I’m walking across a bridge, the bridge of my childhood. There is a large gap between the planks of the bridge, and a small foot could easily stumble between the planks. On each side of the bridge there is murky water. I’m thinking that a person would just disappear, if he were to fall in. I am attentive to both the wide gap between the planks and the murky water beneath, and I struggle to stay on top, to stay on the bridge of my childhood.
God’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It is our job to participate in God’s mission by proclaiming the gospel and by following the commandments to love God and our neighbor. ”People find that the church has nothing to offer them today. The church seems irrelevant.”1If that’s the case, how do we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? How do we translate the gospel to a language that can be heard, seen, understood and received by the present generation?
While preparing the laity address I was in contact with 20 lay people from the Nordic and Baltic countries – young and elderly, men and women, coming from small church plantings and big vital congregations, all involved in different ministries in our church.
As a church we do a lot of good things – and sometimes with success! We are good at welcoming people, making them feel at home in our church and including them in our fellowship. We have a lot of good activities and ministries – choirs, scout groups and camps – that build relationships and strengthen our fellowship. And we prioritize training and educating our pastors and lay leaders. This is a blessing!
But from what I hear, and from what I see, we also face challenges today. It seems like we are walking on a bridge, afraid to stumble and fall into the murky water. If we are to be a church that makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we have to face these challenges.
The situation of the church in the Nordic and Baltic countries is of course very diverse, and making disciples will have a variety of challenges in different contexts. I cannot address every single situation. However, I will point to this: We are united in spite of our differences. We are united in Christ. We are one United Methodist Church. That is why we are gathering at this Central Conference. We are gathering because we all take part in God’s mission – and being together in this place we should be full of hope, because this is the promise God has given us:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”2
Heavenly Father, I pray that you will give us wisdom to understand the situation of the church as it is today. I pray that your holy presence will guide us in our discussions and decisions. Give us courage and inspiration. Be among us and touch our hearts and minds with your grace. And let us at all times remember what you have told us: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”3
1 Lay person, Denmark.
2 Jeremiah 29:11-13.
3 Matthew 21:22.
People Forging New Relationships
In many ways our church does not relate to the present generation, and we do not face the emergent culture as it is. We are not connecting or communicating with people in our communities. This is a great challenge.
In Denmark about 40 per cent of all marriages ends in a divorce. We see the same tendency in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Lithuania. Only Latvia and Estonia do not have the same high divorce numbers. A lot can be said about divorces but one thing is clear: A lot of marriages end in a break-up, and it is often a tragedy for both mum, dad and those children involved.
What we see is that the broken relationships are followed by new relationships and arrangements: People, that have been divorced, start dating and find a new partner. The couple move in together – both with his and her children – and they live happily together, maybe not ‘ever after’, but at least until a new break-up occurs. Or people, that have been divorced, become members of a still larger club of singles, single men and women, who live alone – not in marriages, not even in couples – maybe because they are incapable of such4. Or it may even happen that a man finds a man, and a woman finds a woman.
A lot of people have become part of this modern way of life. And sometimes it feels like one big mess. At least when you, like I have, have grown up with a mum and dad that met 30 years ago, fell in love, got married, had seven children and still to this day live happily together.
The church is where couples go to get married. Our church welcomes married couples, the traditional family. But where is the church when it comes to break-ups, divorces, new relationships (also with people of the same sex) and the single life? How does our church meet those who are single, homosexual, divorced or dating boyfriend number 30? Should the church, just to give one example, help married couples to prevent getting divorced and mediate when the break-up has taken place?
As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore come out from them and be separate.”5The Lord has spoken, and it is still relevant for us today. Our church has to face the modern way of life. But how? When meeting the present generation, what, then, is negotiable and what is not? How can we come out from the world and still be separate from the world?
The Dualism of Life and the World
A challenge for our church is to reach out to children and young adults and stay in contact with the children and young adults that are already in our church. It is a challenge that has our priority, because we wish for them to know Jesus Christ, our Lord. Not because children are tools we can use, bringing the gospel to the parents. Not because children are the future of the church, bringing the gospel to the next generations. But simply because the kingdom of God belongs to them: ”Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”6
I know young people whom I have grown up with in the church. Their parents came to church, just like my parents, and we came along. As time went by, we were no longer children. We became teenagers, and it gradually became more and more difficult for us to find our place in the church. We noticed a way of living outside the church – and we noticed that it did not correspond with the way of living inside the church.
