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April 1, 2014

Join us for Lent!
My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. John 15:8 While serving as a Superintendent, I constantly challenged the pastors and congregations to set measurable goals.  The regular push-back that I received from many pastors was often phrased this way; “I am not in ministry to be successful … I am in ministry to strive to be faithful.”  My response was generally focused on the idea that faithfulness produces fruit.  We have somehow fallen into the notion that ‘success’ in ministry is not a goal!  I have a problem with that logic.

When we are growing in our faith … then we will be developing a passion for faithfulness.  There will be congruence between what we say we believe and how we live.  As we grow in our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we also deepen our relationship with God, the community of faith, as well as our witness and service in the world.  Christian influence occurs when the community of faith begins to shift from success to significance … and from faithfulness to fruitfulness.  And … there are measurable ways to evaluate our fruitfulness. 
As you read this edition of the First Pulse… you will discover that as leaders of the congregation, we are casting a vision for growing to be more fruitful as we further develop ministries of:
  • Radical Hospitality
  • Passionate Worship
  • Intentional Faith Development
  • Risk-Taking Mission and Service
  • Extravagant Generosity
The above five practices are the core ministries of a fruitful congregation.  Please note how I phrased that: they are core ministries – not the only ministries.  These core ministries are also the way we are organizing the work of First Church.  Our goal is to cultivate fruitfulness that will be measurable in more invitations that are extended to friends and family to join in the faith journey at First Church.  When guests attend, they will be graciously and authentically welcomed.  They will be enriched and inspired through our worship.  They will engage in classes that will assist them to grow in their understanding of God and faith.  They will be compelled to get involved in some mission or service opportunity.  And they will grow to invest their time, talents and treasures for the greater good of the ministry of the church.

Any healthy organism grows!  When we are fruitful, we multiply … not just add or subtract.

Come and join us in our journey toward bearing fruit as a by-product of our discipleship.  
(John 15:8)

Pastor Bob
Senior Pastor

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“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42Intentional Faith DevelopmentI have always admired people of great faith: those who have taken their commitment to Christ seriously and have intentionally developed their faith through the study of God’s word.  In our congregation there are many who have devoted themselves to serious discipleship.  Deanna Mitchell and Gary Rich are just two who come to mind.  Here is what they have to say about their journey.

Deanna - I became a Methodist in my early 30’s and experienced faith development in the way Wesley intended it to be: fostered through community.  I have attended many classes and small groups and discovered faith is not automatic or easy.  It helps to share questions, fears, losses, triumphs, insights and challenges.  I have been amazed that any question is allowed!  By sharing intimacy with others, knowing their struggles and pathway towards peace, my faith has grown. 

Intentional faith has also been part of my life through reading.  I encountered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book of sermons, “Gift of Love” while visiting the MLK Memorial in Atlanta.  These sermons are the most profound, inspirational, peace-offering spiritual writings I’ve ever read – which inspired me to share them with others, and ultimately teaching a Sunday school class.  I have also found the relationships formed in our Methodist Connection book group with African American Methodist church members to be important.  The books are thought-provoking; but the experiences of individuals’ journeys have truly enhanced my faith passage.  I also consistently find spiritual development and inspiration from Ted Loder’s prayers and poems.  Discussing faith issues with my husband and daughters has been particularly meaningful. 

Gary - I suppose faith can be looked at from a few different angles.  In terms of “one’s faith,” it is something that occurs inside, like belief.  In the sense of “the conviction of things not seen,” it is part of taking a step without seeing exactly what will happen.  And in the sense of “Old Faithful,” the Yellowstone geyser, it is action that occurs with regularity and reliability.

I have experienced church throughout my life as something that happens with as much regularity as anything.  As a child I attended largely because someone else (my parents) thought it was important.  Like many others, through college and my early 20’s I did not appreciate the value of regular church involvement.  But life happens, and I came to experience for myself the importance of my own spiritual growth, and how regular religious practice can nourish that.

