If we ‘walk beside’ Jesus, the church can be renewed

By Karen Greenwaldt, Special Contributor…

When have you intentionally walked beside a group of people who intend to renew the church so that it reaches more people on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ? “Walking beside” is a tremendous privilege filled with creative potential and possibility. Such journeys offer the gift of hearing and seeing from different perspectives and learning from others who encounter life differently.

Karen Greenwalt

The Pew Research Center recently reported on the rise of the “nones” (those who self-identify as having no religious affiliation) and the rise of those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Combine this study with our own knowledge of the decline of United Methodist churches in the U.S.A., particularly mid-sized ones, and we recognize our need to respond. How do we do that?

Lay and clergy leaders discuss these realities, struggle to find appropriate responses, and call for vital and vibrant churches. Renewed focus on the vitality of churches is met with varied responses: hand wringing, despair, excitement, enthusiasm and, yes, even hope. Listening to these church leaders, I choose to align with those who express enthusiasm and hope in the face of troubling statistics and realities of ministry.

What am I learning?

Hope springs from deep wells of faith. Powerful and life-transforming faith proclaims that God is doing something new in the midst of our religious life. Realizing that we can’t save ourselves, we look for the presence of God in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable places.

We find ourselves looking to Jesus—his life, his words and his deeds. We discover once again that Jesus is present in all of life. He is present in the world—in “Galilee” (Mark 16:5-7). Out there in the world, Jesus is calling people to respond to their longing for God. John Wesley reminds us that the prevenient grace of God calls and beckons all people. “Walking beside” Jesus, we realize that faith re-emerges and provides hope for all who seek to share the gospel with those yearning for the grace of God.

No one knows exactly how to respond to all that lies ahead as we seek vibrancy in our churches. There is no ultimate solution. Yet, there are many ways forward in these times of upheaval in the church and in the larger world.

Prayer is essential as seemingly insurmountable challenges cross our paths. The more we pray, the more we discover how many other people are praying. We find ourselves in marvelous relationships that are part of a worldwide community of people who are praying. Together—rather than shrinking from the challenges described as fewer baptisms or professions of faith, as grinding poverty that stalks so many in the land, or as excess that breeds cynicism and complacency—these prayerful hearts and minds provide renewed courage, enthusiasm and commitment to ministry.

Bible study is the grounding for ministry. The stories and parables from the Bible remind us that others have faced obstacles in their time and have endured. The biblical message propels us forward, pushing us to witness and to proclaim anew the gospel of Christ to a broken and hurting world.

Connection is reborn as people seek one another to find common and uncommon ways forward. This “walking beside” journey leads us to organic and experimental responses in the church and in the world. Such responses are born out of creative necessity rather than required structures. Connection becomes life-giving and moves us to create new paths of ministry in our towns, cities and rural areas. We learn from one another. We tell the stories that inform, challenge and engage anew our imaginations. We become willing to try new ways of being in ministry. We recognize defeat but are not defeated. We look beyond “we’re blessed” myopia to see the realities of life around us. We embrace the people whom God loves—both inside and outside of our churches.

Suddenly fear and caution evaporate. Excitement, hope and joy enter our lives and our churches. We smile. We laugh. We learn. We fall down and get up. Most importantly, we recognize that we are not in this work of ministry alone. “I” becomes “we” as we discover again that God is “walking beside” us.

Together, we hear God proclaim once more:

“See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19 NIV).

Together, we hear the Spirit of God announce again:

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” (Revelation 21:1-4 NIV)

“Walking beside,” we return again to the font and source of our faith—Almighty God who has promised to be with us in our ministry and in all of life.

The Rev. Greenwaldt is the top executive of the UMC’s General Board of Discipleship.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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