Archive for September, 2011

Church begins in the parking lot

September 19, 2011

Bishop Will Willimon of the United Methodist Church has been loudly beating the bushes of his North Alabama Conference trying to figure out what makes churches grow and thrive. Based on a lot of conversations with pastors in his conference, he’s concluded that hospitality is a key factor. He writes:

“We want church to begin in our parking lot,” declared one of our dynamic pastors. “We’re vetting and training teams of friendly Greeters who meet visitors in the parking lot, welcome them, hand them off to the Hosts who stay close to them in the service, then invite them to lunch afterwards.”

The most notable change in church architecture in the past fifty years is the enlargement and the open atmosphere of the narthex, the hallway into a church’s worship space. A hundred years ago our churches received people in a dark, cramped entrance hall. Today churches build spacious, open, light, comfortable “Welcome Centers” as a sign that they desire and expect people who are not seasoned members.

Indeed, I have learned that the main difference between a congregation in decline and one with a future is the difference between practicing the faith for the exclusive benefit of “insiders” (the members of that congregation) or passionate concern for the “outsiders” (those who have yet to hear and to respond to the gospel).

Jesus Christ died for the whole wide world, not just for those inside the church. Therefore, a theological test for the fidelity of a church is hospitality. In our contesting of the Alabama Legislature’s ill conceived immigration law, and I’m rediscovering the radical nature of the seemingly benign Christian notion of hospitality. Our churches really resent any intrusion into their attempts to be obedient to Christ’s mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed. An evangelical definition of a Christian: Christians are people who know how to welcome people even as Christ has welcomed us.

In the Vinebranch Chapel, we inherited one of those “dark, cramped entrance halls” that was built 75 years ago. We’ve made strides to make our little narthex more welcoming, adding furniture and pictures. We have a small team of dedicated and friendly greeters. I know we offer the best coffee in church. But the truth is that I haven’t given much of a thought to improving hospitality in Vinebranch. I haven’t tried to put myself in the shoes of a visitor. This article challenges me to stop neglecting this important aspect of church life.

What does it feel like to be a first-time visitor in Vinebranch? What obstacles prevent visitors from feeling welcome and comfortable? What do we need to do to improve this experience for newcomers?

Things that I do see (and hear) in Vinebranch—the Vinebranch band, the sound system, multimedia, the sermon, the bulletin, etc.—matter greatly to me. My problem is that I get complacent about things I don’t see.

As Jerry Maguire said, “Help me help you.” I’m open to suggestions. Friend me on Facebook and message me, email me at, or comment below.

Prayer for discernment

September 15, 2011

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:10-17, I challenged the congregation to consider that the work they do for God’s kingdom now will last for eternity. Here’s a nice prayer to guide us in thinking along those lines. It comes from our United Methodist Book of Worship. It’s attributed to Hugh Cameron, Scotland, 20th century.

Almighty God, in a world of change you placed eternity in our hearts and gave us power to discern good from evil. Grant us sincerity, that we may persistently seek the things that endure, refusing those which perish, and that, amid things vanishing and deceptive, we may see the truth steadily, follow the light faithfully, and grow ever richer in that love which is the life of all people; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 510.

New sermon series starts this Sunday: “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”

September 14, 2011

This Sunday in Vinebranch, I’ll begin a new 10-part sermon series entitled “Do You Want to Know a Secret?: Jesus’ Parables in the Gospel of Matthew.” The title refers to Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question, “Why do you use parables when you speak to the crowds?” (Matthew 13:10): “Because they haven’t received the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but you have.” This series will help us to unlock some of those secrets, which get to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This series will take us through the end of the Christian year (November 20). During each week of the series, we’ll also have a special children’s sermon, which will tie into that week’s parable. Fittingly enough, the last parable that we’ll cover, the Parable of the Talents, corresponds to Stewardship Commitment Sunday.

The preaching schedule is as follows (click to enlarge):

Methodist minds are not that open!

