Five People You Won’t Meet in Heaven

What in the world is a gigachurch?

Churches are growing so big today they had to add a new type of church – the gigachurch.  A gigachurch is a church that has more than 10,000 in worship during a given week.  10,000!  Can you imagine that?  At one time churches were just churches, but eventually some grew so big we called them megachurches and those worshipped over 2,000 a week.  But now we have gigachurches.  Could you imagine our building holding 10,000 people?  We would definitely need that new sanctuary.  And probably more parking.  How would you feel if EVUMC became a gigachurch?  Some of you would be in awe!  Some of you…would feel uneasy.  There are people who love coming to a church where it feels like family, where you know almost everyone’s name.  They worry about losing the intimacy of a small church.  They worry a church that’s too big will mean we can’t truly build community or grow deeper in our faith.  But are those real concerns or are they masking something else?  Maybe a fear of change?

Worship with 12,000 people – can you feel connected in a group this big? Yes…yes you can.

The truth is, people who go to big churches feel as connected as all of us.

To God and to each other.  It would be a mistake to think otherwise.  Some people prefer small churches.  Some prefer big churches.  But we can find connections to God and our faith in every setting.  Size does not determine the depth of our faith.  There isn’t some inverse correlation between numbers of people and how much you’re able to grow in your relationship with God.  For every church, no matter how big or small, you get out of it what you put into it.  No matter the size, you can always find a community of people to belong to, to help you grow deeper in faith.  No matter the size you can find ways to serve the community and the world.  Big doesn’t necessarily mean better, but it also doesn’t mean it’s worse either.  Just because it’s different doesn’t make it less meaningful. 

Talking about church growth makes some people feel uncomfortable.

Like that’s not what church is supposed to be about.  That somehow if we try and grow the church we’re losing sight of helping people grow deeper in their faith.  Or that we’re forgetting what it means to be a church.  But church growth is helping us to not only grow deeper in our own faith but to help others develop theirs.  Numbers are simply one way to measure how effective we are in accomplishing the mission that Christ himself gave to us.  And that mission is the same now as it was 2000 years ago when Jesus walked the Earth, to make disciples in his name and baptize the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It’s what is known as the Great Commission, and until that mission is accomplished, we should be devoting our time, energy, and effort into making it a reality.  Imagine a world filled with people who were actually followers of Jesus Christ.  People who acted like he did, loved like he did, and gave of themselves like he did for one another.  What an amazing world that would be!

God cares about the numbers. 

God cares about the numbers because behind every number is a real person.  When I was doing research for our sermon today, I read that line and it stuck with me.[1]  Behind every number is a real person.  If the Bible is any indicator, God cares very much about the numbers.  In fact, there’s a whole book in the Bible called Numbers, and in chapter 26 of that book, it lists how many men were in each clan.  By the end of that chapter, we know the total number of men in Israel was 601,730.  That’s a very specific number.  In Acts 1, the Bible tells us there were about 120 Christ followers, men and women both, and this was right after Christ went back up to Heaven.  In Acts 2, we find out 3,000 people came to Christ in that one day.  By Acts 4, we find out that the number of men, just men, who believed had grown to about 5,000.  That doesn’t include the women and children which would have made that number even bigger.  By the end of the book of Acts, there are so many people coming to Christ, they simply say over and over again how their numbers kept increasing.  And even though their numbers kept increasing, they didn’t say to themselves, “Well, that’s pretty good.”  Instead, they went out into the world, sending disciples to the ends of the known earth to teach about the love of Christ.  They felt this way because they took seriously what Jesus told them. 

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”  He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’
             “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

            “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” – Luke 13:22-30.

There are so many people out there who do not know the love of Christ.

There are so many who don’t know what it means to have Christ at the center of their life, or how that helps you, or how that can help make this world a better place.  What are we doing about that?  Because Jesus makes it very clear not everyone gets to Heaven. And that thought disturbs me as I’m sure it disturbs most of you.  We don’t like to think about that.  We don’t like to think about people NOT making it into Heaven.  I mean, we’re fine if Hitler doesn’t make it.  But it’s hard for us to imagine Aunt Sue or Uncle Bob not being there.  They’re good people after all.  But what if that’s not enough?  I know that’s a disturbing thought, and some of you probably don’t believe it to be true.  But should we take that chance?  What if you’re wrong?  Should we gamble on the lives of others just because we THINK it may not be true?  Jesus’ words are not ambiguous.  “…Many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”  What if those who are not able to are people we could have reached out to?  Now, I don’t know who is going to make it and who won’t.  I leave that to the grace of God.  But it is imperative we help others come to faith in Christ.  Like I said, not just because we care about their eternal future, but because we care about their lives in the here and now.  Living a life with Christ at its center is the greatest gift we can share.  Church growth is a byproduct of our passion for sharing the love of Christ.

