March 13, 2016
Note: The congregation of First United Methodist Church received a report from its Healthy Church Initiative consulting team earlier in the service. That report identified five strengths and five concerns for this congregation’s future growth. Five recommendations were also part of this report, but these recommendations were shared at a potluck dinner following worship. You can learn more about the report and the process at the church’s website.
You’ve just heard the first two thirds of our Healthy Church Initiative Report. Reports like this always try to give you the good news first. I think that’s so you’ll be nice and comfortable, feeling good about yourself and relaxed before they sucker punch you with the bad news. But did any of these concerns sound insurmountable to you? Did any of them knock the wind out of you?
In our reading today from Isaiah, the prophet tells us that God is about to do a new thing. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord. God is about to do a new thing for his people, the ones he claims as his own. God says these are “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” That’s our purpose in life: to declare God’s praise.
We do that through our strengths of hospitality, commitment to love and serve, spiritual leadership, things like Wednesday Night and NUMAS Haus that demonstrate our capacity to expand ministry, and even through this well-placed and well-maintained building.
But fulfilling our purpose to declare God’s praise takes more than identifying our strengths. In fact, relying on our own strength alone won’t get us where we need to be at all. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Philippians when he writes that he has more reason than anyone to be confident in the flesh, that is, confident in his own strength.
No, Paul tells us, everything we hold onto that isn’t Jesus is worthless. “Whatever gains I had, these I have come regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:7-8)
For Paul, nothing else matters but knowing Jesus in his suffering and resurrection. Paul says, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:13-14)
How do we press on toward that goal? To really be the church Christ calls us to be, we must have a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit to lead us and form us. That’s why our top concern, a lack of passionate spirituality, is such a critical one.
Without our passionate devotion to Christ and his mission in the world, recognizing our assets and using them strategically won’t make a bit of difference. Without a passionate devotion to Jesus and the ministry he calls us toward, it won’t matter how unfocused our vision, or how small our window of opportunity might be.
Without a firm foundation of faith in the one who saves us, it won’t matter how much like a fortress our building seems to the rest of the community, because there won’t be a reason to invite them in and show them the hospitality that is our first strength.
The question now is: what will we do with our strengths to address our concerns, so that we can become a vital, fruitful congregation full of vital, fruitful followers of Jesus Christ who change the world wherever we go? How can we, as a congregation, bring people closer to the Kingdom of God? Because the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Throughout the gospels, this is the theme that Jesus repeats over and over. Repent and believe, because the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, very near to you. You can reach out and touch it if you want to. God has broken into our broken world in the person of Jesus Christ, and is present with us here and now.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. – Luke 10:1-12
One of my favorite commenters on the Gospels, David Lose, hits the nail right on the head when he writes about this passage. You can read his Daily Bread devotion on this passage here. (Go ahead and follow the link, then come back here to finish reading.) Lose finishes his commentary by writing,
“… kingdom logic is hard to hold, and kingdom work nearly impossible to do, alone. Let us then pray to the Lord of the harvest to send us out as laborers, grant us vision, and sustain us with hope, for indeed the harvest is plentiful.”
Indeed it is. This church has never before seen such a need for Jesus in this community. And God has placed us right here on this corner, at this particular moment in history, to be the church that opens its doors, its hearts, and its minds to help meet that need.
So what does this Healthy Church Initiative report tell us? It tells us we have work to do, work that matters in the eternal scheme of things. The report tells us we need to use our strengths to address our concerns, in order to minister more effectively for Jesus, to let people know the kingdom of God is here.
The report tells us that:
We show hospitality really well, but our lack of passionate spirituality doesn’t draw people into deeper relationship with Christ or our fellowship.
We have a deep commitment to love and serve, but our lack of focus and vision means we scatter our energy and resources without making much of an impact for Christ on people’s lives.
We’ve experienced some success with Wednesday nights and taking the leap of faith to develop NUMAS Haus, but we have much more to offer our community – assets we don’t currently recognize or use strategically to share the gospel.
We have a great location, and a building that offers great potential for ministry, but right now, it feels like a fortress to outsiders. One mystery guest commented that, from the Library parking lot, you can’t even tell this is a church. It could just as easily be an office building.
We feel we have good spiritual leadership, but we also have a shrinking window of opportunity. If we wait five more years to refocus our ministry, it will be five years too late. We won’t have the resources or capacity that we have right now.
Given these strengths and concerns that our consulting team has identified from our conversations with them, what would you recommend for our congregation, if you were on the consulting team?
How would you suggest we develop passionate spirituality, so that our natural gift of hospitality could welcome others into closer relationship with Jesus?
How would you focus our vision to make sure every act of ministry we perform lines up with God’s vision for us?
How would you go about identifying our underused assets, and releasing them strategically into fruitfulness?
How would you go about making changes in our building to create an inviting, open space that connects us to our community?
And how would you capitalize on the gifts we have among us right now, to make the most of this opportunity to change and grow before we lose it?
Remember that three years ago, this church was considering becoming part of a two-point charge, sharing a pastor with another congregation. Apportionments had not been paid in full for three years in a row. This congregation was facing some very difficult decisions about its own health and sustainability.
But God wasn’t done with us yet. God has a plan for us, a plan for good and not for harm, a plan to give us a future and a hope.
Today’s Call to Worship from Psalm 126, bears repeating. Only this time, I’d like to substitute a different name for Zion.
LEADER: When the Lord restored the fortunes of First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, Minnesota, we were like those who dream.
PEOPLE: Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
LEADER: The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
PEOPLE: Those who go out weeping, bearing seeds for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
I invite you to stay for dinner, to learn how we might use our strengths to address our concerns in order to become the church Christ calls us to be in this time and this place,for this people and this community, by the grace of God. May we choose to follow Jesus boldly where he leads us, so that – because of us and our ministry together – people may know that the kingdom of God is here. Amen.