The Official Blog of Rev. Jonathan Tullos | Musings of an Imperfect Pastor, Going On to Perfection
Author: Rev. Jonathan Tullos
I'm a UMC pastor in Mississippi. I'm married to woman certified to teach physics (in other words, she's much smarter than me!) and we have a daughter who is with the Lord. I love talking about Jesus and making much of Him, sports, ministries of justice and mercy, whatever else comes to mind. I'm kind of like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get.
On Sunday, the General Conference delegation from Mississippi hosted a webinar where they presented the actual facts about disaffiliation and the hopes of those who wish for the UMC’s stance on human sexuality to change, those who want to change our stance to remain the same, and the hopes of those whose intention is to remain United Methodist regardless (a camp that I find myself in). As we were going through all the points presented, I sat with many of my folks from Pleasant Hill and Salem and started pondering questions I believe should be asked of congregations wishing to disaffiliate. David Stotts, Mississippi’s conference treasurer, did an excellent job of presenting subjects that congregations ought to consider as they discern their path forward. However, there was one question that I found myself believing was left out that I really wish disaffiliating churches would be asked:
“If you are not making disciples of Jesus Christ now, what will you do differently that you cannot do now as part of the United Methodist Church?”
I believe this question is especially relevant as a significant percentage, if not the majority, of churches that choose to disaffiliate are small (less than 50 average worship attendance) and, often, have not reported a profession of faith in years, sometimes in a decade or even more. More often than not, I hear people claim that the debate has kept them from focusing on the Great Commission. Every single time I hear or read such statements, I just shake my head. Nothing should keep the church from being the church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do, which is to make disciples. I’ve written before that distraction is a choice. I believe that people are choosing to make the debate over human sexuality the main focus of their church rather than evangelism and mission. I would be very interested to know what disaffiliating congregations and clergy believe will be different for them apart from the United Methodist Church. This is a question that I believe should have to be answered and thought through as part of the disaffiliation process.
I’ll never forget when The Orchard and Getwell Road were trying to leave the Mississippi Annual Conference before a disaffiliation process was codified in our church laws. Brian Collier, the lead pastor of The Orchard, said something to the effect that the debate over human sexuality was a distraction to their mission of being the church. My question back to him would have been: Why? Also, how? How has any of this, other than choosing to be distracted, made bringing people to Jesus harder? How has a debate over human sexuality impeded your ability to conduct missional outreach? Exactly how has a General Conference debate kept you from being the church?
Hot take: It was an excuse then, and it’s an excuse now.
There’s so much hearsay and innuendo going around right now. Everyone tends to believe the worst about the “other side.” Well, I try very hard not to fall into those traps. I want to know the truth. I want to understand. I want to learn.
With that in mind, I have created a survey to understand the beliefs and attitudes of people who have either left the United Methodist Church to join the Global Methodist Church or who are planning to do so in the future. If this is you: I want to know where you stand on several issues and practices. I also want to know the real reasons you left. The survey is anonymous and asks for no personal information. My goal is to share the results of this survey in a future article on this site. At a later time, I’m also planning to do a similar study for those who plan to remain in the United Methodist Church.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major shift in the ways churches conducted their ministries. Congregations that had been doing some form of online ministry (such as any congregation I’ve been appointed to – every single one has been engaged online in some form or another) suddenly had to increase their activity out of necessity. Likewise, churches that had never done online outreach were left scrambling because their physical doors were shut. The biggest misconception was that the churches were closed during the pandemic. The churches were never closed, they simply changed locations from a physical one to one in the digital realm. These ministries – even ones done with the pastor’s smartphone from their living room – had tremendous impact because, not only did the people of the church remain plugged in, new people were reached and were offered Jesus in ways that were barely thought of previously. Since that time, many congregations have even increased their online ministries with the realization that online ministry is no longer optional, it is essential.
Since physical doors have reopened and people began returning to their pews, many congregations have, unfortunately, scaled back or even eliminated their online presences. I believe this is a major mistake and is actually antithetical to the Great Commission. The crux of Jesus’ message was for the church to go to where people are and make them disciples. Reality is, people are found online and that’s where the harvest is ripest. So, imagine my dismay when a church from my own annual conference shared this on their Facebook page last night:
I want to be clear that I do not share this to shame them, but to illustrate that congregations really are taking this stance. This is often in a misguided attempt to “get people back in church.” Many laity I’ve talked to about online ministry have the notion that streaming and other forms of online ministry are keeping people away from church, as in the physical location, and that people who worship digitally are not “really in church.” This is a myth. They miss out on the fact that online ministry and streaming (streaming is but one aspect of online ministry) are connecting people to churches like never before and in ways that have been impossible for the church to do previously. They also miss out on who is engaging (no, it’s not just “kids”).