I appreciate my need for spiritual nourishment at this point in my life as much as at any time, and I am grateful for the many opportunities church life provides.  That need is met through Bible reading, small group discussion (church school, Lenten study groups, etc.), social concerns activities, mission trips, listening to sermons, hymn singing and communion.  I will say, there are times when I feel so lost it’s all I can do to just recite the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23, but being able to stay connected to those things that nourish my spiritual self, with intention and choice, is truly a gift from God.

Faith is something that moves, grows, changes, and matures. It requires cultivation.  It is my prayer for each member of First Church to find a pathway to deeper faith through intentional faith development, to find what Deanna and Gary have found – great faith nourished in community.

Pastor Tish
Associate Pastor

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“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.” Psalm 84:1-2Passionate Worship Worship describes those times we gather deliberately seeking to encounter God in Christ. God uses worship to transform lives, heal wounded souls, renew hope, shape decisions, provoke change, inspire compassion, and bind people to one another. The word passionate expresses an intense desire, an ardent spirit, strong feelings, and the sense of heightened importance.  Congregations who practice Passionate Worship offer their utmost and highest; they expect worship to be the most important hour of the week. – Robert Schnase

One of the often-overlooked features of worship is that it is a group activity. Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Though I’m sure there are multiple levels of meaning here, it’s interesting to note the implied energy and spirit connected with worshipful gatherings.  

What is this implied energy and spirit to a community of faith gathered in worship?  Try this experiment as often as you can.  Take an opportunity each day to spend ten minutes in silent meditation alone.  Then, come to the next Taizé Service (Wednesday, April 2 or May 7 at 6:00 pm) and experience The Great Silence.  The Great Silence is about 10 minutes of personal reflection / prayer / or meditation.  Notice how these experiences differ.  Both are of great spiritual value, but they are different in many ways.  The simultaneous meditation with others brings a different energy to the meditation process.  

Worship within the community of faith has a different energy.  Everything seems more inviting and inspiring.  There is significantly more energy when we sing together, or listen, or pray, or enjoy fellowship with other sojourners.  Engaging worship lends itself to feeding the hunger of the soul.  Worship connects us with the abundance of God’s grace and goodness that is reflected in the gathered community.  

The word Liturgy is often defined as “the work of the people.”  Indeed, it requires all of us to support each other in this work.  This shared work is at the heart of passionate worship.  As Pastor Bob emphasized in his sermon, worship is not about style.  

We need to get beyond “style” discussions and those no-win arguments of contemporary versus traditional.  I believe that all worship is contemporary.  How can it be otherwise?  We are human beings who are alive now, seeking to worship God in spirit and truth.  God is relevant to us.  Faith is our response to God.  Worship is our contemporary expression of gratitude to God who was, and is, and is to come.   

And let all God’s people say…”Amen.”

Eric Strand
Director of Music and the Arts

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“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” 2 Corinthians 9:11Extravagant GenerosityIn our congregational study of The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, one of the points of consideration is “Extravagant Generosity.” The author emphasizes that through the practice of extravagant generosity, “we offer our material resources in a manner that supports the causes that transform life and relieve suffering and that enlarges the soul and sustains the spirit. God uses our giving to reconfigure our interior lives and form us anew.” 

I think this is what makes being a part of the Stewardship Committee at First Church so rewarding. It is an awesome outcome when someone in our congregation connects the dots, and realizes that generous giving not only enables our church to carry out wonderful ministry, but it also transforms the giver! Giving is a two way street. Generous giving certainly allows our church to witness for Christ in many great ways, but we can overlook what generosity does for the giver.

Generous giving brings joy - and a sense of spiritual energy to the giver. We have many joyful, committed disciples at First Church who have discovered the joy that can come from becoming extravagantly generous. Suddenly, they realize that giving back to God is not a difficult question about dollars - but rather a joyful response from a glad heart.

If you look around at the various ways our congregation provides vital ministry in our community and beyond, you will find faith-filled generous folks who have been transformed, and made anew. We involve ourselves with the hard work of helping others, but at the same time, we change ourselves as a result of our generosity. How much more could we do if everyone found a way to experience this transformation?

