No Spiritual Vitality, No Vital Congregation

Bishop Young Jin Cho, Episcopal Leader of the UMC’s Virginia Conference, delivered this keynote address at the 2016 Lenten Day Apart for clergy members of the Philadelphia Episcopal Area (Eastern PA and Peninsular-Delaware conferences). They met Feb. 8 at Aldersgate UMC in Wilmington, Del. He also preached to the joint body for their Eucharist service.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who hosted the event, said later, “Bishop Cho is one of the spiritual giants of our time. He challenged everyone there to spend an hour a day in their devotional lives. I believe if the pastors of our churches would all commit to doing that we would experience revival in our church.”


DSC_1011Good morning. This is another beautiful day that our Lord has made. This is a brand new opportunity for us to live for the glory of God. Let us rejoice and glad in it. I am bringing greetings from your fellow United Methodists in Virginia. May the grace and peace from our risen Lord be with you. I am honored to be here and to have an opportunity to speak and to have a conversation with you this morning. I am deeply grateful to your Bishop Johnson for her gracious invitation.

This morning we are here to prepare ourselves for the Lenten season which will start this coming Wednesday. As we know, the Lenten season is the time to remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the time to reflect, repent and renew our commitment to our Lord. This morning in my keynote presentation and sermon I would like to talk about the importance of prayer for our spiritual life and for the churches today.

Some years ago one of our pastors started a new church. He worked very hard, but there was not much progress. He had to deal with many issues and experienced many frustrations and disappointments. One day he called his seminary professor to get some advice. After listening to the situation, the professor asked him, “How long do you pray every day? How many chapters of the Bible do you read daily?” He told his professor that those were not the issues. But the professor persistently asked these questions. Then, he said to him, “Your spiritual life is the kingpin that holds your ministry together. If this kingpin becomes loose, if you are not faithful in your spiritual disciplines, you ministry will not stay together and be effective.”

What do you think about this story? Do you agree with the professor’s advice? What is really important in our life and ministries?

I

Today we are living and doing ministries in a very challenging situation. As Bishop I am always grateful to our clergy for working hard for the Kingdom of God in this very difficult time. The challenges we face today are not easy ones.

1) As we know, we, the UMC, have been declining for more than 40 years. Last year a prominent UM layperson who is an economist predicted that if this trend of decline continues, the UMC will collapse around the year 2050. We have about 15 years to turn around our decline. He spoke to our GC delegates last Saturday. His warning was clearly a wake-up call.

Another bit of gloomy news is that the UMC is becoming an aging church. According to the statistics, the average age of a UMC church member is 57 years old.   And we are also struggling with internal conflicts over the issue of human sexuality. This is our overall reality, although there are some differences among annual conferences.

2) And today, the world is changing rapidly. Many people say that the U.S. is no longer a Christian country. This country is becoming more pluralistic and is a mission field now. And the fast pace of technological development presents us with another challenge. This development is making a huge impact on our everyday lives, our values and our ways of communication. Relevance to our changing world has become a major concern in today’s church and in our ministries.

Paul Nixon shares an old joke in his book, Healing Spiritual Amnesia:

A boy went to the store to get soap to wash his dog. He picked out the familiar laundry detergent that his family regularly used. The cashier advised him to get a pet shampoo instead, but the boy’s mind was set on the laundry detergent. The next day, the boy wandered back into the store, looking dejected. The cashier saw him and asked, “It was the detergent, wasn’t it? Something happened to your dog? “Yes,” said the boy, “my dog died. But I don’t think it was the detergent that got him. I think it was the spin cycle.”

The cycles of the changes happening in today’s world have brought about more changes to the church in a shorter span of time than ever before. Many churches today are struggling to cope with the cycles of social, cultural, demographic and technological changes.

Truly, we are facing difficult challenges today. Some people even compare today’s United Methodist Church to a sinking ship. Friends, is there any hope in this challenging situation? If there is any hope? Where can we find this hope?

II

In response to this declining trend, the leadership of the UMC developed the Vital Congregation Initiative. We thought that the time had come to address this issue of decline. In 2011 all of the UM churches were asked to set goals for the coming 4 years in the areas of worship attendance, professions of faith, small groups, number of people engaged in mission and the amount of financial giving for mission. Since then, the churches began putting their statistical data on these five areas, the so-called vital signs, on the website of the General Church.

When the Vital Congregation Initiative was introduced, I was serving as District Superintendent. I faced many negative responses from the clergy. They said, “This is just a number game.” One DS shared with the cabinet what he heard from one of his pastors, “If you want a number, I will give you a number.” One pastor told me that the Bible said, “Feed the sheep, not count the sheep.”

