The Methodist Revolution: Q&A with Bishop Ricardo Pereira

“Our church is a church that has joy,” Bishop Ricardo Pereira said. “We have learned how to love – even in the midst of problems – through Jesus Christ. We don’t allow any obstacles to stop us. People come with their drums, with their guitars, and people are happy. That’s a testimony. Even members of the Communist government – taught not to believe – some of them are coming to know the Gospel and coming to faith through Jesus Christ.”

Pereira is the spiritual leader of the Methodist Church of Cuba and the pastor of the 3,200-member Methodist Church of Marianao in Havana. Good News editor Steve Beard sat down with the bishop to talk about the growth and dynamism of the Methodist Church and the changes that are taking place in Cuba. Pereira was in the United States to preach at the Aldersgate Renewal Ministries gathering in Lexington, Kentucky. The conversation was translated by the Rev. Jacquie Leveron, a United Methodist clergywoman serving in Fort Pierce, Florida.

The Cuban Methodist Church is young, growing, and vibrant. What is the explanation for your vitality?

“The church must learn that there’s a place that belongs only to the Holy Spirit that cannot be substituted with anything,” said Bishop Ricardo Pereira. Photo by Brenda Mandeville Johnson. Courtesy of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.

The limitations due to the economy and the Communist system have forced us in the church to have a spirit of prayer and fasting. The Bible teaches us that all things can work together for good. We cannot do what you do here – get a hotel or a stadium to have an evangelistic event. But we do one-on-one evangelism, person to person. In a stadium, people get converted and then you don’t see them. But with personal evangelism we are able to visit someone’s home, know their phone number and allow us to follow up.

Because people are able to share the message one to another, they have a commitment to extend the Gospel and to support the church. They don’t make too much money but they learn how to support the church financially and that has been an explosion.

In the last 15 years, there has been an explosion of growth. People go to homes and they share their testimony before their neighbors. And then we start a church there. We cannot build it and say it’s a sanctuary. But it’s a church because we have Sunday school, Bible study, and Sunday worship services. That’s how we’re extending in a very extraordinary way all over the island.

How does Caribbean culture accent your expression of Methodism?

Our people are very joyful because Jesus has made a difference in our life. As in biblical times, they praise the name of the Lord and dance with all kinds of instruments and shouts of joy. For many years the Methodist Church in Cuba was a replica of the American church. But we have some black blood in our veins. It’s a mixture of European and African cultures and our people want to shout because they have joy in the Lord. I think it’s our success. We’re using our roots to worship the Lord with all that we have. And now we say that if Jesus was coming back again – born a second time – he would be birthed of a mulatto woman. [laughter]

We respect the American church, but we believe our church needs to allow the Holy Spirit to do His own thing and allow our emotions to express itself. We don’t have any problem when people shout at a stadium, at a football game. Why not shout when we are before the Lord and let Him know how much we love Him?

Some people are confused about what it means to be a Methodist. Some think that being a Methodist is only about singing the hymns that Charles Wesley composed, which is a good thing. But Cuban Methodists go to the spirit of Wesley. What did Charles Wesley do? He took the music of his time and wrote evangelical lyrics. They had theology and doctrine and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We still sing their hymns, but we use our music and we use evangelical, biblical lyrics. Our people could sing the Bible without stopping. And our Cuban rhythm invites you to move your whole body. [laughter]

Bishop Ricardo Pereira preaches at a baptism service in Havana. Photo courtesy of the Methodist Church of Cuba.

That’s why our services are longer than two hours. Because people bring their poetry, their dances, their special hymns. People want to sing together. They want to hold each other and dance. And I think that looks a lot like what John Wesley did.

The United Methodist Church in the United States is struggling with retaining or attracting young people to our services. 

In Cuba it’s different. Our members are very young. Our pastors are 35 or younger. I think I’m an old man in Cuba. [laughter]

Young people need Christian music. Young people have a lot of expectations and if we lead them or channel them to prayer and seeking after the Holy Spirit, they’re going to find answers that are going to keep them from drugs and other things that will damage them.

It seems as if the Cuban church has a great awareness and expectation for miracles. I sometimes wonder if the wealth of the church in North America numbs our expectation for the supernatural?

In some senses, yes. Because you think you could resolve everything with a cellphone. You could pay through the cellphone, you could do any kind of transaction. And you don’t have to depend on God too much. But where we have economic problems, people cannot resolve their problems and they have to pray more. But I think that the biggest problem of Christians in the United States is not to use the resources that the Holy Spirit has given them. The church must learn that there’s a place that belongs only to the Holy Spirit that cannot be substituted with anything.

Describe the size and scope of the Methodist Church in Cuba.

There are 300 churches that are formed and functioning in homes. There are up to 400 people in some of them. With youth and women and we have another 800 houses that are churches in formation, that are smaller. We have another 5,000 houses all over Cuba that are meeting places where Methodists come to pray to support the churches.

We have three models: churches, churches in formation, and meeting houses for prayer. Sometimes people believe that they don’t have the proper clothing to worship in a sanctuary, and they feel more comfortable at a house. There’s a total revolution going on in the houses.

What is the reaction of unbelieving neighbors to all the noise and commotion of your services in homes?

One day they will come and see because they’re curious. And the love of Christ hits them. There is an altar call at every service we hold. It doesn’t matter if it’s Resurrection Sunday [Easter] or not. At the end of a service, I always say, “How many are going to accept Jesus?”

The church has changed its strategy. Instead of having evangelistic campaigns, it’s a continual one, constantly, bringing people to Jesus.

When I visited Cuba many years ago, the Methodist Church was wanting to launch a more evangelical seminary for young clergy. What is the status of that seminary?

