Faithfulness

I Might Be The World's Worst Evangelist (and Why I'm Okay with It)

By Rev. Aaron Todd

The other day I'm cruising down the highway  listening to the "Frozen" soundtrack (don't judge, my three year old was in the car with me) when I run over something hard and metallic, which, of course, blew out one of my front tires.  This was not the first time this has happened since moving to Oklahoma, so my level of frustration was higher than it probably should have been as I maneuvered my poor car off the highway and over to the shoulder. 

I had just begun the process of unpacking all the needed items to change out the tire when an old, beat-up minivan pulls up behind me.  "Great," I thought, "This is how most horror movies begin."  I needn't have been concerned, however, because out of that van stepped an older gentleman who simply needed to know if I needed any help with the car.  After thanking him and telling him that I thought I could handle it, we got to talking for a few minutes. Seeing as how I was rather preoccupied with the tire, this man did most of the questioning.   "Are you from around here?" (Yes)  While pointing to my son in the back seat, "Is this your only child?" (No) And then this question came, "Are you a Christian?"  After telling him yes and that my wife and I were in fact, both pastors.  He smiled and replied, "Well, I'm glad I stopped."  He then got back into his van and drove away.  It was an awkward end to an otherwise (given the circumstances) pleasant exchange. 

In the few days since that event, I have been thinking more about that conversation and his desire to know if I proclaimed myself as a follower of Jesus.  What would his response been had I answered otherwise?  Would the same offer to help had been extended if I had professed allegiance to another faith (or no faith at all)? Was there an intention present all along to evangelize a young(ish) broken down traveler? The truth of the matter is, I have no idea and will never have a way of knowing. All I know is that I am grateful for his willingness to stop and help, and now as I continue to think back on that exchange there on the side of the highway, I realize why the ending of  that conversation seems so perplexing to me; I never would have thought to inquire about the religious beliefs of a person I had just met. 

As I came to that understanding, I also realized that I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I have actually inquired about anyone's religious affiliation, regardless of the circumstances.  In my ten-plus years in ministry, I do not think the words, "Are you a Christian" have ever passed through my lips. Once this light dawned on me, I thought to myself, "I might be the world's worst evangelist." 

To be fair, I come by my evangelistic inadequacies honestly.  As a life-long member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am part of a tradition that tends to shy away from that sort of on-the-spot questioning. As a tried and true introvert, I tend to prefer to be left to my own devices and assume that most others do as well.  Who are you to question me? Who am I to question you? Finally, and this perhaps is the biggest influence concerning my lack of desire in being considered an "evangelist," I have rarely seen evangelism, at least in it's traditional, culturally accepted form, done well.  I have memories of being in seminary and having people hand out tracts in downtown Ft. Worth and telling me that my seminary education made me less of a Christian, I can remember people walking around with giant crosses slung over their shoulders, yelling at me to "repent" (again in Ft. Worth), and here in Oklahoma City there is a giant billboard on the side of one of our highways asking us the question, "If you die tonight: Heaven or Hell?" A week or two ago I found a Bible tract strategically placed on the toilet paper dispenser at Starbucks (really?).  Even on a more personal level, there have been plenty of times when, in the midst of the conversations with other Christians, the topic of religious beliefs came up, the message I have gotten over and over is that if I don't adhere to their particular flavor of Christianity, then I AM in fact, less of a Christian. 

So as I think about how I may in fact hold the title for World's Worst Evangelist, I realize that if I am being compared to some of the methods I just described, than I am perfectly okay with that title.  Because, you know what?  None of the above methods even come close to describing the path that I followed to get to a place in my life where I proclaim myself as a follower of Jesus. Never after hearing someone yell at me to "repent" have I been moved to go a different direction.  Never after seeing a billboard or hearing a talking head on television talk to me about buying into their brand of "fire insurance" have I felt myself drawn closer to Jesus.  And there isn't a pamphlet or tract that has ever (or ever will be) printed that will cause my spirit to connect with the Spirit of the Divine.  

