Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 20, 2011

2011.11.20 “We are God’s Harvest” – Five Practices of Fruitful Living Series

Central United Methodist Church
“We are God’s Harvest”
Pastor David L. Haley
November 20th, 2011

“My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
– John 15:8

We are now at the end of the five Sundays of our fall sermon series, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and Fruitful Living. If you missed any one of them, you can go onto our church website and catch the sermon there.

Now follows the pop quiz! What are the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and Fruitful Living? (Say them with me) Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity.

I hope you have enjoyed, learned from, and been challenged by this series as much as I have. I’ve had Bishop Schnase’s book laying around for four years, waiting for the right time to use it as a series. I chose to do it this year, thinking we could hitchhike on the last practice, Extravagant Generosity, for this year’s stewardship campaign, as we do today.

When I began, I thought I was being original, doing this myself, but as I went along I discovered that many other congregations have used them also, and that there are a wealth of resources out there, some I discovered too late to use in the series. Some congregations have even structured their church leadership around the five practices, not a bad idea.

So believe me when I say, this is not the last you’re going to hear about the Five Practices. As Bishops Schnase says, “Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations perform the five practices in exemplary ways because they keep repeating them, improving them, honing them, sharpening them, deepening them, and extending them. They never forget how important these practices are.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, p. 140)

As I’ve shared before, when I decided to do this series, I had no idea how evocative I would find each practice. First because each practice is so important; and secondly, because each practice has reminded me of people I’ve known, who have embodied one or more of the practices in an exemplary way. So when I think of these practices, I think of people, who modeled the practices for me.

For example, when I think of Extravagant Generosity, I think of Fred Littell. Even though he lived in Winnetka, Fred was a member of my church at Berry Memorial UMC in Chicago, where I was the pastor from 1981 to 1990. Fred was an industrialist, and a mechanical engineer; he and his brother Ed owned a machine shop on Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago, from which they shipped machinery all over the world. Fred was the kind of guy who, if he tripped on a stair in an airport, would take out his ruler and measure it, to see if it was slightly irregular. Fred was also extremely generous, and when he saw a need, tried to fill it.

Like the pastor of most urban churches, I didn’t make much. Toward the end of my time there, I was driving a 1978 Chevy, which was falling apart piece-by-piece. One day, I drove it to a funeral. Fred (and his brother Ed) felt so sorry for me, thinking that a pastor ought to be driving a more respectable car, that before I left, they gave me $10,000, to be applied to the purchase of a new car. Extravagant Generosity, which I’ll never forget.

Fred was a living example of the truth, that’s what’s most important about the Five Practices is not learning about them, but practicing them. It is the concept of fruitfulness, in our congregations and in our lives. Bearing fruit, doing things that actually matter.

Fruitfulness is a very Biblical concept. The Bible and the Gospels and especially the teachings of Jesus are full of stories of soils, vines, branches, seeds, vineyards, farmers, fig trees, harvest, sowers, soils, roots, and weeds. Fruitfulness becomes a metaphor for many profound aspects of the spiritual life and the Christian journey. In the Gospel of John 15:8, Jesus said, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Fruit evidences discipleship; following Jesus and fruitfulness are inextricably linked. Disciples bear fruit.

So before we leave the Five Practices, the question for our congregation and for each of us, is: “How are we doing?” Are we a fruitful congregation, or are we at least on the way to becoming more fruitful? As Christians, are we living fruitful lives?

For too many of our United Methodist congregations together, the answer is, “Not so much.” I don’t have the statistics for our conference, the Northern Illinois Conference, but in his book, Bishop Schnase shares the statistics about his conference, the Missouri Conference.

The Missouri conference of the United Methodist Church is comprised of 900 congregations. 20% of the conferences worship attendance is found in 21 of the largest congregations. 20% of the attendance is found in 570 of the smallest congregations. The 21 largest churches grow at a rate of about 4% a year. The 570 smaller churches are declining at a rate of about 6% year. 70% of the congregations report worship attendance that is the same or declining, and most pastors have never served in congregations that have reported growth in attendance during their tenure.

The median age of United Methodist members is 58, while the median age of Missouri’s population is 36. In many churches, people in their fifties are among the youngest members. In Missouri, 24% of the population is under the age of 18. That means that if the composition of most congregations matched the population, then churches with 200 people in attendance would have 50 children running through their building.

