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The View from Here

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012 | By John Meunier
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My son and I were talking about church and politics the other day. He works in politics. I am a pastor. He was talking about the way he recruits people to work on campaigns and take leadership in the organization. It comes down to explaining the plan the campaign has for winning the race and asking the person to do some specific thing. Once you’ve sold them on the soundness of your plan, you don’t make an open-ended request for help, you get concrete. Can you give me $500? Can you volunteer 2 hours on Thursday? Will you commit to recruit five other volunteers to help out next week?

I told him that was very helpful as I think about the challenges of recruiting help in the church and evangelism. Can we articulate “our plan” and do we ask people to do specific things? Are we concrete enough when we make “the ask”?

And then my son followed up with his concerns.

In the church, he said, there are two problems. First, in a political campaign you have a target date. The election is coming and you have to get more than 50% of the votes by that date. It makes it easy to focus attention. Second, in politics, he said, you always know that there are going to be a lot of people who disagree with your or don’t like you.

In the church, we often are so soft about what we are doing that we can’t speak to people about concrete objectives and goals. We can’t even tell whether we are doing well because we don’t know what doing well looks like. And, my son observed, we often seem more concerned about everyone liking us than speaking what we believe.

As we chatted, I found myself thinking about John Wesley who used to preach while people threw rocks at him because he considered preaching the gospel so important that it was worth the risk.

I know many of my brothers and sisters are engaged in bold evangelism and discipleship. May more of us remember that great gift it is to value what we are doing more than we value the good opinion of other people.

John Meunier

The View from Here

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 | By John Meunier
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To serve the present age

John Meunier

John Wesley wrote these words in a letter once: “I am not careful for what may be a hundred years hence. He who governed the world before I was born, shall take care of it likewise when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment.”

These words came back to me as I have been contemplating the work of the United Methodist General Conference taking place in Tampa. It seems so much of the General Conference is taken up with matters of history and concern for the future. More than once I have heard people speak about saving the UMC and raising questions about whether it will still exist in 50 or 100 years.

I find myself confronting such questions in the little church I serve as well. It is on the small end of tiny with a rather high average age. It, too, spends a lot of time remembering the past and worrying about the future.

But I take John Wesley’s counsel to be very similar to that of Jesus Christ. Do not worry about tomorrow. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

And so, I find myself asking what I am doing to improve the present moment. What will I do today to advance good and arrest evil? What way will I nurture by spirit and my body so they might be strong enough to serve the kingdom?

As a church, might we ask the same questions. As a denomination?

It reminds me of the words of that other famous Wesley:

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

Betsy’s Story

John Meunier

A United Methodist lay woman recently shared a story with me about her experiences in the church. She discovered after many decades in the church that something had been missing from her faith experience. I’ll share her words directly:

As a life long Methodist, I have struggled with “something is missing.” However, being extremely loyal to the Methodist Church I had not seriously questioned any deficiencies. However, I went through a series of events that left me at rock bottom, and with a very strong urge to understand what was missing/what went wrong. I recently read Donald Haynes On the Threshold of Grace and he gave this take on Methodism that spoke to what I was feeling and has rocked my world; the title of the section is “From a ‘conversion theology’ to ‘gradualism’”; immediately prior to this he dealt with Wesley’s encounter with Bohler and Aldersgate: “Actually a different faith journey began in Methodism as long ago as the 1880′s. Methodist Sunday School literature began to emphasize the stories of the Old and New Testament and almost censored any references to the Cross and experential conversion. The philosophy of the religious education movement replaced conversion with ‘gradualism’.”

The concept of “almost censored” hit me hard–that is what I experienced growing up in the Methodist Church in the 1960′s. Experential conversion was a definite “no-no”. The crucifixion was “there” but never addressed head on. We always went from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Resurrection of Easter. For me, Good Friday remained something of a mystery. Finally in the mid- 1990′s we had a pastor who introduced the Tennebrae service and that was my first experience of going through the crucifrixion of Good Friday to get to Easter–it made a huge difference. It was during his tenure that I got to the point of “Jesus did die for our sins”–this is after a lifetime in the church! I was in my early 40′s! Unfortunately, before I could internalize all that, we had a change in pastors that was absolutely disastous for me and the wheels started coming off.
I am at the point I am tired of “gradualism” and randomness in my faith walk. I actually believed I was on a “path somewhere”–I was, but it certainly was not where I expected. After reading Haynes’ summation of “what went wrong” with the church, it feels like I was destined for a “crash and burn”: “While the church is God’s mission to the world, we err to see it as an end in itself. The sad mistake of the 20th century was to develop a sophisitcated ‘church-ianity’ that was not synonymous with ‘Christianity. We developed ‘churchmanship’ (male and female) rather than discipleship. We assimilated new members by placing them on finance committees and program teams when they were babes in Christ looking for soul nourishment.”

Haynes’ book was not the first thing I have read about “what’s wrong with the UMC,” his mode of expression spoke to me on a personal level. I am the living walking proof “gradualism” is not the way to go. I also suspect, reflecting back prior to the “crash and burn” that is why people just “wander away”– they get stalled in their faith walk.

The View from Here

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 | By John Meunier
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Are bad habits stopping us from being an evangelistic congregation?

 

This is the question I ask myself after reading James C. Logan’s book How Great a Flame! Contemporary

John Meunier

Lessons from the Wesleyan Revival. Near the end of the short book, Logan, a retired seminary professor, lists six bad habits that prevent local congregations from living out a vital evangelistic ministry.

