Who Said Church is Dying?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. For those from non-liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is the day we acknowledge the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples 50 days after Jesus resurrection. Luke records events in Acts 2 that occurred that day. Let’s call it the birthday of the Church, and it was one of the most awesome displays of God’s power recorded in the Bible.

pentecostUnfortunately, in many circles today the Holy Spirit is either neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. The Holy Spirit was given to unite the body of Christ, but the Spirit has become the center of controversy. Sometimes I wonder if we lack unity because we’ve quenched the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, and in our personal lives. I wonder if we could actually have worship without a bulletin on Sunday morning. Dr. A. W. Tozer, author and pastor, said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” He said that prior to 1963. I wonder what he would say in 2015?

The first Pentecost was a demonstration of God’s power that changed the world forever. God’s power brought transformation. That’s what God’s power does. Not only was this past Sunday Pentecost, but it was historically significant for those of us who call ourselves Methodists. We Methodists call May 24th, Aldersgate Sunday. It was May 24th, 1738 that Wesley recorded these events in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…     After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

John Wesley had an experience with God’s power, and it too, changed the world. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that is credited with reforming England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have suggested that England didn’t go the way of France in the 18th century because of John Wesley. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that swept across North America when, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. One in five Americans called themselves Methodist. Today, 80 million people worldwide find their religious roots in Wesley’s Methodism. That’s what happens when the power of God explodes on His people. The same power that was present on that first Pentecost is the same power that was present with John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London, and it’s the same power that’s available to you and me today, and it’s the same power that fuels the church.

The recent Pew Research Center study on religion in America reveals some interesting findings about the faith of American Christians. As one who has served as a denominational official, and has studied the decline of our own denomination, the research only confirms what we already knew. I am blessed to serve a mainline church that is bucking the trend, but the truth is that mainline Protestantism has been in decline since the high-water mark of 1955. Someone said, “If 1955 ever comes again, the mainline church will be poised for explosive growth.”

While we may lament the decline of the Church in North America (and other places in western culture), the church is a long way from dying. The power of God revealed in the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is still active today, and it is just as transformative as it ever was. The Washington Post ran a recent article sharing some of the amazing and encouraging facts about the growth of Christianity around the world. Here are a few facts worth noting:

  • Africa’s Christian population stands at 500 million today. Roughly one in four Africans are Christian.
  • Christianity in Asia grew at twice the rate of the population on the continent. In the next ten years, it’s projected that 110 million more people will convert to Christianity on the Asian continent.
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

As United Methodist, I’m particularly encouraged by what’s taking place in Africa. Today, there are nearly 5 million African Methodists, with an average of 220,000 more being added each year. Within ten years there will be more African United Methodists than in the United States. The Philippines is also seeing an explosion of Methodism. There, nearly one million people are  being reached through the 24 Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church.

There are other statistics I could point to that affirm the fact that Pentecost is still happening. People are being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives are being changed. Though we lament the direction of the church in America (which says a whole lot more about us than it does the power of the Holy Spirit), it is a bit like Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” No, the church is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s more alive today than ever before. If we would be the Church, and see the power of God revealed then we must, once again, open ourselves to the mind-blowing, life-changing, and as John Wesley wrote, the heart-warming Holy Spirit.

Let the fire fall, O God! Let the fire fall!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Three Steps to a Successful New Year…

new year 2015I know it’s seven days into the new year, and that I’m late posting a blog that has anything to do with the new year, but I figure it’s still early enough for all of us to not made too many mistakes yet. Although some of us probably made resolutions that we’ve already broken, even though we’re only seven days into the new year (those darn resolutions are just so hard to keep). Might I suggest that we swap resolutions for solutions—solutions to the issues that trip us up from year to year? That’s kind of what today’s blog is about—solutions to help us get through the year successfully so that we can look back at a life well lived, rather than look back at a year full of regrets because we didn’t achieve all we’d hope, or resolved to accomplish when the year began.

