North American Convention

This week, I had the privilege of attending the 125th North American Convention of the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. You might usually refer to this event as “campmeeting,” although it seems most attendees these days stay in hotel rooms rather than in campers (and certainly not in tents). As usual, this was a good time for folks in the Church of God to reconnect with each other, to share ideas for ministry, and to worship God together. I’d like to share a few things with you that stood out to me from this year’s convention:

The identity of the Church of God. For many years, the Church of God as a movement/denomination has been struggling with the question of its identity. Who are we? What do we stand for? What can we contribute to the world of Christian faith? Now it finally seems that some important voices are beginning to clarify these questions.

  • First, our General Director, Dr. Ron Duncan, gave an excellent annual report to the General Assembly (pastors and lay leaders from our congregations). In this report, Dr. Duncan clarified what we believe and what makes us distinct from other Christian groups, and he explained what we have accomplished and where we are going as a movement. If you’d like to see this report, please let me know – I have a copy in my study.
  • Second, a new book entitled “Signals at the Crossroads” has been published. This book combines Dr. Gil Stafford’s two previous “Crossroads” books and includes new material that he was writing at the time of his death in 2008. I’ll be reading this book this summer, and I’d be glad to let you take a glance at it if you like.
  • Third, I’ve been invited to participate in the Strategic Planning Conference of the Church of God, which will be held in Nashville, TN in September this year. While the agenda of this conference has yet to be released, the meetings promise to give our leaders even more clarity and direction to the Church of God for the coming years. More details will come later!

Changes to the North American Convention. Attendance at campmeeting has been declining for many years, and as a result of this and several other factors, the General Assembly has appointed a task force to study several options for consideration. The main ideas are that the convention (a) may be held less frequently, perhaps every other year, and (b) may be held in locations other than Anderson. No decisions have been made yet; the General Assembly will hear suggestions at the 2012 campmeeting and may make a decision at that point. In any case, the 2013 campmeeting has already been repurposed and renamed as a “Global Gathering” of the Church of God; church leaders from around the world will come to Anderson for a week of worship and fellowship. The earliest we would see a significant change to the North American Convention would be in 2014.

Interest in in-depth Bible study. This year, I helped to lead a pair of conferences entitled “Difficult Texts of the Bible.” Last year, we held one similarly titled conference, and fifty people attended; this year, thirty-five people came to each conference. These were very strongly attended, and we had excellent conversations! The conferences focused on wrestling with difficult passages of scripture – passages that are hard to understand, challenging to accept, or apparently contradictory with other parts of the Bible. This year, we studied Ecclesiastes 7:15-18, which calls us to be righteous, but not too righteous; in the second conference, we studied Mark 10:1-12, which is often interpreted to say “divorce is sinful” but really says much more than this. The strong response to these conferences is important to me because it shows that people in the Church of God are hungry for in-depth Bible study. Are you? If you’d like to know more about these conferences, please ask me!

If you are curious about anything else that took place during the North American Convention this year, please let me know. I’d be glad to talk about it with you!

–Pastor David

Vacation Bible School

What a week of VBS we have had! If you didn’t participate or visit, our Fellowship Hall was completely transformed into a busy marketplace in first-century Nazareth. (They probably didn’t have pop-up tents back then, but that’s all right!) I was very impressed by the work ethic and the pleasantness of everyone involved. This was a good week of seed-planting and sharing healthy Christian relationships with young people. Our children’s attendance increased every night, with an average of around two dozen on any given evening. And our total of thirty-three youth and adult volunteers is very encouraging!

Vacation Bible School is a fascinating church event because, in some ways, it is more beneficial for youth and adults than it is for children. I can hear you asking now: “How can this be, Pastor? Isn’t VBS a program for kids?” Of course it is, and we should not neglect or ignore the growth in our children that takes place through VBS. After all, Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (NIV). We plant seeds in children’s lives that may sprout immediately or may take many years to develop and mature, and we do so out of obedience to our Lord.

At the same time, though, VBS gives many opportunities for adults to grow, as well. We meet day after day, spend many hours together, communicate with each other, work with each other – all with the expressed purpose of ministering to children. But the time we spend together can very easily turn into ministry to each other, as well! Our frequent meetings and conversations form an intense arena in which we practice healthy Christian relationships with each other. By loving each other during VBS, we show our children the love of Christ, and we are that much more prepared to show the love of Christ to the world at large.

Another benefit coming out of VBS is the opportunity we have as youth and adults to rehearse the stories of our faith. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? Where do those beliefs come from? How do they connect to our everyday lives? These are the kinds of questions that children need to have answered, and we adults are the people who get to share our answers with them. This is the constant call of Christ: to make disciples of all nations by teaching people what Jesus has taught us. VBS is a safe environment for us to rehearse sharing the message of Christ so that we can be more prepared to share that message with others outside of the week of VBS.

I was very impressed by some of our leaders, especially some of our youth, who really took up the challenge of sharing the truth about Jesus with children this week. As they visited me in the “Synagogue School,” they encountered a Jewish rabbi who looked a lot like me but didn’t believe in Jesus. Speaking the truth about Jesus is something each of us should be ready to do at any moment, both in and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). Thank you for your work – and keep it up through the rest of the summer!

