Back to our Roots: Going to the Market Cross

john_wesley_preaching-264x400In 2016, I took a trip made a pilgrimage that had a major impact on my life and especially my ministry. The Wesley Pilgrimage sponsored by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries took me and my fellow pilgrims around several places where John Wesley and others began what we know today as Methodism. One of those places was Epworth where John and his siblings grew up while their father, Samuel Wesley, served as rector of Saint Andrews Church in Epworth. After touring Saint Andrews and its rectory where the Wesley family lived we went on a walking tour of Epworth on our way to have tea at Wesley Memorial Methodist Church. One of the places we came to was the market cross at High Street. John Wesley used to preach here, in fact preaching at the market cross was a common practice for him. This was because the market cross was a gathering place for the people, where they would come to do their shopping and to meet with one another. With this in mind, it made sense for preachers like Wesley to gather people for worship and proclamation.

In other words, he went to where the people were rather than expecting them to come to him.

In 2019, we find ourselves in challenging times for those of us in ministry. The old ways of “doing church” are still alive but are barely hanging on by a thread. The idea that people will come to the church, while sometimes true, is often not the case anymore. Depending on who you are or what study you look at, there are many reasons for this including distrust of institutions, pain from previous negative experiences, and the church’s (speaking collectively) reputation for being judgmental and unaccepting of those who are different. Really, the reasons don’t matter. Nothing will change the fact that the days of people coming to church “just because” are over and they are not going to come back.

Truthfully, those days should have never been.

I shared with my congregations on Sunday that when Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28, he did not say anything about making disciples of the people who show up for worship at our campuses. Here’s what the text actually says – read it carefully. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19 NLT) The keyword is “go.” The Greek language used here is used in an imperative sense, meaning that going is not optional. Further, Jesus did have people come to him but he always went to them first. The people are not going to come to us just because we have a nice building or a reputation for having vibrant worship (though those things are good). We must go to the people and give them the good news.

I say again: We have to get back to our roots.

The American church is in a challenging time but, truthfully, it’s a time that largely of our own making. We have forgotten why we exist. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quoted as saying that, “the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”We are more worried about our own survival as an institution and our own comfort rather than bringing those who are outside of our walls into the fold. We must remember our purpose and get back to it.

We must get back to our roots.

In the movie Sister Act, the nuns who Whoopi Goldberg joins as Sister Mary Clarance hide behind their walls because they are afraid of their neighbors. The neighborhood in which their convent is situated is not the best in the world, with adult stores and bars all over, along with homeless and poor people all around.  Finally, they have a wake-up call and start ministering to their neighbors and otherwise being part of the neighborhood. The result was people learning to trust them and the church’s pews were packed during worship. You may be surprised to know that this exact same thing happens in real life everyday when congregations step out of their walls and go to the people.

I say again: It’s time to get back to our roots.

How can we do this? It’s simple, yet difficult: We have to be the church. We have to find our own market crosses and proclaim the gospel to those who are there. But, we don’t have to use a firey sermon like John Wesley. We do this by meeting needs, showing compassion, and accepting people as they are. We have to step out of our comfortable boxes and do some ministry. We have to stop expecting people to come to our buildings simply because they are there and we have to stop expecting people to be just like us, including how they dress and even how they talk. Change occurred because Jesus accepted people as they were without trying to put them into a mold.

I say again: It’s time to get back to our roots.

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!

Final Thoughts on #WCAMEMPHIS

17190692_1317897651589772_5539392738647395563_nFirst, an apology for my post taking so long. What can I say, life has happened (remember: I’m in seminary).

I have now had a few days to reflect on the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s conference in Memphis. You may remember in my previous post that I indicated that I did not hear anything outright calling for a split or other things that some people may have expected to be said or done. The second day of the conference was also very good, but there was also some words stated that could be perceived as calling for a separation.

I have to admit, this did somewhat concern me and put me off.

I understand that separation may happen and I also acknowledge that a split could ultimately be the best way forward for the Methodist movement in America. But I believe that this is something that should be considered in the future. I stand by my opinion that a separation should not be on the table as of this moment.

Perhaps I could have misunderstood or my perception was otherwise off but it felt as of some comments made by Dr. Andrew Thompson and Dr. Billy Abraham were calling for a separation of factions now rather than waiting for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward to be completed, and for the special called session of General Conference taking place in 2019 to vote on a proposal. Again, it’s possible that I read too much into their words but I could not help but feel that in their minds a separation soon was the way to go.

