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Our Future is in the Past

by Dr. Chet Harris

Because of the pandemic our churches have been required to rethink and retool how to ‘do’ church. As a retired minister I have had the opportunity to observe the incredible and innovative ways the church has responded to the stay at home order by our government leaders. We are nearing the date and announcement to return to worship in the church buildings, along with all the meetings. All of us possess a longing in our heart to join as a people of God in singing, prayers, and praise. As we transition back to what many are calling the ‘new normal,’ I suggest we pause to ask a pertinent question. What have we learned during this forced reordering of ministry that speaks to the future of the church? In the mix is the inevitable separation facing the United Methodist Church with the speculations of what the new movement of God will look like.

We have proven to ourselves that we are not rigid in our approach to ministry, we are capable of learning new ways to reach people with the message of God’s redemptive love, we have intentionally sought the counsel within our ranks of how to do ministry, and we have revealed many of the unnecessary extraneous activities that characterize most churches. In a positive way, we have discovered what is important to the life of the church. As the observer I want to highlight a few positives that I believe we need to give serious consideration as we move forward to the new normal. John Wesley practiced a series of ministry innovations that speak to our present future life in the church.

First, John Wesley sets the mark for us in his small group emphasis. We are all familiar with the concept. Picture in your organizational mind the membership of your church divided in what I prefer to call discipleship groups. These groups average ten to twenty people and meet on a regular basis for a time of intense Bible study and accountability. The minister meets with the leaders teaching them the lesson for the week and reinforcing how to manage and lead a small group. The pastor coaches the discipleship leaders throughout the week using Zoom. This does not replace the primary at church gathering when the minister instructs the lay teachers.

Second, the government directive to meet in groups of no larger than fifty people is a gift wrapped in tremendous potential to foster greater opportunity to relate to each other, truly join in community prayer, keep each other on the path of right living, and focus on Biblical teaching. Yes, it will require a flexible schedule that translate to churches providing a series of worship experiences in one day. Most certainly it will stretch our music people. There are definite challenges to the smaller worship gathering, but again we have proven innovation is possible!

Third, the greatest blessing is the reinvigorating of laity in leadership. Laity taught by the minister how to lead Bible Studies, basic pastoral care, and spiritually enriching the lives of each other. The great renewal/revival of England by Wesley was due to the Holy Spirit empowerment of the laity. Wesley depended on properly instructed laity to lead small groups, increase the outreach of pastoral care, provide mentoring for essential employment, and administrative duties as well as preach the Good News.

Fourth, we must not lose the current outreach through the media/online Bible Studies, devotional, prayer times, and worship. I smile as I write the next sentence. Many of our local ministers are doing a better job than the professional television preachers! People relate to how you speak and share the message. Your integrity and style of teaching has a freshness of sincerity and care welcomed by people you have never met. Also, keep meeting in the parking lot. Drive in church will have a place in our future. Again, I relate to John Wesley and his crazy insistence of meeting people where they live and work. He was culturally relevant. Many of our drive-in preachers are reporting that new people are attending church every Sunday. Folks who would never walk through the doors are parking in the church lot and tuning in to the worship service. If you have not added this to your outreach, I suggest contacting a church that utilizes this outreach.

Finally, if you systematically read the Journals of Wesley two critical practices concurrently appear on his thousands of pages, personal devotional Bible Study, and prayer. I have noticed that many ministers are referencing an increase in taking time for prayer and personal devotions. I am not suggesting our ministers have to date a sketchy record of this daily discipline. What I am underscoring is the stay home order has helped all of us carve out more time and just maybe more consistent time for this discipline. In my forty -three years of ministry I drifted in and out of keeping the faith by practicing quality personal spiritual disciplines every single day regardless of my schedule. The demands of ministry pushed my personal time with God to the edges of my life and yes, some days pushed my devotional life off the chart for the day. I certainly do not have to regal ministers about the importance of spiritual self-care, but a friendly reminder is in order.

I am not fearful the future of attendance and financial security for the church is in jeopardy. I am encouraged and positive our ministers will lead with a renewed sense of vision and strength gained from the experience of the challenge of the pandemic.

In the words of John Wesley:

“Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. Let be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things, let me have nothing, I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen.”

All for the Kingdom

Chet Harris

Regional Director

East Ohio Wesleyan Covenant Association


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