Acts 2: 43-47
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This week and next week we resolve to do something that is essential, but extremely difficult. That is, we are going to talk about what the Church could be and how we can help to take that potential and make it a reality. In the modern parlance of organizational planning and leadership this first step that we are taking this week is called “Casting Vision,” and it is integral to any initiative that wants to exist beyond the immediate present into the future. When we fail to project what we would like to be, we sometimes fail to meet even our present expectations for ourself, and so we must keep the banner high in front of us of what we could become.
In my mind, few images of the Church are more powerful than the one given in the scripture we read a moment ago. The apostles, full of the Holy Spirit, are at work among the people – healing, preaching, and bringing people out of all manner of oppression. The people gather together and meet one another’s needs, selling their possessions in order to make sure no one goes hungry within their community. The people go beyond providing food and shelter for one another, they meet together in the Temple, in their private homes, they sit at the table and talk and pray and learn. They add more people to the community of the faith with every passing day, they make the Kingdom of God visible to anyone who is willing to look for it.
The Church can see its duty on the earth in those general categories which are expressed in this scripture. We are people who speak to and demonstrate God’s glory. We do this in testimony, we do this in prayer ministries, and we do this through attending to the sacraments. We are people who care for one another – we do this through feeding ministries, through clothing those in need, through caring for the material needs of anyone and everyone who we meet. We are people who meet together and who share our lives. We are people who grow the community of the faith beyond those presently with us to include all we possibly can.
There was a movement in the United Methodist Church to define these ministries in the general terms of Nurture, Outreach, and Witness. N.O.W. While we often joke about the many committees which we as Methodists form, there is some sense to appointing people who spend all their time envisioning and reviewing how we meet expectations, or fail to meet expectations, in these fields. We need to reflect on our conduct frequently, not just as individuals, but as a corporate body. The individual Christian must work toward perfection and alongside them the community of the faithful must strive to be more perfect together. We can only truly flourish as a congregation when we work with one accord, so that even when we fuss and fight, we do so in service of the same goal – the glory and mission of Jesus Christ.
Even beyond individual congregations, the wider Church is beholden to coming together to achieve its vision for the world. Just this past year we have seen ourselves reaching out to the Methodist Parish, one of our members serves as the president of that group. I am a member of the Homeless Collaborative. Our congregation is connected to many others through formal and informal means. Saint James, Emmanuel Baptist, Duff Street and Stealey, St Mark’s, and all others who gather under the banner of Christ’s salvific work are all part of the same body we are. We gather in this building, we cast a vision for what God is calling us to do. We then gather with the wider bodies of the Church, in the UMC or otherwise, to see how God is calling us all to come together in service to the Gospel.
In our own Wesleyan circles we call this, “Connectionalism,” but I prefer to think of it in Biblical terms. We are all of us striving for κοινωνια (Koinonia,) or “Communion.” It means a gathering of people on one level and it also means to share on another. Specifically, it is often used in the context of the Church to describe the complete unity of God’s people. The people of God held all things in common, giving to each according to their need, they lived as one body with many members.
The unity of the Church is a precious thing, and it has been at risk since those first 120 disciples gathered in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. There have always been those who want to put themselves first or those who get tangled up with one idea over and above the general call which is on us all. For many reasons, legitimate and illegitimate, the Church can find itself faced with fracture and schism. However, one of the best ways to maintain a sense of community to be frank in our conversation with one another, and to be constantly taking stock of where we are and where we are going. Transparency and clarity allow us to keep moving without misunderstandings causing unnecessary friction.
When I came here in July of last year, I saw immediately that this was a Church that was determined to do work. The ministries that already existed were vibrant and there was a steady undercurrent from those I spoke to that desired to keep expanding the work we were doing in new directions. There were and are substantial obstacles, there is much to build back up and much to build from the ground, but there is a desire to do, and where there is such a desire the Spirit can and will lead us to the actions we have to undertake to see them done. This Church is alive and well, and while I have heard stories of a golden age in the past that outshone our present reality, I personally see much more potential in what is to come than in what was.
You see, the general pattern of the Church right now is in contraction. Congregations are shrinking as people move to larger cities and as older generations go on to glory. There are less young people staying in the Church and fewer still being raised in the Church. The Church as the default social structure a person is part of is a thing of the past. The Church therefore must seek to chase after that essential spark it had in its earliest days – when it was an innovative and welcoming place, born out of nothing but the Spirit working among people who wanted to see God’s will done in the world.
We are at an advantage too. We have the entire history of the Church behind us to learn from even as we pave the way into the future. We can see the dangers that came from getting too buddy buddy with power. We can see the way that schism begets schism, one denomination splintering again and again until it is a small sliver of people with overly-specific doctrine and prohibitively stringent membership criterion. We have seen the rise and fall of ministries and movements and stand with that entire heritage at our disposal. We have all the past to learn from and all of eternity to look forward to when we plan out the ministries of the Church.
I want to share with you now what I see this Church doing in the next few years. I see us becoming more connected to one another, more intentional about the way we relate information and conduct business. We will have committee meetings at minimum once a quarter. Those committees will draft minutes and reports which will be published for the larger church to see the ways that the ministries of this church are being conducted. We will join closer to our neighboring churches and their ministries. Regardless of denomination or locality, we will see each other as siblings and co-laborers seeking the same good – the salvation in physical and spiritual terms of all people in Clarksburg.
We as a congregation will expand the ways we care for one another. We will be more intentional in offering times to gather to pray and study scripture. We will celebrate the highs of our lives and mourn the lows. We will welcome children into our pews and we will find ways to engage people of all ages in meaningful ways. We will become a community that attests to the glory of God, that serves the needs of all who pass through our doors, and that makes people feel like they have found a true family in the people of this congregation. We will become a community, a Koinonia, led by the Spirit wherever we need to go.
Now, none of what I have said is going to be simple. We are going to have to take my pastoral vision and see how it builds off of existing vision here in the congregation. The reality of our Methodist system is that I could disappear at any time, moved to another congregation as the Spirit guides the cabinet to decide. The initiatives and the vision of this Church cannot just be the things that I see or want, it must begin and end with the vision of you all gathered here. You will be in these pews long after I am gone, and you will carry on the work of the Spirit for generations to come here in North View.
We are going to be spending the next few months digging in deep, we will be devoting ourselves to really understanding what our community needs and how we have been called to meet those needs. With the full support of one another, our Parish, our Conference, and all the body of Christ, we will go on to achieve God’s will here in Clarksburg, in West Virginia, wherever we are able to reach out and act. I hope that you all will be willing to embark on this journey, because it is not always going to be simple or easy. Sometimes we’ll probably quite honestly get well and truly upset with one another if we do it right. Still, it will be worth it to take the trip forward.
Next week, we are going to go beyond vision to talk the hard and fast numbers behind our operations. That is right, we’re going to be talking about money and the ways its spent. I know that that is always a favorite in churches, but we gotta talk about it at some point. We’ll be honest and direct as we delve into the nuts and bolts. Till then, join me in letting God write the dreams of this congregation, and trust that God will give us the means to get there. – Amen.