The church! When you think of the church, what is it you think of?
For some people, there is only one church. The one they were brought to as an infant, where they went to Sunday School and then on to youth group. The church where they were baptized, where they were married, and the church they will be buried from.
Don Hardgrave was the National Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church in Australia, and the man who recruited me to go to Australia and pastor. And he once told me that for some people the church only exists for, hatches, matches and dispatches.
It would be like the man who invited his friend to come to church with him, to which his friend said, “I don’t like church, the first time my parents took me to a church they threw water on me and the next time I went they threw rice at me.” I see your point, his friend replied, “Probably the next time you go they’ll throw dirt on you.”
Today many people don’t attend the same church all their lives. They change churches when they move, they change churches as their family changes or they change churches when the Pastor offends them.
Through June I’ve been speaking on the topic: We the Church. Over the past three months all the things that many of us thought of when we thought of church, meeting together, singing together, hearing the message together and enjoying a cup of coffee and conversation together has changed.
For the past fourteen weeks, coming together for church has meant we all log on to our devices to watch as church happened on our phones, our tablets and our computers. Lending a whole new meaning to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 Jesus told them “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Today he may have added the words, “. . . even if it’s online”
So, in week one we discovered that the church could be large and growing while at the same time being small and intimate. That the church is intended to be both inclusive and exclusive.
Last week we looked at what it meant when Paul told the early church that they were the body of Christ.
Over the past number of years, the media has made having a hay day with the news that fewer and fewer Canadians are attending church on any giving Sunday. They cite statistics that as a people Canadians seem to be becoming more spiritual, that is they pray more and meditate more but they are not going to church as much. Have you ever wondered why that is?
Some think it’s because many people no longer see church as relevant. A friend and colleague and I were discussing that one day and he asked me, “Before you were a believer, what could the church have done to be more relevant for you?”
And when I thought about it. It wasn’t that church wasn’t relevant before I was a believer, it just wasn’t something I even thought about.
Never once did I think, “If the church was more relevant, or did this different, or played that music, or had a cool platform design or if the pastor wore skinny jeans, I think I’d go.” Not once.
If I think back to before I had a relationship with God church really wasn’t something I thought about. Church was what other people did, and not something that I was interested in doing.
Church wasn’t something I thought of as irrelevant, any more than I thought of the Lion’s club or golf as irrelevant. I just never really saw myself going to church, joining the lion’s club or playing golf.
And for people who are like I was. For those who don’t see church as something that should be a part of their life, it usually because they see church in a couple of different ways.
1) Some People See Church as an Obligation. There are people out there who see church as an ought to or a got to. When I was a kid and a teenager if I was visiting at my Grandmother Guptill’s house I knew that if I was there over a Sunday there was an obligation to go to church. You might choose not to go to church but then you really didn’t qualify for Sunday dinner either.
It was pretty much a no brainer. So I would go, and smile and sing the songs or at least fake smiling and singing the songs. I was there not because I wanted to be I was there under duress or at least as a courtesy to Gram, it was important to her so I went. And I don’t think it hurt me that much.
It did mean that when someone asked what religion I was that I had an answer: I’m a Baptist. I didn’t really know what a Baptist was but I knew that the only church I ever attended was a Baptist church, so by default, I must have been a Baptist.
When I was in High School my best friend’s girlfriend thought they ought to go to church, and so to keep her happy he went. That was out of obligation. He was Anglican and she was Catholic and they wanted to find some middle ground and so they choose to try a Wesleyan Church because his brother was a Wesleyan Minister. They heard that Wesleyan was kind of like Baptist so they dragged me along as a translator.
Maybe you attend church to make your spouse happy or to make your parents happy. That’s attending out of obligation. I’ve been preaching for 40 years and I can usually tell when someone is here out of obligation. But to be honest it probably won’t do you any harm. The night that I chose to follow Christ, I had gone to church out of obligation to get my best friend off my back. I went out of obligation. But that night I encountered God and that changed my life and my eternity.