I responded to them, “Yes, the Bible said, ‘Feed the sheep.’ But if the shepherd did not count the sheep, how could he know that one sheep was missing?” And these numbers are not just numbers. These numbers represent the people God so loves. Dr. Lovett Weems once said that if the number is not important, why do they count the offering?

DSC_0952I also challenged the pastors: If you have any alternative plan to turn around the declining church other than Vital Congregation Initiative, I will be willing to take your criticism. But if you just sit and criticize the initiative without any alternative plan, it is very difficult for me to accept your negative response. If you do not have any other plan, please get on board. Ministry as usual is no longer an option.

III

I am glad to hear that we are making some progress in increasing the number of vital congregations. I fully support the Vital Congregation Initiative. But I still have a lingering question in my heart: Will this initiative be sufficient to turn around our churches? Is there not one thing lacking? Do we not have one thing lacking?

I think in this time of serious challenges and confusions, we need to see a bigger picture and ask a deeper question about the church and its ministries. When we talk about how to respond to the challenges we face today, we easily think of new programs or plans. I think new plans and programs may help the churches to some degree. But in today’s challenging situation just putting on bandages with some new programs will not work. Just working harder will not solve our problems either.

We tried this kind of effort for many years. We have tried many programs and initiatives for the past 40 years, but the church has not been turned around yet. I think the time has come for us to think of a different approach to the reality of our decline. If we repeat the same efforts, we will get the same result. The new approach must begin with deeper questions about the nature of the church and a new diagnosis of our issues. If the diagnosis is not correct, the treatment will not work.

I think it is the time to rethink our churches. This is the time for us to find a way to turn this crisis of divisions and struggles into an opportunity to go back to the basics of our faith and rediscover the vitality of an authentic United Methodist Church. In the Chinese language, crisis has two words, 危機(WeeKie). 危(Wee) means dangerous, and 機(Kie) means opportunity. Crisis is dangerous, but it can also be an opportunity. In Christ this is absolutely true. I believe that our crisis today can be an opportunity in Christ. Because he lives, we can face tomorrow. Because he holds our future, we can dream a new dream in the midst of crisis.

Let me tell you this. First of all, our efforts to turn around our churches should be more than a reactive plan to save our denomination; it should be a movement to restore an authentic, biblical and vital church. This is the reason I say that the issue we face today is more than a lack of programs or initiatives or restructuring the general boards and agencies. I know these efforts are important, but I think the fundamental issue of our churches today is a spiritual issue. It is a faith issue. It is a Lordship issue.

Let me share with you a couple of diagnoses of our churches today.

Eugene Peterson talks about the typical American church in his memoir, The Pastor: “Salvation is God’s business. It is what God does. And then he turns it over to us. Church is our business. It is what we do. God, having given himself to us in Jesus, now retires to the sidelines and we take over. Occasionally we call a time-out to consult with God. But basically, we are the action.” Is this a biblical and authentic church?

Dr. Graham Standish also shares the similar insight in his book, Becoming a Blessed Church:

“I have been frustrated over the years that a vast majority of the congregations in the mainstream denominations, and the denominations themselves, have adopted a functional style of church that cuts off their spiritual cores. What I mean is that too many churches focus only on function, on doing activities of church, and not on the fact that at their hearts churches are meant to be spiritual communities in which people form a relationship with and experience God. In these churches there is little expectation that members will experience and encounter God, or connect what they do to God’s purpose, presence, and power.

The problem in many of these churches is not so much what they do, but the spirit in which they do it. They worship, but not necessarily with an eye toward leading people to an encounter with God. They meet to do God’s work, but not necessarily in ways that include prayerfully seeking God’s will and way in their work. They offer prayers, but not with the expectation that prayer will do much more than offer comfort and consolation….Many churches simply are not open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor’s or that a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God’s call and purpose, they argue over who is right and who is wrong.”

What are the issues that Eugene Peterson and Graham Standish talk about?   The issue they raise is a spiritual issue. It is a faith issue and the Lordship issue. Many churches today are away from a biblical and authentic church.

The early church in the Scripture was led by our risen Christ through the Holy Spirit. The church belonged to our Lord, and the Spirit of the risen Christ was in charge of the mission and ministries of the church. Their mission and ministries were built upon prayerful discernment of the direction of the Holy Spirit.

The entire book of Acts confirms this truth. This book talks about the mission work of the apostles, but, actually, it is about the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the spirit of the risen Christ, empowered the disciples and sent them to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit initiated and guided the mission of the apostles.

