A District Superintendent from Serbia moved to the microphone and began to tell the story of one of her congregations that was offering exemplary Risk-taking Mission and Service toward alcoholics and their families. We all listened for the voices of our translators through headphones as she told her story. A Scandinavian District Superintendent told about the Extravagant Generosity exemplified in the ten-year pledges (thatís right – ten years!) that members are asked to make in many of his churches as they have moved from a seasonal fishing-based economy to salaried membership patterns. A German-speaking Superintendent talked about how difficult it is to find excellent musical leadership in small churches so that worship is indeed passionate, authentic, engaging, and life-changing. A Danish Superintendent shared at the dinner table about the unexpected appeal of African-American gospel music in his churches, and how one church has four large choirs that specialize in this form of music and offers wonderfully Passionate Worship. He talked about how hundreds of people who love singing spirituals (mostly unchurched before joining the choir) are discovering the Radical Hospitality of this congregation as they offer themselves in service and singing. A District Superintendent from Russia told about one of her congregations Bible studies for women as we talked about Intentional Faith Development.
Iíve returned last week from a three-day gathering in Germany for all the Extended Cabinets of the United Methodist Conferences in Europe and Eurasia. There were approximately 50 District Superintendents and other conference staff present, along with the four bishops (Bishops Wenner, Streiff, Olson, and Vaxby) who serve these areas. The superintendents who were present preside over United Methodist congregations and pastors in at least 20 countries: Germany, Hungary, Serbia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, France, Tunisia, Algeria, Denmark, Finland, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Now be honest, my friends. How many of you reading this even knew the United Methodist Church has congregations in many of these countries?
Together we spent time in worship, bible study, singing, plenary presentations and small group discussions. I was asked to present five lectures on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The conversations and questions (even through a maze of amazing translators!) were focused, encouraging, and wonderfully engaging. Cabinets began to talk about how to focus more of their time on strengthening congregations and less on institutional problem-solving. They took this first-time ever gathering of Extended Cabinets to talk about how to move in the same direction to fulfill the mission of the church of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Some of the European and Eurasian churches are growing and thriving. Some are aging and declining. There are new church starts as well as many church closings. There are challenges about pastoral effectiveness and conversations about how to stimulate lay members toward a more invitational stance with friends, neighbors, and strangers.. Our European and Eurasian sisters and brothers struggle just like their American colleagues to find ways to offer the hospitality and embracing invitation of Christ in authentic and personal ways. They find the adjectives particularly challenging, as we all should. Several superintendents felt convicted about their own ministries: Are we practicing ministry in the manner of Christ, ministry that is radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking, and extravagant?
My fear about presenting the Five Practices in such a diverse context was that I would sound like just another American Church Consultant with a formula, a plan, some steps or keys or programs that would be perceived as so American in language and concept and presentation that our European and Eurasian partners would reject them as irrelevant and unhelpful. Instead, the Five Practices stimulated energetic discussions, and provoked the sharing of ideas and experiences, and the development of some strategies for future collaboration between the various conferences.
There are many challenges to life together as United Methodist Christians, and many stresses to our connection. There are also many signs of hope and new life. One of the English-speaking District Superintendents from Europe particularly highlighted a quote from the book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: “Answers will not come in easy-to-use new programs, through quick fixes, or by adopting new slogans. Blaming, scape-goating, denying, or ignoring have not helped and are unlikely to provide positive outcomes. The most substantial threats to the churchís mission do not come from the seminaries, the bishops, the general boards, the complexity of our ordination process, the apportionment system, the guaranteed appointment, or the conflicts between conservatives and liberals, although all these deserve our careful attention if the church is to move forward toward a new future. The most significant threats come from the failure to perform the basic activities of congregational ministry in an exemplary way.” (pp. 129-130)
Maybe thatís why the Five Practices were so well received despite the diversity of languages, nationalities, and community contexts. These practices are the basic building blocks and essential elements of any congregation that becomes the body of Christ, from the formation of the church in the second chapter of Acts through today and into the future. For the church to fulfill its mission requires repeating again and again the ministry of Christ through Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity.
Grace and peace,
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