Sometimes the obligation isn’t to another person it’s an obligation that is felt to God. Kind of covering all the bases, you’re sure that somewhere in the 10 commandments it says “Thou shalt go to church”. You’re not positive of all that God requires but you’re pretty sure that going to church is part of that. And you figure that when you get to the pearly gates that if the question “did you go to church?” is on the admittance questionnaire you’ll at least have that one right.
Psychotherapist Wayne Dyer made the comment that “Relationships based on obligation lack dignity.” Dyer went on to say “If you are living out of a sense of obligation you are a slave.”
That doesn’t sound like fun. Hmmm
2) Other People See Church as an Event. “Today family we are going to church.” Kind of like going to the movies or going to the circus. It’s an event, not an everyday happening. Sometimes those events are things like baptisms, weddings and funerals. You know, the hatching, matching, dispatching that I spoke about earlier.
I met a distant cousin a number of years ago and she told me the only time she’d ever been in church, ever, was for weddings and funerals. Church just wasn’t a part of her life. And if Church is simply an event then it’s difficult to conceive of it as a regular part of your life, I mean how many weddings and funerals can you attend? I mean even Hugh Grant could only do four weddings and a funeral. Of course, that was in the span of two hours.
And there are people who never attend church, but when they get married they want it to happen in a church, and when they have their first child they want it baptized in a church, and when someone dies they go looking for a preacher to handle the funeral. But to be truthful I think they are just superstitious and see the church like a lucky rabbit’s foot. Which obviously wasn’t all that lucky for the rabbit.
They think that maybe they’ll have a better marriage a healthier child and preferred reservations at the Pearly Gates if they include the church in their plans.
And then there are the C & E folks, those who come at Christmas and Easter. The cool new name for them is Christeasters.
It’s the thing to do. That’s what church is all about.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without going to Christmas Eve service. I used to be amazed when Anglican, Catholic and United Pastors told me how many services they have to have on Christmas Eve to accommodate all the people for that one event. I thought it was mind-boggling. Last year we had five services and saw over 700 people attend those services plus all of those who attended online. For many people, Cornerstone is their church home, even if they only come home for Christmas.
And then are still others who attend on a regular basis but church is still just an event for them. Something that you do every Sunday. When I was growing up on Saturday we had homemade beans and rolls and watched the Bugs Bunny show, every week. That was Saturday and that was our event.
For some people on Sunday, they go to church, but I think they may be like Calvin Coleridge. When he was President he attended church alone one Sunday while his wife was sick. Now obviously the President didn’t always pay attention to the message because when he got home his wife quizzed him and asked “So Cal, what did the pastor preach on?” The president thought for a moment and replied “Sin.” “And what did he say about sin?” probed his wife. The president thought again and replied, “he was against it.” I wonder if he was really paying attention?
By the way that isn’t a new phenomenon Thomas Fuller made this comment almost 400 years ago “Many come to bring their clothes to church rather than themselves.”
But if people see Church as an obligation or an event they aren’t to blame, the church is. For way too many years the church has marketed itself that way. Either they tried guilting people into attending. You know “If you don’t attend church you are going to hell.”
I’ve got news for you: simply attending church isn’t going to have any impact on your eternity. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a Hockey Game makes you a hockey player or living in a garage would make you a car. Sorry.
Other Churches don’t bother with the guilt routine instead they simply rely on the fact that their people have always come to church, it’s the thing to do on Sunday, so they offer Church as an event, the thing to do. But in 2020 that doesn’t cut it and they are the churches that are in decline.
More and more people are saying, “Church isn’t the only show in town anymore and just because Mom and Dad went to church every Sunday isn’t a valid reason for me to go. I can find another more enticing or relevant event to attend on Sunday.”
The surveys aren’t finding fewer Christians, they are finding few church goers. Don’t confuse the two.
