Big Church

It took until February 1965 for the Alabama voting rights movement to spread from Selma to less populated environs. Martin Luther King visited both Perry and Wilcox counties, appearing even at little Gees Bend, encouraging the tenant farmers not to give up now. In one demonstration in Perry, seven hundred students from SCLC were arrested and incarcerated like cattle in a makeshift stockade with brutal living conditions. Local organizers called Selma asking for help, specifically requesting C. T. Vivian, veteran of the struggle with Sheriff Clark. Vivian had become a giant in the movement.

C.T. was at first reluctant to go, having just been released from jail. But he stood that Sunday night in the pulpit of Zion Chapel Church Marion and fired up a packed church with his eloquence. The church was filled with determined, angry people who, angered by the arrest of their children, were determined to march from the clapboard church to the city jail. C.T. admired their bravery, but he knew that they were on a perilous course. Night marches were rare; the night belonged to the Klan, though in the Black Belt, Klansmen didn’t need sheets to cover their identity. The assumption was that even the local law enforcement officers were free to do whatever they wanted, acting upon the orders of Governor Wallace.

Enflamed by C.T. Vivian’s sermon, marchers streamed out of the little church anyway. When police chief T. O. Harris ordered them to return to the church, they knelt to pray. The police attacked. Many were assaulted, knocked to the ground, pursued through the dark streets. An NBC reporter, Richard Valeriani, was also beaten.

It was for the freedom seekers, the last straw. The rage engendered this night was the decisive prelude to the historic, massive march on Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7.

For Christians in Alabama, white and black, this is our history, our inheritance. As a relative newcomer to the church in Alabama, I believe it is important that we claim this past as power for the present. The Holy Spirit, in countless little churches all across our state worked miracles, defeated Satan, and won a new people. What a resource for the living of the Christian life, to have these living reminders among us. We’re not there yet, but in our better moments, we are on the way. And every time we take one little step against the great sin of American racism, we are moving closer to Christ. That’s but one reason why we are gathering at Clearbranch on January 6. C.T. Vivian will be there to encourage us, along with Tony Campolo. We’ve still got great work to do, and we’ve got a great place in which to do it.

Thank God for a church that keeps holding up before us what Jesus expects of us. Thank God for a church that keeps convicting us of our sin, keeps holding before us redemption. I’ve met people ho have been attracted to one of our congregations because there people are visibly dealing with this continuing American dilemma of racial justice. I’ve also met people who are no longer in our church because a congregation is avoiding or denying this sin. The church at its best is God-given free space in which to deal with and overcome our sin.

Years later, C.T. Vivian was back in Marion and looked at Zion Chapel Church again. He was stunned that the church was so small, little more than a clapboard box. Could it have been the same church that ignited such a liberating conflagration? That tiny church?

No, C.T., you are taller than you appear and that little church is a great cathedral. All of us who attempt to walk the way of Jesus in Alabama today, travel in your lengthened, encouraging shadow. Jesus fully intends to rock our world, to purge us of our sin, including the sin of racism, through preachers like C.T., through churches like Zion Chapel.This is the way this God works miracles.

William H. Willimon

I got this account of C.T. Vivian at Marion from chapter 17 of Frye Gaillard’s amazing book, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (The University of Alabama Press, 2004).

On Faith

“Faith is not only God’s gift but also God’s assignment.”
Conversations with Barth on Preaching (Abingdon Press, 2006)

So much of the time we think of faith as our own personal achievement. In looking to theologian Karl Barth, we are reminded that faith is always a gift from God. In addition to faith as divine gift, it is also a holy assignment for each of us. Christianity is less a club and more of a shared vocation – especially in how well we put to task the commands of God as a community of faith.

To what assignment are you called through the gift of the faith?

For more on faith from Karl Barth:

“Faith is not, therefore, a standing, but a being suspended and hanging without ground under our feet. Or conversely, in faith we abandon whatever we might otherwise regard as our standing, namely, our standing upon ourselves (including all moral and religious, even Christian standing), because in faith we see that it is a false and unreal standing, a hanging without support, a wavering and falling. We abandon it for the real standing in which we no longer stand on ourselves (on our moral and religious, or even our Christian state), and in which we obviously do not stand on our faith as such but — now at least firmly and securely — on the ground of the truth of God and therefore on the ground of the reconciliation which has taken place in Jesus Christ and is confirmed by Him to all eternity.”
Church Dogmatics, II, 1, pg. 159

Christmas Meditation

Throughout the churches of North Alabama United Methodism, we are preparing to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. The proclamation that God became flesh and moved in with us (John 1) is one of the most distinctive affirmations of the Christian faith, perhaps the most distinctive. Comparison with other accounts of who God is and what God does is instructive.

