Friday, March 24, 2017

What's Right Here at Faith

A few days ago, I published a thread here in which I reflected on what doesn't please me about myself and the fruit my ministry has produced here at Faith.

I created that thread only five days ago.

Beginning the very next day, I became aware of two things going on in our community that make my heart sing.

Neither of them were initiated by me. I became involved in one of them only when it became prudent that I, at least, chime in. The second is going on without me at all.

One conviction that drives me is that the Sheep and Goats prophecy of Jesus found in Matthew 25 is in the future of everyone.

I teach our people to keep in mind the actions Jesus warns that He will consider on that Day and, most importantly, that He promises to judge based on what we do among the "least of these."

Two new ministries among the least of these have been begun, by our people, in recent days and I'm little more than a bystander in both.

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Briefly...

...we have a couple thousand dollars left in our checking account since we stopped taking an offering.  To this point, we've given what remained to people in the least of these category, according to the actions Jesus highlights.

In the past few days, some of our people have come to know of a man, 50ish in age, with severe health problems, undergoing medical treatment, who can't afford to stay in his home for even one month without financial assistance. He's been helped by friends and family to this point, and their resources have been stretched beyond their ability to keep up.

Before I even heard about the circumstances, our people had decided to use ALL the money we still have to help him.

Then, the story was told to me.

Of course, I approved.

"I was sick and you looked after me."

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Also...

I discovered that, without Evie and me even knowing, one of our women had invited a stranger to live in her home because that woman was sleeping in her car.

"I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Our friend is struggling now with the question we've been asking for some time, about when showing mercy and loving becomes enabling sin. And, we are struggling with her in community.

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A weakness in what I teach is that churches are not addressed in the Judgment, we, as individuals, will be.

Obviously, that weakness is also our strength.

Our people are living as disciples on their own.

They have been provoked to love and good works by what happens when we do gather.

Praise God.

Repentance that was not Blessed: The CGGC as a Case Study

As some who read this blog know, I am trained as a historian. 

In what follows, I attempt, using the tools employed by students of the past, to understand what I believe to be the most important ministry initiative in my faith tradition, the Churches of God, General Conference, in at least the last 80 years.

As you who read the blog also know, I believe that I am gifted to speak prophetically among God's people.  

No doubt, my prophetic inclination is present in this thread. Yet, if you read what follows, you'll probably find what I write here to be more academic than prophetic in tone. 

I've been musing over this for some time. While, as I write this I've not yet come to final conclusions, I hope what I write will be read and that it will edify the people of the Kingdom.

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In recent years, I have become a student of repentance.

I continue to call for repentance and I have a reasonably clear understanding of what repentance is but I am honest enough with myself to confess that I'm not entirely certain what it is.

In my faith tradition, the Churches of God, General Conference, there was an important and sincere move toward repentance approximately 25 years ago. I'm convinced the effort was heartfelt and genuine. Yet, in the end, it failed to produce a change that the Lord blessed.

I've been reflecting on how that happened and on what it means.

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When the move to a change of heart and mind and action began all those years ago, I was out of close touch with events taking place in the CGGC. At the time, I was working on a degree in Church History at a school in New Jersey and none of our congregations were in my area.

However, later on, as the move toward change was developing, I began working on staff at Winebrenner Theological Seminary and my wife was working on CGGC General Conference staff, and, for a time, she was actually reporting on events as the editor of The CHURCH ADVOCATE. 


In the end, after what I'm certain was much prayer and planning, a denomination-wide campaign was developed. The campaign was enthusiastically embraced by leadership at the General Conference level and by the leadership in many of the Conferences.

The campaign was vigorously promoted in church publications, at General Conference sessions, at local Conference sessions and even by the seminary in its History and Polity class, which I was teaching at the time.

The campaign had a title worthy of Madison Avenue:

MORE AND BETTER DISCIPLES: 35,000 in Worship by 2000

At that time there was a disturbed awareness, among many in the know in CGGC leadership, that the denomination was declining. More to the point, there was a heartfelt desire to vigorously confront the truths about the denomination that were driving the decline.

Then, after many prayers had been prayed, dozens of men and women in CGGC leadership rallied, with enthusiasm and focus, around the goal of increasing worship attendance among the approximately, at that time, 350 congregations of the CGGC by about one third--to a cumulative average of 35,000. That attendance goal was to be achieved by the year 2000.

