It IS possible to stay relevant amid today’s changing culture!

I read this morning that Sears has put out a statement saying that they have “substantial doubt” that its company’s doors will stay open.  Other retail giants that have been main stays all my life, anchor stores in mall across the country, have been closing stores in many locations.  They’re not doing anything like the business they did just a few decades ago.

I wonder what folks would have said fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that these giants would close?  I suspect there would be a chuckle at the idea.  Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886 for heaven’s sake!  It’s been a retail center in cities and towns across America for 130 years.  It will always be here would have been the natural assumption.

But then came as well as lots of other .coms.  Then came Walmart and Meijer.  I looked at my own Amazon account and realized that I made my first purchase from them in 1999 when they were primarily a book company.  I had three orders that year.  Last year I had 66 orders for everything from Altoids to computer parts, and clothes to vitamins.

There are other factors, I’m sure, that have affected Sears and other companies.  But the fact is the world of buying and selling is changing like so many other things in our culture, and some of those institutions that we once thought would always be there, are simply going by the wayside.

And the analogy to the Church is not a hard one to make, is it?  The world has changed and it is changing for us too.  There are many shifts that we could name.  Worship itself is one of them.  From the day of the week we offer worship opportunities to the location where we offer them, things are by necessity changing.

By the way there is a BIG worship training event on our District this Saturday with Kim Miller in case you hadn’t heard!!

Click → HERE ← for details!

Giving in the church has changed too.  If your congregation doesn’t offer at least automatic withdrawal from a bank account, if not instant giving on a web site; if you are relying only on people writing checks or putting cash in the plate,  then you are missing a significant portion of potential givers.

These are just a couple areas where our world is different than it was in the past, and if we don’t pay attention and move with the shifts we may well find ourselves ─ someday soon ─ putting out our own press release indicating our “substantial doubt” related to our ability to keep the doors open. And more importantly to carry out the mission of sharing Christ’s love in a broken and hurting world.


Lent is a time for sorting

I have been cleaning out files on my computer.  It is amazing to me how fast files and folders — designed to make life more efficient — can become unruly!  I’m certain I had a plan when I set up a given file structure.  I had a purpose and an understanding of how that structure would work and benefit me moving forward.  But somewhere along the line I forgot what I had done, and I started a new folder with a different file system in another place that made sense in that moment!  Consequently, as I’m working my way through the cleanup process this morning, I’m discovering that there are four locations of folders that should be in one place, and sometimes multiple copies of the files in each of those areas!

I think I’m getting a handle on it and I’ll probably have a much cleaner structure soon ─ at least for a while!

As I’m doing this work, I’m also thinking about the worship service tonight that begins the season of Lent.  Through the years I have engaged a number of different practices during the Lenten season.  Sometime I have removed things from my life to allow a deeper focus on God.  Other times I’ve added things with the goal of enabling a richer connection during these weeks.  Lent is a time for sorting. It is a time for evaluating where we are, and what in our lives has gotten perhaps a bit unruly and needs cleaning up.  It may be that as we take stock, we will discover that we need to become more involved.  Maybe we will find that our level of commitment to our faith and path of discipleship needs to be enhanced by activity.  Maybe we’ll discover that our life is filled with too many activities, even at church, and what we need to do is create some space for God to speak.

Whatever it is that you sense God calling you to this Lenten season, I pray that you will choose to follow and discover the richness and renewal God longs to give.  May God bless all of us as we give ourselves to this year’s Lenten journey.


Representing Jesus through acts of love and kindness

“Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.” “We pray that this restores a sense of security and peace to the Jewish-American community who have undoubtedly been shaken by this event.”

Tarek El-Messidi, who created the campaign with fellow activist, Lindo Sarsour, said when he saw the news about the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City, he was reminded of a story about the prophet Muhammad, who stood when a Jewish funeral procession passed. When asked why, he said, “Is it not a human soul?” (Read the entire article HERE)

What you have just read are two paragraphs from a story about a group of Muslim’s who are raising money to care for Jewish head stones damaged by vandals in a St Louis cemetery.  I read this story last night and it brought a deep sense of warmth to my soul!  I hope it does the same for you!!

In contrast to groups like ACT for America an organization that believes “regardless of whether it’s al-Qaeda, or CAIR (Council for Islamic Relations, an organization that promotes Muslim civil rights), or the Islamic State, they just have different methodology for the destruction of Western civilization,” we see these people reaching across this divide to offer love to people hurting and in need.

