In John 17, Jesus prays for himself, The Twelve Disciples, and The Church. All of these prayers have a common theme: UNITY. He prays for himself to be glorified so that God (the Father) is glorified. He often makes claim's of his oneness with the Father. Then, when he prays for The Twelve, he asks "...that they will be one as we are one" (John 17:11, CEB). Finally, in verses 20-23, Jesus prays for all believers everywhere to be in "complete unity." All of this Unity is for one purpose: so that the world will know that God sent Jesus Christ.
These verses come in a section of The Gospel of John when Jesus is bearing his heart to The Twelve. He is passing on to them what he considers very important. In fact, John 13:1, the preface to this section includes the phrase "he loved them to the end," which can also mean, "he showed them the full extent of his love" or as the CEB puts it "he loved them fully."
It's not often that one gets to listen in on an intimate conversation between a father and son. It's even less often that we get to listen in on the private prayers of a spiritual leader like Billy Graham, or Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Those intimate moments are usually kept reserved for those closest to the person. In this case, it is The Twelve that are closest to Jesus. He holds them dearly in his heart, and prays for their Unity. Unity with God, and Unity with one another for the sake of showing God's love to the world.
There seems to be two things that are connected that Jesus wants deep down inside of his heart: 1) Unity of believers, so that 2) the world will believe. Jesus's heart, his mission and purpose that God sent him to do, is to Love every single human being ever. As The Church, we are called to the same mission and purpose to get people to be a part of God's family/kingdom. We can do this better together than divided. In fact, division probably hurts our mission more than anything else. Where is your heart, with Christ? Then we can work hand-in-hand. (My paraphrase of John Wesley.)
Treating others with Mercy & Grace, and offering forgiveness when necessary is the key to Unity. Showing the same kind of love to one another that God shows us in Jesus Christ is essential. One must let go of pride and submit to one another out of love. Look at the group of twelve that Jesus gathered. They weren't all the same! They had differences! It was Jesus that brought them together for a common goal and purpose. We too can gather together, rally around Jesus, and be about the same mission. Even if we have different opinions on public policy, or about the future of our church. If we seek Jesus together, and truly submit to him and one another out of love, then I know, by faith, that God will shine through us to accomplish God's mission.
Where is your heart? Is it aligned with Jesus' heart? Do you love like Jesus? Then let's work together.
The Future of The United Methodist Church
"Divorce," "Schism," "Separation," these are all terms I've read when people talk about the future of the United Methodist Church. I just have one question...
Why Not "Reorganization"?
Can we re-organize? That is a lot of work, but it doesn't sound so negative. We love each other, right? We all love Jesus, right? Let's call a new "Christmas Conference" or something and start over. It would fundamentally change the nature of General Conference, but it seems like not much is changing with the way things are. Simply using the term "Reorganize" could help us a lot. Being over-dramatic and bickering back and forth about playing by "the rules" is not helping.
What do you think?
Am I being too naive or seeing things through rose-colored glasses? Can't we talk of "Reorganizing" instead of all the other harmful terms we're using. It has looked to me like we're kids on a playground saying, "Well, if you won't play by my rules, I'm taking my toys and going home!" Maybe what we need is a group of people so committed to sharing God's love in Jesus Christ together with one another that we completely re-write "the rules" and reorganize. Because Love is the Right Way. What do you think, is the term "Reorganize" any better for speaking about our future?
Growing up, I remember responding to altar calls at church camp and other events. Even on Sunday mornings when I'd go to other churches (typically non-United Methodist) I would hear an "Invitation" or altar call. When I grew up into a pastor, I've tried giving them a few times. I must be doing it wrong because many times people don't respond. I wonder why that is.
At one of the churches I serve, we receive Holy Communion every week. So in a sense, people respond to the invitation every week. This is different than a traditional "Altar Call" that usually invites people to "give their life to Christ." My sense is that we need to give people ways to respond to God during our time of worship. Some people have gotten very creative with this. I've seen prayer stations with different activities and opportunities to engage what you've heard and experienced during the worship service. But still, there's something important to the altar call that I think we've lost, and it connects directly to the mission Jesus gave us to "make disciples".
The altar call was a clear place for people to begin their faith journey. It was a starting point. I think too many have tossed it aside saying something like "We make disciples, not decisions." Ok, that's great. I'm with you on that. But, people still need a place to start and make that decision to go and take their first step, and their next step. Many of the churches I've been around have no such clear beginning point for people. We are not intentional about making disciples. We just keep doing what we've done and expect it to happen. So many of the churches I've been around continue to get smaller. People come and go, and we wonder why they didn't stay and get a deeper connection. Maybe it's because we didn't really have a good, easy to follow path for them to connect. You can't ever begin as a disciple if you don't have a clear place to start. The altar call at least served that purpose of saying "START HERE."