In Islam, at least from my amateurish reading of the Koran, there is this constant distancing of God apparently as a means of honoring God. The view of God that emerges in the Koran is noble and exalted, but God is clearly at some remove from the world. God is as absolute, as majestic as God can get. You would have to know the Christmas story to know why that’s a problem.

Christians don’t know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Immanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to have us, that’s what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.

A story: A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in Hell, after his departure from this life.

His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to Hell, and moved by the man’s misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!”

Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.

Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man’s eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fairplay and compassion.

The great iron gates refused to move.

In desperation, the man’s pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if he were to lead a Sunday service.“Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!”

Still, the gates of Hell stood fast.

Then, after all the friends and well wishers finally departed in dejection, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of Hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, “Let me in.

And immediately the great gates of Hell swung open and the condemned man was free.

Something akin to that great miracle happened for us on a starry night at Bethlehem

William H. Willimon

Resisting the Clutches of Consumerism

Our government no longer refers to us as “citizens,” but as “consumers.” If we can get you to consume cigarettes, cars, mouthwash, and sedatives, then we can get you to consume people. That is why Calvin Klein uses soft kiddie porn to sell blue jeans. Consumption.

Therefore the question: “How could we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, rather than say Michael Eisner as Lord, how can we as a church resist the corrosive acids of Capitalism?”

The immediate problem that confronts is that our church is accommodationist. Even though we know that there is a strong, critical strain in Wesleyanism against the evils of “riches,” we quickly learned in this society that there is no way to be a successful, responsible, public church, without submitting to the political vision that says that there is no greater purpose of human community than accumulation and aggrandizement.

For this reason, the “user friendly” approach to church won’t work. There is no way to entice people off the streets with hymns that are based on advertising jingles and end up with the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, burden-bearing Jesus. Evangelism cannot be based upon our basic selfishness (“Come to Jesus and get everything you want fixed.”) and end up with anything resembling historic Christianity.

One of the reasons why Church is difficult is that the modern media culture (a culture which has no other purpose than giving us what we want, since “getting what we want” is the main purpose of life) has been so successful in forming us into such consumers.

In the middle of a sermon I said, “If you bring a child into this church, say a child of four or five, that child will have a difficult time during the service. Church does not come naturally. The child will have to be trained to sing this music, to bend his life toward these stories, to pay attention to that which he quite naturally avoids. If you take that same child into Toys R Us, no training is necessary. Greed comes to us quite naturally. After all, this is America.”

But then I caught myself in mid-sentence, and said, “No, that’s not quite fair to Toys R Us. Billions have been spent, and our very best talent expended, in forming that child into the habits of consumption. Barney is not innocent.”

For me, one of the most moving moments, is when people come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper. They shuffle forward and hold out their hands to receive the elements of communion. I look into their outstretched empty hands. I say, “I notice that your hands are empty, as if you were empty, needing some gift, grace.”

They reply to me, “Oh no, not at all. I have my Masters degree, a well-fixed pension.”

I persist, “That all may be true, but in this moment, you look touchingly dependent, as if your life would be nothing if you did not receive a gift.”

The good news of the gospel is that such bad news about us is the great good news about God. God is determined to get back what God owns. And we, timid church though we are, are part of God’s plan to win back the world.

One night in a Duke dormitory Bible study I had some bad news to deliver. Luke 18:18-26. Jesus meets a young, upwardly mobile, smart young man. The students perk up upon meeting one of their own in the Bible. Having kept all the rules so well, the young man is looking for a real spiritual challenge. Jesus says, “Just one little thing is left. Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, strip down, follow me.”

With that the young man got real depressed. Jesus remarks to his students, “It is hard to save these upwardly mobile types. Easier to shove a fully loaded dromedary though the eye of a needle. Impossible! Of course, with God, anything is…possible.”

I then asked the students what they thought of Jesus’ prejudice against wealth.

“Isn’t that great?” one said, “Just laid things out so directly. Lots of times with Jesus, you can’t figure out what he wants you to do. Here, it’s different. I like his candor. He’s so clear, almost anybody can figure it out. This guy hears what Jesus is up to and knows he doesn’t want any part of it. That’s great.”