The church in Cuba was a member of an ecumenical seminary for 60 years but they were not responding to our expectations. We needed pastors to know our theology, but we didn’t want them to lose their passion. Eight years ago we separated from the ecumenical seminary and started our own seminary.

In these past eight years, we have graduated 91 Cubans and one from Angola. And when they come out of the seminary, they are ready to open new churches. We’re also working with United Theological Seminary in Ohio and Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. They’re supporting us so that our professors will have a higher level and we can offer a master and also doctorate degrees.

The Bible talks about a new wine needs a new vessel. A new church, an evangelical church. We need a seminary with evangelical vision that is committed to Jesus.

As an orthodox and vibrant expression of Christianity in an fully atheistic culture, what advice would you give to believers in North America who believe that their culture is becoming less accommodating to Christianity? 

The church had to learn a new system of discipleship because people were coming from the Communist system. Atheists don’t believe in anything – then they receive Jesus. But we still don’t baptize them right away because they don’t even know what that means. So we have a year training with three courses where people learn about the Bible, and they learn the doctrine of the church. At the end they have a written test and then they have a day of graduation.

When Methodist members are baptized, they can give a reason for their faith. They know the doctrine of grace, justification, regeneration, sanctification. They know what they believe. It has been hard in the past, but now it’s easier because now we have the mechanism already going. I believe that people need to be discipled. Our concept of discipleship changed. It doesn’t end once you become a member. After the people become members, then they start in the seminaries in the church where they could spend two more years. They learn about the story of the church, evangelistic techniques – so they’re constantly growing in the Word. Some people don’t talk about our Methodist roots but John Wesley was about the reading the Bible, prayer, and fasting.

What has been the practical difference of having the political power transferred from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul Castro? 

It is not a visible change, but it’s one that’s coming. They’re changing their concept about the economy because in Cuba people could not own their businesses. They’re bringing changes so that people can make a little more.

On the other hand, Cuba and the United States have been speaking. And in Cuba, we’re seeing some freedoms. People can have a cellphone and call anywhere, but it’s very, very expensive. They have opened some Wifi stations at the park, but it’s expensive.

People can sell their homes. They can start a business in their home, very little, like sell food or things they make. We’re believing that there’s a change coming. And the relationship with the United States is going to bring more changes.

This new relationship is very controversial. Some believe it is dangerous, while others believe it is long overdue.

I know that there are people that have bitterness because they lost everything in Cuba. And some suffered a lot. But we cannot hold on to that bitterness forever. We want to work with it in a positive way. We are not agreeing with the Communist system, but we want to have a positive influence and more communication so that the whole world can know whatever happens in Cuba. Can you imagine half a million Americans around the streets of Cuba with their cell phones and their cameras? When there’s no relationship, the truth is hidden. But if people go to Cuba, they will see the truth of Cuba – not only through the eyes of the media. From that point of view, I think that would be very positive.

What specifically will change between our two countries?

For many years, there was a consulate to deal with a few things under the covering of the Swiss Embassy. And Cuba had an office in Washington. On July 20th, the U.S. consulate in Cuba became an embassy. It will not be under any other country’s covering, but government to government. And you’ve seen the interviews between Raul Castro and Barack Obama. They shook hands and Raul was joking and told him, “You’re not one of the bad ones.” So it seems that something is happening underneath. The Communist system that we had in Cuba in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s has nothing to do with what’s happening right now in Cuba. It’s very different. They keep calling themself Communist, but it’s not like it was from the Soviet Union.

When I was in Cuba many years ago, the Methodist Church was unable to build new sanctuaries. Are things different today? Can you build a Methodist sanctuary? 

The government doesn’t allow it. We buy a house in the name of a pastor. The pastor signs the papers. That’s legal. And then we start a home church there.

Is Roman Catholicism still the largest Christian designation in Cuba?

They’re not. Evangelical churches are the largest. A month and a half ago, I had a reporter from the Washington Post in my office and he asked me if the Popes visited Cuba so much because of the growth. I said, “Oh, it’s possible. But the evangelical church has grown a lot more than the Catholic church.” Of course, the Catholic church hasn’t checked their statistics. When you count the numbers, it’s not the largest. What brought the Washington Post to my church is that they went in on Resurrection Sunday to cover the mass at 6:00 a.m. and the Catholic church was empty. And then they asked, “Where are the people?” And they say, “You have to go to the Methodist church if you want to see people.” There were thousands of people there because it was Resurrection Sunday and we had a lot of services. They were really excited about that.

How do the Baptists and Assemblies of God and Methodists get along?

The churches that have the Pentecostal background have a good communication. Assemblies of God is the largest. There’s three Baptist groups in Cuba that are the second place. And then the Methodist Church is the third place. But the Methodist Church is the fastest growing.

Does it help for United Methodist work groups from the United States to come to Cuba or does it create a gigantic headache?

No, it really helps us. We have United Methodist Volunteers In Mission – they come every month. For 20 years they’ve been refurbishing the churches. We also have groups like the ones we’ve had from United Theological Seminary and other schools.

Our two churches have a great relationship. We share a great mission.

 

Happy Birthday Wanda Jackson

By Steve Beard

At the age of 78, the righteous Queen of Rockabilly is still tearing it up with 60 to 80 concerts per year. Considered to be one of the first women to record rock and roll, Jackson is a sassy music legend who toured with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and, most recently, Adele. It was her boyfriend, Elvis Presley, who convinced Jackson to migrate from country music to rockabilly.

Wanda Jackson

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson growled out hits such as “My Big Iron Skillet,” “Tears Will Be the Chaser for your Wine,” and “Fujiyama Mama.” Ten years after their marriage, Wanda and her husband Wendall began attending church and dedicated their lives to Christianity in 1971. “We were headed down a pretty rocky road,” she told Smithsonian Magazine. “The main thing that God does for you when you really sell out to him and want to live for him is he sets your priorities up right.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and devoted their talents to churches and revival meetings.

