Adapt or Die

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter of Acts, the first seven verses. The great day of Pentecost had passed, and the church was established. The Good News is being spread and lives are being transformed. The church had grown beyond the Holy Land. Gentiles were joining the church. That is both good and bad. It is good because more are being saved, but it is bad because the growth caused conflict. The conflict was not contained. It is seen both outside of the church and inside the church. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60) illustrates the conflict outside of the church. Our reading for today illustrates the conflict inside of the church. There is no other way to say it. The church was divided. It was the Hellenistic Jews verses the Hebraic Jews. In other words, it was Greek speaking Jews, born outside of the Holy Land, who saw little value in traditional Hebrew customs verses Palestinian Jews, who spoke Aramaic and/or Hebrew who longed to keep traditional Hebrew customs alive. It always happens when people take their eyes off Jesus, secondary issues take primary focus. It has always been true. It is still true in our time.

Our reading contains both the first recorded complaint in the history of the church and the first established committee. The Hellenistic Jews complained their widows were not getting their daily distribution of food. That means the early church cared about both the physical and spiritual needs of their people. To solve the problem, the Apostles formed a committee to handle the matter, freeing them to teach. However, the real issue is not the food. The real issue is change caused by church growth. The church was adapting to their newest members. It is important to note, they are not compromising the Gospel message. They are simply adapting to their changing church. I am comfortable saying, if the church had not adapted, then they would have lost their newest members. It is still true today. We cannot compromise the Gospel message, but we must adapt to our ever-changing world. How many examples do you need?

In March of 1994, I received a phone call from my District Superintendent, I was being moved to the Youngstown, Ohio area. I was pleased with that information because my parents were aging, and I wanted to get closer to them. A few hours later, I was told I was being appointed to the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield. Over the next few days, we set up an interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. United Methodist interviews are really an introduction. We are appointed, not hired. The committee got to know me, and I got to know a little more about the church. The committee longed for one thing, church growth! Like many other mainline Protestant churches, attendance was low, and the congregation was aging. One of the saints on that committee asked me after the meeting, “Is there anything you can do for us? Our church is dying!” I answered, “Yes!” I spent my last twenty-eight years in the ministry trying to keep my word.

For years, in the top left-hand drawer of my desk at Western Reserve was the 1994 East Ohio Annual Conference Journal. It contained all the facts and figures of all the congregations in the Annual Conference for that year. I saved that journal for one reason. It acted as a baseline. I wanted to know if we were making any progress. It also acted as a baseline for the other churches in our district and Annual Conference. Do you know what I have learned from studying those old figures? In nearly every case, the numbers were down. In other words, our churches are dying. It isn’t just true of the United Methodist Church. It is true of every mainline Protestant denomination in this section of the country.

That is why everyone says they want church growth. I have never met a pastor who didn’t want to experience it. I have never met a church that didn’t want to experience it. For decades, denominational bureaucrats promoted church growth and sponsored church growth worships. I will be honest, in my time in the ministry, nothing was more personally satisfying than watching my church grow. That is why everyone says they want church growth! We want church growth because we don’t want our church to die. We want our church to grow because new members bring more money. We want church growth because we need help with all that church work. Everyone says they want church growth because we want our local church to live beyond our generation. The first verse in our reading says, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” The church is growing and that is a good thing. Everyone should be happy. However, that is not the case. There are some in the story who are unhappy because the new members were forcing the church to change. They were being forced to adapt to their changing church and world.

John Adams (1735-1826) became the second president of the United States on March 4, 1797. That transfer of power was one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Many wanted George Washington (1732-1799) to stay in office. He thrived at nearly everything he did during his sixty-seven years of life. Washington was extremely popular after the Revolutionary War. His popularity united the young country and propelled him to the office of president. He served two terms and walked away. Many desired Washington to stay in some form exposes the human condition. People do not like change. They didn’t want him to leave because they were afraid of the unknown. After all, the safest thing to do is nothing. Have you ever refused to change because of the fear of the unknown? We value stability. This is the problem. Our society is always changing. However, this is equally true.

