Wednesday, June 4, 2014
2014 Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Paul’s letter to the saints in Ephesians has some advice for us. While his salutation suggests his message is for the saints who are in Ephesus; his practical theology is applicable for gifted saints of the church universal, Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference notwithstanding. Who are the saints? Saints are normal people like you and I. We are recipients of many gifts and talents from God thereby making us gifted saints. Ultimately, saints are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16, particularly verses 11-12, point to the focus of our calling. “The gifts he (meaning Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, (etc.) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The basic message regarding God’s call is this: Gifted Saints are called to build up the church.
Last August, I recorded a message for the Charge Conferences. Over 850 churches were scheduled to view it. On the DVD, the bishop requested your church’s growth goals and a progress report on what’s happening. What was received provided new hope and sustenance for this Bishop. Thanks for going the second and third mile. Helping me learn about your church and become more effective in leading you on behalf of Jesus Christ is a gift. Have our shortcomings been overlooked? Nope. Has every church sent a report to the DS? Nope. Have we ascertained the reasons why? Nope. It’s not necessary. The “Hopes” outnumbered the “Nopes.” That being said, here’s a first reflection. Gifted saints are called to build up the church in disciple-making.
Two realities ought to motivate us to build up the church. First, there is the Great Commission, the guiding light of disciple making. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have command you. And lo, I am with you always even to end of the age.” (Mt.28:19-20) Some folks may be more familiar with our denominational expression of the Great Commission. Our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Either version conveys that we have “a calling to fulfill.” Second, the longevity of the United Methodist expression of Christianity in the United States is a concern too. Our continued membership loss over the last 40 years still causes unsettled nights and harried days.
Good news is on the horizon. In a report to the Council of Bishops dated March 12, 2014, Bishop Schol writes, “Today I am filled with hope and joy…the Council of Bishops set a goal to double the number of highly vital congregations in the denomination. WE HAVE EXCEEDED THE GOAL, moving from 14.6 to 33.9 percent highly vital congregations…we have begun a turn around.” What are highly vital congregations or HVC’s? Highly Vital Congregations have continually increased their worship attendance over four years, involved more laity in core ministries of the church, reached out to their community and the world, including justice ministries, and paid their apportionments 100 percent. Some of the HVC’s cited exist in IGRC. We’re not used to this kind of good news. “Gee, ain’t it awful” is more familiar. There’s more good news.
May 1, 2014, a report sent to my office noted good news in three areas. “New church plants in the United States have increased from 115 in 2012 to 145 in 2013. In the Central Conferences, 643 new faith communities/ministries have been born. 171 of them are new churches.” Yes, the UMC has birthed some New Places for New Faces. If you’ve read Acts 19ff, you have discovered that the Ephesian church fit the category. It became a New Place for New Faces, primarily Gentile.
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference can’t brag about a lot of new church starts. But we have some growth spots that seem to be on fire. Later this week, five church growth awards will be presented. I won’t steal their thunder. Please, listen for the congregation in your membership category. Call them. Ask what’s happening that is moving them to the next level. Do this for inspiration not imitation. That being said, your progress reports indicated the “can do” spirit still outweighs resignation related to church growth. I have randomly selected two local churches from each District representing the “can do” spirit. None will be named.
Cache River District
A.) We plan to develop a Facebook Ministry
B.) There has been a 10% increase in attendance, 5 baptisms, 5 new members, and 5 new families, Sunday school and a Junior church.
Embarras River District
A.) Increase average worship attendance 10% by May 2015
B.) Bring 5 new neighborhood children to VBS.
Illinois River District
A.) Continue free Mission Meals monthly.
B.) Baptized two teens and received 8 new members
Iroquois River District
A.) Increase worship attendance of people 75 years and over, baby boomers, leaders from 31-35, young adults, children, babies and international students.
B) Have begun two new ministries: Native American Fellowship and Hogs and Ministry
Kaskaskia River District
A.) Start a Sunday School Class for 21-35 year olds.
B.) Helping folks in the community by providing false teeth, coats, building ramps and prayer
LaMoine River District
A.) Community Outreach is the #1 goal for most churches.
B.) One church is doing “The Journey 10x 10”. Over ten months, ten focused areas are addressed. For example, pray 10 minutes a day, fast 10 times, invite 10 people to church, tell your faith story 10 times.
Mississippi River District
A.) Our average worship attendance in 2014 is over 2000 per week
B.) Baptized 7 members of the deaf church. Through the ministry with Celebrate Recovery, we work with people who have been in prison and several are now church members.
Sangamon River District
A.) Establish a free health clinic.
B.) 45 % of our members are involved in Bible Studies; 6 new professing members
Spoon River District
A.) Explore multi-site ministries with another church
B.) Accelerate the gospel in Guinea.
C.) Praying for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Vermilion River District
A.) Our Confirmation class just ended. Seven youth professed their faith and joined the church.
