Where are all the people? – April 12, 2015 – Matthew 28: 16 – 20

I know we were all so happy to see our pews filled last week. I pray, and I’m sure many of you pray, for our pews to be that full every Sunday. So, where are all those people who come on Easter? Where are all the people who were here last week? Some of them were family members who have their own church but came last week to be with family. Others are part of that C & E Christian group, those who only come on Christmas and Easter. Today, we are missing all those people who were here last week and others we haven’t seen in awhile.

The eleven disciples gathered on the mountain in Galilee know what it’s like to miss a friend in their fellowship. When the 11 disciples gathered, waiting for Jesus, they missed their friend Judas. I’m sure they all knew what Judas had done, but they still knew that their fellowship was not complete without him. I don’t want in any way to suggest that those often missing from our fellowship have betrayed Jesus, their faith, or the church. But, I know the disciples can relate to us in missing someone from our fellowship and knowing our fellowship is incomplete.

I have talked to some of you about your concerns that there are some people who don’t regularly come. We hear many things from them about why they don’t regularly attend. We hear a lot of excuses. I think the most often expressed concerns about coming to church on Sunday mornings are:
1) It is the only day to sleep in,
2) It is our family day because we are so busy during the week we don’t get to spend much time as a family, and
3) We have other things we have to do that we don’t get done during the week.

I know for those of you who raised your kids or are raising your kids in the church these concerns don’t make sense because you made sacrifices to make sure that your kids were in church every Sunday and at youth group during the week. So, what is the answer? Where are all the people?

I came across an article on Facebook that I thought might be wildly unpopular with those people I’m friends with on Facebook, but I think might be exactly what many of you want to say. This is addressed to parents. I didn’t find one addressed to other adults who don’t regularly attend worship. This article is addressed to parents about worship attendance. This was written by Rev. Neil MacQueen, a Presbyterian minister who is a Pastor for Children, Youth and Family with 30 years of experience. I’ll read you excerpts from the article.

“Dear Moms and Dads,

When your kids grow up, leave the church and later on don’t take your grandchildren to church, please do not blame the church. Instead, look in the mirror for part of the problem.

I’m 99.9% sure your son Jake is not going to become a professional athlete, but you let his teach occupy an inordinate amount of his time. I am, however, 99.9% sure he will have to live his life with or without the support and comfort a community of faith can provide.

Kelly, I’m pretty sure your daughter Zoe will not be a Girl Scout when she is 30 or 50 – so I don’t understand why you let her choose the troop over the children’s fellowship. (I hold my tongue when you complained that she doesn’t know the kids at church.)

Dan, I think it’s great that Jen got a job as a greeter at Applebee’s. But she’s also on Student Council and taking AP classes, and thus, missing a lot of Sunday school and youth group. For what? Gas money.

Maggie, I know you love being outdoors and spending time with family. Me too. So how come you skipped the family retreat that you told us you wanted?

Nancy, I’m bummed that your James likes karate class better than our fellowship group. What 9 year old wouldn’t? Just don’t act surprised when he’s 14 and doesn’t want to come to church at all.

…I think you get his point…Here is his conclusion.

Going to church is no guarantee of faith. But, I can guarantee that if your lifestyle, priorities, and calendar choices make church participation quite less than regular, then their future church participation will quite likely be zero… I know [this] sounds harsh, but it’s the truth about parenting children towards faith. Your church made a promise to you and your child to provide faith formation opportunities. If they aren’t what they should be, speak up!” (http://sundayresources.net/neil/2015/03/23/a-wake-up-call-to-parents/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sundayresources+%28SundayResources+update+from+Neil%29).

In the great commission, Jesus calls us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” I think when we often hear this commission we hear a call to evangelize non-believers around the world. But, we can hear a call within our own neighborhoods. We have people to make disciples of right here.

There are a lot of people in Bethany, and this church, who have been baptized but don’t attend church. I think that’s where we find our problem. We have gone. We have baptized, but we have not made disciples. I don’t think this is specific to our church. There are a whole lot of churches who aren’t good at making disciples. There are few churches who are good at making disciples.

Jesus said, “Go, baptism, and teach.” The Church has failed to teach discipleship. We teach the Bible and we think that’s enough. As Jesus said, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Teaching the stories of Christmas and Easter, or Jesus walking on water, or Jesus feeding the 5,000 isn’t enough. It is important we be Biblically literate. That’s what I aim to do through preaching. That’s what our Sunday school classes and Bible study classes seek to do as well. We need to include in our teaching the characteristics of discipleship.

I did a lot of reading about what makes a disciple this week, because I wanted other people’s perspectives about what I had been thinking about. I found suggestions of: obedience, fruitfulness, fellowship, service. I also found word, relationship and ministry. I keep going back to the fellowship of believers in Acts 2: 42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

There are many people, a lot of people, who would disagree with me, but my definition of a disciple is closely tied to what I expect of church members, because I believe disciples are devoted to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. A disciple is a person of faith who seeks to be a student of Jesus’ teachings. Faith is lived out in a community. The Christian faith is meant to be practiced in the fellowship of other believers. Christians study the Scriptures as a community. That faith community is a church. So, I have concluded that a disciple is devoted to the church. I don’t want to suggest that devotion to the church is devotion to Christ, but being involved in the church is a sign of your discipleship.

All week, I thought about what it means to be involved in the church, what I expected of Christians, and what I expected of us. I thought about what I expected of myself when I attended church before I became a minister. I had come up with 3 things then it dawned on me that I preached about a list of 5 in January. The 3 I had come up with were part of the list of 5 I shared with you in January. I guess my beliefs were influenced by Rev. Adam Hamilton’s list of 5 expectations of church members. His 5 expectations are: worship regularly, seek to grow in the faith apart from worship, serve God and others, give in proportion to your income, and share your faith with others. I like Hamilton’s list: worship, grow, serve, give and share.

I know you expect these things of me as your minister. I hope you expect them of yourselves. Now, how do we teach that? How do we turn our C & E members into active members? How do we turn our unchurched neighbors into disciples?

When I wrote this sermon I had a pessimistic perspective. I assumed that we wouldn’t have 90 people in our pews again this morning. I assumed some of our young adults would not be here this morning with their families. I had thought about writing a second, more optimistic sermon. But, I figured I’d have the opportunity to share with you that I too am frustrated. Many churches, and many ministers, experience our same frustration that we have members who are inactive and it’s really hard to turn inactive members into active members.

I don’t know the answer. I wish I did. I know many of you agree with the letter to parents I read earlier from Neil MacQueen. Maybe it will take us being that honest with our inactive members. Maybe we need to tell our inactive members that we expect them to worship with us regularly. I don’t know. I just wonder, “where are all the people?”

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