Nothing remains the same. Change is one of the constants in life.
I thought of that yesterday as some 1,600 Hoosier United Methodists gathered in one of the buildings of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. We were there to vote to finalize our decision to go from two annual conferences to one. (An annual conference, for those of you non-Wesleyans out there, is the body in Methodism that ordains pastors, connects churches to one another, coordinates camping, and assigns preachers to congregations.)
During the gathering I found myself remembering the people...faces...who made up our North Indiana Conference. It felt strange not to have my Mom, Anita, there for this big moment...she was there for so many big moments in earlier years as Lay Leader. I missed Don LaSuer's smile and Virgil Bjork's quiet reason.
We're not supposed to use the word "merger" for this. Because this is not a "merger" but a new thing. It's a mix, though. It's a merger. It's a blending of two predecessor conferences...structures...all of that. But it is a new thing, too.
Beneath the loud praise songs and the talk of a new conference really organized around the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation for the world (wasn't that the purpose of the old North Indiana Conference and the South Indiana Conferences, after all?), a part of why we are doing this is we have been growing smaller and older for the last 30 years. We've not done a good job of reaching out to, speaking the language, of new generations and new communities. We've got too many churches that are going through the motions. They appear to be religious museums. And we have too many pastors who lack passion and courage. Still, across Indiana, there are these outposts of new life and growth and renewal.
The whole thing is messy. Our Bishop and leaders are doing their best, but this new thing is messy and ragged. Sort of like working on a jet airliner while it is in the air!
Three thoughts came to mind as I got in the car, at the end of the afternoon, and headed north: It's about relationships. Rambling around in the big building, yesterday, I bumped into Paul Fulp, Ted Blosser, and Kent Millard...all friends from South Indiana. We hugged, talked trash, loved on one another, and agreed it would be good to be together. Whatever that invisible line that ran east to west across central Indiana, and separated us from one another, I am glad it's gone!
The second thought was this: Jesus saves. Not a new structure or a new mission statement. Jesus saves. The grace of God in Jesus can heal and save the world...one life at a time. It's worth remembering. Worth giving our lives to.
A friend, Don LaSuer, would say to me that we always had this way of turning salvation by grace into salvation by works. "We do our best to make grace something we do or earn," he'd say to me.
We do our best to capture, focus, this grace within the framework of an ecclesiastical structure. If we could only get the right conference structure, the right kind of mission statement, every church leader to read that book about five fruitful practices, then things will go well. But our structures are imperfect...never complete. (See 1 Corinthians 13.)
Third, we've got to take the risk of surrendering to this love in a new and radical way. Taking the good news to people in their own language with a kind of passion that will make the world think we've dipped into the wine cellar early in the day (see Acts). If we aren't going to be reckless and bold with the grace of God, getting to know and love the "strangers" down the street, loving and serving them before we ever dare to share the Gospel in words...then all of this new stuff will have been a waste.
I see how I have been an obstacle to growth for the Kingdom of God. Forgive me, Lord. Set my heart on fire with a new love for you, and teach me to let go of the old and familiar so I can receive the new and the unlearned.