“Measles and Ministry:” Collective Forgetting and Remembering

We now take up a second constituency for evangelism, namely insiders to the faith who have grown careless, weary, jaded, and cynical about the faith. It is obvious to anyone that “outsiders” to the faith should be a proper aim of evangelism. It is not so obvious that insiders also need evangelizing … The “crisis for insiders” in our churches is that abundance and affluence have caused church members to be distanced in self-sufficiency from the power and cruciality of the memory so that the church suffers from profound amnesia, even among those of us who vigorously go through the motions.

Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe 

I recently tuned in to NPR on my way to work. On the drive, I listened to the program On Point. The issue Tom Ashbrook raised for the day was measles in Orange County, Disney Land, and elsewhere, as well as the movement by many parents to choose not to vaccinate their children. There are at least 112 cases of the measles right now, and the reasons parents are choosing not to vaccinate vary. Some are worried that vaccinations can cause autism and do not vaccinate their children at all. Other parents disagree with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended schedule for vaccinations and utilize their own delayed schedule. Some refuse vaccination for religious or political reasons, citing freedom to choose. Still others have children whose immune systems or other health issues make vaccinating on the suggested schedule impossible because it would threaten the health and wellness of the child.

However, one of the most interesting pieces of conversation I picked up listening to On Point was a thought a commentator gleaned from Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady of the United States. Carter is a champion of vaccinations for all children and a voice speaking out against the current politicization of vaccines. The commentator suggested that, looking at the history of vaccinations in children over the last decades, there have been upward and downward swings in vaccination that all center around the citizens of this country forgetting the importance of vaccination and then remembering again. After all, the importance of immunization is less on the forefront of our collective mind when there are no cases of polio, small pox, or measles of which to take note.

The discussion also led to commentators discussing the clustering of like-minded families into neighborhoods or communities. Families who live in the same region who hold the same belief about vaccination are likely to live in close proximity to one another. The same can be said for any other ideology or way of being.

All of this interesting dialogue on On Point caused me to remember Brueggemann’s perspective on evangelism – outsiders becoming insiders, forgetters becoming rememberers. I think it is no great stretch of the imagination to assert that churches cluster around like-mindedness in ideology and ways of being, as well. I am also not alone in seeing the disciplinary and spiritual torpor of the Church as institution. Without participation in the means of grace and the sacraments and sacramentals of life in the Church and following Christ, we are left open to disease.

In the movement to plant new churches, make new Christians, and blaze new trails, some have forgotten the importance of reviving those who already exist within the Church. Here are those who are born again, but have disregarded the good medicine of intercessory prayer and self-examination, corporate and private searching of scripture, acts of piety and mercy, and the lived-out faith. Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr. calls these the “moat churches.” The bridges are drawn up. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. These are people who in the upward swing of the attractional model movement of the Church  – taking to the suburbs and mom, dad, and all the kids going to church on Sunday because it was simply what you did – forgot what growing the church through mission and deliberate outreach looks like. Communities moved away or grew away from our buildings, our demographics, and our perceptions of what our church is in the community, and we didn’t follow them. We forgot how.

Insiders, long-since baptized Christians in established churches, often forget what it is like to have a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ. The matters that strike at the heart of the church shift from how to reach out within the culture and context of a particular community to the placement of the coffee pot or the right color for the new window treatments. Churches are filled with Christians who have grown weary and, in some cases, careless. Like the upward and downward shifts of vaccination, we find ourselves in a downward shift in the institutional church and are looking for the upswing. Along with planting new churches, re-configuring how communities do church and not simply go to church, we must do a strange thing: we must evangelize the fish already in the boat.

Here are some churches and church leaders that I think are helping stir the stagnant waters of baptism, and have turned or are turning forgetters into rememberers:

Jorge Acevedo of Grace Church (United Methodist) – there is an excellent story about him and his church here. When he arrived in 1996, over half the congregation had left the church. Now, Grace Church is a thriving UMC with multiple campuses that is very mission-minded and worship-oriented.

Blue Mound UMC and the ABIDE program of the Great Plains Annual Conference. More about this revitalization here. With nothing but a gas station and a couple of stop lights in town, Blue Mound turned away from death and hit a new growth curve.

Rev. Russ Breshears of Oak Forrest Park United Methodist Church, who with the laity transformed a dying church into a thriving urban parish. Click here.

Multiple-point charges and surviving and thriving small, rural churches in declining communities are in some places embracing creativity and change in relating to their communities and other nearby churches. Click here.

The ARISE! program of the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, spear-headed by Mike Wiley, Senior Consultant for the foundation. The Arise program is centered around a wake up call to those who have forgotten their baptisms.

House for All Sinners and Saints may be reaching some new people, but they are doing so using ancient liturgy and sacred hymns, and employing modern acts of mercy.

Here are the driving directions to the Lost Creek UMC in Stillwater, and you’re going to need them! This church revitalization is literally in the middle of a field on a winding dirt road, and is now one of the strong and thriving churches in the Oklahoma Annual Conference.

St. John’s UMC in Oklahoma City is closing and re-opening as The Salt UMC, an intentionally bi-lingual, bi-cultural community of faith with co-pastors Murray Crookes and Obed Alba.

These are churches whose members stirred up the waters of their baptisms and remembered their mission. These are but a few examples of remembering and re-vitalizing, but they represent small churches, large churches, conservative churches, liberal churches, foundations, and agencies that are concerned about reviving the nominally religious and those who long ago professed Christ as savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promised to serve him…but forgot all of that for a time.

What do you think? What are some ways that churches can evangelize to their own forgetters? 

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