The Right Seats on the Bus
May 29, 2016
When the Christian movement first began, the Jewish world from which it emerged was divided -- between Jews from Palestine, called Hebrews, who spoke Aramaic, and Jews from outside Palestine, called Hellenists, who spoke Greek. Tension already existed between the two groups, and that tension found its way into the early church. It revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The Hellenists, the Greek speakers, complained that their widows were not receiving a fair share of the church’s local mission budget.
The 12 apostles – as the disciples are called now – call a church conference. They see their function as administering the worship of the church (giving “attention to prayer”) and the preaching and teaching of the Word of God (the “ministry of the Word”). They do not see themselves as the people who are in charge of managing local outreach ministries. “Select from among yourselves seven “good men,” they tell the assembled group, “make sure they are wise and full of the Spirit, and we will appoint them to this task.”
The people approve the apostles’ proposal, and they select seven men, starting with Stephen. He is described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He is a gifted person, and his most evident spiritual gift is not that he is a passionate preacher or a brilliant scholar or an organized administrator. His most evident spiritual gift is that he has a strong faith.
With the selection of these seven deacons, as they will be called, the apostles see that they have got the right people in the right seats on their bus, and they lay hands on them to commission them for service with a blessing. And so the church moves forward.
If defining the church’s mission can be described as giving the church bus its direction, the apostles were human GPSs: they positioned the church to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But they were equally good at getting the right people into the right seats on the church bus, so that it traveled in the right direction, toward its mission.
No matter how authentic and inspired a church’s mission is, no matter how carefully its direction is mapped out, part of what determines where that bus is going is the make-up of its riders: their gifts, their time, their priorities. If the wrong seven people had been selected, or if Stephen and the other six deacons had said no to their nominations, we would be reading a very different story. Who knows where that bus might have ended up?
Today is the last Sunday of our May sermon series during which we have been exploring a book by Bob Farr and Kay Koten about what makes a healthy, vital church. The book is called 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church, and if you’ve been gone all month you might want to know that we still have copies available for you to pick up and read and consider for yourselves.
Each Sunday We’ve been collecting your thoughts about the ideas the book presents and how they relate to University UMC. Dan Cummings, a member of the VCI Leadership Team, has been compiling and summarizing the comments that you’ve submitted. His work will be available in printed booklet form next week here at the church.
This morning’s VCI questions have to do with the way we structure our life together: getting the right people into the right seats on our church bus. Let’s take a minute to respond…
1. What changes might we make to our committee structure to help people do ministry rather than talk about doing it?
2. In your opinion, what should be the top three responsibilities of
a. The Lead Pastor?
b. The program staff members (Education, Music, etc.)?
c. The administrative staff members (Building, Office, Finance, etc.)?
(Place your responses in the offering plate.)
One way to think about Christianity, says church scholar Diana Butler Bass, is to think of Jesus as the map. The purpose of the map is to get you to heaven, or to get you saved. According to this perspective, there is one route to follow or you will be lost in this life – and damned in the next. This road is predetermined and authoritative. You cannot exit this freeway or deviate from the route without peril. Who cares about a few spiritual traffic jams or construction zones? Better stick to the map and follow the plan.
But then she asks “What if Jesus is not a MapQuest sort of map, a superhighway to salvation? What if Jesus is more like old-fashioned street signs in a residential neighborhood, navigated by imagination and intuition?” Rather than a set of directions, this perspective sees Jesus as his earliest followers did, as ‘the Way.’ Jesus is not a map designed to get us somewhere, Jesus is the journey itself. He is a pilgrimage that culminates in the traveler’s arrival in God.
At Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, newcomers to the congregation aren’t asked to attend new member classes; they’re invited to participate in a full year of mentoring and teaching that is aimed at help them move at their own pace to a living relationship with Jesus Christ that takes over the center of their life.
Joan Henderson was one of those newcomers. She says that when she walked in the front door of the church on an Easter morning, she “wasn’t interested in following anything or anyone. I didn’t want to be changed, I wasn’t looking for community. I just wanted to get our girls baptized s they could get admitted to a Catholic school. Quick and clean. I was looking for a drive-through baptism.”
Now, 10 years later, she has “come to believe that the Christian life is one of continuing invitation, where through the ‘stirrings of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls us to follow.’ Around her neck hangs a necklace that reads ‘Show Up.’ The journey begins with that invitation – and God keeps asking us to show up through grief, confusion, joy, hopelessness, and fear. “In every situation,” Joan says, “Christ is in the middle, offering an invitation….”
How do you begin your journey? Show up. Begin the way. Get on the bus. Being a Christian is not a one-moment miracle of salvation. It takes practice. It is a process of faith and a continuing conversion. It will not be a day trip; it will take a lifetime.