If a church is not engaging with people online, then it is being ineffective. This is 2022 and we must stop fighting technology – and reality – and instead embrace the fact that we have an amazing tool that allows us to spread the gospel to more people than our buildings can even hold. The reality is that online ministry today is not optional, it is essential. I have all sorts of data and studies that I could quote on why online ministry is vital but, instead, I’d like to present some things that I have witnessed personally as I have led my churches to engage online.
Homebound People Engage!
Assumptions are often made that only young people are interested in streaming the worship service but I’ve found this to be far from the truth. What is true now and has been true for the entire time that I’ve been live streaming is that our homebound parishioners are the largest group of people who tune in. I hear from homebound parishioners nearly weekly and they are so grateful for being able to remain plugged in to what their church is doing and they enjoy getting to sing along, hear the prayers, and the sermons every week from wherever they are. When I was a youth, I can remember making recordings of the sermon at my church and making copies of the tapes(!) to send to our homebound people. Now, streaming enables these dear saints to simply log in and hit play without having to wait for a disc. Facebook groups can also enable them to share in prayer requests, congregational happenings, etc. Obviously, this does not replace face time with the pastor and friends from church visiting, but streaming and other forms of online ministry do enable one to be more fully plugged in.
Online Attendance is Attendance. Online Giving is Giving.
In spite of my own use of the terms, I wish we would get away from adding the qualifier “online” when we talk about those who worship and give digitally. The fact is, these spaces are just as valid and real as the brick and mortar buildings where we worship. There are a variety of reasons one would choose to worship online. Sickness is a major contributor, with many people having conditions that will not allow them to be in many public spaces due to the risk of exposure of COVID and other illnesses that could actually kill them. Perhaps it’s a family on vacation, traveling on Sunday who choose to listen to the audio portion of the service while they drive to or from their vacation destination. The reasons why do not really matter; what does matter is that they are still hearing the gospel and are still singing the hymns, praying the prayers, saying the liturgy. God still honors this and receives it. as a blessing to himself from those who are striving to grow closer to him. Remember this too: Assuming you have an online giving portal available for your church (and if you don’t, you’re truly missing a major opportunity), they are still giving their offering even if they aren’t putting a physical check or cash into a plate. The faithful are still being faithful. I even have someone who, to my knowledge, has never had. a connection to one of my churches but who faithfully watches the live stream and even contributes monthly through our online giving site. This is God at work!
Here’s more food for thought: Before I began writing this article, I looked up the stats for the videos of last Sunday’s worship services at my two churches. By best estimates, an extra 10 people joined one of my churches for worship and an extra 20 joined the other last Sunday. People are being reached for Jesus who may not otherwise have been! And why? Because we live stream our services.
Online Often Leads to Analog
Studies show that when people are seeking a new church, one of the first places they turn to is Google and Facebook. People will preview a church and its ministries through the websites and social media pages before stepping foot into a building. They will typically watch a recording of a service to get a feel for how the church worships so that they know what to expect. In every congregation that I have served and where we have streamed, nearly all of the people who have visited in-person have told me they first found us online and watched playbacks of the worship services before deciding to come for a visit. In almost every case, these folks became some of the most involved parishioners I ever had. Recently, I had a family begin attending physically because of our online ministries. The wife had previously been connected with the church, been away, and came back when she found the church’s Facebook page. Yes, some people will choose to only participate online (the reasons why are varied), but most often worshipping online leads to occupying a seat in the physical sanctuary. Any church not streaming and engaging online is missing opportunities to invite people to worship who they likely would not have the opportunity to find otherwise.
Let’s Bring It Home!
I want to be clear that, not once, have I ever advocated for the physical church to be replaced with a digital one. I do not believe that churches should go fully online and stay there. With that said, we need to rethink what church is and what participation actually means. To be frank, what most church call “outreach” is ineffective and only serves the congregation that’s already there. Outreach in 2022 must include digital outreach and ministry in order to meet people where they are today. Church is not becoming a mixture of physical and virtual spaces, church has already become that. The church must embrace online ministry instead of fighting it. History has proven time and again that when the church resists new ways of ministry, the end is not good.
The church must go to where the people are. In the days of Jesus and John Wesley, the people were in the town squares and the fields. In our day, the people are online. Let’s do as Jesus instructed: “Go.”
In my last post, one of the things I harped on was the spread of misleading and false information about the UMC being conducted by people connected with the Global Methodist Church/Wesleyan Covenant Association. Below is a prime example of what I’m talking about:
This is petty and ridiculous. While I do not know exactly who created this tissue of lies (I’m trying to find out – and I fully intend to find out), I do speculate it was someone connected with WCA and/or GMC. The fact that GMC is doing absolutely nothing to refute or to discourage this kind of mudslinging is pretty telling. But let’s talk about a few of these points they allege about a “post-separation” UMC:
No, the UMC will not become pluralistic. As I have already stated in my previous writing (see link above), the Articles of Religion affirm faith in Jesus Christ as the sole means of salvation. Because of the Restrictive Rules, these can not be amended. It’s not happening. Period. But let’s say it did happen: I would be one of the first out the door.
