They spent their time learning the apostles' teaching, sharing, breaking bread, and praying together.
It was one year ago this Sunday that I became your pastor. In this one year, I have tried to learn about you as you have learned about me. I want to look forward as we consider together the future ahead of us as a church, as believers, and as part of a denomination.
I want to thank you for sending both my wife Lorna and me to our Annual Meeting held in Asilomar. It was a beautiful setting on the Pacific Ocean. I learned, and I was challenged. I want to share some of the things that I have discovered about our denomination and where we are going. For those of you who dont know, let me say this as explanation first. All of our churches are completely sovereign. We have an affiliation with our Region and National Headquarters, but as our General Minister Dick Hamm said two weeks ago, "A lot of people dont understand that the National Office speaks TO the churches and the churches speak TO the National Office, but the National Office doesnt speak FOR any church." Our churches were born on the American frontier in the 1800s and the spirit of independence is still alive and well. But there has been a new trend among the Christian Churches that I wish to share with you it is being promoted by our Home Office, and it is being practiced by many of our churches across America.
There is a new focus among our congregations on spiritual renewal. The most popular program from Homeland Ministries for church revitalization has been the Taking the Name of Jesus program. Heres a statement from the introduction,
"There has been much discussion...about the declining membership of many churches. Church leaders have tried new and creative programming to attract people to declining churches. With so much emphasis being placed on programming, many of the basic disciplines that lead to spiritual health and growth have gone without sufficient nurture. As exemplified in the history of the early church, a return to the disciplines of Scripture study, effective prayer life, and solid proclamation of the Gospel will generate the health, energy, and vision which are vital for a growing church."
And this is indeed what is happening at many of our churches, and I would have to say that includes us. At the Porterville Christian Church, every service has a special prayer time where those in need come down to be prayed for by the elders. They told us at the Annual Meeting that sometimes the prayer time takes as long as the sermon! Their attendance has doubled in the past two years. The Selma Christian Church has been having special healing services and Carroll Cotton told me that some have been divinely healed at these services.
In the newsletter from Homeland Ministries they reported about the Christian Church in Guymon, Oklahoma. They have grown to an average attendance of 130 and report "There is a hunger and thirst for the word of God, as evidenced in new Bible study groups forming." Their church is an example of combining the old with the new. They have a Disciples Mens group and they also have a Promise Keepers group. They have a CWF Bible Study and they also have the Baptist Bible study, Experiencing God. The newsletter also reported about the Christian Church in Harrison, Ohio. They have a new emphasis on prayer. They wrote, "People are much more likely to request prayer for the difficult things they face in their daily lives. And prayer has become a first response instead of a last resort. We have become enthusiastic about praying we believe God is listening and answering. ... When this bunch prays, things happen."
I believe we must add our church to that list of those experiencing spiritual renewal as well as numerical growth. Chuck Blaisdell, when he was here for my commissioning, told me later that he experienced a wonderful attitude on the part of the church. He made a point of telling Lorna and me at the Annual Meeting that he really appreciates what is happening here in Merced. We are so grateful for what God is doing in our church. I talked to one of the ministers at the Annual Meeting who spoke here as a fill-in before I became your minister. Perhaps when he spoke, there were only 10 or 12 in attendance. He had heard about Merceds growth and asked about us. When I told him some of the blessings God has done here, and especially when I told him we had 95 on Easter Sunday, his jaw dropped. You could tell he never expected that to happen here. Lets admit it, maybe none of us did either. At the beginning I was told that no one would ever come out for a Mid-Week Bible Study. Now we have two of them!
