This is the culmination of our series on change and this worship in particular is focused specifically on our church. The sermon as a whole is a testimony against inaction and about being intentional in your life but I get far more specific than normal.
An empty building.
If we do nothing this place will likely be no more than an empty building in 5-10 years. It might take longer. Churches are notoriously slow in dying. But it’s coming. And sooner than you might think. Every month we are losing thousands of dollars. Not hundreds, but thousands. Our families that labored long and hard for this church saved money during the good times for a rainy day and now there is a heavy storm hanging over us. We are dipping into our reserves every month to the tune of about $2,500. Obviously, that is not a sustainable model for ministry. Your gut reaction might be, “Let’s do more fund-raisers!” But that is a short-term solution for a long-term problem and one that creates more problems than it solves. First, to organize something like the annual chicken dinner takes months of planning, mostly by Susan who does it out of the goodness of her heart. If she weren’t here, I don’t think we would be doing this because most of you know what a thankless, difficult job it can be. And in the end, we only raise a few thousand dollars at most. By the way, that’s AFTER we have other kind and generous people who donate things like meat and vegetables and paper goods and desserts to make it happen. So if we translated that into dollars, we probably are making far less. Then we would have to plan one of these nearly every month or every other month, JUST TO STAY WITH OUR HEADS ABOVE WATER! That doesn’t even take into account how uninspiring and soul-sucking it is to fund-raise just to keep the doors open. It feels desperate because it is. Fund-raisers should never go to church operations. Fund-raisers should go toward projects that either glorify the Kingdom of God or help it grow. Not keep the lights on. Plus, who would come to a church where we had to do the hard work of a fundraiser nearly every month? That doesn’t feel spiritual because it isn’t.
Our church is dying and we need to figure out what we are going to do about it.
Because we are running out of time. It is time to fish or cut bait. And by that, I mean we either have to commit to doing the hard work or accept that we can’t. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you find Matthew’s Gospel and go to chapter 25 beginning with verse 14. Matthew 25:14. I told you churches are notoriously slow in dying, but we are at a critical point where if we don’t do something now, we may not be in a position to do something later. Already, many of our most loving, loyal folks can’t make it to church let alone do outreach in the community. We are an aging congregation and we are only getting older. And we can’t just ask people to give more money. Some of us might be able to do that, but most of our folks are on fixed incomes and can’t really contribute more to make up the difference. To do that, every family who comes regularly would have to give about $120 extra dollars every month. Besides, that doesn’t solve our problem. As we age, we die and as more and more of our friends and family pass away, it leaves gaping holes in our church that are harder and harder to fill. For too long, we’ve ignored the real problem. We’ve come up with solutions we feel comfortable with, but not solutions that risk it all for God. And I think God would rather we fail spectacularly doing something amazing than die slowly doing nothing. At least that’s the impression I get when I read this story in the Bible.
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
What did the servant with one bag of gold do wrong?
Technically nothing. He kept the money safe. But he did nothing to make it grow. That’s what he did wrong. He did nothing. He knew what his master expected but instead of risking failure, he chose to risk nothing. My dad had a saying, “You’ve got to spend money to make money.” I don’t know if that was his saying or if it was particularly original, but I remember him sharing it with me and it’s stuck ever since. You’ve got to spend money to make money. What he meant by that wasn’t that you literally had to spend money (although sometimes that’s necessary). He meant you had to invest in something if you really wanted it to bear fruit. If you wanted results, you had to be willing to put in whatever it takes to make it happen and put aside your own concerns. You might not get the results you were hoping for, but you DEFINITELY won’t results you if you make no effort. We fail to realize that inaction IS an action. Not doing anything is a choice we make and it has consequences just as if we did do something. Sometimes, inaction is precisely the right move. When we’re mad or upset, sometimes it’s better to cool off before saying or doing something we’ll regret. Other times, inaction simply is our unwillingness to make change. NOW is the time to do something. And to be clear, it’s not that we aren’t doing anything. The people of our church are some of the most consistent, supportive, and loving people I have had the chance to serve with. If anyone asked, I would be happy to tell them how Spirit-filled this place is. But we haven’t made any significant changes. Our attendance continues to decline, for the first time in nearly six years we had our first professions of faith, and we haven’t had any baptisms. Yet those numbers haven’t alarmed us enough to do anything different. So we need to ask, how willing are we to change?
What I’m talking about is a cultural mind shift in our church.
I want us to stop thinking of this as “OUR” church and start thinking of this as “GOD’S” church. And I want us to stop thinking of this as a building we come to, but as a gathering of we belong to. I want us to think of church not as a place but as a people. Because when you do that, you free yourself from the worries and concerns of what will happen to THIS place and THESE people and instead you will concentrate on how can I help others come to know Jesus. If it meant there was a chance of bringing more people to Christ, would you be willing to sacrifice this building to help another church grow and thrive instead of our own? If it meant there was a chance of bringing more people to Christ, would you be willing to worship in a school gymnasium? If it meant there was a chance of bringing more people to Christ, would you be willing to change how we do worship completely? Because those are the hard questions we need to ask now. They are uncomfortable questions. They are questions that challenge our faith. But they are ones we need to ask, and then we need to ask ourselves, “What is more important – the God we serve or this building we gather in?”
We don’t have anything to prove.
I think we are reluctant to ask those questions or go to those places or consider the changes we might have to make because we feel a sense of failure when we think about our church closing. But that would be a wrong frame of mind. Most churches don’t last as long as ours have. We have together nurtured some wonderful people through ministry and in their own personal journey of faith. Bob Collins has become the lead pastor at Centenary in Modesto. Tom Buratovich is leading Porterville Grand Avenue. Keith Inouye began his ministry here at Palm. Open Gate Ministries began because of the faithfulness of our churches here in Dinuba. And that doesn’t count the number of children and adults who have made their own journey of faith within the walls of our church. If we have reached the point in our ministry where we can only sustain ourselves for a while longer, that does not mean we have to stop doing meaningful ministry here in Dinuba. It simply means that we need to be honest about our situation, prepare for the worst, and pray for the best. It doesn’t honor God to desperately hold onto ministry until we cannot do it any longer. But in the meantime we have to strive to make new places for new people in our church and in our community. Because the building ultimately means nothing. As Jesus said, one day there won’t be one stone on a stone here. But the work that was done here will have an effect that last generations after we are gone. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.