Over the last 40 years, the number of United Methodists in Missouri has declined by 80,000 people, during which time the state population has increased by 30%. There are about 150 fewer United Methodist churches in Missouri now than 40 years ago. Where did the people go? They did not get mad and leave, they just grew old and died, and no one took their place. The decline has not been a backdoor problem but a front door problem: we have failed to bring new people into our churches, especially younger people.

Before we judge Methodism in Missouri, we should know that statistical trends and demographic realities other Missouri conference place it in the middle of the pack among conferences of United Methodist Church in the United States. More than half the conferences in the US report more dismal statistic, and of the half whose numbers look better, only a small handful report actual growth in membership and attendance at increasing numbers of congregations. In our own congregation, for example, we have gone from a worship average of 312 in 1967, to about 120 today. (The good news is that our numbers are going up!)

Obviously, something must change. We cannot continue to do what we’ve been doing and expect downward trends to turn around. For many churches, the rising median age of membership, increasing personnel and facility costs, and declining attendance have reached a point where many churches no longer have the people or financial resources to radically change directions. Thankfully, we are not at that point.

It’s becoming more difficult to unit for United Methodist to ignore the prescient words of our founder, John Wesley, who wrote in 1786: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” (Thoughts upon Methodism”) (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, pp. 128-129)

Churches can change. By the grace of God, churches can step out in faith and radical new directions. And yet change does not happen quickly or without pain. Developing a congregational culture of genuine hospitality, authentic worship, meaningful faith development, life-changing outreach, extraordinarily selfless generosity, requires a profound change in attitudes, values, and behaviors for most churches, and most of us.

That leads us from talking about congregations to talking about us: How are we doing, as individual Christians? Are we bearing fruit in our lives?

I’m not just talking about bodies, dollars, or buildings. Through the personal practice of Radical Hospitality, are we open to God’s leading? What is something we could point to show how God has led us? Through Passionate Worship, are we loving God in return, allowing God to change our hearts, learning to love what God loves and to see the world through God’s eyes? What could we point to, to demonstrate this? Through Intentional Faith Development, are we cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual maturation and following Christ more nearly? What in our beliefs or behavior has changed? Through Risk-taking Mission and Service, are we making a difference in the lives of others? Who would be an example of this? Have we begun to see, in reality, that all we have belongs to God, and therefore practicing Extravagant Generosity? Does it show in our bank account, our checkbook, on the bottom line?

One of my favorite stories from Bishop Schnase’s book illustrates just what one change might look like. A longtime member and proud grandfather stood by the baptismal font with his family for the baptism of his baby granddaughter. Another infant from another family that was new to the congregation was baptized during the same service. Following the service, the two families intermingled at the front of the church as they took turns having their pictures taken. At one point, the mother from the new family needed to get some things out of her bag, and the grandfather from the other family held her baby. Other church members were mixing and greeting, and several commented on the grandfather with the baby, and he found himself saying several times, “Oh, this one isn’t mine; I’m just holding him for a minute.”

Monday morning the grandfather called the pastor at the church office and said he wanted to see him right away. As pastors do, the pastor assumed the worst, thinking somehow the long-term member was upset about something the day before. When the grandfather arrived at the church office, he told the pastor, “I want to change my will to include the church, and want to talk to you about how to do that.” The pastor was stunned, and couldn’t help asking about what brought the grandfather to this decision. The older man’s began to tear as he said, “Yesterday I realized something while I was holding that other baby, the one from the family that just joined the church. I kept telling people that wasn’t my child, but then it dawned on me that it was part of my family, part of my church family and that I have responsibility for that little boy just like I have for my own granddaughter. I’ve been a member of this church for more than 40 years, and in God’s eyes I’m a grandfather to more than just my own. I’ve take care my own children with my will, but I realized I also need provide for the children of the church, so want to divide my estate to leave a part to the church as if the church were one of my children.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, pp. 107-108)

As we practice the Five Practices – as, in this case, Extravagant Generosity – God gives us the vision and faith to plant seeds for trees whose shade we may never see. And in so doing, bear fruit for God.

Let’s end with the author, Bishop Robert Schnase [Video Conclusion to series]

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