You may or may not be aware of a large conversation swirling around The United Methodist Church these days.  It’s no secret that The United Methodist Church, like many of the other mainline Protestant denominations, is declining.

Well, at least in the United States it is declining.

For years and years now, the conversation about what is wrong and what can be done has gone on and on.  The most recent effort to deal with this issue has been the Call to Action Steering Team, organized by Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church.  This task force has looked across the connection, and they have tried to zero in on signs of “vital congregations” in order to help other churches perhaps figure out why they may or may not be doing well.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation has revolved around numbers.  Now, it isn’t that numbers aren’t important.  We keep track of the number of folks who attend here each week.  If we notice a dip or an increase, we try to analyze that data.  However, many who are watching the conversation in our beloved United Methodist Church are beginning to wonder not whether we should measure.  They are wondering whether we are measuring the right things.  As a pastor, I have been trying to keep up with this conversation closely because it will have real effects on the life of local churches.  That is why I was particularly interested to see an article in the United Methodist Reporter from Bishop Joe Pennel, who was our previous Bishop here in VA.

Bishop Pennel is the first Bishop I remember as “my bishop.”  He was the bishop who prayed with me when I confirmed my call to ordained ministry at the end of the Ordination service at Annual Conference.  I found him to be a wise and generous bishop.  In short, when he speaks, I make sure I listen.  The title of his article was “Better ways to measure churches.”[1] I excitedly read through his article, and the thing that struck me more than anything was his last paragraph:

I am now 72 years old and I have been a pastor since 1959. As I look back over my years as a pastor I find myself wishing that I had organized my congregations around worship, searching the Scriptures, more Holy Communion, deeds of mercy and kindness, prayer, meditation and Christian fellowship. I now see that these are the most important means of Grace.[2]

The confessional nature of his article bowled me over.  This man, this pastor, this Bishop, was basically saying that he was as caught up as anyone else in “numerical growth and institutional maintenance,” but as he reflects on his ministry, he wonders if that was always the best thing.  Instead, he finds himself suggesting there might be other things worth measuring in local congregations.  Worship.  Reading Scripture together and individually.   Taking Holy Communion more frequently than once a month.  More deeds of mercy and kindness.  More prayer and meditation.  More Christian fellowship.  This is radically different than much of the numbers-focused discussion around our church.

What gives?  The church is declining in the US, and we are going to find ourselves in big trouble.  How is taking Holy Communion more often going to do us any good?  How is meditation going to take us to the next level?  Deeds of mercy and kindness sound well and good, but what are we going to do about all this decline?  Are we just going to stick our heads in the sand and let the church fall to pieces?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel is suddenly suggesting that numbers don’t matter.   Rather, Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s difference.  The church is different than any other organization, business, or civic group.

To put it another way, I think that Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s existence as both vineyard and wedding banquet.

For the last two weeks, Jesus has been in conversation with the chief priests and elders.  For these last two weeks, Jesus tells them parables including vineyards.  The conversation has been amping up.  In each case, Jesus pronounces judgment on the chief priests and elders because they have failed to work in the vineyard.  In the first case, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of them because they were to sons who said they would work in the vineyard, but then changed their minds.  The insiders find themselves behind the presumed outsiders.

In the second case, Jesus describes the way that the vineyard will be taken from them and given to people who produce fruits of the kingdom.  In fact, the chief priests find themselves held accountable “for Israel’s history of rejecting the prophetic bears of [God’s] invitations” to begin bearing fruit in the vineyard.[3]  The vineyard will be taken away from the insiders and given to the outsiders because the insiders aren’t producing fruit.  There has been a lot of talk of fruit these last two weeks.

This is often the word we use in the church for accountability:  fruit.  And this is not incorrect.  We should be bearing fruit.  It is clear that Jesus expects us to bear fruit.  There is no question about this.  So at first, we might think, “The Call to Action is right on.  We need to get to work in the vineyard.”  And that aspect of the Call to Action makes a lot of sense.  I don’t want to sound like I am completely bashing the Call to Action, and I don’t think Bishop Pennel is either. United Methodists have ridden the wave of cultural familiarity and cultural accommodation for long enough.  It is, indeed, time to get to work on some things.

Then all of a sudden Jesus changes the image to a wedding banquet.

How do you move from a vineyard to wedding banquet?  How do you go from work to partying?  Parties don’t produce a lot of fruit.  They don’t get much accomplished.  They seem sort of like a waste of time when there is good work to do out in those vineyards, right?  Yet, Jesus finishes his debate with the Pharisees comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet.  This wedding banquet parable rehearses familiar themes from the last two weeks, amplifying them to a fever pitch.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son.  He sends out slaves to invite guests to the banquet.  The guests won’t come.  He tries again.  Some ignore the invite.  Some go work on their farms or businesses.  Some invitees even get openly hostile and kill the slaves who are inviting them to this banquet.  Jesus is again rehearsing the history of the prophets and Israel’s rejection of the prophets.  The king then sends more slaves, this time to “invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet (Matthew 22.9).”   The slaves invite everyone they find, the good and the bad, and so the wedding hall is filled with guests.

