Holston and the Methodist Mission to the Cherokees

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Originally posted on Holston Conference Historical Society:
For some time we have been hearing about work that happened quite some time ago in the region we call Holston, among an early people group known as the Cherokee people. ?The Reverend…


Places I’ve Lived: North Tazewell, Virginia

After my wife and I married in 1992, we worked to build up the churches where I was at that time, Belfast and Midway UMC near Cedar Bluff, Virginia.  Around the end of 1993 I began to sense that it was time to move on.  Nearing the finish of my first run as pastor of a charge, I began looking forward to the chance to start fresh somewhere else.  And I looked forward to going into the next appointment as a couple with my wife in tow.IMG_0485

So we started praying and I tried to prepare my young bride for the possibility of a move anywhere within the boundaries of Holston Conference (which is composed of UM churches in Southwest Virginia, from Radford west to KY, and east Tennessee (as far west as Oak Ridge and Dayton), and as far south as the northwest corner of Georgia.  That information brought her absolutely no comfort, but she maintained that she would go wherever I was appointed.

Then we were told our projected appointment was going to be in Tazewell District, in the town of North Tazewell.  My wife and her prayers put us within a 12 mile drive from her mom and dad in Bandy, Virginia.  We had struck gold.

North Tazewell, Virginia is a town that developed along the railroad when the N&W was built through the Clinchfield region.  Because the town of Tazewell was built on a hill, and the railroad could do better by staying closer to the Clinch River, the depot and other buildings were built north of the county seat.  The town of North Tazewell was soon incorporated as a separate community.  Tazewell had first been called “Jeffersonville” and then Tazewell Court House.  Developers decided to try to develop a “resort” community between the old court house town and the new North Tazewell area.  That planned development placed several homes on the hills between the community.  It also led to building a street car system that would haul passengers from the train depot in North Tazewell all the way up to Main Street in the court house district of Tazewell.  In-between Tazewell and North Tazewell the community was named “Car-line” after that street car.  Others called it “Shake-Rag.”IMG_0483 2

The North Tazewell Church was established in the 1860s in an area just north of the depot town, up Whitley Branch, on a hill now covered by a subdivision named “Goose Creek Estates.”  It was referred to as “Gravel Hill” in those days.  A little white, wood-frame building was erected there to serve the needs of people in the area.

After the train depot was built in the 1880s, the church decided to move to town and tore their building down piece-by-piece.  They rebuilt it right beside the train tracks, near where Repass Barber Shop is today (with the sign that says “We need your head in our business).  But due to the noisy situation of trains shifting at the water tank near the church’s new site, they found the location unsatisfactory.  About this time the Lutherans, who had built their church of brick on a large lot on the north side of Riverside Drive, decided to abandon that location to move to a lot across from Tazewell Presbyterian Church in the county seat.  That left their beautiful brick sanctuary up for sale.  The Methodists decided to buy it.  And they made it their new home.

The church grew to be a strong little church, supported by families who were related to a local grocery store chain.  One family took responsibility for renovating the sanctuary in the 1940s, making it look very much like an little English Chapel, with built-in pulpit and kneeling rail, and exposed wooden rafters.  They did this for the wedding of one of their daughters.IMG_0484

By the time I got there, most of the grocery store employees were retired and it wouldn’t be long before that chain discontinued operating.  In fact the church as a whole was composed of several senior members (people in their 70s, 80s and 90s).  Just one or two younger families were there, and they struggled to keep Sunday School going for their kids.

While I was there the congregation had a rebirth.  About the second year into my time as pastor, people started showing up.  The congregation swelled from 30 some in attendance to over 80 some Sundays.  People who had stopped coming returned.  New people came, and soon there was a buzz in that church as ministry began happening and God began doing a work among us.

We ran out of room.  Two things happened to help with that.  A lady who owned property behind the church decided to sell, but she told everyone she would never sell to “those Methodists.”  So one of the families in the church bought the property and sold it to the church.  That gave us room to expand some parking, and think about using the property for new ministry.

