The pain was excruciating.
That’s pretty much the only way I know to describe the feeling in my arm when it broke during judo practice. I must have been about ten at the time and pretty busy doing various sports (none of which I was very good at, but enjoyed nonetheless). I was playing baseball, basketball, and taking judo at the Norwalk Judo Dojo. On this one particular night, I was practicing with a guy about four times my age and almost twice my height. He could literally pick me up onto his back. As he was throwing me to the floor, he was supposed to let go of my right arm so it could absorb the impact from the fall, but he let go of the wrong one. My arm snapped back and POP! CRACK! Everyone in the dojo came up to me immediately as I was clutching my arm. I was trying hard not to let it show how much it hurt, but when they asked me to move it, I shouted through clenched teeth, “I CAN’T!” and my dad helped me up and took me to the hospital. The whole time in the car all I could feel was the searing pain as every bump on the road reminded me how bad it hurt. Sure enough, after doing x-rays they told us it was broken and put a temporary cast on it until I could get a full cast the next day. I think I wore that cast for something like three months. That part is a bit hazy. But I remember when they took it off how completely different it looked from the other arm. It was like having a space alien arm on one side and a normal arm on the other. The skin was a different color and the muscles looked so small. The doctor said that was normal. But it sure didn’t look like it.
Our faith is like that.
Faith is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it grows weak and becomes harder and harder to move. And if enough time goes by, it eventually becomes useless. Like your appendix. Since as far back as I can remember, people have wondered what in the world the appendix was good for. It didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than randomly exploding inside your body. It was like carrying around a ticking time bomb. But researchers believe at one time it might have been a storehouse for helpful bacteria the body needed. When you suffered from something that emptied you of all those good bacteria, they think the appendix would release its store back into your body to help you recover more quickly. As we evolved it became less and less useful to the point where, as far as we know, it isn’t an essential part of the body any more. After so many centuries of not functioning, it just sits there useless. Like any other part of your body, if you don’t use it, it eventually stops working. And that axiom is true for things outside of your body also. Think about anything in your house with a motor – cars, lawnmowers, even your garbage disposal. If you don’t use it at least once in a while, eventually it breaks down. Faith is like that, too. When you don’t use it, it begins to atrophy and eventually becomes useless. So ask yourself, how often do you exercise your faith?
Can you really call yourself a Christian if you don’t DO anything?
We’ve talked about this many times. I often go back to one of my favorite sayings, “Being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.” How we spend our time actually matters. But it has to be more than just lip service. In one of his letters to the church, the apostle John wrote, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).” Doing is more important than saying. It’s easy for us to say we are Christian, but is there any evidence of it in our lives? God warns us about being idle, of doing nothing when we could be doing something. In the case of our passage this morning, the people at the church of Thessalonica were literally doing nothing. It wasn’t a metaphor for lazy spiritual behavior. They were literally sitting around, waiting for the world to end. It was common during this time to believe that the end times were near, that Jesus would return any day to take believers up to Heaven. So there was a group who sat around, just waiting. And Paul writes this warning to the church.
Now we commend you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
This was taking “waiting” to a whole new level.
These people were not doing anything. I imagine they were sponging off their family and friends, letting their farms go to waste or just not showing up for work. I mean if the end times are near, why waste it working? But Paul’s letter makes it clear that it’s important what you do with the time you’re given. Whether it’s a minute or a lifetime, we must make good use of the time we have. If we truly love the Lord, we need to do more than just wait. We need to use the time to our advantage. We need to live a life worth imitating so that others can see how Christ has changed who we are. That passage we read in the Bible about being a light on a hill (Matthew 5:14-16) was meant to remind us that we have a responsibility not just to ourselves but to God and to those around us to set an example for how we want the world to be, and that’s what Paul is talking about here. He tells the church that the disciples work hard, not because they have to because there are plenty of people who would help them out, but “in order to give you an example to imitate.” Our actions are not only meant to build up our own faith but the faith of those around us as well.
What kind of example are you setting?
For your kids, your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, do they see evidence of Christ working in your life? About 83% of people tell pollsters they are Christian, yet only about 18% ACTUALLY attend church services on any given week. Now attendance isn’t the only measure of what it means to be Christian, but if we take the Bible seriously, it’s clear God wants us to be involved in a community of believers; to learn, to grow in our faith, to encourage others. So if 75% of “Christians” aren’t in church, how are they engaging in the type of community God is calling us to live into? The truth is most of them aren’t. In a study from 2016 they found that among those who used to go to church more often, about half said they are “too busy,” “too lazy,” or just “don’t care” about it as much as other things. And of the about 33% of Americans who call themselves Christians but rarely or never go to church, most of those never have. How do you know if you are Christian if you don’t take the time to find out what it’s about? Just the fact that you’re here, now, and reading these words means you care; that for you faith is more than just a check box on a sheet of things to do. But if you don’t come regularly, I want to encourage you to do so. I want to ask you to give faith a chance.
I read something very interesting.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers and in this book he talks about how to become what the world would call successful. And the interesting thing he found was that the most committed people were also the most likely to succeed. Not necessarily the most talented, but the most committed. Now, there are other factors involved too and he goes into all of them. Status, wealth, position, opportunity, etc. But the one thing that differentiated the mediocre from the exceptional in nearly every instance was what he called the 10,000 Hour Rule. It was the 10,000 Hour Rule that separated the average from the exceptional. He found 10,000 hours of honing your craft – whatever it is – seems to be the key to success. He talks about the Beatles and Bill Gates, two completely different success stories in two completely different fields and how the one thing they had in common other than natural talent was that each completed 10,000 hours of honing their skills at a relatively young age. What Gladwell says is that practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good. Practice isn’t the thing you do ONCE you’re good. It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good. Do you show that kind of dedication to your faith?
Coming out of that cast, my arm was a pitiful sight.
Having not used it for only three months, it looked pale and weak. Just putting my two arms side-by-side, it was easy to tell which one had been used and which had not. Don’t let your faith get pale and weak. Don’t let your faith go by the wayside. In our busy lives it’s all too easy to let God slip by the wayside. It’s ironic, but especially during the Christmas season, when we’re running around trying to clean our houses, wrap our gifts, shop for our relatives, bake cookies for the church potluck, we can so easily forget what is truly important. Make a commitment, not just now but for always to put your faith in the forefront of your life and watch how God will increase the abundance of blessing in your life. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Church attendance: https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html ; % Christian: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90356&page=1
As part of our tradition in the United Methodist Church, we are supposed to annually go through our membership roll and find out who we’ve lost touch with. It’s important to us to keep in touch with everyone who calls themselves a member of our church so we can provide care and opportunities to grow together in our faith. As the community of God, we definitely want to know what’s happening in the lives of those connected to us!