Again, the presumed outsiders, the good and the bad, are now found to be occupying the space of the insiders.  What is the criteria in the banquet?  What is the measure of who gets in and who doesn’t?  Where is the fruit of those the slaves gather on the street?  They are folks who simply respond to the invitation of the king’s servants.  They are both the good and the bad.  The only criteria, it seems, is a willingness to respond to the King’s call to come to the wedding banquet of his son.  The distinction is between those who rejected the invitation, and those who accepted it.  No fruit is mentioned.

The next piece of the parable is even more confusing.  The king comes in and noticed someone isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  In response, the king promptly throws this guest into the outer darkness?  What?!  Wait a second, so this person, who would have had no way to prepare for the banquet, is suddenly thrown out because he or she isn’t dressed right?  Even if we interpret the gown to be righteousness or the new life we put on in baptism, it still strikes me as strange.[4]  How would they have been prepared?  Yet, somehow they aren’t found to be appropriate to the gathering.  How do we measure that?

The key is the many are called, but few are chosen.  Lots of people will show up to this banquet, but not everyone is chosen.  Yet even that feels confusing, doesn’t it?  All of these people who didn’t expect to be called to this banquet show up, yet there is still some element of chosenness?  Which is it?  Do they respond to the invitation?  Or are they chosen?  If this distinction is between those who rejected the invitation and those accepted it, why is chosenness still a factor?  What is the measure here?

The wedding banquet suggests that there is simply more than just measuring fruit at play.  It is simply more than what we do or do not do.  The wedding banquet is what theologians call an eschatological image.  You get one gold star today for learning the word “eschatological.”  You get two if you learn how to say it!  “Eschatological” means the “final things.”  The wedding banquet is an image of the banquet that we will enjoy forever with Christ and the communion of saints.  Jesus has moved the conversation from the past and pulled back the view to look across all of history.  And in this view, the work of the kingdom is crucial, but there is an element even more crucial than work.  It is grace.  The tension, especially the tension that we sense in this one person who isn’t dressed right for the banquet is a tension that has existed across the history of the church.  The tension is between being called and responding to the call.

Some elements of the church focus on the call.  God is sovereign, and so God knows and chooses those who will be part of God’s covenant community.  The response to this image is that when we recognize ourselves as one of those people is obedience.[5]  Then, on the other side of the spectrum there are those traditions that focus on the response.  We must accept the call for it be effective.  Our free will and agency is crucial to our decision.  Think of the hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus!  No turning back!”  We march around the sanctuary singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus!”  So which is it?  The reason this tension cannot be resolved is that the answer is both.  It is two sides of the same coin.  It is iridescent grace.

Iridescence is the property of certain surfaces to change color when looked at from different angles or when the illumination of the surface is changed.  This is popular on some cars.  When you look at the car from one direction, it looks green.  When you look at the car from another direction it is blue.  Which is it?  Blue or green?  This is the tension we feel in this passage.  Did God choose me as a follower?  Yes!  Did I use my free will to freely accept that invitation?  Yes!  John Wesley fiercely held to the notion that “is free in all, and free for all.”[6]   Wesley accounted for the tension we are feeling through his description of “prevenient grace,” the grace that comes before.

Prevenient grace is that grace that God offers us, it is that grace that works in us even before we even recognizing it. [7]  Without that grace, we wouldn’t even know how much trouble we are in.  Yet, we must respond to that grace, even as we understand that the grace is what frees us to respond in the first place! Does your head hurt yet?  Put different, when we look at it from one angle, we see God’s sovereign choice in calling us.  When we look at it from another angle, we see that way in which God wants us to respond to that invitation.  It is iridescent grace.  It depends on the angle at which you look at it!

The wedding banquet image is a vision and glimpse of the banquet that we will enjoy when there is a new heaven and new earth.  In it we see God at work in ways we cannot imagine, ways that God invites us and through grace enables our free response to God’s invitation.  The banquet is for the bridegroom, who is Christ to whom the church, to whom we as members of the church, are bound.  Were we chosen?  Yes.  Did we freely respond to the invitation?  Yes.  Further, the good and the bad in the parable remind us that we can’t judge or know precisely now what is each other’s hearts.  It is only the one who gives the banquet who knows this, and it is only through grace that we are even at the banquet in the first place.  It reminds us that even as we measure fruit, we recognize that our measurements are not eternal judgments.

