Making Disciples for the 22nd Century: From “Here I Stand” to “There We Go!”

In the evening of November 27th, at our first ever district wide charge conference, the business part of the
meeting was conducted in opening liturgy, and then the primary focus was on education. Dr. Leonard Sweet was our
guest teacher, and helped the gathered Methodist leadership of the whole Tulsa Metro area rethink our understanding
of what it means to “make disciples for the 22nd century” in a language and method that is compelling and interesting
to our present culture.
Dr. Sweet, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, where the largest “religious group” is “non-religious”, described
an encounter with a person who, upon finding out he was a preacher, said proudly—“I’ve never listened to a sermon
in my life—I stay away from churches particularly to keep people from preaching at me!” Dr. Sweet said, “I believe
you hear 3000 sermons every day.” Dr. Sweet’s point—the commercial culture we exist in preaches a very strong and
compelling message, and those who are committed to a faith life must hear sermons that are equal to the same task
in order to be convincing. What do those sermons sound like? Well—one thing Dr. Sweet mentioned was the decreasing
number of “points” that have been found to be effective in presenting a memorable message. Perhaps even more
counterintuitive, perhaps a “point” is not as necessary to a sermon providing a compelling message as it used to be.
Dr. Sweet shared a funny story about his wife telling him his sermon was “pointless.” “Why THANK YOU!” retorted
Dr. Sweet.
He used a couple of compelling commercials to communicate what he meant by this. One showed a man
stranded in the woods. He was being pursued by wolves in the snow. He seemed desperately lost. Finally, he gave up
and collapsed in the snow. The wolves all circled and came in for what one might assume was the end of the hiker.
Then the perspective shifted to that of the man awakening from passing out from the cold. He saw wolf’s fur, and then
the camera pulled out, where all the wolves had gathered around the man providing warmth. The tagline unfolded
across the screen, “To embrace a stranger as one’s own. It’s in our nature.” Shangri-La Hotels……
Dr. Sweet groused for a while that it’s too bad the church hadn’t come up with a commercial like this, except
perhaps saying “it’s our redeemed nature.” Then he pointed out that at no time did the commercial show a hotel room
or try to “sell the product.” Instead, the commercial “sold a story.” Connecting with the story of the product is how
most advertisers find it is most effective to build brand loyalty and encourage people to try them out. Oddly, the
church seems stuck in the old “product driven” model of “advertising,” when it is in our roots to “tell a story” and
connect people to that story. The rest of the lecture was fantastic as well, and Dr. Sweet gave an illustration of connecting
the gathered body to a story that very few of us knew about our faith—the importance of the almond branch.
It’s not really something I can relay here, but I’ll share his lecture on our media when it becomes available.
For now, I celebrate that I believe it is something we do well here at University UMC. Deliver pointless sermons
(lolololol) and share the story in compelling ways! I think back on all the images that convey who we are and what we
hope to become—gathered crowds cheering on marathon runners, those runners stopping to clap for us or show
their appreciation, kids at the chancel learning about our faith life, your faces in the congregation as the choir is singing
a stirring anthem, our church marquee delivering a message of relevance to our culture shared with friends on
social media….there are a number of ways that I believe we are hitting the mark when it comes to Dr. Sweet’s vision of
ministry in the 21st century shaping disciples for the 22nd. Let’s keep it up!