Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks for Christ and the NCC

I am thankful beyond measure

In my morning devotions I read Colossians 2.  Good timing for Thanksgiving.   Col 2:20, 21  Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"?   

I'm thinking that means I can eat turkey and dressing and celebrate with family today:-)

Deeper still, Jesus Christ satisfied all debts in my spiritual account and cleared accusations against me when he died on the cross, triumphing over all powers and principalities bent on the destruction of humanity and even my own soul (Colossians 2:8-19).   As a sinner saved by grace, and a believer renewed day by day in the Spirit, a member of the body of Christ which is being built up by the spirit of Christ from age to age and a bit player in the big plan of God to make all things and new engaged in merely light and momentary trouble which are achieving an eternal glory... wow am I thankful.

I've recently come out of the first GROW event for the NCC this year, the Metro Chicago event.  It was great to see so many people committed to inviting, increasing, involving and investing in bringing people from skepticism to Christlife.  From personal evangelism and structured outreach opportunities like Alpha to feeding thousands of the hungry year round, it is good to see, taste and hear how the Free Methodist congregations are making real impact in our challenged world.  And I'm thankful.

I look forward to leaving tomorrow for the Dakotas and Minnesota and engaging the 3D GROW event next weekend in Albert Lea, MN.  Being with this district will be fun!  They have consistently grown, churches partnering with significant urban ministries and others loving cowboys to Jesus, Hispanic ministries blasting through the gates of hell in powerful prison ministries (more than 40 inmates professing Christ as savior in the past three months!) and two new churches planted in just year.  I'm thankful. 

Several friends, family and colleagues are battling cancer, illnesses and the difficulties of aging, and providing examples of true hope and trust in God in the midst of this, shining brightly even in their pain.  It gives me hope. And while I pray with a heavy heart for many, I am thankful for the power and presence of God as we walk through the valleys of life.

Many young leaders in the conference are stepping up and leading with courage and grace, wisdom and hope and seeing turnaround in their churches.  And I am thankful that God does indeed provide from generation to generation a witness of the power of the Word and Spirit to impact the world.  Many who even come out of retirement to build up the church serve when every bone aches and deliver consistent good news and good planning.  From age to age God is faithful!  And I'm thankful!

A global perspective looms large in the Free Methodist Churches of the upper Midwest as several have come and gone to support our global partners (just this last month a group went to the Philippines and another to Kenya), local churches are raising support for Not For Sale and engaging the neo-abolition movement, praying for the persecuted church, assisting in conference ministries like Hope Africa (Janesville, WI), Olive Branch MIssion (Chicago IL), Hearthstone Ministries (Woodstock, IL).  I'm personally grateful for those who have contributed to the short term mission trip Kerrie and I will be engaging in January.  I'm so grateful, aren't you, that we are part of a movement that is not shrinking back in the face of local, national and global struggle but straining ahead toward the goals for which Christ has called us toward!  

Kerrie and I are thankful that you have given us the opportunity to serve as superintendent, to participate in the lives of your churches and work of your ministries, to pray for you, to mourn with you, to rejoice with you.  We are grateful beyond words.

Thanks for reading this, I just longed to tell you how thankful I am, and how such a large part of this is you, and Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Love and joy,

Supt. Mark

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

National Trends and the NCC... Do Real Religion & Hang out with Jesus

Does it seem as if fewer visitors are show-ing up at church? Not as many kids are in the Sunday School programs as in times past? More of your fellow worshipers con-sider attending church once a month as "regular" church attendance? The fact is, fewer Americans are claiming Christianity as their faith allegiance, are having children, or consider going to church weekly as essential to their devotion to God. The fastest growing faith category in America is "unaffiliated" or "irreligious."

The graph below tracks Gallup Poll information on the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian and the percentage who claim to go to church regularly. I extrapolated the trends into 2025, with the most current Gallup data in this graph from 2008. Though approximately 40 per-cent of Americans self-report attending church regularly (data this graph is based upon), community "head counts" place that figure at around 20 percent.

It is good news that the American Free Methodist Church has grown 3 percent over the past year and has a track record of growth. This bucks many trends experienced by American churches. Regardless, the fastest growing "faith demographic" in the USA includes those who proactively avoid church and divest themselves of religion. North Central Conference believers, we have our work cut out for us. Here are three things which may reverse the trend.

Do real religion. Our authority, the Bible, reminds us, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: Look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

Hang out with Jesus. This likely means less focus on standing and singing songs behind stained glass or techno cool strobe lights and more time with the sick, naked, hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned, because that is when we have visited with our Savior (Matthew 25:40).

Proclaim good news! Good news is always the way of escape, and as the majority of our American peers do not believe in Hell and seem unable to articulate sin, proclaiming freedom from these things will fall on deaf  ears and not be particularly good news. But a way of escape from meaninglessness, vain pursuits, selfishness, poverty, broken relationships, painfully confused sexuality, injustice, disunity, and despair is good news, and quite to the heart of the gospel of Jesus--and a beacon that draws people toward the light which yields present and eternal life.

When the church lives like the Body of Christ--acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God, she is more attractive than anything else God placed on earth. Doing real religion. Hanging out with Jesus. Proclaiming good news that sounds like good news because it is good news. These are ways of being church embraced by Free Methodists. These will contribute to reversing the trend embraced by 80 percent (if head count stats are to be trusted) of Americans -- avoiding church.

I believe church is avoided because it is seen, often accurately, as a self-absorbed, institutional organization which lives to rehearse old news with old songs that blame everything else. Instead, let us embrace ancient truths with new songs that bless everyone else. Do real religion, hang out with Jesus, and proclaim good news!