Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Dyinng Churches Don't Have a Clear Sense of Purpose

Revelation 5:1-10 and Matthew 28:16-20

 Nothing in the entire universe exists in isolation.  Everything is related; everything is connected.  Gravity is a good example.  Gravity works instantaneously across vast distances.  Every object is influenced by every other object.  Even planets and stars, millions of miles away from other objects are not in isolation.  Life on earth is a good example.  Life exists in a complicated web of relationships.  The life cycle of one species has an effect on others.  And of course, human beings don’t live in isolation.  None of us make decisions that only affect ourselves.  Our actions influence the lives of those around us, for good or bad.

 The same is true with more abstract things like ideas and cultures.  We’ve been talking over the last three weeks about the traits of dying churches:  A focus on the past, a desire to be comfortable, a fixation on the building, and so on.  They are also connected, and this morning we’re talking about the trait that may be the lynch pin:  Dying churches don’t have a clear sense of purpose.  

 Without purpose, we resort to routine.  We do the things we know and are comfortable and familiar with.  It’s been said that when an organization doesn’t know what to do, it does what it knows how to do.  It does its traditions.  It keeps the routine.  It maintains the physical things, like a building.  It has meetings.  Oh my, does it ever have meetings.  Why?  Because the people of the organization know how to do these things, and doing the familiar seems better than doing nothing or stumbling around blindly trying to figure out what we really should be doing.

 The problem is that we don’t know how to make new disciples of Jesus Christ anymore.  We used to know how.  We opened the doors of the church on Sunday and people came.  They had their children baptized.  They brought their children to Sunday School.  They sent their youth to confirmation and youth group.  Week after week, they showed up.  They came.  Because they knew it was what they should do.  

 They don’t know that anymore.  People don’t know that they should go to church anymore.  It’s not part of the fabric of our society anymore.  And we’re not used to living in a mission field, living in a place where many people don’t know Jesus.  For 1600+ years, we lived in Christendom, a term used to describe western civilization centered on the Christian faith.  And now we don’t have it.  But most churches act like we still do.  We open the doors on Sunday, and then lament, “Why don’t people come to Church anymore?”  We blame it on sports or television or whatever.  But it’s cultural.  Sports are part of our culture.  Jesus is not.  

 And we don’t know how to be missionaries who go out there and make disciples.  We can’t wait for them to come to us.  We’re now in the third largest mission field in the world.  The only two nations in the world that have more non-Christian people than the United States are China and India.  We need to remember Jesus’ words.  He told the Church to go to the world, not the other way around.  

 Matthew 28 literally reads something along the lines of “Going” or “As you go make disciples, baptize them, and teach them.”  The “go” is not a command, not an imperative.  It is assumed that you must go to do these other things.  And there are three parts to that command.  Making disciples is the first step, sharing the good news with those who haven’t heard it.  Baptizing them is bringing them into the community of faith.  And teaching them is discipleship, maturing their faith.  You have to do all three.  People who believe in Jesus but are not connected to a community of believers and not mature in their faith don’t tend to stick with it.

 Jesus gave the Church a clear purpose in the Great Commission.  I think he also speaks of the clear purpose of the Church in Revelation 5.  In Revelation, we read this about the Lamb:  “He died and rose again to ransom people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.”  The four-fold repetition emphasizes completeness Jesus died to ransom the fullness of humanity.  What did he ransom us for?  To be a Kingdom of priests.  

 What does that mean?  First of all, a kingdom is a community of people committed to following the word of the King.  It’s about discipleship and obedience.  But we are also told that we will reign with Christ.  We are to bring God’s Kingdom on earth, to bring God’s reign and his justice to all creation.  And we are to be priests.  Priests are people who reconcile God and humanity.  

 Why does the Church exist?  I think it can be narrowed down to three things:  First, the Church exists to proclaim God’s word so all people can know Jesus and follow him.  Second, the Church exists to disciple and nurture the faith of all believers.  And third, the Church exists to be salt and light, to bring God’s justice and mercy to the brokenness of this world.  

 Within the general question, “Why does the Church exist?” there is also a more specific question:  “Why does my local church exist?”  Why would it matter if your church closed its doors?  There are other local churches out there.  Can’t they just do what you’re doing?  

 Each local church has its own particular purpose and character.  We each have our own identity.  For some churches, the focus is more on disciple-making and proclamation.  Others

focus more on discipleship and nurturing. Others focus more on being salt and light.  Each local church should do all of the things that the Church does, but we’re always going to find our particular niche in the larger mission of the Church.  

 Why does our church exist?  What is our unique purpose?  That was the question we set out to answer several years ago when we did the Vision Team process.  We were trying to discern exactly who we are and exactly what God is calling us to do as a particular congregation within the larger Church.  We tried to develop a vision, mission, and core values based on who we are.  I’m not sure we finished the job, but we made some progress.  And without a clear sense of purpose, no congregation will be able to thrive.  We need a clear sense of purpose to propel us forward.  Otherwise, we fall back on routine and tradition and familiarity.  

 Deep down, I think we long for a sense of purpose.  We want our lives to matter.  We want to be part of something big and important.  

 Several years ago, I saw a History Channel show about Alexander the Great.  He was the king of Greece who had a grand vision.  He wanted to conquer the world and make everything Greece.  He came pretty close to succeeding, at least until he died.  But the show focused on his India campaign.  After conquering the Middle East, he set his sights on India.  It was a foolish thing to do.  He was hopelessly outnumbered.  He had problems with supply lines.  His troops had been in the field for years.  And he didn’t have the money to pay them.  But they still followed him.  They followed him voluntarily, in spite of all the odds against them.  

 Why?  Because they were caught up in his grand vision.  Alexander had a clear sense of purpose, and they were caught up in it.  In a way, it really wasn’t so different from Jesus’ purpose:  Conquer sin and death and make the world the Kingdom of God.  Maybe the biggest difference is that Jesus rose after he died.  Alexander not so much.  

 God has a clear purpose for the Church.  But we lose sight of it.  And we slip back into old, comfortable, familiar routines.  We remember better days in the past.  But if we can catch hold of that vision, it will light a fire in our souls.  Because we want to be a part of something big and meaningful.  Something like the Kingdom of God.  

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