I can across this interesting information surfing the web the other day: Every year has 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. We begin every year with the same amount of time. It’s what we do with the time that makes the difference. What do we do with all our time? If the average person sleeps seven hours a night, we’ll spend 3 ½ months sleeping. We all have to eat, and if we eat three meals a day, we’ll spend 16 days eating. If we are active in church, we’ll spend 9 days in church. For work, an average 8-hour day, allowing for normal holidays, we’ll work 75 days. Five to ten days will be spent traveling (to work, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the store, etc.), and here’s an interesting one—we’ll spend 9-15 days in the bathroom [unless we’re sick, then it could be longer, or shorter depending on the sickness]. With all that moving, working, eating, sleeping, etc., the average person still has about 100 days that are unaccounted for. What we do with that 100 days can make all the difference in the world.

I’d like to suggest three steps we can take to make 2015 a successful year. The first step to a successful new year is to seek God. This is a no-brainer, right? Wrong! There are two types of people in the world—planners and non-planners. Each of those types can be subdivided along a spectrum of good to bad planners, and good to bad non-planners, but basically you’re either a planner or a non-planner. What we too often do, whether we’re a planner or a non-planner is to make our plans and either ask God to bless them, or look back and ask God why He didn’t bless them, or if we’re a non-planner, fly by the seat of our pants and when something happens wonder where God is in all of it. We pretty much make our own excuses, justify the things we do, believe those who agree with us, and never once consider God. Every endeavor, every new year, every project should start with the question, “How will God be glorified in this?”

If we would be successful at anything, we must first seek God. If we’re a planner we will go into the New Year with everything all planned out. We’ll have our job plans, our family plans, our vacation plans, or our educational plans, but, we’ll leave out the most important part of planning—God. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

It’s not much different if we’re a non-planner. We’ll wander and wonder through the entire year, without seeking God and the plans that He has for us. We’ll come to the end of another year trying to figure out what happened to the time.

Seeking God is easy. Worship regularly. It’s an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy. Study devotionally. It’s an opportunity to understand God’s will more. Pray more. This is where real intimacy is developed. You want to distinguish between the the clamor and demands of the world around us and the authentic heart of God? Pray!  Seeking God is not about resolving to do one more thing. It’s about seeing prayer and worship and study as solutions to the issues facing my life. The first step to a successful new year is to seek God.

The second step to a successful new year is to bloom where you’re planted. This is all about contentment in our lives. That’s the problem for a lot of us, we’re simply discontented with circumstances as they are. Granted, there are some things we should never be content with—like if we’re living with a persistent sin, or struggling with an addiction. But, most of us are looking for the next job, or the next spouse, or for graduation. We say, “If I were only married,” or “If I only had a different job,” or, “If I only made more money,” or “It I could just get out of school,” then things would be better. As if a change in circumstances would make a change in me.

God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to build houses, plant gardens and have children as foreigners. That was God’s way of saying, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” Understand, there is such a thing as holy discontent, a time when God puts it on our hearts to move on to the next phase of life, but that rarely comes until we’re content where we are. We also need to realize that sometimes, bad circumstances may be God’s tool of refinement in our lives.

Part of blooming where we’re planted includes working for peace in our relationships and in our community. Jeremiah tells the exiles to pray for the peace of Babylon. I am reminded of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God” (Matt. 5:9). If we want peace in our communities, we must work pursue it, primarily because we are the community. The community won’t be better until we’re better. If we don’t like the political climate, pray and work to change it. Enter the fray. Engage the community. If we don’t like the educational climate, pray and work to change it. If we don’t like the social climate, pray and work to change it. It we don’t like…well, you get the picture. We must engage our community in ways that promote strong healthy relationships and pursues peace. That’s part of what it means to bloom where we’re planted, and that’s the second step we can take for a successful new year.

The third step to a successful new year is to always look forward. We look forward because we know the best is yet to come. We are an expectant people, a resurrection people, and as God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 that He had a plan for them with a future and a hope, so He has one for us. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, and it’s at the heart of God’s plan for our lives. The resurrection is the reason we gather weekly to worship. The resurrection is the foundation of our faith. As bad as 2014 may have been, 2015 can be better. As good as 2014 may have been, 2015 can be so much better. We know that God’s best, God’s ultimate plan for us, for His church, for His kingdom is yet to be realized.

There is an old sermon illustration about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order, she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss some of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. She requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.

“What’s that?” said the pastor.

“This is important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”

The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say.

The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie.

“So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!'”

My friends, we ought to live life with a fork in our hand. It’s our reminder that the best is yet to come.