As a matter of fact, as I think about my own faith journey, I do not have the slightest clue who it was who first told me about Jesus.  Honestly, I have no idea who it was who "evangelized" me.  It might have been a minister, it might have been my parents or grandparents, I don't know.  What I do know is that I have a very clear memory of all those throughout my life who have walked with me and shown me what it means to live like Jesus. 

To me, this is what evangelism is anyway.  Evangelism cannot be and thankfully is not "peddling" Jesus like we would vacuum cleaners or carpet cleaning services.  It is seeking to embody the life Jesus calls us to live.  It's doing our best to live in the manner he did and inspiring those around us to attempt to do likewise. Jesus never asked the question, "Are you a Jew?" or told those of a different belief system to change their understanding before he would join them on the journey. It did not matter if the one whom Jesus encountered was a Jew, a Samaritan, or even a Roman, He loved and served unconditionally, with grace, humility, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, respect.

The way of Jesus does not translate well to a billboard or a tract, but that's okay, it was never meant to. It won't sell many books or promote too many political campaigns (but imagine if it did).  The way of Jesus is meant to be embodied in and among all God's beautiful creation.  I am thankful to all those who have come into my life who have shown me The Way, not through words, but through a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and the demonstrated desire to walk with me on this journey. 

This is the kind of evangelism in which I desire to engage.  And come to think of it, I'm not all that great at this kind, either.  But walking with, loving, respecting, and listening to my fellow human beings sounds like something I'd much prefer to continue to improve.

Growth . . .

By Rev. Shane Isner

In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants.  Rarely is this by choice.  I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?”  “This is he,” I say.  The pitch begins.  “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”  

Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome.  But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake).  She’s not offering to join the church.  Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.

Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it.  Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered.  First, it often sounds too simple, too easy.  Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values.  And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely.  Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair.  No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes.  They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities.  They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers.  Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it.  Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.

That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance.  Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams.  Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard (these were tried before my arrival).  But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure.  At least, that’s how some experienced it.  So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either.  The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force.  And it hurt.

Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry.  I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she, the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.”  Truth!  That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions.  An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.  

You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same.  But are they?  My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more.  The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church.  This provides clarity for decision makers.  Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.

But suppose you’re convinced- like me—that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow.  Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly!  Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right?  Obviously, attendance numbers matter.  A lot.  It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning.  Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases?  When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors?  When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns?  When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?

I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife!  But I find the question interesting.  And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers.  What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger?  How would you measure that?


Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

On Being a Disciple/disciple Today

By Mark Poindexter

The 4,034 people who attended the recent General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, Florida composed a group that was more than 60% smaller than the 10,492 that attended the first General Assembly in 1968.  It was less than half the size of the first assembly after I was ordained, the 1991 Assembly in Oklahoma City which had 8,774 registrants.  The attendance at the General Assembly reflects the decline that has happened within the life of the Disciples of Christ and the majority of our congregations over the past several decades.

In the Indian region, where I have been in ministry for the past 22 years, our regional staff has been reduced during this time from a Regional Minister and four full- time associates along with several full-time support staff to one full-time Regional Minister, several part time ministry partners and three part time support staff with the regional office being closed on Fridays.  And honestly, with 13 congregations leaving the denomination since Indiana’s most recent regional assembly where the decisions to remove the language that prohibited folks who are gay and lesbian from being ordained, more cuts to staff are very possible.  Another place where the reality of the decline has been experienced in Indiana is in the camping program which over the past 20 years has seen a decline of about 50% in the number participating in this program.  That decline, of course, involves the loss of financial resources which are used for the maintenance of the camping facilities.  And some of our facilities are in need of great repair.