It is this kind of human activity that will help us move forward in these days of polarization.  And we who represent Jesus, must be on the forefront of this kind of activity.  We must be the ones who stand with all people for the benefit of humanity.  We must be the ones who stand against the lies of fear and bring them into the light.  We must be the ones who live in such a way that glimpses of the Kingdom of God show up on a regular basis.  Like Lindo and Tarek who are working to care for damaged and broken head-stones in a Jewish cemetery, let us surprise the world around us with love.


Heavenly Worship

We were watching the 80’s movie “A Field Of Dreams” the other night.  If you know the movie you may recall the first time shoeless Joe Jackson comes to the field built for him and his “Black Socks” buddies, he asks if the field is heaven?  Ray responds, “No, this is Iowa.”

Now I must confess I have not been to Iowa.  I have flown over it lots of times, but I don’t think I have ever been there on the ground.  I know several people from Iowa including our former Bishop, Bishop Kiesey.  Now I don’t know if Bishop Kiesey considers Iowa heaven or not.  I suspect her sights are a little higher.  But I love the idea that heaven is for one person a great gift, for another even a hint of heaven, may be just ordinary and routine perhaps even, in some cases, distasteful.  All of us have stuff like this, on both ends of the spectrum.  I have friends who call the Upper Peninsula “God’s country.”  I have been there four times and I laughingly tell people, that was three times too many!”

These things happen in all kinds of ways and venues.  Some people like the out of doors, some enjoy the view from the hotel balcony.  Some find images of heaven in travel and meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of places and others bask in the warmth of home all their lives.

The same thing happens in the church.  Everyone has their idea of what ideal worship is like.  I see it all the time.  People tell me all the time what church should be like.  They share what constitutes the perfect worship experience, they share with me their vision of just what the perfect church is according to their wants and desires.  And too often like all these other things I mentioned just about the time they share their vision of what “heavenly” worship is all about another person scowls and proclaims something very different as their supreme image.  Sorting through those differences and trying to address the needs of every person is impossible.  That’s why we have a variety of worship styles and a variety of churches.  And it’s also the source of far too many battles over the “right” way to do and be the church and worship God.

Ultimately though the worship that is actually “heavenly” worship is spelled out pretty clearly in Scripture.  “Those that worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth.”  You see it has nothing to do with style or content or anything else except our hearts offered faithful to God.  May that always be our “heavenly” worship.


I Believe in Miracles

I gave up about four minutes into the third quarter.  Why not?  The Patriots were down by 25 points and no team, in the fifty-one-year history of the Super Bowl, had ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit.  In my mind it was over and I didn’t care to watch my team go down to their inevitable defeat over the next hour and a half.

So, I went upstairs and settled into the show my wife was watching in our bedroom.  Thankfully, I turned on my laptop after about hour later. Because when I did I discovered that while I had given up, the Patriots hadn’t!  There were two minutes left in the game, the Patriots had the ball and they were just 8 points down.  I rushed downstairs to turn the game back on!  And I watched as Brady led them down the field, and after a pass interference penalty took the ball to the one yard line.  White scored on the next play with fifty some seconds to go.  But they needed a two point conversion to tie.  No problem, with three receivers lined up to the right Brady threw back to the left and Danny Amendola caught the ball and broke the plane of the goal line for the tie.  After winning the coin toss for the overtime period the Patriots, once again methodically went down the field and won the game on another two-yard run from White.  It was far and away the greatest comeback win in football history and it won’t be topped soon if ever … and I almost missed it!

There are probably a hundred, maybe a thousand applications to what I just shared with you.  There are stories of congregations that were down to seven people in worship that came back and became thriving centers of ministry again because of a decision that was made, or a leader who had new vision.  There are stories of people with significant illness where all seemed lost, and then inexplicably a new treatment is introduced ─ as a last-ditch effort ─ prayer is offered and the illness responds to treatment and health is restored.  There are stories of individuals whose lives are a mess.  They have burned every bridge and their families are well beyond tough love efforts to help them.  And one day they show up at the door cleaned up and whole.  There are a hundred exceptions to the regular story and this Sunday’s game brings us to the remembrance again that just because it has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t.