When the rockabilly revival of the 1980s was launched, Jackson was recruited to tour all over Europe. With her legendary status as a rock pioneer, she was periodically invited to play at music festivals and to collaborate with other artists such as Rosie Flores and The Cramps.

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Free Speech Under Fire

By Steve Beard

As a budding young journalist and editor, my thoughts on the First Amendment and free speech — even outrageously offensive speech — were shaped by Nat Hentoff, columnist for the left-wing Village Voice. Hentoff was a prolific contrarian, jazz critic, pro-lifer, and self-proclaimed “member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.” His book Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee, a polemic against censorship, has been on my bookshelf for more than 20 years as a reminder of the dangers and virtues of the free marketplace of ideas.

The-Silencing-Powers-CVR-v10-PERS“Consider what would happen,” Hentoff asked, “if … the First Amendment were placed on the ballot in every town, city and state. The choices: affirm, reject, or amend. I would bet there is no place in the United States where the First Amendment would survive intact.” That observation is justifiably haunting — and still true today.

As a USA Today columnist, Fox News analyst, and life-long liberal Democrat, Kirsten Powers has picked up where Hentoff left off. In her new book, The Silencing, Powers launches a noble war on the vindictive shaming and censorship spawned by what she dubs the “illiberal left.” “These are the self-appointed overlords — activists, university administrators, journalists, and politicians — who have determined what views are acceptable to express,” Powers observes.

“Liberals are supposed to believe in diversity, which should include diversity of thought and belief. Instead, an alarming level of intolerance emanates from the left side of the political spectrum toward people who express views that don’t hew to the ‘settled’ liberal worldview,” Powers said.

Although Powers is an outspoken supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is appalled by what happened to Brendan Eich, co-founder of the Internet company Mozilla. When it was announced last year that he was going to become CEO, gay rights activists bombarded social media with the news that Eich had made a $1,000 personal contribution to the “Yes on 8” initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“It’s OK to be angry about Eich’s donation,” Powers said. “Screaming for Eich’s head on a pike for his failure to conform to Mozilla’s majority view on same-sex marriage is not. Liberals are supposed to believe in protecting minority views, even when they disapprove of those views.” She reminded readers that this was the “same year that Senator Barack Obama sat in Rick Warren’s church to explain his religious based opposition to same-sex marriage.”

Despite his publicly stated commitment to making sure Mozilla would remain a “place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity,” nearly 70,000 signed a petition calling for Eich to renounce his beliefs or resign as Mozilla’s CEO. One week later, the activists triumphed and Eich stepped down.

“It’s not necessary to support Eich’s donation to recognize something deeply disturbing occurred here,” Powers wrote. “When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line,” observed writer Andrew Sullivan — who is gay and a same-sex marriage advocate — about the Eich situation. “This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance.”

“This intolerance is not a passive matter of opinion,” pointed out Powers. “It’s an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people. This conduct has become an existential threat to those who hold orthodox religious beliefs. But increasingly I hear from people across the political spectrum who are fearful not only of expressing their views, but also as to where all this heading.”

The Eich debacle is only one example of dozens that Powers grapples with in The Silencing. She is a tireless advocate for everyone having the opportunity to defend their own position in the public square.

Powers startled a lot of political observers by sharing her conversion testimony in the pages of Christianity Today. Although she does not share the political agenda of all conservative Christians, she will be the first to defend the sincerity and authenticity of their perspective.

The Silencing is a jarring trumpet blast to those who treasure the First Amendment, religion, and freedom of speech. All one has to do is read Powers’ Twitter feed to read the vicious way the illiberal left has made her a target — and single-handedly reinforced the point of her book.

Steve Beard is a pop culture writer, theological editor, and roller derby photographer. He is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck Media Syndicate.

Reviving the X-Files

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A six-episode revival of the sci-fi hit The X-Files was recently announced that would reunite actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson after 13 years as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Coming from drastically differing vantage points, the pair attempt to solve bizarre occurrences often dealing with extraterrestrial and paranormal phenomena out of their basement office at the FBI. Mulder was the agent with the “I Want to Believe” UFO poster on his office wall. Scully, on the other hand, placed her faith solely in science and provable data.

There is no telling what the new series will explore, but the conclusion of the TV show in 2002 was one of the more provocative and intriquing endings for a nine year television show. Alien-chasing Fox Mulder is asked by his colleague, Dana Scully, “You’ve always said that you want to believe, but believe in what, Mulder?”

“I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us,” he responds, “that they speak to us as part of something greater than us – greater than any alien force….”

The camera then focuses in on Agent Scully’s cross necklace as Mulder holds it on his fingertip. As the scene and series draws to a close, Mulder makes this fascinating observation, “Maybe there is hope.”

 

A Mighty Little Luther

martin-luther-FIGURINEBy Steve Beard

An astounding 34,000 mini Martin Luther action figures were sold out within the first 72 hours of availability. The smiling Reformer toy made by Playmobil was created as a kitchy keepsake for German tourist boards and Bavarian Lutherans to mark the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

“I’m used to Luther the first modern man, Luther the rebel against overbearing church authority, Luther the anti-Semite, Luther the destroyer of the unity of Western Christendom — but Luther the action figure is a new one,” the Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, told Good News.

“However distorted the image of Luther remains in Euro-American consciousness, the fact is that 500 years later he hasn’t been forgotten and still looms large in the cultural imagination,” said Wilson, editor of Lutheran Forum. “I’m grateful that the Playmobil people made him holding the Bible instead of the 95 Theses.”

