Thursday, August 28, 2008

Elwood United Methodist Church

Regarding my last blog post, I just received another e-mail from Shirley Gilmore. It turns out that she's now the Senior Pastor of Elwood United Methodist Church. In other words, she has my dad's old job. Apparently, they still can't afford a full-time pastor, because she described herself as a "lay minister" in her letter.

Here's a link she sent to me, containing a photo of the church. Their lawn is much greener and nicer than it was when I was a kid, and I'm guessing that they have a real paved parking lot there now.

Can you say "country"? Yes, Elwood was a real country church. So was Oakland United Methodist Church, where my father preached for the three years subsequent to leaving Elwood. But Oakland was considerably bigger than Elwood. It actually had a basement! And the sanctuary was much larger, too. Still, both churches seem as small as broom closets in comparison with some of the megachurches I've attended in later years.

For example, my mother now attends James River Assembly of God. Here's a photo of that church, located in Ozark, MO. It should be clear just from a comparison of the two photos that James River is many times as large as Elwood. (If you were to speak with my mother, I doubt that she would have any trouble explaining the reason for that fact.)

The folks at Elwood still seem to be meeting in the same tiny building they met in during the 1960's! I'm assuming that they must have spent a fair amount of money on repairs and renovations over the years, because the building looks pretty nice in the photo. But the church never did have adequate room for more than a small handful of people, and there doesn't seem to be any indication from the photo that they've substantially expanded the size of the sanctuary.

Size isn't everything when it comes to churches. But I'm inclined to think that churches which are carrying out the Great Commission by actively sharing the gospel with others ought to show some signs of growth over the years! Based on the available evidence, I would guess that Elwood hasn't grown much over the years in terms of attendance (which was usually fewer than 100 people when my father was the pastor there). They still only have one service there on Sundays, judging by the information on the aforementioned web page.

I'm not sure what the explanation is for the lack of growth at churches like Elwood and Oakland, but at the risk of offending Shirley and the others at her church, I could hazard a guess. I might guess that it is related to the same spiritual apathy which caused my father to violate his marital vows, commit adultery, and become an alcoholic who never repented (to my knowledge) of having caused substantial harm to me, my mother and my brother, prior to his death in 1999.

I distinctly remember the conversation, right around the time when he was on the verge of divorcing my mother, in which Dad told me that he was no longer sure if Jesus was the Son of God. To say that I was horrified would be an understatement. From the time when I was a tiny child at Elwood, I'd always looked up to my father, even when he'd punished me physically in a manner which was totally disproportionate and undeserved. When I sat on the front pew at Oakland, listening to his sermons, I thought that he was the wisest man who ever lived. My, how time can change one's perspective on such matters!

What was particularly hurtful to me and my family was the fact that the folks at Elwood continued to invite my father back to their church after the divorce, asking him to perform the occasional wedding or funeral, as if he had not forfeited his spiritual authority when he openly committed adultery, abandoned his first family, and took a new wife. It seemed as if the folks at Elwood approved of what Dad had done to us. In my view, my father's new wife was a pretender who had destroyed our family. When I saw that the folks at Elwood had posted photos of my father and his new wife, as if it was no big deal that my mother was no longer in the picture, it frankly made me want to vomit.

I know, of course, that the folks at Elwood were not motivated by malice towards me, my mother or brother. In fact, I doubt that many people there even stopped to consider how such treatment might make us feel. But I'm not sure that that's a good excuse.

I believe that the Church should always stand willing to forgive leaders caught in transgression, but there should be conditions for that forgiveness. In my view, they should have refrained from treating my father as if he was a pastor in good standing until they saw clear indications of contrition and repentance.

What accounted for their unwillingness to rebuke my father for his open sin and for their failure to impose church discipline? I think that it was just a reflection of the general moral relativism which has infected the United Methodist Church in recent years. There are exceptions, of course, but many leaders in the United Methodist Church have substituted the tenets of modernism (and more recently, postmodernism) for the tenets of the scriptures. The United Methodist Church has been shamefully spineless when confronting modern evils such as legal abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration and other manifestations of moral relativism. The same thing has been true with regard to the need to stand firm on issues such as the authority of the scriptures and the necessity of evangelism.