The reality of this situation has been with us for quite some time.  It has been part of the landscape of doing ministry the entire time I have been involved in congregational leadership.  When I first started as a full-time pastor back in 1989, there was a lot finger pointing and blaming going on about the decline.  Some claimed it was because we were too liberal.  Others claimed it was the price we paid for being a church that tried to speak and act prophetically.  Some pointed to the fact that we tried to create a structure for our denomination just like other denominations, instead of being true to our roots of local congregational autonomy.  The Church Growth movement became big in some circles of clergy and a lot of us became immersed in the culture of church marketing.  I did my fair share of finger-pointing and blaming – for which I am deeply sorry.  I also worried a lot about what I needed to do to help stop this decline and “get the church headed in the right direction.” 

Well, I have come to understand that the numerical decline of our denomination and much of the church in America is a much more complex matter than I originally thought.  Though the matter of our faithfulness or unfaithfulness may well be a part of the decline, so are societal factors such as the American consumeristic mentality.  Thus, our devotion to “church marketing.”  

I don’t intend to list all the reasons that I think this decline has happened.  For this piece it is simply enough to say, I have come to the realization that the decline has many causes that are complex and multi-layered.  

What I want to say here is that I no longer worry about the decline.  And I no longer look for someone, or some attitude, to blame. The truth is, I see this time in the history of the church (and since I am writing as a Disciple – the Disciple Church) as an opportunity, even a gift to us, for us to do some deep reflection about what it means to be the church today.  Maybe this gift has even come to us from God.

Over the past couple of decades of my congregational leadership, I have seen myself move toward a simpler, but I believe a more authentic expression of Christian faith.  It is not rooted in creed or doctrine, or Designs or Preambles either.  It is rooted simply in Jesus – his life and the life he calls us to.  I no longer find myself looking for programs or strategies about how to turn things around.  Studies about target audiences or demographics don’t get a whole lot of my time.  My time instead is given to trying to understand the life of Jesus the best that I can – the fullness of it, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, his living presence throughout history, his impact on the structures of the world.  And then to live as fully as possible the life he calls me too – a life of unconditional love, grace and forgiveness; a life which cares for all but especially the people on the fringes of society; a life which is willing to speak truth to the powers of the world.  This simpler, but for me much more authentic way of understanding our faith, has played a very important role in my congregational leading.  At the church I presently serve our vision statement is “To be a church that thoughtfully and faithfully follows Jesus.”  It has been a blessing to hear that phrase used in elder’s prayers at the Table, in Moments for Mission during worship, in Sunday School discussions, and in the conversations that we are presently having about how to the church in this day and time.  

I believe the life of Jesus and the life he calls should be the central focus of the church in this time.  Communities of faith in which we center our life together in  love for God and all whom God loves, which includes neighbor, stranger and enemy, is our most important, and to me only authentic, evangelistic tool.  

So the decline for me, though it has been painful in many ways and has brought consequences that have to be dealt with, has also been a gift.  It has brought me closer to Jesus and for that I can be nothing but grateful.  None of us can know what the future holds in regard to the denominational life of the Disciples of Christ – but the present journey of being a Disciple has resulted in me focusing more on being a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  Maybe that’s what (who) we should have always been focused on.

                       

 

No Telling What God Could Do

In the wake of the recent resolution (GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All) at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we're going to offer over the next few days some of the sermons preached by Disciples ministers who are attempting to confront the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue.
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No Telling What God Could Do

(Luke 10:38-42)

Last week, some of you may recall, was the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And it’s important to recall that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a response to the questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  

The lawyer, who approached Jesus to ask those questions, demonstrated his knowledge of the content of the life of discipleship.  He got the words right: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus told him that he got that part right, and that he ought to begin to live that knowledge out.

The point, I think—at least on a very basic level—that Jesus was trying to make was that it’s possible to know the right stuff without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually living it.  

But the church isn’t principally concerned with having us know more about Jesus; what we care about is helping us to look more like Jesus.  Discipleship means getting in the game and getting our hands dirty, not just knowing the rules.