Of course, United Methodists have a warm hearted connection to the leader of the Reformation since John Wesley’s own new birth experience occurred at Aldersgate in 1738 while listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface of the Epistle to the Romans.

Professor Wilson and her colleagues launched the Luther Reading Challenge (www.lutherreadingchallenge.org) as a way of encouraging a wider exploration of Luther’s thoughts than simply the history-making and polemical 95 Theses. Writing in First Things, Wilson explains that that the program highlights a fuller portrait of Luther: “the pastor concerned with the care of souls, the exegete, the friend and prolific letter-writer, the husband and father, the hymnist….”

“It was a natural step to merge the desire to improve knowledge of Luther with the desire to give Christian people permission not only to feed others but to nourish their own souls as well,” concludes Professor Wilson. “And that is our invitation: read Luther — not to take sides, and certainly not to justify yourself or your church or the compromised history that all Christians share — but to meet a sinner of ages past who knew and loved and constantly wrote about the good news of Jesus Christ.”

– See more at: http://goodnewsmag.org/?p=6965&preview=true#sthash.gLwi4XUw.dpuf

Denzel Washington: “Put God first”

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 10.44.42 AMBy Steve Beard

Denzel Washington’s rousing commencement address to graduates of Dillard University was met with amens and applause. The Academy award winning actor’s May 9 speech went over well at the historically black university in New Orleans. Washington’s advice to the graduates dealt with God, failure, materialism, and gratitude.

1. Put God first: “Everything that I have is by the grace of God, understand that. It’s a gift. … I didn’t always stick with Him, but He stuck with me.”

2. Fail big: “Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big, but remember, dreams without goals, are just dreams. And they ultimately fuel disappointment. … I try to give myself a goal every day, sometimes it’s just not to curse somebody out.”

3. You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse: “I don’t care how much money you make, you can’t take it with you. … It’s not how much you have, it’s what you do with it.”

4. While you’re on your knees in the morning, say thank you: “While you’re [on your knees], say thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents, thank you for love, thank you for kindness, thank you for humility, thank you for peace, thank you for prosperity. Say thank you in advance for what is already yours … True desire in the heart for anything good is God’s proof to you sent beforehand that it’s already yours … When you get it, reach back, pull someone else up.”

Washington admitted to the graduates that 40 years ago he was flunking out of college with a 1.7 GPA. “I remember sitting in my mother’s beauty parlor [in New York] and I’m looking in the mirror and I kept seeing this woman looking at me,” recalled Washington who was a 20-year-old student at Fordam University at the time.

“‘Somebody give me a pen!,” said the woman. “I’m having a prophecy!” It was March 27, 1975. “Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people,” the woman told Washington.

“Now mind you,” recalls Washington, “I’m flunking out of college and thinking about joining the Army. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

“Well, I have travelled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that is not the most important success that I’ve had….I’ve been protected. I’ve been directed. I’ve been corrected. I’ve kept God in my life and it has kept me humble. So stick with Him.”

Washington was raised in church. His father was a preacher who simultaneously worked for the water company during the day and as a security guard at night. The woman in the beauty parlor was Ruth Green, one of the elders in the church with the gift of prophecy.

As a young man, Washington found himself exploring Eastern philosophies and reading the Qur’an in his search for personal meaning and inner peace. In 1979, director Robert Townsend took Washington to West Angeles Church of God in Christ—a Pentecostal megachurch in South Central Los Angeles. He has been a faithful member ever since that Sunday.

Like many other artists with a spiritual yearning, Washington was tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a minister. He even asked his pastor, Bishop Charles Blake, if he should become a preacher. Blake and Washington agreed that he was right where God wanted him. “So my work is my ministry,” he told BeliefNet. “I’ve always understood why I’ve been blessed to be put in this situation. And I’m more than happy to take advantage of it and to preach, if you will, about what God has done in my life.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

Soul man: The sweet sound of Al Green

By Steve Beard

When British musician Elvis Costello was asked if he had ever had a religious experience, he responded, “No, but I have heard Al Green.” Not a bad compliment coming from Costello, a musical legend in his own right.

AL_GREENAl Green rose to international fame with timeless hits such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Take Me to the River,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” and “Love and Happiness.” In the early 1970s, he sold more than 20 million albums. He was the Prince of Love, the man with the trademark smile that made women swoon in near-riotous concerts as he tossed long stem red roses to adoring fans. A few years ago, Rolling Stone declared that Green is “the greatest popular singer of all time,” describing his songs as “unsurpassed in their subtlety, grace, intimacy, and invention.”

His silky smooth voice was coupled with stage charisma, sex appeal, and undeniable charm. He was the consummate ladies’ man. His voice was a liquid calling card, wooing the listener into a sensuous and lush boudoir of his own creation.

In the summer of 1973, he had an experience that would forever change his life. He had flown from San Francisco to Anaheim, California, for his next show. Shortly after four in the morning, he was awakened by the sounds of shouting. “I sat bolt upright in bed, frightened that some crazy fan had broken into the room,” he writes in his autobiography, Take Me To The River. Green then realized that the commotion he was hearing was coming from his own mouth. “And while the words I shouted were of no earthly tongue, I immediately recognized what they meant. I was praising God…and lifting my voice to heaven with the language of angels to proclaim his majesty on high.”

He laughed. He cried. He knocked on doors of the hotel, telling complete strangers what had happened to him. One woman slammed the door in his face. Someone eventually called security.

Saint Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus; Al Green was made righteous off Interstate 5 near Disneyland.

Green had been singing about love and happiness, but there was a war going on inside—a battle for the substance of his soul. He eventually abandoned his mainstream singing career and began pastoring Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee.

