The Time to Dream Again
posted on August 20
Below please find Rev. Mark Gibbons' (District Superintendent) message from the Welcoming Days.
Bluegrass District Welcoming Days
Lawrenceburg, August 12, 2018
Lebanon, August 19, 2018
Mark A. Gibbons, Superintendent
(I’m indebted to Dr William Turner, former pastor at Central Baptist Church, Lexington, for much of the original outline of this message)
The Time to Dream Again
Matthew 16:13-20; 28:16-20
In my role as a superintendent over the last six years, I have come to sense on the part of many of our churches, (our pastors and our laity alike), a sense of despair, frustration and fear. And I’m not talking about what may happen in February, 2019, at the called General Conference. I’m speaking of what people are feeling in the midst of seeking to be a church and lead in a world that is different in so many ways from yesterday. Assumptions about how we are to do ministry and “what works” just don’t hold true anymore.
Because of this, we as leaders, clergy and laity alike, have often advocated for doing some things differently. The most common example of this, of course, has been in worship styles. But it is not limited to worship. Attempts to lead change have often led to conflict, either because we have not led the change process well, or because some have dug their heels in to the extreme to any kind of change.
I was introduced to the work of Ron Heifetz around adaptive leadership six years ago at my DS orientation time, or as some lovingly call it, “charm school.” Heifetz helps us tremendously when he says that people do not fear change as much as they fear loss. And folks, we have a lot of grieving pastors and congregations, grieving over what they sense as the loss of a past that was once so good. Again, this has led in many cases to the loss of the ability to have hope and dreams for the future.
As we begin together in my role as your superintendent, I want to offer, what I hope to be, a message of encouragement. My hope and prayer is that you still have the ability to dream and have dreams. But my word of caution is that if our dreams are not consistent with the dreams and visions of Jesus Christ, we are simply whistling in the wind… and we are not being the Church that Christ has called us to be.
But Jesus did dream. And what a dreamer he was!
He dreamed that some of his followers would get it…. And they were starting to. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But he warns them here in Matthew’s gospel: “don’t tell anyone yet;” … nobody yet understood him fully – not even his closest followers.
Later, though, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, he takes off all the wraps. “Everywhere you go, tell the story; make disciples.”
Jesus’ dream is about the future. Not all dreams are. We can sleep-dream or day-dream an awful lot about the past. But his is about a faith community that is not yet.
Sometimes your dreams can outlive you. Moses dreamed of a new nation in a new land, but he didn’t see it fully – his dream outlived him. David dreamed of a great temple where the whole country would come to worship, but he didn’t see it – his dream outlived him. With Jesus, it’s a bit different. For you see, He’s still around as a risen, living, Holy Spirit presence. So He is also inhabiting us to fulfill his dream.
So when we speak of dreams and visions, it’s Jesus’ before it’s ours. That is foundational and critical.
And what is Jesus’ dream? In response to Peter’s confession and affirmation, Jesus says it is “to build (His) Church.” And what does that look like? .… Like a bunch who’ll actually be Christ’s people, reflecting His light, growing God’s kingdom.”
So that’s the dream.
But there are some who think we don’t need to dream because the great days are in the past. They say if we are now in decline, it’s because somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten how we do church. So, they think, we don’t need to dream again, we need only to fine-tune what used to work and move on.
Proverbs 29 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish (p-e-r-i-s-h).” It’s been suggested that could be changed to:“where there is no vision, the people parish (p-a-r-i-s-h).” In other words, circle the wagons, hunker down, build the fortress – it’s us against a rapidly-changing world and we must not change! We’ll drive into the future while looking mostly into the rear-view mirror. So some of us don’t think we need to dream.