–Pastor David

Any good news?

Here are a few recent headlines from our local newspaper: “Midland Public Schools Approves Layoffs”; “Meridian Board Considers Revamping Education Philosophy”; “Meth Lab Found in Mills Twp. Home”

What a world we live in! Problems abound in every culture, in every nation, in every neighborhood – and even our own county faces economic, social, and material struggles on a daily basis. Perhaps this comes as no surprise to you, but there always seems to be a lack of good news in our community. These headlines are really not that surprising to me, but they cause me to think: why is our world so full of bad news all the time?

“Midland Public Schools Approves Layoffs”: This is not the first time (and it might not be the last) that we have read about teachers in our community losing their jobs due to decreased enrollment and decreased funding for schools. One of the strongest signs of a community’s hopes for the future is how well its schools are doing. Will this recession end any time soon? How will the unemployed find jobs? What should we as believers do in the meantime? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…”

“Meridian Board Considers Revamping Education Philosophy”: If you saw this in the paper, it may have sounded like a good idea. The Meridian Public School system is considering becoming a “new technology” school – a label shared by only a handful of Michigan school systems. This could be a wonderful development for the Meridian school district; New Tech is a novel and exciting approach to education. But the article admitted that such a transition would be costly in terms of dollars, jobs, and perhaps student enrollment. At what cost comes progress? How do we as believers deal with a society that can be deeply divided and unwilling to negotiate on nearly any topic of discussion? “…and lean not on your own understanding…”

“Meth Lab Found in Mills Twp. Home”: The person who posted this article on the newspaper’s website commented, “some scary news – a little too close to home!” Friends, we should not be surprised or scared by the presence of drug activity in our community. The world is never too far from us, nor should it be. Drug use and trafficking, physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, poverty – all of these can be found in our county if we simply open our eyes. As followers of Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in my understanding Christ defined “neighbor” as “anyone near you who is in need.” How do we engage a culture which wants to cast a blind eye toward the real problems in our society? “…in all your ways acknowledge him…”

In our Sunday evening services of late, we have been discussing many important issues, such as how we as a small church in Mt. Haley Township can impact our community for the sake of Christ. If you haven’t made a habit of coming on Sunday evenings, I invite you to give it a shot – the services are more informal, personal, and discussion-based. Where do we go from here? How do we join ideas, energies, and forces around the task of spreading Christ and his love to people in our community? How do we participate in transforming our culture by being the body of Christ? These are questions that we are dealing with as a church more and more frequently. As your pastor, I am glad to see these conversations take place! “…and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Friends, do not be discouraged by the daily news. Be encouraged by the word of God: the Lord will direct our paths when we trust in him with all our heart. Commit your ways to him this week, and let’s see what he will do in our midst in the days to come!

–Pastor David

Born into Christian Faith?

Recently, I read an excerpt from a book recently written by Desmond Tutu, a well-known South African Christian minister.  Many of his comments are challenging and provocative, but today I’d like to focus in on one point he makes very clearly:  “the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong.”  In other words, where you were born and who your parents are go a long way in determining what your own religious background is.

Now, this is not to discount the possibility of real change in people’s lives.  History is full of examples of people who were raised in cultures and families hostile to Christianity but who discovered the truth and joy of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.  God is powerful enough to change the hardest of hearts – including those that are convinced that a spiritual path other than discipleship in Christ is correct.

My question is for you:  if you are a follower of Christ, why?  What’s your story?  Where have you come from?  Is being a Christian a conscious choice you have made, or is it something you have inherited from your parents or from your culture?

I was raised in a Christian home as the younger son of a Church of God pastor and his wife.  I was raised in the church; we went to church every time the doors were open.  I was exposed to Christianity from a very early age, both at home and in the churches to which we belonged.  Some might say that I am a Christian because my parents are Christians and because I was raised to be a Christian.  To some extent, that is probably right.

However, there came a time when I realized that my faith had to be my faith and not just something I inherited from my parents.  That time came for me in college, and thankfully I came to the realization that following Christ really is the best choice – something in which I can actively involve myself for the rest of my life.  I follow Christ consciously, grateful for my spiritual inheritance, but honest in my decision to follow him.

So where do you fall?  Do you believe in Jesus?  If so, why do you believe?  What is your spiritual heritage?  If you came to Christ without the benefit of family or culture, then ask yourself the same question:  why did you come to faith in him?

Our stories of faith form who we are.  These are the stories that we should celebrate, rehearse, and share with each other and with others.  These give meaning to our existence and to our walk with the Lord.  And remember this:  your story of faith is still being written; growth and maturity are still part of God’s plan for your life.

–Pastor David

Preview: Heaven is Real, and so is Earth

This Sunday morning, we will focus on the story of Jesus’s ascension into heaven, which is recorded in Acts 1:6-14. While Christians today often think of heaven and hell as polar opposites, this story paints a somewhat different picture: Jesus has gone into heaven, but the disciples (now apostles) are still on earth. What are they to do? And what does this story have to do with us today? Come worship with us on Sunday morning and let’s discover together.

–Pastor David