Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Part II -- Pastors' Conference Highlights

I prayed carefully about how to open the Pastors’ Conference. I decided to give a sort of “State of the Mission” address, talk about our successes and failures to date, and chart a course for the future.

In the end, I chose to speak on “The Serious Church.” I hear this phrase all the time, as in, “Is that a serious church?” or “That pastor isn’t serious; he doesn’t work hard.” I have come to realize that the United Methodist Church is generally considered to be “serious,” because it is a large, American, and wealthy church. This makes it an attractive option for people who hope to improve their own fortunes.

But I have begun to wonder just how many of the people in our churches and pulpits are there for the right reasons. In other words, are they Methodists because they want to be disciples of Jesus Christ … or because they hope to get some of the wealth that trickles down from donor churches in America? It’s a question worth raising, and one that I decided to take directly to the pastors.

So I opened the conference by asking the question, “What is a serious church?”

I made a list on the white board of all the answers that a common layperson might come up with in response to this question: big beautiful buildings; stained glass windows; well-dressed pastors who drive big cars; international prestige; titles and positions; celebrity members … These are all things that might be called signs that a church is big-time.

But then I began to go back through the list and replace each item, one by one, with true marks of a serious church. These include such things as: tries to be like Jesus in every way; cares for those who are “the least”; prays together in the face of suffering; studies Scripture together; has pastors with integrity; loves in an active way -- even its enemies; is more concerned about giving than receiving.

“To build a church like this,” I told the group, “we need ‘serious’ pastors. Pastors who desire nothing but to walk like Christ.” I went so far as to say that this needed to become a hallmark of the Mission. As an example, I pointed to the various would-be disciples who approached Jesus and said they wanted to follow him. One by one, Jesus exposed them as frauds, people who weren’t truly serious.

I then went on to talk about the theme I had chosen for the conference – “Building a House of Prayer,” based on the story of Jesus and the moneychangers in Mark 11:12-21. There’s an interesting story that surrounds the incident in Mark’s version – before entering the Temple, Jesus encounters a barren fig tree. He gets angry and curses it; the next time he and the disciples pass the tree, it is dead. I explained that the story of the fruit-less fig tree is a parable of the fruit-less-ness of the religion being practiced in the Temple in Jesus’ time. The tree, like the Temple, was not bearing fruit; it was not fulfilling its God-given purpose and destiny.

This story challenges every church or Mission to ask itself, “Are we a den of robbers … or a house of prayer for all nations?” Which is it? Which will it be? Because if we don’t bear fruit, we will shrivel up and die.

We are building something here in Cameroon, and before we grow much bigger, we must make sure that the foundation is firm. Visible growth is certainly more exciting; overflowing worship spaces, large evangelistic campaigns, and building construction makes donor churches in America salivate. But there is another, more important kind of growth that must take place here first.

First, we must make firm the foundation of the Mission. If this is not strong, then it doesn’t matter what we do now -- twenty years from now, the Mission will collapse. If we have built on sand, then the whole thing will fall down. We need to build on solid rock.

It’s not enough to say that the rock is Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to say that we have the correct doctrine. What matters is whether or not we put into practice what we believe.
I told the pastors gathered in that seaside room, “All of you are the pillars that undergird the strength of the Mission. You are the ones who are building this foundation. Your integrity, your leadership, your holiness will be the cement that keeps this movement going forward.”

The rest of the conference took its tone from these opening remarks, not because I said them, but because the words resonated with what the pastors were already feeling. Again and again, throughout the week, these words were repeated. The words “building” and “foundation” kept echoing in the Benedictine rooms.

When I was finished with my little “State of the Mission,” I spread my arms and said, “OK, well, I’m finished. Let’s move on to something else.”

Promptly, Michael Elango, the short, wiry pastor of FUMC Kumba broke into a verse of “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” Everybody joined in. From that moment on, I knew that the week would be a success in God's eyes.