September 14, 2011

I’m a fan of Roger Olson’s blog, subtitled “My evangelical Arminian theological musings.” I am both evangelical and Arminian. Actually, reading his blog has helped me to realize just how strongly I identify with both those labels.

Olson is a Baptist, of the American (née Northern) persuasion, who teaches at Baylor. I am formerly Baptist, of the Southern persuasion, who has probably been shaped by that tradition more than I know. I feel some kinship with him. He seems practically Methodist to me. And I hope he wouldn’t take offense at my saying that!

Anyway, he wrote a provocative piece last week about Freemasonry, which is prevalent in the part of Texas where he lives now—and in other parts of the South where he has lived and worked.

It was a good post, and I was in the process of commenting on it, when I stumbled upon this statement of his from the comments section. He was responding to a commenter who said that he believed that Methodists in good standing could also be Masons. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 09-11-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 2: Heaven? Get Real!”

September 11, 2011

In contrast to hell, heaven is a doctrine that we Christians talk about often. What we say about it, however, is often less than fully Christian. I strongly believe that our beliefs about heaven can trivialize our actual Christian hope.

In this sermon, I use Todd Burpo’s bestselling book, “Heaven Is for Real,” as a springboard to discuss a more full-bodied and robust understanding of heaven and resurrection. My main point is that the work we do for God’s kingdom in this life will last for eternity. As a result, this sermon will challenge us to think in a new way about service and mission. 

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-17

The following is my original manuscript.

My father died 15 years ago. Since that time, whenever something significantly good has happened in my life—like the birth of my children or graduating college or getting ordained—I can count on my Aunt Mary, Dad’s sister, taking me aside and saying, “Oh, honey, I know that your father is looking down from heaven right now, and he is so proud of you!” And I get it. O.K.? I understand the sentiment. And I know that she means well… But I don’t find this thought quite as comforting as my Aunt Mary intends. In fact, it sort of bothers me.

It bothers me because if my father can “look down” from heaven when I’m doing something really good and commendable and praiseworthy, what would stop him from looking down when I’m doing something uncharitable, mean, and harmful? Can’t I have any privacy here? It’s bad enough that God sees me at my worst. Does the entire communion of saints have to also see me at my worst? Is there not some kind of lead-lined umbrella I can carry over me that would shield me from my father’s prying eyes? No offense, Dad, if you are watching. Read the rest of this entry »

“That the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid”

September 11, 2011

My favorite United Methodist gadfly and preacher, Will Willimon, who also somehow became the bishop of the North Alabama annual conference, wrote the following for a Christianity Today article on the 9/11 anniversary.

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.

Prayer for 9/11

September 11, 2011

The following was this morning’s pastoral prayer:

Almighty God, our rock, our stronghold, our ever-present help in times of trouble, we give you our thanks and praise for this awesome gift of life, which you hold securely in your hands. We praise you for the gift of eternal life that you make available through the saving work of your Son Jesus.

On this day in which we remember and honor the victims of September 11, 2001, we are painfully aware of how fragile this gift of life is. This day reminds us that life is not something to take for granted—that we could lose it at any moment. Help us to live in such a way that we are prepared to die. Help us always and everywhere to bear witness to the light of your love and truth, a light which darkness can never extinguish. We trust you that no act of evil escapes your sight, that vengeance is yours to repay, and that you alone ensure that justice is fully and finally done.

As unspeakably evil as the events of that day were, we are grateful to you that 9/11 ultimately affirmed the goodness of this life through the heroism and courage of selfless first-responders, firefighters, and police; through the compassion of people who volunteered their service to help heal our wounded nation; through the faithful people who prayed and worked through your Spirit for peace with justice in this world and who bore witness to the better way of living that you have shown us.

Enable all of us to become part of your loving and saving mission in this world, until swords are finally beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, and we shall study war no more. Through the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.

