THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experimental Church at the Corner of Greeley and Myrtle” Click here for audio
Pastors Marty Raths and Donna Buell
Colossians 1:1-6, 9-12; 3:12-18
The comedian, Joan Rivers, used to have as a part of her routine the catch phrase, “Can we talk?” And this is what we want to do this morning: we want to talk some about our church, about what we see happening, how we see our role as pastors, and where we are going in our ministry together. And we very much want this to be a conversation, so we would welcome your thoughts, and we will be continuing this conversation at our church conference on Tuesday evening, so do come and be a part of it.
All fall we have been looking at stories from the Acts of the Apostles, highlighting how in response to changing circumstances the early church had to become an experimental church, which meant in part that they had to be open to new ideas, new experiences, new calls, new people, and new ways of being the church. It also meant that in response to all this newness they had to be willing to trust the leadings of the Holy Spirit, to set aside at times treasured traditions, and to risk at other times doing something new, even at the risk of failing. And all this experimentation had to be supported, sustained, and surrounded by the practice of grace.
In many ways we are living in a similar experimental time in the life of the church, and every congregation is facing some of the same challenges posed by cultural trends, changing demographics, and emerging needs and opportunities, while at the same time needing to remain faithful to the call of Christ. But each congregation is unique too, including our own, requiring that we do what we call in pastoral circles contextual ministry. This kind of ministry asks, “what does it mean for us to be the church here, in this particular time and place and location, at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle./
This is why Marty and I chose to share the scripture Diane read for us from the Letter to the Colossians. Like all of the New Testament letters, this letter was written to a particular congregation that was facing particular challenges and opportunities. And as we read this letter, we are given the chance to listen in, and to take to heart those things that speak to our own context.
In this letter Paul gives thanks for the people of the church in Colossae. He praises those things he has heard about them that are commendable. He reminds them that they are a part of something much larger than themselves; they are part of a faith that is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world even as it has been growing among them. And Paul prays that they may have wisdom to discern what is of the Spirit and what is not.
Between us, Marty and I have provided pastoral leadership in 10 congregations and I can tell you that each and every one of those churches was unique. So when we came here nearly 3 years ago, it was important for us to get to know the particular expression of church that exists here. We spent time listening to you and researching some of the conversations you had already been having about this church and its ministry. And there were some good ideas there, and more importantly, there was a desire to be a vital and growing congregation. And yet we sensed that those ideas lacked the kind of focus that would provide practical guidance for our life and ministry together. So we worked on that with the Administrative Council and eventually the council adopted a document which we called our Framework for the Future. And that framework was constructed around the idea that we were going to intentionally seek to be a church that is growing here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle: growing in our love of God, growing in our love of neighbors near and far, and growing in our stewardship of all that God has entrusted to our care.
Within each of those three areas we identified some practical things that we would do, some possibilities for future ministry that we would intentionally explore, and some attitudes and behaviors that we would intentionally cultivate. In some ways this framework articulates the nature of our church’s experiment in this particular place and time. And because we have kept it before us and updated it each year, our Framework for the Future has kept us focused on things that will help us continue to grow as a faithful community of disciples, and as a United Methodist presence in this community for many generations to come./
Both Jesus and Paul used a lot of organic images to talk about the faith, images about planting and watering and pruning and winnowing and harvesting, and in his letter to the Colossians Paul writes about how they are “bearing fruit” in their ministry together. Now any farmer knows that the bearing of fruit requires a lot of things, among them it requires good soil.
And along the way in our ministry, Donna and I came to realize that one of the most important roles that we can play as pastors is tending to the church soil, so to speak, and by that we mean helping to cultivate and nurture the culture of a congregation. It has been our experience that the seeds of ministry best take root and grow and bear fruit in a culture that is encouraging, appreciative, imaginative, generous, and above all, gracious.
The second part of our reading from Colossians is one of the most gracious passages in all of scripture. In this passage Paul describes what makes for good and rich church soil, for the kind of congregational culture that helps us to grow in our discipleship practice, that makes us more attentive and responsive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and that fosters a greater willingness to share of ourselves, of our faith, our hopes for our church, and our efforts on behalf of its ministries.
In a beautiful phrase Paul encourages the Colossians, and all of us, to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” And we could do no better than to let this whole passage from Colossians dwell richly in us and in our congregation. For a culture that shows compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, that offers forgiveness, that clothes itself in love and peace and gratitude, will bear good fruit in abundance.
And people, including many of you, have shared with us that one of the things that you most value about our congregation is the culture, and it is bearing some good fruit. For a congregation our size, our worship participation continues to be quite good, over 100 all fall, and often around 120. In the last couple of years 18 people have become members, and at least another 4 will be joining in December. Another 18 have become actively involved in the life and ministry of our church. In the last 3 years income to our general budget is up by nearly $40,000, or nearly 20%, and 30 some people from the neighborhood and community come regularly to our Wednesday evening dinners.