So what’s the answer? How does the church become relevant for 2020? The question that is asked by many churches and pastors is: “What new thing do we need to become in order to attract a new generation of believers?”
But we don’t have to become something new instead we need to become something old and we need to present it in a new way. Instead of looking at church as a religious thing, we need to see it as a relationship thing. A relationship with God and a relationship with others.
You see the Bible never saw church as an obligation, nor did it see Church as an event. As a matter of fact, for the first 300 years the church existed it was the socially and religiously unacceptable thing to do. It could get you fed to the lions. But when the New Testament sought a metaphor to use for the body of Christ, time and time again it came back to “Family”
Listen again to the scripture that was read earlier Ephesians 2:19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.
The Bible Sees Church As A Family Now you may be thinking: “But I already have a family.”
There was a time that having a family was akin to the Waltons on TV. And if you aren’t old enough to remember the Waltons just google them.
But there was a time that family was Ma and Pa, the kids and the Grand Parents all living together in happy harmony with Aunts and Uncles and cousins all within a stone’s throw away. But that isn’t a reality anymore.
We don’t see many families in this day and age that live in the same community. Just out of curiosity I wonder how many people here today were born in Halifax. And of those who were born in Halifax how many of your parents were born in Halifax?
No longer do we live and raise our family in the same community as our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews. And because of that, we don’t have the support system that those people offered to us and to our children.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote “Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.” And we weren’t designed that way, humans are social creatures for the most part and throughout history, we have dwelt together in family units.
Jane Howard said, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
In 1990 we moved to Australia leaving our family behind and the people of the church we went to adopted us as their family. They invited us over for special occasions. They were there when we needed someone to talk to or pray with.
We laughed with them and cried with them. Our first day in our new country our children were introduced to Aunt Barb and Uncle Max. They were family and we were family. The logo for the Wesleyan Church in Australia in 1990 was “Not just a church, a family.” And it was.
But how do we move from “church” to “Family”?
2000 years ago, in many ways becoming a Christian could mean leaving your family behind. You were no longer identifying yourself as Jewish or aligning yourself with the Greek or Roman Gods. And your decision to follow Christ would separate you from your natural family in much the same way as physical distance often separates us today, and so your brothers and sisters in Christ became your family.
So listen to the comment that Jesus made to his disciples in John’s gospel. Jesus was telling the twelve how others would know that they were Christ-followers. He didn’t say it would happen because of what they called themselves, or where they attended church or how they voted, or how they wore their hair or what type of music they listened to, instead he said John 13:35 “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Notice that isn’t what made them Christ’s disciples it simply proved that they were Christ’s disciples. Because they loved one another.
Listen to a description of the early church found in the book of Acts, they had no church buildings, no church names, no denominations but they were the church. Acts 2:44-46 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—
In the book of 1 Corinthians Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth telling them how they were to behave toward one another in the church. Now this passage is very familiar because it’s often read at weddings, but in reality, it wasn’t written about marriage relationships, although it wouldn’t hurt to treat your spouse this way. This was written telling believers how they were supposed to respond to one another. Paul has just listed a number of different spiritual gifts and then he says 1 Corinthians 12:31 . . . But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all.
Now listen to what Paul wrote: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when full understanding comes, these partial things will become useless. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
That’s what we are supposed to be doing, do we always get it right?
Nope, we’re still people, but we are trying to be more than a church, we are trying to be a family.
And if you don’t have a church family to call your own we’d love for you to try our church family but more than that we’d like to invite you to be a part of God’s family, and how does that happen? John 1:12-13 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
Two things here “Believe in Him”. It’s not just believing in Jesus in some nebulous, wishy-washy way, mamby pamby, Jesus was a cool guy, kind of way. It is believing that he was and is the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he died on a cross and physically rose from the dead.
And the second thing is “Accepting Him”. Accepting him means accepting that he loves you, accepting that he died for you, accepting that he can forgive you and accepting the grace that he has to offer you. And the result? You will become a child of God.