In Layman's Terms: Journey forward into the fog
I’m fascinated by weather. And as an amateur photographer, I enjoy trying to capture the unique images provided by God’s grand creation.
As I wrote about last week, on a recent Saturday I ventured out with my camera in hopes of finding some interesting photos amid the fog that had taken hold in southeastern Nebraska. In places the fog was thin, and seeing wasn’t all that difficult. In other places, the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see more than a few hundred feet in front of me.
Hours later, as I reflected on my excursion and looked over the photos, I noted that the fog provided an illustration for many of our United Methodist Churches today.
The most annoying thing about fog is that it obscures our vision. From what I understand, human beings can see up to 12.2 miles away on a clear day. That’s the distance of the horizon from a raised surface such as a hill or tower. We kind of take that viewing distance for granted – until we wake up on a foggy day and can’t see anywhere close to that distance.
We don’t realize how far we can see until we can’t see it any longer. We take our vision for granted.
I think the same concept goes for us in our ministry.
We are in that time of year for our annual charge conferences. It’s one of those necessary tasks given to us in the Book of Discipline. We gather members together to conduct the business of the church. We vote on pastors’ salaries, on lay leadership for the year and other matters.
Not the most exciting stuff.
But we also get an opportunity to look back at the fruitfulness of our ministry. We get to ask and answer some important questions:
- How have we reached out to our community?
- What goals did we set for our ministry? And did we meet those goals?
- Did we do our part to bring others to Christ?
- What’s around the bend on our collective Christian journey?
Indeed, we should celebrate the ministry of the past year. In many cases, our churches are serving as the hands and feet of Christ in our communities. Praise God for the people willing to serve on behalf of our risen Savior!
As I ponder this subject about piercing through the fog, I think of how we see our way through the obstruction of our sight. I think of Joel Chapter 2.
To be blunt, this is a bad time in history for Judah, the southern kingdom. Israel to the north already has been conquered. It’s a time of plagues of locust and drought. The Babylonian empire is on the doorstep.
Verses 28-29 say: “After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.”
What does an apocalyptic-sounding scripture have to do with the fog in ministry today? I think this passage really is about possibilities for the realities we face in ministry in the 21st
- We know we need to attract more young people. In some cases, we need young people to keep our churches from, literally, dying off. But more than that, these are people who need to hear the Gospel. It’s our job to make Jesus known to them. If not us, then who?
- We need to be vital in our communities. What does that mean? Definitions vary, but I look at is though we have to ask ourselves a tough question and provide an honest answer: Why does our church exist?
- We have to figure out what we need to give up. The ministries of the past may still be important. But we don’t have the resources any longer to keep conducting ministries that truly have little to no impact. That means we have to give up some things that we enjoy but that doesn’t bear fruit.
- We have to discern how we can focus our ministry outward. This is a tough one because we tend to like to take care of our own instead of setting up our churches for the people we haven’t even met yet.
All of this, together, means our future is a bit of a foggy view right now. But the good news is just like when we are in a car on a foggy highway, we can move forward. The Joel scripture tells us that regardless of our age, gender or socio-economic standing, we have a role to play in moving forward. The old will dream dreams. The young will see visions. Slaves – the marginalized of society – will help chart our course as well.
But we have to be willing to actually do the work that God has called us to do. A lot of things get in the way. We may be apathetic about making a difference. We may just be lazy. We may fear change to “our church.”
The good news is these are all choices that we make. And that means we can change our choices!
Back to the fog illustration: Where do you focus when you’re driving through fog? Straight ahead, right?
When we’re driving through fog, what’s going on in the rear-view mirror isn’t as important as what’s going on up ahead.
You don’t ignore where you’ve been because it provides a frame of reference along the journey from where we started to where we want to be. The same goes for our ministry. We don’t need to forget ministries that once thrived in the past just because they have run their course now. We honor the people who made those ministries happen. We thank God for His presence in those efforts over the years – the people who were helped, the social changes that came about because of action, the souls saved because we helped share the story of Jesus and the hope He provides for all mankind through the grace gifted to us by God.
Then, we acknowledge that more dreams have been shared. New visions have been seen.
We move forward into the fog.
As we accelerate, we understand that we can't bring back the past. We understand that the “unchurched” don't immediately think of the church as a place of refuge any longer, which makes our jobs of ministering to them much more difficult. We also have to understand that our lack of willingness to evangelize has largely cost us two generations – the 40-somethings and their children.
But like the journey down a road on a foggy morning, the view becomes clearer as we go along. We need to pray for discernment about the needs in our communities, about the ways we can bring about justice, about how we can share the hope for all people through Christ that so many either don’t know or have ignored.
Just like the sun helps burn through the fog, the Holy Spirit can help us see through the visual barriers in our ministry. But we have to continually be looking forward.
As we read in Joel, young and old, men and women – indeed all people working in ministry for Jesus – will take part in these dreams and visions.
My prayer is that as we talk in our charge conferences and as we dig into plans for 2017 that we will courageously move into the fog.
Don't let the past distract us. Pay close attention to what is ahead.
Allow God to shine the light so we can be a light to our communities.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 402-464-5994, ext. 113, or via email at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or the United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.