One of the privileges of serving as your bishop is the opportunity that is mine to visit with congregations and clergy at churches in our Conference. The Desert Southwest Conference is home to churches and fellowships and ministries that come in different sizes and shapes; young and old (the buildings, I mean!) with contemporary, blended, and traditional worship at a variety of times and on different days. Various languages and cultures are spoken; and many exciting, life-transforming ministries are offered to the communities in which the congregations are placed. As I visit with you, I am also gratified to learn of the deep faithfulness of our United Methodists in The Desert Southwest Conference.
I enjoy hearing about the faith journeys shared by members of the congregations. Stories abound of the formative days of the church: how congregations were started by a small band of disciples of Jesus Christ, how they met and prayed together and were inspired by their faith and their vision to build a church. I hear stories of the days when those pioneers told others of their faith and invited them to come and worship. There are great anecdotal tales of the difficulties that were overcome in those first years and how the saints of the church labored long and hard to erect buildings, establish Sunday Schools, and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed.
Invariably, I hear people sighing, saying, “Those were the good old days!” And there are memories of the days when there were more people worshiping than there were seats in the pews, and Sunday School classes were bursting at the seams with children. Remember those days? If you do, then you are part of a generation of the very faithful who have given generously and sacrificially of time, talent, prayers and presence. In other words, those who came to church, participated in church, did much to help in many ways to run the church, and who worshiped and prayed regularly for the ministry of the church, and who wrote checks or dropped coins and dollar bills into the offering plate. Those were the “good old days” when a group of faithful United Methodists would build a church, open its doors, and soon, there would be people flocking to be a part of that congregation on a Sunday morning.
Many of our churches can recall such days. Life was very different then. There were expectations that a person would be in church on Sundays. And there were very few other choices (other than sleeping in) that a person could choose to do on Sunday. Sometimes I find myself wishing for those days, because in our current culture, there are many, many options for Sunday mornings. I sometimes go to a church worship service and find that there are more people in the coffee shop a block from the church than there are in worship! Or passing a park, I see more people with their children on the soccer field than in Sunday School!
In light of these changing dynamics in the world, churches are now competing with other priorities. The question I am often asked is: how can we possibly compete with such other activities? Is there any hope for congregations of United Methodists? Do we have a future?
Each local church is unique: its people, its lay and clergy leadership, its history, the economic reality, and the composition of the neighborhood. But one thing is certain from my perspective. A church that wants to have a future must be willing to renew itself. By renewal, I mean that a congregation should always be thinking about, praying for new ways of being in ministry.
A dictionary helps us better understand what it means to “renew” something: to make like new; to restore to freshness, vigor, or perfection; to make new spiritually. You and I have a great task before us. God asks us to bring a spirit of freshness or vigor to our congregations, to make them places where there is a spirit of being alive. Here is a check list of possible ways you could renew your congregation.
- A fresh coat of paint
- A different musical instrument in worship
- An order of service that sometimes “mixes things up”
- Asking different persons to lead in worship
But of all the ways that I have seen congregations engage in renewal is this: reaching out to the community in new and different ways. The question to ask is first, “Who is my neighbor?” And then the next question is, “What are the needs (physical needs AND spiritual needs) of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?” And then the question that must be asked is, “What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?” As these questions are answered, I believe we begin to open our creativity to different, refreshing ideas of ways to renew our ministries. And when that happens, that is what gives me hope for our future as disciples of Jesus Christ, as a church, as a Conference. Yes, there is hope! But to realize that hope, we must invite and experience, and encourage renewal.
I keep thanking God for the privilege of serving as your bishop. I praise God for the ways our congregations engage in ministry that transforms lives. I keep praying that together, with the help of God, we will find ways to inspire and lead our churches to renew our ministries and bring freshness and vigor to the spirit and outreach of every United Methodist Church, Fellowship, and Ministry in The Desert Southwest Conference!
Pray with me: Come, Holy Spirit, come! With your refreshing wind, surround us with a new vision of what we can be as disciples of Jesus together with other faithful followers in our congregations. Give us a renewed sense of calling to be in ministry in the places where you have planted us. Open our hearts to the cries of those in need especially those on the margins of society. Give us hope when we are challenged, and encouragement when we are discouraged. Let our eyes be opened to the myriad of ways that your grace is poured out upon us, and appreciation for all the blessings that are ours. Remind us of your love for us and give us courage to share that love with others in the works of our hands and in the words of our mouths. Refresh and renew your United Methodist Church, we pray, in the name of Christ our Redeemer, Amen!
In Christ’s shalom,