'Outside' gatherings help bond believers
By Mike Haynes
One of the little Sunday school rooms in the basement of my hometown church holds no more than 15 people, and one night around 1970, six or eight church members, some high school age and some older, sat in a tight circle of metal folding chairs.
A group of Methodists from Vega had come to McLean for the weekend – not for a basketball tournament or a rodeo, but to share their personal stories of commitment to God.
I don’t remember details, but decades later, the overall message sticks with me. Those people who were just like us simply told us how they had begun living out the example of Jesus. Until then, I had heard only local pastors and visiting evangelists talking seriously about close encounters with Christ. Now, I saw a blond-haired young man about my age telling a small group in that basement room how his life had changed when he allowed God into his life every day.
The people from Vega were participating in the Lay Witness Mission, at the time a ministry of the United Methodist Church that was active in the Texas Panhandle. It still exists as part of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.
A story by Eboni Graham in last Saturday’s newspaper brought that long-ago weekend to mind. She wrote about the IF organization, founded in 2013 in Austin, which will have an IF: Amarillo women’s gathering Feb. 6-7. (See http://amarillo.com/lifestyle/faith/2015-01-23/if-amarillo-brings-women-together.)
IF was created to offer “a space for women to wrestle with essential questions of faith, to dream and to connect during a two-day gathering,” according to the story.
Coincidentally, one of the local IF leaders is a woman from Vega.
Through the years, my own faith has been strengthened and invigorated by such Christian groups, both church-sponsored and outside, or parachurch organizations. After the Lay Witness Mission faded in this area, it wasn’t long before the Walk to Emmaus, Methodist-sponsored but welcoming all denominations, became a huge influence in the Panhandle.
Emmaus has touched men, women and teenagers from virtually every type of church, and I know of several people whose three-day Walks led them to full-time ministry.
The Walk to Emmaus still is a vital movement in the region, though not quite as widespread as it was in the 1990s and 2000s. It has continued alongside other activities, some that light fires for a short time and others that last for decades.
The Promise Keepers men’s ministry, based in Colorado, made better husbands and better Christians out of thousands in this area. Many denominations, including some Catholics, worked for weeks to prepare Amarillo for the Franklin Graham Festival in 2000, a football stadium event that attracted crowds from all over West Texas.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is a constant positive presence in area schools. The Navigators have for 80 years sought “to know Christ and make him known” on college campuses and military bases. Emmaus spawned Kairos, a highly effective prison ministry in which laymen share their faith stories with the “men in white.” The Catholic equivalent to Emmaus is Cursillo, which also builds individuals’ relationships with God.
Such “outside” or “extra” Christian groups tend to excite people, sometimes because they’re the new kid on the block. It’s easy for even committed Christians to become complacent, even bored, if all they do is sit in a pew once or twice a week. Ministries such as Promise Keepers and IF can be valuable “add-ons” to keep Christians active.
But parachurch groups and even church-sponsored activities are not meant to be the focus of faith. They only support the church that God created. They are a great addition, but a Christian’s home base should be his or her local church.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (RSV) Those gatherings can be in a sanctuary, in a house, in an arena, even in a coffee shop.
I love it when Christians of different backgrounds get together. It’s even better when we open up and talk about our own experiences with God.
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