Attendance goals were set and published for every congregation in the CGGC.

All of the people in leadership at the General Conference level, most leaders in the local Conferences, hundreds of pastors, many on congregational Church Council members and thousands of the members of the CGGC laity brimmed with optimism in the early days of the campaign.

In a body in which there was already a dangerous degree of cynicism, among some pastors and congregations toward denominational leadership, there was an unusual degree of unity and acceptance of the vision cast from headquarters.

Many pastors and churches pursued the goal and worked to fulfill the vision.

Nevertheless, in the end, the campaign failed miserably.

There was some playing with numbers near the end to try to give the impression that conditions improved but, in the end, people on the ground floor of the denomination, the congregations, knew the truth.

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In the aftermath of 35,000 X 2000, the statistical reality is that the CGGC continues to decline.

In the years since the end of the campaign, dozens of CGGC churches have closed their doors. Recently, Lance Finley, the current CGGC Executive Director noted that 80% of the remaining CGGC congregations are either stagnant or declining.

The optimism of the first days of 35,000 has been replaced by either an increased cynicism among many pastors and congregations or, at the very least, apathy toward any initiative coming down from the leadership of the General Conference or the Conferences.

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The question I'm asking is, why?

The Lord to Whom the framers of 35,000 prayed is the Lord of all power and grace and mercy and authority and love and blessing.

Yet, He did not bless. And, He is not blessing.

Paul of Tarsus says that godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation. Paul said that to a congregation, to a body of believers, who had recently experienced salvation, after falling into sin.

So, why, considering Who the Lord is and what the CGGC attempted, did salvation not come here?

In threads that follow, I'll struggle to suggest my own answers to the question of why.

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The generation of CGGC leaders who framed 35,000 has now, for the most part, moved on.

For the most part, the denomination is now being led by people who were relatively young men when 35,000 was planned and failed.

How the CGGC moves forward, if it moves forward, is in the hands of the people of a younger generation.

How will they? Will they, move forward?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What's Wrong Here at Faith

Regular readers of this blog will note a different tone to this post from what I normally enter.  Having had a chance to slow down for a week, I'm finding it easier to do some reflecting and big-picture analysis of our own journey. 

So, here goes...

I've lost track of the last time the people of Faith met together in our home.  It's probably been two months, perhaps further back than that. To know for certain, I'd have to check past blog posts.

In that time, we've canceled several gatherings due to our illness or fatigue and the last two times we actually met, we paid for a part of the group to share a meal in a restaurant, something the people who live in the home truly enjoy.

If you read the blog, you know that our community, which has its roots in a "The Phone's for You" telemarketing campaign in the early 1990s, has become something very different from what it was in its beginnings.

There came a time when, inspired by the vision of a church established on the New Testament plan, as described by Ed Rosenberry in what was, for me, a life changing editorial in The CHURCH ADVOCATE in 2009, we determined to leave Seeker-Sensitive church-ism behind and become a community modeled on the beliefs that energized the first apostles. Those apostles took their beliefs directly from the life and teaching of Jesus.

It's been a bumpy journey.

We made that decision during the time Brian Miller's blog was thriving and, at the time, I truly, but naively, believed that, as a participant in the blog, I was a part of a small community of like-minded people who would revolutionize the CGGC and be part of a movement that would transform American, if not Western, Christianity.

By that time, I was already fully convinced that I was called to be a prophet and that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone.

And, being in the blog community, I took first steps here assuming that others in the CGGC community with an apostolic calling would come along side me and balance my prophetic ministry. So, I functioned fully in my prophetic gift without trying to curb my prophetic yearnings.

Looking back, for whatever reason, it seems to me that, by that time, the energy in the blog community had already peaked and was declining. No apostle came along to provide the kind of structure apostles provide and no resources...or encouragement for that matter...came our way through leadership in either Findlay or Harrisburg.

I believe that it was at that moment we lost a first opportunity to achieve something great.

Our journey to become a community living in the Spirit built on the principles that drove the early apostles has always been sincere but I, at least, have never believed that we were on track.

I still believe in the vision as much as I did when I read Ed Rosenberry's editorial in 2009. But, our execution of the vision has failed because we have always lacked an "APEST" community.

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I think that a second opportunity for us to achieve greatness came when Lance Finley became the Executive Director of the General Conference. Early on, Lance promised to empower what he called "fresh expressions of church."

