Seeking Out The One Who Is Lost

Hello! We had a wonderful morning of worship at RCC … enjoy my sermon!

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Seeking Out The One Who Is Lost

At the beginning of the year I watched a video that a friend of mine posted of a speech he gave at a Congregational Vision meeting for his church. His church – Eastside Church – is a new United Methodist congregation that he was appointed to plant nearly three years ago. Eastside Church has experienced a lot of growth over the past three years – from 30 people in worship on a weekly basis to nearly 150. The growth has been remarkable – but there is still more growth that needs to happen in order for this church to be sustained long-term. In his speech, Tim talked about what the members of the church needed to do in order to be part of that growth. He said:

We must have more people joining Eastside Church … [One] way we can help [Eastside Church] grow … is to invite.

As the room got quiet he laughed and remarked, “And a hush came over the crowd!”

After pausing for a moment to let that word, “invite,” sink in, Tim went on:

Do you know that the number one reason people are not part of a church is because nobody invited them? And don’t invite people who go to other churches; because there are plenty of people who don’t go to church at all. There are hundreds of thousands of them on Atlanta’s East Side. Invite them to breakfast and church. It really isn’t that complicated. (Rev. Timothy Lloyd, video available here: http://vimeo.com/59411824)

Tim’s words have kind of stuck in the back of my head over the past several months – I would think about them from time to time as I thought about growth here at the church. But as I reflected on this particular passage from the Gospel this week I felt compelled to think more seriously about what he was saying.

We heard two parables this morning. The first was the parable of hundred sheep. “Which one of you,” Jesus asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Then Jesus asked, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not … search carefully until she finds it?”

Jesus called us to seek out the one who is lost – that is clear in these two parables. And when Tim emphasized the importance of inviting the unchurched he was – whether he meant to or not – calling his church to live out this parable.

Let me cut right to the chase: Even though these are two very familiar parables and are – in theory – fairly easy to understand, I think they are actually two of the most difficult to live up to.

Why would we risk losing almost everything we have simply to seek out the one who has wandered away? Shouldn’t we be content with what we have; with the people or things within our midst? In the church, how do we find the balance between being in ministry and community with the people who are currently in our congregation and seeking out those who we could welcome into our congregation?

It is so much easier to surround ourselves with the familiar than to walk towards the unfamiliar.

Oftentimes we answer this question of balance in the church by retreating to the familiar. We – like the one with lost sheep – have to decide if we should seek out the one who is lost or stay with those who remain. And unfortunately churches sometimes do choose to stay with those who remain – because it is scary to seek out the one who is lost. Churches close themselves off to new people and new ideas, not because they do not want them, but because they are afraid of losing part of what they already have.

Over the past year, this church has experienced a lot of growth. It has been such a blessing and it warms my heart to meet new people and to see and hear a vibrant spirit alive in the sanctuary week after week.

But here’s the thing: The truly remarkable part of the growth that we are seeing in this church right now is that we really have not made a concerted effort to make it happen. While we have tried to increase our overall presence, both online and within the greater community, and while we have welcomed visitors and brought them into the church, much of our work at RCC over the past few years has been work of healing and reconciliation within our own congregation. We knew that we needed to focus on making sure that we were strong and healthy before we really opened ourselves up.

But something is changing. We are growing. We are evolving. A spirit is moving. And – through this natural and organic growth – it is almost as if God is opening our eyes to what we could be – and then calling us into action.

We are reminded through these parables that Jesus calls us to seek out the one who is lost. We are called to search for the one sheep who has wandered off, for the one coin that is missing and for the people who have yet to come through our doors. This may be scary at times; but it is time for us to put our trust in God and seek out the one who is lost.

Here are some ways I think that we can heed God’s call to us through these parables to seek out the one is lost; to invite people into our community and then to nurture our community as it grows.

Be involved in the church.

This one kind of seems kind of like a given, but I need to say it anyway. If you are involved in our church and other people see that you are involved in our church, then they will start to get curious. Because of your involvement in our church, others may be more inclined to see what it is all about.

Talk about the church.

Sometimes I think Christians are afraid to talk about their faith and their churches because of some of the stereotypes about evangelizing and proselytizing that are out there. But not all Christians are like that; not all churches are like that. But the stereotypes will not change is we remain quiet and complacent. It is up to US to change those stereotypes!

You do not need to talk about the church in an obnoxious or pushy way in order for people to see how important it is to you; you can talk about it in a very natural way! Talk about the way that it fits into your life. Share what you love about worship. Talk about the fellowship events that bring us together. Tell stories from a mission trip. Recollect the fun – and funny – things that have happened throughout your time at RCC.

Share photographs from church events with your family members and your friends. Let people know when you are at the church and what you are doing.

We should not be afraid to talk openly about something that we love.

Talk about why you come to church.

Today’s passage from 1 Timothy started off by saying “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faith and appointed me to his service.” These are the reasons the author of this letter was committed to the church. Why are you committed to the church? Why do you come to church?

We are all here for different reasons. Trust me when I say that there is no right or wrong reason to come to church. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” – that is what the United Church of Christ is committed to and that is what we embody here at RCC.

It is okay to say that you come to church …

… for the community.
… for the worship.
… for your family or for children.
… because you like being involved in a variety of activities in the community.
… for the church school.
… for the youth fellowship program.
… for the music.
… for the “fun stuff”.
… for the bible studies and other learning opportunities.
… because you want to explore your faith.
… for the food.
… for prayer.
… for the opportunity to serve others.
… because it feels like home.
… to see what kind of shoes I’m wearing.

Something different brings each one of us here for the first and something different keeps us coming back. And you may find that – as strange as you may think your reason for coming here is – someone else may need that exact same thing. And they may find comfort in knowing that you feel the same way they do.

Invite people to church.

Tim was right – sometimes people just need an invitation! The thought may never cross their mind to come to our church unless you put it in there. So ask!

And it can be so scary for someone to walk into a new church for the first time. You can help make that first time a little bit easier for them! Offer to meet them outside before worship starts. Meet them for coffee ahead of time. Explain how our worship services usually run so they know a little bit of what to expect. If they are nervous about coming to worship, invite them to one of our community events first.

Welcome new people.

I don’t have numbers or research to back this up, but I would be willing to bet that the number one reason people visit a church and do not return is because they didn’t feel welcome. Keep your eyes open for new people. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask where they live. Heck, talk about the weather if you find yourself at a loss for words!

I know it can be uncomfortable to approach someone new and to have those “get to know you” conversations, but what good is it to seek out the one who is lost if we do not embrace them once the return?

Friends, really exciting things are happening at this church right now. I can see it. I can hear it. I can feel it. And I think we have reached a point in our journey where it is time to live out these parables within our lives and within our ministry.

So let us live out this call.

Let us open our doors and see who is on the outside.

Let us be grateful for the people who surround us and yet remember that there are still people out there who need us to reach out to them.

Let us not be defined by who we are, but who we could be.

Let us embrace the fears and challenges that come with growth.

Let us seek out the one who is lost.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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