Then another student. “I like the way Jesus believes in him. He invites him to join up. I’m looking for a challenge just now; maybe that’s why I like this. Jesus believes in him. Like me, this guy probably can’t imagine that it’s possible for him to break free, to let go of all that stuff, not to go to law school, not to please his parents. But Jesus thinks he can do it, even him.”

That night I learned that sometimes the difference between bad news and good news is where you happen to be when you get the news. The breakdown and dissolution of American culture, otherwise known as Disneyworld, is a gift, a marvelous time for us to attempt to save people before it’s too late, to learn to worship a God whose victories come through righteousness not riches. To call everyone to confess that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we must listen in life and in death.

William H. Willimon

Don’t forget to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6!

Imagination and Ministry

“The Bible is a book of the imagination.” So writes Harvard’s Peter Gomes. One reason why Peter is such a great preacher, and biblical interpreter, is that he has a fertile imagination. It is as if Scripture has as its purpose to stoke, to fund, and to fuel the imagination, thereby to make available to us a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, I think the best preaching from the Bible is that preaching that is evocative, suggestive, and thick, rather than that preaching which, in wooden fashion, merely lays out principles and precepts, abstractions and rules. We pastors are those who are called, in great part, to open up the imagination of our congregations to what is possible and probable now that a creative God is determined to get back what belongs to God. Too often we preachers think that our job is to take a biblical text and narrow the possibilities of that text, force it to speak univocally, and reduce it to the one authoritative, right interpretation. More creative, and perhaps more faithful, biblical interpretation and exhortation seeks to multiply the possibilities, to open up new perspectives, and to help us see something that we would not have seen without the imaginative stimulation of Scripture.

Professor Carol Zaleski of Smith College, herself a wonderfully imaginative interpreter of the Christian faith, writes that what is possible for us as Jesus’ disciples is directly proportional to what we will imagine:

Every institution with which we deal – our schools, hospitals, courts, theaters, newspapers, stores, playgrounds, and even our churches – tells us by signs overt or subliminal that the dramatic parts of the Christian story are over; except for some commotion at the end on which it’s best not to dwell. We know this can’t be right, and yet these blandishments, claiming to be the voice of reason, whisper in our ears so continuously that we begin to suffer imagination fatigue. Imagination fatigue doesn’t directly attack the Christian faith; instead it diminishes the power of the Christian story to quicken culture. “The heart is commonly reached,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” But if imagination is fatigued, faith is surely in jeopardy, and even testimony begins to falter.

— Carol Zaleski, “Faith Matters, Habits of Hobbits,” Christian Century, June 14, 2003, pg. 37.

Be sure to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, the event is free but please register so the planning team will know you are coming. I hope to see you there!

William H. Willimon

Reaching People for Christ or for the Culture?

Jesus commands us to go and to reach out to all the world in his name. Yet sometimes, in evangelistically reaching out, we fall face down into the culture. In offering people the Christian faith, we offer them nothing much more than they could get anywhere else in the world. Pastor Rick Barger thinks about the difference between Christian evangelism and any other marketing venture.

On the front door of our house hung a little white plastic bag with a videotape in it. On its cover was a picture of an immensely obese sumo wrestler. He hung suspended in the air. His legs were split, almost parallel to the ground as if he were a gymnast. His right arm was stretched straight up over his head. The hand in this outstretched arm palmed a basketball. He was a four-hundred pound Michael Jordan!

Under this picture were these bold words:
JUST IMAGINE
In smaller print were these words:
7 minutes.

So what the heck? Not knowing who hung this curious tape on my door or what it was about, I turned on our television, cued up the VCR, and inserted the tape. Almost immediately the room was filled with upbeat music. On the screen appeared a video shot zooming in on the new church facilities of a non-denominational mega-church located on the perimeter of our neighborhood. The audio portion began with the words, Just imagine. What unfolded over the seven minutes was very clever and inviting. Filled with scenes of smiling and happy people, the tape asked me, the viewer, to just imagine a gorgeous place with all kinds of wonderful programs. There were programs for small kids, junior high kids, and high school kids. There were programs for married couples and programs for singles. There were programs for small groups. And there were worship programs. Each of these programs promised excitement, meaning, and fun. I, the viewer, was then invited to come to the grand opening of this place.