And we have new ministry initiatives happening in several areas of ministry, in our welcoming and caring ministries, in our ministries with children and youth, and in our outreach ministries to Sunny Hill and Lily Lake./
Speaking of Lily Lake, I have seen the Spirit at work within our congregation as the seeds of a new and renewed ministry initiative have begun to taken root. Three years ago Ann Haraldson invited a number of church members to attend an event at the Stillwater Public Library. The speaker was Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library movement which has helped neighbors reach out to neighbors and build community by sharing books and promoting reading and literacy. By the end of the evening we were all energized and were talking and imagining together about building a Little Free Library on church property. As pastors, we supported this idea, because we saw it as a tangible way of reaching out into this neighborhood, making our presence known within the community, and building upon the passion and energy of this group of church members. And our thought was always that this would be a first step that would lead to something more.
At the same time the Mission Committee was looking to refocus our connection with Lily Lake Elementary School, so Marty and I had several conversations with leaders at the school to talk about ways we could grow our relationship with them. Because of our Little Free Libraries, it seemed to make sense to build a connection around a focus on books and reading. And so last spring a number of us began volunteering regularly in the school library.
Church-School Partnerships like this are sprouting up all around the country as one of the ways that United Methodists are experimenting with reaching out into their communities to serve their neighbors. And this summer we applied for and received a Church-School Partnership grant from the Minnesota Annual Conference. With the money we received from this grant we welcomed teachers and staff back to school in the fall, and we are now preparing to launch a series of book clubs with students from the fourth grade classes using the book, Wonder. We also plan to work with the school’s media specialist to help students celebrate “I Love to Read Month” in February, and this spring we hope to construct and plant a Little Free Library on school grounds.
We experience the Spirit’s work among us when we plant and nurture ministry seeds in the belief that they will grow and bear fruit. And who knows where this faithful work will lead. At the very least, there are 80 staff members at our local elementary school who know there is a congregation of United Methodists who care about them and their students, there is a media specialist who is experiencing support from a group of kind and caring Methodist volunteers, and there are some church volunteers who are excited about what they are doing and how they are making a difference./
This bearing of fruit happens in individual lives as well, and as pastors we are fortunate to see this happening all the time and to hear about it happening from people whose lives are touched in some way by the care and concern and compassion of our congregation. And since so much of this happens behind the ministry scenes, we know that you are not always aware of this. But do know that our congregation is making a real difference in the lives of people. A lot of the time we cannot share these happenings with you, but we would like to share this one./
In the middle of October, as part of our sermon series, I preached on An Experiment in Vocation. I talked about the Apostle Paul and the rather convoluted journey of his life and ministry. In the congregation that morning I noticed a young couple that hadn’t been here before. Younger visitors tend to stand out around here. But it wasn’t only because they were young that I noticed them. What really drew my attention was that this young man was fully engaged in our service of worship, I could see it in his face and in his body language. He sang out on the hymns, and he was very attentive and responsive throughout the service. After worship I found them in the gathering space and visited with them for a bit. Like those of you who also reached out to welcome them, I learned that they were from Texas and had been in town for a weekend wedding. He was a relatively new United Methodist, and was very appreciative of the warm welcome they had received. I invited them in for coffee, but they needed to leave for the airport, so I sent them on their way with our blessings.
And then about two weeks ago I received an email which I’d like to read to you:
I had the pleasure of meeting you last month while visiting Bayport for a wedding. You preached on Paul’s journey and it resonated deeply. I wanted to share that 2 weeks after that I visited Austin Seminary in the state Capitol city of Austin, TX. I fell in love and knew God was calling me to apply for a Masters of Divinity for the upcoming fall. Had it not been for the sermon about our destination being a messy journey, I’d have not felt the peace to know it was to be done this way. I had to share that as it will soon be a month since we visited :).
Blessings to you and Pastor Marty.
I hope hearing this makes your heart glad. We never know, do we? When we are in the seed business, in the experimental seed business, and we are, we never know all the ways that we may touch the lives of others with the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. But know this, because of Donna’s message, and because of the gracious culture of our congregation, Julian was touched by the Spirit that day in a way that changed the direction of his life. And who knows how many other lives will be touched as Julian’s vocational journey unfolds.
Before leaving us with a word from Paul, I again want to remind us about church conference this Tuesday evening at 7:00 pm. Come and be a part of this ongoing conversation about what God is doing in us and through us and among us as a congregation engaged in the ongoing experiment of being the Methodist Church here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle. And now a closing word from Paul:
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, . . . Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard [the gospel] and truly comprehended the grace of God. . .