First, we study a parable that Jesus once told and explained (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Then, we explore the slogan “Jesus is the Subject.” Pastor David’s contention: Jesus wants to be the entire sentence! Listen here:
LAST DAY AT THE TRACKS! Today was going to be our last day of working at the Tracks. Over the years this has been an emotionally tough day with many tears and hugs. In my travels here during the past nine years, I have learned it is all about the attitude and how we think about our work and friendships that have been made. My approach now is one of celebration; we know we will probably return at another time to renew our friendships and see the progress the community has made over the years. Its fun now because kids we met when they were 7 or 8 years old are now 15 or 16, growing up right in front our eyes. This brings us to our devotion for the day: the green paper is for growing in the Lord” (2 Peter 3:18). But grow in the special favor and knowledge of the Lord. I think back over the past nine years and the life experiences and growth in the Lord we have experienced throughout those years. And its the same with the Guatemalan people: they are maturing in their faith, and their community has had constant change and growth. So as we leave each year, we prefer to say “Te amo,” “Salud!” and “Hasta la vista amigo.”
We were tying up loose ends today as we sought out the people we wanted to see. Our groups artist, Josh, painted a beautiful mural on the wall of Lucy’s daughters’ bedroom. We finished the installation of the stairs at Sonya’s house. We took lots of pictures of friends, our group, and the blessings of the Tracks we wanted to remember. Some of us we knew it was the last time they would visit; others knew they would return later. Some knew they would be moving to Guatemala in July. Fortunately, with the advent of Facebook, our communication and interaction with the people of the Tracks has increased tenfold, and we feel much closer than we have ever been. We felt excitement, satisfaction, blessings, and so many feelings as we said good-bye to the Tracks.
Today I would like to let you in on a little project that is growing among some friends of mine. Several of us went to seminary together and have remained in contact even though we are serving in different parts of the country (and world). You may recall that two of these friends pastor the churches with whom we sponsored Sudipta Nanda to attend last year’s Global Gathering in Anderson. We all care deeply about the Church of God, and we believe in what it stands for. And this year, we are starting with a new series of blog posts: each of us will take a turn explaining how we came to the Church of God and why we are committed to its future.
This blog is found online at www.mthaley.org/belong – it is hosted on our church’s website but is completely separate from our church’s online presence. Please take a few minutes to read the initial post of this series (written by my friend Gwynne Watkins from Dayton, Ohio) and my contribution to the series. And check back in regularly, because more stories will be posted in the coming weeks! Please do leave comments to let us know what you think, as well. We believe this conversation is important!
Today is the last day of 2013, and a new year is soon to dawn. In fact, I have a friend who lives in New Zealand, and at this moment she is already several hours into 2014! The future is always very nearly upon us.
At this time of year, we often look back on the year that has passed, and we consider what the upcoming year may hold. I invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the life of Mt. Haley Church of God with me.
Last week, something fascinating unfolded on Facebook. Church of God Ministries, our national office in Anderson, maintains a Facebook page to help Church of God people connect with each other. (It’s very similar to Mt. Haley’s Facebook page, but it reaches a much broader audience than ours does.) Occasionally, the people who maintain that page will ask a question, post a thought, or share a picture – and usually not a whole lot of discussion takes place.
That was not the case this week, when Church of God Ministries asked these questions: “How can the Church of God re-engage congregations, from California to the New England states? And, what would you say the Church of God needs to do to re-engage the younger generation?”
What followed was an intense, thoughtful discussion involving many different individuals. This is rather unusual for Facebook, especially for an online discussion about faith-related issues! Many of the responses were short and terse calls to “preach the Word of God alone” and “get back to the basics” – a kind of “scripture only” stance that many Christian groups have called for over the years. (In Latin, one would say “sola scriptura“; that phrase was a guiding principle of the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther in the 1500s.) While I agree with the principle, there’s nothing uniquely Church of God about that stance.
Many people discussed our annual national campmeeting, which has always been held in Anderson, Indiana. Some people are calling for a moving, rotating convention so that people in all locations have equal opportunity to attend a campmeeting that is close to them. Others are concerned about programming, service opportunities, and speakers at these conventions. Several mentioned how the 20-to-30-something age bracket is missing at the national campmeeting and, not coincidentally, in our local congregations. Again, many church groups (we can use the word “denominations”) are struggling with issues like these.
