I See A New Church - August 10, 2014

Isaiah 43:18-19
Acts 15: 6-22

"But we've always done it that way!" has itself been said so often that it has become a cliché. We laugh at it, albeit a bit uncomfortably, as we joke about tradition bound people who are stuck in their outdated ways.
The truth is that sometimes experience is a good teacher. There can be valid reasons why organizations and individuals have done things the same way for years. I use the same recipe for pie crust that my mother used and hers before her. It tastes good and is comparatively easy. Furthermore, it is the way I learned to make pie crust and there's no need to change.
The other side of the story is that the way we've always done things can become a trap. As the world around us changes, the old ways don't always work. When new people come into a group they can be excluded and shut out because they don't know the old way and their ideas are dismissed.

As many of you know, Christianity is rooted in Judaism. Jesus and the first disciples were Jewish. They observed the basic practices of Judaism. We know Jesus was circumcised as an infant, as all Jewish baby boys were. Jesus and his disciples followed the Jewish dietary restrictions, observed Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, and attended synagogue services.
After Jesus ascended to heaven and the good news of new life in Christ spread, the disciples naturally reached out to other Jewish people. In those early days, Jesus' followers saw their faith in Christ as an adaptation of Judaism. They understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Messiah for whom their Scriptures had taught them to look. They continued to observe the usual Jewish customs and practices.
It did not take long, however, for Gentiles, non-Jews, to begin to hear the good news of Jesus. Peter had a vision in which he was directed to go see a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and pray with him. Normally Peter would have stayed away from such a person, for he was clearly not Jewish, but the message was clear: "What God has called clean you must not call unclean."
As more Gentiles became followers of Jesus questions arose. Did they too have to follow Jewish practices from circumcision for men to dietary restrictions? Did they, in essence, have to become Jewish in order to be Christian?
"We've always done it this way!" said some. Others remembered that as far back as the prophet Isaiah, God had said, "I am about to do a new thing." They saw a new church.
Our reading today from the Book of Acts tells the story of a meeting held in Jerusalem at which the elders and apostles wrestled with this issue. Peter was the first to speak. Based on his experience with Cornelius, he said, "You know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the good news and become believers." Peter advocated that Gentiles be required only "to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from whatever has been strangled, and from blood." To me that sounds like a long list, but note what he does not say: Gentile men are not required to be circumcised, nor do any Gentiles have to follow dietary restrictions beyond that part about blood.
The Jerusalem Council was a major turning point for the early church. It recognized that faith in Christ was a brand new thing, not simply an adaptation of Judaism. Instead of saying, "We've always done it that way," they recognized God was doing a new thing among them.
The mission to the Gentiles began in earnest after the Council. The Apostle Paul became the first real missionary. By God's holy humor, the man who had first opposed Christianity because it threatened the old ways became the agent through whom the church formed as a new thing. The Jerusalem Council saw a new church and the world has never been the same since.
"We See a New Church" is the theme of a new capital campaign taking place in our Annual Conference. The Annual Conference is the regional body of United Methodists – in our case the panhandle of Idaho and the state of Washington.
We see a new church because the truth is that in many cases the way we've always done things isn't working so well. Fifty to a hundred years ago the United Methodist Church was particularly strong in small rural communities. Towns like Colfax and Rosalia were bustling places as farmers came to buy supplies, and their families centered their lives around the church. Now those towns are dying. Small family farms are giving way to agribusiness. Programs like CRP keep acreage out of production. Shopping and entertainment depend on the internet not on local businesses. And those are just a few of the causes. As a result churches too are shrinking. Twenty-two churches in our district are now served by local pastors, retired pastors, or lay people, most of them at less than full time. Thirty years ago those were nearly all full time churches or at least full time when yoked with another church, and served by ordained clergy.
A similar challenge faces urban churches whose membership has moved to the suburbs. Many churches struggle to connect with their neighborhoods. They fail to reach young people. The old ways of being church don't work anymore.
"We See A New Church" is our Annual Conference's goal to start new churches in areas which are not presently served by a United Methodist Church or which have changed radically in ethnic makeup. New churches tend to reach new Christians. They are the Research and Development arm of the church because they are willing to try new things precisely because they have NOT always done it any way! They have a lot to teach the rest of us.
"We See a New Church" is the Annual Conference's attempt to revitalize struggling churches. It hopes to raise money to fund the Tuell Center, named for Bishop Jack and Margie Tuell. This will not be a physical place but a virtual center for training and coaching existing churches to learn how to better reach their mission fields, and how to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This Center could benefit churches like ours, which is actually doing pretty well so that we become even more vibrant, as well as those that are really struggling.
We see a new church as we reach beyond the bounds of our Conference to transform the world as we Imagine No Malaria in Africa. One of the four areas of focus for the United Methodist Church is global health. Eradicating malaria in Africa fulfills Jesus' mandate of healing. It strengthens the church as people experience hope and caring.
Our Church Council has set a goal to raise a minimum of $10,000 as our contribution to the "We See A New Church" campaign. We hope to raise it over the next year. Over the next couple of weeks I'll delve more deeply into these three areas of the campaign. Whether or not you choose to participate financially, I do ask you to include in your prayers both the financial goals of the campaign and even more the bigger goal to "See A New Church". After all, Christians have been seeing a new church for over 2000 years. We've always done it that way.