In July, I’ll be returning from a sabbatical year to be the lead pastor of the Offerings Community at First UMC in Lexington, KY. I’m sharing some pastoral letters with them in advance of that return. I wanted to share them with you. Though some notes here are specific to that congregation, the letters are a broad attempt to share a pastoral theology.
Three beliefs motivate everything I do in ministry…
I believe God’s grace is our only hope. I believe God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son––Jesus Christ, God in the flesh––that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.[1. John 3:16] I believe Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
I believe in the gospel because it’s “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”[1. Romans 1:16] By the grace of God, we’re forgiven for our past sins, given power over present sin, healed from our brokenness, and collectively made into the body of Christ in the world.
I believe all this because I’ve experienced it. God’s grace has transformed my life. Despite my own insecurities, I have a great assurance of God’s love. Despite my own past sins, I have a great assurance of God’s forgiveness. Despite my own doubts, I’ve seen God answer prayers.
I believe all this because I’ve seen it in so many of you. One of the greatest privileges of pastoral ministry is the front-seat I’ve had to the transformation in some of your lives. I’ve seen some of you receive forgiveness and know it was real after you had thought you’d never get past the guilt of something in your past. I’ve seen some of you freed from sins you thought would keep you enslaved the rest of your lives. And I’ve seen some of you become great ministers––hands and feet of Christ to others––when before you could barely keep yourselves together. What a privilege to see the gospel at work in you!
The apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”[1. 1 Corinthians 15:14] I agree with him. If the good news about Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t true, and if the grace God offers through Christ isn’t transforming us, we’re all wasting our time.
I hear a lot of people today criticize the church. They call it irrelevant and unnecessary. They say they can be “spiritual” without “institutional religion.” They say they can be “Christian” without having to “go to church.”
First, full disclosure: I’ve seen a lot of ugly things about this institution we call the church. I can’t disagree with a lot of the criticisms I’ve heard. Yet I believe in the church.
I believe in the church because the Bible tells us “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[1. Ephesians 5:25] I believe in the church because it’s called the body of Christ––“the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”[1. Ephesians 1:23] How humbling that such a flawed and wayward community would still be the community that Christ loved and gave himself up for, the community that would be called the very body of Christ!
Despite our many problems and all the ways we fall short, I believe God still uses the church. I believe the church is still God’s primary means of offering his grace in the world––the fullness of Christ in the world.
Specifically, I believe in First UMC of Lexington. I love our emphasis on making disciples “across the street and around the world.” I love the way we’re trying to start new worshiping communities in new places so that we can reach new people. I believe in First UMC because I’ve experienced what this church can do. This is my home church, and for over 30 years, they’ve surrounded me with a community of love and forgiveness, supported and encouraged me, and helped me grow into the person I am today. Is First UMC perfect? Far from it! But I believe God loves this church and is using us to proclaim and live the gospel. In our failings, I trust that God is at work to transform us into a church that looks more like her Savior.
Even more specifically, I believe in this Offerings Community. I love our emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness, our focus on making disciples who become pastors and apostles, our desire to start more communities in the future. I believe in this little community because you’ve surrounded me and my family with a community of love and forgiveness. We know God’s love better because of you. Is the Offerings Community perfect? Far from it! But I believe God loves this community and is using it in powerful ways. In our failings, I trust that God is at work to transform us into a community that’s the body of Christ for our world.
I believe each of you is an essential member of the body of Christ. I believe God has given each of you special gifts––gifts that we need to minister to each other and to our world. I believe in you.
At a time when so much of ministry is “professionalized”––left to the church staff––I love the way this community values shared ministry. If you’ve been around for long, you’ve already seen the priceless contribution that so many people bring to this community. And I think we’re still only scratching the surface.
I believe great things are ahead for us, and that God will use you to do those things. Some of you have a great gift of faith, and we’ll be sustained by your prayers. Some of you have the gift of evangelism, and we’ll share the gospel with new people because of you. Some of you have a special gift for generosity, and your giving will sustain our budget. Some of you have special gifts for spiritual encouragement, and you’ll be pastors to others. Some of you don’t even realize that you have those gifts yet, but you will.
What’s the hope for our world? The gospel.
How is our world most likely to see and hear and receive the gospel? Through the church and through you.
Those beliefs motivate everything about ministry for me.