Where does this leave us with Bishop Pennel’s article?  Is the Call to Action all wrong?  Should we resist all of it?  Is it not of God?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel thinks that.  I don’t think that.  Fruit is important.  Fruit is necessary.  There are valuable elements of the Call to Action.  There are times when it is appropriate to measure our work.  Yet, the banquet is a remind that at the end of the day is not squarely on our shoulders.  Rather it is on the shoulders of the one who bore a cross for us.  It is on the shoulders of the body we find ourselves in through our baptisms.  It is on the shoulders of Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the head of the church.  Our work, our participation, our fruit only comes through the often surprisingly, subversive, and wild nature of God’s grace.

When we focus only on our numerical growth, perhaps we find ourselves in danger of making numerical growth our idol to which we sacrifice all of who we are as church in the name of growth.  We turn our churches into competing McDonald’s franchises rather than glimpses of the heavenly banquet.  We get so focused on the work, on best practices, on being effective, on fruit, on keeping up with other churches that we forget that the church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God because we are invited, shaped, and formed into the body of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The prevalence of the Call to Action’s work, the fact that it seems to be where a large share of he church is throwing its weight is what is unnerving because it places all that weight on us in a way that forgets the unmerited gifted nature of our membership in this body.

The unmerited, gifted, nature of our membership in this body is different than any other membership we encounter.  It is what makes it different than governments, civic clubs, country clubs, or any other associations we find ourselves.  What Bishop Pennel is describing is a fuller vision of the church that focuses more deeply on the banquet nature of the church, which we only see in glimpses in the here and now.  He is describing the practices of the church where those glimpses have been found throughout the life of God’s people.  In worship, prayer, and Scripture.  Most especially Holy Communion, which is actually a participation in the future banquet we will enjoy with the communion of saints and Jesus.  When we come to the table, we dine with whole church, just not the church we can see.  When we come to the table, we learn not to depend only on what we can do because it is in the normal elements of wine and bread that we receive grace.  Grace we don’t deserve.  Yet grace nonetheless.

For Bishop Pennel to wish that he had organized his congregations around more Holy Communion is powerful because it is to suggest that it matters.  It matters even though it is a gift we receive.  It is radical because he is suggesting that if we want to see revival in the church, then we need to avail ourselves of the means of grace, of which John Wesley called Holy Communion the “grand channel.”[8]  When we find ourselves focused on other things and forgetting about worship, scripture, praying, and the sacraments, we are in danger of running aground.

What about fruit?  Fruit is important.  Notice that Bishop Pennel mentions deeds of kindness and mercy.  He is naming that when the church organizes itself around the grace offered in the banquet, we are nourished to get back to work in the vineyard.  That vineyard work is crucial.  There are fruits of the kingdom to be borne.  Yet, it isn’t all vineyards.  It is, principally, first, and foremost, and party.  A banquet.  A celebration.  And it is one we didn’t expect to find ourselves invited to.

Yet, here we are, in this sanctuary.  Celebrating coming back into our space of worship.  Our place of party.  Our place of celebration.  Our place of the Holy Feast where it is truly Christ who meets us in the table of Holy Communion.  And when you go to a good celebration, and good party, a good banquet, we don’t do a lot of measuring.  Rather, we tell stories about our experience.  It is qualitative rather than quantitative information that we share when we go out into the world.  When you describe our service today and the excitement we have shared, you will likely tell it as a story, rather than as raw numerical data!

What I think Bishop Pennel is suggesting is that when we take care of our spiritual practices, the numbers take care of themselves.  When we avail ourselves of all the means of grace at the banquet, the vineyard work pours out uncontrollably.  But we actually have to take care of it.  We actually have to focus on the practices and not pretend that they are important to us simply, so that we don’t have to change or do anything new.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to measure anything.  Rather, we may just need to also keep track of some other things.  Like how often we are taking communion.  How many hours we spend reading scripture.  How much time and money we spend in mission and ministry in our community and in our world.

Were we chosen for this banquet?  Yes.  Did we freely decide to come to this banquet?  Yes.  It is iridescent.  It depends on how you look at it. Yet, no matter which we way look at it, we are thankful for the party.  We are thankful for the celebration.  It is a celebration where we feast on the Word as it is read, proclaimed at the lectern and pulpit, and we eat and drink it at the table.  And then we find ourselves in the streets, inviting more people who don’t think they belong to the feast, whether they are good or bad.  What would the numbers look like if that really happened?


[1] Bishop Joe E. Pennel, “Better Ways to Measure Churches,” in United Methodist Reporter, http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=8245, cited October 9, 2011.

[2] Pennel, “Better Ways,” cited October 9, 2011.

[3] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 164.

[4] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 167.

[5] Andrew Purves, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 164.

[6] John Wesley, “Free Grace,” §2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 50.  Also available online.

[7] “[A]ll the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world,’ showing every [person] ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [his or her] God.” John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 373.  Also available online.

[8] John Wesley, “Sermon on the Mount VI,” III.11 in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 232.  Also available online.

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