In Denmark I see a minority of young Muslims that live a dualistic life. On the one hand, they live a traditional, religious life, and on the other hand, they live a modern, liberated life. A consequence of a dualistic lifestyle often is that you slip from one to the other. It may happen without anyone noticing, but it happens.
Are we asking our young adults in the church to live such a dualistic life? If we do, it can give the individual concerns of a more existential matter. And the result might be that the young adults gradually slip away from the church and “dump” God, or are absorbed by the church and become isolated from the outside world.
The kingdom of God belongs to the children. But when looking around, our children and youth are in many places absent or hidden away in our churches. In today’s world, how do we lead children and young adults to Jesus Christ? How do we hel p children and young adults to avoid slipping away from the church? How do we make room for every generation in our church? And how do we create a church that reduces division in life and provides people with a greater meaning and wholeness?
4 Matthew 19:12.
5 2. Corinthians 6:16-17.
6 Mark 10:14.
The Perfect Person
In the emergent culture there is a predominant discourse about pe rfection. We want to be perfect: Perfect marriages, perfect children, perfectly decorated houses with perfect gardens, perfect jobs with perfect pension schemes, perfect, perfect, perfect…
I am not perfect. It is hard to admit when you want to be perfect. But I am not perfect. I have gone through personal crisis… And it just doesn’t happen to perfect people! I remember one time when I was very unhappy. I cried a lot. But still hope wouldn’t leave me. Every morning when I showered, the sun would come shining through the window, and the sunshine would blend with the water drops and leave me in a shower of gold. I was showering in gold!
Where does that hope come from? Where does that strength come from? I know where it comes from. It comes from God. And I know that when I am confronted with my own un-perfect self I can go to God. I can tell him about my biggest mistakes and leave my failure with him. He can carry it, and he holds me and whispers in my ear: ”Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you.”7
My hope comes from God. From him comes my strength.8 But wha t about people who have never met God? What do they do when they are confronted with a personal crisis? Where do they go with their biggest mistakes, failures and un-perfect self? To whom do they turn?
In God’s kingdom there is room for everyone. But is there room for everyone in our church? I often hear that we want to be a church for everyone. I cannot help thinking: Who is this everyone? The general picture is that we choose to connect with people who think like us, act like us, and look like us.
We experience anxiety when it comes to getting too close to the un-perfect person. And especially, we are afraid of getting in too close proximity to the “lepers” of our time: money swindlers, prostitutes, pedophiles, addicts, psychopaths. Jesus helped the lepers – the un-perfect people of that time – and we should do the same today: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”9How can our church meet today’s un-perfect person? How do we reach out to the lepers of our time?
Walk Out of the Church!
This summer I went kayaking in Sweden with my family. Every day we camped on a new island. One evening I prepared the bonfire and rolled a stone. Hundreds and hundreds of ants hid under the stone. There was a stir in the group of ants – they immediately started moving when the stone was moved. I went to look for branches to put on the bonfire. When I came back, the ants were gone, all hundreds and hundreds of them! At no time, they had moved to another place.
There is a great mobility and flexibility in our society, but we don’t see the same mobility and flexibility in our church. “Buildings and habits tend to hinder us from seeing the needs in a changing society only a few kilometres away. We find it difficult to close a church in an area where people are moving out and starting new faith communities in areas where people are moving in.”10