What unfolded on this seven-minute tape was not unlike another videotape that I had received some time ago. This other tape was from Sandals, a small chain of couples-only resorts located in various places in the Caribbean. My wife and I had celebrated thirty years of marriage by spending a week at a Sandals resort in Jamaica, and they were now offering a special deal to generate more repeat customers. This tape also had all kinds of smiling and happy people. It too promised a gorgeous setting with all kinds of exciting and fun-filled programs.

The similarities between these two videotapes and the experiences they are selling ought to cause us to pause and reflect upon how our market-driven culture perceives the nature and purpose of the church of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and is now raised.

— A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture, by Rick Barger, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia, 2005, pp. 2-3.

Please join Tony Campolo and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham as we explore ways to respond to the challenge of our Conference Vision Statement: Every Church Challenged and Equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

William H. Willimon

Thanksgiving

On Nov. 15, Highlands United Methodist Church’s ministry with homeless people on Birmingham’s Southside made the front page of The Birmingham News. The article noted that this ministry has drawn some fierce criticism from some quarters. I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the Church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do when he said “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36).

Way to go, Highlands!

This week, most of us our preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with our families. All over Alabama, feasts are being prepared. Highlands, in the name of Jesus, has a considerably expanded notion of “family” this Thanksgiving. Highlands feeds the hungry and the homeless not just on Thanksgiving, but almost every day of the week. That’s what Jesus does to a church.

Whether it is feeding hungry people, building homes for those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, visiting those who are in prison, or providing a safe place for families struggling with the pressures of life to find hope, Jesus calls us to serve and not to be popular. The Gospels are full of stories where Jesus was criticized and hated for the ministry he did. Something’s wrong with our discipleship if we’re never criticized on the front page of The Birmingham News.

I thank God for Highlands United Methodist on their faithful ministry to homeless people. Their ministry is more than a quick hand out. Staff and members are building relationships and learning the names and stories of those people on the Southside that others hurriedly pass by. This church is not just giving out food and services but is also inviting those people who are served to join Highlands in worship.

Earlier this month I was part of a Conference called “The Heart of the Gospel: A Call to Follow Jesus,” a joint effort between Highlands United Methodist Church Committee on Church and Society and Urban Ministry, Inc. During the Conference, we did a very Methodist Christian thing – we focused on what Jesus makes us do in response to what our society does to the poor. I commend David Carboni, Reggie Holder, Emily Penfield and other staff and members of Highlands UMC for being in discussion with their merchant neighbors who take issue with their homeless ministry. I am encouraged by this discussion and hope the merchants and neighbors will join the church to begin to work on issues that can be solved in this situation.

The problem is not that Highlands United Methodist Church offers food to homeless people. The problem is that we live in a state where over 15% of our neighbors are living below the poverty line. The problem is that 23% of Alabama’s children live in poverty. When you sit down to dinner this Thanksgiving, please join Patsy and me in specifically praying for the poor children of Alabama.

Christian ministry is messy. Jesus never promised that the newspapers would approve of us. I thank God that Highlands United Methodist Church is more interested in pleasing Jesus than the newspaper. Thanks to Highlands, the rest of us are reminded that Jesus gives all of us a considerably expanded notion of “family,” a wide area of responsibility, and a means to do unto others as God has done unto us. That’s something for which to give thanks!