For eight years, he sang only gospel until he sensed God give him the green light to sing his old songs. Today, the soul man still puts on the pizzazz in mainstream venues. Resplendent in his white suit and Ray Ban sunglasses, and loaded with long stem roses like a florist, he still has the magic to commandeer the human heart, making it pulse in romance or worship—our very own funky St. Valentine.

“Now I am comfortable mixing everything up, and my audience has responded favorably,” he told the Los Angeles Times several years ago. “When I finished a short prayer at this gig…, people stood up and cheered. That told me that I could give audiences a little bit of the Reverend and they’d likely rejoice.” He sings “Amazing Grace” in casino showrooms in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, knowing that many of his admirers hunger for redemption just as he once had.

Full Gospel Tabernacle’s unassuming geodesic sanctuary is tucked in on the side of a quiet residential road, a few miles south of Graceland, off Elvis Presley Boulevard. It has played host to a myriad of music fans who make it a part of their Memphis pilgrimage. They stick out like sore thumbs, showing up promptly at 11 a.m. for a service that will not start for another half-hour. One Sunday while I was visiting, they appeared from Ireland, Arkansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Carolina, and England.

The visitors are greeted warmly. After all these years, the congregation has become very familiar with the novelty factor involved with having a musical icon behind the pulpit. Nevertheless, they are here to get down with God, not impress the guests (for example, there are none of Green’s Greatest Hits collections sold in the church lobby). The choir marches in and the B-3 Hammond organ starts to crank up the funk, while the electric guitar starts to wail.

Reverend Al walks around the sanctuary fiddling with his lapel microphone, gently patting visitors on the shoulder as he glides to the back of the sanctuary to adjust his own sound at the mixing board.

Back at the pulpit, Reverend Al is feeling the “unction of the Holy Ghost,” as he calls it. He starts to bob and weave like a boxer as he delivers his sermon on faith. “Hold on, God is coming!” he shouts. “Help is on the way,” he purrs. When he calls for the assembly to give a wave offering by lifting our arms, you can see the nervousness rise in the visitors. Awkwardly, we wave our arms in the air. Who is going to refuse Reverend Al? “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Stop looking at Al Green,” he says. “Al Green himself came to worship God. He’s been soooo good to me,” he starts to sing as the musicians crank up the volume.

When he starts singing “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” you know you have been to church. “You are not here by accident,” he says. “I am the same person you heard sing all those songs, but I am not the same person,” he testifies. “I couldn’t preach for 25 years if something didn’t happen to me.” Speaking to the visitors with a winsome grin, he says, “Come and see Al, but Al doesn’t hold the key to your salvation. I can sing ‘Love and Happiness’ four times and I still will not hold your salvation.”

The Reverend closes out the 11 o’clock service at 1:25 p.m. with a soul-felt version of “Gonna Sit Down on the Banks of the River” by blues legend Reverend Gary Davis. He leaves us at the banks, and the decision is ours. Shall we jump in or walk away? You can tell what Green has done. You can see it in his eyes, in his smile, in the intonations of his honey-like voice.

Otis Redding died in a plane crash at 26, Sam Cooke was shot at 33, Jackie Wilson’s career was over at 41, and Marvin Gaye was killed by his father at 44. Al Green is alive—and he is grateful. Somebody shout, Amen!

It is one thing to sing about love and happiness; it is an entirely different enterprise to experience it. As he grabs hold of the pulpit, festooned in his preaching robe, you can see it on his face. He arrived at the river’s edge and took a dive into faith. He looks up at us with a grin and seems to say, “Hop in. The water’s fine.”

I, too, thought the world was coming to an end. Here’s what ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ gets right.

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Ellie Kemper in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” (Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

By Alissa Wilkinson

The poster for “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” features a background crowd of grey-clad New Yorkers scuttling along in the rain. In front of them, Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) — in magenta pants, a yellow cardigan and purple sneakers — is jumping ecstatically into a puddle. The tagline: “Life begins when the world doesn’t end.”

I smiled when I first saw the poster. A decade ago, I was a puddle-jumping newbie New Yorker, too.

And Kimmy joyfully splashed in puddles for awfully similar reasons to my own.

Tina Fey’s new Netflix series opens when Kimmy and three other women emerge from a bunker and into a world, they’d been told, was scorched and dead. For 15 years of captivity, their captor, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, said God wanted him to protect them from the destruction above. Now free, Kimmy decides she’s not going to settle for Indiana. She wants New York.

I was never in an apocalyptic cult, or even just a regular old cult. But in the 1990s, I was part of a certain branch of fundamentalism that flourished among Christian homeschoolers. Leaders called for women in calico jumpers and long hair, and also a total break with most culture, including no contact with Christian things deemed too worldly: magazines for teenagers published by Focus on the Family, contemporary Christian music, youth groups or Amish romance novels.

To read the rest of Alissa Wilkinson’s article in the Washington Post, click HERE.

Barbarians in our Midst: How the Irish Spread the Gospel

George G. Hunter III is distinguished professor of evangelism and church growth at Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as the founding dean of Asbury’s E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism. Dr. Hunter is the author of numerous well-known books dealing with evangelism, mission, church growth, ministry and emerging ways of “doing church.”

When he wrote The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach The West…Again (Abingdon), Steve Beard sat down with Hunter to talk about the Celtic vision of evangelism, discipleship, imagination, spiritual warfare, and the supernatural.

 What inspired you to investigate Celtic Christianity?

For longstanding reasons — partly subconscious, perhaps rooted in my genetic makeup or ancestral memory — I have always been more interested in ancient Celtic Christianity than practically any other Protestant that I know.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.39.54 AMSeveral years ago a book came out called How the Irish Saved Civilization written by Thomas Cahill, a cracker-jack historian. It stirred my interest in the expansion of Celtic Christianity. He tells the story of how Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland developed an alternative way of doing church and reaching people. Cahill describes how the Celtic monks copied decaying scrolls on to new scrolls and thereby kept much of the Greek and Roman learning of antiquity alive—thereby “saving civilization.” The monks rescued learning from the oblivion of the Dark Ages when the Vandals, Franks, Frisians, Goths, Visigoths, and other “barbaric” peoples overwhelmed the Roman Empire and destroyed the libraries. The Celtic monks kept “civilization” alive.