We will tolerate change in certain areas. We will tolerate change when it comes to communication. Do you know anyone who does not own a cell phone? We tolerate change when it comes to transportation. No one travels by covered wagon anymore. We embrace change when it comes to medicine. Would you have heart surgery using 1920 methods? On the day George Washington died, his doctor tried to heal him by giving him a good bleeding. When was your last good bleeding? We will tolerate change in certain areas of our lives, but not every area of our life. The more personal the issue then less tolerant we are of change. Religion extremely personal. The problem is the church must adapt to our changing world or die.

My generation of clergy have been well schooled in church growth principles. Most of those principles talk about how to get people through the front door. You can promote the church in a different way. You can start a new worship service. You can get involved in the problems in our community. Those principles work. They get new members through the front door, but in those classes, we never talked about the back door. People come through the front door. People leave through the back door. Have you ever left a church through the backdoor? Why do most people leave a church? They don’t leave because the halls are dirty. They don’t leave because the sermon is boring. They don’t leave because the minister is too handsome. They don’t leave because of the number of mistakes in the bulletin. They don’t leave because of the quality of the music. They do not leave because of the style of worship. They leave because they don’t feel welcomed. If there are a million ways to say, “I love you,” then, there are a million ways to say, “I don’t want you. Get out!” Could it be, most established members do not mind seeing newcomers leave because they created unwanted change? That takes us back to our reading.

The early church was adapting to their changing world. They are not compromising the Gospel message; they are compromising secondary issues. Through the eyes of God, those things really do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Examine the story through that filter. The church began in Jerusalem, so everyone related to the Golden City and Hebrew ways. The newest converts related to the Greek world. They are Hellenistic Jews. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to us, but it was a big deal to them. The growth of the church had changed the church, itself. The choice was simple. The early church could adapt to their changing world and grow, or they could refuse to change and die. In our time, everyone says they want church grow, but many resist change. If they do not change, then we will die.

Since I retired, I have been worshipping in small membership churches. The one I have been to the most sits on the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line. The old well-maintained building has beautiful stained-glass windows. The summer attendance is approximately thirteen. Each person is very nice and comfortable. Everyone knows everyone’s name and story. Before and after worship, they sit in a circle on comfortable chairs. It is there they get caught up on the local news and recall the past. Weekly, they bring up the condition of their church. Each one knows the truth. Their church has no future. It is only a matter of time before the building is closed. They believe, the problem is society. The world has changed, and they refuse to adapt to their changing world. They worship in a way that was popular seventy years ago. They sing hymns that were written hundreds of years ago. They are not interested in trying something new to reach out into their community. It is very sad, but it is their choice. They are looking for the miraculous to save their church. They say, they want church growth, but they are not interested in changing a thing. It is not just their story.

It is the story of many mainline Protestant congregations in our time. They are choosing to die. They simply refuse to adapt to our changing world. How many churches in your community will be closed in ten years? Research tells us about 3,700 churches close on an average year. Acts 6:1-7 teaches us secondary things in the life of the church do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Russian author Leo Toystoy (1828-1910) once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”

Let Us Pray

Years ago, I served three small membership United Methodist congregations in Belmont County, Ohio. I was proud to serve the Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock churches. Combined, they averaged eighty people on an average Sunday morning. You could drive the loop in 12 miles. My three churches were teamed with two other United Methodist congregations in the area, Belmont and Bethesda. Together, we formed the West Belmont Cooperative Parish.

Every Monday morning the pastors of those churches would meet. The pastor of the Belmont church was a guy by the name of Lew. He was sort of an odd fellow, but I liked him. He wore a rumbled shirt and sported an un-groomed beard with uncombed hair. His glasses were always dirty and sliding down his nose. He left the ministry years ago. He was more passionate about computers, then he was anything else.

At one of our Monday morning gatherings, he showed up with his computer. Within the first few minutes, he turned it on and asked the group, “Can I show you something?” He hit a few buttons and showed us a list of prayer requests. He flashed his yellow smile and said, “My church is compiling a list of prayer requests. We are going to prove to the world that prayer works.” I thought that was an odd thing to do, so I said nothing. I thought, how many answered prayers do you need to prove pray works? Lost in his computer world, Lew showed us his list. There was all kind of things on it.