Across the street from the church was the old Town Hall.  North Tazewell had been a separate town until the late 1960s or early 1970s when the cost of keeping the town up just became too much and they decided to merge with the town of Tazewell.  The grocery store chain decided to take the town hall and use it for a produce warehouse for a few years, but by the time I came there it had been pretty much abandoned.  We kept looking at it and wandering what it would be like to own that.

After much discussion, I called an agent of Acme Grocers and just asked what it would cost to rent, lease, or buy that property.  The man was very interested in my questions, and told me to let him check around and get back to me.  I figured that would be the last I’d hear from him.  But I was wrong.  A couple weeks later he called me and said:  “Brad, we have decided to give your church that building.”

The next few weeks were exciting as the congregation dreamed how they could use it.  They decided to open a thrift store.  It is still running.  It is called “Lilies of the Fields,” referring to Jesus stating in the sermon on the mount:  “Consider the lilies of the fields . . . ”

It was at North Tazewell that I finally got to meet my famous actor-cousin, George C. Scott.  My dad’s second cousin, (my second cousin, once removed), he was in Tazewell County to make what was his final movie, a made-for-tv movie that was named “Country Justice.”  I met the people who were setting up places to film, as they were inquiring about churches, and wanted to look inside North Tazewell Church as a possible film site.  They decided not to use it, but they invited me to come to the film set one day and meet George.  I went on a day when snow was piled up about 8-10 inches.  They told me he didn’t like to meet people and he never liked to get out of character while he was filming, but that he had agreed to give me 5 minutes.  I said, “That’s plenty for me.”  Soon I was shaking hands with the man who turned down an Academy Award for “Patton.”  I have had a better time talking to some of his close family than I had talking to him, but at least I can say I met him.  I wonder if he ever told anyone he met me?4176-2

Tammie and I left North Tazewell after five years.  We had loved the congregation and they had loved us back.  We shed many tears and hugged many necks as we left.


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Places I’ve Lived: Paint Lick, VA

Back in 1989 I was appointed to the  Belfast-Midway Charge in the Tazewell District of the Holston Conference.  My first appointment out of seminary, it was my first charge as a pastor, and I was given the reigns of two rural, small membership congregations which were yoked together to be able to support a full-time pastor.  As I’ve already blogged about Belfast, I wanted to take a moment to tell about Midway.  IMG_0362

A road was built in ancient days that connected the communities of Tazewell (also known as “Jeffersonville” and later “Tazewell Court House,” before being simplified to “Tazewell”) and Lebanon, county seat towns of their respective counties.  It was a portion of the old Fincastle Turnpike that ran from that town north of Roanoke, Virginia, in Botetourt County all the way to the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky.  Many families traveled this route on their way to points west, but locals used the road to travel to the main towns in their areas.  About halfway between the two county seat towns existed a little community that got called “Midway,” for obvious reasons.  But Midway wasn’t the only name of the community.

Towering above Midway like a sentinel that could be seen for miles around was a beautiful mountain peak that ran along the west of Thompson Valley, known as Paint Lick.  It was so named because in a previous age Native Americans had found a substance located near the Little River that could be used to make paint.  So they used it to adorn their skin, their tools, their homes, etc.  But they also used it to dress the rocks along the mountain.

In 1989 I took a hike with some church members from Belfast up to the Indian Paintings on Paint Lick.  Some years before a troop of Boy Scouts had taken it upon themselves to paint outlines around the paintings so people could identify them as they continued to fade into obscurity.  The paintings are on private land, so there was no one to tell them not to, at least not in a government regulation sort of way.  They were sincerely trying to preserve them.