Cahill tells the story of how people—joining apostolic leaders such as Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Aidan and others—reached one barbaric population after another across Britain and western Europe. They did this even though the Roman branch of the church thought it was “impossible.” The Romans thought that barbarians could not be Christians. The Celtic movement proved you could evangelize people first and civilize them second.

Then a book came out by Anglican Bishop John Finney entitled Recovering the Past. Finney profiles the Celtic movement’s basic mission approach. My book spells out much more specifically how the Celtic Christian movement reached and discipled the barbaric population of Europe.

How do you see this relating to Christianity in the 21st century?

I see, all around us, the rise of “new barbarian” populations. These are the people whose lives are sometimes out of control — driven by compulsion or hijacked by substance abuse. Growing numbers of people have a “rough edge.” If they came to church, they wouldn’t know when to stand up, sit down, or what to say to the pastor afterwards. They wouldn’t know how to find II Kings or II Corinthians. If they said anything, they might split an infinitive or utter an expletive! There are a growing number of people, across the whole western world, who aren’t quite refined and aren’t always nice. Over the years, I have observed that almost all churches overlook those populations. At least nine out of ten churches I’ve worked with will never get around to offering the Christian faith to people who aren’t already sufficiently “civilized” by the church’s standards. Most churches never reach out to people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us, or to people who are too out of control for us to feel comfortable with them.

 What kind of rethinking must take place in the modern-day church in order to learn from the Celts?

First, the church probably needs to entertain the idea, as though for the first time, that lost people matter to God, including people who are not “like us” or recognizable “good” church people.

Second, within our Wesleyan tradition, people need to entertain a fresh understanding of the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is working through the events and circumstances of people’s lives to awaken receptivity to the gospel. If we believe that lost and out-of-control people matter to God and that the Holy Spirit is already initiating an engagement with them, some of the other things will follow.

Sometimes when I’m leading a seminar I’ll ask people if they remember their first kiss? Most people will raise their hands. I ask, “Did you really know what you were doing?” Then, I ask, “Did that stop you from doing it?” Of course it didn’t. The point is that love finds a way. I discovered that the way forward with out-of-control populations today is astonishingly consistent with some of the ways Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Columbanus, Brigid, Hilda and others found to reach the “barbarians” of their time.

hunter

Dr. George G. Hunter III

This is a much more vast population than most church leaders are aware of. Vast numbers of people have a genetic vulnerability for addiction, like other people have a genetic vulnerability to diabetes. But we now know about the added factor that drugs, some more than others, change the chemistry of the brain at varying rates in a way to induce a lifetime of “craving.” At that point a person’s life is, more or less, hijacked and, by themselves, cannot always control what they do. They experience unspeakable guilt and shame, and a profound spiritual battle that the Evil One and the demons exploit.

Years ago, I heard Art Glasser, who taught mission theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, say, “The form that possessive destructive evil takes varies from one generation to another and from one culture to another. It’s most dominant form in our culture and this generation is addiction.” The more I circulate, the more convinced I became that Glasser was right.

In most every city you can find a church or two that steps out of polite conventionality and targets those lost, hijacked people. Likewise, you can find churches that have a dozen, or even a hundred, 12-step meetings at different times of the week in various places.

Some of these churches are invading enemy territory and visiting people in bars and high drug-use neighborhoods, rediscovering that the “sower goes forth to sow the seed of God’s word.”

Addiction can be attached to alcohol, nicotine, heroin, crack cocaine, or even sex. Millions of people live lives out of control; addiction is destroying them inch by inch. These people matter to God. Christ died for them and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to them. Tragically, the Church has what they need, but most churches aren’t offering it to the people who need it most.

Nevertheless, the Recovery Movement is the “underground awakening” of this generation. More people are discovering the grace of God for the first time in their lives through a recovery ministry than through all of the evangelism programs combined. As a professor of evangelism and church growth I had to take that seriously.

 Some might flinch at the notion of welcoming out-of-control segments of our society into “perfectly good” congregations. It sounds a bit explosive and adventuresome. Is risk-taking part of Celtic Christianity?

Yes. The gospel song about the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep has the other 99 sheep safe in the fold while the shepherd searches. But that is not the way Jesus’ parable reads. The parable has the 99 huddled together in the wilderness while the shepherd leaves them to hunt for the lost sheep! The parable suggests there is some inherent risk in being a Christian.

Within the Celtic outreach model, people are being grounded in Christian truth and spiritual disciplines, are part of a small group, and they reach out in teams. If these elements are held, probably no one will be lost to “the other side.” But when we keep the people in the church — to eliminate all risk, we rob them of the greatest adventure — following Christ as his ambassadors in the real world.

 Celtic Christianity appears to invest heavily in creativity, imagination, and spiritual experience rather than merely spiritual knowledge. Does that play a role in their evangelism and ministry?

Yes. There is now more latitude, and more need, to be creative in how we “do church” and present the gospel. That means engaging people with the gospel in lots of different ways in addition to preaching and didactic teaching. The approach involves culturally relevant music, using the people’s language rather than church’s traditional language, employing poetry, drama, and the visual arts. More and more churches are discovering a kind of multi-media approach to dramatize the gospel in as many different ways as they can. The key to this is allowing the “rebirth” of our imagination.