The caution of course is that most of the time it doesn’t.  A miracle is a miracle because it is not the norm.  So most of the time when teams are down by 25 points in the big game they lose…usually by 35!  Most of the time when churches have dropped down to an unsustainable place in worship attendance, they close.  Most of the time when the doctor tells us we have a terminal illness, we die.  And my faith is such that it does not insist on God performing miracles in order to be God.  I am so grateful for the ways that God works in the midst of the normal course of events unfolding.  I am so grateful that God is a God who leads us through the trials, the deaths, the losses with grace and love, and the ability to move through the most painful experiences of life not so much around them.  I believe in miracles, I have seen miracles, but I don’t require God to act in miraculous ways for me to be a person of faith.  My faith is in the presence of God and the grace of God, the incarnation of God into every circumstance, AND in resurrection, the reality of God’s love that wins no matter what!

I’m glad I didn’t miss the end of the game Sunday.  I’m happy I got to see that amazing comeback and win for my team.  I celebrate those extraordinary moments in life when miracles occur, but more than that, more than any of that, I am so thankful that God is consistently love and forever grace in every moment and experience of life.


A Birthday and an Innauguration: Two Significant Occasions

This week marks two significant occasions: the celebration of the birthday, and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  As I reflect on that reality, I am drawn to the ministry and prophetic words of Dr. King.  Dr. King dreamt of a nation and a world where all people were valued and respected.  He looked to a day when diversity and difference were celebrated and all people experienced life with justice and equality.  Dr. King inspired and continues to inspire millions of people with a hope for a day, a day still yet to come, when privilege would give way to balance and opportunity for everyone equally.  Dr. King had a dream for a different world than the one he lived in and in which he had grown up.  He had a vision for America and for the world that looked to a future filled with promise for all.

President Elect Donald Trump has named a “dream” if you will as well.  He has called us as a nation to “Make America Great, Again.” President Elect Trump believes that we need to return to something he believes we have lost, and in that return we will experience a greatness again.

My prayer is, as we walk through the events of this week and move into the future that is before us, that the attempt to return to a perceived past greatness will not roll back, damage, or stop any progress that has been made in moving in the direction of Dr. King’s dream for us all.  For genuine greatness is never seen in power, wealth, might or privilege. Jesus spelled it out pretty clearly, if you want to be first you must be the servant of all.


A View Ahead

As we begin a new year rather than being philosophical, theological, or particularly inspirational, I want to invite you to some of the upcoming events that are occurring on our District.  This information is and has been in our “Connection” for months, but I want to share it here in hopes that I make certain these events get on your calendars!

The first event I want to highlight is our upcoming District Conference and Local Church Leadership event.  This will take place on Saturday, January 21st from 9:00 A.M. until noon at Rockford UMC (late registration opens at 8:30 A.M.).  I have had requests from churches throughout the GR District asking that we provide basic leadership training for church leaders and this event is in response to that request! Specific information regarding workshops as well as the schedule for the day is located in the link below.  Please note that while there is no cost for this event, we are asking everyone to register and sign up for their workshop.  Please also note that all pastors and leaders are expected to attend the GR District Conference.

The next event I want to point out to you to is the “Redesigning Worship & Redesigning Church Workshops” with Kim Miller.  This event is Saturday, March 25th from 9:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. (late registration opens at 8:30 A.M.).  Our District leadership team has been, for the past several years, focusing our work around helping local congregations engage and grow in their experience of the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.”  Two years ago we brought Bob Farr (now Bishop Bob Farr!) to our District to give an overview.  Last year we brought Jim Ozier to call us to next steps in Radical Hospitality.  And this year Kim Miller from Ginghamsburg UMC, author of Redesigning Worship and Redesigning Churches is with us to help us grow in our commitment to and implementation of Passionate Worship.

For our clergy we have several upcoming forums and gatherings.  On Tuesday, January 24th Alex Fernandez, pastor at Cornerstone’s Heritage Hill Campus will be leading us in looking at the work they have done at Campus Elementary School one of the poorest elementary schools in Grand Rapids.  We will have opportunity to learn and share with one another about the opportunities for ministry in schools.  This forum will take place at the Heritage Hill Campus building on Lafayette.

On Tuesday, April 18th Chris Mckenna is leading us in a much requested forum on Stewardship.  Chris is an engaging and wise presenter and has shared this topic in several settings.  This forum will take place at Rockford UMC.

In addition to these “forums” we are having two clergy gatherings one on Tuesday, February 28th at Lake Harbor UMC in Muskegon and Tuesday, May 23rd at Byron Center UMC.  These gatherings will provide an opportunity for us to fellowship, worship and share together as District Clergy.  The agenda will be “light” and there will be opportunity to talk together about what’s on your minds. All Clergy Forum and Clergy Gathering events are from 10:00 A.M. – Noon and I look forward to seeing you at these events.  Please RSVP through the link below.


