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Preacher Tells United Methodists to Stop Acting "De-Powered"

by Elliott Wright

Rev. Dr. Cecilia Harris is pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Chicago.
"Trust God. Get up." Rev. Dr. Cecilia Harris has no patience for inaction.
Image by: Cassandra M. Zampini
Source: GBGM Administration
Standing and kneeling, the participants pray.
The Time is Now: When the 2009 School of Congregational Development was urged to step out of their comfort zones they jumped to their feet and dropped to their knees.
Image by: Cassandra M. Zampini
Source: GBGM Administration

Evanston, Illinois, July 31, 2009--A dynamic Chicago preacher told her United Methodist denomination to stop acting "de-powered" and respond to Jesus' call to get up and move out.

The Rev. Dr. Cecilia Harris brought a message of hope and determination to the 2009 School of Congregational Development, meeting in Evanston on July 29 to August 2. She is pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church on Chicago's Near West Side.

Some 600 school participants, mostly engaged in church development, seemed ready to follow her advice, coming first to their feet and many then going on their knees. Dr. Harris proclaimed that Jesus can and is ready to re-empower what is self-acknowledged in the United States as a declining denomination.

Using verbal images drawn from the Bible, the children's game of "hide and seek," and her experiences in the denominational "system," she spelled out the drama of God's capacity and willingness to find and empower new generations of Methodist witnesses.

"We have to get our stuff together; we've not time to spending arguing," Dr. Harris declared. "The time is NOW, this is the time, the hour, the season, and we don't need more money." Speaking to the church planners, she said, "God has called. God has chosen you, redeemed you, and was particular in your gifting…. Trust God. Get up."

The annual School of Congregational Development, sponsored by two general agencies of the denomination and hosted this year by the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference is an occasion for training in ways to start new congregations and strengthen existing ones. A recurring theme in recent years has been declining United Methodist membership in the US.

Dr. Harris, who is a pivotal part of Harvest 2020, her conference's plan to plant and strengthen congregations, showed little patience with church officials or ecclesiastical systems that cry "woe is me."

Her sermon text was from John 5:1-11, the story of Jesus' trip to the Pool of Bethesda, a spot in Jerusalem where the sick and afflicted gathered, hoping for restoration through bathing in the water. There Jesus encountered a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. The fellow explains that each time he tried to go down the steps into the pool, someone jumps ahead of him.

In an act of both compassion and, perhaps, a little impatience, Jesus tells the man to stand up, pick up his mat, and walk. And so it was, even though the healed man was challenged by others for doing the work of picking up his mat on the Sabbath.

"Here we are, people who used to hang out at the pool," said Dr. Harris, "feeling de-powered," afraid to leave "our comfort zone," waiting for help to get into the water. Jesus is already offering the power to "change positions."

Dr. Harris, who holds multiple advanced degrees, including one in business, leads a vibrant, 400-member congregation deeply involved in its community and in regional and global mission. She was introduced by the Rev. James Preston, superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District, as a person passionate for the gospel of love and "spirit-led."

At the end of the sermon, school organizers altered the program agenda to provide for what amounted to an "altar call"--inviting people who come forward to dedicate or rededicate themselves to the power of Jesus.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, who was attending the school, was asked to pray. He offered a spontaneous prayer of great eloquence, thanking God for the Living Word in Jesus Christ, the Word in the Bible, and the preached Word through Dr. Harris. He said, in part:

We have a new sense of resurrection power. We were lying around the pool but now we are standing, bidden by Jesus to rise, pick up our mat and walk, individually and collectively, personally and institutionally to stand up, gather up our things, and walk, trusting Jesus to sustain us in a few fragile steps…. You [God] know where the broken pieces are in our lives, homes, congregations, and The United Methodist Church…. Bring us to love and power, give us courage and faith to trust you for renewal of heart and renewal of the church…. Where you lead us we will follow…in the highways and byways, to preach and live the Gospel, in thanks, leaning and depending on you, our only hope. Amen.

Go to School of Congregational Development for more news and features.

Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Contact: Elliott Wright, Telephone: 212-870-3921, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115



Date posted: Jul 31, 2009