There’s no guarantee that annual conference boundaries will change, but at some point perhaps they will. There’s no way to know for sure at this time if, or how, that will happened (that will ultimately be up to General Conference/Jurisdictional Conferences).
As for international membership, I speculate that a lot of the African central conferences are going to opt to remain in the UMC for various reasons. As has already been demonstrated in places such as Nigeria, the GMC has very limited support within some of the conferences on the African continent.
The Trust Clause claim is also false. Let me be very clear: Annual conferences DO NOT own or control the banking accounts of congregations. They never have and never will. Period. This is patently false and intentionally misleading to cause fear. The only time the Trust Clause even is a factor is in the event a congregation chooses to close or disaffiliate, otherwise it has no bearing on the day-to-day operations of a congergation.
Whether or not LGBTQ clergy will be allowed to be ordained or licensed for ministry, or whether or not LGBTQ marriage rites/weddings will be allowed will be up to the General Conference. Frankly, given the trend of conservative representation from the central conferences only expected to increase (with the prediction being over 50% by 2024), I find it hard to believe that our stance is honestly likely to change.
The UMC’s position on abortion can be best summed up as being against abortion except in rare circumstances but that abortion should be legal and rare. For more, see our social principals. You will note that it’s very pro-life and not what many people seem to believe it is. One thing you will see very plainly is that the UMC DOES NOT endorse abortion as a means of birth control. Never have, and I doubt ever will.
The primary church focus is “social justice?” Really? (eye roll emoji goes here).
I’m sick and tired of having to explain these falsehoods to both parishioners and others who, when they find out that I’m a pastor in the UMC, they make all sorts of assumptions and repeat the junk that floats around online. Frankly, me and my colleagues should not have to invest so much time and energy into dispelling these falsehoods.
Once again, I call on the Transitional Leadership Board within the Global Methodist Church to do everything they can to stop this kind of fear mongering and misinformation being distribubuted by people clearly affiliated with their denomination. If they choose not to, they are complicit and I will only assume they endorse these tactics.
I greet you in the strong name of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the One who was, is, and is to come. The One who lived and died and rose again so that we may share in His victory over sin and death.
This letter is one that I hoped to not have to write but it’s become evident that someone needs to say these words to you. If no one else will, I will. The reason is simple: I love you all.
Seriously, I do. Do not agree with your choice to leave the United Methodist Church and to encourage others to follow you, but I also support you all in going in the way which you believe you are led to go. May you all continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ, may the love of Christ and the hope of resurrection be proclaimed, and may you and your congregations grow in grace, love, and in truth. My sincere hope is that we can all continue to be co-laborers for Jesus at the end of the day.
With that said (and know that this next statement does not apply to all of you): I do not agree with your tactics, the lies many of you are spreading, and the fear that is being sown. Your attempts at spiritual and other manipulation are sickening and. it pains me to know that many of you willingly and, perhaps, gleefully participate in these games. Lying is a sin and I urge you all to repent. Even if you believe that you’re building God’s kingdom, the end does not justify the means. Based on what I have seen and heard, here are some areas where I believe the GMC needs to come clean.
Admit that this was the plan from the start.
You can’t kid a kidder and you can’t con a con artist.
I told many friends of mine that, when the Wesleyan Covenant Association launched, a new denomination was also on its way. I was told repeatedly by WCA insiders that a new church was not in the works and that they had no such ambitions. One even told me – and yes this is a direct quote because I will never forget it – “We will stay. in the United Methodist Church until Jesus comes back.” (the person who said this to me is no longer involved in WCA/GMC because they realized they were being lied to) Well, here now we have the GMC, launched by people also involved with WCA. New denominations don’t just happen overnight, they take years of discernment and planning to launch. Just be honest and admit that this was the plan from the beginning of WCA. That much became clear to me quickly.
Stop the misinformation campaign
One of the main problems with politics today is that there is so much misinformation put out by campaigns, parties, and outside players, that it’s difficult to tell the truth from the lies. The biggest misfortune is that church folks seem to be keen on not only believing the political lies but also employing the tactics used on them. Especially the clergy, you all know that the United Methodist Church is not going to change to a doctrine that denies the divinity of Jesus, denies the trinity or any of the other fear-inducing claims some of you are making. Yes, there certainly are individual people within the UMC who hold such beliefs, but they are few and far between. It’s not uncommon for someone to make such a claim and when asked to name someone who said any of these things, they suddenly claim to feel attacked or otherwise can’t name anyone. Even if there was a movement within the UMC to change our articles of religion and confessions of faith, it’s next to impossible to do so because of the Restrictive Rules (again, this is something that should be common knowledge). This tells me that either people are intentionally misrepresenting the truth or that outsiders with no knowledge of UMC polity are being allowed to spread such rumors to benefit the GMC. Either way, it’s dishonest, disgusting, and sinful.
