Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Transforming Church- Community

Acts 2:42-47, 1st Corinthians 12:12, 26, Philippians 2:1-4

 I have never been one to preach through books.  I know a lot of pastors do it.  They’ll read a book and then preach a sermon series through the chapters of the book.  I’ve never once done that, until today.  And I might do it again this summer.  But this first time will be preaching through the book Transforming Church.  This was the book recommended to our church Vision Team by our Conference Director of Congregational Development, Rev. Jim Walker, who came and spoke to us last September.

 Transforming Church is about building healthy churches.  Building a healthy church takes time.  There are no quick fixes.  And it requires transformation, fundamental change from unhealthy ways to healthy ways.  We know from the Scriptures that only God can give growth to the Church.  One plants, another waters, but God gives the growth.  Becoming healthy is about “getting ourselves out of the way,” allowing for God to work, removing the unhealthy barriers to growth.  

 Change is not easy.  Every church says it wants to grow.  And most say that they are willing to change in order to grow.  But most churches also resist change.  

 The book Transforming Church is based on the work of a church consulting company.  They have consulted with hundreds of churches in North America and have studied thousands more.  And the conclusion that they’ve come to is that the dysfunctions of the American Church are really the dysfunctions of American culture.  And they have identified the top five areas where churches are unhealthy.  The first of those is that many churches lack authentic community.  We have been influenced more by our society than we have been influenced by authentic Christian culture, such as that we see in Acts chapter 2, a close knit community with a radical sharing of life.  

 One of the trends that we’ve seen in American Christianity is the rise of the mega-church, mega-churches being defined as those with more than 2000 people in attendance.  I found this rather surprising:  Prior to 1970, there were only 10 mega-churches in America.  Today, there are about 1000.  The emphasis in the mega-church is on quality.  Mega-churches have great music, great programs, great facilities, and so on.  But there is typically not an emphasis on great community.  I’ve often heard people say when we talk about mega-churches, “How would you even know anyone?”  There are some that have strong communities, but there are many that don’t.  

 Many mega-churches are not really healthy churches.  They are doing well in terms of numbers of people and how much money they have to work with and having a nice facility.  But doing well and being well are very different things.  Offering great services is not the same as having a real community.

 Community must be built, created, made.  Community means relationships, and relationships have to be built.  But so much of our society is focused on taking, consuming, using, rather than creating or building.  

 It’s called consumerism, the belief that happiness comes from acquiring and consuming products and services.  Television might be the emblem of the consumer age.  Instead of families building relationships actively, now very often families are reduced to consuming television passively.  The mega-church phenomenon is in large part consumer driven.  It’s about offering the best products to a mostly passive audience, products that people will want to consume.  Even the structure of most mega-churches fits into the consumer model.  Instead of a sanctuary where people participate in worship, there is now an auditorium, where people watch a “show” on stage.

 That’s not what we see in Scripture.  Two of the very first things we learn about God come from Genesis chapter one.  First, we learn that God exists in community:  “Let us make human beings in our image.”  God is in community.  He has always existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in community within himself.  And second, God is creative.  He creates human beings and then seeks to build, to create, relationship with us.  

 If we are made in God’s image, then we are meant to create and to live in community.  The Christian life should be a shared life.  Think back about those three passages of Scripture we’ve heard this morning from Acts 2, 1st Corinthians 12, and Philippians 2.  What things are described as “shared” in those passages?  We see shared fellowship.  We see shared tables, shared food.  We see shared homes, people opening their homes to each other.  We see shared resources, financial help for those in need.  We see shared joy, being glad together when one is glad.  We see shared sorrow, grieving together when one is sad.  We see shared encouragement.  We see shared love.  We see shared work.  And we see shared interest in each other’s lives.  At no point in there do we see any kind of focus on the individual.  Everything is about a community of faith growing together.

 And if that is what the Christian life is, then what is the Church?  The Church is meant to be a creative community that is built by its members.  It’s not simply to be a dispenser of spiritual services.  The Church does not exist to “feed” its members.  I don’t know about you but I’ve heard many people say that over the years:  “I just wasn’t being fed there.”  That’s a consumer-minded approach to the church.  The emphasis is all on what I take from the church, not what I make of the church.  

 The Church exists to give glory to God and to build the Kingdom of God.  The emphasis should be on how each member builds up the church rather than on how the church serves its “customers.”  

 Our best creativity happens in community.  We are inspired as we live our lives in community.  We hear from God best in community.  Those of you who read “Experiencing God” last fall might remember this example:  A man was walking down a set of railroad tracks, and he didn’t see a train coming.  But his ears said, “I hear one behind me.”  And his feet said, “I feel the ground moving.”  But his eyes insisted, “I don’t see one.”  That’s how it is if our Christian life is just “me and Jesus.”  We are unaware of so much of what God is doing around us if we are not connected to the Body of Christ.   

 No body can function at its full capacity, unless every member contributes.  It can function.  Take away a hand, and the body can still function.  But it can never do everything that it could if it were whole.  And likewise, a church can never do everything God intends it to do unless every member is vitally connected to the rest.  

 So how do we build healthy community?

 First, we must value the contribution of every member.  Every member must be honored for what they bring to the Body.  Their gifts, their resources, their ideas, their places of ministry, and how God is at work through them must all be valued by the whole church.  No one can be ignored as insignificant to the life of the church because without that member, the Body can’t function as God intended it.

 Second, there must be a plan for “assimilation,” for integrating people into the community of faith.  How do new people enter into this community?  And for those who have lost their vital connection to this community, how can they be restored?  Churches that are not intentional about integrating people into the community seldom do it well.

 And finally, a church needs to create opportunities for relationships to form and grow.  For casual relationships, the concept of a “third place” is often important.  A third place is not where you live, not where you work, but a third place.  A place where you socialize, get to know people.  Starting a coffee hour after worship once a month was something we did to try to make a “third place” here at Seward.  

 But of course we also want relationships to grow.  And one of the best ways that happens in the Church is through small groups, places where relationships go deeper.  Bible studies, Sunday School classes, men’s or women’s groups, even church committees or teams can be places where relationships go deeper.  

 For the last year, the Vision Team has been working to create a strategic plan for our church, and we are still working.  The first part of that process was to write Vision, Mission, and Core Value statements for our church that are intended to direct us toward health.  But that’s just the beginning.  From here we are moving on to re-examine our whole church life to bring it to health.  

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