B.) We intend to take in 12 new members by profession of faith in 2014. Two have joined; ten more to go.
Implicit but not always explicit in all the goals and progress reports were laypersons. While Paul named leaders he expected to do ministry in the Ephesian Church specifically apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors and teachers, however, he omitted unnamed laity necessary to build it up. What about the women and children, the janitor and the ushers, the soldiers and the tax collectors, the widows and the orphans, the cooks and the treasurers, the shut-ins and the shut-outs? If any one of them joined the body of Christ, their profession of faith carried the obligation to build up the church. Uncle
Sam is not the only one who has high expectations of gifted saints. How about Jesus the Christ?
On May 18, I preached the 190th Anniversary Celebration of Rochester UMC. To prepare for the service, they sent me a copy of their church history. A comprehensive list of their Pastors, Senior and Associate, were listed. Another list of folks caught my attention even more. One of the historians had taken pains to list the names of numerous families who helped the church go forward. On and on the list went until over 50 families were named. These named laity and unnamed laity “exerted great moral influence (in Rochester) and made the world a safer place.” Not only that, the list of laity reminded me of three things clergy should never forget: 1.) That laity love the Lord 2.) That laity respond to God’s call to serve and 3.) That laity want their church to be a force for good in the world. Gifted saints are called to build up the church in disciple-making.
Some years ago, I did the Second and Third Missionary Journeys of Paul. We went through Ephesus. I preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in their historic amphitheater. I am not sure of what I said or did. Folks said they were deeply touched. Admittedly, the impact of that service has left its mark on my life and memory.
Likewise, Ephesus left a mark on Paul as well. When the apostle arrived in Ephesus, he re-baptized 12 men. They claimed to have been baptized in John’s name. So Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus, by water and the spirit. What left the mark upon Paul was his new church start in Ephesus. He taught and defended the faith in the Jewish synagogue for three months. After wearing out his welcome there, Paul and his followers secured a lecture hall of Tyrannus. Believe it or not, a miracle happened. “He spoke there every day for two years, until every Jew and Gentile in Asia had heard the Lord’s message.” (19: 9-10 CEV) Audiences large and small, old and young, women and children, outlaws and in-laws, Jews and gentiles heard this man. From his teaching, preaching faithfulness and persistence with his advocates and detractors over two plus years, up came the church. The establishment of faith communities and/or churches at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and Ephesus embody our denominational vision of mission. “The church in mission is a sign of God’s presence in the world.”
Countless churches in IGRC have Food Pantries. One church has a summer children’s food program. Some churches offer breakfast, lunch and dinner weekly, monthly or a 5th Saturday. These are signs of God’s presence in the world. He who said, “I was hungry and you fed me,” confirms it.
A number of churches are involved in prison ministries. They have formed support groups for inmates and families. Emmaus Walk Prison Ministry and the Lutheran Social Services Prisoner and Families have provided an organizational framework for clergy and lay involvement. Prayers, devotional materials and Bibles have gone to jails and prisons, only where permitted. Some of our pastors have been permitted to conduct Weekly Bible Study/Worship at Harrisburg Youth Development Center, visit Shawnee Correctional Center, initiate Disciple Bible Study at Pinckneyville Correctional Facility, and participate in the Disciple Bible Study program co-sponsored by Northern Illinois and Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conferences, only where permitted. Sixteen students are enrolled currently. Their hearts are being strangely warmed. These are signs of God’s presence in the world. He who said, “I was in prison and you visited me,” confirms it.
Seven years ago, this conference began a relationship with Liberia. The fruit of this relationship is a sign of God’s presence in the world. Hundreds of children now have the opportunity to attend school. At least six schools have been built. So have three District parsonages and 15 churches. Forty-five wells have been dug. Since February 2006, 156 lay people and 67 clergy have given themselves to this work. Scholarships and salary support for the pastor’s flow from here to there. “Mrs. Liberia”, aka Bunny Wolfe, offered this perspective. “Our partnership is not about buildings and projects…the projects and God’s call gets us there. The real story is about changed lives…both in Liberia and in our own conference.” The quote ends “To God be the glory.”
To God be the glory is what I’m going to say later tonight when we go over the top by raising $2.5 million for Imagine No Malaria. Started before I came to IGRC, God’s job for me was to help us finish what we started. “Just $400,000 is left to reach our goal,” I said on the Aug. 5, 2013 DVD recording for Charge Conference. And when you see the Bishop’s Red Flannels flying in the wind or crossing the finish line, a shout will go up acknowledging, “It is finished. It is finished. It is finished.” In passing, keep looking for the connections between mission and disciple making. A short story about A Resurrected Congregation sums it up.