In short form, these six bad habits are:

  • Leaving evangelism to the clergy
  • Thinking of evangelism as membership recruitment
  • Adopting the attitude “our doors are open, anyone who comes is welcome”
  • Believing that active evangelism is socially or culturally inappropriate
  • Divorcing the saving of souls from social action
  • Turning to institutional survival as our primary purpose

I read this list and find myself examining my own attitudes about evangelism and the attitudes and actions of my congregation. Do we show signs of these bad habits?

Logan writes that there are two ways to drive out these habits. First, we need to stir up a real passion for Jesus Christ in ourselves. If we do not love Jesus, then we will not be bold about proclaiming his name in the public square and to our neighbors. Second, we must convert our local churches from being all about survival to being all about mission. Keeping the doors open is not the purpose of the church. Reaching out and making disciples is.

Easier said than done, of course, but we have to be honest about what we are and what habits and attitudes shape our today before we can start to create a new tomorrow.

I don’t have a complete answer to the question I raised at the top of this post. Is my congregation caught in bad habits? I suspect, at least to some degree, that answer is yes. But I’m still a long way from understanding that fully. Logan gives me some ideas about how to do that. He might help your congregation as well.

The View from Here

Thursday, December 1st, 2011 | By John Meunier
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John Meunier

 Moving rocks for Jesus

 

A couple of weeks ago, a small group of United Methodists got together at one of our local camps to do some service work.

 

It was not a day of glory. We spent it splitting wood and moving a pile of stones from one place to another. When the work day was organized, we’d been told there would be work for all ages and skill levels. Apparently, anyone can pick up a rock and move it.

 

By the late afternoon, I was sore in many places. I’d somehow managed to bloody myself by smashing a finger just the right way under a slab of sandstone. I discovered that not only football players have hamstrings, but so do overweight middle-aged guys who don’t bend their knees. I somehow avoided getting a finger ripped off by the log splitter, a risk I as not aware of until the fellow showing me how to use it told me about the severed limbs of every man in his family tree.

 

I kept working, though, because the older guys and the ladies showed no signs of quitting. I could not come up with a good reason to be the only sitting around doing nothing.

 

The camp gave us donuts and water and fed us a meal of soup and sandwiches. We were not, to say the least, keeping up with the Kardashians this day.

 

But here is the thing.

 

It was a good day.

 

In the grand scheme of things, what we did was barely worth mention. We’d moved a bunch of rocks and split some fallen logs at a camp in southern Indiana that most people will never visit. The people who use the camp in the future will never know what we did that day. Not monument or plaque or even pay check will register a Saturday spent this way.

 

But this is what Christ calls us to do. Humble, honest, loving labor. In the General Rules we are reminded to follow three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God.

 

On this Saturday in October, we little band of creaky United Methodists took our time and offered to God by doing some good. We could have begged off. We could have said there are better and bigger ways to do good. We could have pointed to higher uses of our time and talents.

 

But it turns out that anyone can pick up a rock and move it. So that is what we did, to the glory of God. Thanks be to God for the simple ways He gives us to be his disciples.

John Meunier

A group of us pastors were sitting around a table in a church basement scooping up scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy — is it any wonder clergy health is a problem? — when Pastor Jerry held forth on the three kinds of churches.

First, he said, there are churches that a growing and dynamic, and they know it. Second, there are churches that are dying, and they know it. Then there are the churches that could be growing and dynamic if they wanted to be.

It all had a certain logic to it. And the conversation was still in my head when I sat down with the Sunday Bible Study group at Wesley Chapel UMC. This time we were scooping up fruit cobbler as we read and talked about 1 John. As we talked, we came around to the question of why our little congregation was so little when other churches around us were growing.

We talked about guitars and drums and video screens. None of those would ever see the inside of Wesley Chapel, if for no other reason than we’d have to remodel the church to make room for them and could not afford to pay for either the remodeling or the musicians. Everyone around the table spoke with some frustration about inviting friends and family and going door-to-door.

“Everyone who comes here,” one fellow said, “says this is the friendliest church they’ve ever been to.” His frustration with years of decline was in his voice as he said it.

I finished off my cobbler. So far, it had kept me out of the conversation. But now the pastor had to speak. And I had none of Pastor Jerry’s wisdom.

Here’s all I know, I said. We are here to be the best church we can be. We should try every week and every month and every year to be more and more the people of Jesus Christ. If we do that, and God wants us to grow, we’ll grow. If God doesn’t want us to grow, then we’ll go down being the best church we can be.

I don’t honestly know if that is the right thing for a United Methodist pastor to say in these days of Vital Congregations and Call to Action, but it was the best I had. Pass the apple cobbler, please.

John Meunier

As a part-time local pastor in the United Methodist Church, my drive to church is longer than most ordained clergy. Like many part-time pastors, I serve a church many miles from my home. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to worship on Sunday morning.

During that drive, I pass many churches. Some are small churches like the one I serve. Some are much larger. For a couple weeks, one I pass had a water slide and an inflatable bounce house set up in its parking lot. We are a people who love church so much, it seems, that we put them down everywhere we can find some open real estate.

Which gets me thinking about why the world needs the little church I serve. The 25 or so people who worship there every week could easily be absorbed by other congregations. Why does God need Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church?

The answer, of course, can only be found among the members of the congregation. It is found as we gather together on Sunday to offer healing prayers around our piano player whose sore back is acting up. It is found as the choir ladies – all half dozen of them – sing a Communion hymn. It is found as members gather after worship for Bible Study. It is found as a church member shares with the congregation a way they can help a boy in town who need dialysis.

It turns out that God often works among the few. Jesus Christ shows up with a rag-tag bunch of a dozen. God gets rid of all the extra soldiers because it would not bring him as much glory if Gideon were to win the day at the head of a mighty host.

By every rational standard of efficiency and wise organization, these tiny churches make no sense at all. For whatever reason, though, God appears to love these little Gideon churches. He has so many of them. And thank God for that.