I’ve been told that paintings exist in more than one place on the mountain, but there is one particular “lick” or outcropping of rocks where a large number of the paintings are concentrated.  It is not really that hard to get to.  But our guide that day decided to take us straight up the side of the mountain.  We were climbing steep mountain side, sometimes having difficulty just taking a step.  Soon he decided he had taken us the wrong way.  We came out at a logging road.  We went up the logging road, which, though steep, was very much more manageable to travel.  Soon we were at the paintings.

The paintings can be described as characters or figures that denote things from nature.  A sun-like orb, a two-headed eagle or other type of bird, another crow-like bird, and a man.  There are others that are hard to figure out.

A woman, Gladys Steele, used to write a column for the newspaper about folks in “Paint Lick.”  Gladys lived in an old farm house, a rather large home, atop a hill not far from the Midway Church.  The home had been an important one in a previous age, and at one time served as the post office.

A school once set beside the church, and was called Midway School.  It was one room, and was used as a school until at least the 1940s.

The church was established around 1855.  It was said that Midway was established as the result of Preacher Bob Sheffey praying away a moonshine still.  Apparently the church was established in its place.  Don’t know about the verity of that, but it was a legend still being told when I was sent there.  A William Blankenship gave the land.  That was before the community of Cedar Bluff had formed, or Richlands, or most any other community around.  Midway was an old community.

The church had been hit by a wind storm some time in the 1920s or so.  The congregation decided to build it back smaller.  As a result, it is still rather small.  But the church was a great place for me to learn.  The majestic oaks that surrounded it were an inspiration.  They reminded me of the faith that came before us.  They always made me feel so small in their presence.

A couple in the Midway Church used to play piano and violin together.  Jim and Ruth Steele lived a stone’s throw below the church.  Jim had the original deed to the church.  They often played “One Day at a Time.”  It was so nice to hear in our worship time.  When I left the church I was given as my going away present a beautiful autoharp which I still have.  I think of Midway every time I play it.

A lady who is still living in that community would make homemade cake with caramel icing.  It was my absolute favorite.  She told me that whenever I wanted one to call her and she’d have it ready by the time I got there.



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Places I’ve Lived: Belfast, Virginia

The itineracy of the United Methodist Church requires us to go and live in places where the churches are located to which we are appointed by the bishop of our annual conference.  My first itineracy was to a place that was served by the Cedar Bluff, Virginia post office, but the community had its own name:  Belfast.   A friend of mine recently traveled to Ireland.  I told him he could stay right here in Southwest Virginia and within about two hours travel to both Belfast and Dublin.  These communities were named after their counterparts in the green island.

I came to Belfast in 1989.  It was much as it is today, except the main road, US Highway 19, was only two lanes.  Land had been purchased for the right of way to expand the highway, but work on constructing new lanes would become a project towards the end of my time there five years later.

Belfast starts about where the Tazewell County/Russell County line is, and goes south to spot where a long decline leads to the neighboring community of Rosedale.  It lies between the Clinch Mountain to the east, and the House and Barn Mountain to the west.  It is a beautiful green valley watered by a strong stream that comes out of Clinch Mountain.  The community was once centered on what is now a back road, where there was once a mill.  The advent of 911 service brought on the need to name roads, and one of the roads is called “Belfast Mills Road” to honor this old community.  The mill was placed along this creek and used the water therein to power the milling work.

A lot of Scots-Irish descendents people the hills and hollers around Belfast.  An old family named “Duff” settled on one tract that now faces the northbound land of US 19 in a beautiful bottom.  Upon discovering this tract, they felt so at home (they had immigrated from Ireland) that they called the place “Belfast,” after the Ulster capitol.  The name stuck and people found it a great identity.

A Ferguson family member once told me that there was a slave auction block located a little south of the old mill on the road that parallels the Clinch mountain range.  At one time the agricultural efforts of the people of Belfast was focused on raising wheat and other crops.  They produced quite a bit of wheat and were recognized for the quality of the crop.  In the green hills surrounding the tillable lands they pastured cows, sheep and horses.  They have been known to raise some fine beef cattle on these beautiful hills.