  1. Vern was facing knee surgery
  2. Doris’ children were traveling up from Charlotte
  3. Jennifer was taking a big exam in school
  4. Dorothy was trying a new hair color and prayed she would like it
  5. Kelly wanted a date with someone named Steve
  6. Rain for the crops
  7. Lois was worried about a new recipe

Wanting to impress us with his computer, he printed the list out and gave each one of us a copy. When I got home, I looked the list again. The more I studied the list the more critical I grew. Everything on that list was about them, their wants, their needs, and their desires. I hate to say it. Their prayer requests were extremely narrow and selfish. Listen to what I am about to say. There is more to prayer than our wants, needs and desires. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is really about God. That takes us to the scripture lesson for today.

We find ourselves in the fourth chapter of Acts, verses twenty-three through thirty-one. Much has happened already. It is really a continuation of a single story. It began in the third chapter, where Peter healed a lame beggar. The miracle created a crowd and Peter took that opportunity to talk about Jesus. In the end, Peter and his companion, John, were arrested. Once released, they were sent back to their own people. The Apostles reported on what had happened, and the people responded by praising God in prayer. It is that prayer that grabs our attention. Those early believers knew what we often forget. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God. Their prayer models for us three things we should never forget in our prayers. It is those things I want to look at in this blog.

First, when you pray never forget the sovereignty of God! One of the most beloved stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. We think of it as a children’s story. However, it is really a story for adults. You know the story as well as I. Jonah was the reluctant prophet. God tells him to go to Nineveh because they need to repent. The problem is Jonah does not want to go. This is the question you must answer to understand the book. Why doesn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? The reason is the people of Nineveh were Gentiles and Jonah was a Jew. He only wants God to love people who are just like him. This is the point. Every day we play the part of Jonah. We only want to love people who are just like us. When was the last time you prayed for someone who wasn’t just like you?

When you pray remember the sovereignty of God. When God looks at the world, he doesn’t see political boundaries or different philosophies of living. God is not a racial profiler. God does not have a foreign policy. God does not see Americans and non-Americans. God does not see one’s sexual orientation. God has never uttered the phrase, “Charity begins at home.” (That is such an unchristian phrase. It was shut down any church.) God only sees human needs and suffering. Look at verses 24b-26. It says, “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’”  The early believers knew of the sovereignty of God. I hope we never forget about the sovereignty of God. I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God the next time you pray.

Second, when you pray never forget the supremacy of Jesus! Max Lucado (born 1955) is a Christian author and clergyman. He once said:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.

If your greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.

If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.

If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.

But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

When you pray remember the supremacy of Christ. Jesus was the greatest life that ever lived. I am sure the founders of the other world regions were fine people, but they can not hold a candle next to Jesus. He is the bridge between God and humankind. He is our only hope of salvation. The early church understood the supremacy of Christ. In the second chapter of Philippians Paul wrote:

He (Jesus) humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In verse 27 of our scripture lesson, Jesus is called the anointed one. To the early church, Jesus was everything. Some things should not change. Jesus should be everything to us. I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God and the supremacy of Jesus the next time you pray.

Third, when you pray never forget the sanctity of the church! In 1949, the Chinese communist government expelled all foreign missionaries. That action signaled the beginning of a new round of Christian persecution. For decades, there was next to no news about the church in China. The only thing the church could do was pray. Everyone expected the worst. Then, the world found out what was happening, revival! In 1949, there were 1.8 million Christians in China. By the year 2000, there were 26 million Christians. In 2018, the Chinese government declared there were 44 million Christians in China. Yes, there is terrible persecution, but there is also revival!

When you pray never forget the sanctity of the church. I am not talking about the human organization we call the church, the one that is filled with boards and committees. I am talking about that organism God calls the church, the body of Christ, those individuals who are glorifying the name of Jesus, and those individuals who are still proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Verses 29-31 says, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”  I challenge you to remember sovereignty of God, the supremacy of Jesus, and the sanctity of the church the next time you pray.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was an Italian friar, deacon, and mystic. He died at the age of 44. Don’t let his age fool you. We know his name because of his spiritual maturity. He once uttered this prayer:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive it; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Saint Francis knew the truth. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God.