Others among us don’t want to dream, because we’ll just be disappointed. These are the folks who think we’ve heard it all before – and nothing’s going to actually change. A year or two down the road, we’ll just be doing business as usual. Someone said that Martin Luther did not nail to the church door in Wittenburg the complete words and music to “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.” He put up a call to action, a worksheet for revolution! Some of us don’t want to dream, because we’re afraid it’ll turn out to be not a real call to action, but a warm fuzzy which will change nothing.
And some of us are afraid, because… well, what if it actually happens? ! What if we really do get a down-to-earth handle on the Gospel (or even better, what if the Gospel really gets a handle on us) and we decide to actually be the Church of Christ’s dream and take Christ’s love to our communities… I/you might have to change! I might have to give priority to Bible study or Sunday worship, or get serious about my prayer life. I might have to actually become a tither! I might have to get involved with someone who’s not like me – someone of a different color or who speaks a different language… someone who’s homeless… hungry… has AIDS or cancer… a child who needs after-school attention from a grown-up.
Or I might have to become aware of people around me and actually share about my faith with them, actually share how my life is different because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. Oh, yes, dreams can be sweaty-palm stuff … some of us are afraid of them.
But whether we are afraid to dream or don’t feel the need to dream or don’t want to dream, we can’t escape Jesus’ dream: “I’ll build my church on your faith.” And probably because he knew our faith would get diluted with things like fear and skepticism and obstinance, he finally said, “I’ll be there with you to the end – always – to give you courage and wake you up and push you forward.” Because it’s his dream that we’re trying to match ours with … and he’s hanging around to help us do that!
So my dream today is for you to dream again. And what does that dream involve? Actually many things, but this afternoon I offer two things: 1. To rebuild the wall and 2. To restore the temple. These come from the Old Testament story in Ezra and Nehemiah which tells of the people of Judah who came back from Babylonian captivity. They fool around for twenty years doing business as usual, until finally some prophets tell them they must do two things.
One thing they are told to do is REBUILD THE WALL OF THE CITY. Let’s be clear. This is not for defensive purposes, but this is talking about distinguishing who those inside the wall really are. We must rebuild the wall – not to keep people out, but to re-learn who we are. In many instances, we have forgotten who we are and thus we have in our churches a scarcity of passionate spiritual disciples. ”Passionate spiritual disciples” … that’s a term you will continue to hear as this has become the focus of our Annual Conference. We must distinguish what’s inside from what is outside in terms of our commitments and values and priorities. The world changes incessantly, but the better we know ourselves and the Gospel of Christ, the more effective we’ll be as the Church of Christ’s dream.
N.T. Wright, the Anglican priest and theologian asks, “If the gospel isn’t transforming you, how do you know that it will transform anything (or anyone) else?” People who work for a clear mission in the church and for the wider world need to be experiencing transformation in our own lives. That’s why you will continue to hear a clarion call to make use of an L3 process of Loving, Learning, and Leading or something similar. The “Loving” part of L3 involves accountability to a personal walk with Jesus as well as commitment to the mission of the church, and not my personal preferences. Rebuild the wall.
Secondly, we must also RESTORE THE TEMPLE. And by that I mean that we must make outreach to the spiritual needs of people our main priority. By saying that, I am not saying we neglect physical needs, for if we really love others we love and care for the whole person.
But Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic priest who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane, south of Bardstown, KY, put it into a single question, “What do we have to offer the world that the world doesn’t already have too much of?”
It’s not real estate … or organizational structure … or abstract propositions … or emotional trips. We need some of that – all of it - but we will help people in the twenty-first century the most by helping start a conversation with the living God through Jesus Christ.
So restoring the temple means not just sitting within the four walls of our buildings, but focusing outward to the spiritual hunger of our communities – to unsaved and unchurched people, because we really care about them… not because we need them to prop up our struggling institution. Are you with me?
But there’s another group that we are particularly suited to help. Call them wounded and disengaged. Wounded emotionally by some church, or shortchanged intellectually by some church, they’re refugees from organized religion. Their spiritual hunger is just as real. And we can help – if we will – if we’ll be outwardly focused.