Across from the Belfast Elementary School lies a hill that is said to have been the site where a campmeeting was held for many years.  This campmeeting was organized by Methodist preachers and led to the organization of a permanent congregation or two in the area.  At one time the Belfast Circuit of the Methodist Church had about nine churches on it, serviced by one circuit riding preacher.  The Belfast Church was established in the 1880s, others not long afterwards.  Harmony Chapel, Bradshaw, Barrett’s Chapel (across Clifton Farm), Clifton, and a couple congregations in nearby Tazewell County made up the bulk of the churches on the circuit (including Midway at Paintlick, and Green’s Chapel).  Sometimes these church houses doubled as schools in the days of subscription schools.  Community members would pool their funds and hire a teacher to teach their kids.


Belfast United Methodist Church as it appears today, constructed in the 1970s after a fire destroyed the old wood frame building that had served the community from the 1800s.

Eventually a school was built across from the Belfast Church, and a parsonage was also erected nearby, all funded by the locally famous “Governor” Stuart.  The parsonage was built in the second decade of the 1900s, about 1912 if I remember correctly.  Later as the county took over the schools a new building was built further down the road.  At the time I was living in Belfast, the first three or four grades were taught at Belfast, and then students traveled to Elk Garden School to get the rest of their elementary education before traveling to Lebanon for Middle and High School.

One of the interesting tales I encountered while serving Belfast was that of the Taylor family.  In the 1920s and 1930s the famous Carter family (AP, Sarah, and Mother Maybelle) were recording music that became the origin of country music.  A. P. Carter is said to have found his way to Belfast where the Eva and Alma Taylor family sang “My Old Clinch Mountain Home” to him.  According to local tradition, A. P. Carter then recorded the song and never gave the Taylors credit for it.  Some of the song as given to me by the Taylors goes like this:

Far away upon a hill

On a sunny mountain side  

Many years ago we parted,

My little Ruth and I,

From my sunny mountain home.  

She clung to me and trembled,

When I told her we must part,

She said “Don’t go, my darling,

You know it will break my heart,

When we two are far apart.”  

Carry me back to old Virginia,

Back to my Clinch Mountain home.  

Carry me back to old Virginia,

back to my old mountain home.

The Taylors were still a little upset about A. P.’s actions in the 1980s.

The Belfast community used to sponsor a country music concert on the hills around “Bob’s Barbeque and Country Store” in the decade before I got there.  They had quit by the time I came, but pictures were posted inside Bob’s store.  He used to serve lamb BBQ sandwiches that were so good you had to have another.  One day I was in there getting one when a nice lady named Elaine Keen asked me if I’d like to meet somebody.  She had in mind a single young lady she knew, and as I was a single young man, I was actively looking (in fact my mother had called the man I replaced and asked if there were any “Loose”–I think she meant “unspoken for” women in the area–you can imagine how that went over and how fast it spread!).  I later met and eventually married Tammie Beavers, who moved with me after we married into the historic parsonage at Belfast.

Belfast was the place where I met Walter and Amanda Cox.  These two lovely people were in their 90s when they passed away.  I visited their little humble log home several times and got to know and love them.  When they died, they each had instructed their family that they wanted to be treated the way people were traditionally treated in the mountains of Russell County.  That is, they wanted to be “laid out” at the church two nights, and have their funeral on the third day.  This was a mountain tradition I was not familiar with, but it was a beautiful way to observe their passing as stories were told and people connected as they visited the family and honored the Coxes.

Belfast was also where my dog showed up.  There used to be a trash collection area at the bottom of the hill where the Belfast road met Highway 19.  It kind of attracted stray animals.  One day I noticed a german shepherd in the neighborhood.  She eventually took up residence on my porch and during thunderstorms at the basement steps.  I eased around until I could feed and pet her.  She eventually adopted me.  I was preaching the first Sunday of October on “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”  I said something like “we need to look for Lazarus in our world and reach out in mercy to him.”  After church, my lay leader, David Hankins, a living legend, said  “Preacher, there’s Lazarus!” He was pointing to my newfound friend, the German Shepherd.  And her name was Lazarus from that day forward.