What I see in churches that are making disciples is they have moved the "altar call" outside of the worship service. They have a clear "START HERE" place. Many call it "Coffee with the Pastor," or one of my friends has "Open Mike Night." It is a "START HERE" place that people can get more information about how your church makes disciples. It's a place to start people on the path of discipleship. Once you have a place to start, then you can show them the options of "next steps." You can connect them with deeper relationships and help them identify their God-given gifts and passion. You can help them learn and grow. Help them follow Jesus. But first, you have to point them to the starting line.
What does your church do to have a clear "START HERE" for people in your church? (Or it could be a "START OVER HERE" for people who want to give discipleship another go and re-dedicate their lives to following Jesus.)
One of the issues that bugs people who stay away from church is the concept of Hell. It even bugs a lot of church-goers. The thinking is, "An all-loving, all-good God cannot possibly desire the eternal conscious torment of souls in flames." Many people are offended by "preachers" who proclaim a "Turn or Burn" ideology. They find it offensive that someone proclaims themselves as judge and condemns people to hell. In my own life experience, I remember hearing a number of messages at large youth events and other Christian gatherings that pushed listeners to think about death, and invite the hearer to ponder "where will you go when you die?" My response is, if that's the choice, then who in their right mind would even see hell as an option. Of course the person will choose Heaven! Duh! Maybe a better goal isn't choosing a final destination, but whether or not I have a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, and living as his follower.
A Two-Fold Problem
One of the ways to get around this issue is to explain away hell, either it doesn't exist, or it means something other than what we (21st Century Culturally-influenced Christians) think it means. The response to that is usually, "that's great, but...scripture says...do you want to take that chance?" There is a great book about the interpretation of Hell in scripture titled "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut" by Bradley Jersak. I highly recommend you read it with a teachable spirit. Regardless of the interpretation of what hell is, or whether or not it exists, the real issue I see is two-fold: Condemnation and Manipulation.
Judgment and Condemnation
As I described above, the problem most of us have with Hell is how it's used in trying to convince people to be Christians. Most people don't like being stereotyped and judged, yet that's often how people hear this type of preaching. It doesn't fit with the concept of "God's love" or the character of Jesus Christ. I don't see Jesus telling the lost, "Hell is coming! You're going to burn!" He says, "The Kingdom of God is near!" This is Good News. It baffles me how often The Good News is lost because of the way Hell is used as a tool to condemn people.
Manipulation By Fear
The other problem I have with how "Hell" is often used is it feels like a manipulative tool. I have people ask me if I'm a "Fire and Brimstone" preacher. I assume they mean do I warn people of hell and how terrible it is. No, that is not me. I like to focus on the Good News of Jesus. We are all afraid of death. A lot of preaching about hell pushes us to reflect on the temporary nature of life and the fact that we will face death. This plays on our fears. To me, using fear to get someone to make a decision is unethical. I want people to make an informed decision. One that you're sure of regardless of your emotions. It can be emotional to decide, but it's not only emotional, or even primarily emotional. If anything, it's a relational decision. Will you walk with Jesus Christ, the way to God, the truth and the life? Kind of like getting married or other big commitments we make with people. You can be persuasive without using Hell and Fear as a tool to manipulate.
The Good News
So, I am okay with the concept of Hell just not how it is typically used. Jesus obviously spoke of it, and warned us about judgment. But mostly, when it came to preaching to and helping non-religious people, the least and the lost, the poor and the oppressed (those fully aware of how Hellish life is)--Jesus proclaimed the Good News of Heaven. He attracted people by heavenly miracles, and wondrous teaching. When he did speak of Hell, he usually spoke with the overly-religious hypocrites about Hell, the ones who thought they were "in" and better than others who were "out". The Good News is Jesus has overcome death and hell. Heaven is here! And Jesus is the Way to be a part of it. Love like Jesus and see what happens! Jesus doesn't need manipulation. He doesn't mess with your mind, and play off your fears. Jesus Christ is so awesome, so good, so abundant with love, he is calling your name and drawing you to him. He is The Healer. He is The Forgiver. He is The Liberator. He gives life and peace. He is Love...like you've never known before. He will change your life in ways you didn't imagine possible. Will you be his disciple? Will you be a part of Heaven? Live like Heaven. Love like Jesus.
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?