May 22, 2022
So… I’m always going on about how scripture gives us a language to talk about our experiences… to talk about our faith. Today’s story gives us the opportunity to talk about what has been happening here at Parkway over the past few years and to help explain why we’re doing what we’re doing… and the direction in which we’re moving. Listen as God speaks to you.
Let’s start at the beginning. Paul sees a vision… and is immediately convinced that he must go to Macedonia to proclaim the good news. Of course, this is what Paul did. He traveled around the Mediterranean Sea. He went out into the world and he told the people about Christ. He went beyond the safe boundaries of his own Jewish community… went among the Gentiles… went and spoke to whoever might listen… and shared his faith… a faith that was grounded in the experience he had of God’s grace. So… Paul… Paul is doing his thing… and he has a vision… and he changes course and heads to Macedonia convinced by his vision.
We’re not so different. Back in 2017 or 18 an idea came. Now I’m too Presbyterian to be fully comfortable with the word “vision”. Too many charismatic overtones. I’m an idea man. I have ideas and then use those ideas to craft a vision… or a strategy if you will. Mine was not a new idea… but one that had been forming after so many years of doing transitional ministry… so that when I got to Parkway I could be excited and optimistic about our future together… but also very grounded in what was happening across the board when it came to churches. Which was not good news then… and continues to not be good news for the institutional church. Everything in 2017 was moving in the wrong direction when it came to church growth. And that’s where this idea begins… with church growth… with somehow doing evangelism today… taking our Presbyterian understanding of Christ back into the world. But all the trends… like I said… were going the wrong way. Churches were waning. Less people were going to church. The people who were going to church were even going less. Each successive generation had a smaller and smaller percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian. The group called the “Nones” were on the rise. I think there were more “Nones” at the time than Presbyterians… a denomination that has been doing nothing but shrinking. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There was also the rise of the “Dones”… former church goers who were done with the church and were not going back. You don’t have to be an expert in church demographics to see how the trends are against us… and that institutionally for churches… especially churches like Parkway… things aren’t looking good.
But… but… at the same time… reading articles and watching videos with interviews of Christians who were moving away from the church… or younger generations who were giving up on the church… a message kept coming to the forefront that if they could find a church that had a more generous theology… a more grace based theology… a church that wasn’t stuck in fighting the culture wars… that wasn’t always all about what it was against… a church where you were allowed to think and to question and to wonder and to explore… then maybe… maybe… that was a church they could connect to. And Saints… looking at the trends… maybe was good enough to get us to try something… maybe was good enough to believe in this idea… and try something different. To dare to be like Paul for our time.
So the idea was simple… let’s see if we can find somebody… the right somebody… who could go outside the church walls and act as our evangelist… take our theology into the world… meet people where they were… and see what might happen.
This idea was shared with the Session and we decided to keep our eyes and ears open… to pray and to watch for the Holy Spirit to move… because for this idea to go forward… it had to be the right person… not just anyone filling the slot. So… there was no initial job description written or a position created and no formal were interviews lined up… we said the idea aloud… and we waited on God to act in God’s time. The work the Session did while we were waiting… I guess in our scripture reading this would be the necessary behind the scenes work that Paul and his companions had to do to get to Macedonia… booking the passage and planning the trip. The work the Session did, at the time, was to change the rules around the Tucker Fund… a fund that had been sitting dormant. The original idea of the Tucker Fund was that the principle would not be used, but that every year the interest would be given away to local service agencies. Nothing wrong with that plan… but one… it wasn’t going to help grow the church… and two it wasn’t being done. The money wasn’t being disseminated. So… following the rules put in place when the Tucker Fund was originally established… rules about how to change the purpose of the fund should that day come… and that day had arrived… the Session changed the use of the fund… and how the full fund, and not just the interest, was going to be used in the future… to support experimentation and the creation of new ministries in the church… especially ministries aimed at growing the church. Because if we weren’t growing… looking at all those very real trends… we were declining toward eventual institutional failure. That’s the hard truth we cannot deny.