Often, those we lose touch with have found another church to call home, but sometimes they have left for less than ideal reasons. Perhaps they turned a corner in their life where faith was no longer important to them. Maybe there was a conflict in the church that made them feel like this was no longer the right place for them. Or maybe they just drifted away and we didn’t do a good job of keeping up with them.
Because of that, we want to make every effort to reconnect with those we have lost touch with, to see if we can rekindle that connection. We hope to bring them back into our faith community so we can journey together into a deeper understanding about Christ.
As is our tradition in the United Methodist Church, each year during our annual church conference, we place the names of those we have lost touch with in our report in the hopes of doing just that – reconnecting with them. If we can contact them, we just make sure they would like to remain as a member of our church and see how we can help them out. If not, we lovingly let them go. If after three church conferences we cannot get in touch with them, we remove them from our membership roll. Of course, they are always welcome back, but it helps us to also have a better reflection of who we are and who is in our care.
Unfortunately, we haven’t done that in a long while and we’d like to correct that. We have a list of names of people we are hoping to contact and we will be listing them in our January newsletter, but just wanted to give you a heads up. If you know how we can contact them, by phone, email, or physical address – or all three – please let me or Jill Israels know right away and thank you!
If you’d like a copy of the list and you are a current member of our church, you can also contact Rev. Craig directly and he will email it to you.
Waiting is tough.
But Christmas waiting has got to be the hardest of all. My mom had a hard and fast rule about NOT getting up before 10am on Christmas morning. When you’re a kid and all of Santa’s presents are just sitting there on the coffee table in the front room, 10am seems like an eternity. We’d get up extra early on Christmas morning. My sister, Karen and I would sneak into the living room and gaze longingly at our presents. We weren’t allowed to touch them (a lesson we learned the hard way one year), but we were allowed to look. So we did. We’d circle around the living room table like vultures stalking their prey, trying to angle our heads to peek into the stockings to see what was in there, too. Then after THOSE 5 minutes were up…we’d sit there and wait. And wait. And wait some more. 5:06am. 4 hours and 54 minutes to go. The agony of WAITING – that was the worst.
And we’re not very good at it.
Human beings in general hate waiting. In fact, we hate it so much, we’ve invented stuff so we don’t have to – or at least not for very long. Processed food, fast-food restaurants, microwave ovens, and bottled water just to name a few. But faster isn’t always better. When I was in marketing, our graphic designer told me, “Everyone wants everything cheaper, faster, and better. I can give you two. I can make it cheaper and faster, but it won’t be better. I can make it faster and better, but it won’t be cheap. Or I can make it cheaper and better, but it won’t be fast. You can have two but not all three.” And for the most part, we’ve chosen faster. But faster isn’t necessarily better. Fast food, processed food, canned food have made us fat. For a long time, the thought was people just didn’t have access to better food and that if we could provide cheaper and easier access to things like fruits and vegetables, the obesity epidemic would go away. But a study from the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC showed that the main factor in obesity wasn’t access at all. It was convenience, or perceived convenience. They found most people who were obese were not poor. In fact, it was mostly middle-income people who were the most overweight. Eighty percent of low-income people actually cook at home five times a week. People were choosing convenience over health. Same thing with bottled water. We love our bottled water. Human beings consume a million bottles of the stuff every minute. But not only does it take more water to produce a water bottle than what’s inside it, the plastic it’s made out of has been linked to a number of diseases like prostate and breast cancer. The bottles themselves are bad for the environment. More than 90% of people don’t recycle their plastic bottles and it ends up in landfills and oceans all over the world. None of this information is new, but we either bury it (like the plastic bottles) or we ignore it or we justify it in some way because that’s how impatient human beings are. We hate waiting so much we devise ways around it.
But sometimes waiting is precisely what we should be doing.
Sometimes being patient is what’s needed. And sometimes the results are worth the wait. If you’ve ever read the Bible, you know that God teaches about patience ALL the time. Today we’re going to read a passage that talks about it in a way you probably haven’t thought of before. If you have your Bibles, would you please turn to 1 Corinthians 13 beginning with verse 4. 1 Corinthians 13:4. You might think this passage is a little weird to talk about patience since this is the famous “love” passage from the Bible. But even though patience is only one aspect of how love is described, it is at the root of God’s very being. So if we are called upon by God to live a Christ-like life, we must INCLUDE patience as part of that life. Look at all the people in the Bible who had to be patient. Noah was on that boat for 150 days. Can you imagine what that must have smelled like? In my head, I keep thinking it was just 40 days, mostly due to that Schoolhouse Rock song about multiplying by two (“Forty days and forty nights, didn’t it rain children? Not a speck of land in sight, didn’t it, didn’t it rain?”). But that’s just how long it rained. Noah and his family were trapped on that boat with two of every animal for 150 days. They must have wondered when it would come to an end. Abraham and Sarah were hoping for a child all of their married lives, but it wasn’t until he was 99 years old that he did. And of course there was the time when the people of Israel were sent out into the desert for 40 years. 40 YEARS! God brought his people out of Egypt and when their hearts started to become filled with doubt, he made them wander for 40 years to think about it. Then we have Job who epitomizes the word patience. It’s whom the phrase “to have the patience of Job” comes from. Some scholars say he suffered an entire year through all the trials and tribulations he went through. A whole year of tragedy upon tragedy. Through it all Job endured his suffering with patience and never lost hope in God.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13
Patience is love. Patience is godly.
Love according to Paul in this letter to the church at Corinth is characterized by only two qualities – patience and kindness. Patience and kindness. Verses 5 and 6 tell us what love is NOT and verse 7 shows us the actions love takes, but only two qualities – patience and kindness – describe the character of love. And since we know that God is love from John’s first letter to the church it only makes sense that God is also patient. In math we call that the transitive property of equality. But you don’t have to have a degree in mathematics to figure that out, just open up your Bibles to Peter’s second letter. In chapter 3 he writes, “8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God understands patience. He has been patient with us for thousands of years, waiting for us to get this right, to live a life of love. His patience is an expression of his love for us and that’s why we cherish those who are patient with us. Because it is an expression of love.
But sometimes we give in to our impatience in hurtful ways.
We lash out at loved ones. We say or do things we don’t mean. Our impatience clouds our judgment and makes us do things that are harmful. Not just polluting the environment or polluting our bodies, but actually hurting one another. An MIT professor, Dr. Richard Larson has been studying the science of waiting in line and found that people can get so mad they actually turn violent. He calls it “Queue Rage.” Q-U-E-U-E. Queue rage. People can become so impatient they turn into the worst versions of themselves. One woman, named Ruth Driscoll-Dunn tried to run two women over with her jeep because she thought they cut in front of her in line at McDonald’s. Can you imagine that? Over an Egg McMuffin? And we can’t avoid waiting. It’s a part of life. On average two full days out of every year are spent waiting. Considering the amount of time in our life we will spend doing nothing but wait, we need to consider the importance of patience.
