Happy Advent and Merry Christmas. As we move into a season of preparation and a season of reflection as we await the One who brings light into a dark world, we ponder as Mary did, this little child who is the Savior of the world. Jesus said that he came to bring life! And he does. He brings new life to all of creation. What a gift! We cannot celebrate enough. Hope is breaking into the world and we are witnesses to that hope.
One of the greatest things about being a district superintendent is that you get to go around the district and hear great stories about what God is doing to transform the world. Yesterday, I spent the morning at Dignity Center at Hennepin Avenue UMC. I had heard about it out of the corner of my ear for years but when Ann Carlson, Director of Dignity Center actually invited me to come on over and spend the day, I was thrilled. As I gathered with the other volunteers (called advocates) for prayer and instructions for the day, I realized that I was in for an adventure. They took out their iPads and began logging on to the data base so they could see who they would be visiting with that day. I was impressed with their willingness to try a new technology for the sake of others. Some of them were a little worried that it was still a little confusing using this new technology but all of them were willing to wade into the waters and continue learning for the sake of their clients.
I spent time shadowing Ann Carlson, director of Dignity Center. She had a client from Bosnia. He is struggling to raise his children on little to no money. He has lost his job, his house, and his country. He has been tortured and he suffers from bad dreams and depression. His back was bothering him as he pushed into the room using a walker. I listened to Ann as she asked questions about this man's progress. She spoke with respect and care and yet with firmness as she encouraged him to reach out to resources that could bring healing and wholeness to him and his family.
The goal of Dignity Center is to develop a relationship with the homeless, work out an action plan and invite them to return week after week to be encouraged and to be held accountable for their plan for stability and growth. The Dignity Center is not a place to receive a hand out, although they do pass out food, vouchers, etc. when they are needed. The Dignity Center is a place to develop lives. It is not a one time stop but a long-term relationship. The clients return many times and meet with the same advocate. A progress file is kept so they can keep monitoring and moving forward. The clients report great pride in achieving their goals. For some it is sobriety. For some it is to find an affordable apartment and to develop the means to stay long term. It was a beautiful thing to see people come in and be treated with great respect and dignity as advocates and clients worked together to find a way to a new life.
I am convinced that Reggie McNeal is right on the money when he writes, "The shift for the missional church—from program to helping people grow—is the most challenging. The good news is that people are desperate for this kind of help. . . the even better news is that life is what Jesus came to give—and an abundant life at that. That was his primary agenda. It still is. People are built to last!"
If we are going to help people grow—really grow and be transformed, we have to be less program centered and more people centered. We will have to reallocate the resources of prayer, people, calendar, finances, facilities, and technology. What would happen in our communities if we stopped asking people, "Will you help with the bazaar, committee, etc." expecting that if they are more involved with church work that they will become better Christ followers (how is that working for you?) and instead began asking questions that seek to build people to be better parents, more loving spouses, persons with integrity, people who are generous, etc. What if we began to ask people development questions that really signal that we care about them more than saving the institution of the church? Reggie McNeal says that if we are in the people development business then we will ask questions like:
What do you enjoy doing? Many people have never made the connection that what they enjoy doing just might be the way God wants to bless people through them.
Where do you see God at work right now? One of the best ways to help develop spiritual vitality is to help people see God at work in their lives. We have to help them debrief their lives. This question helps people learn to look for God in their children, their neighborhood, their office, and in their everyday ordinary lives.
What would you like to see God do in your life over the next six to twelve months? This helps establish a coaching relationship. It signals that they, not church programs are the most important. Our task is to develop mature Christ-followers--not a robust program to which we will have to beg already busy people to participate.
How would you like to serve other people and how can we help? People grow most through service. Not service not limited to inside the church but in the world where God is already doing great things through people who will tune their prayer ears to the heartbeat of God. It is God's mission to heal a broken world. How will we join up with God in this effort in the world?
How can we pray for you? How often do you ask this? Every Sunday I would guess, but how will we teach our folk to ask this in their work place, schools, community, and amongst their friends? I believe that God is eager to do amazing things among us but God will do it when we are willing to listen to God and then move with the Holy Spirit.
Developing long term relationships with people is hard. Sometimes we experience disappointment, challenge, frustration, and loss as we deal with people. But relationships also set us up to see God do miraculous life transformation, in others and in ourselves. This is a source of joy, hope, and abundant life. That's life. Do you have a life? Get a life. I'm praying for you.
Please let me know how I can pray for you specifically. I am eager to listen. I am eager to meet with you over coffee (my treat!) to help you set your intentional plan for growth. Charge conferences are coming to an end soon and I will be spending time now meeting with pastors to encourage, pray with you, and do whatever I can to help you on your way to abundant life for you and your church. In this busy season, please take time to enjoy your family. Take time to pause and give thanks for Jesus who came to liberate us and grow us into new creations. Joy to the world indeed!
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church