As the enlightenment has faded, western humanity appears to rely less on logic and reason — we are speaking of differences of degree — and relies more on imagination and experience. The Celtic movement would coach today’s communicator to engage people through their imaginations in a range of creative ways. You maximize the possibility that people will get the message and they’ll discover the beginning gift of faith.

 Celtic Christianity also seems to emphasize the interconnectedness between life and theology in a more profound way than most churches today. The Celtic cross incorporates a circle in the center, representing our physical world and nature. The Celtic prayers acknowledge the every-dayness of life and its connectedness to theology.

The Celtic movement presents a whole range of options for our churches. Celtic Christianity was enormously more “culture friendly” than the Roman branch of the church. It even believed that you could find things in the people’s primal religion that could be used to help interpret the gospel. They believed that the gospel came not to destroy but to fulfill the prior religious aspirations and some of the experiences of the people. Celtic Christians believed that the High God that their neighbors believed in — who was unavailable — had indeed come to us and is one with us in Jesus Christ.

Celtic Christians were also “nature friendly,” believing that the animals and birds and fish of the fields, forests, jungles, and rivers are more kin to us than the Roman branch of the church believed — which took a kind of exploitative approach to nature. Defenders of the Roman branch of the church will point to figures like Francis of Assisi. However, Francis discovered Christianity’s love for animals from the Celtic monastery at Bobbio, just a few miles from Assisi, which had been founded by Columbanus.

 One aspect of Celtic Christianity that seems to be similar to Third-World expressions of Christianity is an openness to spiritual warfare. There also seem to be many more episodes of what the late John Wimber called “power encounters” or supernatural displays of God’s power — healings, deliverances, dreams and visions.

This issue would need to be nuanced very carefully. Compared to present-day traditional western Christianity, Celtic Christianity emphasizes much more experience, the revelation of God through dreams, the power of intercessory prayer, etc. There also appears to have been a significantly greater emphasis on healing — physical, spiritual, and emotional healing — than what we usually find in the church down the street.

When it comes to what Wimber called power encounter, its cousin exorcisms, and some of the other Halloween-oriented ministries, those appear to have been occasional projects of the Celtic movement. They would do it when necessary but they didn’t count it necessary very often. It appears there were such ministries but they were episodic. The later “hagiographers,” who wrote about the lives of the saints, were enormously more interested in spiritual warfare than the saints had been!

 Yet even in the Celtic prayers, you read a greater sense of the recognition of the Evil One, of dark forces. Perhaps it was because they were surrounded by Druid culture, but even their written liturgical prayers reflect far more of a cosmic struggle than what we see in mainline, denominational Christianity.

Yes, they certainly had a more vivid sense of the supernatural. They had a vivid sense of the presence of God and a vivid sense of all three persons of the Trinity. They had a vivid sense that we are to pray without ceasing. It meant praying into each situation, and their prayer life reflected their awareness of evil forces in their midst. Part of their life of prayer was to be protected from the Evil One and delivered from the powers of sin, evil, and death. Frankly, I have learned to pray for protection; Christians who are in denial of the presence of evil are more vulnerable than they know.

How would a local church adopt a more Celtic way of “doing church?”

I would recommend adopting the four-fold Celtic approach to preparing people for ministry. It appears to me to be vastly more sophisticated and effective than anything now being attempted in most churches.

First, every person in a monastic community spent some time in solitude, out in nature. They had a saying, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Patrick himself discovered the presence of God, that he had learned about in the catechism, in the midst of nature. The Celts believed that time alone in nature is indispensable for triggering a God-consciousness.

Second, everyone had a soul friend. This is not a superior such as a spiritual director, but more like a peer with whom one could be totally vulnerable.

Third, most Celtic Christians were members of a small group who met weekly. Ten or fewer people were led by a person who was most chosen for his or her transparent devoutness.

Fourth, everyone was involved in the life of the monastic community—worship, and Scripture memorization, etc. A great many illiterate Celtic Christians knew all 150 psalms by heart because they rehearsed 30 psalms a day; as a community, every five days, they rehearsed all the psalms.

Everyone, in the community, was involved in ministry with seekers. At some point in their development they would be a seeker’s soul friend, or they would observe and help a seeker in their small group who was discovering faith.

That fourfold approach: solitude, soul friends, small group, and ministry of the community — including ministry with seekers — appears to be a potent synergizing combination to produce contagious saints than any of the “improvements” in the last 12 centuries.

What kind of ministry did the Celts have to seekers?

It was, essentially, the “ministry of hospitality.” The monastic community would simply admit into its ranks people who had not yet discovered the gift of faith. The community seems to have believed Christianity was more caught than taught. The people were more likely to catch it in the community of faith rather than by being left to their own devices in the world. That strategy was recovered by Wesley in 18th century Methodism. The Celts, and the later Methodists, welcomed and involved seekers who hadn’t yet experienced justification.

In the book, I feature 18th century Methodism as a historic case of “unconscious reappropriation” of the Celtic Christian vision. I’ve read all of Wesley’s writings and cannot find much evidence that he consciously drew upon ancient Celtic Christian materials. A number of those themes, such as small groups, hospitality and imagination, were by that time in the DNA or ancestral memory of British Christianity. From time to time, various movements in the Christian community have rediscovered and reinserted those themes.

The current Alpha course is a more recent case of a movement reappropriating many Celtic Christian outreach principles without being fully aware of their ancient source.

 You spent time in Ireland, Scotland, and England — at places like Iona — while preparing your book. Many people seem to be doing that. Why?

I think that Celtic Christianity virtually invented the pilgrimage, and our generation has rediscovered its subtle power. The Celts believed that the “veil” between earth and heaven is much “thinner” in places historically associated with a monastic community, or faithful preaching or service, or conversion of a tribe. We experience, in ways we cannot fully explain, that we are more likely to experience God at Iona, or Lindisfarne, or Glendalough, than at Rupp Arena or downtown Manhattan.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Good News.  