Aside from those concerns, I found their speeches to be thought-provoking and timely. I agree with Dr. Thompson that holiness is something that we have lost as Christians and as the church. Perhaps it’s more accurate to state that we spend more time debating about what holiness looks like rather than actually practicing it. Dr. Abraham’s message was mainly on Methodists getting back to being Methodist. Again, I feel this is something that we spend way too much time debating and not nearly enough practicing. It’s certainly right to figure out what these things look like but we should not spend all of our time talking.

It’s time to start doing.

Rev. Carolyn Moore spoke on the church regaining the vision that the apostles had for the church after Jesus ascended. As I have reflected on this, I have come to the same conclusion that I did on holiness and “being Methodist:” We talk a lot but do very little. I’ve been preaching for the last couple of weeks with a central theme of “waking up” to the reality of what being a Christian is instead of simply going through the motions. We need to wake up from our stupor and stop claiming to be the church. What we should do is to concentrate more on being the church.

Rev. Shane Stanford’s message during the closing service of holy communion was incredible. I actually used this story in my sermon on Sunday (I will post it here later) because it spoke so well to the meaning and significance of the sacrament.

As I have reflected, I have found that I continue to be concerned about having litmus tests for one’s faith. I feel that one of the things one really needs to decide is what truly are the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. Where is the line between legalism and ensuring that we have the right beliefs? This is something I continue to wrestle with.

#WCAMEMPHIS was not really what I expected. This is actually a good thing, as I was pleasantly surprised in several ways. The leadership of WCA claims that they are committed to the unity of the church at this time. I hope they truly are. As for me, I will continue to wait, pray, watch, and see how all of this plays out. Then and only then will I act.

Being a Strong Witness

92b8c584afb491d0c703b3ddc3244926What does it mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

What does it really mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

Throughout my life I have often heard preachers, youth ministers, evangelists and countless others encouraging their hearers to bear a strong witness. How does one do this? Often a “strong Christian witness” is thought of in these ways:

  • Being able to quote the right scripture at the right time and completely from memory
  • Displaying symbols such as crosses, the “Jesus fish” and other images
  • Being very vocal about what they God are is against
  • Explaining everything under the sun as “God’s will” (especially tragedy)
  • Vocally and passionately articulate their political views (“God’s on my side here!”)

Now, let me be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things so long as they are done in a spirit of charity and grace as opposed to one of domination and attempting to belittle someone or their views. I believe that bearing a strong witness for Christ involves much more than our political leanings and the stickers displayed on our cars.

Being a strong witness for Christ is a lifestyle which must be lived, not one that is merely talked about.

For my Missional Formation class today, I have been reading a keynote speech that was given by Dr. Christine Pohl at the Wesleyan Theological Society’s annual meeting in 2006. One of the takeaways I have gained is that simply being hospitable can bear a strong witness for Christ. But what is hospitality? It’s more than cooking or offering our friends a place to sit. Hospitality means we have to open our tables and our witness to everyone, not just those we love or who have something to offer. From the transcript of Dr. Pohl’s speech:

Based on the biblical passages of Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 14:12-14, Christians were expected to offer hospitality to those most likely to be overlooked, anticipating that it might be Jesus they were welcoming. According to Jesus’ instructions, when followers welcomed people to their tables, it should be the poor and infirm, those who seemed to have the least to offer.

Perhaps one way to look at this is that we should extend hospitality to everyone we come into contact with. That doesn’t mean we have to invite everyone over for dinner but it does mean making space for people to meet Christ through us right where they are. We can not be brash and demeaning in our witness; if we think that such an attitude will win anyone to Christ we are delusional at best and just plain crazy at worst. Instead, we are to show everyone a generous and loving spirit of grace. We have been given much grace therefore we should be quick to give it ourselves. I know that I don’t always make God happy but I also know that God loves me and forgives me so long as my trust is in Christ. Just as God is quick to love and slow to anger, we should be likewise (see James 1:19-27).

Be hospitable. Be loving. Above all – through your everyday living – offer Christ to everyone you encounter regardless of who they are, how much you disagree with them or what they lack.

Jonathan