I am on holiday with my parents in Northumberland. My parents have come over because they are part of the Second Mile Evangelistic Team, a group founded by retired United Methodist minister Carl Harris (SC Annual Conference). The team came two years ago when I was serving Bamber Bridge and Trinity in the South Ribble circuit. The folk from BB and Trinity enjoyed the event so much, they wanted the team to return to the entire circuit. I came over from Blackburn for some of the events to see my parents, of course, and the other team members – most of whom were from South Carolina.
Carl was the pastor of my home church (St. Paul UMC) from 1975-85. We moved to that church when we moved to Florence in 1980 (I had just turned 6). I will forever remember Carl for two things: 1) He prayed when I asked him for my best friends little sister when she was born prematurely (she lived), and 2) he came to visit me in the hospital when I was in the 4th grade (9 years old) having my apendix taken out. Both of those things meant so much to me. But, as it happens when ministers leave, you lose touch. My parents didn’t, and joined him in this evangelistic team when he retired from full-time ‘parish ministry’.
My first re-encounter with him was two years ago when he preached at my two churches, and then again this year at Penwortham and Bamber Bridge. As I have developed in my faith and changed my theology in some ways, I can’t help but notice that we are quite different. He is much more ‘conservative’ than I am now, and I broadly see the problems facing the church in terms different than he might. And, OK, I cringed at some of the points he made in the sermon! But after the sermon was over on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but feel there was so much in what he said. That sounds like a cliché. No, what he said moved me because his message connected with my own life and the life of the churches. That’s something that doesn’t often happen when I have disagreements with the theology. I realised that wasn’t a problem. Talking to a former colleague in circuit, who tends to run much more liberal than I do, we both thought about what we could take away from the sermon and more so hope what those were listening to the sermon took on board: 1) Methodism is a movement, not a ‘church’; 2) Jesus wants disciples, not church members; and 3) It’s great that churches do so much for their own people, but there’s a world beyond out there that need the care and love of God, too. Those are messages I want my churches in Blackburn to hear as much as those in South Ribble. It was a message on target for many of us in England, as we see Christendom fall down around us and wonder what happened.
What made this message so powerful was that he believed in it so strongly, and he wants others to. He has this passion for people to know Jesus. He never spoke about hell. He didn’t ask where they would go tonight. Instead, he moved the point to where we are now. He didn’t ask the question explicitly, but the message pointed toward, ‘If you are a Christian, how is your life different now?’ He gave a challenge, but without trying to guilt anyone. He believes that people’s lives will be better (not in a prosperity gospel sense) if they know the love of God. Carl may never make the world’s top ten preachers list, but I don’t know if anyone could say that he doesn’t believe what he says or that he doesn’t have a passion for people. I doubt he worries about style points or the latest effective methods for getting the message across, he just wants to say what God has given him to say.
I don’t consider myself a great preacher, in part because I don’t like it. I like being in a conversation where when I talk, I can hear what others are thinking. But, there is still room for preaching, and I hope I can become as passionate about the message as Carl is.