Advent is a time of waiting.
The word Advent itself comes from the Latin for adventus which means “coming,” and this season of our Christian year is about waiting for the coming of Christ, both as a remembrance of the past and a promise for the future. We are a people who are waiting. And if we truly are the people of God, we live through this time of waiting with patience. Not with violence, not with anger, not with frustration, but with patience. We’re always looking for the quick and easy way of doing things, but to really maximize the most out of life, we have to learn to be patient. I’m reminded of something that they would say on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. As people were waiting in line to get on the ride one of the skippers would say, “Who would like to see the line move faster? If you would like to see the line move faster, please raise your hand.” And or course at least half the crowd would raise their hands. Then he would continue, “Great! All those of you with your hands raised would you step aside and let everyone else pass? That way you can see the line move faster. Thank you.” We are in such a rush, especially during the holidays, that it can be so easy to lose our patience – with one another, with our neighbors, and with God. But take a moment every day to simply WAIT! To be alive in the waiting. To stop from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially during the holidays, and simply enjoy life as it is, right here, right now. As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around once in a while you could miss it.” Find the joy in being patient and enjoy life to the fullest.
 Op Cit. Forbes, million plastic bottles
 http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8692-job Job from the Jewish Encyclopedia online, the full, unedited 1906 text.
 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/04/09/earlyshow/contributors/susankoeppen/main2663189.shtml Brian Dakss, “Companies Heeding Gripes About Long Lines,” CBS, 2/11/2009
 http://onlineathens.com/stories/081606/uganews_20060816074.shtml “Student Arrested in Fast Food Attack,” Athens Banner-Herald (online edition), 8/16/2006.
What in the world is a gigachurch?
Churches are growing so big today that they have 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 we differentiated churches between those that had a thousand or more in worship and those who didn’t. Those who did were called megachurches, but now we have enough churches that worship more than 10,000 a week they created a new name for them. Could you imagine our building holding 10,000 people? How would you feel if BMUC 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 that intimacy of a small church. Some people feel that if we worry about church growth we are losing sight of helping people grow deeper in their faith. They believe true discipleship can’t come in such a large group. On the surface, those are admirable concerns. But I want to challenge you to think about it. Are those real concerns or excuses for not changing?
The truth is, people who go to big churches feel as connected to God as all of us.
It would be a mistake to think otherwise. It would be a mistake to assume that just because WE find comfort in a more intimate setting doesn’t mean that we get any more or less of a spiritual experience than the person who goes to a big church, or a megachurch, or a gigachurch. Size does not determine our depth of 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. People in big churches still find intimacy in small groups where they pray for one another and get to know each other. People in big churches can delve deep into learning about God’s Word – sometimes in more and varied ways than we can offer. There are more classes to choose from, more topics, more styles. People in big churches have even more volunteer opportunities that better fit their gifts and graces. 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.
They worry that if we focus on the numbers, we’re losing sight of helping people grow deeper in their faith. Or that if we try to reach certain membership goals, 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 their own. 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 all 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. Behind every number is a real person. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Luke 13:22-30. Luke 13:22-30. 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.
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 we can get it, 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 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. I get that.
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. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 I wish I could remember where I read it so I could give credit to the author!
I still remember our first date.
It was on April 25, 2001. Cassie and I met at a Tex-Mex restaurant called On the Border which was kind of in-between where we both lived at the time. We shared a queso fundido de pollo for an appetizer – this yummy cheesy concoction with grilled onions and nice warm tortillas where you’d scoop the cheese into the tortilla and form a gooey, cheesy taco. My mouth still waters thinking about it. The chimichanga I ordered for my main course was good, but dessert was to die for. We had this amazing apple crisp! It was warm and buttery with this sweet crumb topping that was delicious. Just the right amount of cinnamon and the apples were nice and tender so they melted as you ate it. Again, mouth-watering anticipation. Since it was our first date, I wanted to impress so I wore my best “date” outfit at the time – a blue button-down oxford from Banana Republic, khaki Dockers, and brown Sperry Topsiders. I even put on cologne – Safari by Ralph Lauren. I know that completely dates me, but it’s true. Cassie looked great! She was dressed in a very alluring black chiffon blouse that I to this day call her pirate shirt because it had this frilly collar like in Seinfeld, except that it looked very nice on her. The whole night, I remember being on my very best behavior – making sure I paid attention without seeming too eager, being polite without being obsequious, making sure I didn’t eat with my mouth open or spit food while we were talking. That kind of thing. The hardest part was not spilling food on my shirt. You might think that would be easy, but I swear I buy shirts with food magnets in them. No matter what I do, it seems like the food just jumps off the fork and right onto my shirt. I wanted to make a good first impression on Cassie because deep down, I was hoping this would last. Seventeen years later and we’re still together, so things worked out pretty well.
It’s important to make a good first impression.
It sets the tone for our relationship right from the start. And even though we CAN overcome a BAD first impression, it’s so much easier to get it right the first time. That’s true whenever you’re trying to develop a relationship. Not just in dating, but when you apply for a job, when you’re competing for an award, when you go to a new school, you want to present your best self. Why should it be any different for our church? If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, this morning we’re going to read from 1 Cornithians 9 beginning with verse 19. 1 Cornithians 9:19. Churches are always trying to attract new people, but we often don’t put ourselves in this frame of mind. But the truth is we are dating our community. We’re trying to develop a relationship with the people around us. We want them to come and get to know us. So we should act like every Sunday is a first date. Think of it this way: If you were inviting someone over to your house, someone you wanted to attract, would you pick up your dirty clothes on the floor? Would you wash the dishes in the sink? Would you make your bed? Or would you say to yourself, “Hey, if they can’t accept me for who I am, I don’t want to be with them anyway.” I’m bet your attitude wouldn’t be the last one. It doesn’t even have to be a date. It could be your boss or your in-laws or friend you haven’t seen in a long time. But we all know how important it is to make a lasting first impression.
To do that we have to adapt to our community.
We’ve got to find a way to adapt to make our church into a place other people would like to stay awhile. If the person you’re dating loves chocolate chip cookies (like I do), then you might bake some chocolate chip cookies. If your boss loves sushi, maybe you bring some to work. If you’re going to a new school, you could wear your new school colors. I mean you wouldn’t go to a Giants game wearing a Dodgers jersey if you wanted to make friends with Giant fans would you? Paul talks about that in our reading this morning (I’m sure Paul was secretly a Dodgers fan). Once Paul was convinced Jesus was exactly who he said he was, Paul was on fire for Christ! He went from being a zealot against Christ to being a zealot FOR Christ and nothing would stop him. Not even his old self. He would do ANYTHING short of selling out the Gospel to help others come to faith in Christ.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is speaking directly to each one of us.
