By Bishop Mike Lowry, Special Contributor…
The invitation came (I think from God) while I was standing at an entrance to the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle. I was taking a picture of a coffee shop across the street with a long line outside its door waiting to be served. A young man (early to mid-30s) approached me with a friendly smile and said, “Hey, how come everyone is trying to get into that Starbucks and why are you and others taking a picture of it?”
“Because” I replied, “that’s the original Starbucks. But, there is no way I am waiting through that long a line.”
We both laughed and then he said, “I really like your shirt.” I had forgotten that I was wearing a shirt with the Kairos Prison Ministry logo on it. Somewhat surprised, I replied, “It’s a great ministry.” Enthusiastically he responded that he agreed and had been involved in Kairos himself. A conversation ensued in which we shared where we were from and where we were headed. I asked him if he knew any churches my wife and I might visit the next day for worship. He recommended Mars Hill Downtown.
For those of you who don’t know, Mars Hill Church (named for the site of Paul’s sermon in Athens found in Acts 17) is a multi-site (14) independent Bible church. The theology is more Calvinist and hard-core evangelical than I embrace, but the ministry is vibrant and courageous in the way in which it engages the city.
Somehow, I heard God inviting me to attend in the stranger’s recommendation.
The next morning, Sunday, Jolynn and I checked out of our hotel and stopped to worship at Mars Hill Downtown Seattle. It was full of young couples. There was great ethnic and economic diversity. The welcome was gracious and the worship vibrant. But what caught our attention was a special announcement about a third of the way through the service in which one of the pastors shared the story of a great church in the heart of Seattle.
In 1908, that church dedicated a marvelous huge sanctuary at the heart of the city. At one time they were one of the largest churches on the West Coast. But, gradually, as the Mars Hill pastor put it, the church in the story got busy with other things and drifted away from offering Christ. According to the speaker, amid many good things, they lost a focus on Christ and slowly the congregation dwindled to a few and then relocated.
The great sanctuary was turned into a music hall for the city and renamed Daniels Recital Hall. Now, with the support of city officials, it is being reclaimed for its original purpose—to proclaim Christ and share the gospel of God’s love, grace and salvation. The pastor called it a “replanting.”
“We believe that we are called to serve our city, love our neighbors, and be as active as possible so people see good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven,” says Mark Driscoll, preaching pastor at Mars Hill Church, making a reference to Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:16 from the famous Sermon on the Mount. “We are looking forward to having a building that allows the Downtown Seattle church body so much room to grow. We hope to fill it with people who love Jesus and love Seattle.”
The words “they lost focus and drifted away from offering Christ as their mission” (my paraphrase of what was said) haunted me. Somehow, I think God was speaking to me. They are words that can apply to many churches from a variety of denominational backgrounds. I’ve seen it happen in our area. Without meaning to, we can turn inward and lose sight of our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I don’t know if this was the case of that church in Seattle.
The name of the original church? First United Methodist Church of Seattle.
Carefully, oh so carefully and with due honor, I did a “Google search” and found a great website sharing the ministry of First UMC in Seattle. They relocated and it appears to be engaged in a wonderful ministry. God clearly had new plans for them. I celebrate the current mission and ministry of both First UMC, Seattle and Mars Hill Downtown, Seattle.
For me, there was a word of warning and admonition that day. Don’t lose focus. Don’t drift away from the primary mission of sharing Christ. Whatever else we do, this needs to stay at the center of what we are about.
Paul’s words must inhabit our interior being and drive our outreaching ministry. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life—a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.” (II Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message)
Bishop Lowry is episcopal leader of the UMC’s Central Texas Conference. The essay first appeared on his blog at www.bishopmikelowry.com and is reprinted with permission.