But one theme kept popping up over and over. While all of the above issues are important, the identity of the Church of God resurfaced again and again as a question that needs to be answered. If we are just another church group that holds annual conventions and connects local churches together and is losing touch with people in their third decade of life, then woe to us. If we do not have compelling reasons to exist as “The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana),” then perhaps we should join arms with other like-minded church groups like the Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and Wesleyans. I would argue that history, tradition, hymnody, emotional attachment, and generational connectedness are not good reasons to exist as a denomination. (These were many of the ideas mentioned in the Facebook discussion!)
Christian faith is about one thing – salvation through Jesus Christ – and the far-reaching consequences of that salvation. We live in a time of great division and distinction among church groups, and truthfully I don’t see that changing any time soon. Denominations are here to stay. While some might question the legitimacy and validity of other church groups (and this is part of our history in the Church of God), I believe each group has something important to contribute to the conversation about salvation through Jesus Christ.
This is what we as the Church of God must figure out in the years that lie ahead. What is it about our history, theology, hymnody, and traditions that leads us to contribute something unique to the global conversation about Jesus Christ? Why do we exist as a people?
Only once we have answered these questions will we be able to address the issue of reengaging widely diverging congregations and generations.
P.S. You can read the full Facebook conversation here:
This Wednesday, at the annual national-level General Assembly meeting of the Church of God, we ratified our new General Director, Rev. Jim Lyon. He will take up the reins of leadership in this movement upon the retirement of Rev. Dr. Ron Duncan later this summer. For various reasons, I have wavered back and forth in my support of this nomination, but in the past few weeks I have come to see the value and importance of Rev. Lyon’s appointment to this post, at this particular time in our movement’s history.
I’d like to share with you one of the most important pieces of my growing sense of support for Rev. Lyon. This begins with a concern that many people in the movement have: the Church of God needs a singular identity, something around which to rally ourselves, a message to proclaim to the broader church and to the world. (If you participated in the Revelation Bible study on Sunday nights last year, you may remember that this question came up frequently. That’s because the identity the Church of God had 100 years ago – related to a specific interpretation of Revelation – is no longer accepted broadly today. However, nothing that strong has risen up in its place in the past few decades.)
After his ratification, Rev. Lyon spoke to the General Assembly for a good half hour. During this talk, he reminded us that he does not come to this position with an agenda, a crystal-clear vision, or a list of programs to implement. Instead, he comes with a singular conviction. As he talked about this conviction, I realized he had written about this in his public responses to questions earlier this year:
To move forward, the unity of our own church family must be cemented. There are factions, subsets, splinters, and tribes within the Movement, all held loosely together but sometimes moving in different directions. All of us need to embrace the truth that Jesus is the subject. The church is not the subject.
When we are in right relationship to Jesus, the church will be fine. If we are not in right relationship to Jesus, no program, doctrine, distinctive, or emphasis in the church will be healthy. Who Jesus is. What Jesus thinks. What Jesus cares about. What Jesus died for. What Jesus calls us to do. How Jesus loves. How Jesus forgives. How Jesus walked and would have us walk. This is the stuff of unity. Focusing along these lines is our only hope to realize our Heaven-sent destiny as a Movement.
The Church of God, perhaps more than any other part of the larger Christian family, is hinged on relationships, grounded in the Word. We must nurture relationships with each other, tethered by this truth: Jesus is the subject. Supremely. When we obey Him, we love Him. When we see Him, we see the Father. When we follow Him, we find life.
My first object will be to bring Jesus into view, to focus, insofar as I am able, the church on its Lord.
Friends, this is good stuff. I can rally around this core conviction. It may not be a full vision for the Church of God, but that’s ok – it’s a wonderful starting point. It’s something that can spark our movement’s quest for identity and purpose. I look forward to thinking and moving with you and with Rev. Lyon in the days ahead as we reflect on the impact of this truth: Jesus is the subject.
This Friday is November 11, our national holiday for honoring our veterans, both living and deceased. We do well as a nation to remember those who have participated in military exercises on our behalf. We enjoy so many freedoms and privileges that we often take for granted, and our military, over the years, has done much to preserve those freedoms and privileges. Several veterans are members of our congregation, and nearly all of us know of or are related to veterans of one war or another. In this season of giving thanks, please do take the time to thank veterans in person for the gift of their time and resources.
Today, I find myself drawn to the reason Veterans Day came to be observed on November 11 each year. The name “Veterans Day” has been in use since the end of World War II, and the same holiday was observed prior to that war under the label “Armistice Day.” The first World War officially ended on November 11, 1918 – ninety-three years ago this week – and many nations around the world continue to remember the end of this great conflict on the same day.
