This past week I had the privilege of leading the music time at Vacation Bible School. And let me tell you, what a blast! I left for home every night completely exhausted, but also completely refreshed in my soul. Spending those nights singing and dancing with young disciples renewed my faith and replenished a joy that I didn’t know was even missing! But that’s what happens when faith catches fire. Vitality happens. New life happens. You might even call it revival! And that’s what we’re discussing today: how to seek vitality and renewal in our congregations. It’s one of our five areas of focus, five areas that we believe have the capacity to change the world. And I remain convinced that if we seek renewal and revival in our churches, the world will be drawn in to the magnificent and life-giving work of Jesus Christ. Would you read with me…
Acts 2 is sort of like the gold standard for church life. When Jesus told the disciples to stay and Jerusalem and wait for the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, they had no idea what was in store for them. But when that day arrived, it was as if heaven came down on earth. And it changed everything. Immediately the disciples understood that they had received a new mission in life- to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and carry out his ministry into every corner of the world. It meant evangelism, which is simply sharing the news of Jesus in different ways. It meant renewal, in the form of helping the faithful Jewish people understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of their long-awaited hopes. And in many cases, it meant starting from scratch, offering the world a beautiful vision of vibrant faith communities that people couldn’t wait to be apart of.
Now, it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that we live in different times. We know the statistics out there, and even if we don’t know the statistics, all we need to do is look around to realize that church isn’t a compelling option for many people today. But then again, maybe the times aren’t so different after all, because church wasn’t a compelling option in first century Jerusalem, either. Yet that’s precisely where Jesus begins to offer the world a better vision for life through His Spirit-filled disciples. In the middle of a city where everyone has their own thoughts and there own way of doing life, the Spirit gives birth to the Church, and it’s fascinating.
Let’s look at some of these godly characteristics that defined the first church. And they’re godly because only God can do this. Only the Spirit of God can produce a life that looks like this, and the desire to be apart of it. They were devoted to the spiritual life, eating together and praying. Are you devoted to the beauty of a prayer-filled life? Or is it just an “I’ll do it when I need it” type of thing. Renewal happens when we devote ourselves to the work of pray. Everyone was filled with awe. When’s the last time you were filled with awe at the works of God? When’s the last time you believed that God could and WOULD do all that God says he can do? All were together and have everything in common. That’s a pretty radical concept these days. They were together. They were common. I’m sure they had their differences and didn’t always get along, but they moved toward each other instead of pulling away. They sold possessions and property and gave to people in need. Now that’s REALLY Holy Spirit work. To give something up that isn’t life or death for YOU, but might be for someone else…that’s Holy Spirit stuff. And guess what happened? More people came. Revival happened. Lives changed. Every day people were being saved! And here’s the really awesome news: It can happen again. Acts 2 wasn’t the last time God initiated a world-changing renewal movement. God’s also done it with the Methodists; it’s part of our DNA.
A few years ago I stood on the riverbanks of a little community in England known as Pill. It was here that John Wesley would commission some young Methodist preachers to set sail and go start new churches in America and spread the fire of England’s revival to a young country still trying to find its way. The riverbanks were filled with mud, and American was an ocean away, which for me was a clear reminder that bringing renewal and revival isn’t easy, but when we give ourselves over to God, it’s a beautiful mission. To tell you a little more of the story, I wanted to show you on quick video from my childhood. Show Claymation video.
That’s a classic video, isn’t it? Haha. Now be honest with me. Do you think something like that could happen today? Do you believe God could bring about spiritual vitality in today’s culture? And if so, how many of you would love to see that happen today? Count me among those who long to see God usher in a new day of vital churches and vital discipleship. I believe God has rooted us in this particular place and time to start new ministries, to reach new people, to renew our faith and grow the Kingdom of God. And if we believe that God can do this through us, and if we willingly and sacrificially give ourselves over to the One who says, “I’m sending you to the ends of the world,” then generations of people will be saved. But here’s the catch: the work starts in us. If we want our world to change; if we want our communities to know the power of Christ; if we desire our churches to be filled with vitality for generations to come, we must first give the Holy Spirit permission to transform us. And we can begin to do that through a prayerful process known as HOPE.
H is for Hospitality, which is about making room in our lives for others. And the first person we need to make room for is Jesus. When we receive Jesus into our lives, when we make room in our hearts for His presence, we are given new life. The old part of us is thrown out and new life takes over. And we are set free from the power of sin. But we are also set free so that others might find this life. As we continue to make room for Jesus, we’ll quickly discover that Jesus has a knack for putting people into our lives who think, believe and live differently than we do. And in the midst of that discomfort, we’ll have to decide to either shut our doors or swing the gates wide open. Jorge Acevado, a successful pastor was once asked how he grew such a large church. His answer? He prayed for God to send him the people nobody else wanted. And God did! Jesus was so good at welcoming into his life the losers, loners and misfits of the world. And when they were with Jesus, they felt at home. Could people different than us feel at home with us? Could we feel at home with them? What would happen if that prayer of hospitality became our desire? God send us the people nobody else wants. I think God would answer that prayer.
O stands for “Offer them Christ.” This is what sets us apart from other really good, community-based organizations. Our singular purpose is to offer the world what the world truly needs- Jesus. But to offer Jesus to the world, we have to cultivate the type of life that permits Jesus to offer himself to us on a daily basis. In other words, we have to buy what we’re selling; we have to eat the same food that’s been prepared for others. Connecting with Christ on a daily basis is a key to renewing the world. If we’re not growing, if we’re not healthy, then we can’t be trusted with the Gospel. But if we’re growing and listening, God will open up doors for us. A former Bishop used to tell a story of an experience he had in Africa. For years, they tried to start churches and proclaim the good news of Jesus in a particular area, but to no avail. Then they changed their game plan. They started to care for the physical needs of the village, just like Jesus did, offering healthcare and other means to a healthier life. And at long last, they were able to do the soul work of offering Jesus will happen. What was different? The head of the village put it this way: “You took care of our bodies, now we’ll let you take care of our souls.”
P stands for Purpose. With purpose, we’re not talking about a calling or a career, we’re talking about becoming more like Christ. Ultimately, that’s our purpose. In the church, we’re often good at taking first steps, but then we stop. If we want to see revival and renewal, the posture of our lives must be a constant moving in a Godward direction. Bishop Rueben Job speaks to this in a devotional when he says, “Conversion is going on all the time within us and within the world. While the change of turning toward God may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is in reality a continual process. We may think that we have turned fully toward God; then we discover another dimension of God, and we know immediately that more conversion is possible and necessary if we are to move Godward in all of life.” Would you characterize your life as moving constantly in a Godward direction? That’s your purpose, and I believe it will lead to renewal.
Finally, we come to E, and E stands for Engagement. God won’t bring about renewal and revival if we are a cloistered people hanging out with only people like ourselves; our living faith should make a living difference in our world. Mark Twain once implied that we have to get out of comfortable positions if we want to see true transformation take place. He wasn’t talking about faith, but his point is clear. Here’s what he writes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” We have to be engaged WITH the world to initiate change IN the world. And it’s only when we engage with the authentic reality of our world that our hearts begin to yearn for a renewed hope that is found only in Jesus.
HOPE is what the world needs. HOPE is what we need. And HOPE is how we’ll get there. Hospitality. Offering Christ. Purpose. And Engagement. These are the birth pangs of revival, the seeds of new birth, and the spark in God’s heart ready to set us ablaze. In the words of the popular refrain, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” Amen.
*To learn more about HOPE, visit umcdiscipleship.org