The new emphasis in many Disciples of Christ congregations is Spiritual Renewal a return to prayer, to Bible Study, and to sharing the Gospel message of Christ. A new program was begun in August of 1996 under the Office of the General Minister and President thats called the Bethany Project. It is a call for our congregations to return to the basics of prayer and spiritual renewal. I would like to quote from the Project Description which shows a refreshing willingness to face possible weaknesses,
"Pastors need help in connecting theological concepts with congregational realities. What does redemption feel like in the [lives of those in the] parish? How can we continually allow our dearest dreams and hopes to be crucified in order to give God room to maneuver? Can we be courageous enough to recognize and confront evil? How is the power of God showing itself? Where is the Spirit beginning to break forth? I suspect that many...pastors carry around a lot of this theology in our heads, but its power is nullified by our lack of spiritual discernment of these theological realities in concrete forms. ... If we are blunted in our perceptions of grace and glory in their daily forms, we will miss where God is trying to lead us. Prayer and spirituality Disciples tend to be highly rational and rather weak in our spiritual development. This is reflected in every area of our church seminaries, congregations, [Regional and Home Office] judicatories. ...However, prayer makes a real difference in our ability to respond well to challenging ministries. ... If we, the pastors of the church, would learn a deeper prayer and trust in God, we would be more trustworthy ministers of our church. We would also, very naturally, communicate a deeper sense of the essence of the faith. It is hard to imagine that this would not help lead congregations to make the shift from being civic organizations toward being quite powerful faith communities. In a way, this is the essence of the compelling vision of Barton Stone and the Campbells: let us move toward a faith deep enough to help restore the heart of the primitive church a vibrant faith."
Disciples are Changing
Many Disciples congregations are changing the old way of doing things. Some churches have abandoned the Committee model of getting things done in the church, and replaced it with a task force model. The Christian Board of Publication has started offering more of a variety of Bible study materials. On our denominations Internet Ministers Discussion List, there has been much discussion about outdated programs and much interest in new ideas. Many are abandoning the Disciples Men and CWF programs and replacing them with younger-focused studies. Contemporary worship, drama skits, dance, lively music have been introduced in many of our churches across America. Positive, constructive change that doesnt abandon our identity is becoming an important part of congregational revitalization.
I was very moved by the address of our Regional Minister Chuck Blaisdell at the Annual Meeting. He said there are three things we need to overcome in order for our congregations to be able to move into the future with clarity.
1. Ignore the distractions that hinder our work
2. Look past our nostalgia for the way we did things in the 50s
3. Overcome our fear of change
I felt that God was speaking to my heart through that message. It is time for us to look to new, creative ways to encourage people in their spiritual walk. It is time for all of us together to move forward in reaching this community for Christ.
How we need to change
First, I think we need to build on our traditions. Many churches are changing everything as if change is good solely for the sake of change. I dont agree with this concept. I think a better way is to build on our past. There are many ways to do this. I am so excited about our Thursday Bible Study. Having a Session on How to Study the Bible is very modern, and very needed. And yet God showed me how we could do this by using the study methods from 1839 of the founder of our church, Alexander Campbell. There are many other ways we can come up with creative, new, and helpful programs that build on our heritage.
But second, we cant live in the past. Churches that are growing are abandoning some of the old ways of doing things, or are renovating old programs with new ideas. Just because we have done something the same way for the past 50 years does not mean its the best way to do it today. There come times in the growth of an individual, the growth of a family, the growth of a company, the growth of a nation, and the growth of a church., where change is not only welcome, but it is necessary. We must be open to new ideas, even if it means we have to leave some of our comfortable ways of doing things.
Third, I believe we must be willing to reach out to a new generation. I look at the history of this church, and it was a vibrant church with programs for the whole family. Many new things were introduced in past years. New programs need to be introduced today if we are to reach others with the Gospel message of Christ. Younger families, and younger adults are the future of this church. They may like different music, different programs, and different ways of doing things, but I dont think we can neglect them. I would hope that we would welcome a new generation of Disciples into our church.
Fourth, I dont think we need to or should abandon many of the old forms or liturgy solely to be "modern." I think we can find ways to blend the old with the new. I think we need to retain those things that make us unique among the communities of faith communion every Sunday, the Lords Prayer, and the Doxology, a belief in the worth of the individual, a tolerance of others, and a desire to help the disadvantaged. And I think we need to especially retain a feeling of community of love toward one another, and continue to be an important part of our Region, and an important part of the Christian Church nationally.
But the most important thing for our church, I believe, is to continue our focus on Spiritual Renewal. We must spend time in prayer, time in reading and study of the Bible, and time sharing the gospel message with those outside our church walls. If we do this, God will continue to pour out his blessings upon us so much that we will not be able to contain our joy in the Lord.
Will you join me in this work? I realize that I probably dont even have to ask that. God has given me the privilege of ministering in a church full of people with a tender heart and a vision for the future. Working together, we will fulfill Christs commission for our church in Merced.
This message on Spiritual Renewal © 1998 by David Humpal. All Rights Reserved.
All scriptures unless otherwise noted are from the New Century Version © 1991, Word Publishing