7 Isaiah 43:4.
8 Psalm 118:14.
9 Mark 2:17.
10 Bishop Hans Växby, 2009.
”Christians do not walk into the church. Christians walk out of the church.”11 For a long time we have been inside the church. For a long time we have laid passively under a stone. Ants move when their setting changes – but we don’t? It is a lukewarm Christianity if it is all about maintaining the church as a building. It is a lukewarm Christianity if it is all about repeating what we have always done. Our faith is not a dead brick. Our faith is a living faith – faith in the risen Christ, which brings salvation to all humankind.12 ”And those congregations that think outside of the church walls can truly see the fruits of the work that is done by Holy Spirit.”13
So let us get to the main thing: If we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we have to be willing to meet people where they are – also if it means taking chances and moving in new directions. We should have fun, “but you cannot socialize into the kingdom of God.”14It is our job to build a bridge to our Saviour, our Lord. In everything we do, we have to be strong witnesses of God’s love and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
We should focus on creating faith communities for new people. And it does not have to be a big project. Jesus and John Wesley did not “plant churches”. They started “small groups” – and it led to new disciples, more people in worship, more leaders and more ministries. When God is calling us, let us plant new faith communities and small groups. Let us start meaningful and relevant activities and ministries. And let us praise and worship in new ways so it can be heard, seen, understood and received by the present generation.
When we see changes in our setting and context, let us respond by moving. In Sweden they formed the new ecumenical church as a response to a critical situation. A crisis is not the end of our church’s existence. A crisis can lead to a restart and a refocusing on the mission of the church. A crisis can create a more transformative ministry. It is about time we walk out of the church.
How do we face challenges we meet? Is God calling us to move the church in a new direction? Does God inspire us to meet new people, engage in new ministries, plant new faith communities or worship in new ways? Where have you witnessed transformative change in the church? How can we achieve a more transformative ministry?
Be Doers of the Word!
”Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”15Our love of God is inextricably linked to love for our neighbor. As United Methodists we want to make a difference by our deeds.
11 Pastor Mark Lewis, Denmark.
12 John 3:16-17.
13 Lay person, Latvia.
14 Lay person, Denmark.
15 James 1:22.
We have a lot of people in our church that serve God and help their neighbor with great commitment and love through their ministry. I can mention Hope Centre in Latvia, a vital youth ministry in Norway, mission and development programs in Liberia and DR Congo, gospel choirs in Denmark, a soup kitchen ministry in Ukraine, just to mention a few.
We see a committed laity, but we also see a lot of people in our congregations that are not yet involved in a ministry. Our pastors do a huge job, but they neither shall nor can do it all. There are functions in the church that calls for laity involvement. A vital church is a church with a committed laity.
Let us focus on motivating everyone in our congregations to engage in ministry. Everyone can serve and take part in God’s mission. It is not for the few. Jesus did not choose rich or well-educated followers. The first disciples were fishermen. God also called Moses to be a leader, and Moses became a great leader, though he was not strong either in word or deed. We have to be open. We have to be open for what ministry God is calling us and people around us. “I have realized that it is a great blessing to find your gifts and use them in ministry within the congregation.”16
What are your gifts? For what ministry is God calling you? What do we experience today that calls for action? How do we find inspiration to continue in our ministry? How do we help and motivate others in the church to find their ministry?
Say It, Say It Proudly!
The Christian fellowship is the largest fellowship in the world that does not live for itself, but exists for the benefit of others. And it is a fellowship that does not live by itself, but lives solely by the power of the risen Christ. This is something to be proud of. Still, we often get quite, and we find excuses why we should not tell others about our church, and why we should not share our faith with those around us.
As lay people we meet un-churched people every day. We have a unique possibility to share life and testimony with others: Family, friends, schoolmates, colleagues, neighbors, and people we share interests and leisure activities with. Some congregations focus on this form of “friendship evangelization”. My little sister is especially good at it. She talks far and wide about God. I don’t know anyone like her. I don’t know anyone like her who talks so proudly of her heavenly father. “Every day I am a testimony, and my life outside the church is the most important.”17
Do we not confess in the church that we believe in the risen Christ? Why are we, then, so silent outside of the church? It is when we are honest people, it is when we share life and faith, that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “Let us be proud of Jesus. Let us be strong witnesses of God’s love.”18 When was the last time you shared your testimony? Who did you tell it to? What led you to share? How did the person respond?
See the Person
Have you ever been at the playground with at child? And have you ever heard how the child shouts: “Look at me! Look at me!” Unfortunately, adults often reply: “You are so talented!” But this is not what the child asked for. The child asked to be seen.
In our society we tend to focus on competencies and skills.19 And we also do it in our church. We talk about what we have achieved, and we talk about results. We comment on each other, evaluate each other and judge each other.