His message is clear. It is OUR responsibility to bring the Gospel to others. It is not THEIR responsibility to come and get it. We sometimes act as if it is. We act as if it is the responsibility of other people to come and seek the Gospel. But a person who doesn’t know he’s lost isn’t going to ask for directions. Before a person looks for help, they have to be convinced that help is needed. That’s where we come in. There is a whole world out there chock full of people who don’t know the Bible and we have to be willing to do whatever it takes to bring the Gospel message into their hearts. That’s what Paul did. He became whatever he needed to become to bring people the Word of God. To his Jewish friends, he practiced all the Jewish customs. He celebrated Jewish festivals. He worshipped with them in synagogues and loved them and helped them so that they would come to trust him when he shared God’s word with them. He obeyed the laws even though he wasn’t restricted by them any more. Jesus had set him free, but in order to reach those who still held to those laws, he followed them so they wouldn’t blame him of being a radical, so that he could speak to them and they would hear. He showed empathy to the weak even though he was emboldened by Christ so that in his weakness, in his vulnerability, he could make a connection with others. As Paul said, he became all things to all people so that he might save some.
That’s also why we have to be the ones to reach out to them.
We have to seek those who don’t believe that Christ is Lord and here’s why. People who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were Christian.” “If I were Christian, my whole life would be better! If only someone would show me how to BE a Christian!” No. Most people are not simply one step away from accepting Christ. Most people don’t know that they need Jesus and are just looking for someone to show them the way. For the most part, they’re walking around thinking life is pretty good – or not. Some are happy, some are sad, but they don’t KNOW that there’s another kind of life waiting for them. They don’t know that there is a whole different kind of existence when you have Christ in your life. They don’t know how GOOD it can be! It’s like Indian food. There’s nothing like a good bowl of dal or a good pot of chicken tikka masala and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa. You don’t know how happy I was when Cassie found the restaurant Dosa. Just the best. But before I TRIED Indian food, I never knew what I was missing. I could take it or leave it, and honestly I preferred to leave it. I never had it, never saw it, never smelled it, and frankly never wanted it. I was happy enough in my life without it and I wasn’t all that interested in trying something new, but when Cassie asked me to I loved it! I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try it, and I always encourage people to eat it. If you like Chinese food or just kind of spicy food, you’ll love the flavors of Indian food. But had Cassie not come along and invited me to try it, I would have lived life perfectly happy, not knowing what I was missing. Christianity is like that. It’s this awesome, incredible, wonderful part of life that makes life more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it.
Let’s date our community.
Let’s find a way to do as Paul invites us to do and become what we need to become. Let’s figure out together what it is our community needs and wants and DO that. We just have to be aware not to mistake what WE need and want for what the COMMUNITY needs and wants. But with care, prayer, discernment, and patience, we can find a way to reach the heart of our neighborhood and help them to see the loving Christ-centered people we are. It didn’t take me long to realize that our church is filled with loving people. We only need to show that to our community. But for them to know that about us, they need to get to know us. They need to spend time with us to see we are not the stereotypical church they see on TV. That instead we are a people who want to make a difference in the world. To do that, they need to hang around a while and they will see what I see – a place where you can connect to God through the love of Jesus Christ. Let’s ask our community on a date and see what happens! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
How much do we believe this?
Whether it’s in our personal lives, our careers, or the life of the church, how much do we believe this? Do we really believe God is with us wherever we go? When we are first starting out in life, in the church, in our careers, we ARE bold. We ARE courageous! Because we feel we have all the time in the world. Because we don’t have much to lose. But the more comfortable we become, the more invested we are, the less likely we are to be so bold or to be as courageous. We play it safe. The thought of losing what we have starts to weigh on us. And we start to balance that with the risk of obtaining more. Is it worth it? Even though we might not be living the life we want, or have the job we hoped, even if our church is slowly growing smaller, still….is it worth risking what we DO have for only the promise of what MIGHT be? And slowly but surely, our resolve, our BOLDNESS fades away.
Jesus knew this would be a problem for us.
And so he told a story to help us see the need to be bold for Christ in every aspect of our lives. Among Biblical scholars it’s called the Parable of the Talents and basically, it’s about these three servants who are each given a bag of gold to take care of for their master while he was gone. When the master returns, the first guy says, “You gave me five bags of gold and now I come back to you with five bags more.” And the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Then the next guy comes up and says, “You gave me three bags of gold and I come back with three more.” And the master says again, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” And then the last guy comes up and doesn’t have anything to give except the one bag he started with. He confesses he was afraid of what might happen if he lost the one bag and the master is disappointed with him – not because of the money, because he didn’t need the money, but because the last servant wasted what was given to him out of fear and doubt. He would rather keep things the way they were instead of taking a chance on a better outcome. Which servant are you more like? Which servant does God want you to be?
I have heard the “Let’s be friends” speech more often than I can count.
If I was attracted to a girl and thought she had potential, I’d ask her out – only to hear those three words every guy (and every woman, too I imagine) dreads hearing. “Let’s be friends.” In high school, a buddy of mine, Pete, asked me about that one day. He said, “Why do you do it? Why do you ask out these girls when you don’t even know if they like you or not?” And I told him, “I don’t want to live my life with regret. I don’t want to wonder, ‘What if?’ because what if one of them said ‘yes?’” And you know, one did. Our life isn’t perfect (whose is?), but I can tell you, I have no regrets. And I feel blessed for the life I have. But back then, Pete shook his head and responded, “I have to give you a lot of credit. I don’t think I could do that. I’d never ask a girl out unless I knew she would say ‘yes.’” That really surprised me, because by all accounts Pete was a good-looking guy (or so my female friends told me). He was also nice, smart, and pretty well off. In high school, he drove red Porsche 944. Here was this guy with every reason to be confident but wouldn’t ask a girl out unless he knew she’d say yes. But a lot of us are like that, maybe not about dating, but about something. Why put ourselves through the possibility of rejection or failure? And the more we are comfortable with our lives the way they are, the less likely we are to do it; to be bold, to risk giving up what we have for the hope of something more. But think of the possibilities if we succeed! We could do things we’ve never done before. We could achieve goals we never thought possible. We could see our lives change, our careers change, our church change in ways only God could have seen.
My dad had a saying, “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
As a kid, that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. If I wanted money, shouldn’t I save as much as possible? But my dad explained it like this, “If you want to do something right, you can’t afford to do it half-way. You’ve got to do it right the first time.” And he was right. I didn’t know it at the time because I was only like 10 years old, but what my dad was trying to tell me was also Biblical. Matthew 6:21 says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Whatever we invest in with whatever we have – our time, our money, or our talents – is an indicator of what is truly important to us. And if we are going to invest in something, if we want something to succeed then we need to use whatever resources we have toward that goal, whether that’s our career, our family, or our relationship with God. To see a return, you’ve got to invest, and you’ve got to do it whole-heartedly. “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
Do you sometimes hold back?
