Why it’s important that our neighbors want to be our neighbor
October 20, 2015 / By the Rev. Anne Bey Canfield
Our Upper New York Annual Conference was blessed the week of Oct. 12, when we had gifted evangelist and church planter the Rev. Jorge Acevedo in our Empire State. With humility and humor, Rev. Acevedo – who is the lead pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Fla. – reminded us that as a conference our primary purpose is to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by building vital churches. Such churches are equipped to share our UMC's missional purposes with our local communities, by getting to know the people in our local church's neighborhoods.
Rev. Acevedo has had an outreach campaign in the neighborhoods of several of the churches he has helped plant called “Love the 239,” which represents the area code of his numerous church campuses. He reminds his congregations that their first task as United Methodists is to love the people who live in their local communities.
Shouldn’t we, in the Upper New York Conference, want to do the same? Isn’t Christ’s primary claim on our lives as local churches in the Conference to show God’s love to our neighbors, at all times, in all places?
Those of us old enough to remember Mr. Rogers hear his sweet song chirping in the back of our preschool minds, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” “Won’t you love the 239?" in Rev. Acevedo’s case, and “the 607” in my church’s neighborhood. Won’t you love your neighborhood and allow the grace of Jesus Christ to transform the lives around you, so none will ever be the same again?
Rev. Acevedo passionately reminds us: The grace of Jesus is enough, enough for all of us, never to be the same prodigal sons and daughters. Only God’s grace through Jesus Christ can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, save us from ourselves, and reshape us into people who live changed lives, because we know Jesus’ love for us, and heed His great command to love one another.
Indeed, John Wesley, our United Methodist founder, once boldly and courageously declared, “The world is my parish.” So can we, as the Upper New York Conference of The United Methodist Church, combine our hearts and minds with John Wesley and Rev. Acevedo, to reach out by the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ, and share the Gospel with the neighbors that reside in our area codes? Are we up to that challenge Upper New York? Is our collective passion for the purpose, fueled by the stirring of the Holy Spirit, enough to get us off the sofas and pews in cozy churches into the neighborhoods of the Upper New York Conference of The United Methodist Church?
So where do we begin? First, we must understand that the days of the lone circuit rider on the horse – the heroic solo leader – is not the most effective means to conduct ministry anymore. Modern day circuit riders, who navigate an ever-changing web of social media and social relationships, need in Rev. Acevedo’s own terminology to become “Generative Team Leaders.” Such team leaders build vital churches in our time of unprecedented diverse cultural opinions and practices by building bridges between the local church and neighborhood. A common theme to such vital churches is that they have thoughtful, biblical strategies, and a clear, unified focus that build authentic Christian communities, according to Rev. Acevedo.
Rev. Acevedo challenges us as a Conference, that if we truly want to see real growth in our disciple-making process, it often takes radical changes to past approaches in our evangelism efforts as local churches. Church growth requires us to risk ourselves; clergy and laity must work together to build “healthy, holy teams of men and women,” working together to further the Gospel of Jesus to change lives.
Such necessary work often requires pruning. We need to prune all existing barriers and prior claims on our ministries to develop an atmosphere where authentic Christian community can develop and grow. Let us be honest with ourselves. According to Rev. Acevedo, we can’t build vital churches today and we can't change lives for Jesus Christ if we engage knowingly or unknowingly in “spiritual malpractice,” which means offering Jesus’ healing without the people, places and things to truly become a new creation of Jesus Christ.
We need to come to grips with the essential truth which is this: We all need to do the essential work in our local churches, to prepare the way for new people to join us, for new lives to be reached and saved. We need to get ready, to be prepared to meet the needs of the people of our neighborhoods. We can't meet the needs of our local neighbors until we square away the baggage of our own native prodigal sons and daughters, our own prodigal selves. It is time to go to God collectively in prayer, to meld our hearts and minds with the claim of Christ for our lives.
It’s time to prune away all of our religious excuses for not being the Church, the authentic body of Christ that Jesus calls us to be. It is time to honestly ask ourselves the question Mr. Rogers’ posed: Would anyone in our neighborhood want to honestly be our neighbor? They will, but only, truthfully, if we show them Jesus, if we show them churches where His grace and love reside, waiting to transform neighborhoods of strangers into authentic Christian communities transformed by Jesus' grace and love.
The Rev. Anne Bey Canfield is appointed to the Waverly United Methodist Church (Binghamton District).