Why am I drawn to this? Well, you know I enjoy history and the stories that shape who we are today. But my interest here has more to do with the reason for celebrating this holiday. Culturally, we (as Americans) are in a position in our collective history in which we applaud, support, and give thanks for our military forces on a regular basis. For instance, at the beginning of every Great Lakes Loons game, a veteran asks the crowd to rise and sing the national anthem. That is who we are, culturally speaking.
As Christians, however, we should celebrate the historical reasons behind Armistice Day: we should rejoice when nations lay down arms against each other and come, finally, to peace. That’s because our identity as disciples of Jesus is modeled after the life of this Prince of Peace. True, he said that he came not “to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 NIV). However, he also encouraged us to “be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50 NIV). The overwhelming biblical call is for God’s faithful children to live peacefully: see, for example, James 3:17-18; Hebrews 12:10-14; Ephesians 4:3; and Romans 14:17-19.
Peace is related to righteousness; peace is the way of Christ. True, scripture often speaks of us living peacefully within the church, but it also speaks of living peacefully with everyone. Scripture often speaks of an angry, vengeful God, but it also speaks of the same God applauding the peaceful way of life. Christian history has often applied scripture to justify violent actions, but the higher road, whenever it is possible to be traveled, is peaceful.
This Armistice Day, remember to give thanks for the gift of peace. Then take a few minutes to pray for peace around the world, in war-torn nations (just check the daily news for examples!), in our own nation and cities. As Jeremiah called the Israelites in Babylonian captivity to do, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7 NIV).
As many of you know, I traveled to Nashville, TN last week for the Church of God’s “Strategic Planning Conference” (SPC), which is held every five years to help our movement relocate its identity, its vision, and its direction for the coming years. I was honored to be invited to attend this series of meetings, and I’d like to report to you some of what took place in those days.
The conference was attended by pastors, administrators, missionaries, and educators (among others) from all around North America – and we even had a few from other continents as well. About 140 people were in attendance, and as preparation for this event we were all asked to read Signals at the Crossroads, a new book by the late Dr. Gil Stafford which combines his two previous Crossroads books with new material he was writing in his final days. This book raises many issues that the Church of God movement is facing, and it’s worth your time. If you’d like to read it, you are welcome to borrow my copy!
We had several excellent speakers at the SPC who highlighted several concerns for our movement: how we cast a vision for the movement as a whole, how we resolve conflicts inside and among churches, how we keep pastors from being isolated from each other, how we encourage women in ministry, how we balance religious enthusiasm with theological reflection, how we sustain our rich heritage while we engage our present culture. We spent time in prayer and in worship as we brainstormed around these ideas.
For several years, the Church of God movement has lacked a strong, central, driving vision: our reason for existence is not as strong as it has been in the past. Granted, throughout our history, we have experimented with a number of different ideas for our purpose, mission, and vision. Over the course of time, though, these ideas have faded, and where we are – in terms of a guiding purpose for the movement as a whole – is a little uncertain.
So, much of our time together, as a combined group and in our smaller break-out groups, was dedicated to recapturing a vision for the movement as a whole. Through most of the conference – at least the two-thirds of the conference which I was able to attend – we saw evangelism move into the forefront of our collective vision for the Church of God.
On the positive side, it is surely part of our mission as people of God to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to individuals that are outside the kingdom of God. After all, this was summarized by the Great Commission which Jesus gave his disciples at the end of Matthew. We do well to emphasize this component of our Christian faith and mission. However, I fear that we may become single-minded (for instance, ignoring the lifelong task of discipleship) if we focus too much on evangelism. Also, we must remain faithful to our theological heritage while we press forward with evangelism.
One of my major concerns is with a recent trend in the Church of God to set numeric goals for our corporate success. You may remember our Focus40 event this past spring; another is being planned for next year, and this time there is a stated goal of 25,000 new believers worldwide through the implementation of Focus40, and this was repeated at the SPC this past week. Also, at the conference, one of the small break-out groups suggested that the Church of God set a goal of having 10,000 congregations on its roster by the year 2020. This latter goal is simply mathematically impossible: we would have to plant two or three churches every day for the next nine years to meet that goal.
The Church of God movement – and Mt. Haley Church of God in particular – must resist the urge to set numeric goals for their success. If we as a congregation see fifty souls saved by Christ in the next year, we will have great reason to celebrate! But if we set that goal ahead of time, then we are (at best) risking manipulation of God or (at worst) setting ourselves up to fail. As one of our SPC speakers said, we need to balance religious enthusiasm with theological reflection.
Who are we? What are we all about? These are questions that we as a congregation are beginning to tackle once again; I hope it is beneficial for you to know that the Church of God movement is in a similar position. May we all rely only on the Lord for the casting of our vision as we strive to carry out his will, until Christ returns and takes us home.