Do you have doubts? Is that because you are not quite sure if things will work out? Sometimes we hedge our bets because we’re not sure of the outcome. We hold stuff in reserve just in case. But God wants us to live lives of boldness! He wants us to go out into the world and love unconditionally. He wants us to be the kind of people who give abundantly. And he wants us to trust in him freely and without reservation. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. Those things are not easy for us to do. Children do those things easily, but as we grow up, we get hurt by people who take advantage of our unconditional love, of our abundant giving, and our willingness to trust and we start to build walls between us and the person God wants us to be. I’ll never forget this. One time when Emma and I were in LA, we stopped by this place called Milk. They served the best cookies. And as we were walking from our car to the place, we saw a homeless woman who was asking for money. Something about this woman’s plight touched Emma and as we kept walking she reached into her pocket and found 35 cents. She said, “Daddy, I want to give this to her when we go back.” I couldn’t be more proud so as we returned with our cookies in hand, Emma gave this woman all she had. And do you know what that woman did? She turned to my little girl and said, “That’s all you have? Come on! I can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that!” I was livid! Not just for the disrespect she showed my nine-year old daughter, but because she took a little piece away of that unconditional love and trust Emma had in humanity. For what? A cup of coffee? So believe me, I understand how the world chips away at us, but God challenges us to give abundantly as he made clear in this passage.
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Don’t hold back!
Live boldly the life God wants for you to live! In your marriage, in your relationship with your children, in your career, and in your faith. In all of these things, invest of yourself fully. Do not be afraid of what might happen. But love unconditionally, give generously, and trust in God fully and you will know a life filled with abundance in a way you cannot experience otherwise. Living this kind of life not only opens you up to God’s work in your life, but is also an example to those around you of the power of faith. I understand that by living this kind of life, you also open yourself up to failed expectations. I get you might be taken advantage of by someone who isn’t as scrupulous. I know that living the way God asks us to live makes us vulnerable. But it’s the only way to truly open yourself up to the life God has in store for you. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. This is the promise of God. Spend some time in prayer this week asking God to show you where you are being challenged. What areas in your life are you retreating to the safety and comfort of the familiar? And where could you live a life of boldness that would change your life? We all have those seeds of doubt inside of us, but push past them and live boldly! The promise of God is greater than the fear that comes from failure.
Sometimes it’s just too late.
By the time we decide to do what needs to be done, sometimes it’s just too late. I was watching a video about climate change while I was earning my MA in Poli Sci at Long Beach State, and this guy was explaining how reversing the damage we’ve been doing to the earth for all of these years is like a tanker trying to turn around in the ocean. It doesn’t happen immediately. Long after we decide to change course, we continue to drift in the direction we were headed until the ship finally begins to turn. In the same way, there’s still residual damage done to the Earth years after we decide to stop harming it and only then does the planet start to heal again. The problem is we don’t know exactly how long that will take and in the meantime, we could pass the threshold of no return. Meaning even if we change course now, it might not matter. We might have done so much damage to the Earth already that the cascade effect could destroy the atmosphere, cause continual warming, or erode the incredibly thin layer that’s protecting us from the damage of the sun. We keep thinking we have time to change course and so we put off doing what we know needs to be done. Worse yet, we deny what’s happening because it would mean drastic changes to our lives and we don’t want that to happen. What we fail to realize is that whether we want it to or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s happening anyway. The sobering part of it all? That video was from around 30 years ago.
Climate change isn’t the only change we don’t do anything about.
As human beings, we typically don’t like change, even when it’s better for us. People have a tendency toward the status quo. You may have heard of your body having a “set point,” meaning that your body gets used to the size and shape that it is in and any attempt to alter it is met with a LOT of resistance. That’s true not just physically but mentally, too. I remember taking a psych class at UCLA where we talked about how your brain gets used to certain patterns of behavior. The brain then creates neural pathways to make it easier to process information. But what happens once those pathways are created, we drift to those patterns of behavior, even if they are not good for us or the most efficient way of doing something. There was a study done about how people drive to work, and even when presented with a better, quicker alternative, most people didn’t go that route. They were used to the way things were. That’s called being stubborn. Just so we’re clear, Google defines stubborn as “having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.” At times, we almost take pride in being stubborn. We call it “grit” or “perseverance.” But those are different than being stubborn. Grit and perseverance are qualities of being steadfast in the face of adversity. Stubborn is being so unwilling to change that even when all the evidence points to the need to do so, you don’t. This is something we all struggle with and have apparently for at least 2000 years. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 beginning with verse 16. Matthew 19:16.
We are a stubborn people.
And that shows up not only in our politics but in our personal lives, in our jobs, in pretty much anything human beings are involved in. About 20 years ago, I was working for a credit union down in Southern California that was considering switching over to using debit cards. Up until then it was still a relatively new technology. Most of the big banks had it, but it was just starting to become affordable for smaller institutions. At the time, I was in the marketing department and we were given the task of figuring out if it was worth it. My friend Albert did the research and in every analysis, the credit union ended up making a ton of extra money. Our investment was minimal. The risk was almost non-existent. It seemed like the perfect fit. But the CEO and the board turned it down. Turned it down flat. The reason? The CEO said he couldn’t see how anyone would want to use it. He figured he didn’t want to use it so no one would. It didn’t matter that the evidence was overwhelming people were in fact using debit cards. It didn’t matter it presented virtually no risk. It didn’t matter we could make a ton of money. His vision was short-sighted because it would mean changing the way HE did something. Despite the facts, he was too stubborn to see the opportunity before him.
I’d like to say that’s an isolated incident. But it’s not.
And we all know it. You and I have both been victims of other people’s stubbornness, and I’m sure we’ve also been the ones too stubborn to see the obvious. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus encountered the same problem when a young man with all the prospects in the world in front of him asked Jesus what he must do for eternal life. And this is what Jesus told that man.
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:16-24
What is holding you back?
For the young man, it was the thought of giving up his wealth; giving up the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to. That was holding him back. He had accomplished pretty much everything else he wanted to in life, like a young Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg; wildly successful at a young age. But he still felt this hole inside and wanted to know what he needed to do to fill it. He found Jesus who people had been saying was this incredibly wise man and asked him, “What must I do?” and ended up walking away sad. Because even though he had received the answer he was looking for, it wasn’t something he wanted to do. It would be easy to judge him. After all Jesus promised him eternal life if he would just give up his possessions and give them to the poor. You might think that’s a small price to pay for eternal life, but think about the mistakes you’ve made in your own life. The things you were told to do differently that you just didn’t do. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Eat healthier. Your friends all told you, don’t go out with THAT guy, but you did anyway. Jerk. Or your buddy told you that girl was only using you for what you gave to her, but you didn’t believe them. What a user. The list just goes on and on.