When a vision comes… and you’re convinced of that vision… then you have to figure out how to implement the vision. You have to figure out how to live toward that vision. If Paul saw of vision saying, “Come to Macedonia”… he has to start heading in that direction. He doesn’t know exactly what will happen when he gets there… but he has to start moving in that direction.
We here at Parkway started to move towards this idea of church growth… and being very intentional about it… imagining what it might look like to have a ministry of Parkway’s that didn’t meet within our four walls. I talked to a number of people along the way looking for this evangelist… would randomly bring it up in conversations if anyone knew anybody who might fit our idea. None of those people were the one, but each of them helped to refine the idea and to bring into focus who this person might be… so that we would be able to recognize that person when God sent them. Because this idea of ours… behind it was the understanding that ministry is built through people… not a program… not a gimmick… real ministry is built through people and the connections and the relationships that develop. That’s one of our core values that we work from… and if you look at our story today… that’s the core value it is teaching.
For us, the right person turned out to be Meg. I first met Meg after she had interviewed for a youth position at Elise’s church… our secretary Elise. Her name came from a morning check-in conversation… like the one I have almost everyday with Elise… how was their search going… and then came the casual question… was there anyone you interviewed that we should talk to? Yes there is. We should always remember Lewisville UMC in our prayers and be thankful that they didn’t give Meg the job because she turned out to be the person we were looking for… that we were waiting for God to send to us.
When Paul and his companions got to Philippi, they went to the place where there was the best chance of meeting the right person. Not the person Paul saw in his vision. Their work was about taking advantage of the opportunities that had presented themselves… and seeing where that might take them. There was a place of prayer where people gathered. They went there on the Sabbath. And there they met Lydia… and… maybe more importantly… they were open to the idea of Lydia. You know, maybe… Lydia didn’t check all the boxes of everyone traveling with Paul. I’m sure that there were things about Lydia that some in the group probably objected to… or looked askance at. But she is where the church in Philippi begins.
The Session hired Meg and she started at 10 hours a week and a measly $10 an hour for a trial period of three months. We’ll see if something happens. And from that time onward we’ve experimented and adjusted… and shifted and pivoted. Covid brought its own challenges to us in trying to do evangelism in the community. Meg decided early on that she wanted to pursue a call into ministry. Her hours changed. Her life changed. Her focused changed as we added Youth and other responsibilities. We followed the opportunities that presented themselves and changed accordingly… always experimenting and being open to new possibilities. Ministry is about people. We have invested in the person God led to us. And I know, at times, that may have been confusing to some of you… that just when you think you knew what was happening, things would change again… but all of this experimentation… always with an eye toward church growth and outreach… has been beneficial and has really helped Parkway.
For example… over the last year, we were able to get Meg to be full-time by putting together our part-time position with a part-time position being the chaplain with the preschool. That experiment and the positives we’ve seen from that… coupled with the growth we’ve experienced with elementary age and younger children… has convinced the Session that an opportunity has been presented itself to us that we need to act upon. So, at the last Session meeting a new full-time position… shared with the school… was created to do ministry with our young children and their families… to intentionally bring together the community of the church and the community of the school. We are going in new directions. We’ve moved Meg now fully to 40 hours and for these next two years the plan is to focus her on the older Youth, Young Adults… and to put her back into evangelism… going out to that beach in Macedonia where she might just meet up with Lydia.
We’re following a vision. There I said it. Vision. And sometimes that vision is expressed in negative terms like, “I don’t want to be the last minister at Parkway”… that’s not hyperbole… I wish it was.
Sometimes our vision will be expressed boldly and defiantly like, “We are determined to defy the trends and actually become a growing Presbyterian Church… a church with a new chapter just beginning!” So like Paul… we will be following the opportunities when they present themselves… we will be taking risks… we are going to be doing lots of behind the scenes work to set us up so that we’re ready when God says go… we will dare to reach outside of our safe space… our comfortable understandings of what church is supposed to do and be… and yes… we will take the good news of Christ into the world. Amen.