Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Dying Churches Don't Think Outside Their Own Walls

Ephesians 2:19-22 and Acts 2:41-47

 We’re going to tread on some of the same ground as last week.  But I think it’s important.  Last week we talked about how dying churches focus on their own preferences and their own comfort.  Today, we’re going to talk about how dying churches don’t think outside their own walls.  Those two things are definitely related.  

I think the inward focus of many congregations is the biggest problem confronting the Church in America today.  Our use of time and money and resources are focused inwards.  The church building becomes a fortress, closing us off to the world outside out walls.  We are reluctant to step foot outside the walls.  

Well, that might sound strange.  Didn’t we all start the day outside the church walls?  Aren’t we all going to leave in 20 minutes?  Well, more like 30, if you’re lucky.  Yes, but we are reluctant to be the Church outside the walls of the church building.  

We heard earlier from Ephesians.  Paul reminds us that the Temple of God is not a church building.  It is not made of bricks or stones or 2 x 4s.  The Temple of God is a people.  The Church is made of people.  And it is an ever-growing and inclusive people.  Outsiders are built into it.  The Gentiles, the people once considered to be outsiders to the covenant of God were being built into the Church.  

For the first three centuries of its history, the Church had no permanent buildings.  Churches mostly met in homes, sometimes in public places.  In times of persecution, they met underground, literally, in the catacombs.  And those were the three centuries in which the Church experienced its most rapid growth.  The Church began in Jerusalem with 120 people in an upper room.  Within three centuries, the gospel message had gone as west as Morocco, Spain, and Britain.  It had gone as far south as Ethiopia and Yemen.  It had gone as far east as India and China.  It is estimated that at the time the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, 313 AD, already more than half the people of Empire were Christians.  That’s 50 million people, just in the Roman Empire, in less than 300 years.  All without buildings.

Sometimes the church building is an obstacle to church growth.  Sometimes, it’s even worse than that.  Sometimes the building becomes the object of worship.  

In the book, the author recounts the story of a church that died, even as its members fought viciously over the use of a room called the Lydia Room, a church parlor. 

They fought over who could use it, when they could use it, how they could use it.  And there are many similar stories about church’s obsessing over the use and appearance of church facilities, even to the point of church schisms.  

We are called to be good stewards of the things God has entrusted to us.  That includes buildings.  It’s not wrong to love a church building.  But idolatry is wrong.  If you love the building more than God; that’s wrong.  It’s also wrong if you love the building more than the church, the people.  

He points out how memorials can be destructive.  Sometimes the family that creates the memorial thinks they own that thing.  I talked to a pastor one time who had been appointed to a church where the nursery was in sad shape.  It was drab and ugly, not the kind of place you’d want to put children.  The curtains were old and moldy.  So she led the effort to take them down and repaint the room.  Only later did she find out that someone’s “great aunt Susan” had donated those curtains and they were very angry at them being taken down.  There were secret meetings to “get rid of the pastor” and so on.  Eventually, she was moved because the situation got so ugly.  All because she thought “Who would want to have their children playing in a room with moldy curtains?”  

We must beware of the “country club mentality.”  The Church is not a club.  Clubs exist for the benefit of their members.  The Church exists for the glory of God and the benefit of the world in need of God’s grace and presence.  

Clubs are free to do “private functions,” just for the insiders.  The Church should not do private functions.  Nothing a church does should be “only for the insiders.”  Worship is open to all.  Bible studies and classes are open to all.  Church dinners and fellowships should be open to all.  If they aren’t, you’re a club, not a church.  Even the church’s business meetings, for the most part, should be open to all.  Our United Methodist Discipline says that only certain people can vote in certain situations, but the meeting itself can, and should, be open to all.  

One last point for today:  Dying churches don’t pray with purpose.  They pray, but mostly with a focus inward.  The focus of prayer is on our members, our families, our people, not the community out there, or the world, or the spiritually lost.  

We also heard from Acts about the early Church in Jerusalem.  It says they devoted themselves to discipleship, fellowship, worship, and prayer.  They weren’t casual about these things; they were devoted.  

What are we devoted to?  Are we devoted to prayer?  I got to tell you, I find it a lot easier to find people who are devoted to work, devoted to hobbies, devoted to sports, than people who are devoted to discipleship or worship or prayer.  

Why does it matter?  Why does it matter if we pray intently for the world outside our walls?  Often we say, “Prayer changes things.”  And I do believe that is sometimes true.  But more than that, I think prayer changes us.  When we pray for someone, how we think about them in our hearts and minds changes.  I think there’s a reason Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. If we really pray for them, we’ll stop thinking of them as enemies.  Likewise, when we pray intently for people outside the church, it changes how we think about them.  

So we should pray with purpose.  And we’ll talk more about purpose next week.  

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