The doctrine issue is only one aspect subject to rumors and fear mongoring. Spreading rumors that churches are not being allowed to leave is dishonest as well. A pastor stood up during my annual conference’s gathering and claimed that there was an annual conference in Texas (I don’t believe he said which) that was not allowing churches to disaffiliate if they wished to do so. I know for a fact that this is not true as I have colleagues in Texas – in two different annual conferences – who are actually part of disaffiliation teams that their conferences send to assist churches that wish to leave. There may be pockets of resistance, sure, but it’s not widespread and is most certainly not the conspiracy that a lot of you are making it out to be. The claim that pastors are being told not to talk about disaffiliation if asked is also almost entirely not true (again, I’m not naive enough to believe that it doesn’t happen but such “intimidation” is not widespread). At the request of our general conference delegation, there will be gatherings throughout the state to discuss specifics related to disaffiliation, largely to dispel the rumors and fear mongering going around. Frankly, this should not be necessary but since GMC is not doing anything to discourage such fear mongering, it is.
Having worked in radio broadcasting and gaining extensive marketing experience as a result, I can spot a campaign when I see one. When different people are saying similar things and changing to a different topic at the same time, it’s intentional and straight out of a marketing playbook. GMC needs to stop this foolishness. I emphasize once again: Lying is a sin.
Stop claiming that those who remain in the UMC are unfaithful
More than once, me and colleagues who have expressed that we desire to remain in the UMC have been told that our souls are on the line. I’ve been called a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and told that I’m leading my people straight to hell more times than I can count. Laity also have been told similar things. There are people truly telling others that, should they remain in the UMC, they are at risk of losing their salvation (I can’t help but notice that many of these comments come from anonymous trolls on various social platforms). This kind of spiritual manipulation is sickening and unloving. GMC needs to denounce this kind of behavior and actively work to stop it.
The bottom line: Show love.
Why is an organization that claims to be more faithful to the teachings of Jesus participating in such activities or allowing them to happen in their name? You’re either with Christ or against Him. You’re either trying to build His kingdom or one of your own making. If GMC is truly about Jesus and nothing more, they will see that truth wins out. To do otherwise is to be complicit in sin. My hope and prayer is that love and charity are shown. Brothers and sisters, stand for truth. Don’t stand for fear and manipulation. Any gains made through such means are ill-gotten and, well, scripture has plenty to say about that too.
Rev. Jonathan Tullos Elder in Full Connection, Mississippi Annual Conference of the UMC
As the United Methodist Church has fully entered the annual conference session season, much of the talk has been about churches choosing to disaffiliate from the UMC. While there are exceptions such as Mt. Bethel in the North Georgia Annual Conference, many of the churches choosing to leave under Paragraph 2553 of the current Book of Discipline are small and/or rural. In the decade that I’ve been serving as a United Methodist pastor, almost all of my appointments have been to small rural churches, so I have seen first-hand the challenges these congregations face. Many are in areas that have been in decline for years, and can not even afford to pay a full-time salary for a pastor without going on a charge (for non-UM folks: This means they team up with other congregations to form a circuit, whereby they share a pastor and expenses such as salary and housing). Because of these factors and more, I am greatly concerned that these congregations will be the most harmed by this mess.
And, frankly, I don’t believe many of the people in these congregations fully understand what they are getting into by going independent or joining a fledgling denomination.
I’ve heard from several colleagues who have shared stories that only add to my concern. One such story came from a now-former DS who was meeting with a congregation that had indicated they would like to discern disaffiliation and the possibility of becoming independent. This congregation was receiving salary support through equitable compensation funds provided by their conference so that they could afford a full-time pastor. My friend indicated that they were not only surprised to learn that they would no longer receive these funds but that they would not receive a newly appointed pastor from their annual conference when their then-current pastor left. Somehow, they assumed they would continue to receive conference support after disaffiliation.
I wish I was making this up.
I heard another colleague tell of their bishop having a conversation with leaders from a denomination that was wishing to disaffiliate. This is a congregation that had been around for approximately 150 years. The bishop reminded them that one of the reasons they had likely survived for so long was receiving an estimated 70 appointed clergy during that time and the fact that United Methodist clergy must be held accountable for actions they take which are detrimental to the church. By being independent, they would not have such safeguards and likely have a difficult time hiring their own pastor due to their remote location.
Yet another former DS related a story of a congregation within his annual conference that was choosing to fight the trust clause in court and “they have spent more money on legal fees than if they had simply gone through the disaffiliation process.” Whoever is giving them advice clearly does not have their best interests in mind, but because they have refused to cooperate with the annual conference to reach a settlement, they are incurring debt at a fast rate that will possibly endanger their future viability.