Roswell UMC – A big church doesn’t mean you can’t form meaningful community

Thinking about our church growing might scare some of you.

Not because you don’t want people to know the love of Christ, but because it means things will change.  And we worry about change.  We worry about what the future might have in store for us when we leave it up to God.  We worry that it won’t feel like the same church anymore and it causes fear and anxiety to swell within us.  I had someone come up to me one time after I gave a sermon about church growth who asked me how big I’d like for us to grow. I told him I didn’t know, but that I would like for it to grow as big as God wants it to be, and he replied, “Well I hope we don’t grow too big.”  Which is a strange response, because if you asked this person if he wanted to see the world come to faith in Jesus Christ, he would have said “yes” without a doubt.  But I also understand why he replied that way.  He was worried he would no longer recognize the church he had grown to love.  He worried that if we grew too big, it wouldn’t feel the same anymore.  But that is a fear borne out of the unknown.  It isn’t based on fact, but out of this idea that the church would change in ways we MIGHT not like.  But is that a reason to stop growing?  Is our discomfort a reason to stop growing?  Or do you think Christ wants us to trust in him that we will always be able to find our space within the church?  Too often we allow our fear get in the way of how Christ wants for us to live and it hampers us as we strive to bring his vision for the world into reality. At Roswell UMC, we were definitely a megachurch.  Our average worship attendance was around 1,500.  Our membership was about 7,000.  You might think people would get lost in a church that size, but just the opposite.  They had Sunday Schools for adults bigger than our church here.  They would have their own speakers, their own music, their own announcements, their own prayer time.  It was, for all intents and purposes, church.  So they broke bread with one another and shared time together and they found their own intimacy, even in a church that big.  They found a place to call their own while still being part of something much bigger.  We are afraid of the unknown but God will take care of us.

You’ve probably heard of the novel The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

Or maybe you’ve seen it on TV.  In any case, it’s about a man who dies in a tragic accident while saving a little girl, and on his way to Heaven he bumps into five people who have made a difference in his life.  It’s a really sweet tale about the impact we have on the lives of others and how our choices are significant whether we realize it or not.  But when we think about facing our fears about church growth, about pushing back on change, I wonder if it might have been better to have a book called The Five People You Won’t Meet In Heaven.  It would be the tale of five people who will never know the love of Christ in their life because we were afraid to reach out to them. The five people who didn’t make it because we were unwilling to change.  The five people who don’t know God or Jesus because we thought we had done enough.

There’s this Kevin Costner movie called The Guardian that I like mostly for this one scene. 

Throughout the whole movie, we hear that Kevin Costner is this legendary Coast Guard person who’s saved tons of lives.  But he won’t say how many.  He keeps evading the question.  At one point in the movie, he decides to go into retirement and this young guy he’s been helping to train asks him, “Hey, there’s something I’ve got to know. What’s your real number?”  And Costner says, “22.”  And to this young guy, that’s far less than he expected from someone everyone considers a legend, so he says, “22?  That’s not bad.  It’s not 200 but…” and Costner says, “22 is the number of people I lost, Jake. The only number I kept track of.”  As much as we celebrate the impact we make on the world around us, I hope we are equally driven by those we have yet to reach. 

Change is scary. 

But the consequences of not changing are even scarier.  When people are critical of growing churches by saying it’s not about the numbers, the truth is it’s all about the numbers.  Just maybe not the numbers you’re thinking of.  It’s not about dollars and cents.  It’s not about filling the pews.  It’s about people knowing the love of Jesus Christ.  And if we can be a part of the solution to that problem all of our efforts are worth it.  Have faith in God that as we grow, you will grow too.  Have faith that as our church changes there will always be a place for you and it will continue to be meaningful.  Have faith that we don’t have to lose who we are, but instead we can become something even greater when we do it together.  And remember this, behind every number is a person waiting to know God. 

[1] I wish I could remember where I read it so I could give credit to the author!

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