On what heaven really means

September 9, 2011

Let’s clear the palate from my last unpleasant post by excerpting this beautiful part from N.T. Wright’s book on heaven and resurrection—or what Wright calls “life after life after death.” Regarding the work we do for God’s kingdom in the here and now, he writes:

You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.1

1. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

Heaven is for real, but not like this

September 9, 2011

Since so many church people are reading Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, and since I’m talking about heaven in this Sunday’s sermon, I’ve also read it. Two hours of my life I’ll never get back! It’s exactly like some glurgey chain email that your Aunt Sally forwards to you, except it’s 150 pages long! If the author were reading this, he would undoubtedly think, “Well of course you don’t like it! You’ve been to some fancy-pants seminary. You make everything so complicated, when in fact it’s really so simple. So simple a four-year-old child can understand it!”

To which I would respond as follows: Even giving Colton Burpo—the four-year-old son of the author who supposedly died and spent three minutes in heaven—the benefit of the doubt that he had some kind of out-of-body, near death experience (which are common), Christian eschatology is, in fact, so complicated that I would expect a four-year-old to misunderstand it.

I asked someone what she liked about the book, and she said, “It just gives us so much hope—that we will be reunited with our loved ones after death.” And I said, “That’s fine, but we have this other book, the Holy Bible, which does that, and it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit!” The whole phenomenon of the book is, for some Protestants, what weeping statues of Mary or visitations by the Virgin are for some Catholics: an inferior substitute for actual revelation.

Catholic theologian Hans Küng put it nicely when he said that he would much rather have one more sentence from St. Paul in scripture than all the pages of pronouncements from the Virgin Mary over the centuries. (Besides, the actual content of Mary’s contemporary words are always so banal compared to her revolutionary words back in Luke 2. I want to hear more from that Mary!)

We may not have as much information about heaven as we would like in the Bible, but it’s enough. God obviously thought it was enough. And where a four-year-old child’s version of heaven contradicts what little the Bible says on the subject, guess which authority I’m siding with?

Sermon for 09-04-11: “Heaven and Hell, Part 1: Why Hell?”

September 7, 2011

One difficult subject we Christians often avoid talking about is final judgment and hell. In this sermon, Rev. White talks about our understandable apprehension regarding hell. At the same time, however, he says that if we avoid the doctrine altogether, we’re not being faithful to the gospel.

Is hell compatible with the perfectly good and loving God revealed to us in Jesus? Why would a God whose very nature is love send people there? 

Sermon Text: Mark 9:38-50

The following is my original manuscript.

This week, as I was preparing for my sermon, I posted the following message on Facebook: “Sorry, iPhone, in my line of work H-E-L-L can sometimes mean “hell,” not “he’ll.” Even if I am United Methodist! ;-)”

Hell has not been a topic that most Christians in our culture have been talking about recently, at least until Rob Bell published a very controversial book earlier this year called Love Wins. Maybe some of you have read it? I read it, and I mostly think that the book wasn’t written for me and probably most of us Methodists. What I mean is: Bell is writing first for an audience of skeptics who may reject Christianity because they can’t reconcile believing in a loving God with a God who also sends people to hell for all eternity.

But there’s another audience that Bell has in mind. Bell is writing for Christians who are far less squeamish on the topic of hell than most of us Methodists tend to be—Christians who already believe in and fear the prospect of hell, if not for themselves then at least for people they know who aren’t Christians. For these Christians, Bell asks many questions that challenge some popular misconceptions about hell.

What many of us Methodists need, however, is a book written from the opposite perspective: a book for Christians who are already so deeply bothered by hell that they seriously question whether it exists at all. They don’t talk about it. They don’t think about it. We pastors don’t preach about it… This is where I’m coming from. I think our avoidance of the subject is nothing less than a crisis. If, when we tell other people about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t also tell them about final judgment and hell, we’re not telling them the whole truth. If we abandon hell altogether, I fear that we risk abandoning Christianity while we’re at it. Read the rest of this entry »