I truly do not believe that many of these congregations and clergy who are choosing to disaffiliate fully understand what will happen once they sever their relationship with their annual conference. My fear is that once they realize the gravity of their decision, it will be too late and the harm will have been irrevocably done. For me, this is not preserving an institution. Expressing my concerns is about doing my part to educate people on this issue that should not be taken lightly and begun flippantly. This is about doing what I can to minimize the harm done to these precious bodies of saints who deserve the best support and pastoral leadership they can possibly have.
And let me add that most of the decisions and policies made by the breakoff denomination seem to be best suited for large churches in suburban areas. There is very little that I’ve seen that has been done with rural congregations in mind. Within the Global Methodist Church, congregations will be mostly responsible for finding clergy from a list of available clergy provided by their GMC annual conference. The congregation and clergyperson will have to reach an agreement on salary, etc. that will have to be approved by the bishop and cabinet. However, that congregation will not receive a clergyperson under appointment, at least not in the way the UMC currently appoints pastors. If a congregation can’t find a clergyperson willing to serve their congregation, it seems they will not receive much, if any, assistance from the annual conference beyond providing a list. Clergy will not be sent to an appointment under the GMC system. It’s nothing more than a call system with a few more hoops to jump through.
Rural churches, hear me: If you decide to disaffiliate at this point, you will quickly find out that you will be on your own in every way imaginable. You will have to find your own clergy, which will be a huge challenge given that many rural and/or small churches simply can not pay enough for a full-time pastor on their own and are in areas where many people simply do not want to relocate to (and let me be very clear: This is NOT a reflection on my current appointment if any of my people see this. This is simply a fact for many rural and small congregations). While you certainly won’t have to pay apportionments or submit yearly reports anymore, you will find out that benefits such as conference-provided health insurance for your pastor will be an expense you will have to provide on your own; you also will no longer be covered under conference liability and property insurance, which also tends to be very expensive for churches. Many of the other safety nets you currently have – such as assistance with compensation to afford a full-time pastor – will be gone.
The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, not without a bunch of manure being spread.
I’m certain some people are going to bristle at what I have to say and that’s their prerogative. However, I believe that a lot of this has not been said, and it’s been to the detriment of people who make up small and rural congregations who may want to float the idea of disaffiliation. Consent is either informed or it is invalid. Again, my hope is that no more harm comes to any of our churches for any reason.
One of my concerns has always been that the rural church be represented and cared for in the same way as larger suburban and urban churches. From the floor of annual conference this year, I advocated for as much when we had an opportunity to codify diversity on our delegations to general and jurisdictional conferences, one of those means of diversity being congregation size and setting (the measure ultimately failed, unfortunately). I said that the rural church is largely not being well represented currently and it’s not. But know that the rural church won’t be represented at all by leaving for the new denomination on the block.
Over and over as the chasm between conservative, centrist, and progressive factions within the United Methodist Church has been growing, the word that keeps being thrown around over and over is: “Distraction.” On both sides of the theological aisle, churches have left with “the distraction of the continued debate on LGBTQ inclusion” cited as a primary reason. They claim that the “distraction” of the debate has prevented them from effectively ministering and otherwise working for God’s kingdom.
Has it, now?
I have maintained throughout that anything is only a distraction if one allows it to me (sic). Anyone who says any of this has kept them from doing the work of the kingdom is admitting thay they have allowed the enemy to win.
Here’s the thing: Ministry must still be done regardless of our desire to engage in endless debates and discussions over human sexuality. Now, I’m not saying that these conversations aren’t important. What I am saying is that when one chooses to make this the sole focus of their life, then, yes, they are distracted from the work that God has called us all to undertake.
“Distraction” is a choice.
The truth is, all of this is only a distraction if we one allows it to be. For me, I have discussions about denominational things from time to time, but I spend much more of my time talking about Jesus and the gospel. I do this because I have chosen to not allow human sexuality debates to be what keeps me from ministering to the people in my midst and to those outside it I’m able to reach. Simply, anyone who cites the “distraction” of LGBTQ inclusion as why they want to leave or why the church should split is admitting defeat. At the end of the day, no matter how many pieces the UMC is carved into, things are going to continue to come up. If it’s not LGBTQ inclusion, it will be something else later on. Then what? Are we going to keep splitting and not doing God’s work because we’re “distracted” by something new?
Citing “distraction” is an admission that one has allowed the enemy to win. You better believe the enemy finds this hilarious, a joke at your expense. Or, perhaps, at the expense of your witness.