Clearly, Lance has done that, as the last issues of The CHURCH ADVOCATE and of the eNews make clear.

But, for whatever reason, Lance has not blessed our journey with his presence or attention.

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Anyway...

...one of the core beliefs that differentiates us from the Christendom church is that the church is not the gathering (or worship service) itself.

A Christendom church defines itself today significantly in terms of average attendance. It believes that the number of people who consume the Sunday morning show is one important measure of what those people, today, call the health of the church.

Here at Faith, we see nothing of that in the New Testament, AND WE CERTAINLY DON'T SEE IT IN THE LIFE AND TEACHING OF JESUS!

And...

...so, as we've journeyed, the actual gathering has come to mean less and less...

...to the point that, I now believe, the gathering, in our community, has come to mean far less than it would mean if we were grounded in the New Testament plan.

I'm not certain when we veered off track. But, I suspect that the problem is connected to the fact that we are too prophet driven.

What I am convinced of is that we lost something essential when apostolic presence didn't materialize either through the blog or Lance's leadership of the denomination.

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So, specifically, we didn't gather today. Again.

Evie and I only arrived back from Myrtle Beach last night and no gathering was ever planned for today or for last Sunday.

But, Evie and one of our people will meet on Wednesday because that person needs Evie's counsel and the lack of gathering in recent weeks doesn't impede their relationship as daughters of the Kingdom.

We still see what we do between Sundays as our real ministry. And, Evie and I find joy in being on that mission.

Yet, something is amiss as the importance of the gathering in our community continues to decline.

Hebrews 10 stresses, "not forsaking meeting together as some are in the habit of doing."

I take it from that phrase that, in early Christianity, the gathering was not considered central to a disciple's walk but that gathering, at least from time to time, was considered to play an important role in a disciple's life so s/he could be a part of the spurring on of all believers to love and good works and of mutual encouragement.

I am seeking a middle ground with our gathering between the Christendom idea and what it has become for us.

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I'm sensing (fearing?) that, perhaps, something important has been lost here, and that it may be gone for good.

From what I can tell, the ERC will set Faith afloat in a few weeks. So, as far as the institutional CGGC is concerned, what happens here won't matter.

We'll see what the next days, weeks and months reveal.

God is good.  His mercy endures. His Kingdom will be victorious.

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One final observation: One of the drums I beat continually on the blog is that the American/Western church as it exists now must fail because it doesn't empower a diversity of gifts. Jesus empowers APEST, not shepherd dominated ministry.

I've believed all along that, without a balance to my prophetic gift, our ministry here would be imperiled.  Ours is.

As is Christendom's.

We must all implement repentance.

Back from Vacation

We are back in Pennsylvania after spending a week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

We went with a niece who is about our age and her husband.

For many years, we have used vacation to rest. Our thought on this one is that Myrtle Beach would be comfortable and it's easy to get to in a day.

In reality, it was colder than most of the winter was here. On the other hand, here it snowed about a foot last Tuesday and we dodged that bullet.

We got someone who once lived on our second floor to dog and house sit and that worked well.

We had to drive home through the D.C. area in mid day and that was hairy.

One other aspect of the trip is that both couples are seriously considering retiring in the Myrtle Beach area. Generally, the weather is nice and the cost of living is surprisingly low and the natives are friendly.

Our friend Matt moved into the area a while back and he connected us with a reliable realtor who showed us a few properties in our price and interest range and we were encouraged. And, on our first full day there, we spent some time with Matt and enjoyed a barbecue place he recommended.

I talked to mom and dad a few times on the phone. They survived. I chatted with my brother during the snow. He was my version of Jim Cantore.

The blog was pretty active, though I did very little with it. I published the ditty on what passes for news in the CGGC. I'd been working on it for about a week and tweaked it and sent it.  It's gotten more hits than anything I blogged for months. I'm not sure why. But, I'm certain that there is something noteworthy there.

Currently, I'm working on a post in which I examine what I'm currently calling repentance gone "sour," in the development of the 35,000 by 2000 campaign.

I believe that what ended up in a campaign to increase attendance in the Sunday morning show began with genuine sorrow.

Again, Paul says that godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation. And, I'm convinced that the first building block: Sorrow, was present.

In the end, there was no, well, salvation for the body. Only increasingly rapid spiritual decay and numerical decline.

Why?

Was the sorrow not "godly" sorrow?

Was there no actual repentance according to the leading of the Spirit?

These are both ideas I'm exploring.

