Fear Not

The phrase “Do not be afraid” and “Do not fear” appear over ninety times in the Bible. God, and God’s messengers (angels) tell people not to be afraid when they behold visions or receive a word from God. Leaders tell the people not to be afraid of what is coming because God has been with them the whole time. Jesus tells the disciples multiple times to not be afraid when they are unsure of what is happening.

The theme for Camp Tamarack this season is “Fearless 365” based off Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.” Not only is this a great message for our children today, but we all need this message in 2024: wars in multiple places, threats of genocide, starvation, political intimidation, violence, and a contentious election season. Here in Milwaukee, we are preparing for a political convention in July. I pray that we manage to avoid some of the violence many are predicting it will bring. My heart is heavy.

But we are also facing fears even closer to home: fear of loss and change. Many of our churches are experiencing hard losses right now, of beloved leaders and lifetime members, of buildings, of worship services and ways of being church that were once cherished. We know, given statistics of decline across churches in the U.S., we will begin to experience many churches closing in the next ten years. This is across all denominations and even non-denominational churches now. The sad reality is that many of the large churches tend to be personality-driven: people choose that church because of the pastor’s dynamic presence and ministry. Once that pastor is gone, the church tends to dwindle. As a denomination based on congregational polity, we recognize that we join the church, the body of Christ, and not the pastor. Pastors will come and go, but it is the church that must be Christ in the community.

When I visit your church, one of the things I look for is evidence that the church is active in the surrounding community. Do you know your neighbors? Do you know their needs? Is the church engaged with other community partners? Where is the church visible outside of the building and property? And when I say church, I mean the people, the body of Christ. I also look at the church’s web presence. Do you have a website? Does it have accurate information including the worship time and location? Do you have a social media presence? How are you engaging with your digital neighborhood? When I am unable to answer most of those questions, I become concerned about a church’s health and future.

But I am not afraid.

I share these words carefully and tenderly and I hope you will hear them in this context: I care deeply about the future of the church, the body of Christ. I care deeply about our members who have given so much to the body of Christ. I care deeply when ministries that are needed for our communities are unable to continue.

But I am not afraid, because I know God is about to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19)

We live with the understanding that God is always with us. While we love to quote scripture such as Malachi 3:6 and say that God never changes, the fact is that we do. And our understanding of who God is and what God is doing in our lives is always changing. We cannot grow without changing. We are not the same person we were one, five, ten, twenty years ago or more. We just are not. The world is not the same as it was. We must change and grow. We may quote one or two scriptures about God not changing, but how many scriptures are there about people changing? Too many to count!

We must change. We must be willing to grow. We must be open to what God is doing and where God is leading us. And that means learning to let go of what we have known for so long.

None of this is easy. Again, I share these words with the deepest compassion. We all have favorite hymns and songs and stories and liturgies, ways of doing things that we don’t want to change (and even me, champion of change, doesn’t feel like it’s Christmas Eve unless we all stand with candles lit in the darkness singing Silent Night, all three verses, because it’s a special memory I still cherish from my childhood with my family).

But we know we must change.

We must embrace the message “Do not be afraid,” and trust that God will lead us into something new.

If we can do this and be open to where God is leading us (and, I have to say it, do the hard work of real transformation), I believe some of the churches that may be tending toward closing will find themselves blossoming again. I also believe some will transform into new ministries. Perhaps the Sunday service will continue to decline, but other ministries in the community will thrive. Still, others will close, but rather than seeing it as a failure, can we see it as a seed for something new?

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

We are reminded in the New Testament, there is no perfect church. Many of Paul’s letters address concerns happening in those churches: conflict, tension, struggles, division. We are also reminded that not a single one of those churches planted still exists today, and most were small house churches. The idea of building a church building and staying in one location was not on anyone’s minds in the first hundred years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead, we are reminded after the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is what the early church did. They cared for each other, they prayed together, they studied scripture together, they broke bread together. They met the needs of those among them as well as the needs of those in the community—they had the goodwill of all the people. That included those who didn’t believe—the greater community.

I am not afraid. I’ve seen what the church can do when we remember we are the body of Christ in this world (1 Corinthians 12:27). I’ve seen what the church will do when there is suffering and pain and hardship to bring healing and hope. I’ve witnessed the church live into God’s justice and peace as shared in scripture by working in solidarity with neighbors and partner organizations in their neighborhoods. I’ve seen what happens when we really love one another. I know that I myself have been transformed by the love of other Christians in faith community.

I’ve also seen what happens when a church decides to close and allows some grain to fall and bear fruit. The New Wineskins fund for new ministries contains the seeds from the closure of First Baptist Church of Eau Claire. Two new ministries launched this year from that fund’s grant program: CONNECT, a youth ministry outreach out of First Baptist Church in Waukesha, and Messy Church/Community Together, a new worshipful gathering for families and young children that have unique needs, out of Federated Church of Green Lake. From the closure of Bay View Baptist Church, nine separate ministries serving mostly local communities in need receive funding every year from the sale of the church building, and that endowment has increased. There are even more new ministries that are being considered right now, still in the seed stage. Some will be for a season, and some may last for years. We do not know. But I am not afraid—I find I am full of hope and excitement to see what God will do, when we let go of fear (especially the fear of failure) and say yes!

I am not afraid of what is to come. It’s going to look different. The total number of churches on our list may dwindle, but the number of people impacted by ministries of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin has continued to increase exponentially, and will do so for generations, if we are willing to let go of fear, and cling to that wild, reckless hope found in Christ Jesus.

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

With you on the journey of faith,

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

P.S. Join us at Camp Tamarack this summer and be FEARLESS! I will be the Sr. High Camp Pastor June 16-20.

 

Posted in New Wineskins, News, Staff Articles.