I got to scale the utmost heights of House and Barn Mountain while I was there.  It was a beautiful place to view the surrounding countryside.  The back roads around Belfast take you to a different age and beauty that is stark but deeply moving.  I’m really thankful to have been able to meet this place and sojourn among its peope.

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What Do You Do with a DNA Test?

Some genealogists I have contacted over the years have begged me to succumb to the request to do a DNA test.  I resisted for a long time.  I’m still not entirely sure I believe the supposed science involved.  For a long time I felt there just wasn’t enough of a world-wide gene database to make the test worthwhile if the science was indeed good.  A cousin of mine took the test and was gravely disappointed in the results, as it told her she wasn’t nearly as related to Native Americans as she wanted to be.

But the test recently had a sale and being an adventurous person (which isn’t the impression I give very much, but I AM adventurous at times.  I even like to have fun, regardless of what you think), I fell for it and spent around $70 bucks to make it happen.  Here’s what took place.  The payment gets processed, you receive an email confirmation, and soon there is a little kit at your door.  You open the kit, which looks like an Apple product, with its sleek design and careful instructions.  You take out a vial and spit it in, close the lid and a little bit of blue liquid spills from a reservoir in the lid into your saliva sample, apparently to preserve it for the trip to the lab.

Once you send in your sample in the packaging provided you get another email telling you it arrived, and finally you get one with your “results.”  Of course its exciting to get that last email.  You go online, and if you are a member of Ancestry.com, you can connect your results with your online family tree (if you’ve made one).  If not, you will still get some interesting reports.

The first one is an “Ethnicity Report.”  What this report does is circle some areas of a world map that shows you where the majority of your genetic ancestry seems to hail from. In other words, it ranks areas of the world with your results so you can tell what your genetic ethnicity seems mostly to be.

In my report, I found that I am 73 percent British (which includes England, Scotland, and Wales).  I was entertained with the notion that the average Briton today shares genetics with only 61 percent of the ancestral peoples of Great Britain, making me MORE British than the average Brit.  With a purely Appalachian mountain accent, that is one funny discovery.

My next largest ethnic mix is from Scandinavia, in the 12 percent range.  I learned as I read about this result that this is because several invaders from Scandinavia intermixed with natives from Great Britain over time.  This is probably related to the Scottish roots of my family origins.

The rest of my main ethnic report is traced to Western Europe, which includes France, Germany, and Switzerland.  This makes much sense as I have a number of ancestral lines that hail from a region that is shared by France and Germany.  I’m just glad they learned English, because I can’t imagine how poorly we Appalachians would slaughter the German or French languages.

There is a small percentage in the ethnicity report that talks about “Trace Regions.”  This is other areas that seem indicated by the genetic markers.  My report of these includes Italy/Greece, Finland/Northwest Russia, Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Region. Added together it composes only 10 percent of my ethnicity but it lines up with some things we know about a couple of my lines.  Located in the subsets of these ethnicities is the possibility of European Jewish and even Native American heritage (although only a slight bit of one percent).  Could this be the background to the Melungeon ancestry that some of my lines seem to come from?  Perhaps.  I’ll have to dig some more into this.  The result is definitely inconclusive.

Another byproduct of this test is that Ancestry.com will match your results with the results of others who have taken the test.  Then you are given a list to go through and explore.  My closest connections were people who are connected in the “third cousin” relationship.  Some of these happen to be folks with whom I’ve corresponded and shared information already.  Others are new to me and some individuals seem to have no connection at all, as we share no surnames in our family trees.  So again, I’m skeptical of results.  There are connections, but there are unanswered questions as well.