I was traveling from an early service one Sunday morning to another church’s later service back in Owensboro. As I drove, I passed some gated apartments, some neighborhoods, and some parks all teeming with people. As I drove, I remembered that Charles Kuralt was inspired to start his “On the Road” series as he and a friend flew over a city at night and, looking down at the thousands of lights, he remarked, “Think of all those people down there, and every one has a story.” As I drove across town, I asked myself, “How can we reach these people … really hear their story … share them ours?”
Facebook, direct mail, maybe. But the best way is still personal contact. We must pray for ways not to get inside those locked gates and doors, but inside those stories and lives. And the place where we’ll see and interact with most of them these days is not going door to door in visitation, (though there is still a place for that) but going to work; and to our ball fields; and our soccer fields, where Americans now spend about 65-70% of their time, and developing authentic loving relationships with others.
My dream for you and our churches is that we will be willing to do whatever it takes to be a learning and sharing crowd … to fulfill our mission … to reach our dream, Christ’s dream. My dream is that we’ll be that inviting, loving, welcoming bunch whose faith Jesus believed in when, pointing to Peter, he said, “There … that’s what I can build my church on.”
Fred Craddock died just over three years ago. He came to Candler at Emory during my second year to teach preaching. He was remarkable… to the point that you had to get to chapel early to get a seat on the days he was preaching. After he retired, he continued to work with small churches and the pastors who served them. He was ordained in the Christian Disciples of Christ Church, and years ago before he began teaching, he was pastor of the Oak Ridge Christian Church, in Tennessee, back in the early 1940’s when the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb started in Oak Ridge. All of a sudden a sleepy little mountain community in East Tennessee began to grow – rapidly. In his words, new people started moving in, living in house trailers and driving trucks … and even motorcycles. It was a scary time!
His church decided to change all its locks (after all, some of these new people were Yankees!)… give keys only to members, and give new keys only to people who owned property in the county. Fred didn’t like the protective direction the church was heading, so, in time, he and the church decided to part ways.
Years later he and his wife Nettie were driving to Knoxville and, seeing the Oak Ridge exit, decided to go by the church. When they got within several yards of the church, he began to be excited. They saw cars parked on both sides of the road. There were even motorcycles. The parking lot around the church was jammed, and there was a huge sign over the door. “WELCOME!” it said. But then in smaller letters he noticed, “… to Oak Ridge Barbecue Restaurant.”
A restaurant had remembered what a church forgot.
I close with this thought. In his classic study, Transforming Mission, missiologist David Bosch reported that the second bible passage we read this afternoon from Matthew 28, which we call “The Great Commission,” was not understood first to be primarily about church mission. That didn’t happen until the early nineteenth century. Before then, the verses were read as part of the rite of baptism, thus about individual passionate disciple mission. Consider the implications of that.
Biblical scholarship has also revealed that the mandate “Go!” is not in the original Greek. It really is a participle – so better translated “going.” So the translation would be “as you go.” Mennonite theologian David Augsburger notes how broad the mission is with this simple change of “as you go”: “As you live, as you go about your daily work, as you move to new settings for service, as you join or create new communities of discipleship, as you fulfill your vocation as a follower of Jesus – you shall, you are, to be my witnesses. This is not a sales strategy. This is not a mandate for mass media. This is not a method for achieving church growth. This is a call to authentic, faithful witness in all of life.” It is how a Passionate Spiritual Disciple lives because of his or her baptism. It is what we do, laity and clergy alike.
Whether you are a member of Bethlehem or New Castle, of Asbury or Campbellsville First, of Claylick or Lawrenceburg, of Perryville or Danville Centenary, of St. John or Shelbyville Centenary, Georgetown Wesley or Georgetown First you can be, and are to be, a witness to the gospel in ALL of life. And maybe… just maybe… that is the way to transform your church; by allowing God in Jesus Christ to first transform you.