signal crest united methodist church

This week I’m wrapping up an online course that I’m teaching at Tennessee Wesleyan University on the different Christian denominations. This is the third year in a row that I’ve taught this May term course, and this is the most students I’ve ever had in the class—twenty-two. And it’s quite a diverse class. While nine of the students are from east Tennessee, seven of the students—nearly one-third—are international students. I’ve got students from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Kathmandu, and two from Argentina. And they also represent some of the different Christian denominations we’re studying. There are at least four Catholics in the class, others from various Protestant denominations (including a few Methodists), and for the first time, I have someone in the class who grew up Eastern Orthodox.

One of the things I have especially enjoyed learning about these different denominations—and have enjoyed watching the students discover this as well—is how much we have in common. We have so much more in common than we have that differentiates, divides, and distinguishes us. Some of the differences have more to do with geographical, cultural, and political differences than truly theological differences. Often it seems to have more to do with one denomination putting a little more em-phah-sis on a different syl-lah-ble than another one.

One of the things that the vast majority of denominations uphold is the doctrine of the Trinity. There are a few exceptions to this, like the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But most Christian denominations affirm that God is one God in three “persons”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity goes way back in the history of the church to some of the very first church councils (which formulated the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds).

While the Trinity may not be explicitly explained in the Scriptures, it’s very much grounded in how the early church talked about God (see for example 2 Corinthians 13:13) and how they baptized new believers (see Matthew 28:19). And the church chose to view the Trinity, not as a mathematical puzzle to be solved (or as a three-ring circus!), but rather as an inscrutable mystery to worshiped in awe and wonder.

This Sunday, June 4, happens to be Trinity Sunday. In the church calendar, Trinity Sunday always follows Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. I’m also mindful as I’m wrapping up this class on the denominations of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, where he prays for his followers, “that they may be one, as we are one . . . that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:11, 21). I look at all the different denominations—hundreds of them—and it’s easy to see that we are not one but many. And I often wonder (and worry) if this makes it harder for the world to believe in Jesus.

But I’m finding myself inspired by the doctrine of the Trinity, and I wonder if maybe the church of Christ might still be seen, maybe even by Jesus himself, as one church, united in our common focus on Jesus Christ as Lord, but in three different personalities—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. The students in my class this year are giving me hope that maybe, just maybe, we can.

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The Rev. Dr. Brad Hyde is one of my very best friends. We were classmates at Emory & Henry College. Brad grew up here at Signal Crest United Methodist Church. He was the speaker at our district clergy meeting this week. He shared with us some of the things he learned while he was working on his doctoral dissertation about congregations where individuals, especially youth and young adults, experience and respond to a call from God into Christian ministry. I wanted to recap his presentation with you, because Signal Crest has been just such a congregation for Brad, and I hope and pray it will continue to be so in the lives of others.

In his doctoral work, he set about to discover what were the best practices of congregations where young people discerned a call to ministry. To try to answer this question, he interviewed hundreds of people—young clergy in our conference, staff members of churches from which significant numbers of people have entered ministry, summer camp staff, conference leadership, and many more. He discovered the following five themes that kept coming up. These are the top five things that congregations do where young people discern a call into Christian ministry.

1. They simply ask the question, “Do you think God is calling you into ministry?” They ask this question, as Rev. Adam Hamilton put it, “early and often.” They ask it when they hand out Bibles to their 3rd graders. They ask it in Confirmation Class. They ask it on mission trips and graduation Sundays. Whenever someone sees someone else in the congregation who might have the gifts for ministry, they simply ask the question.

2. They provide mentoring for their young people. Brad found that 90% of the young adults serving in ministry could point to someone in the congregation they considered to be their spiritual mentor. Maybe it was a pastor, maybe a youth director, maybe a Sunday school teacher or Confirmation mentor or small group leader. Young people who discern a call into ministry usually have someone in their congregation who models faithful and authentic ministry for them.

3. They provide leadership opportunities for youth in the local church. For example, Brad found that 100% of the young adult ministers he interviewed had served as acolytes. Many of them had served on a youth leadership team or on a ministry team. Many of them helped lead worship in a youth praise band or on Youth Sunday. Opportunities to lead in a local church become opportunities to discern a calling to lead a local church.

4. They provide opportunities for youth and young adults to put their faith into action through things like mission trips, short term service projects, and other local outreach opportunities like Mustard Tree and the Firewood ministry.

5. They connect young disciples with the larger church beyond the walls of the local church. This happens through large youth conferences like Resurrection, through the Confirmation retreats and the middle school mission weeks at Camp Lookout, and through occasionally combining with other youth groups like we do for fall retreat.

I am so glad that Drew was also there to hear Brad’s presentation, because we both saw that so many of these five things are already happening at Signal Crest. We are so grateful for all the adults who serve as mentors, officially or unofficially, for our young people. Drew and Rachel both provide leadership and service opportunities for our youth and children, often in cooperation with other churches and area ministries.

But if there’s one area in which we have the most room to grow, maybe it’s in the first one—asking the question. I’ll never forget when I was in high school and my tennis coach asked me out of the blue one day after practice if I had ever considered going into the ministry. I hadn’t breathed a word about it; how did he know? I don’t know. But I do know that apparently he saw something in me, so he said something to me. And I can’t begin to tell you the difference that made.

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This past Sunday, I finally had an opportunity to help serve a meal at the Mustard Tree Ministries, which is one of our church’s outreach partnerships. This faith-based non-profit ministry was founded 20 years ago and, according to their website, “helps people become all that God wants them to be.” They are based at First Centenary United Methodist Church downtown and are especially focused on serving their homeless and impoverished neighbors. Rev. Barry Kidwell, a former associate pastor here at Signal Crest, serves as the Executive Director. Our church provides volunteers to help serve the Sunday evening meal on the second Sundays of each month. Last month, that date fell on Easter Sunday. This month, it was Mother’s Day.

Doranne Lane is often in charge of organizing this outreach for us, but Jill Yetter herded the eight of us cats who came this time. She had heated up the pans of casseroles that she and others of you had prepared (thank you!), along with the salad fixings, dressing, bread, and desserts. Then we loaded up our vehicles and transported the food down to First Centenary. When we arrived, the folks there helped us set up in the kitchen and serving area. Then we went to the contemporary worship center for the evening worship before the meal.

Barry welcomed us all and invited us to greet one another. There were smiles on faces all around. Their worship leader led us in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and then Barry’s daughter Kathleen delivered an inspiring message with us about letting our light shine. She shared a memorable image with us that the flashlights on our phones won’t work if it’s in selfie mode. In other words, we can’t let our light shine if we are focused on ourselves.

I was especially touched with the prayer time that Barry led before the message. There was such a supportive and encouraging spirit in the room, as various people lifted up joys like housing applications being finalized or medical treatments that were seeming to work, along with concerns about family members in the hospital or friends facing addictions. We took our time, and everyone who wanted to share something on their hearts had time to share.

Those of us who were serving the meal slipped out of the service before Communion. We served the kids first. I was at the dessert station, and there was this one kid who filled up her plate with just desserts! Then the adults came along, and many of them came back for seconds, and we later fixed several to-go boxes for them to take with them. We left the leftovers with the staff there, and they cleaned up after us. They made it so easy for us; all we really had to do was serve the food.

There were probably 30-35 folks there. All ages. Different colors. Different socioeconomic classes. But all with smiles on their faces, full bellies, and a palpable sense of fellowship and love for one another. I remember thinking as I was driving back up the mountain that I think I just got a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven must be like.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”–Matthew 13:31-32.

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