At the end of the test results is a strong plea to get other family members to take the test, including siblings.  They explain that male and female siblings may show different traits in their DNA and those would link up differently even though they share the same ancestry.  I guess any company needs a good profitable business plan, but this seems a little pushy when I really wasn’t sold on the whole thing to begin with.  I bet 70 bucks on it and got something out of it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone else.  I think you really have to reflect on whether this is for you.

I have an indication of native American ancestry in one part of my family which is accompanied by a strong word-of-mouth story that has been passed down and even documented in era-contemporary historical writing.  I’m concerned to know why that didn’t show up the way I expected it to.  Is it hidden in that “Trace Region” report?  Is it fiction?

The ethnic regions are writ large in the report, so it is difficult to narrow the results down to anything resembling localities, family groups, clans, or tribes.  In that, it isn’t too unlike a Zodiac reading.  “You’re from this corner of the earth, and over here and over here, and in case we’re wrong, there are traces of this place,” the report seems to say.  I heard a woman from Kentucky report to me that her results showed ethnicity from Japan and eastern Asia, which puzzled her since she was a multi-generational Appalachian.  Who knows, maybe her mother had a thing for the guy at the Chinese Buffet?

My bottom line take-away point is this:  You can spend the money (Ancestry’s product usually costs in a range of 70-100 dollars).  You’ll learn some things.  But you could live a long life in peace and prosperity without doing it.  After all, we all come from the same ancestors, don’t we?

If you want to try it, Ancestry’s site is found here

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A Trip to Old Salem

Moravians are a small denomination of Christians from the pietistic tradition who began as a protestant group in and around Bohemia and Moravia in Europe (specifically in modern day Czech Republic).  Founded around 1457, they, of course, were met with persecution in their early days, and found a friend a couple centuries later in Count Nicholas Zinzendorf who gave them refuge at a settlement called “Herrnhut.”  With his backing and support, the church took seriously the call to spread the gospel and many Moravians migrated to North America, some settling in the Wachovia settlement in North Carolina around Winston Salem.  The old Salem community exists today (Salem is a biblical word that means “Shalom” or roughly, “Peace”).

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Old Salem community at Winston Salem.  It is a remarkable district where a women’s college is rooted and where the old buildings of the Salem community still stand as windows to an earlier time.

Central in the Old Salem settlement is the Home Moravian Church, a beautifully preserved building that still houses the headquarters of the southern province of the denomination in the US.  Worshipers gather there and participate in such beautiful rites as the Love Feast, which influenced Methodist founder and teacher John Wesley a couple centuries ago.  The Christmas services feature a beautiful hymn that is often sung by children called “Morning Star.”  It is an anthem to the star that shone, announcing Jesus’ birth, and beckons worshipers to shine the light of Christ into the dark world.

Nearby, in a quiet part of the Old Salem community lies “God’s Acre,” the cemetery of the Moravians.  Here are buried many of the members of the church through the decades since the Wachovia settlement took place.  Gravestones look very similar to one another, regulated by the community’s preferences.  As death is the great equalizer of us all, no one’s stone stands out more prominently than anyone else’s.  All lie on the ground with the words pointed up to the sky.

In walking through this beautifully kept cemetery, where men are buried with men and women with women, I discovered the gravesite of one of my ancestors, Martin Cloud.  I don’t think Martin was a Moravian originally, but by the time of his death in 1880, he apparently had become connected with the group, as he was shown in the census as residing with his daughter in Forsyth County, NC, somewhere in or about Winston Salem.  He is the father of my aunt Jennie Cloud who married Peter L Wimmer.  They were the couple whose discovery of gold in California led to the great Gold Rush of 1849.  But rest assured, none of us inherited any of it.

I give you pictures of the cemetery and scenes around Old Salem.

Here’s a sample video from the organ in the church:

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You Can’t Fake Authenticity: The Call for Real Christian Faith

People seem hungry today for authenticity.