This is, more or less, a sermon I preached on December 26th at my churches. This sermon is my ordination sermon, meaning this is the one I’m submitting to my annual conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry as part of my application to be ordained as an Elder. I wanted to share it here for any feedback anyone might want to share, but also because I want to share this message with as many people as possible. I hope you find inspiration and blessing in this attempt at articulating the gospel. – Jonathan
For many years, I have been hearing, reading, and otherwise seeing encouragement from various people and groups to “keep Christ in Christmas.” There are parts of this notion that I believe are valid, as the Christmas celebration has become more and more secular even among professing Christians, with many people choosing observances of the holiday that have little or nothing to do with the reason Christmas exists in the first place (spoiler alert: It’s when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday). Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Christmas is all about.
A heads up for next year: Next year, Christmas will fall on a Sunday, and I have no plans of calling off worship. I remember the last time Christmas was on Sunday, there were churches cancelling services because it was Christmas! Think of this for a moment: The very idea sounds obscene and silly, but it was happening. I was even berated in a Facebook group for pastors when I expressed that the pastors who cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday were misguided and missing the mark of what the day even means. I remember one of the members of the group referred to me as an “old fashioned and uncaring” person, followed by a… well, it was a name I won’t repeat here because he said I wasn’t being sensitive to the needs of families. But, you get the idea. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.
The world we live in has, indeed, become more secular. I see a lot of hand wringing among people who worry that we are losing sight of God and that we’re “trying to take God out of everything.” First, know that none of us are that powerful. Trying to take God out of anything is like trying to command the oxygen out of this room right now. We simply can’t do it. Not to mention, God is where God wants to be and there’s nothing we can do about that. What’s more: The reason God often seems absent from our celebrations and our world is because we seem to forget about God. God hasn’t left, we simply fail to acknowledge him. We want others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” but what have we done to bring that about in our own right? As disciples of Jesus, keeping Christ in anything ought to start with us.
Here’s the thing: We can’t give the impression that we’re keeping Christ in Christmas unless we keep the teachings of Jesus and the ways of Jesus close to our hearts and act upon those teachings. If people can’t see Jesus in us, why should they be concerned with the true meaning of a holiday we care deeply about? If we want to truly keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Christ in ourselves, every single day. Keeping Christ in Christmas – and beyond – starts with us keeping the ways of Jesus on full display in our lives.
Christmas is vital to the Christian faith because the birth of Jesus brought about what I daresay is the most important aspect of the entire story, but one that we often overlook: It’s the incarnation. Dr. Ken Collins was one of my professors at Asbury and he spent a lot of time – at least two full class days – lecturing on the importance of God becoming flesh for us. Let me save you a lot time and expensive of going to seminary and boil down what Dr. Collins told us: Had the birth of Jesus not happened – that is, if God had not been born fully divine and fully human – then anyone who claimed that Jesus truly was the Messiah would have been wrong. That would have included the angels who appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed explicitly that the Messiah had been born and told the shepherds where they could find him. This much trouble would not have been brought forth for a lie so we know that Messiah came that night.
As Jesus was alive in the barn that night, and is still alive at the right hand of the Father today, so should Christ be alive in us today. Paul is writing his disciples in Colossae and saying just that. If you want to summarize his message, he’s telling the Colossian Christians that if they’re really saved by Jesus and have the Holy Spirit within them, this is how they act like it. I don’t believe that Paul is telling them – and us – to simply play nicely together, rather he’s saying that every single day we must choose to put Jesus fully on display in every aspect of our lives, from how we treat one another, how we talk, even how we think. We choose to show mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and to make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.
If Jesus is alive in you, then this is what it will look like to other people. This is how people will know that you have Jesus. Paul is listing these attributes and asking, “How well are you keeping the Christ in you?”
Paul’s metaphor of putting on clothing as a way of displaying one’s devotion to Jesus is a frequent instruction and here’s one reason why I believe he states this: What we wear is a choice. It was your choice to wear what you have on today, just as it was my choice to have this robe on while I preach this morning. You or I could have chosen differently but this is the choice we made. Our faith is the same way: Every single day, we choose to put on Christ by daily accepting His grace and mercy and choosing to live out that faith by taking the teachings of Jesus seriously enough to live them out. The way we treat each other and people in general is a choice that we make every single day. Everyday, we can choose to treat each other the way the world expects – with distrust, thinking the worst about the other, and general disdain – or we can choose to live “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being a disciple is more than saying we go to church or having a fish symbol somewhere on our car; being a disciple is an intentional way of life. It’s an ethical and moral responsibility.
Conflict is going to arise, even within the church. I believe Paul is telling us to be on guard for that. In spite of any decision that we make to put on Jesus every morning, we are still going to have problems come up. Paul teaches us here that putting on Christ involves knowing that not all of us are on the same level and we are going to get plenty of things wrong. Lord knows I have my faults. Sometimes I can really put my foot in my mouth when I allow my fingers or my mouth to move faster than my brain and heart. We all have those times. We have a choice, however: When we are on the receiving end of offense, we can choose to hold that against the other person or we can choose to love, forgive, and understand that we all have faults. Paul tells us to choose love.