If anything, despite the rumored defrocking, my love for the CGGC increases. And, I take my conviction that I am called to be a prophet as seriously as ever.

I believe that the prophet's role is to call for true repentance. So, I'm working on providing understanding about it to the body, even if the body may not want to understand.

If God is willing, I'll have more to say about this later.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What Passes for News in the CGGC

FYI, I consider what follows to be a commentary on a crucial big-picture, values-oriented problem which defines the continued decay of the CGGC. It may seem nitpicky. And, I apologize for that. But, I'm convinced that, if we are going to change, we must address this issue. 

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I have a full-time job managing the Front End (i.e., the cashiers and baggers) in a Supermarket.

As all grocery stores do, our store prints a weekly circular which highlights some of the items the store is featuring during a given week, or that it is offering at a special price, during that week.

As a part of the ERC in the CGGC, I, with the help of a friend, still have access to what Conference mountaintoppers call Keeping in Touch E-Newsletter.

Every time I look at the Conference E-Newsletter, I can't help but think of the store sales circular--because they both perform the same task: They promote the organization's current specials.

For the store, it's a weekly thing

For the ERC, it's a listing, that is also published weekly, of rallies, retreats, workshops organized by the Conference and special events sponsored by local congregations in the coming weeks and months.

But, what the Conference calls news, is anything but news.

It's an ad. It is what every grocery store in the country publishes as a sales circular.

An advertisement. That's what the ERC calls News.

What the ERC calls news ain't news.

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I'm equally fascinated by what the CGGC General Conference calls news.

At the General Conference level, news is passed on through the CGGC eNews, a document published week, now as a blog in which comments are invited and published on the blog itself (after "moderation" by unspecified person, probably not Lance himself).

What passes for news from this source makes for a fascinating study. To be fair to Lance, the notion of the eNews as a source of CGGC news didn't originate with him but Lance has carried it on.

An example of what the General Conference thinks of as news across the denomination appeared some time ago when Lance was waiting for the bus (I'm guessing the school bus because I'm certain that Lance doesn't take Greyhound when he travels as CGGC CEO.)

The eNews news across the denomination that week was that Lance realized that he has issues with patience!

That's News, as the General Conference defines news, and has defined news for about ten years. And, its typical for the sort of news contained in the eNews.

Please understand.

I don't begrudge Lance the opportunity to reflect on his spiritual struggles. And, I think, as CEO, that knowing that Lance struggles in his walk helps the rest of us in our own struggles.

But is that news?

What appears as news in the eNews is a very peculiar definition of what news is.

And, in my mind much more importantly, it prevents the people of the CGGC from receiving what the rest of the world understands to be news from Lance's column.

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The truth is that, in the CGGC, there is no longer regular reporting of denominational events and happenings.

But, there is, in a way that is unique to its dysfunction, a Mt. Everest-esque pile of CGGC FAKE News.

The ERC advertises rallies, retreats and other special events but it never, ever reports on those events after they take place.

General Conference news amounts to the Executive Director's memories and ruminations but rarely accounts of recent events that have taken place in the body in the way a journalist journals news.

Why, in a body dominated by shepherd values, which emphasizes the importance of community, is this the case?

I suspect that the answer to that question can be traced back to Lance's recent observation in the eNews that 80% of CGGC churches are stagnating or declining.

Four out of five CGGC congregations are not doing well and this decay has been under way for generations and the rate of decay continues to increase.

If the mountaintoppers reported actual news--and, if they reported it honestly-- what would they be reporting?

-Workshops that were poorly attended and which accomplished nothing,

-Ministry reviews which document an increasingly rapid downward spiral,

-Increasingly long lists of churches unable to support full-time ministry,

-Lists of congregations that were flourishing nearly 200 years ago when Winebrenner or a contemporary called a village's sinners to repentance now holding final services and closing their doors.

Those are the events that are now the news in the CGGC.

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So, these days, News is a sales circular. Or, the CEO confessing spiritual struggles or memories of a former seminary professor.

But, it's never journalism.

It's Fake...News.

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I've tried to write this without being picayune and trivial but I don't know how well I've done.

Here's why this is spiritually meaningful:

One of the greatest shortcomings of the CGGC these days has to do with telling the truth.

There certainly are times that we lie to ourselves about ourselves.

But, I think, more often, we simply avoid the truth.

And, we can be very clever in doing that. We can be so clever that few people even notice.