The journey for a congregation is even more complicated than an individual’s journey. Even if we all agree that Jesus is the Way, we may disagree on exactly which turns we should take. And if we allow the Holy Spirit to be our navigator (not the preacher, not the Ad Board or Trustees, not the Annual Conference, not even the bishop) then you know we’re in for some change ahead.
The story of Joan Henderson and Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church comes from Diana Butler Bass’s 2005 book, Christianity for the Rest of Us. It is the result of her extensive study of mainline churches in America that were bucking the trend: churches that had discovered vitality and health in all sorts of different places and circumstances.
“Everywhere people in [these vital] emerging mainline churches were allowing themselves to be remade by the breath of God. They easily spoke of the Spirit…and expectantly anticipated God’s movement in their midst.”
“[And] following the Spirit means change. It means that God has distinctive calls for each congregation, each unique, each responsive to the breath of new life. There is no one-size-fits-all kind of pilgrim congregation. [But] one of their few shared qualities is their ability to change, their recognition that pilgrim communities are communities engaged in a near-continual spiritual transformation. As she visited and studied each congregation, Bass encountered a variety of new ways of becoming church – each a living re-creation of Christian tradition.
St. Mark Lutheran Church was founded in the 1960s, meeting in a small, industrial building on the edge of suburbia, in spiritual isolation from tradition. In the mid-1990s, approaching its 30th anniversary, it faced a midlife crisis of identity and purpose. Anxiety about change gave way to a real spiritual hunger to go deeper into tradition. The people of St. Mark’s explored Lutheran tradition and ancient prayer practices.
Within a few years they decided that they needed to renovate their buildings to match their growing sense of identity. They connected the old sanctuary and the education building with a large, glass-walled gathering space, an indoor courtyard, complete with a fountain and a café. Sitting in the sanctuary now, one can see across the glass-enclosed courtyard into the nursery. The whole thing feels like a village square – church, children, and café – around the water fountain, in the middle of suburbia. And yet it is also a Lutheran village, where symbols and words combine to constantly remind the congregation of its identity, beliefs, and language in a way that is not exclusive but welcoming. St. Mark’s is a village – not walled, but open to the world.
Church of the Epiphany is located in downtown Washington, DC; it was originally founded as a city mission. As for many urban churches, becoming a downtown church had become a struggle. Members moved to different places in the city and to outlying counties; it was difficult to keep them connected.
When minister Randolph Charles arrived, he perceived that God was calling the congregation to have a ministry with the downtown poor and workers as well as parishioners. He encountered resistance to that idea; a small group tried to have him fired. But the majority of the congregation sensed that God wanted the church to move in new directions. Randolph Charles stayed and the congregation began a long, and sometimes hard, process of change.
Now, on any given day, the Church of the Epiphany is open. There are weekday services at lunchtime, including a concert series, labyrinth walks, book groups, and prayer groups. People who work in offices around the church come in for spiritual refreshment or to eat lunch in the small garden next to the building. The office of Street Sense, a newspaper produced by the homeless community, is upstairs at the church. Public school children from across the district come to the church to participate in an arts program. Epiphany is on the Civil War tour of Washington, DC, and tourists often come in.
Epiphany is a contemporary version of the old town-square church. Sitting on the ‘common,’ the busy public space where all manner of humanity does its business, Epiphany is finding renewed life by opening its doors and serving whoever wanders by. Increasingly, the church sees itself less as a parish church and more as a lively – and sacred – public space.
In many ways, congregations are like individual people. People change when they encounter God in meaningful ways; they convert and re-convert and grow toward mature faith. The same is true of congregations.
The churches Diana Butler Bass visited and studied changed for difference reasons. Sometimes it was numerical decline, or a financial crisis, or neighborhood transition. Sometimes spiritual anxiety gripped the community, pushing it to realize that it needed to be different. But the congregations that emerged with deeper, richer understandings of their mission and purpose didn’t go through change simply as a marketing tool. They were not adjusting their product to improve sales.
Whether threatened by spiritual boredom or facing church closure, each congregation had asked two questions that sparked deep change: Who are we? What is God calling us to do? They discovered a renewed sense of identity and a clear purpose in serving the world. They experienced a change of heart that transformed their communal understand of who God had made them to be.
Those are the question facing you, University United Methodist Church. Who are you? What is God calling you to do? The direction this bus heads depends on how the whole congregation answers that question. It also depends on which seat each individual – each one of you -- takes, and what priority you give to sitting in it. Which means each one here needs to be asking who God made you to be and what gifts God has given you that are meant to be shared for the transformation of the world.
You don’t have to be rich or smart or passionate speaker or a brilliant scholar or an organized administrator. Like Stephen, the most important gift you can share is your faith.
Bryan Findlayson. "The Spirit of the Gospel." Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources. http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/easter4aeot.html
Diana Butler Bass. Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. HarperSanFrancisco. 2006.
Bob Farr and Kay Kotan. 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church. Abingdon Press. 2015.