One of the saints in my life is a woman named Carol. She truly is an amazing Christian woman. I have known her for years. My wife Kathryn has known her longer. As a matter of fact, Carol was Kathryn’s Sunday School teacher during her High School years. Years later, she babysat our daughter, Anna, in her home. Life is funny. Carol and Anna are now Facebook friends. Every visit with Carol is a treat. On one such visit, Kathryn looked at Carol and said, “I must tell you something. Without you I never would have gone into the ministry.” Carol responded with moist eyes and said, “Every time I hear about you and your ministry in the former Soviet Union, I am so proud I know you. I must tell you something. I’m not in a situation to financially support your ministry. I’m sorry.” Kathryn said, “I don’t send you those reports because I want your money. I spend you those reports because I want something more valuable. I want your prayers.” If Carol knows anything, she knows how to pray.

Do you know how to pray? Are your prayers filled with your wants, needs and desires? Are your prayers filled with the things of God? Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about God. The founder of the great Methodist movement once said, “Prayer is where the action is.”

Is There a Witness in the House?

Years ago, I was talking to a good friend. We covered a variety of topics. Then, it happened. Without warning, she looked at me and asked, “Russ, have I ever told you, my witness?” This is her story, so I will try to do it justice.

She went to visit her mother, who was near the end of her life. She existed in a cloud of depression. She had been widowed for several years, and everything was wrong. Nothing was right in her world. Every word she uttered was critical. My friend dreaded those visits to her mother. However, on one visit, she experienced the unexpected. Her mother greeted her with a smile. Relieved, she walked in and received an unusual question. Her mother asked, “Does God ever speak to you?” The daughter responded, “Mom, I talk to God all the time. I think he responds to me from time to time.” The dying woman said, “He speaks to me all the time. He is a fun guy, and he tells me unusual things.” She continued, “I’m going to die.” The daughter said, “We are all going to die someday.” The mother said, “No, I am going to die in one week. Your father came to visit me and showed me what heaven is like. Heaven is a fun place! He told me I am going to die in one week.” Lost in her mother’s words, she just listened. The daughter looked at me and asked, “Do you know how my witness ends?” I didn’t have a clue. She said, “My mother died exactly one week later.” She finished her story with a smile and these words, “I know my parents are together again, having fun in heaven!” How could I ever forget that story? How could I ever forget that witness? That takes us to our scripture reading for today.

We find ourselves in the first twenty-two verses of the fourth chapter of Acts. I don’t care how you turn the story. It is a story about witnessing. According to the text, Peter had just healed a cripple. Listen to what I am about to say. No one was questioning the authenticity of the miracle. For years, the man had sat there begging in the shadows of the temple. His existence depended on the generosity of others. He had no future and no opportunity to live a full life. Everyone had pity on him, but no one would have traded places with him. That is why they could not believe their eyes. This long-time beggar was whole, healed by Peter. Everyone is happy except two groups. First, the other beggars were not happy. They were asking, “Why not me?” Second, the leaders of the Orthodox faith were not happy. His healing signaled a continuation of their Jesus problem. They thought it would end with Jesus’s execution.  They were wrong. Not really knowing what to do, they had Peter and his companion, John, arrested. In verse seven they asked, “By what power or in what name did you done this?” Peter answers the question in verses ten through twelve.

“It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Does anything else have to be said? Those are impressive words from a common blue collar-man. If you study those words, you discover Peter answered their question by using Bible. He was saying to them, Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. That is true, but this is equally true. Never underestimate the value of your witness. It is nothing more than sharing your experience with God. When was the last time you experienced God?

American clergyman and Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) once said, “Let God be the judge. Your job is to be the witness.” That quote is important because witnessing is misunderstood. Has anyone ever tried to share their witness with you in a pushy, aggressive way? Those individuals forgot they are not the judge. I know that is true because I have experienced that kind of witnessing.

