To Fight For Our Church

So I realize that making the statement, “the church is changing,” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking discovery or anything, but over the past couple of weeks, I have really felt a push to start talking more about this at RCC.  We’ve weather the “changing landscape of ministry” storm pretty well over the past couple of years, but over the past year I’ve really noticed people struggling with this notion of time and balance.  Sunday sports and activities are making life more challenging on Sundays and people just don’t have the time and energy they used to.

The thing is … people still LOVE the church.  They want to be part of the community, they want to feel #rccstrong and they want to come worship when they are able.  It’s just a matter of figuring out what the church needs to look like right now.  One of my church members suggested some sort of adult mentoring program when she was leaving worship this morning, which really intrigued me!  We’ll see where God takes us next!

Anyway, here is this morning’s sermon … enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 25, 2016

1 Timothy 6:6-19

To Fight For Our Church

After last week’s sermon where I basically called us all out to look prayerfully at our financial habits, I read this week’s scripture, particularly the line that says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,[1] and thought to myself, “Well they are going to run me out of town.”

So, maybe let’s table that for the moment.

When I was putting together our worship schedule for the fall, I was really struck by another verse of this scripture – verse 12 – that says:

Fight the good fight of the faith.[2]

Today, these words are so powerful, so relevant, so true. Right now, we need to fight the good fight of the faith; we need to fight for our faith, for our church and for this Christian story that is still be written.

Here is a sometimes-hard truth: The church is changing. The church (our church, but also the wider Christian Church) is changing in real and not-so-subtle ways.

The late Phyllis Tickle, who was an author and lecturer on spirituality and religion (she passed away a year ago), hypothesized that every 500 years, the church undergoes a massive upheaval and transition. Here is an overview of the history:

  • The very beginning of the Common Era: Jesus happens and everything changes.
  • 400+ years later, we are in the 4th century, Constantine the Great rises to power and legalizes Christianity and completely changes the way people are able to worship and practice their faith.
  • 500+ years later, the year is 1054 and the Great Schism occurs and separates what is now the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic.
  • 500 years after that, the Protestant Reformation is in full swing and in 1517 the Ninety –Five Theses are posted on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

And 500 years after that? Well, we are living that right now.

Here in the 21st century, the church is changing. And while these changes are exciting and opening up new opportunities and possibilities, they are also scary and unsettling. Because for the first time in our lifetime – our lifetime, not the lifetime of our church or the Christian Church – we do not know what is next.

Our church, the Rehoboth Congregational Church, was organized in 1721 and it grew and thrived in a time when mainline protestant churches were a natural part of people’s lives. People attended their local church, often with their extended family, and were tied into the community. Most women did not work and were able to volunteer and give their time to the church. Sundays were considered sacred and going to church was really the only thing that people did. There were fewer ways to communicate and therefore it was relatively easy to reach people with one message.

But things are different now. Our culture is much more transient and there is more turnover in churches. People are able to drive further distances and often do if they really connect with a church, making church membership more widespread than one community. Sundays are no longer considered sacred: Stores are open, sports practice, activities meet and people work. There are so many ways to communicate that people often get over stimulated and messages are inconsistent. People are unable to make commitments, which makes attendance and involvement not always consistent. The expectation is no longer that you will go to church; rather the challenge is finding a way to make church work in your life.

And as our culture and society changes, tremendous stress is put on our church, as an institution, because it simply cannot maintain the same structure that was built when the environment that surrounded it was more church-friendly.

I know people, especially people who are working, raising families and caring for their aging relatives, struggle to get here on a Sunday morning. They lack the time and energy to be involved the same way those who came before us were. They are very overwhelmed.

And, honestly? I feel the problem getting worse. I have noticed, over the past year, even, that people are having more and more of a hard time with this notion of time and balance. And it is very difficult to sustain (much less grow!) a church when this is what we are up against.

So that is the problem. I really wish I had a solution! But unfortunately, I am not quite there yet.