What we need to do is recognize we are all like this to some degree.
And then do our best to overcome it. We can’t afford to sit by and hope things will change. We have to be the agent of change in our own lives. Don’t wait until it’s too late to do something about it, because we never know how much time we have left. Like the tanker trying to turn around, even when we decide to change it will take time to see the results. The same is true for our churches as it is in our personal lives. The reason most churches fail to grow is because we have ceased to be relevant to the next generation. It’s because we have become stubborn, rooted, and unwilling to change. It doesn’t seem that way to us because we like what we do. For us, it works. But does it really? If it worked, wouldn’t we keep reaching new people for Christ? That’s why Thom Rainer said most unhealthy churches have little chance of turning things around. Not because it’s impossible, but because people are unwilling to do what is necessary to make a difference. We become like the young man in our reading and are unwilling to let go of the lifestyle we’ve created, even though it would lead to a better and brighter future. Even though it would lead others to Christ. We become stubborn.
We have to make a choice.
Are we too rooted or too stubborn to change? Or are we willing to do what’s needed to be done to make a difference? And in our church, are we willing to shift our culture in a way that we can reach the next generation? When I was in seminary, we read a book by a pastor and he shared something I will never forget, “the seven last words of any church are, ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” We have to constantly challenge ourselves as individuals and as a community of believers to never be so comfortable with what WE like and what WE want that we forget the rich tapestry of life that awaits us when we are open to where God is leading. We live in a world of change and sometimes we forget that God is part of that change. Open yourself up and embrace it. And see where God is leading you next.
Thom Rainer, author of many books and an expert on church growth and decline, did an informal Twitter poll about why people didn’t return to a particular church. Mind you this is NOT scientific, but the results were worth pondering. Here are his findings (and his words condensed – you can read his full blog post here). I used Disney theme park pictures for this post because Disney does it right!
Does your church have any or all of these things? If we hope to attract people for Christ, we should take into consideration that detail is important and perception is communication. I would love to hear your ideas about how you are tackling these issues in your own context.
But (to modify a When Harry Met Sally Quote) not everyone could possibly BE a welcoming church. If everyone were truly welcoming, church attendance would be much higher than it is today. People wouldn’t just say they belong to a church, but would actually be part of the life of the church. Would you like that? Then read Thom S. Rainer’s book Becoming A Welcoming Church. This should be on your list of “must reads.”
Title: Becoming A Welcoming Church
Author: Thom S. Rainer
Publisher: BH Publishing Group
Nutshell: Challenging churches to look at themselves objectively
Thom addresses the disconnect between how churches perceive themselves and how others perceive them. Often the local church has a distorted view of how great they are, mostly because they’ve stopped looking at themselves objectively. But Thom challenges those perceptions and spells out the real life consequences of ignoring issues of safety, cleanliness, insider language, and other topics we often do unintentionally.
Visitors make judgments about a church long before they ever hear a sermon. Sometimes they make judgments based solely on your website (or lack of one). Today’s consumers (and that’s what church seekers are) start online. The web is the new front door. Greeters, signage, and visual appeal all matter to a first time visitor. It doesn’t matter if we think those matter – they do. And Thom does a great job of illustrating that point with stories from real people and their real experiences with churches.
Becoming A Welcoming Church is a quick and easy read, but one that could change the path of your church from declining to growing. Thom even includes surveys and questionnaires in the back of the book to help you get started. This is a must-read for any ministry in your church!
This is an ugly chair.
It’s okay. You can say it. This is an ugly chair. But I keep it for that very reason, to remind myself that we don’t always see the ugly chairs in our lives. This chair wasn’t always ugly. Back in the 70’s when my parents bought it, this was a very cool chair. It was considered “contemporary” and “stylish.” It used to have armrest covers and a little cover for the top part where your head leaned against it. The colors were much brighter of course. I remember it having bright, thin streaks of red mixed in with the orange. It stayed in our family living room for decades, even long after it had gone out of style, long after the colors started to fade, and long after the armrests disappeared. Eventually, my mom convinced my dad to move it into their bedroom, out of sight of the rest of the world. But get rid of it? Never. My dad loved this chair and would fall asleep in it nearly every night. After a very long while, it even got too ugly even for their bedroom and made its way to the garage where it still had a place of honor. My dad would sometimes just sit in it and watch the world go by. He’d be fiddling with something in the garage and just sit in that old chair. Even though the rest of us saw it as a beat up, ugly old chair that had served its purpose, my dad looked on it as a treasured possession. It wasn’t until 45 years later that they let me take it with me. For this very purpose. To show you an ugly chair.
I’m betting most of us have an ugly chair in our homes.
Maybe not like this, but something that’s hard to get rid of. Something we don’t want to part with even though it’s long outlived its purpose. Something that’s important to us because of its meaning or the memories it stirs up inside of us. But to the rest of the world, they see it for what it is – an ugly chair. Churches do this, too. It may not be a chair or even a physical object, but there are things we have a hard time letting go of even if they don’t work anymore. It could be the way we do worship, the way we do fellowship, the way we do Sunday School. It’s part of “what we do,” and it’s part of “what we like,” and it makes church seem like church – but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. For us it makes church seem like “church,” but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. Let me give you an example. Dressing up for church used to be a thing. In some places it still is. And if you didn’t come in your Sunday finest, people would look at you with either scorn or pity. Scorn for your disrespect for God or pity that you didn’t have better clothes. But where did that belief come from? How did we equate dressing nicely with respect for God? That idea came from a minister named Horace Bushnell in 1843. He wrote an article called “Taste and Fashion” where he said “sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.” Maybe he was a minister that had absolutely no training or ever studied the Bible because that idea runs completely counter to what James wrote in James 2:1-5:
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
Dressing up isn’t Biblical and nowhere does the Bible imply that the clothes a man wears brings him any closer to God or more like God. In fact, the clothes of the disciples and Jesus himself were likely dirty from the ground as they were walking, the dust everywhere kicking up and making their clothes get covered. Yet, I’m pretty sure God loved them anyway. But one guy writes an article about dressing up for God and it somehow becomes part of “what we do” and it remains that way for over 100 years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with coming to church looking nice. In fact, it’s probably how some of you ended up with your spouse. But as times change and expectations change and the world around us changes, we have to be willing to change, too. We have to recognize when “what we do” does the opposite of what we want it to do. And then be willing to part with it.
What we need is a fresh perspective.