Years ago, I was running late for an appointment, so I decided to drive the back roads to save time. I would have made it, but I was stopped at a railroad crossing. Frustrated, I sat there and watched the train inch along. I shut my car off and rolled the windows down because it was a hot day. As I studied the various cars on that train something unusual happened. A young un-groomed man wearing a red flannel shirt suddenly appeared from the surrounding weeds and ran toward my car. I snapped to attention. I didn’t have a chance to say a word. The stranger looked at me and said, “Brother, you are going to hell if you haven’t accepted Jesus!” He picked up one of my windshield wipers, and placed a track under it. As fast as he came, he was gone. As I sat there reading his literature, I could not question his theology. However, I do have a few questions about his method. I am not sure if it is story of poor witnessing or evangelism. Can anyone here relate to that story? Have you ever been assaulted by someone else’s witness? I am convinced most of us haven’t shared our witness because we don’t want to be like the un-groomed red flannel shirted man. Witnessing is so misunderstood.

This week, I “Googled” the question, why don’t Christians share their witness? I didn’t come up with one reason why people don’t share their witness. I came up with nine reasons. Maybe you can relate to one of them? This is the list.

  1. Ignorance – They don’t know they are supposed to witness
  2. Education – They don’t know what to say
  3. Wrong Assumptions – They assume everyone knows the Gospel
  4. Apathy – They just don’t want to witness
  5. Procrastination – They will tell their story later
  6. Worldliness – They don’t want to look like a religious nut
  7. Preoccupation – They don’t think about sharing their story
  8. Inadequacy – They don’t think their story is interesting
  9. Rejection – They don’t want their story to be dismissed

I think people don’t share their witness because witnessing, itself, is misunderstood. What is witnessing? It is nothing more than sharing your experience with God. There is no good witness or bad witness. There is just your witness. You are not the prosecutor, defense attorney or judge. You are the witness. The only thing you are required to do is share what you have experienced. When was the last time you experienced God? When was the last time you shared your story? When was the last time you witnessed to someone? Never forget, witnessing is important. If you do not believe me then look at the scripture lesson.

Peter simply expressed his understanding of Jesus. According to Peter, Jesus was more than a wise teacher. Jesus was more than a positive role model. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. According to Peter, the events of Jesus’ life were all part of the divine plan. The ultimate expression of his love was the cross. Without the cross, there is no hope of salvation. His understanding of the divine plan is amazing. Can I tell you the truth? I am intimidated by his witness. My simple witness can’t compare. Are you intimidated by Peter’s witness? If you are too, it really doesn’t matter. The people in your life don’t care about Peter’s witness. The people in your life care about your witness. They care about your witness because they care about you. Your story reminds them that God is still active in our world. Your story, your witness reminds people we are not alone. God is with us! Your story reminds people there is still hope. I challenge you to share your witness because our world is desperate for hope.

When I was in seminary I served a small membership church in Garrard County, Kentucky. There is an old tradition among the Christian Churches in that area. On the fifth Sunday of every month, they gathered for a hymn sing. That means they gather four times a year. That event was a big deal to those congregations. My church, the Pleasant Grove Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), never missed one during my tenure. Each service was about the same. Besides the singing, there were the host pastor’s opening welcome. Everyone was encouraged to stay for refreshments. There was a long list of prayer requests so everyone could get caught up on the news. There was an offering to support the local food bank and a powerful message about the importance of accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. After all, hell is hot! However, the best part of the service, in my opinion, was when the host pastor stood up and asked the question, “Is there a witness in the house?” That was when the laity had the opportunity to grab the spotlight. One by one, people stood up and talked. Some told how they came to know Jesus. Some told how Jesus had supported them during some personal crisis. Some reported on some divine coincidence. It was a time for the spiritually mature to shine. Each witness ended with the congregation shouting, “Amen!” So let me ask you the question.

Is there a witness in the house? In other words, what is your story? When was the last time you experienced God? Your story may be about the moment you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Your story may include some freak coincidence that reminded you that God was with you. Your story may include the words of a stranger, your angel, who gave you the strength to continue. Your story may include that overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be fine when everything was wrong. Everyone has a story. What is your story about God? What is your witness? I challenge you to share your story, your witness, with someone and remind them that God is with us. Do you remember the quote from Warren Wiersbe, “Let God be the judge. Your job is to be the witness.”