I personally get worn out when I’m around folks who are projecting contrived versions of themselves.  This is a difficulty plaguing American Christianity in our time.   Some have posited that it is the reason churches are declining across the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the US.  We have projected a false notion of what it means to be faithful, and that version of Christianity just isn’t resonating now.

The greatest example I can give is that for the past few decades, especially in the venue of TV evangelism, a version of Christianity that has been known as “Prosperity Gospel” has been much ballyhooed.  Even preachers’ names, like “Creflo Dollar” make this theological bent seem a little too focused on the material.  The Jim Bakker fiasco of the 1980s (who was caught practicing a complex ponzi scheme in regards to his Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC, and subsequently imprisoned for breaking federal law), and many more versions of his story that have surfaced with different preachers and different ministries, have chipped away at the trustworthiness of those who take to the pulpit in our churches across the land.

Add to that the radical liberal agenda of those preachers who almost remove the entirety of Biblical faith in order to forward social agendas (scrapping the centrality of the cross and the sacrificial atonement in order to construct alternative theories based on Marxist social ideals) and you have our present situation where preachers are about at the level of car salesmen on the scale of trustworthiness.  Lately I’ve seen several attacks on social media against megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, whose smooth style and lack of deep Biblical teaching have drawn crowds to his church, but whose salary has been the source of criticism.  This is but one symptom of the desire for authenticity that is noticeable in our day.

But that isn’t all.  People want to meet real Christians in church (or in daily life for that matter).  The image of Christianity is a little suspect it seems.  If you want to close down conversation and relationship, it seems like the best way to do that is tell someone you’re a Christian.  It isn’t popular or desirable right now in our culture.  We are told that millennials are the most skeptical generation that has appeared in quite some time.  As they are coming of age, they are loudly questioning the authenticity of those who claim to be heralds of Christ.  Those who have stayed in the church have made known their displeasure with the way some of us hide behind a facade of faith when the rest of our lives project a different image.  Ask someone under 30, and test my claims.

In Methodist practices, from the earliest time, our founder, John Wesley, ordained in the Anglican Church, pulled small groups of believers together to create authentic Christian community, in settings where they were expected to get real with one another, holding one another accountable for their walk with God.  The practice of the Methodist class meeting has largely fallen by the wayside in most Methodist churches, substituted with Sunday School classes where a lecturer brings information and everyone smiles and nods and goes home without sharing anything personal (for the most part).  Many nondenominational churches have risen up in recent years who practice a version of the small group Wesley modeled in his Methodist movement.  They are better at practicing the Methodist way of being Christian than Methodists are anymore.

But to practice this kind of discipleship requires that we are authentic.  This is a difficulty in most of our congregations, because people don’t want to reveal too much of their lives and hearts to their fellow congregants.  It would ruin the image they have tried to build of themselves and their reputation in the community if they get too real.  Yet that is what is required if we are to encounter the living God.  We have to be real.  Growth and change won’t occur until we are.  That’s the genius of the system Wesley created.  It brought to the surface in each heart the need to be authentic and honest about who we are, how well we’re following Jesus and how much we’re struggling with the demands of the gospel.

People are longing for the kind of authenticity that was practiced by previous generations.  In an age that has come up short in practicing any constructive morality, in other words, at a time when everyone is simply doing what is right in their own eyes (even though their actions just underscore the sin in their lives, and repeat that pattern over and over), we need authentic Christians to appear on the scene, folks who know that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means more than a slick formula for personal success or wealth.  It means that our lives will be reformed, and our sinfulness will be transformed and our character will be shaped by the cross.

We need to gather with other Christians and share the answer to the question:  “How is it with your soul?”  In the give and take of answering that question (and others such as “Are you obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit?” and “How have you practiced the means of grace this week?”) there is the seed of transformation.  We grow as we become real.  Dropping the facade of our fake selves before the reality of authentic Christian community, our hearts change and we begin to bear fruit in the world for the kingdom of God.

Let’s get real.

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