Will Willimon

Pastors as Visionary Leaders

Lovett Weems lists the phases of thriving and declining organizations: original vision, growth and building the organization, maintenance, decline, recognized decline, crises or death. I feel that in the United Methodist Church we are in the period of at last recognizing our decline. I hope this leads to a crisis that provokes change and growth.
Vision is not created, but it is discovered, or more truthfully discerned.
“The genius of visionary leadership is in recognizing those clues, putting them together with other clues, and then testing those clues with others to make sure that one is seeing and hearing correctly or that one is putting the different clues together in a manner that makes sense” (p. 84).
The leader listens to everything in order to get clues and information, fact, opinion, and gossip are all helpful. The leader is willing to listen to negative clues, as well as positive clues. One must build a future on more than negative clues. One must foster enough stability within the congregation, stability that is beyond stagnation and rigid status quo, so that one can have a base from which to move creatively and experimentally (p. 90).
Every church must have a mission–that is what God calls the church to do, the overall purpose of the church, its reason for being.
And derived from that must be a vision, that to which God has called the congregation to do in the near future to advance that mission. Vision is “What is God calling this church to do next?” We take identity, assessments of our internal context, as well as our external context, to move mission towards vision.
We must identify three to five key values that are essential part of the visionary work of the congregation. These must be defined in writing, with some definition of what these values mean to the life of the congregation. And then they are to be prioritized, because they have degrees of importance.
In order to take the next step, we must understand change.
“If the goal is to write a new chapter in the congregation’s story, that it is essential that the story be thoroughly understood and respected, and that the new chapter pick up and advance the plot” (David Clewell p. 112).
Weems gives “seven unchangeable rules of change.” People do what they perceive to be in their best interest. The change must have positive meaning for them. People thrive with creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress. People are different, there is not one single key to all change. People believe what they see and previous deceptions can lead to present suspicions. The way to make effective long-term change is first to visualize where you want to go, and then go ahead and inhabit that vision till it comes true. Change is always an act of imagination (p. 114).
All change is easier when people think it is their idea. Too much change within a short period of time can lead to explosion. Change is disturbing when it is done to us, but it is exhilarating when it is something done by us.
Great leaders are good storytellers. Most of what leaders do is to communicate–to preach, to tell stories, to keep reminding people of the best of their history, and not to worry about repeating themselves or being redundant. Good leaders must talk a vision, before their vision can be lived. Finally, good leaders must persevere. It takes time for a vision to become reality, and one of the most difficult times is the mid-point, right before the vision blossoms. Good leaders are those who persevere.

— Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

New Churches, New Future

Penny Marler and Kirk Hadaway, veteran church observers, have documented that denominations grow, not primarily for ideological reasons (there was a time when we thought that “conservative,” “evangelical,” churches were growing churches, whereas “liberal,” churches declined), nor for primarily sociological reasons (some church growth observers contended that sociological similarities led to growing churches) but rather because growing denominations tend to start new congregations.
Old denominations are renewed as the percentage of new churches in their total number of churches increases. Hadaway and Marler conclude in their study of new church development that new churches are a cause of growth in mainline denominations. This research concludes that mainline denominations, like the United Methodist, have shown that little growth has come from new churches in recent years, because these denominations simply started so few. However, growth has been enhanced in those eras in which they have started many – even when controlling for period effects. So for the mainline, new churches are more a cause of growth than they are a symptom of growth. When these denominations make the effort to start new churches, they tend to grow (or at least moderate their declines.) When they do not make the effort, they tend to decline. Period.
Kirk Hadaway suggests that as young churches mature, they tend to “bottom out” and stop growing after about two decades of growth. In other words, even new congregations have a “window of opportunity” for significant growth that may last for 10 or 15 years. Why do new churches tend to grow more rapidly than older churches? It could be, Hadaway notes, that new churches are more flexible and open to change; growth-producing ideas can be put more quickly into practice; innovative leaders are allowed to lead; rapid adjustments can still be made to changing circumstances; and friendship networks have not yet solidified, allowing for easy acceptance of new members. Research conducted by Hadaway on Southern Baptist churches shows clearly how the age of a church affects its growth pattern. Only one in four Southern Baptist churches in his study organized prior to 1927 had growth in excess of 10 percent from 1981 to 1986, whereas nearly 68 percent of churches founded between 1972 and 1981 experienced this kind of growth.
The good news in these insights is that we can stop blaming one another for our decline saying things like, “We need to work harder,” or “We need to be more conservative in our theology,” and instead to say simply, “We need to start more new congregations.”
(Reported in Rekindling the Mainline by Stephen C. Compton, The Alban Institute, 2003, pp. 73-74)

William H. Willimon

The wealth of evidence that reveals American Protestant churchgoers born after 1960 can be found in disproportionately large numbers in congregations founded after 1960.
The Ice Cube is Melting: What is Really at Risk in United Methodism?, Lyle E. Schaller, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, pg. 38.

On Preaching

“…I now believe that the church is not here to speak to the world. We preachers do not have as our task to provide the world with some reason for living or some meaning for its worldliness — we do not believe that the world, on its own, can have a reason or a menaing for its life. The church is about a more imperialistic enterprise than a deferential speaking to the world. We are to let God destroy and create a world through our preaching.”
Conversations With Barth On Preaching (Abingdon, 2006)

Too often, Preachers think that they have to make the Gospel more interesting to the world instead of allowing an already interesting and powerful Gospel go about remaking the world. Can preaching once again be revived to its proper end?