I Leave Hopeful

On November 1, 1792, a year after the death of John Wesley, the Methodist leadership in America gathered in Baltimore for a conference. The Methodist church was on one hand young, vibrant, and growing and on the other hand delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. It was under these conditions that Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, and others gathered for what would be the first General Conference.  They determined then that it would be good to have such a gathering every four years. Today, I am in Portland for my second General Conference. I reflected back on some words that I wrote before leaving for my first GC four years ago. The words stirred my now four year older heart that I admit has a bit more crust on it from another quadrennium of working too much and not trusting God enough.  I realize the church is just like it was over 200 years ago: delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. I realize that my heart is in need of what the church needs, renewal and healing.  I share my revised words as a way of centering my heart on the hope that we have as the church of Jesus Christ. I have packed, prayed, read the legislation (ok, some of it, there is over 1500 pages), and prepared as best I know how for some two weeks of holy conferencing with my sisters and brothers from all around the world. (This year around 40% of delegates are from outside the U.S.) Most of the sentiment I receive when I tell folks that...

Relearning My Own Hometown

God called me to be a missionary. And then sent me to suburbia. It all started in a hotel room in Atlanta, where my wife and I pledged to God that we would go wherever God wanted us to go. Perhaps surprisingly, we had never promised our lives to God like that. Not that deeply, not to that extent. We thought for sure this would lead us to an exotic place. We applied for placement with a mission organization. We visited Monterrey, Mexico, and wept as we considered how God might use us to reach this city with the love of Jesus. We came home and told our parents, kids, and church that God was calling us to Mexico. Then it all fell apart. Everything that needed to happen for us to be able to go to Mexico came unraveled. Funding, language school admittance, denominational permissions. No, no, no. I was confused. Shortly after our last “no,” I was approached by some leaders from my home conference who asked me if I had heard of the new church that was being proposed. I had not. It would be in the Providence area of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a new urbanism development that would double the size of the city. Had I heard of the area? I had. It was my hometown. Then they told me I was being considered as the pastor to start it. I was confused. “Why?” I wondered. Why had God done all of this missionary stuff in my heart? Why had God broken my heart for Monterrey, Mexico? Why, if I was to return to my...

Considering the Context of Worship

When I was appointed to pastor a new church start, I began to dream of what “my” new church would look like. By the time I hit the ground as pastor of a church with no name, no building, and no people, I had a clear vision of what worship would look like: what we should do and how we should do it. In a few short weeks, though, I realized my vision—though great, I’m sure—did not exactly fit the mission field. As a 27-year-old, I may have desired one type of music, but the community around me would connect more with another kind. The type of clothing that I might have hoped would be “cool” to wear in worship would only be comfortable for a small segment of people that God had sent me to serve. This led us into a season of listening to our community. We needed to hear from them. Intentionally listening to our community meant careful observation and open conversation that allowed us to hear the felt needs of the community—which later informed our topical preaching series—and to understand the culture of our neighbors—which would help us know how to choose relevant language, music, and dress for worship. The message of hope in Jesus would be the same, but our community taught us what language to speak so they could understand it. This did not mean an abandonment of what we often think of as traditional. In fact, we found in our context that the ancient forms of religion would speak strongly to those who feel disconnected from God in our community. I learned...

Wondering About Young Families

A 2010 study found that the median age of United Methodists was 57. The median age of those in the United States hovers around 35. This glaring discrepancy has caused a well-founded sense of panic or at least disappointment in the United Methodist Church (most other denominations claim similar incongruities between church age and population age). For some the panic/disappointment is connected to a fear that our institution will cease to exist. For many, though, the emotions connected to this data and the desire to do something about it has more to do with the mission of the church. Our hearts break when we realize we are failing as a church to reach young and younger people and connect them with Jesus. I am a pastor whose age is less than the United States median and who has 4 other people living in my home who fit that criterion too. The church I serve is a 4-year-old church who has many others below the age of 35 as well (and many above it too!). I want to share some practical advice for churches that might be interested in reaching young parents and young children. I do not share this advice, though, from my experience as pastor of a church with young people. I share it from the experience gained from one weekend when I had the opportunity to take my 3 young daughters to church. I was taking the Sunday “off”. My family was excited because it was one of those rare Sundays when dad/husband would be home on Sunday morning. The Saturday before my wife asked me where...

Transporting Worship

I’m sure that in seminary I studied the last dozen or so chapters of Exodus, but I don’t remember much about it. All the talk of making worship happen while wandering the desert was interesting but did I really need to know all the details of worship supplies, set up, take down, and mobility related to the years long journey of the people of God? I was, after all, serving as an associate pastor in a church that had a multi-million dollar building situated on 20 beautiful acres. Every Sunday we had a roof above our head, air conditioning blowing, and pews that were there when we arrived and sitting there when we left. In 2008 I became the pastor of a church with no name, no people, and—oh yeah—no building. I went back to my little, blue, leather-bound Bible that I often use when I preach and found the heading that rests over Exodus 40: Setting Up the Tabernacle. I needed a crash-course in what it meant to be a mobile church and I found it in the story of Moses the church planter. What I learned there was that each particular gathering of God’s people requires some essentials to help make worship happen. I learned what is necessary for worship and what is not. Our new church would gather in a living room, then a hotel meeting room, then a city park pavilion, a movie theater, an elementary school, and now a middle school. Each place presented challenges and yet in each place we were able to commune with the living God. Each week we would pack...

Reaching Out Like A New Church, Whatever Your Age!

As I made the drive from my house to a local city park on the Saturday before Easter, I noticed church after church hosting their annual Easter egg hunts. The parking lots were packed and children filled church lawns covered in pastel colored eggs. A part of me longed to join them. I had just left a wonderful church where I had served for eight and half years. I remembered the joyous occasion of taking my own children to the church Easter egg hunt. It was a familiar place with familiar friends. This year, however, I was driving to the city park for an event hosted by our Community Center called Spring Jam. It was an event for children and families with games, activities, and, of course, an Easter egg hunt. The Spring Jam was sponsored by the city of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., and local businesses. Our new church, which had yet to have its first worship service, was one of the sponsoring entities, and we had a booth with face-painting, balloons, and candy. Over 5,000 people attended the Spring Jam that day. Presumably these were people who did not have a church Easter egg hunt of their own to attend. We shook their hands, painted their kids’ faces, and invited them to Providence Church. We left the Spring Jam that day and headed to a local apartment complex where we hosted, on their grounds, a similar Easter celebration with games and activities for the fifty or so children who lived there. We didn’t go out into the community because there is anything wrong with events on the church...