From Member to Disciple
Acts 2: 37-47
May 15, 2016
Bishop Will Willimon tells this story from his days serving small churches in rural North Carolina. He had a confirmation class consisting of three junior high girls. Teaching about the church year he decided to try to tell the story of Pentecost in a less formal way, hoping to catch their imaginations.
"One day the church was gathered together for worship, and suddenly the building was filled with a sound like a freight train! Something like tongues of fire began to dance over the heads of the worshipers, and they ran out into the street speaking in all kinds of different languages about the wonderful things God was doing."
Two of the girls sat with bored expressions on their faces. The third girl listened with eyes wide and mouth agape. Finally she said, "We must have missed that Sunday!"
The marvelous thing, Willimon said, was not that this girl misplaced Pentecost by a couple thousand years, but that she believed that God could accomplish in her rural North Carolinian congregation such a mighty sign of power.
Most of us hear the biblical story of the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost think of it as a tale from long ago and far away: a time when God’s Spirit acted very differently than in our own.
Certainly the ideal picture that Luke draws in the Book of Acts doesn’t help dispel that impression. The early Christians were devoted to teaching and fellowship, he says. They even held all their property in common, so that no one was in need. It sounds more like Shangri-la than the church we know! And indeed, many commentators have pointed out that Luke’s idealistic picture stands in contrast to the more realistic picture of a divided, argumentative church drawn by the Apostle Paul in his letters.
But even taking into account Luke’s rose-colored glasses, the sense we get is that the earliest Christians didn’t see a difference between fellowship and outreach. They gathered to learn, pray and eat together. And they reached out in care and concern to their communities. They broke bread together and helped the poor; they gathered to pray and had the goodwill of their neighbors, they spent time in the Temple and they baptized thousands. Clearly this new “Way” offered something people were hungering for, knew they needed, and wanted to be part of.
Christianity provided people with a new set of norms and relationships, a new identity. But it not only provided a sense of identity, it also set a high bar for those who claimed that identity. It required a deep faith in God and membership required participation. There was no such thing as an inactive Christian.
According to New Testament professor, C. Kavin Rowe, the churches of the first century thrived and multiplied because they:
- Were good at communication and networking;
- Were visible in their communities as a witness to Jesus Christ;
- Made room within their congregations for the weak and vulnerable;
- Addressed internal conflict and knew how to incorporate disagreement;
- Understood that suffering was part of their life together;
- And knew why they existed. They were designed for mission.
It sounds exactly like what we’re learning from our Vital Church Initiative process! And there’s that word “mission” again: knowing why we exist. Providing an identity and a sense of belonging is part of it. But if there’s anything the Book of Acts teaches us, it’s that reaching beyond ourselves is an essential part of that identity.
Our sermon series book, 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church, says that one of the reasons 21st C churches have a hard time reaching beyond themselves into their communities is the growing gap between who’s in the church and who’s in the community.
- Age-wise, congregations average about 30-40 years older than their surrounding communities.
- Geography-wise, we no longer live in the neighborhoods that surround our churches.
- I can come up with a long list of individuals from our congregation doing wonderful acts of community service…but the community doesn’t connect those acts of service to this church.
When this congregation was founded, in 1957, one could truthfully say “if you build it, they will come.” But those days are over! Now it is time for us to get out of the building and go to the community.
Fortunately, Lynn Paine is here from the Outreach Committee, to give you a way to start doing that.
Let’s say that our ReThink Church effort is wildly successful: through our outreach efforts dozens of personal connections with others are made and those people start showing up on Sunday mornings.
- Many of them have never read the Bible.
- Most of them do not know what a Doxology is.
- Almost none of them have heard of an Ad Board or an Annual Conference or a District Superintendent…and, frankly, they don’t see a reason to care about those things.
They want to know more about God and Jesus Christ; they want to know that God loves them; and they want to be part of a movement that makes a positive difference in the world.
Where do they start? Where did you start? How would you describe the path by which you have become a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Bob Farr and Kay Koten, authors of our VCI book, say that American Christians have come to believe that if we come to worship, attend Sunday School, and serve on a couple of committees somehow we become disciples. And we have set up our churches to accommodate and support that understanding. The result is that we have a lot of busy churches full of busy people who work really hard at operating the church. We add a lot of busyness to a lot of already busy lives. And then we call that busyness “discipleship.” We cultivate Christians who know how to operate a church but are ill-equipped and therefore reluctant to talk about their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Take a moment now to respond to the questions on the back of your yellow One-Stop Sign-Up sheet.
- How would you describe UUMC’s faith development pathway? In other words, by what process do people here become stronger, more committed disciples of Jesus Christ?
- Imagine you’re helping someone who is brand new to Christianity get connected to our congregation. What would you suggest they do first? (Be specific.)
Today is the 3rd Sunday of this month’s VCI sermon series. Sermon discussion groups are starting to meet. We’re beginning to get feedback from the One-Stop forms. Some of what I hear is this: “Yes, we see the need to do some serious self-examination and revisiting of our mission and vision. We see our congregation getting older. We see other congregations, similar to ours, struggling and closing. We don’t like change, but we understand why it has to happen.”
