Last Sunday, September 15, 2019, I got to preach for the 175th anniversary of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church. 175 years is not the oldest in our district, but still 175 years is a significant lifetime. The lifecycle of many churches (birth through death) does not last 175 years. It is truly an occasion to celebrate with thanksgiving and praise to God.
Even more, when we realize that 175 years ago the year was 1844. For those who are Methodist history buffs, that year, 1844, will stand out as a big milestone. In 1844, the General Conference voted to approve what was called “A Plan of Separation” to separate the denomination. At the time, there was one church, known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. A huge controversy arose when one of the bishops married a woman who owned slaves, thus making the bishop a slave owner, and he would not resign as a bishop. The issue became so contentious that, after meeting for six weeks (May 1 to June 10), the General Conference decided that there needed to be a separation into two groups: one that allowed bishops to be slave owners, and the other that did not. The result was two denominations, The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It was only after much effort to maintain unity and much agonizing debate and soul-searching that the delegates came to this decision, reluctantly. It ended up being a division that would last 95 years, until the Methodist Church was reunited in 1939.
Picture this: in the midst of that huge denominational turmoil and upheaval, a faithful circuit rider and some faithful disciples decided to start a new church, whose building is still standing today. There would certainly have been plenty of reasons to say, “We can’t do this with all that is happening in our troubled denomination …. We should wait until we see how the dust settles before we try to get a new church going …. We don’t know what the future will be, so let’s hold tight with what we are doing now and not try to add anything more …. We need to focus on survival at this point, and not stretch ourselves to be doing new things.” You can probably add your own imaginings of what could have been said and thought.
What actually happened is that this small group of Jesus-followers decided to step out in faith and hope and love, and begin a new faith community to bless their neighbors with the Good News of Jesus and His saving grace. They first met in someone’s home, then in a mill building, before someone donated the land on which the current stone building was erected. For 175 years that congregation has carried the banner of Jesus as the community’s economic, social, educational, and religious contexts have all undergone major changes. The church has blessed countless generations as the expression of Jesus’ love for the people who have needed it there.
I think this story of hope amid denominational challenges is a lesson for us today. There may be good reasons to think that we should put our ministry plans, our creative ideas, our missional initiatives on hold, waiting to see what happens with the next General Conference and how that may or may not impact us. But not necessarily so! General Conferences come and go, but the ministry of being the Church continues to happen most significantly at the local level, in local congregations, gathering week in and week out to awaken and grow in Christian faith, hope, and love. I encourage all of us to stay the course with our mission, and follow where God’s Spirit leads us rather than where our worries may tempt us to retreat. Who knows where things may be 175 years hence. But what a wonderful blessing it would be if people in the year 2194/95 (175 years from now) would be looking back to what happened in 2019/20 and give thanks for the faithfulness of those Jesus-followers.
Grace and Peace,