Seeking God, step one. Blooming where we’re planted, step two. Always looking forward, step three. Take these steps, I’ll virtually guarantee a successful new year.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

Thanking Who?

Happy Thanksgiving! That’s simply enough said, and no, we haven’t slipped right past Thanksgiving and gone to Christmas (the store merchandising notwithstanding). I’ve noticed many instances on TV and radio reminding us to be thankful. And, we need reminding. What I’ve also noticed is that we need to be reminded who it is we’re really supposed to thank.

Thanksgiving-ImageI was watching Dancing with the Stars earlier this week (don’t you dare judge me), and there was a segment in the program where the finalists were giving thanks, but only Sadie Robertson gave thanks to God. The entire segment was a “thank you” to America, to the fans and viewers. Now, it’s appropriate for them to thank the viewers and fans. After all, without the viewers and fans, there would be no Dancing with the Stars, but thanking other people doesn’t capture the nature or intent of Thanksgiving.

Soon after watching DWTS, I saw a commercial advertising a holiday special hosted by reporter Robin Roberts entitled “Thank You, America!” According to the promo, this will be a special night shining “a light on the American spirit of gratitude,” and an evening that “recognizes ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their communities.” I’m certain it will be a nice, feel-good program for this Thanksgiving Thursday that will tug at our heart strings, and it’s appropriate to give thanks to others, and celebrate the good things they’ve done. But, again, I’m kinda’ thinking the program won’t capture the nature or intent of Thanksgiving.

I’m a little uncertain about what Thanksgiving is becoming, but may I offer a reminder about what Thanksgiving originally was? For us in the good ole’ U. S. of A., Thanksgiving goes all the way back to 1621, and the pilgrims giving thanks to Almighty God for a great harvest, and for the preservation of their lives. George Washington, in 1789, made a public proclamation saying “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor?” He recommended and assigned Thursday, the 26th day of November 1789 to be a day of Thanksgiving. And, may we never forget President Lincoln’s proclamation of October 1863, when in the midst of Civil War he proclaimed:

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

 In every instance, the call was to remember God—to stop, to think, to give thanks TO God. It’s easy for us to think about family. Most of us will be going to be with family, or family will be coming to be with us, and we’ll be appropriately grateful. It’s also easy for us to think about food because most of our tables will be filled with turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie and pecan pie, and fresh baked rolls, and we’ll be  appropriately thankful. It’ll be easy for us to think about football, waiting anxiously for the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys to play their respective games, because they, too, have become Thanksgiving traditions, and we’ll be appropriately grateful that we can enjoy a lazy day of family, food and football. These are things we have, and the focus is appropriate. But our greatest focus today should be on God.

Psalm 100 is on my mind early this morning:

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
    Worship the Lord with gladness.
    Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.[a]
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
    go into his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

The Psalms (the Hebrew song book) are filled with songs of thanksgiving. No less than 15 psalms have “thanksgiving” in the title, and a full 24 of the psalms give specific command to “give thanks.” Psalm 100 is one that includes both. Why did the ancient Israelites have so many songs about thanksgiving? The songs were reminders. So often throughout the early books of the Old Testament, God was always reminding the people that when they made it to the promised land, got settled there, got comfortable, were warm and well-fed, not to forget Him. God would say, “Don’t forget the reason you’re where you are. Don’t forget to ‘give thanks’.”

Psalm 100 is one of the songs the people would sing as they were going into the Temple. It served to set the attitude of the people’s heart as they went into worship. It was a reminder that when you come to worship, bring this attitude…have this attitude within you. It certainly gives the indication that gratitude was a matter of choice. Gratitude is a decision of the will, and if a decision of the will, the choice resides squarely with us. Psalm 100 is a reminder that God is good, God is merciful, God is faithful; that when we are in the ease and comfort of life, when it becomes so easy to forget, remember that we have God, and more importantly, God has us. I do believe that was the nature and intent of any of the early Thanksgiving holidays.

I kinda’ sound a little ungrateful, don’t I? I think I may even come across as a little whiny about the continuing secularization of our culture. I’m sorry if I do, but it just seems to me that someone ought to say something, and if someone ought to say something, it might as well be me. So, HAPPY THANKSGIVING, but please remember that our first thanks is to God.

Until next time, keep looking up…