I like verse 17 the best of all in this passage: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” Every day, we are a representative of Jesus. People know us and know that we profess Jesus as our savior. The choice is ours as to how good of a representative we are of him. When we send representatives to Jackson or to Washington, we want them to remember where they come from and who they represent, not only to vote the way they believe is in our best interest, but also to represent us in the best way possible. As Christ’s representatives, we have somewhat of the same responsibility: Everyday we vote to uphold the gospel and follow it. Everyday, we represent Jesus and it’s up to us to give a good picture of Jesus to all people we meet. It may sound hyperbolic but one’s impression of Jesus could be based on you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Paul is letting us know that we have a responsibility to remember who we are, where we come from, and who we belong to. We belong to Jesus. Let’s represent him well.
The choice is ours: We can take on this moral code that Paul is teaching about here or we can do our own thing and say it’s of Jesus when it really isn’t. There has been much damage done to the church throughout the ages by people – well-meaning for the most part – who have made majorly bad decisions in God’s name. From judgment on who’s worthy to come to the table, rants about coffee cups and “happy holidays” to the more heinous examples of genocide, these people do not represent Jesus well at all. I saw something recently that said, “People say they want to keep Christ in Christmas but I’d settle for keeping Christ in Christians,” Ouch. How well have we represented Jesus lately? Have we put on Jesus of the Bible of an idol of our own making and own moral judgments? Would Jesus approve of how we treat our neighbors?
Let’s keep Christ in Christmas by putting on full display the Christ that’s within us. What’s more, let’s do it every single day. Let’s keep Christ all year ‘round.
A few years ago, I attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker made a statement that I often recall: “God is in the rescue business.” One of the occasions where I found myself thinking of this statement was in a conversation this morning with one of my friends, who said, “I don’t like churches because of my issues and hang ups and what happened to me growing up there. I’d absolutely feel safe in your church. And that’s what’s important. Taking in the lost sheep and helping them feel like they have a sturdy shelter again.” Honestly, a statement like this is something every Christian ought to long to hear, that someone has even an ounce of faith because of their witness. Especially as a pastor, I like knowing that someone has rekindled their faith because I allowed them the space to explore and safely ask questions and express doubts. As a shepherd, my job is to seek the lost sheep and bring them safely into the care of Jesus, the great shepherd.
Unfortunately, especially in the western world, Christians seem to have lost sight of the mission and of who God really is. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinner (Luke 5:32). Yet, this doesn’t stop many Christians from judging who is and is not worthy to attend their church. The idea often seems to be that people must all be alike and think alike in order to join a particular church. Here’s the thing, though: That’s entirely a modern construct. From its earliest days, the church – as in, the collection of people – was meant to be diverse in its make up and perspective. If you look at Acts 2 and other parts of the new testament that reveal the look of the early church, you’ll see that they were people from all sorts of places, walks of life, and outlooks. Some were totally convinced of Jesus being the Messiah while others had their doubts. Some were certain of how to express their faith from their Jewish background while others had never been Jewish and had no idea what was going on. Now, we want homogony in every facet and if a “sheep” wants to come to a particular pen who doesn’t fit with the other sheep, then that sheep is often ignored and sent back out into the world even more hurt and scarred than they were when they walked in.
In such churches, any sheep who does not look and think the same as the current sheep aren’t welcome.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is a perfect example of what evangelism is supposed to be. The Pharisees aren’t happy that Jesus has been associating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” because, as the Pharisees saw it, they were not worthy of being loved by God. They had decided that these “sinners” were not welcome. Jesus uses the example of a shepherd who tends a flock of 100 sheep leaving 99 to find the one who wandered away and brings the lost sheep back. There, the sheep who wandered off and was malnourished, dehydrated, and injured can be cared for and healed. Jesus closes out this lesson by saying, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT)
This is the job that Jesus wants His people to carry out: Find the lost sheep and bring them home, even if the sheep don’t quite “fit.” Bishop James Swanson once said in a sermon, “Being together does not mean being and thinking alike.”
Our job is to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them to Jesus to be made whole and healed. It doesn’t matter what we believe is “wrong” with them or how different they are, it’s still our job to show them to the rescuer. We don’t get to pick and choose who comes to the table because it’s not ours; the table belongs to Jesus.
