. He simply reports a sharp disagreement between friends, and the sad dissolution of a 15 year old ministry partnership.

Was it all bad that Paul saw wisdom in one strategy while Barnabas saw wisdom in another, so that two mission agencies were formed? Even today there are agencies with different standards, strategies and beliefs. Some agencies are like Paul’s, and have stringent standards for their candidates because of the rigorous demands of the journey. Some are like Barnabas’s, and are looking for anyone who wants a chance to go. Neither of these are necessarily bad, but different beliefs have given birth to new missional opportunities.  Is this all bad?

Christian ministry in local churches, denominations and missional agencies includes having these types of disagreements. The Bible is interpreted and applied differently to different kinds of situations. Sometimes members of a denomination or local church do not share a philosophy of ministry. Sometimes agreement doesn’t seem possible on this side of eternity.

Rancor, bitterness and resentment in churches, denominations and missional agencies are always bad. What if Paul and Barnabas had continued to fight and eventually postponed the second missionary journey? What if they stuck it out, and lived in constant tension on the mission field?

Let’s not quickly assume that different missional strategies and disagreements over biblical interpretation are all bad. Paul and Barnabas’ ministries continued and multiplied. They maintained friendship and Paul continued to affirm Barnabas’ ministry (1 Cor.9:6; Col.4:10). Even Paul and Mark were later reconciled (2 Tim.4:11). Most importantly, the mission of God continued and expanded.

Church and denominational splits are painful, messy and complicated. Discontinuing ministry with another person hurts, but parting with a blessing means that healthy ministry can continue and even expand. Relationships are strained for a season, but they do not have to end. Staying together and fighting produces pain and power struggles, but very few disciples.

 

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