Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Transforming Church- Code

Acts 2:42-47 and 1st Corinthians 12:12-21

 When we studied Transforming Church as a Vision Team, we found the chapters on a church’s “code” to be the most difficult.  It was the hardest part to understand, and the hardest to apply to our church, but we also thought it was the most important part.  It was the one that we kept coming back to, even months later, saying, “What is our church code?  Have we really figured it out?  Do we really have a grip on it?”  We’re still not sure.  

 So no surprise that I’ve wrestled with it here.  It is the part of the book that seems to have the least to do with the Bible.  So I thought that the best way to present was to go back and relate it to Scripture.  And for that reason, I chose 1st Corinthians 12 as one of the texts for this morning.  

 In 1st Corinthians 12, we find Paul’s most familiar image of the Church:  The Church is the Body of Christ.  And I find that image to be true at every level.  The whole Church, Christians everywhere throughout the world, in every nation and people and denomination, is the Body of Christ.  But it’s also true on a local level.  A single congregation is the Body of Christ.  And it’s also true in between, that all the local churches in a given area are the Body of Christ.  

 And the same relates to the members of the Church.  Every believer around the world is a part of the Body of Christ.  And every member in a local congregation is part of the Body of Christ.  But I also think that congregations as a whole function as parts of the Body.  In a given town or city or area, you might have a dozen churches, and each of them is unique, a distinct part of the Body of Christ in that community.  

 Now we know that each and every human being is unique.  After all, we all have different DNA; we all have our own distinct genetic code that helps to make us who we are.  Even “identical” twins are not completely identical because while they share the same DNA, they have different life experiences, different stories. 

  In the same way, every local church, every congregation, has its own code that makes it distinct and different from other congregations.  Each church has its own essence, its own character, its own personality, its own story.  And in order for it to be healthy, a church has to act in keeping with its code, its identity.  

 Well, let’s back up a moment here and try to define just what we’re talking about.  What is code, how does it work, what does it mean?  It is the church’s essence, its soul.  

 Code can’t be changed.  A human being can’t change their code.  If you’re born with blond hair, you can’t decide to become a brunette.  You can color your hair, but you haven’t changed it.  You’ve just covered it up.  In the same way, a church can’t change its code.  It can’t just decide to be something different than what it is.  It can only cover up its code, which is called “incongruence.”  Incongruence is not healthy.  It’s disruptive to try to be something that you are not.  

 For example, consider a church that starts out of a small group Bible study.  As the church grows, it continues to focus on connecting its members through small groups.  Then one day there’s a change of leadership, and the new leadership decides “no more small groups.  We should all be together, so instead of small groups we’re going to all meet once a week for a time of fellowship and discipleship.”  Do you think people would resist that?  Would it create tension?  Yes.  You can’t just change who you are.  

 Second, code is not rational.  It’s not something people think about and decide rationally.  Code is very emotional.  People don’t think about the code so much as they feel the code.  And it’s often only felt at a subconscious level.  It seldom rises to the surface level of conscious thought.  When something is against the code, we feel uneasy about it.  It just doesn’t feel right.  

 For example, in many churches a feeling of family is part of the code.  People describe their church as a family.  But what if in the church’s “business” meetings, there is no feeling of family?  What if it’s all business?  Will people feel that something is out of place?  Yes. 

 Third, code is shaped by context, it is shaped by what’s going on around us.  The code of a church in the United States, where we enjoy religious freedom, is going to be very different from the code of a church in Iran, where Christianity is not a legal religion.  And code will be different in a sparsely populated rural area than it will be in a large city.  Even if the churches share the same basic beliefs.  You see, code has very little to do with beliefs.  It’s more about personality.

 In Acts chapter two, we see some aspects of the code of the Jerusalem church.  Worship in the Temple was part of their code.  It makes sense because they were all Jewish Christians who were used to worshipping in the Temple.  A radical sharing of possessions was part of their code.  Many in that church were ostracized from society when they became a follower of Jesus, so they depended on each other for help and support.  We don’t see those same things in other New Testament churches because they had different contexts.  

 This is also the reason why code can’t be copied.  You can’t just pick up “what worked over there” and move it here and expect everything to go exactly the same!  There are some things that are part of the code for every churches, like fellowship and discipleship and evangelism, but most of a church’s code will be unique to its own setting.

 Fourth, code is value neutral.  It is neither right nor wrong.  It just is.  Is it immoral to be a redhead?  No, it’s just who you are.  In the same way, a church’s code is not right or wrong.  It just is.  

 But how the code is applied can be right or wrong.  For example, many churches have safety as part of their code.  People often want the church to be a safe environment.  That’s not right or wrong, it just is.  But if your desire for a safe environment means that you want to exclude people who make you feel unsafe because of their skin color or language or how much money they make, that is wrong.  

 Finally, code is a filter.  It lets the things through that fit, and keeps out those that don’t fit.  Code does not prevent change, but it does direct change.  In fact, it directs the whole life of the church, as long as a church is acting “healthy,” acting in keeping with what it is, being true to itself.  One of the most fundamental things we all have to do in life is to know who we are and then to be true to who we are.  That’s true for us as followers of Jesus Christ, and it’s true for a church, too.  

 Different churches have different identities, and hence, different callings, even if they share the same beliefs.  How God has formed a church has a lot to say about how God will use that church.  Some churches have fellowship as part of their identity.  Some have worship.  Some have discipleship.  Some have missions.  It’s true that all of those are things that every church should do, but every church is going to gravitate toward doing one or more of them in particular.  Every church worships, but in some churches worship is “just part of what we do,” and in others, “Worship IS what WE do.”  And we need to be true to who God has made us to be, as individuals and as a church.

 So if code is subconscious, if it’s something we really don’t think about, how do we get to know it?  One way is through early memories, either our childhood memories of a church or our first memories of a church that helped us to know “we’ve found a place where we fit.”  Another way is through stories, especially “myths,” stories that are repeated over and over because they are so defining to the church’s identity.  Another way is through “heroes,” members of the church that everyone looked up to.  Another way is through rituals, things a

church does over and over again.  Even the architecture and décor can be a clue to code.  If you walk into a church with a wonderfully decorated and painstakingly kept sanctuary, can you guess what part of the code might be?  Or if the church has a whole “education wing,” might learning be part of the code?  Rules, whether they are written or unwritten, can be a clue to code.  They often reveal the code in negative ways, showing how the church is trying to protect its code.  

 The question that we on the Vision Team have spent a lot of time wrestling about is, “What is our code here at Seward UMC?”  We think we have some ideas.  

 We think that growing in understanding is part of our code.  When you read the church history of SUMC, you find a lot of references to the size and scope of Christian education.  So it’s been important here.

 We think that the contribution of every member is part of our code.  One of the “myths” we heard over and over was that after the last church building was destroyed by fire, the congregation was told, “You don’t have the resources to rebuild.”  But everyone got together and did their part, and a new building was the result.  Everyone contributed, and that was important.

 We think that a feeling of safety is part of our code, as it is for many churches.  People want to feel safe in their church.

 And finally, we think that faith put into hands-on action is part of our code.  When we talked about our church “heroes,” one of the common threads is that they were folks who didn’t just talk about their faith but who would show you their faith in very practical ways.  

 From these four pieces of the code, we have derived four core values.  Core values are the ones that represent who your church is and that reinforce your identity.  They are supposed to be about who we are, not who we wish we were.  Because we can only try our best to be true to who we are.

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