We have to take a step back and look at ourselves honestly – from top to bottom. Do we have ugly chairs in our lives? In our church? In our businesses? Because if we do we need to get rid of them. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, would you please go to Romans 13:8-10. Romans 13:8-10. This idea of needing to get rid of something scares us because we can’t help but take it personally. It’s like telling us that everything we’ve done is wrong. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong. It’s a matter of doing what works. For example, our mission as a church is to bring people closer to Christ, so if we’re driving people away or we’re not connecting them to God in a way that’s meaningful to them, can we honestly say we are fulfilling our mission? Are we serving the purpose for which churches were created? Paul’s words this morning will remind us of exactly what that mission is.
8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. – Romans 13:8-10
Love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul writes about it so simply I think sometimes we forget it. We become rigid in our thinking over time. We get so caught up in routines and traditions that we can’t see they don’t work like they used to. And we become reluctant to change. Like the Pharisees and the church elders back in the early first century, we get so caught up keeping church going the way we are use to, we forget what it is all about. But Paul reminds us, it’s really about love of others. When we make the love of others our priority and our focus we are doing exactly what God wants us to do. When we love ourselves more than others, we end up turning inward and forgetting our real purpose.
Which brings us back to the ugly chair.
Andy Stanley, senior pastor at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, once put it like this. Keeping an old couch in your home is fine. Nothing wrong with holding on to memories of the way things used to be. But holding on to old couches in church life is deadly. Because to an outsider, they see the couch for what it is.  An ugly piece of furniture. Something that needs to go in the trash bin. And they don’t understand why in the world we would hold onto it. But to us…to us they are filled with memories…because that’s the way we did it and that’s the way my parents did it and by golly that’s the way my children will do it, but your kids are thinking, “Really?” And honestly, weren’t there some things your parents did in church when you were growing up that you just didn’t understand? But when you’re in it, you don’t see it that way. You see it as the way a church is supposed to be run. Our memories cloud our vision and these couches, these things that define church for us, become so draped in memories we don’t see them anymore for what they are; old, ugly couches that need to be let go. If we want people to know the living God, he can’t be draped in dead things. We have to point to the living God in ways that are relevant to people today. If want our children, and our children’s children, and their children to live a life in God, then we have to meet them where THEY are instead of where WE are and be willing to constantly examine what we do. We have to be willing to let go of our old couches to reach those who are far from God.
The challenge is recognizing what those ugly chairs are.
We have to be willing to put everything under the microscope. Odds are there will be stuff we don’t even realize are ugly chairs. Any church that is shrinking or stagnating instead of growing likely has some of them lying around. If the average age of a church just keeps going up, it’s likely some ugly chairs are sitting there unnoticed. We have to be open to change, we have to be willing to admit without shame when things are not going well. And instead of casting blame, look together for a solution to make it better. The same is true for other aspects in our lives. Is your marriage stale? Are there fewer customers coming to your business? Maybe you have some ugly chairs lying around you just haven’t seen. So we need to open our eyes. We need to be willing to look hard into that mirror and see what might be holding us back. And then do something about it. Pray about that this week. Pray about how open you are to change and if you’re willing to do the honest and hard work of looking in that mirror and doing something about it. And pray for God to help reveal to us what the ugly chairs are in our lives and see them for what they are.
 Barna p. 147.
 Paraphrase from the talk “Don’t Be That Couch” from Catalyst One Day in Atlanta 2009.
The Walk to Emmaus changed my life. I don’t know if I would be a pastor today if I had not gone. It helped me to experience the love of Christ in a real and tangible way. And it made the Kingdom of God seem to come alive on Earth if only for a weekend. Not everyone has that experience, but if you’re willing to “let go and let God,” you might just encounter the living Christ for yourself.
Gwen and Dave were two friends of ours who had known Cassie a long time. When Cassie and I were serious about our relationship, they invited us to come to their church, Alpharetta First UMC. It would eventually become our church home, too. They had already seen Cassie grow in her faith and I guess noticed a change in me as we began attending weekly and became more involved in the life of the church. So they invited us to come to a weekend retreat about faith – the Walk to Emmaus.
We decided to give it a try.
I hadn’t heard much about it before Gwen and Dave. Some people thought the Walk to Emmaus was some kind of “cult gathering” because people who had gone were so secretive about what happened during the weekend, but it was nothing like that at all. It’s like a surprise party or an awesome Christmas present. If you tell someone in advance what to expect, it’s just not the same. Or like The Usual Suspects. If you know the end, it kind of ruins the movie. I’d rather not ruin the movie.
I will tell you one thing. You are asked to surrender control for the weekend. That’s a tough one for most people. No, that doesn’t mean you’re locked up or can’t get away. What it means is that you are asked to give up your phone and your watch. That’s pretty much it. And whoever sponsors you for the weekend is the one who takes you and drops you off. So no car. Not a lot to give up, but a LOT to give up. The point is to give control over to God and not worry about things like “what time is it?” If you focus instead on the experience, you’ll gain so much more out of it. If that’s impossible for you (and for some people it is), then know you will likely not get much out of the weekend. And to be fair, you’re probably not quite ready for it, and that’s okay.
For me, I encountered the endless and boundless love of Jesus Christ at the retreat and Cassie did, too. Since I went first, I was able to attend the closing gathering for her and saw how deeply moved she was by the whole weekend. No, I didn’t “see” Jesus but instead encountered Christ through the love and devotion of the people there. That is really the only way I know how to describe it without spoiling the surprise! And you don’t want to spoil the surprise. Believe me, it’s better than Disneyland (and if you know me, that’s saying a LOT).
If you’re curious about it, please feel free to contact me and I’m happy to share more.
Part 3 of our sermon series on forgiveness. This time Minister Chai is offering his thoughts on receiving forgiveness and how hard it is to admit we need it in the first place. It means admitting we are wrong.
Luke 18:18-23 (NRSV) – The Rich Ruler
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” 21 He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
We are doing a sermon series on the theme of forgiveness and today is the last Sunday in that series and we will continue to deliberate on the theme at the upcoming church retreat.
Forgiveness is a lovely idea and a great ideal until we have to forgive someone. We all want to be forgiven and at times we even want our errors to be forgotten, but it is not that easy to forgive others, especially those that are close to us. The first Sunday in this series therefore Rev. Craig preached on what it means to “forgive others.” For some, it is easy to forgive others, but very hard to forgive ourselves. Last Sunday, Deacon Mike preached on the topic of “forgiving ourselves.” Today I have the responsibility of reminding ourselves: “What we need to be forgiven for?”