Those of us involved within the stewardship ministry pray that everyone can find a path to Extravagant Generosity during this Lenten season. Let us find the joy that can come from understanding that all we have is a gift from God - on loan with the hope that we use what we have to do good - through our active participation in and support for the ministries of First Church!

Chris Hawkins
Finance Committee

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“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family; you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40Risk-Taking Mission and ServiceFirst Church is a church in mission.  We not only DO mission and outreach work as a congregation... but we also give (monetarily) to empower ministry to happen in other places. Individuals from our congregation who passionately believe in the life-giving work of these ministries act as mission champions. John Muir is such a person.  Read what John shares about one of the mission efforts that we will support with a portion of our 2014 Easter offering:

“The PET, Personal Energy Transportation, is a life-changing and enriching vehicle for children and adults all over the world.  PETs are propelled by the personal arm strength of someone who has lost the use of his or her legs due to accident, polio, land mines, or other causes. One PET can be built and shipped for only $250. 

Islombek from Uzbekistan is a ten-year-old boy who was born with an open area on his leg.  After several operations the leg developed gangrene.  His leg was saved but Islombek lost the use of it. When he saw his friends out playing and could not join them he became very depressed.  His parents ran out of ideas to help him.  The gift of a PET transformed his world!  He took off on his PET as if he had been riding one all his life. His PET expanded his world and his experiences and he now has some control of his life.  His mom and dad are also very happy and so very grateful. 

Eight-year-old Ernest Mensah in Ghana on the west coast of Africa was also given mobility and great joy when he received his PET.  He had crooked legs and a very limited life for as long as he could remember.  His PET opened a great new world for him!
We, who can easily walk and run, are so fortunate to be able to expand the mobility and life opportunities for so many eager and grateful children.”

Churches that practice Risk-Taking Mission and Service hear in the human need of their neighbors the distant call of God.  Against all odds, they figure out a response and offer themselves faithfully and genuinely, even at some cost to themselves.  God uses them to transform the world. (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations)  How is God calling you to be a champion, to take a risk, to meet the needs of a hurting world?  I invite you to reflect, learn, and then act by answering God’s call through one of the many First Church outreach or mission ministries.   

Laure Mieskowski
Director of Outreach & Mission Ministries

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“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7Radical HospitalityI have been engaged in the ‘ministry of hospitality’ at First Church for 13 years as a staff person. But prior to being staff, offering hospitality within the church was my spiritual gift. It is a natural extension of who I am and what I believe. Every Sunday as I enter the sanctuary, I say a prayer asking God to lead me to the people who need a personal connection. I ask God to give me the right words and a gracious spirit to welcome guests to our congregation. Sunday mornings are a favorite time of the week for me.

As we teach membership classes, we often hear feedback from new members (and visitors), repeatedly, how friendly the people of First Church are. It is a compliment to our congregation. They reflect that there is a warmth and genuine quality extended to visitors. So how can we build upon what we are doing?  We must go beyond friendliness – to be invitational and welcoming. So what’s next?

Over the next weeks we will be restarting a few practices that have been successful, such as:

Bread Ministry – delivering bread to our first time visitors and/or the first time they give us their address. This is one of the most powerful ministries that we have. Bob and Pigeon heard from many how impressed they were when bread was delivered to their home by a church member following their first visit.

First Friends – was a way to connect an established member with a new member as a partner in the process of acclimating to a new congregation. The goal is to help new people meet others and walk with them during the first months of membership.

We are looking for partners as we restart these important hospitality ministries.

Chapter one of The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations says “Out of genuine love for Christ and for others… laity and pastors take the initiative to invite, welcome, include and support newcomers and help them grow in faith as they become part of the Body of Christ.”  

We are open to ideas that are springing forth from conversation during this Lenten journey. We will be planning to implement some of the suggestions that we are receiving. Watch and listen for ways that you can get involved in offering ‘radical hospitality.’ Pray for God’s guidance and wisdom to help us step outside our comfort zones to become the most welcoming and invitational church in Grand Rapids!

Patsy McGillivray, 
Director of Invitational Ministries

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