Growing the Church
District Superintendent Cynthia Jones seemed to be walking on air when she told me about a Church Conference recently. Members voted unanimously to build a multi-purpose/recreational addition to Evangelical UMC in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. A midweek program called Wednesday Night Fusion has attracted a great group of children (church and un-churched) and families to the Evangelical UMC. After a meal, Bible study in different rooms and the closing assembly of everyone in praise and worship, the kids are on their way home. Some of the un-churched children have dared to talk about Evangelical UMC saying “that’s my church.” In addressing the challenges accompanying this influx of children Pastor William Bunnage quipped “seeing the children coming” gives him a lot of joy. Risk taking mission with children, grows the church. Waiting for the harvest takes patience. Here, a statement from Galatians 6:9 provides guidance: “We will reap in due season if we faint not.”
When I was assigned to the Michigan Area in 2004, the Area had instituted a one day opportunity for Confirmands from around the conferences to meet, study, eat, fellowship and worship together. Furthermore, they asked the Bishop to lead one hour sessions with the Confirmands that had been divided into smaller groups. At the end of our time together, we had a brief worship service and communion service led by the Bishop. Interactions with our children and youth regarding their own struggles with faith issues and life informed my ministry and faith journey. I’m headed to Dunlap UMC, in June, to participate in a Confirmation Service. There, I’ll witness the church growing by the number of children taking their vows of church membership. And my faith will be renewed. Somebody might observe “They are just kids.” They won’t add much to the church’s bottom line. True. Yet, my admonition is classic. “Be not weary in well doing. We shall reap in due season, if we faint not.” In the meantime, note the valuable time, energy, experience and opportunity we have to equip the next generation of church leaders who will “transform their world.” Quality discipleship is the fruit of Intentional Faith Development.
Rossville and Bismarck, two small churches had a combined worship service February 10, 2013. I preached. My sermon, Act with Great Boldness, can be found on the conference website. A nice group of children came forward for the Children’s Sermon. They saw the distinct difference between a Bishop on a chess board and one sitting there “live and in living color.” “Lord have mercy! Two young girls lit the altar candles earlier. Pastor Rebecca Laumeier said the children light candles at Rossville Church if they’re willing to be trained. Like Evangelical UMC, Rossville has a Wednesday program for the whole family: a meal, Bible study, gathering time for worship and praise and home. Churches and un-churched children have benefitted mightily. For example, Pastor Beckie overheard one boy say to another as they rode past the church on their bicycles, “that’s my church.” In short, I’m welcomed. I’m cared for. I’m taught or I’m learning demonstrated what the church was all about. Those expressions seemed to be the message behind “that’s my church.” No, the boys were not Confirmands; but each boy had been drawn into the church by the “radical hospitality” of its pastor and members. After church, four children, aged 15 to 3, caught my attention. A fifteen year old girl was in charge of her siblings. They sat at table by themselves soon to be joined by others. Pastor Beckie said the church has welcomed the kids from the neighborhood. Apparently, their parent(s) trust the church with their children on Sundays and Wednesdays. And the children have found themselves in a protected, welcoming environment learning firsthand the essence of Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, fed me, taught me, made a place for me.” And you did without ever seeing our parents. “Suffer the little children to come unto me…and forbid them not.” For some strange reason, I was so touched by seeing the scripture played out in front of me for what seemed like “the least of these,” that I nearly lost it. But I did not weep. Instead, I came home and wrote about it. Yes, the little children were a priority for Our Lord. May it be so for the church in IGRC!