Those of you who are familiar with Cal campus, you might know that at times when you are walking on Sproul Plaza, you could find a fiery preacher preaching. Usually the sermons that are being preached are fire and brimstone kind, and more often than not, the preacher is seen condemning people of their sinful state and giving a call for repentance and forgiveness. Hardly anyone stops by and listens to those sermons. I have passed by many times without even pausing the music I was listening to. Who wants to listen to those kinds of sermons anyway? I don’t know who among us would like to hear what’s wrong with our lives and what we need to seek forgiveness for?
We all know that we are not perfect but we don’t want to be told that we are not perfect. We don’t want to hear that we need to seek forgiveness for a particular sin in our lives. I wouldn’t like someone to tell me what’s wrong with my life and that I need to seek forgiveness for either. Even today I am not going to tell you what you need to seek forgiveness for, but I’ll tell you a story of a man from the Bible and let you be the judge of your own lives.
In the Scripture portion that’s been read to us, Luke tells us of a man who was young, rich and a ruler. In other words, this man has money and power, and he has lots of energy to do whatever he wanted to do. What else does he need, right? If Indian parents who are looking for a suitable match for their daughter find this man, they would think: “This is a perfect guy. We should get him for our daughter.” Such a young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I really like the question. This man seems to be genuinely seeking answers to his question. And I have no doubt that this man might have gone and asked the same question to other teachers, but he heard about this new teacher who is different from other teachers. So, he comes to Jesus and calls him “Good teacher” and asks the question: “Jesus, I have money, power, and social status, but I am not just content with this life. What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Remember the Indian parents? They would have fallen flat at this question: “Awww…. this man is religious too. This man is indeed perfect for our daughter. He not only has power and influence in society, but he is also spiritual.” What a perfect combination!
This young ruler not only has a genuine desire but he seems to be willing “to do” something about that desire. He is asking, “Please tell me, Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As we hear the question, we get the impression that this young man would certainly do whatever it takes to inherit eternal life.
During Jesus’ ministry, there were many people who came and asked him questions. Many times those questions were not genuine; the main purpose of those questions was to trick Jesus or to put him in trouble. Once someone comes to Jesus and asks is it okay to pay taxes to Caesar? Another time, someone else comes and asks who is my neighbor? Some folks even brought a woman caught in adultery and ask Jesus if they should stone her according to the Law of Moses. There were many such questioners who came and asked Jesus tough questions, and Jesus mostly answered those questions with another question. To this young man though, Jesus isn’t answering with another question. Jesus began to answer his question. Going in line with the Jewish tradition of his time, Jesus told the man to keep the Ten Commandments. And Jesus highlighted five of those commandments that the young man should be keeping: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’
The rich, young ruler proudly proclaimed that he’d been keeping those commandments since his childhood. I am sure we all agree that it is pretty hard to keep those commandments, and this man must have lived an incredible life to keep all those commandments. He is indeed working hard to keep his faith. Jesus looked into the young man’s heart and he had compassion for him. Jesus told him:
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The young man heard this and became very sad, for he was very rich. He wasn’t willing to sell his possessions and distribute that money to the poor and follow Jesus. He wasn’t willing to part with his wealth, and we never hear about this man again. I thought this is a very sad ending to an amazing story of faith. This man almost got what he was seeking, but he just let it go. What a pity!
Do you remember the question for today: “What we need to be forgiven for?” Before we think about it, let me ask the question, “What does the rich young ruler need to be forgiven for?” There are at least three problem areas that he needs forgiveness for: 1) The rich young ruler has the right desire and the right question, but he wasn’t willing to follow through with the response that Jesus gave him. 2) The young ruler wants to legalistically follow the commandments but doesn’t want to consider the spirit of those commandments. 3) The rich young ruler doesn’t want to work on removing the one obstacle that’s between him and God, and consequently between him and other people. The young man needs to seek forgiveness and fix those three problem areas in his life. Let’s now delve into each one briefly and conclude.
Area 1: Having the right desire, right question, but not willing to follow through the response: There are people that we know who might be seeking the right questions but they are remaining as seekers as they don’t want to be doers. We all come to Jesus with beautiful questions, don’t we? How can I be a better person? How can I serve the community? How can I be saved? What can I do to be a disciple of Christ? How can I use my talents for the glory of God? How can I be more compassionate? How can I love my neighbor? It is great to ask those wonderful questions and come to Jesus. But following Christ is more than asking the right questions. Following Christ is more than knowing the saving act of God in Jesus. Following Jesus is to imitate him in our lives. It is to desire what he desires and do what he does. If we are only listeners of the word and not doers, then we might need to seek forgiveness and mend our ways.
It is not just individuals that need forgiveness; churches need to seek forgiveness too. There are many churches that are asking the right questions but not doing anything about those questions. They are asking: How we can be a thriving church? How we can serve the community or the world? How we can grow spiritually? How do we can be faithful disciples of Christ? As a church, we even might know the answers to those questions, but we need to ponder if we are following through those responses. If we are only interested in the questions, but not the answers, we might want to seek forgiveness and recommit ourselves for God’s work in this world.
Area 2: The rich young ruler was keeping the commandments for the sake of keeping them, but he’s missing out on the real reason why he needs to keep those commandments. The main purpose of keeping the commandments is to express our love for what God has done to us. It is not to achieve something else. What the young man is doing is to just be a doer without being mindful of why he’s doing what he’s doing. At times we find ourselves in a similar boat. We do stuff for God, but we don’t know why we are doing it, or don’t have love of God as the primary motive for our actions. If that is the case, then we need to seek forgiveness for losing our focus.
It is an area that many churches struggle with. They do a ton of things but they forget the main reason why they are doing what they are doing. Or sometimes their main motive for doing those things is not love for God, but maybe competition with other churches, or even to attract people to church. The main point that I am making here is that we need to have the right motive for the actions that we do. The motive is the love for God. If we don’t have that motive then perhaps we might need to rethink our ministry.
Area 3: There is one final thing that we need to talk about: the one thing lacking. Jesus saw that the wealth that the rich young ruler has was an obstacle him and God and he wants him to address it. The obstacle is different for different people: For some, it is wealth, for others, a job, for others, it is something else. Whatever it is, it’s an obstacle on the path to following Jesus. Unfortunately, the young rich ruler loved his riches more than following Jesus, so he went home dejected. We might be following Jesus and loving God and loving our neighbor, and we might be living exemplary lives, but it is possible to have a thing or two that come in our way to relating to God and others. We might need to seek forgiveness and ask God to help us work through that thing that’s blocking our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Friends, in conclusion, if we are just listeners but not doers of the word, if we are just doing the things that Jesus told us to do without the right motive of love, if we are doing what Jesus wants us to do but still have things that are preventing us from growing closer to God, then we need to seek God’s forgiveness. When we seek forgiveness, through the amazing grace of God, we’ll be forgiven. As the chains that are binding us from growing closer to God are broken, we can experience the joy that God alone can give us. May God help us in our pursuits, Amen!