by Revs. Don Dewey and Susan Gonzales Dewey
Summer has officially ended and the Fall Season is upon us. Though we loved the warm summer months, this past one had a lot of particularly hot days and so a slightly cooler temperature is a nice welcome.
Summers are often filled with travels, vacations, days at the beach and backyard BBQ’s. We had all of those and more. It was a time to participate in our National Racial Ethnic ministries gatherings, from Phoenix Arizona to Birmingham, Alabama; as well as the College of Regional Ministers. We both were able to take a couple weeks of our Sabbatical time, Susan in July and Don later in August.
Summer was also a time to catch up on some chores around the house and what we call “puttering” jobs. We planted a garden, laid some tile, and did some “winterizing” (whatever that means in Southern California!) of trees and roses. It was also a good time to catch up on reading that seems to get put on the back burner to often.
Some on our summer reading list were: Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward”; Bart Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”; Rachel Held Evan’s “Inspired”; Sandhya Jha’s “Pre-Post-Racial America”; Walter Brueggemann’s “A Gospel of Hope”; Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction”; and Diana Butler Bass’s “Christianity for the Rest of Us.”
Though vastly different in many ways, we found these particular books to be both inspiring and challenging as I reflect on the church today. We are reminded of author Phyllis Tickle, who a few years ago described our time as a once every 500 year turnover of the world as we know it. Or perhaps as that 60’s theologian Bob Dylan said, “The Times, They Are a Changin”.
Diana Butler Bass describes in her book “Christianity for the Rest of Us”, a three-year journey she took traveling around the U.S. visiting mainline churches of various denominations that were demonstrating some significant turn-arounds in their ministry. These were congregations that were at one time suffering from decline and aging that we see in so many churches of all stripes and were now showing positive signs of growth, vitality and life anew.
Each chapter focuses on a specific area of these churches ministry that seemed to contribute to this new emergence of life and hopefulness. Areas like: hospitality, discernment, healing, diversity, justice and worship. She explores how some of these congregations have reimagined these areas that she called “signposts of renewal.”
It’s important to note that there is no magic formula for turning a church around or experiencing significant transformation. It is also important to say that none of the congregations she names in her book did this overnight and with no struggle! For most of them it was several years of careful and prayerful experimenting, testing, failing and persevering before they began to see some positive results. One last thing to note, none of these churches made these transformations because they had a “Super-star” pastor. Rather it was a deep commitment by both the pastor and the congregation to fully engage in the struggle and transformation of their ministry on behalf of the Gospel through spiritual disciplines.
We want to lift up two or three of these “signposts” as significant for any congregation today seeking to connect authentically with your community.
The first is Hospitality. Christianity today, like our ancestors, is a faith of travelers and pilgrims on a way. Hospitality then is at the very heart of the Christian life. However, Bass reminds us, “true Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith.”
Authentic hospitality is when we begin to see every person, no matter what, as a sister or brother in Christ. Bass says, “Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ.” Sound familiar? This is not just “friendliness” but rather radical hospitality! See Matthew 25.
Another significant signpost is Discernment, listening for truth. This perhaps is one of the most important things a congregation could do. Bass writes that a fundament truth for us as Christians is to truly know “that God loves us and calls us by name; that God asks us to participate in the unfolding of divine beauty.”In other words, God wants us to do something!
Spending time learning to discern God’s call upon our lives and what we are to do with what God has gifted us with is central to our life of faith. Next to hospitality, this spiritual practice was one found in almost every congregation Bass interviewed and that significantly added to their vitality and growth.
One last one we will lift up and that is Testimony. This practice of giving “witness” or to “testify” to the love and grace of Jesus Christ is found in almost every book in the New Testament. If you take a look at the book of Acts one might say that the church itself started by the apostle Peter’s testimony on the day of Pentecost!
Every life tells a story and we each can offer a witness to what God through Christ has done in our lives. One of the many powerful experiences in my life from years of camp was sitting around a campfire or in a family group as young people shared their stories of how God brought healing, hope, love and grace into their lives.
We have been in many churches where a lay person has shared a faith story at the communion table or as an offering meditation that brought me to tears and renewed my faith in our gracious God. These testimonies not only tell who we are but also who we are becoming because of the love and grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ! As one person said, “they tell of finding meaning, finding unique selves, and finding God in a confusing and chaotic world.”
Congregations that are thriving again are those who are re-engaging again the ancient spiritual practices of hospitality, discernment, testimony, prayer, healing, the study of scripture and more. As we move into this Fall Season and in preparation for our Regional Assembly, we want to encourage us all to live into our theme of “COURAGE”. Why? Because these are troubling times, these are transitioning times for the church and we will need real courage to hold fast to our faith and to one another. This will, we believe, mean deeply rooting ourselves in God and the way of Jesus.
We pray that you will find renewal in your own faith life and that of your church as you actively participate in the spiritual disciplines of our faith.
Together on the journey,
Don and Susan
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