It’s not enough to know the right thing, following Jesus actually means doing the right thing.

I want to suggest to you that the story of the Good Samaritan and today’s story about Mary and Martha are placed back to back on purpose.  

Why do I say that?  Well, what’s the story of Mary and Martha about?

Pretty simple, really.  Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house.  While Martha’s in making the congealed salad and deviled eggs, sister Mary’s in the billiard room with the boys.  

Apparently, she’s forgotten her place—which is where?  In the kitchen.  “She’s supposed to be in here peeling potatoes, not in there chewing the fat.”  At least that’s Martha’s position.  And, if you listened to the story of the Good Samaritan last week, you can hardly blame her, can you?  

You’ve gotta walk the walk, right Jesus?  It’s no good just talking about it.  You’ve got to get in there and get your hands dirty, right Jesus?  It’s not enough to know it, you’ve got to live it.  

You can understand how Martha’s a little confused.  Didn’t we just go over this?  She’s just living out the truth of the previous story Luke told.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to quit passing by on the other side of the road, and get in here and help me.”

Wasn’t that what we said Jesus was pushing for?  No more sitting around talking about it.  No more sitting around studying it.  It’s time to get in the game.  We want to see the fur flying.  We’ve had enough of this egghead stuff.  Let’s get to work.  Isn’t that what Jesus was saying?  

It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re in there doing something.  We don’t need any more navel-gazing.  Let’s get busy.  Good Samaritan.  Lazy lawyer.  Right Jesus?  Tell her to get her to get her body in here and start sprinkling paprika on the deviled eggs.  Talking ain’t gonna get the banana pudding made.

And what does Jesus say?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What?  What is that all about?  I thought you just said, get busy.  Get in the game.  Quit thinking about it, and start living it.  What’s Luke doing—besides offering paradoxes, which only give navel-gazing clergy-types something else to help them avoid doing real work?

Well, let’s look at Mary and Martha for a minute.  Jesus seems to be contradicting his wisdom from the Good Samaritan, doesn’t he?  

If the point of the exchange with the lawyer that led to the telling of the Good Samaritan was—it’s not enough to know about the life of discipleship, you’ve got to live it—then the point of Luke’s telling of the story of Mary and Martha is that it’s not enough to do good works, you have to spend time reflecting on the good.  

Jesus as much as says this to Martha, doesn’t he?  Relax a little.  Take it easy.  Don’t work so hard.  The most important thing to do is think.

Is that what he’s trying to say—that thinking is more important than doing?  Well . . . sort of, but not exactly.  

What exactly does that mean?  

It means that doing is not nearly as important as knowing why and on whose behalf we’re doing it.  And you can only know that after you’ve sat at the master’s feet.

Why?  Because we often confuse busyness for faithfulness.  If it’s not enough to know the life of discipleship without practicing it; it’s not enough to do good works without knowing why or the one for whom you’re doing them—because if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s not always possible to tell if work is good or not.  

Remember, following Jesus and the things he asks from us are more often than not counter-intuitive, crazy sounding—loving our enemies, doing good to those who persecute us, going after one lamb while the other 99 sneak off to Atlantic City.  

Discipleship isn’t just common-sense niceness—it’s radically subversive dependence on God to meet the needs everyone else tells us we ought to be meeting on our own.  In this story, once again, Jesus is telling us to do something that’s a tough sell in our busy world.  He tells Martha, “Don’t just do something.  Stand there.”

How do we know that’s what this story’s driving at?  

Look at the context.  Where does this story take place?  In Martha’s house?  

So what?  What difference does that make?

The very fact that you could ask that question locates you at a certain point in history.  Our modern, liberated views about women haven’t been held by all people in all places.  

Most of history has understood women as nothing short of the head chef and nanny, something to do on a Saturday night when the poker game’s been canceled.  Typical understandings of women throughout history have called for female exclusion when it comes to business or education.