The Bible says: ”Behold the person” 20, and a Danish psalm, “Se hvilket menneske”, proclaims the same thing.21 If people are to meet Jesus Christ, “we have to be present in the present world with the people who are presently around us.”22 Let us not comment on and judge what other people do. Let us be present with people. Let us see people for who they are. Closed eyes don’t see anything. Closed eyes don’t see greatness in the little things. Open eyes do. Let us see the world the way God does – with open, loving, mild, forgiving, generous eyes. God, give me your eyes.23
This summer my little brother went to DR Congo as a volunteer on a water supply project – a project that is founded on a partnership between the United Methodist Church in Denmark and Congo through many years. Life in Congo is like a soap bubble: It is a fragile life, but also a beautiful life, holding the color of the rainbow within it – and with that the promise of a new beginning.24 People in Congo, and people in other poor areas and conflict areas, are often at the world’s periphery, far away from our comfort zone. Still, I think they are shouting at us: “Look at us! Look at us” But do we see them?
16 Lay person, Denmark.
17 Lay person, Denmark.
18 Lay person, Sweden.
19 ”Doppler”, Erlend Loe, 2011.
20 John 19:5
21 Lyrics: Hans Anker Jørgensen. Mel.: Merete Wendler. 1987.
22 Bishop Hans Växby, 2009.
23 ”Give me your eyes”, Brandon Heath, 2008.
24 Genesis 9:12-17.
We have to be present and see people, also people who are close to us, even in our own congregations. Here we find beautiful, but fragile lives that can burst as well. We fail to care for each other in our congregations, and some lay people are fighting to find a balance in their ministry: ”Very often we see a small number of people doing the majority of the voluntary work. Finally, they get tired, give up or something worse happens to them.”25
“We have to care for each other. We have to give space and allow a break, also in the ministry.”26 How do we support each other in our congregations? How do we avoid our pastors and active lay leaders from burning out? And how do we get better at noticing people, both those who are close to us and those at the world’s periphery?
Plans for Prosperity
The United Methodist Church in the Nordic and Baltic countries is facing various challenges. What I have mentioned are just a few perspectives. We have to face our challenges, but let us not confuse challenges with lack of resources. At the feeding of the five thousand the disciples said to Jesus: ”We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish”. And Jesus answered them: “Bring them here to me!”27The disciples focused on the shortages and lack of resources. Jesus focused on the gifts. Let us do like Jesus: Let us face our challenges as well as our gifts, and we will come to realize that thousands and thousands of people are fed. Let us receive God’s blessings and grace, and we shall see how rich we are.
As lay people it is our job to translate the gospel to a language that can be heard, seen, understood and received by the present generation. It is our job to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is our mission – let us not forget that – and let us follow the example of Jesus: Walk out of the church, be present in the world, preach the gospel, engage in ministry and praise God.
And let us at all times be full of hope. When walking on the bridge, let us not be afraid to stumble, and let us not focus on the murky water on each side. Let us keep our eyes on the horizon where the bridge ends. Jesus told us: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”28 And remembering the words of Paul, we can do everything through him who gives us strength,29 we are to realize that God’s plans are plans of prosperity, of hope and a future.30
I thank you God, because you have plans for prosperity. I thank you, because in you we find a future and a hope. I pray for your wonderful world, for your church, for every congregation and every single one of us. Help us, strengthen us, Lord. Let every word we say, every move we make and our very presence in the world lead to you. Heavenly Father and Savior, let us be your light in the world, so people can come to know you. Amen.
I’m walking across a bridge, the bridge of my childhood. There is a large gap between the planks of the bridge, and a small foot could easily stumble between the planks. On each side of the bridge there is murky water. I’m thinking that a person would just disappear, if he were to fall in. After a while, the planks will stop, the murky water will ebb away, and the bridge of my childhood will end. Have you seen where? The bridge ends at a place where the sun meets the sea, there, where the two converge into a street of pure gold.31 Eternity.
25 Lay person, Estonia.
26 Lay person, Denmark.
27 Matthew 14:13-18.
28 Matthew 28:20.
29 Philippians 4:13.
30 Jeremiah 29:11-13.
31 Revelation 21:21