Friday, January 21, 2011

Out of the Ashes

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4: 18-19)

One of the great privileges of my life is writing stories about good people doing significant things in the world. Yesterday afternoon I drove a long way (105 miles round -trip) to talk with a Methodist pastor who worked with a dying Church that finally bit the bullet and voted itself out of existence.

So I can hear what you're thinking. You're thinking, "That does not sound like a feel-good story about faithfulness and significance! It actually sounds more along the lines of a royal flop!"

Ah, but - as The Count says in one of his Sesame Street songs - "But wait, there's more..." You see, sometimes something has to die to live. Must be buried in order to be raised. Must come to a complete stop before it can be started. Must be demolished before there's even a prayer that it can be restored.

Long story short, this church failed to adapt its mission to the changing demographics of the community where it had been planted. The congregation tried to protect a way of life that no longer existed; they wanted a church where they could remain comfortable; they tried - essentially - to un-bury their dead. They tried to hang on for dear life when - instead of survive - what God always wants is for us to thrive.

So there the church sat, with tens of thousands of children living within just a couple of miles, and they continued to do ministry with and for a rapidly shrinking constituency of well-heeled retirees. Over a couple of decades, attendance dropped from over 1,000 to a small cadre of members unable even to cover expenses any more.

So along came a pastor with a vision. His vision was, rather than worry about the community supporting his church, a vision to transform the congregation's ministry and to flip-flop their priorities. Now, instead of looking for the community to support the church, the new mission is 100% in business to support the community.

So kudos to pastor Dan Campbell for re-imagining church, along with mission director Nancy Dougherty (pictured above). Today, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, the small community of believers at a former United Methodist Church has morphed into Joining Hands Community Mission, Inc. They signed their own death-warrant, they declined a blindfold, and then they pulled the trigger.

Joining Hands is supported - both financially and through volunteers - by 30-plus churches and 90 other organizations. Scores of volunteers work tirelessly to feed and clothe the homeless, help indigent families, keep the working poor from joining the ranks of the homeless, and perform countless other tasks of compassion and encouragement.

This mission is - in an irony not to be missed by anyone with an understanding of church history - closer to the spirit, the heart and the actuality of an early John Wesley Mission than at anytime in the location's prosperous, inwardly focused heyday as a bustling UMC Congregation.

Put a homeless person or two on the sidewalk in front of the majority of churches and this would be the response from most of us, peering from behind a curtain inside...
"Oh My God, I hope to goodness they don't come in here."
Watch a homeless person, or a family down on its luck, traverse the sidewalk on Hwy 19 in front of the transformed Methodists of Holiday, and this is what will happen... The doors will be flung wide, trained greeters will go out to the highway, and those who we are so prone to despise and reject are going to be invited in to share in the banquet.

"Enter into the Joy of your Lord."

Peace and Joy! - DEREK

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