Parenthetically, the church, as often as not, has contributed to this hidebound view of women as the “weaker sex.”  We must confess our sins—that we’ve often been the problem and not the solution.  The church certainly has much about which it must repent with respect to its treatment of women.

But here in our Gospel, Jesus went to a woman’s house, and he was teaching a woman.  

Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you—and frankly, I’m glad we’ve moved beyond some of that diminished view of women.  But because we live in liberated times, we aren’t nearly as shocked by this story as we ought to be.  Jesus crossed some pretty profound sociological lines to go to the home of a woman, and teach another woman.

Do you see?  

But what does that have to do with what you said about it’s not enough to do without knowing why and who you’re doing it for?  Now I’m confused.

Let me see if I can bring this home.  What Jesus does in taking this radical step of meeting with and teaching women is to highlight the fact that what’s important in the service of Christ—is Christ.  

Why?  

Because we’re always prone to thinking that what we need is to do something, anything.  We’ve often acted as though the success or failure of the work of God rises or falls with us—so we’d better get busy.  

Enough sitting around, thinking, praying.  We need to get in the game and do something.  Otherwise things might fall apart.  We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to find the right program, the right youth leader, the right minister—then we can insure our success.  Who’s going to hold things together, if we don’t?

But what Jesus points out to us in our frantic efforts to secure our own future is that he doesn’t require much in the way of personnel to get the work of the kingdom done.  He doesn’t need movers and shakers to accomplish his purposes.  He can use folks that the rest of the world would never consider to do his bidding: a Samaritan, and a couple of women.  

Why?  Because it’s about him—not us.

What about this church?  What about DBCC?

What’s at issue here is not our abilities, our competence.  What’s at issue here is whether we seek to discern God’s will together, and then to do it.  

Our prayer isn’t, “God, make us bigger or more successful,” or “God, give us some more young families and help us to look the way we think we ought to look.”  

Our prayer is, “God, give us the strength to be faithful, and the courage to allow you to do with us what you will.”

Because God, in the final analysis, is responsible for what we’ll eventually look like.  We’re responsible for trying to discern where God is moving in the world, and then working our tails off to be there—with full minds and dirty hands.

We never know where the train’s going.  We’re just praying to be on it when it leaves the station.

This past week, for example—due in part to the vision of this congregation in the Highlands as the first sponsors of the resolution we passed at General Assembly—our denomination has spoken publicly about the need for the church to welcome and affirm all people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, political or theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because of your work and a lot of other people’s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now calls on the church to become a people of welcome and grace to all.

Listening to God, struggling to understand God’s will and then to be faithful to it, and a handful of people on the corner of Douglass Blvd. and Bardstown Road have helped to make history and change the world.

Here’s the thing: the juxtaposition of these two stories in our Gospel for this morning forces us to see that doing and reflecting are indispensable to discipleship.  It’s not enough to think without doing, or to do without thinking.  

Why?  

Because the real juice behind it all is God—not us.  

But God we’re afraid.  We’ve worked long and hard—us and the generations that came before us—and we don’t know where this is heading.  We’re worried about what will become of us.  We’re afraid that one day we’ll wake up and we won’t recognize the church we’ve known and loved.

God whispers gently to us, “I know.  I know of your service, your dedication.  I hold you and your work close to my heart.  But there are even more people out there I want to hold close to my heart, and calling them to come home will require perhaps some different work than what you’ve done before.  But don’t worry, my family is held together by my love—and not by anybody’s work (no matter how good).”

Trusting God to make of us what God wills may not be a formula for success the way we’re trained to think of success.  But, then, God’s always doing crazy things.

None of this should surprise us, though.  We serve a God who, as Martin Luther said, can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.

We serve a God who thought nailing a guy to a tree would turn out to be a good idea.  

And if God can pull a miracle out of that particular hat, there’s no telling what God could do with us.

-Amen.