A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

There’s just enough truth in nearly every viewpoint to make all of us dangerous

How do you think your religion is perceived by others who are not part of the faith?

A friend needed a few people to answer a 10-question survey for a community college religion course she is taking this fall. I figured, why not, I’ll give it a shot. I wondered what direction a “religion” survey would go.

Religion

Question 1: What does religion mean to you?

My response: Religion is a generic term for any belief in God or a higher power. It might be personal, or it might not be.

Question 2: Is there a difference between faith, religion and spirituality?

My answer: “Faith” is my personal belief in God, who is unseen, but who affects my life deeply. “Spirituality” is a hot-button term that means different things to different people. Spirituality includes the supernatural, which may or may not include God.

How am I doing so far? Would you agree?

I have no idea how other people answered these questions, nor does that concern me, because I’m not the one taking the religion class.

“Faith” is something my “religion” talks about often. “Spirituality” is one of those words I try to avoid, because I may try to connect spirituality to my faith, but you may connect spirituality with something else completely. Like the paranormal. Or astrology. Or a different religion. Or crystals. Or New Age thinking. Or palm reading. Or …

Perceptions

Question 9 is the one at the top of this column. Those of you who have a different faith, or no faith at all: How do you perceive Christianity, which is the “faith” I live by?

I tried to put myself in your shoes. Here’s what I came up with:

Many people equate Christianity with a judgmental Republican viewpoint, since some vocal Christians promote that. It’s hard, because the God of the Bible is not like that. Others see it as a list of do’s and don’t’s and are afraid they’ll have to give up fun things if they “convert.”

A judgmental Republican viewpoint. I actually wrote that.

I had a discussion earlier this week with another friend over the immigration issue. He’s a staunch supporter of President Trump, and vociferously defended his keep-the-illegal-immigrants-out policy that Trump advocates.

I responded that while I support most of Trump’s positions, I see immigrants as real people. Most illegal immigrants are fleeing for their lives, literally, I said, and the citizenship process is long and cumbersome. That’s the real issue, I argued. Let’s make it easier to become a U.S. citizen.

My friend didn’t buy that argument. He said for the first time ever, immigration laws are being enforced.

Both of us have a deep faith in Jesus Christ. How can we hold opposing views on such a vital issue?

Many of my more liberal friends also support immigrants, legal and illegal, going so far as to encourage sanctuary cities and support churches that are willing to host illegals to protect them from deportation.

Jesus did not take a stand on such issues. He was not a politician. The people of his day, like many people today, wish he was political. That’s why they shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday. Hosanna is a political term. The crowds were looking for a “savior” to overthrow the oppressive Roman government.

As soon as the crowds realized Jesus wasn’t going to do that – he had a different, much higher, purpose in mind – they abandoned him. And crucified him, almost immediately.

While Republican values generally are more in line with the Bible than Democratic values are, the lines are not that clear. There are exceptions, both ways.

Immigration, in my opinion, is one of them.

Neither side is willing to reason with the other on this, or any, issue.

So we get a judgmental Republican (or Democratic) viewpoint.

Reality

Question 4: What appeals to you about your religion?

It gives meaning to my life. The God of the Bible wants the best for me and for all humankind. No other religion’s leader can claim that.

This is why I struggle with politics. Trump said this week that the published death toll of nearly 3,000 from last year’s hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was not even close. He said Democrats were trying to make him look bad.

Trump cares only about his reputation. Puerto Ricans are pawns to him. “Nobody is singing his praises because we all saw what happened,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told The Associated Press.

GOP activists blame the media for distorting Trump’s record. But The AP is about as impartial as media get.

If you reject published reports and photos of the devastation, then there’s nothing anyone can say to you. Information has never been more widely disseminated. If we pick and choose what to “believe” (the drugstore tabloids don’t count, but that’s my opinion), then we are choosing our own reality, instead of trying to understand what’s truly going on in the world and responding accordingly.

Jesus did not have this attitude at all. Instead, he defended the outcast every time: the Samaritan woman at the well, lepers and other physically sick people, the prodigal’s son, a woman who gave her last penny in taxes, even a demon-possessed caveman. And many others.

I wish Americans thought and acted like that. Many do, often outside the political landscape.

Benefits

Question 8: What benefits to society do you think your religion or religion in general presents?

When lived correctly, Christianity accepts all people. That doesn’t mean Christians agree with other faiths or viewpoints, but we “love the sinner, hate the sin.” That’s a real thing. We promote family values, which overcomes drug abuse, teen sex/abortion, addictions, hate/anger, etc. – ie, looking for love in all the wrong places.

There’s just enough truth in nearly every viewpoint to make all of us dangerous. It’s easy to twist “truth” to fit our own agendas.

The church I attend has a three-point mission statement: Love God, love people, live surrendered. We spend the most time talking about the last point. What does surrendering to God and the Bible look like?

Each of us will answer that question differently. But each of us must surrender to God. Not my will, but yours be done, on Earth as it is in heaven, according to the Lord’s prayer.

That’s the key. Not the Republican way. Not the Democratic way.

God’s way.

The God of the Bible’s way.

That’s what faith means to me.