(Preached at Alma United Church on October 15, 2017)
We’ve had a couple of weeks away from the book bullseye, and I thought I’d revisit what I’m doing and why.
The premise of bullseye is that the church’s purpose is to support those who wish to grow in their relationship with the Christ. In other words, to grow disciples.
As I recounted in an earlier sermon, there are many congregations out there that seem to have lost their way. We in the church are afraid. We’re afraid that our message will offend others. We’re afraid that we’ll have to give up our cushy lifestyle or do things we don’t want to do or interact with people who are not like us. We’re afraid that we’ll end up sounding and acting like those sign-toting believers who seem to be stuck in a much earlier century. We’re afraid that we’ll be asked to believe things that we simply can’t believe, things that contradict the world as we’ve come to know it.
And so we end up running away from the harder points of following Jesus. We’re happy as we are, thank you very much. We love our neighbours, we come to church every week. Or almost every week. Or at least once a month, right? And when we come we put money on the plate, and we show up for the major fundraisers.
Isn’t that enough?
God sent God’s only son into the world so that those who believe might share in God’s kin-dom.
Full stop. End of story.
There’s so much more to experience, if we let ourselves be changed by that belief.
A faith like the one I just described is lukewarm at best, and here’s what the book of Revelation has to say about lukewarm faith:
“…you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”
The bullseye presents six markers of the Christian faith that can be that gold, those white robes, that salve. By faithfully following them, and therefore Christ, we become rich in the things that truly matter, and our joy increases.
To refresh your memory, the six markers are:
- Using spiritual practices,
- Worshipping together weekly,
- Discovering authentic community,
- Giving generously, and
- Sharing Christ.
In previous sermons this fall, I’ve covered spiritual practices and worship—copies of those sermons are downstairs in the folder or available on my online blog if you’ve missed them or would like to review them.
Which brings us to this week’s topic, which is discovering authentic community.
A question for you. Have any of you here worshipped with other congregations or faith communities? How did you find it?
As I’ve told you previously, I’ve got more experience than most travelling around, and there is one thing that stood out.
Some of those worship services had better preaching than I’m used to, some of them had good music, some had great mission projects, and some were very friendly to visitors. One congregation was so friendly that I was asked to join the choir before they even knew my name!
But none of them were home.
I have to admit that my history at my home congregation of Trinity United in Guelph has had some difficult times. After analyzing those times, I came to the conclusion that the problem with Trinity is that is comprised mainly of fallible human beings, including myself. And sometimes, fur and feathers fly when those human beings have opinions or beliefs that differ from one another.
But Trinity is my home congregation. They know me, and they (or at least a number of them) love me. And I know them and love them back. Every Sunday, or almost every Sunday, or at least once a month, even when I’m not present in worship because I’m preaching here, I head there after leading worship, pick up my mother, and we and a bunch of others head for Swiss Chalet for a meal and some serious talk about life, the universe, and everything.
I call us “The Gang.”
We function as an unofficial small group within the larger Trinity congregation. In a congregation the size of Trinity, there are often many smaller groups—UCW, committees and church council, choir, badminton and volleyball groups, and so on.
These groups help to connect folks in the church beyond the worship service. They help us to know one another.
Of course, a church the size of Alma is a small group. Every Sunday, before the service, I see you checking in with one another. I suspect you keep tabs on each other during the week, as well. Together we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; together we mourn deaths and misfortune.
Being in authentic community is a way of showing love for one another. Having the support of people who truly know us, and knowing that even though they know our faults they still love us, is a critical foundation to growing in faith. In loving one another, we reflect the love that Christ has for us. In forgiving others and being forgiven by others, we learn to accept the radical forgiveness that Jesus showed in his life and on the cross.
I’ve emphasized small groups for a reason.
Authentic community entails a lot of communication, and as the size of a group increases, the number of communication channels increases exponentially, meaning that each individual has less time and emotional space. A group the size of this congregation is just on the edge of the largest small group size that can effectively serve as an authentic community, and will need to form small groups within the larger group.
We can see this happening a few times in scripture. Moses, leading the Israelites in the desert, was advised by his father-in-law Jethro to have leaders over tens, and fifties, and hundreds, and thousands, so that he would not have to deal daily with every single complaint that the refugees had.
Jesus, who had thousands listening to him on the hillside, chose only twelve to be his closest friends and disciples.
The thousands converted to “The Way” on the day of Pentecost worshipped daily together in the temple, but then separated into smaller groups to eat and share and learn.
Not every small group, of course, functions as an authentic community. A small group that meets to play a sport, with little interaction off the court or field, will not function as a community. It’s just a group of people with a common interest.
But it could become an authentic community easily, just by adding a short time to check in and pray before playing, and going out for wings or pizza afterwards.
Which is to say that small groups take many forms. And not everything that looks like a small group is a small group. A bible study that meets weekly for a specific period of time may not be an authentic community, despite being based around scripture. If there is no time set aside for people to get to know one another, if the study breaks up after the twelve week course is over with no further interaction, then it’s not functioning as an authentic community.
Authentic community is what binds people to the church. If someone goes to church just because the preaching is inspiring or the music is good, and they are not connecting with anyone else in the congregation, you can almost be sure that they probably won’t stay for long. There are some excellent preachers on television, and the music on YouTube is exquisite. And one can listen and watch without getting dressed, or even getting out of bed!
If the seeker does stay, chances are without the interpersonal connections, they won’t participate in anything other than worship. They won’t be as dedicated to the mission of the church. They’ll be like that person who shows up at a funeral, signs the guest book, says a few words to the family, and is first in line at the sandwich table and first out the door. We all kind of know who that person is, and isn’t it nice that they took the time to show up, but who are they, really?
God asks for more of us. Jesus told us that we are to love one another as we love ourselves. And don’t we all want to be known, and loved because of and despite who we are?
We can do that easily in the church. It’s one of the things that small congregations, especially small rural congregations, do best, which is why I took up half the sermon with review. You folks have an advantage.
But the world is changing. As you go forth together, you might decide that you really want this church to grow, rather than die. You might decide that it would be nice to have new people come through the front doors.
If that’s the case, take the time to get to know them. Invite them to stay for the monthly luncheons, eat with them, talk to them. Before worship introduce yourselves and get to know their names and a bit about them. After worship, thank them for coming, and ask if they’re coming back next week. Smile, shake hands, even hug if they’re receptive. Let them know they’re loved, valued members of God’s family.
But don’t ask them to join the choir, even if they have a really good voice. That’s going a bit too far, even for me. Amen.