But I’m also hearing this: “I love this congregation; I love the way we care for each other; I love the way we worship together; I love the ways we help others in need. Please don’t change these things that I love.”
Most people – and I include myself – probably recognize themselves in both of those responses. I remember starting Phase 1 of the VCI process with other members of our Leadership Team and thinking “University UMC is doing great! How dare someone tell me we need to change?
But after a lot of reading and listening and honest evaluation, I had to admit that we are facing many of the same issues and problems that other churches were facing. And I had to ask myself – Why am I so defensive? Why am I resisting change? What is it I’m afraid of?
We live in a time of great change. I know that change is constant, but I think it’s fair to say that right here and now it’s unusually significant:
- We’re in the midst of an…unusual…Presidential election.
- Our denomination’s General Conference is meeting as I speak, and no matter what decision is made about our decades-long argument on sexuality, our unity is at risk.
- For the first time, the United Methodists of the West Michigan Annual Conference will meet next month with the United Methodists of the Detroit Annual Conference as we move towards creating one new Conference together.
- Our beloved Bishop Deb, having been such a strong and effective leader for us, is retiring.
- Our District Superintendent, Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, is a candidate for election as bishop and will, if she wins election in July, move to another Conference.
- And in 7 weeks, University Church will be receiving a new Lead Pastor, Rev. Bill Bills, as he and I move to our new appointments.
Through all of this change, I pray you will remember 2 things:
#1. God will never leave you. This is the first part of the Pentecost message. No matter
- who is President or Bishop or DS or Pastor,
- whether our denomination remains intact or splits,
- indeed, whether the church lives or dies,
God will always be with you. And as you intentionally strengthen and deepen your faith through Bible Study, prayer and the practice of spiritual disciplines, you will find that truth carrying you through this time of change and all times of change in your life.
#2. With that foundation of truth in our hearts, we are able to respond to the call of the Holy Spirit as it leads us forward. This is the second part of the Pentecost message. We can learn anew who we are and why we are here…without allowing fear to hold us back.
Here’s a sign of change – I want to show you what I mean with a sports illustration! I know – don’t faint. Even old dogs can learn new tricks.
Fifteen years ago, Kurt Froeze (Phrase), a former semi-pro hockey player and longtime Traverse City area youth hockey coach, realized that the 5 and 6 year olds he was coaching were completely unprepared to compete in their upcoming game. They couldn’t stop on a line, they couldn’t handle a puck, they had no control on their skates. He also knew that the recommended ratio of practice to games was 3:1, but neither he nor any other coach he knew took that advice. The travel teams in his area were actually playing more games than they were practicing.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked himself.
He began making changes. He changed the ratio of games to practices, until his team was practicing 4 times as much as they competed. More significantly – and more controversially – he cut the size of the rink his young players skated on to half. His changes worked. And several years later, USA Hockey followed suit, putting all games for 8-and-under players on half-sized rinks.
People were not happy. More accurately, parents were not happy. Hockey parents who had grown up playing a certain way complained, “That’s not how we did it when I was growing up.” “It was good enough for me.” Froeze said that even when the parents were sold on the new approach, it took a lot of campaigning to get the hockey club’s board to buy into it.
That was because the change taking place was deeper than merely changing the number of practices and the size of the rink. The purpose and culture of the whole youth hockey movement was changing. The purpose had been winning; now it was about giving the kids a chance to have fun as they learned how to play at their own pace.
Changing the culture of a sport is hard. “[But] you never get an opportunity to be a child again,” Froeze says, “It wasn’t about hockey itself. It’s about how kids learn. And that’s what drove me.”
As a result of the kind of changes Froeze and USA Hockey have made, kids have stopped dropping out. Unlike other youth sports that are on the decline around the country, hockey no longer experiences the burn out of its young players at age 12.
Even the US Olympic Committee noticed. They endorsed the new, kid-friendly approach in order to inspire similar changes in other sports. Now more than 20 sports organizations have pledged to make similar changes in their sports based on the lessons hockey learned.
Changing any culture is hard. But this is our opportunity to be the church. It’s not about doing it the way we did it growing up. It’s not about our building or our budget or even our worship traditions. It’s about becoming disciples of Jesus Christ and helping others to become disciples of Jesus Christ in order to transform the world.
We will not do everything exactly right; we will get some things wrong before we get them right. We will feel some anxiety, even some fear. But, resting secure in God’s promise, we can and will learn again how to be the church.
C. Kavin Rowe. “The Acts of the Apostles and thriving communities.” December 4, 2014.
Peter Steinke. Personal notes from speech given at St. Francis Retreat Center. September 25, 2014
Bob Farr and Kay Kotan, 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church. Abingdon Press, 2015.
Steve Willis. “Being the Church Today.” Adapted and excerpted from Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path. Alban Institute, 2013. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=10249