Saturday, May 14, 2011

change the world

This weekend United Methodists across the planet are coming together around a common purpose: to change the world. This initiative, whose origins are in the visionary leadership of United Methodist Communications (UMCOM) and Larry Hollon, is both denominational and grassroots. It is an example of how a denomination can empower ministry and mission at the local level. And it is a movement that calls forth the gifts of ordinary Christians and connects them with human hurts and hopes.

Last fall a number of our leaders traveled to the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City to learn from Adam Hamilton and that extraordinary group of people. We had been focusing on our strengths in a strategic planning process which used Appreciative Inquiry as a theoretical framework. We were also intrigued by their model of seeing Christmas Eve as a beginning, rather than an ending, and as a way to help people get started in the Christian life (or at least to invite them back for a series that matched a need or interest).

We connected that congregation's strategy (seeing Christmas Eve as a beginning for new people) with the Change the World initiative and our own congregation's strengths. Providence UMC is large church, though not a mega-church. Among our strengths are risk-taking mission and service, to use the language of Bishop Robert Schnase. We have also noticed that many of our newest members have been attracted to us for missional reasons: how we are present in our own community, especially the homeless, and how we have been engaged with the needs of Haiti.

And so we made the decision to have "Change the World" as our Christmas Eve focus. I reflected on Howard Thurman's moving prayer/poem, "The Work of Christmas". We talked about Christmas as a time of new birth, new life and new creation, not only for us but for all people. We held candlelight in our hands and imagined a world illumined by the presence and people of God. We remembered the truth and the ongoing imperative of the incarnation.

We had planned a six week series, in January and early February, around the question, "How can you change the world?" We began with a study of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), and encouraged individuals to read through the Sermon on the Mount during these weeks. I remembered the title of a book: "they like Jesus, but not the church." We focused on Jesus.

We then presented a different topic each week, related to risk-taking mission and service: Jim Gulley of the United Methodist Church and Lauren James, one of our members and a staff person with UMCOR, talked about Haiti: practical needs and hands-on testimonies of help and healing. A friend in our community talked about racial reconciliation; she and I had met at Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation the spring before, and an African-American member of our congregation also shared. One of our staff members and a leader in the community talked about standing alongside the working poor in our community as they moved toward permanent housing. A missionary couple reflected on the reality of human trafficking in southeast Asia and, increasingly, in the United States. And one of our leaders led a session on hunger in our city, and the church's role in providing food.

These sessions were educational, in that they were descriptive of present realities in our world, in relation to human needs and what God was already doing through the church. We wanted to help people move beyond a passive perspective (watching the poor on television or seeing them as statistics) to an active engagement (both in terms of practice and policy). At times the conversations had an edge to them, as we recognized our own complicity in a world that privileges some and not others.

The theme, Change the World, tapped into a deep calling that many Christians sense: to make a difference, to share their faith in tangible ways, to exercise their gifts, passions and expertise. Hundreds of our members have been in relationships with homeless men and women in our community, ranging from a shelter that exists within our church to a public/private partnership with homeless youth aging out of foster care. Over one hundred of our members have made the journey to Haiti, and a number of Haitians have made the corresponding pilgrimage to us; there has been a mutual sharing of gifts in the development of a clinic, a school and a microcredit enterprise.

We know that we have not arrived, as a church; in Howard Thurman's words, "The Work of Christmas" goes on. In particular, we could do a great deal more in relation to the public schools of our city; we would rather serve the poor, at times, than have them attend our schools, or attend theirs. But God is with us, and God is not finished with us, or the world.

I am grateful for this initiative----to change the world. I am proud, in this particular moment, to be a United Methodist. At our best, we are engaged with the world, and we have been since Wesley's establishment of the Kingswood Schools in 18th century England. A connectional church is ideally positioned to join in God's dream of changing the world. When the focus is beyond us, all of our resources----and I have mentioned here a mega-church, a theological school, and two general agencies----can be channeled toward a common cause--the beloved community.

Change the World is a day, a weekend, an event, and for this I give thanks. But I also want you to reflect on how today, this weekend, might also be a beginning. In this way we might become disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.


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