But I will say this: Part of living on this side of this side of the resurrection and professing a belief in a God who conquers death, darkness and despair is trusting that things are going to be okay. Part of our Christian faith means believing that God is working out the details; that something new and powerful and grace-filled is coming. We have to hold onto that hope. We, as individual Christians living in this crazy world and we, as members of this church community, have to hold onto the hope that faith is worth fighting for.

Let’s get back to the scripture we just heard: The first letter to Timothy is attributed to the Apostle Paul (either written by him or written in his name after he died). The author, for all intents and purposes, is talking about money here, issuing warnings about greediness and worshiping material wealth.[3]

But since I do not want to go down that road AGAIN, instead of looking at the issues the author was addressing, I want to look at the author’s response to those issues. Because, essentially, the author was trying to address an issue that was relevant to what people were going through in their lives and the challenges they were facing. And I want to address an issue that we are facing today, this issue of time and balance and of churches struggling to find their bearings in a changing world.

In this particular context, people were struggling with things like money, material wealth and greediness. And the author of this letter calls upon his readers to basically ignore what is happening around them, to “shun all this,” the scripture says, and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”[4]

In other words, forget about what is going on around you and really focus on who God is calling you to be.

“Fight the good fight of the faith,” the letter goes on to say. “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called.”[5]

It is so hard to resist what society is telling us to do and embrace what God is calling us to do. It was hard then and it is hard today. But our faith is worth the struggle; the Christian story is worth fighting for. It was then and it is today.

I think this message – this message of getting back to the basics of our faith, of focusing on Godly traits and of being an advocate for our church – is completely relevant to the issues we are facing today. You see, the church (or, at least, the world is exists in) might be changing, but our faith is not going anywhere.

In fact, there are moments when I think we need it now more than ever.

I strongly believe our church is people’s changing lives. I believe, in the midst of personal struggles and national and global unrest, that this church can be a safe space for individuals and families to find refuge, seek wisdom and feel hope. We can preach a truthful message of love, light and second chances that has stood the test of time.

This is worth fighting for. This church – whatever it needs to look like in our generation and for the next 500 years – is worth fighting for.

I think we have to give nod to this scripture and go back to the basics for a little while. We need to remember why we gather in the first place, not only inviting God into our midst, but also reflecting God in who we are and what we do. We need to have honest conversations about what church might look like if we intentionally pursued “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance [and] gentleness”[6] in a way that was meaningful, relevant and accessible to us and our community.

Think about how freeing this might be. Think about what we might be able to do, both as individuals and as a church community, if we fought for the faith that has brought us this far and for a church that is changing people’s lives. Think about what our church and community might look like if we were truly able to live out God’s call for us.

This means we need to come together – all of us.   All of us, from the people who have been at this church their whole lives to those who have just come through our doors. All of us, from those whose have always identified as Christian to those for whom this is all very new. All of us, from those who are feeling great peace and hope to those who are struggling. All of us have to come together and fight for our faith, to fight for our church.

I do not know what the next step is. But I do know that I am excited for the journey that lies ahead. I am excited for my journey as a Christian, for our journey, as a church and for the journey of our Christian faith. Because, for 2,000 years, Christians, just like us, have tackled difficult issues, fought hard for this faith and proved, time and time again, that God’s love always wins.

And that is no different here, today.

So let us fight the good fight of the faith. Let us be advocates for our church and the work we are doing in this community. Let us bear witness to the truths that we learn, but also the questions that we struggle with. Let us love and support one another on our journeys. Let us support this church as it finds its way in a world that is changing.

And may we be changed, inspired and transformed.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] 1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV
[2] 1 Timothy 6:12, NRSV
[3] Mitchell G. Reddish: Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, pg. 111 & 113 (Exegetical Perspective)
[4] 1 Timothy 6:11, NRSV
[5] 1 Timothy 6:12, NRSV
[6] 1 Timothy 11, NRSV

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.