Window on the World - Thoughts on the Church
George H Freeman, General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, visits churches in many different countries and is in a unique position to observe what is going on around the world. He offers these thoughts in a special guest article.
When John Wesley said 'I look upon all the world as my parish', I wonder if he realized that the people called Methodist would soon be worshipping God on every continent, in more than 132 countries, and in languages that he most likely never heard! Today the people who stand in the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition and are members of the World Methodist Council number nearly 40 million believers who are engaged in ministries which reach 75 million persons with the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Methodist Churches are growing today in some regions of the world, while in other regions the Church has reached a plateau or is in noticeable decline. I have observed some things about this reality, some of which should be obvious, and some of which should heighten our concern.
Churches that have vitality and life are churches that pray. No church can ever survive on its own power, nor should it. Where believers take prayer seriously, God’s power is available to engage persons with the life-changing message of the gospel, and to enable believers to become servant-leaders. Churches which focus on the power of prayer discover a true dependency on God and an expectation that he will act. Prayer is one of the most neglected spiritual disciplines, often being used only as a last resort. Some churches use prayer like a zipper, to open and close things! Many churches pray and hope that God will respond. Other churches pray and expect God to do something! The difference is what we believe about prayer.
How many churches pray for persons who have not yet made a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? How many churches pray regularly for their pastors and leaders? The Church would do well to pray throughout the week for the persons that God will be sending to the worship service(s) on Sunday, and that when persons come to the Church, they will hear what they most need to hear in order to help them become reconciled to God, and to each other, through Jesus Christ.
One Church I know experienced a heavy thunderstorm during Sunday morning worship. The church lost its electrical power for a brief period. After telephoning the electric company, one of the ushers handed a note to the pastor during the power failure which read 'The power will be on after the prayer'!
Churches that focus only on themselves will not survive. The Church does not exist solely for itself. Its life is in the gospel message and in the commission to 'go and make disciples of all nations…' (Matthew 28:16-20). When a church becomes ingrown and focuses only on survival, it is failing to be the instrument God needs it to be to reach the world for Jesus Christ. Its death is inevitable.
Often a church stagnates and looses its life because its focus is inward. Reluctance to accept new leadership and new ideas can be frustrating to everyone involved. 'Turf wars' are sometimes fought over leadership roles, pew occupancy, the style of music, the colour of the carpet, etc. The person who made the statement that the last seven words of the church will be 'We never did it that way before' must have been in a church that lost its focus!
The real focus of the church should be 'What is it that God is calling us to do?'; 'Who are the people God is calling us to reach with the gospel?'. The question might well be asked in the community around the church, 'What difference does it make that this church is here? Would the church be missed if it no longer existed?'
Vital churches are concerned about the future. I once saw a sign that read 'If you are still feeling good about what you did yesterday, you haven’t done much today!' If God enabled us to accomplish great things in the past and even in the present that bring glory and praise to God, how much more will God enable us to do tomorrow?
Tomorrow’s leadership needs to be trained, prepared and given the opportunity to lead. Many churches fail to pass on to younger persons the mantle of leadership. None of us will be around forever! The next generation of leaders cannot lead if they don’t know how.
The presence of children in the Church is a sign of hope for the future. The Christian faith must be taught to them in order to provide the solid foundation for their lives. A para-church organization that reaches millions of teenagers has adopted a slogan which says 'It is a sin to bore a kid with the gospel'. The Christian education of children mandates the best effort of the church, not a mediocre one. 'Excellence in all things' should be the trademark of the church, especially in educating our children.
Too much of worship today is simply boring! Different styles of worship reach different people, but there is no reason for any of it to bore people. Those responsible for planning worship should seek God’s guidance in all aspects of the worship.
I heard recently that the call to worship on Sunday morning begins with the ring of the alarm clock! People need to feel good about the worship of God, and should look forward to it more than they look forward to attending a concert or their favourite sporting event. After all, concerts and sporting events are only temporary. For believers, our relationship with the living God is eternal!
The Church exists for the conduct of worship, the administration of the sacraments, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. There is no greater work to be done than this.
The Revd Dr George H Freeman has been general Secretary of the World Methodist Council since 2001 and is based at the WMC headquarters in Lake Junaluska, USA.
Healdine 2005/6 pp.6-7.