Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Dying Churches Focus on Their Own Comfort

Philippians 4:10-14 and Mark 8:31-38

 Last week we began to talk about the book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”  We talked about the most pervasive trait of churches that die:  They live in the past.  Today we’re going to talk about a second widespread trait of dying churches:  They focus on their own comfort first.  

 That shouldn’t surprise us.  Is not our culture obsessed with ease and comfort?  When you watch a car commercial, don’t they always focus in on the exquisite detailing of the Italian leather upholstery and the exotic wood trim and the heated seats?  How many billions of dollars do we spend annually on clothes, medicines, furniture, appliances, and everything else that makes us feel comfortable?  Why wouldn’t we expect people to bring the same attitude into the Church?  Why would people not want their opinions, their styles, and so on to run the day in the Church?  

 But that’s not what the gospel calls us to.  Jesus preached a message of self-denial, not comfort.  

 We heard from Mark 8.  Now, I think it’s certain that Peter wanted God’s Kingdom to come.  He just didn’t want it to come in the way Jesus was talking about.  Jesus spoke of his own death.  Peter wanted Jesus to put their enemies to death.  He wanted a worldly and politically powerful Kingdom of God, not an other-worldly and politically powerless Kingdom of God.  

 Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself.”  Say no to your desires, your will, your comfort.  “If you try to cling to things, you will lose them anyway.”  Nothing in this world will last.  It’s not worth clinging to the things of this world.  We should cling to Jesus and do his will.  

 “Is anything worth more than your soul?  Is anything worth more than your eternal life?”  Let me turn that question around:  “Is your comfort worth more than your neighbor’s soul?”  That’s the real issue.  Many churches are not reaching their neighbors with the life-giving message of the gospel for the sake of their own comfort.  

 The author, Thom Rainer, talks about a few ways that we can see that playing out in the lives of congregations:

 First, dying churches want the comfort of people just like themselves.  Sometimes that means they cease to look like the communities that they are located in.  This is more obvious in urban areas, where changes tend to happen more rapidly, but it can also happen in other places.

 My mother grew up in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that was predominantly white when she was born and predominantly non-white by the time she graduated from high school.  She attended a Methodist Church.  As the community changed, the church did not.  Members moved away, but kept driving back to the church.  Years after she moved away, the church was still 100% white, but almost none of the members lived in the neighborhood.  Eventually, it closed.  It died.  No one took seriously the idea of stepping out of their comfort zones to welcome the people that lived in the community.  

 Why not?  Because dying churches are comfortable in their fortress.  I mean church building.  You know what I mean.  

 Walls keep people in and they keep people out.  The people outside the church walls feel uncomfortable in them, and the people in the walls are uncomfortable outside of them.  They may say, “Everyone is welcome in here!”  But do they really mean it?  

 I don’t get many chances to be an outsider in a church.  When you’re the pastor, you have an “inside track.”  But from time to time, I get to visit churches as an outsider to see what happens.  My experience, by and large, has been that I was unwelcome.  

 When Sharon and I were both in college, we attended several different churches together.  One was the United Methodist Church where her father was appointed after she started college, so we had an inside track there.  But the other United Methodist Church we went to a few times was in the town where she attended school.  I don’t remember how many times we went to that church, but I remember we had the same experience every time:  No one spoke to us.  No one.  One time we couldn’t find a bulletin, and no one helped us.  We just wandered around till we stumbled on one.

 I’ve had similar experiences in other places.  We went once to a UMC in Vienna, VA while we were visiting family.  No one spoke to us, except the pastor.  After all, that’s the pastor’s job.  Once we went with Sharon’s folks to a UMC in Myrtle Beach while on vacation.  No one spoke to us, but the ladies in the pew behind us made it very clear in loud whispers that they didn’t appreciate us sitting in their seats.  When Sharon tried to take the kids to the nursery, she couldn’t find it.  And no one offered to help.  

 Strangely, the one experience we had of a friendly church was a Church of the Nazarene in the town where Sharon went to college.  They were so friendly we walked out with a CD from their choir and had to turn down two invitations to lunch.  

 I think most people want their church to grow.  They just don’t want to sacrifice their own comfort for it to happen.  Some months ago I saw a cartoon that depicted a “pastoral

search committee” at work, and the chairperson came to the conclusion:  “Okay, so let me get this straight:  We want a pastor who will challenge us and lead us in new directions by keeping everything exactly the same, right?”  There it is: Dying churches want to keep the same programs, the same worship, yet somehow still attract new people, but only if the new people are just like the people already there.  

 A good example of this, which I’ve heard of several times, is that a church will decide to start a contemporary worship service.  But they won’t move the worship service they already have.  Or the Sunday School.  So they end up starting a new worship service to attract new people at 8 AM.  Because, of course, the people sleeping in instead of going to worship at 10:30 will be willing to go at 8, right?  Sure.

 The third way this comfort-driven focus can be seen is that dying churches are comfort-driven with their money.  

 Often the church staff becomes the largest expense.  And the staff are primarily expected to minister to the congregation, not to the community.  By the way, United Methodist pastors are appointed to serve congregations and communities.  

 When budget cuts are made, the first things to go are typically the outward-oriented ministries.  The things that the members enjoy are not cut.  

 Or sometimes the church hoards its money in fear of the, largely mythical, “rainy day.”  It never fails.  Every time I’ve been in a church council meeting about spending a large amount of money, at least one person has said, “What if the roof leaks?”  

 Let me close with a thought from Paul in Philippians.  He says, “Real contentment can only be found in Jesus.  Without him, we can never be content.  With him, we can be content no matter our circumstances.”  Paul was content to sit in a jail cell if it would further the cause of Christ.  By contrast, some Christians, apparently, are unwilling to sit in a different pew to further the cause of Christ.

 The gospel is not about our comfort.  It is about being a part of a great work of God.  And I do believe we are quite capable of embracing that.  Deep down, we really do long to be a part of something great, something that changes the world.  But, if we take our focus off of our great mission for too long, then we fall back onto our default position:  We want to be comfortable.  But we’ll talk more about that in a couple weeks.  

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