Who notices that the mountaintoppers continually claim to be reporting CGGC news but that there is no reporting of what actually is taking place?

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The Word is clear that salvation is a result of repentance which is a result of godly sorrow.

I believe that if we actually reported news to each other we might be led to the place that we were confronted by the truth about ourselves and we might experience the sort of sadness that produces a repentance that leads to salvation.

But, if we permit mountaintoppers to substitute ads for future events and personal meditations in the place of reporting of what's really going on in the CGGC, we will never face up to the truth about ourselves and we will avoid the opportunity to experience the godly sorrow which, through the Spirit, produces the repentance that leads to salvation.

And, our decay will continue.

We must repent.

Monday, March 13, 2017

An Older Kate Burkholder Novel

We're taking a week of vacation that is much-needed--in Myrtle Beach, which is in South Carolina.

The timing has turned out to be interesting. It's cold here. The high temperature yesterday was in the low 40s with a cold rain and lows are supposed to be in the 20s later in the week.

But, the forecast is for about a foot of snow tomorrow at home. It doesn't matter if there isn't a flake of snow. With this forecast, everyone in northeast Lancaster County will be in the store to buy milk and eggs and bread and, while they're there, fill up a cart with what's on sale. The store will be an asylum and the employees will not be able to keep up.

I am on vacation and one of the other managers is also off until Wednesday. With the forecast, the guy who does the Front End schedule offered extra hours to some of the part-time employees. He scheduled it as if it is a Saturday, but the crew he has will not be able to stay ahead of the rush.

And, I'm happy not to have to go through that. Those days absolutely convince me that I really am a geezer.

But, I see my job as an opportunity to be Jesus in the world and to incarnate the Kingdom. So, in that way, I'm sorry to miss out. Today will be a day in which the

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Anyway...

For Christmas, Evie found a good deal on an audio version of the 2013 Kate Burkholder novel, HER LAST BREATH, by Linda Castillo. I'm about a quarter of the way through it and I'm enjoying it.

I really wore out my eyes when I was working on my degree in Church History so I never read recreationally. When I consume a novel it's always an audio book.

The Kate Burkholder novels are set in Holmes County, Ohio: Amish country.  Kate is the Chief of Police in the fictional town of Painter's Mill and the novels always involve an investigation among the people of the Amish community.

As I've said previously, Kate is no Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher. And, there's more sex and violence than I need. I don't need any, but I guess I understand. This is 21st century popular fiction.

Linda Castillo tells a story well.  So far, this appears to be about a hit and run traffic accident but she's doing a good job with it. And, I'm relaxing nicely on my vacation.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Report from My Mission Field

I'm running short on time so this will be too short.

Something very interesting happened the other day when I was on my mission field in the grocery store.

I was giving a break to a bagger. And I was bagging for a cashier whom I know, vaguely, to be at the very least a church-goer with spiritual interest. She has asked me spiritual and Theological questions several times.

Evie and I are leaving tomorrow for a week's vacation in Myrtle Beach. And, I was telling the cashier that I am anxious to be going.

Just as I said that, a customer came to our aisle. This guy clearly is gifted to be an evangelist.

And he said to me, "But doesn't the Bible say be anxious in nothing?" Then he continued, quoting the King James Version, and said "...but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God."

I interrupted him by adding, "No, 'with Thanksgiving,' make your request known."

He nodded and smiled then went on to quote the next verse and left out another phrase which I added for him.

He smiled again and asked me what church I go to. And I told him that I go to a house Church. He smiled even brighter. And we talked for a moment about how in the early church, believers met in houses. Then he told me what church he goes to and what the name of his pastor is and that his pastor preaches the word.

He then went on to challenge me to make certain that I believe the gospel in addition to merely going to church. When he was satisfied, he turn to the cashier and challenged her with the gospel.

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I was struck by several things as I thought back on that experience. One of them is that, in the CGGC, we don't empower or even attract people with this man's giftedness, and intense passion for the Gospel and the lost.

I haven't met many people in our body with this bold, focused and simple approach to life for a long time.

And that saddens me.

It is also part of the deepest problem I see in our body. And it is why, I believe, we have no future at all in the CGGC unless we repent and begin to behave in a different way.

That different way must be like the way we behaved in our first days. It must love the way of the Evangelist more than it enables the dysfunction of the shepherd.

We are so very broken!

We must repent!

Why don't we repent?