Strengthening the Churches - August 24, 2014

Exodus 18:13-27
Acts 15:36-41

"What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last?"

Charles Wesley's words have often been sung at the Opening Worship service of Annual Conference, the regional gathering of United Methodists. They speak to us today at the end of the summer and the start of the new academic year.
They also describe the realities all churches face. Fightings without and fears within, and very often fightings within and fears without are common in churches large and small. For all we like to think of ourselves as one big happy family, united in mission and ministry, the truth is that it is seldom that idyllic. From worship wars between those who favor traditional versus those who favor contemporary worship, to disagreements about local versus international mission, to hurt feelings, conflict is a part of the church.

It turns out that conflict in the church is not a modern day invention. Our reading today from Acts gives us just one example. We've been looking at the 15th chapter of Acts for a couple of weeks now. We've heard how the apostles and elders successfully resolved a major point of conflict over whether Gentiles, or non Jews, should be welcomed into the church, and if so, how. Paul and Barnabus had been sent from Jerusalem to Antioch with the good news that Gentiles were to be required only to observe a few basic things like not worshiping idols. They had realized faith in Christ was a new thing not an adaptation of Judaism.
One would think they would have been energized and excited to carry this word. And indeed Paul suggested to Barnabus that they visit the churches which had already been established to see how they were doing.
Then another problem arose. Barnabus wanted to take with them a young man named John Mark. Apparently John Mark had traveled with them before, but had left them for some reason when they were in Pamphylia. Barnabus wanted to give him another chance, but Paul wanted nothing to do with him. "The disagreement became so sharp they parted company." They could not work through the problem. Fightings within, indeed.
Conflict is not the only problem churches have. Often it is a matter of limited resources. Finding people to do the work and money to support the ministry is tough. We all have finite time and money, with other obligations, from paying the mortgage to mowing the lawn. I see how many other good causes the people of our church are involved in. I know they have to budget carefully. I'd love for the people of this church to give 10% of their income, and commit more of their time to the church. And I know people will choose to give what they think is right.
As the early church had to discern that God called them to reach out to both Gentiles and Jews, so churches today struggle to discern how to connect with their mission fields. Mission field is a way of talking about the neighborhood and community in which the church exists. It's easier said than done.
Sometimes the neighborhood changes. Perhaps the ethnic makeup changes, like my former church in Toppenish I described last week. A Caucasian church found itself in a Hispanic community, with a different language and lifestyle. It happens often with downtown churches in large cities, such as Central United Methodist Church in Spokane. Decades ago their members began to move to the suburbs. The neighborhood became low income, often not interested in church and even if they were, unable to support it financially.
Sometimes the community itself dies. We see that in many of the rural communities in our region. For a variety of reasons, towns like Lacrosse and Rosalia are dying. Young people move away and few move in.
For these reasons and many more, churches today are struggling. They are divided in vision, rent asunder by conflict, and unsure how to reach their mission fields. Truthfully, many have forgotten that they can and should reach their mission fields, and just long for the good old days.
Because of Paul and Barnabus' disagreement it ended up that Paul and Silas were the ones who went back to visit the other churches. They went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. The details of what they did fill the next three chapters of Acts. It was not all sunshine and roses. They delivered the word from the Jerusalem Council, led Bible Studies, and argued with those who perceived them to be a threat. They caused controversy and Paul landed in jail. They added new believers to most of the churches and yet also faced failure in others. Strengthening the churches called for a lot of work and dedication.
We get a different picture of such strengthening from our lesson from Exodus. Of course, the church per se did not really exist then. I do think it has something to teach us.
Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, observed Moses arbitrating cases among the Hebrew people. Jethro told him, "You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you." It may be the first ever diagnosis of burn out. Jethro advised Moses to train other people to become judges. Moses became a coach and a facilitator. The people were stronger for sharing the work.
Our Annual Conference has committed itself to strengthening existing congregations. The Ministry Fund Drive we've been talking about for the last couple of weeks is raising money for several things. One of them is the Bishop Jack and Margie Tuell Center. Its mission is to provide "an integrated system of learning and practice to provide training, resources, and support to nurture lay and clergy leaders in meeting the challenge of adapting the church to effectively serve today's world."
Though our Conference is still in the process of raising money for the Tuell Center, several things are already happening. One is that workshops are offered around the Conference. There was one on finances held last spring in Spokane. Sadly, no one from our church was able to attend. About a month ago, I went to a Transforming Ministry Workshop in the Seattle area. Its focus was innovation. One activity was to tour Microsoft. They told us how they plan for how they think the world will be in 3-10 years. They form interdisciplinary teams. The Board of Ordained Ministry funded this so that I paid no registration fee. My only cost was travel, lodging, and a couple of meals.
Another thing the Tuell Center is doing is forming a culture of coaching, much like Moses facilitating others to judge the people. Churches and pastors can choose to work with a credentialed coach who will assist them in applying and integrating new learnings specific to their ministry situations. There are several forms of coaching. This system is in the early days of development.
I have worked with a coach a couple of times, so I know how helpful it can be to have a third party available to guide one. I'm excited to see this ministry become available to churches as well.
The Tuell Center is the piece of the Ministry Fund Drive that I can imagine being directly helpful to this congregation. The Rev. John Brewer, who is teeing up the drive for the Tuell Center, will be here the first weekend in October to tell us more about it. John was my superintendent a number of years ago, so I'm looking forward to welcoming him to Moscow.
Our Church Council's goal is to raise a minimum of $10,000 for the Ministry Fund Drive overall. Our plan at this point is to hold fundraisers about once a quarter. The first one will be PIEty Sunday on September 28 when we will sell pie by the slice or the whole pie. Start planning your contribution now. The next will be a church wide auction to be held in November. Designated gifts will always be welcome. I ask you to pray for this drive and consider how you can be a part of it. Together we can strengthen the churches.