This is a biblical and authentic church. But what about our churches today? Is our church led by the Holy Spirit? Do we truly honor the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our planning and in developing our ministries?

Many activities to help people are good, but the question is whether these activities are planned and executed following the will of our Lord. In Acts 16 we find a good example. Paul planned to proclaim the Gospel in Asia Minor. This was not a bad plan at all. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with this plan. Paul wanted to carry out his mission faithfully in Asia Minor. But the Holy Spirit did not allow him to do that. God had a different plan. The Spirit of the risen Christ wanted him to preach the Gospel in Europe.

We may face a similar situation. Our vision and plans may not be bad. All the suggestions for the new future of our churches may be good. But first and foremost, we need to listen to and follow what the Spirit of the risen Christ wants us to do because Jesus Christ is the head and the Lord of our churches. If the body does not listen to the head, that body has a serious problem.

Someone said that many United Methodists have pneuma (Holy Spirit) phobia. If we talk about the Holy Spirit, many of us show a kind of allergic response. We are not a Pentecostal church. We are educated people and believe in God gently and with dignity. But without the help of the Holy Spirit, we can neither respond effectively to the challenges we face today nor become a biblical and authentic church.

The church that we are in charge of is not a biblical church. This is not an authentic church. We are not in charge. Jesus Christ is in charge. We are not the head of the church. Jesus Christ is the head of the church. The church is not our body, but Christ’s body. The Risen Christ is still alive and leading our churches through the Holy Spirit.   To turn around our churches, first of all, we need to let Jesus Christ be the Lord in our mission and ministries! We have to humbly seek and obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

IV

This is the reason I say that our fundamental issue is a spiritual issue, because we have lost spiritual vitality and depth. This is the reason I say that our issue is a faith issue, because we do not honor the Lordship of Jesus Christ enough in our ministries. The lack of spiritual vitality, this is a fundamental and real issue of our churches today. This is the reason from the beginning of my ministry as Bishop I have been saying wherever I go, “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregation.”

Some years ago while I served as DS, I organized a ministry study group with about 12 pastors serving small and struggling congregations. This group lasted for about three years. One year we studied together the book, Leading Congregational Change written by Jim Harrington and two others. One of the lessons I learned from this book is the importance of preparations for congregational change. The authors emphasized two preparations necessary for congregational change: one is spiritual vitality, and the other is relational vitality. If these foundations are not prepared, the transformation process of the church will not be sustained, nor bear fruit.

If the church is not spiritually vital, they cannot discern Christ’s vision for them, nor go through a transformation process . Because the transformation process always bring a conflict and not everybody loves change. And if the church does not have relational vitality and suffers from internal conflict, it is clear that the church cannot move forward.

This study reaffirmed for me the importance of strengthening the spiritual foundation of our mission in turning around our churches. Actually, this is what the Bible teaches us about vital and fruitful congregations. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples gathered together and prayed before they went out to preach the Gospel. When the disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit, when they were filled with spiritual vitality, they could carry out their mission faithfully and fruitfully.

This is also the lesson we learn from John Wesley’s Methodist movement. When John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed, when he was spiritually renewed, the Methodist movement spread throughout England and ultimately to this country as a strong renewal and revival movement.

V

Now, we reach the final point of my presentation today: How and where can we find the spiritual vitality for a new future of our churches? What do we have to do to regain spiritual vitality of our life and of our churches?

Here we find the importance of prayer. Prayer is the key to lead us to spiritual vitality. If we pray together, we will have a different future. If we kneel down before God and seek humbly God’s help and guidance, our churches will find hope for the future. The Lord has not given up on us yet. I will talk more about prayer in my sermon. My sermon title today is “Teach us to pray.”

Let me share with you what E.M. Bounds says in his book, Power through Prayer. What he said in the first chapter of this book is still appropriate for today’s church. This is a great summary of a different and fundamental approach to turning around our churches:

“We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church. We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel… The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men and women… What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods. The church needs persons whom the Holy Spirit can use- persons of prayer, persons mighty in prayer.”

Yes. The church is looking for better methods, but God is looking for better men and women who are mighty in prayer. In today’s challenging situation the church desperately needs men and women whom the Holy Spirit can freely use. Without deeper prayer, the church will not be turned around. Without prayer, without spiritual vitality, there will be no vital congregation.

So, before we move to Q & A session, I would like to invite you to join me in singing my favorite hymn and prayer, UM Hymn #393, “Spirit of the Living God.” Let us sing together this hymn prayerfully.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Amen.

Sermon by Bishop Young Jin Cho

Doug Lanter photos