Response to challenges creates legacy


I recently heard a news report that highlights in a nutshell the challenges we face today collectively as a church.


  Key points in the news story were:


• Membership is at the lowest point since 1930.


• New “Path I” church planting initiative of The United Methodist Church is designed to plant 650 new churches by 2012 and reach over 60,000 new members.


• More than half of our churches have 50 or fewer people in attendance each Sunday.


One minister was quoted as saying: “We have to get back to our roots and go where the people are rather than waiting for people to come to us.”


Would John Wesley know us today? He has been quoted as saying that where the process of sanctification is present the church is growing and “the world is our parish.” I wonder about both of those comments today. Our forerunners were urged to avoid evil, to do good and to use the means of grace supplied by God. Wesley said there was no place for “almost Christians.” Are we using the means of grace God has supplied us with?


(This year) was my first time to attend (Annual Conference), and I came away from an experience that was interesting-fun-uplifting all at the same time. It was also sad because toward the end we voted to close churches. Now I understand that there is a process to close them as well as a process to start them, but when I got home and re-read the closure resolutions I wondered if we really had “no alternative”?


Then, I hear about this “Path I” initiative. While I think it’s a great idea focused on the possibilities of starting new churches in the United States as well as the renewal of existing churches, I would encourage each of us to get involved in the renewal part of the equation. 


Here in the Mississippi Annual Conference part of that is the A2 process – referring to Acts 2 – taking place at each church. How we respond individually and collectively as United Methodists will be our legacy. Will this be a period of reawakening akin to that experienced in the first half of the nineteenth century, or will this be recorded as the time of decline and ultimate death of Methodism?


We need to explore every avenue for invigorating and revitalizing not only our own churches but our connected churches as well. If we’re in a healthy church how can we help a sick church? What is God calling us to do?


While it’s great to plant new churches, if all they are going to do is bring in members from other churches and/or denominations then what have we accomplished? If we start a few and close a few are we any better off? Aren’t we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Do we need more churches or better churches? 


I am reminded of those commercials where Charlie the Tuna was always trying to prove he had good taste, and his sidekick always had to remind him that what they really wanted was tuna that tasted good. Do our churches “taste good” or are we focused on demonstrating “good taste”?


For those who weren’t there, I wish you could have heard Bishop Ivan Abrahams from South Africa. The power of his words was refreshing, challenging, convicting and uplifting. He said that our hearts have not been warmed if it doesn’t lead to an outstretched hand of friendship. Are our hands extended? He said that when he was introduced to Jesus “it introduced me to his friends,” and that those we often seek to exclude are the very ones Jesus sought to include.


Abrahams challenged us as a conference to be in service to the poor and weak and said, “We may not be a poor church, but we must be a church of, with and for the poor…We can be the hope for the world by going where Jesus would go and doing what Jesus would do.”


Vanderburg lives in Olive Branch and attends Maples Memorial UMC.