Ramps in Cathedrals

skateBy Steve Beard

When you hear about ramps being built in sanctuaries, it’s usually to provide easier access for wheelchairs. Outside of Amsterdam, however, the ramps in one abandoned church are there to help young skaters get gnarly air.

“Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints,” writes Wall Street Journal reporter Naftali Bendavid. “It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?”

Bendavid was reporting from amongst the well-used skate ramps and the distressed religious imagery at the Church of St. Joseph. The sacred décor that once had been center stage now serves only as a faint reminder of yesteryear’s 1,000 congregants praying and singing at the cathedral in Arnhem, Netherlands – an hour train ride south from Amsterdam.

“At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn’t sung in 10 years,” Bendavid reports. “Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded.”

The years of abandonment and water damage have made the building’s upkeep financially impossible. While it searches for potential buyers, church leaders have allowed skateboarders to take refuge in the sanctuary.

“It creates a lot of atmosphere — it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” Puck Smit, 21, one of the Dutch skaters observed about skating in the gothic cathedral. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

For those not raised in the church, a cathedral can be awe-inspiring. For those raised in the church, however, abandoned sanctuaries are unsettling. There can be a disconcerting feeling when browsing through an antique store that used to house a Presbyterian congregation or sitting down in a restaurant that once was an Episcopal sanctuary. Where prayers and hymns and sermons were once offered, now appetizers and gourmet coffees are served. Where once the Bread of Life was broken on an altar, now gluten-free scones are sold with brambleberry jam.

The news of gutted churches is as painful as driving through the upper Midwest and seeing the dilapidated factories that served as the work places for droves of men and women from a previous generation. Time shifts, technology evolves, populations migrate. All the while, the Church attempts to proclaim a message of redemption that is translatable in all languages, in all neighborhoods, for all eras. Sometimes, however, the message gets stifled, sidetracked, and eventually muted.

“For Christians, a church’s closure — often the centerpiece of the town square — is an emotional event,” writes Bendavid. “Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God.” Those closures are now moving at a clipper pace. Roman Catholic leaders in the Netherlands report that “two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.”

In Europe, ex-churches are being repurposed in many ways. They have become supermarkets, floral shops, bookstores, gymnasiums, and high-end fashion boutiques. One cathedral is now a circus training school for trapeze artists. Another houses a Frankenstein-themed bar that features lasers, bubbling test tubes, and a creepy monster descending from the ceiling at midnight (one assumes there is a poignant sermon illustration in this example).

Communities are scrambling to see how best to transpose these empty houses of God into community centers, libraries, art museums, and even homes. The widespread nature of this crisis is Europe’s modern day reality.

For the happily secular, it is a civic issue about empty buildings. For the faithful, however, the abandoned chapels are prophetic illustrations of a nation’s empty soul.

“These buildings were designed to be places of wonder, mystery, countercultural adventure, risky intensity, places of freedom and joy,” Dr. Duffy Robbins observed when I shared the Journal story with him. “Sadly, what they became over time were places of safety, predictability, blandness and irrelevance.” Robbins is a prolific author and professor of youth ministry at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

Pelle Klomp, 14, another of the Dutch skaters said visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he said. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”

That last line should be read twice. “But they weren’t using it.”

“What I think a lot of these kids have settled for in these empty buildings are cheaper answers to the authentic and deep cravings of their souls,” Robbins said. “Let’s don’t blame the kids for this outcome; they have a (Jesus-shaped) hunger in their hearts. Let’s blame the churches that have removed most of the Water and Bread and salt from the menu.”

This is not just a European problem. Between 2012 and 2013, United Methodism in the United States closed the doors of more than 300 churches. Part of the United Methodist ritual for deconsecrating a church building is to be reminded of its purpose: “It has been consecrated for the ministry of God’s Holy Word and Sacraments. It has provided refuge and comfort for God’s people. It has served our holy faith,” reads part of the litany in the Book of Worship.

There is also thanks given for mutually shared experiences: “We have celebrated the Lord’s Supper here and been nurtured by it through our journey of faith. We have rejoiced here as believers have confessed faith in Christ. Here we have baptized our children and mourned our dead.”

After the prayers have been uttered and the hymns sung, it is eventually proclaimed: “We now deconsecrate and release [this building] for any honorable use.” This may not seem like a profound ritual, but it signals important closure to those with deep roots and long memories invested in a particular sanctuary – whether it is a gothic cathedral or a rough-hewn tabernacle at a campmeeting.

Of course, behind every cathedral is a message. When the doors are padlocked and the roof is leaking and the pews are barren and the pulpit is empty, the message about the love of God through Jesus Christ is silenced. In the case of the Church of St. Joseph, the tragedy of the broken down cathedral is compounded by the missed opportunity to reach out to young skateboarders.

“Ironically, skaters are notoriously told to leave every place they try to skate,” observed Kit Tomlinson, Pastor of Recreation at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, when I shared the Journal article with him. “The church isn’t even having to work to get these skaters on the premises – but they aren’t offering the Gospel to them. They don’t see this a mission opportunity.”

Tomlinson spearheads a ministry at University UM Church to expose every skater in San Antonio to the message of Christ. More than 2,500 different skaters have been exposed to the church’s ministry, and 175 skaters have committed their lives to Christ within the last seven years.

“Because skateboarders are almost always being chased around by security guards and authorities,” Tomlinson said, “we wanted to be different than the rest of the world and invite them in and share the Gospel with them.”

And what should be done with all these abandoned churches? “I don’t know why they don’t turn them into skateparks,” he said. “Seems like exactly the demographic the church needs.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.