Some people, particularly in mainline denominations such as the United Methodist Church, seem to think that merely attending church and partaking in its rituals on a regular basis is a substitute for an intimate relationship with God. Such people think that because they were baptized as infants and raised in the church, that automatically makes them Christians.

I understand where such people are coming from, because that was the way my family raised me during the time period when my father was a Methodist lay minister. Prior to her own spiritual renewal, I distinctly remember my mother telling me, "We're not Christians. We're Methodists." She thought Christianity was just another denomination! Of course, she knows better now. She also told me, when we were at Elwood, that being "saved" was a Baptist doctrine. Having never grasped the significance of the cross in terms of redemption, she loathed the old hymn that talked about being "washed in the blood of Jesus". We Methodists were too "sophisticated" for such things!

I loved my father, but I cannot recall ever hearing him preach about the need to repent for one's sins or to ask Jesus to be one's personal Savior. I hate to say it, but I suspect that the reason he never preached such things is that he'd never really fully committed his life to Christ himself.

Fortunately for me, a series of events led me to fully commit my life to Jesus Christ. Not to a ritual or a tradition, but to a living, risen Savior who had died so that I might live. Not long after that, my mother experienced a similar spiritual transformation.

As a former pastor, one would think that my father would have been thrilled to see that my mother and I were growing in our faith. One would be dead wrong. He ridiculed us for our new interest in Christianity on a number of occasions, and he explicitly forbade me from attending a nondenominational group of young Christians who met regularly in a small house just west of Park Central. He was particularly incensed to learn that I had gone to Springfield Lake with that group one night in order to be baptized.

I'd been baptized as an infant, but I had concluded after reading the scriptures that the practice of infant baptism had no scriptural foundation. It certainly didn't seem to offer me the opportunity to publicly proclaim my new commitment to Christ.

Interestingly, the United Methodist Church now teaches that there are two kinds of baptism --- infant baptism and "believer's baptism" --- judging by the information on this web page. That's news to me! Here my father was a Methodist lay minister, and I cannot recall ever hearing about any kind of baptism other than infant baptism!

Over the years, I've attended churches from a number of different denominations. At one time, I identified myself as a Methodist. Now I just call myself a Christian. My loyalty is to Christ and his word, not to any individual denomination or church body. Where the Church has done what it ought to have done, I like to think that I have been quick to recognize that fact. But I have no reluctance to criticize the Church if and when such criticism seems to be appropriate, keeping in mind that I too am fallible.

I don't know what things are now like at Elwood. I don't know how committed Pastor Gilmore is to Christ in terms of her own personal life. I pray for her sake, and for the sake of her family, that she is a more committed disciple of Christ than my father was. I pray that her vocation as a pastor is the expression of a deep faith in the Lord, and not just a vocational choice which she made because she discovered that she had a gift (as my father did) for public speaking. That isn't even a good reason to become a politician, and it's an even poorer reason for becoming a pastor.

There is a Bible verse which says, "To whom much is given, much will be required." God holds us accountable for the gifts which he gives to us, and that is particularly true in the case of positions of church leadership. Church leaders who arrogantly act as if they are above God's laws should be removed from positions of authority, because they are failing in their responsibilities to teach obedience to God by the example of their own lives.

Church membership has been declining in the United Methodist Church and other similar mainline denominations for a number of years. There's a reason for that. People long for the truth, even when it makes strong demands on their lives. They want leaders they can respect, not leaders who capitulate to the latest trends without regard for the timeless truths of God's Word. They want the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They want a faith which isn't just a Sunday morning kind of thing. They want a faith which is relevant to their lives every day of the week. They want a faith which motivates them to transform society for the betterment of humankind.

Hatred is incompatible with an abiding faith in Christ, so I don't hate the people who continue to attend the United Methodist Church. Many of them are very nice people, and some of them are even committed Christians who regularly do their best to combat the moral relativism which has infected their church.

(For instance, I regularly get a newsletter, known as LifeWatch, from conservative United Methodists who seek to return the UMC to the days before it became difficult to tell the difference between United Methodists and Unitarians.)

I wish those people the best, but frankly, I have no stomach for that kind of constant conflict and confrontation. I don't expect perfection when I attend a church, but I do expect people to be united in a common commitment to Christ and to God's word. Unfortunately, the United Methodist churches where that is the case are few and far between.

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