Sunday, March 25, 2012

Better Ways to Measure Churches

This is an article recently published in a number of Annual Conference magazines. It strikes a chord in me in my own journey of spiritual formation and ministry, so I share it with you. I think that some of the mentality in higher levels of leadership in the contemporary mainline church is little more than fixation on great institutional anxiety about loss. The problem is that this leads to fix-it mode, spinning our wheels trying to find institutional answers to institutional problems. What we need is revival, renewal, and refreshment of Spirit, bringing people to the grace of Jesus Christ.

The article is written by Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr., a retired Bishop who is a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Numerical growth and institutional maintenance have captured the thinking of many who write about the vital signs of effective congregations. I must admit that when I was serving as a pastor and as a bishop I was caught up in the same swirl of understanding. I am now feeling that there should be a different standard of measurement for meaningful congregational life.

Instead of numerical growth and stabilizing the institution, we need to put strong determined effort into a deeper set of measurements such as growth in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and justice. These are the benchmarks that bear kingdom fruit. It is possible for a congregation to experience financial and numerical strength and not grow in the fruits of the spirit.

I recently served as interim pastor of a congregation. As I was leaving the office one day to make hospital calls, I met a lady on the parking lot of the church whom I did not know. After a rather casual greeting, she pointed to the church building and said, “Is there someone in there who can teach me how to pray?”

I was stumped by her question. She was pointing to a full service megachurch that offers day care, a weekday school, athletic leagues, mission trips, social services, worship, choirs, a vibrant youth ministry and Sunday school for all ages. At a deeper level, she was inquiring about learning how to practice the spiritual disciplines. I had no answer to her question. I gave her my card and requested that she give me a call so that we could have conversation. She never called and I never saw her again.

When I got back to my office I looked at the calendar of activities for the week and not one had anything to do with learning, experiencing or keeping the spiritual disciplines. How can believers grow in the fruits of the spirit if spiritual practice is neglected?

Since 1996 I have preached in over 400 congregations. In each of these I have looked at the "opportunities for the week" that are listed on the worship sheet. It has been rare for me to see any emphasis on how to pray, how to search the Scriptures, how to do spiritual reading, or how to practice deeds of mercy and kindness. Yet these are the disciplines that strengthen the inner life. These help us to be formed into a living, loving relationship with God.

If we pay attention to spiritual practices we will be more able to get in touch with the gifts of a particular congregation. I hold to the belief that God has gifted every congregation. It is not necessary to search frantically for new gifts. We, as pastors and lay leaders, need to build on the gifts that are already present in the congregation. Not all congregations are gifted in the same way but all are gifted in some way. Wise leaders find ways to maximize the spiritual gifts that are already in the hearts of the people. This has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the size or location of a congregation.

United Methodist people are searching for a meaningful relationship to the sacred, one that allows us to remain working, playing and loving a path that enables us to experience the holy in the kitchen, in nature, in art and in others. There is a gnawing hunger for doors to be opened to deeper levels of meaning and living. The church needs more and more congregations which truly believe that the inner life is more important than numerical and financial growth.

So, if we are focused on spiritual practices what would be the return? It would evoke harmony and genuine love toward the people around us, our families, spiritual associates, the poor and the marginalized. For others the return might be doing deeds of mercy and kindness in the community. For some it would result in a deepening of one's commitment to meditation, prayer, cultivation of virtue and a more regular association with some who have the same desire.

I cannot prove it but I am of the opinion that congregations that focus on growing in compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness and justice have a stronger and more authentic commitment to social witness than those that are not so concerned. Such congregations are better able to organize themselves around the pain that is in the community where they happen to be located. Mr. Wesley taught us that real social concern grows out of vital piety. It is the latter that is missing from the church at all levels.

I am now 72 years old and I have been a pastor since 1959. As look back over my years as a pastor I find myself wishing that I had organized my congregations around worship, searching the Scriptures, more Holy Communion, deeds of mercy and kindness, prayer, meditation and Christian fellowship. I now see that these are the most important means of Grace.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Call to Prayer for General Conference

Beginning today, Friday, March 16, I would like to call on every one if my Methodist brothers and sisters to fifty days of prayer for our upcoming General Conference. I hope you can join me in this. We can be an important part of the church across the world as we engage in prayer.

I have just recently seen a letter from my friend Tom Albin, Dean of The Upper Room Ministries in Nashville. He asks that beginning today, we pray daily for the elected delegates, members of the Council of Bishops, and all the other leaders involved in the 2012 General Conference. This event is held every four years and is the one policy-making body of the United Methodist Church. I was able to attend four years ago as an alternate delegate elected from our Annual Conference and know it is a huge effort, addressing major challenges and controversial topics, and desperately needs our prayer. Will you join me?

There is a free resource that you will need. “The 50 Days of Prayer Before and During the General Conference” is available on the internet at . You can sign up for a free daily email version of the meditation (I recommend that choice), or download the free PDF version or eBook edition of the whole file. You can also order it in print for a small fee. Please join me in using this free resource and talk about it in your classes and in your families. Let’s come together with our Methodist brothers and sisters across the world to pray for God’s wisdom and for God’s will to be done, in God’s way, and in God’s time through the upcoming General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

No way of organizing a denomination is perfect, since we are all human. Some faith groups are loosely organized so that every church is an independent unit, making important decisions about faith and practice on their own. Some are centrally organized, so that an individual or small group makes huge decisions for the entire body. Methodists are connectional, so from the beginning we have had a legislative model gathering elected leaders from every part of Methodism to deal with important concerns and venture into world missions that no one can do alone. Each way of governing a denomination has pros and cons, of course. But I love being connectional because it gives us a way of acknowledging our common beliefs as well as our differences of opinion, and there is so much we can do together that we can’t do alone. Ultimately, though Methodists across the world may not all think alike, we are called to love alike.

In an age of institutional decline, this is a difficult time in history to be the church. We need to undergird all things in prayer, turning over all of our human efforts to God and trusting that the Holy Spirit will move and work. I hope you will join me starting today.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Practicing the Presence of God

During the last several months, I have been posting thoughts about my spirituality regularly. I never seem to finish! In recent weeks, I arrived at the pinnacle of this exercise, claiming the joy of being the body of Christ. Amazing things happen when we live this mystery.

I would like to introduce you, perhaps, to a concept which has changed my life. Brother Lawrence wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. He lived in the early 17th century. After serving as a soldier for a while, he entered the monastery but was uneducated so he entered as a layman. He served in the kitchens and as a cobbler for the remainder of his life. He had no exalted position, but he became known for his devotion and his ability to bring God into every aspect of his life.

He “practiced the presence” while doing dishes, cleaning floors, or whatever he was doing. He rejoiced in everyday tasks, prayed constantly, and became known for his kindness and willingness to help out.

As the body of Christ, the church has a real opportunity to help people learn to practice the presence in their everyday lives. How do you gain that constant, comforting connection to God in all that you do? This is the secret of being the body of Christ … knowing that Christ is here, Jesus shows up, God is present. Church is not about doing good things but about a pervasive love that is felt and shared. If we passionately believe that to be true when we gather, we also believe it to be possible wherever we go.

I think we are in a very difficult time in history to be in ministry. The culture is increasingly disinterested in church and mainline Protestant churches are declining. There is great divisiveness in our political culture, and there are ongoing hostilities across the world. Yet at the same time, people are searching and yearning for something more.

In the midst of this critical time to be in ministry, people are hungry and looking for a sense of real community, of relevant spirituality, and of relational missions. The church can help them practice the presence of God. It changes everything!