Church Renewal (2)

colleague of mine shared this gripping testimony a couple of weeks ago on church renewal that I would like to share with you. He is a great Rector at St. Mark’s, New Canaan, an inspiring preacher and spiritual leader.

On Canceling Your Life Agenda – by the Rev. Peter F. Walsh St. Mark’s, New Canaan

A few weeks ago I went to Chicago with a group of Episcopalians to meet Bill Hybels. I went to sit at his feet, to learn about churches, but what I really learned was about myself, and perhaps in my telling this story you will learn more about yourself.

As you probably know, Bill Hybels is one of the great evangelists of our time. In the 1970s he founded Willow Creek Church with the mission to turn irreligious people to fully committed followers of Jesus Christ.  Today Willow Creek has an average Sunday attendance of 24,000 (that is 5,000 people more than live in New Canaan, where I serve).

The parking lot itself is a sight to behold. To give some sense of its size, they had to buy their own buses, like those used at airports, to bring people from the far reaches of the lot to the worship center because it was too far to walk.

The theatre where they hold their services is one of the largest in-door theatres in the United States. It holds 7,000 people. No pillars. No obscured views. No bad seats. It is a state of the art facility, cutting edge, top of the line in every respect. The technology is not to be believed. Take the baptismal font, for instance. It is the size of a pool. Members of the church who are aerospace engineers designed it to be like a hovercraft on the bottom so one or two people can move it around their huge stage just by guiding it.

Bill Hybels & The Research

If the place was incredible, Bill Hybels was more so. Charismatic for sure, but his power was in his vulnerable humility. I found myself hanging on his every word. He had cut short his visit at the Clinton Global Initiative to speak with a group of 30 Episcopalians. The topic was research that Willow Creek and an Episcopal group called RenewalWorks has done and continues to do on the spiritual vitality of parishes and the people in the pews.

When the research about Willow Creek parishioners was first unveiled it was very depressing to Bill. It showed they were not making progress into a deeper life in Christ. This has been demonstrated in many Episcopal Churches, too, through the research being conducted by RenewalWorks.

The Question and the Result

In addition to Bill Hybels, we met with the chief researcher (a devout Episcopalian) and a woman who is author of many books on this research (one of which is about to come out and includes research about Episcopal churches). The research asks many, many questions, but the key question from which it all stems is this:

How would you describe your relationship with Jesus Christ?

The team we met all said that the research shows that people in the pews fall roughly into four categories:

  • *  The first group is those who are Exploring Christ. These are seekers who are just trying on Jesus and the whole religious thing.
  • *  The second group is those who are Growing in Christ; people with a growing faith and are becoming religious.
  • *  The third group is those who feel Close to Christ. These have a spiritual life and serve others in need, but they hold back from full commitment.
  • *  The forth group is those whose whole life is Christ-Centered; they have surrendered their lives to Christ and service to their Lord is a way of life.

There was much talk about each of these categories and how people grew in Christ and switched categories, but it is the last category that Bill spoke most about.  These are the ones that fascinated him most.

Christ-Centered

These are the people who have given their lives to Christ. He said these people are different other people in the pews; they can make a church really go because they do incredible things not just for the church but for the Lord. It is part of the work of their life. I have long considered myself part of this group.

But then he said something that cut me to the core, and I have not stopped thinking about it for weeks. He said these are people who have cancelled their whole life agenda. As he spoke I began to feel myself convicted in the power of the Spirit. Had I completely cancelled my life agenda and handed it over to Jesus Christ? I do not mean part of it or most of it, but all of it, shielding nothing and holding back nothing from my Lord. Could I say with no hesitation? Lord, do with me as you please. No hesitation, no caveats?

As he spoke I began to feel myself invited into a deeper conversion, a deeper surrender and that this deepest of surrenders was the doorway to true freedom and the peace of God which passes all understanding.

So I ask you the same question: Have you cancelled your life agenda and turned over your whole life agenda over to Jesus? I mean the whole thing, not holding anything back.

As I write this and prepare to send it in, I give thanks for all of you, my clergy colleagues in Connecticut, and your service to our Lord and the Church.  I am humbled by your devotion and your labors of love.

Maranatha,

Peter+