Register for Jan. 21 Lay Leadership Workshops HERE

RSVP for Clergy Forums & Gatherings HERE

Register for Mar. 25 REdesigning Worship & REdesigning Church workshops with Kim Miller HERE

Focusing our Energies and Faith in the Direction of Hope

As I think about all the uncertainty before us, in our culture, and in our Church, there is significant angst among many.  As I was thinking about this, especially in the church context, I was reminded of the story of Jeremiah in the 32nd chapter of the book with his name.  It was not a high moment in Israel’s history.  They were about to go into a new reality.  They were about to be taken from their homes into Babylon.  Everyone was fearful.  Everyone was looking toward loss.  I’m certain there was great concern and blame flying in lots of directions.  In the face of this situation, Jeremiah starts purchasing land.  He makes sure that all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.  He purchases land that will soon be taken over by others.  It makes no sense…except as a statement of faith.  It is a profound statement of faith.  God, Jeremiah believes, will bring them through the difficult days in Babylon.  God, Jeremiah believes, will faithfully lead them through to the other side.

The other day in a meeting I attended, Dirk Elliott (New Church Director for the Michigan Area) shared with us the goals set by the General Conference regarding growth in the United States UMC in the next quadrennium.

These goals are:

  • 1,000,000 New Disciples
  • 50,000 New Places (Small Groups)
  • 5,000 New Faith Communities (Additional New Worship Services)
  • 500 New Churches (New Chartered Congregations)

In a day when we are struggling to stay together, the General Conference is inviting us to focus our energies and our faith is the direction of hope.  The General Conference is calling us to examine our efforts as an Annual Conference, District, Local Church, and individual around reaching the next and the next with the love of Christ.  They are calling us to do so in new ways, to engage with new energy this core component of who we are as Christ followers and as children of John Wesley.

These are uncertain days.  In our culture and in our church, but I wonder what would happen if we focused on this call put out to us from the General Conference.  I wonder what would happen if we put our stakes down, in the midst of the ambiguity around us, and said with Jeremiah, we are people of faith!  We serve a God who does amazing things.  I wonder what would happen if we decided these goals are very reachable and that we were going to be a part of seeing them accomplished?  I wonder what would happen if we changed our focus from fear and division, to hope and faith?  I wonder what would happen.


We have a Great Church with Incredible Leaders!

I spent three days last week with Bishops and Cabinets from across the U.S.  They were days packed full of inspiration, information, collaboration, and consultation all around engaging the mission of the Church.  From 8:00 in the morning to 8:30 or 9:00 at night we met to worship and to refocus on the purpose at the core of our church.

As I boarded the plane to come home, I took at least three things from our time together:

First:  We have incredible leaders.  I can’t adequately tell you the level of respect I have for our Episcopal leaders (and that’s not just because our former Grand Rapids Superintendent is one of them now!).  Our Bishops are extremely gifted inspiring leaders and I am grateful for the fact that as we go through these challenging days these gifted people are leading us.

Second: We have a great Church.  We heard stories of ministries and lives changed from all parts of the country.  We heard of faithful pastors and lay people who are finding creative and unique ways to offer the love of Christ to people in every life circumstance.  It was deeply moving to hear the reports of missional engagement and churches growing in all kinds of ways.

Third: We have a significant challenge.  Our churches for the most part are not growing and while, as I said, some of the stories were wonderful, they are way too few and far between.  The task of shifting our congregations from consumer models to missional models is a heavy lift and it’s even harder as it’s taking place in the virtual absence of people under 30.  In our Conference and in others VCI (Vital Church Initiative) and its counterparts are helping, but VCI is a process not a quick fix and Lovett Weem’s “death tsunami” is upon us.  The internal conflict over theological understanding and Biblical interpretation within the General Church is also in the mix and creates anxiety around divisions, that for some, seem too deep to overcome.

But friends, we have a great Church!  We have incredible leaders!  And we have a faithful and gracious God who IS leading and calling us to fulfill the mission given to us all to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  And this church, with these leaders (and that’s ultimately all of us), by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, can meet our challenges and can see, in the face of our challenges, in the face of struggles, in the face of scarcity, in the face of anything that stands in the way, the fulfillment of our calling.  It will take prayer.  It will take work.  It will take a willingness to let go often of ourselves.  But we can do it.  With God’s help and grace we can see a new day.