It is a small rural congregation in a big building. First UMC Bartlett, Texas is their name. Population signs read 1800. Nellie Saage (in her 80’s who died recently at 86) and Joyce White, retired public school teacher, (in her 70’s) were said to be dynamic laypersons - who took the ministry of all Christians seriously. Routinely, Saage and White visited shut-ins. People they saw were alone, hungry, occasionally non-ambulatory, short on cash, out of touch with the church or just too tired to cook. From their visits to shut-ins, a ministry was born. Saage and White started Food for Friends to address some of their needs. Now home cooked meals delivered and served once a week have grown from 7 to 150. Members and non-members are served free of charge. To keep up with demand, the First UMC lay group created a Food for Friends as a 501 (c) (3) organization. Members and non-members got involved in this ministry. A by-product of the work of these gifted laywomen is growth in membership, worship attendance and community involvement. It’s true for you as well. “You’ll reap in due season, if you faint not.”
During my first assignment as a bishop, I learned about Episcopal leadership and the quest for unity. A conservative and a liberal group came to see me. Each group wanted my support for their issues. After prayer and reflection, I informed them that the bishop wouldn’t publicly identify with either group. I had been sent to be an advocate for all the people in the area. I hoped to connect with every constituency, regardless of where each stood. Signing on with a particular group would close off those relationships prematurely. While I did not fully know what that meant, it’s where I stood. That experience helped me identify striving for unity as one of the goals of leadership. In passing, consensus for decision making carries with it the ideal notion that unity is a “good” worth pursuing.
Unity in Christ Jesus is a theme and a reality that the 13th Apostle pursues with the Ephesians. Doing what God wants is dangerous. Is it any accident that Martin Luther King, Jr. died because he tried to bring together too many groups that were divided? Is it no accident that Paul was in prison as he wrote the prison Epistles? Paul kept teaching and preaching that Jesus Christ was Son of God, a blasphemy that enraged his fellow Jews. Quite frankly, his enemies wanted him dead not alive in jail.
Nevertheless, Paul lays out guidelines for keeping folks together. .
“And mark that you do this with humility and discipline…pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences. You were called to travel down the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.” (Ephesians 4:2-5;The Message)
Undoubtedly, some would call the pursuit of unity in the church, Paul’s “theological pipe dream.” He is growing a church with two radically different groups. Their history, culture, religion and old fashioned enmity seem too much to bridge. Yet the example of Christ and a controversial decision by General Conference in Acts 15 over membership requirements, the floodgates open. Now, gentiles are on an equal footing with their Jewish counterparts. Both are members of the church. Now, gentiles stream into the church because the requirement for circumcision no longer applies. Faith in Jesus Christ not circumcision is the key. Now, there is deep anger among Jewish Christians. No one seems to be “guarding the faith once taught,” a faith with deep roots in Mosaic Law. Why had professions of faith struck down circumcision as the church’s rite of passage?
Are we any closer to unity than the church at Ephesus? Some people would tell God unity can’t be achieved. Our world, our church, our families and inner selves are hopelessly divided. God’s children will never reconcile matters such as religion and race, guns, war, immigration, Obamacare, human sexuality and a thousand other issues?” Is breaking up, schism or fighting to the death, physically or intellectually, the best way forward for gifted saints called to provide leadership for the body of Christ? How can one stay in the church when difference strains what one believes? How does one find nourishment when the new alters the form and shape of the old? So gifted saints face a daunting question. What will we do with God’s church? Build it up or tear it down. The choice is ours. The late Rodney King raised the God question for LA as the city imploded into divisiveness over what happened to him. “Can we all get along?” he said. In short, can the church solve its problems of injustice, disappointment, hostility and guarding the faith without the loss of life, schism, the destruction of reputations or community?
At the ballpark, most folks find a way to get along despite their differences. No Democrat or Republican, gentile or Jew, rich or poor, advocates for justice or injustice, forgets about their personal agendas or priorities while watching baseball. Yet, they root for, stomp, sing, scream and cheer in unison for their team tirelessly, should I say these folks are diehard Cardinal or Cub fans. Then, they’ll stand and sing lustily, “Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out with crowd. Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks. I don’t care if I never get back. Let me root, root, root for the home team. If they don’t win it’s a shame,” etc. Observers can’t miss the radical, the joyful and the unified commitment of fans to one’s team displayed in that song. But when we get to God’s house, our unity dissipates, too often. Disappointment flourishes, too often. Joy weeps, too often. Commitment lodges itself in silos, too often. And there is little consensus to root for “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” Whatever our lot, remember this. Unity in the church is not a “theological pipedream” for Christ. Unity is a real concern that deserves attention. We know how to advocate. Sadly, we do not know how to promote unity in the church? Why? A lack of unity negatively affects our disciple-making and risk-taking mission. Why will we not turn to God, who empowers us, “to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine?”
I take my seat with a hymn of faith emulating the mindset of Paul.
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name.
Refrain: On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.
His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.”