Rescue the perishing, Care for the dying, Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; Weep o’er the erring one, Lift up the fallen, Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, Care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
I remember several years ago that one of the big churchy buzzwords (or maybe “buzz term” would be more appropriate) was worship wars. Basically, this was a term used to describe the struggles many congregations faced about traditional versus contemporary music in their worship services. Many churches opted to have separate traditional and contemporary services and, often, the result was turf wars over which service was better or which service’s attenders mattered more. Some opted to have blended styles of worship with contemporary and traditional music, liturgy, and other elements mixed together. The result of the blended approach has often been the fans of contemporary and traditional approaches arguing amongst themselves over which style was proper and appropriate. Still other churches have opted for either traditional or contemporary only styles of worship which has often resulted in people opting not to attend a particular church due to their worship style. I want to note that, in my experiences, the arguments for or or against contemporary or traditional worship have been rooted in personal preference and not in anything related to biblical teaching or to church tradition (remember: There was a time when even the organ was considered “contemporary”) and the resulting strife was anything but glorifying to God.
The church has always been involved in such debates since there has been a church. Ever since this thing called “the church” has been in existence, we have been arguing about everything from the proper way to baptize to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. While many of these arguments don’t become major in the sense that it can impact the entire church, we see a new front in worship wars emerging: In-person versus digital/online and hybrid forms of worship. Almost daily, I’m seeing posts on social media decrying one continuing to engage with their church virtually. Such posts essentially have the same message: “You have to come back to church,” as in physically and in-person. The strong suggestion is also made that virtual forms of worship are fake and that one who engages digitally is not actually worshipping.
Now, I know not everyone will agree. People will quote scriptures like Hebrews 10:25 as proof that not going to a worship in a physical space is invalid. Participating in the life of the church is vital but there are many more ways to do this than simply occupying a seat on Sunday morning (and if that’s al one does, they’re not really engaged). We have many ways by which we can participate in the life of the church and engage in worship – attending in-person services and activities are just one of the ways we can connect with one another.
First, let me present some anecdotal evidence: I and many of my brothers and sisters in ministry have been able to reach far more people by live streaming our services and using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom than we have ever been able to reach from our pulpits and our buildings. While people are obsessed with things like views on Facebook, there are ways to estimate who’s truly engaged online and who simply spends a few seconds watching and scrolls away. On average, my two churches have an addition 10-30 people engaged online every Sunday morning, people who would not be with us in any way otherwise. These are people who may not be regularly connected to a church and, somehow, found the Facebook page. One of my churches has even seen someone with no apparent connection to the congregation begin giving occasionally through our online giving platform. For all we know, this would have never happened otherwise. Colleagues of mine have told of similar events within their contexts.
I recently attended the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (as in, Adam Hamilton’s church) and found some great insights about digital and hybrid worship. Barna Group has done extensive research on preferences of digital, physical and hybrid worship and discipleship activities. What was revealed to those who attended a break out about digital and hybrid worship was:
While 52% of all churched adults surveyed preferred primarily physical gatherings, 35% preferred a mix of both (hybrid).
41% of Gen Z prefers physical while 37% prefer hybrid (only 13% wanted digital onl).
42% of Millennials prefer physical while 40% want hybrid (again, 13% preferred digital).
For Gen X, 47% prefer physical while 39% want hybrid (wow!).
Baby boomers: 71% prefer physical gatherings, but 24% want a mixture.
The biggest take away: A total of 87% of churched digital discipleship participants feel that digital forums for discipleship provide a safe space to speak openly,
Here’s the bottom line: Most people still prefer to gather physically (yes, even younger people) but significant portions of each generation group want a hybrid approach. One reason is being able to still interact with worship even if they can not be present at the time of worship. There’s also more: People also feel more free in asking questions and having more open dialogue online rather than in person. As an introvert, I completely understand as sometimes asking the tough questions in physical groups can be very intimidating. Reality is, some physical spaces within the church are not safe for tough discussions. With the modern tools at our disposal, we have opportunities to be more real with one another. The people have spoken: The winner of this latest incarnation of the worship wars is “both,” not just physical or just digital.
Sunday morning is never going to go away (nor should it) but the church will evolve into a mix of digital and physical, and not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.
In these discussions, one must also be careful not to discount those for whom digital is really their only option. We are still in a pandemic. Some people are simply not comfortable gathering in public spaces right now (this is a choice we ought to honor, not mock or try to persuade otherwise) and still others who have weakened immune systems who would surely die if they contracted Covid-19 or some other sickness. When we make statements that say “it’s time to come back to church,” we are not being sensitive to these groups (made up of people made in God’s image).
We must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their choices for their own health, regardless of our own preferences.
The church has an opportunity: Resist the changes taking place and fight against it (which history should teach us does not work). Or, we can meet people where they are. Social media has a lot of bad stuff happening on it but, like anything else, it comes down to how we choose to use it. We can choose to use social media and other online platforms to meet people where they are, which is largely on social media. For a prime example of someone who excelled at meeting people where they are and communicating with them in ways that were accessible, see Jesus.
Let’s put down our weapons of worship warfare and pick up our ability to love. As long as one is engaged with God – regardless of whether that takes places in a pew or on the couch – they are bringing him glory. Let’s do the same.