When I joined the church in Akron, Ohio, what seems like a lifetime ago, I wanted to be a part of the life of the church. I wanted to explore my spiritual gifts and contribute to the body of Christ’s unity and service. Before I was even able to name the stirring of the Spirit within my soul to engage in fellowship and service with fellow believers, I got involved. I joined Bible Study on Wednesday evenings, a Sunday school class, the women’s group and the worship committee. It was exciting to be a part of something. I was doing my part to enter into the life of the church. I was having fun, learning about the Bible, growing in my faith, helping with the planning activities of the church, getting to know my fellow church goers.
Then, I was invited to join a committee that was a special ad hoc committee tasked with discerning the vision and mission of the church. My eyes were opened. Before that work, I saw a church that worshipped together and learned together. There were 2 services. There was the traditional worship service in the sanctuary and a contemporary service in the fellowship hall with a praise band, casual dress and a laid back atmosphere.
The discernment committee work opened my eyes to what was going on behind the scenes. The traditional worship people were feeling anxious. There numbers were dwindling. They were giving 80% of the budget, but losing their power. They were threatened by the other worship service growing. They were losing their numbers to people who were moving over to the contemporary service. They were afraid that soon they would be outnumbered and have to give up their spot in the sanctuary. They were afraid they would be relegated to the fellowship hall and the larger contemporary service would get moved into the sanctuary.
The contemporary worship service was a bunch of young people, youth, kids, and their grandparents. When the contemporary worship service was started, the younger adults and their kids gravitated toward the service and gathered in the fellowship hall. Slowly, the grandparents followed their kids and grandkids to the fellowship hall. The preaching was more relatable. The music was rocking. We could wear jeans and t-shirts. Kids played in the back of the room at tables with snacks and crafts or coloring pages. We didn’t want to move into the sanctuary. We were happy in the fellowship hall. We just wanted the other people to leave us alone and pay the bills for the building and pastors.
The work of the discernment team opened my eyes to the realities of the church. The discernment team was comprised of people from both worship services trying to figure out to be church together. We got stuck on how to co-exist and never got to the work of outreach. We were in downtown Akron in a big historic building with lots of money in our endowment across the street from the men’s homeless shelter and just miles away from a dozen ministries working with street people, the poor, and children. In such close proximity to helping ministries and we were holed up in our big beautiful building fighting about worship style draining the endowment to support 4 pastoral staff members and 2 secretaries.
When King David wanted to build God a temple, this church in Akron Ohio was what God feared. We don’t know the motives of King David. The Bible tells us that King David had a nice home and he wanted to build a nice home for God. God refused King David’s offer. Whether well intended or not, God didn’t want a permanent dwelling place. A permanent dwelling place would place limitations on God and create a religious institution. God had never asked any of the previous Jewish leaders to build a temple, because there was no need for God to have a permanent dwelling place.
God was content living in a tent among the people. God could be where His people were. He could be for His people what they needed for Him to be. God was without limits and people were not excluded from His presence. God was free to be God, doing what He wanted to do and being where He wanted to be. God said, “no thanks, David.” Instead, God would build something for David. God promised to build a kingdom for David. David would learn that it is not about what we can do for God, but what God can do for us and through us.
There are so many churches still stuck, like my once home church that has now closed. They get stuck focused on numbers of pew sitters and giving units. They want to grow the church so there are more pew sitters and giving units. Whether well intended or not, growing the church is not about pew sitters and giving units. It’s not about how many people come to the church on Sunday morning and how much is collected in the offering plate. It’s not that the desire to grow is a bad thing. Unfortunately, we base our success as a church on Sunday morning numbers not what really matters….lives changed.
Our churches have done to God exactly what He feared we would. We’ve built 4 walls in which we try to contain God. We have built a religious institution within those walls that sets boundaries for who is welcome and what is appropriate and acceptable behavior. We try to tell people that being a good person means going to church on Sundays and being like us doing what we do. We’ve said experiencing God happens at 10 am on Sunday mornings for approximately 1 hour. You should dress well. You should sit relatively quiet and listen. Sing at the appropriate times and recite pre-ordained prayers. Eat this bread, well, we can’t really decide on what is the right type of bread, but you get my point.
We have changed our worship a lot over the past few years but it’s still relatively similar in style to what we’ve always done and what many of our neighbors do and other churches across the world do. But, the church is more than what happens on Sundays at 10 am.
This weekend at the Christian Church in Illinois and Wisconsin regional assembly I heard stories about what God is doing to create the Kingdom of God. We didn’t hear stories about the buildings being built. We didn’t hear statistics of churches growing attendance or giving. What we heard were stories of the work God is doing through the body of Christ when churches have stopped trying to contain God in a building, when they are willing to go out to find God among His people.
I heard the story of First Christian Church in Galesburg. Galesburg schools have over 80% of their students on free or reduced lunches. The church was invited by a group to host a feeding program for children. The group had been lined up to be hosted in another church but it fell through. The Christian Church in Galesburg had only a few weeks to decide if they were going to host this feeding program.
The church had been in the midst of doing the discernment work we did 3 years ago seeking out the greatest needs among our neighbors and praying about how God might meet those needs through their gifts and resources. And, here is placed before the answer to their prayerful discernment with not much time to prepare. Of course, there was some reluctance. People wondered if their insurance would cover the program being in their kitchen. They wondered what the additional utilities would cost. They wondered what it meant to have all these extra people in their church. They wondered how they would share their kitchen when they needed to use it. There were lots of questions.
Then, the church heard a story about a little boy in their community. He had gone to school on Monday morning. He was sick. The school had discovered that he was sick because he hadn’t eaten since the school lunch on Friday. The church was moved by the story and accepted the invitation to host the feeding program. The church has a new motto or mission statement. They say, “the church has left the building.”
There are Disciples churches around the region that are meeting the needs of their neighbors on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings and summer evenings and Friday nights. These churches have moved from trying to limit God’s work to Sunday mornings and have accepted their calling to move out of their buildings to reach their neighbors, out where God is, among His people.
Three years ago, we did the work of discerning what our neighbors’ deepest needs are and prayerful planned how we might meet those needs. We’ve done a lot toward meeting those goals…but I think it’s because a lot of our goals was to continue do what we’ve been doing. Not that what we’ve been doing through our youth outreach programs or the food pantry aren’t good and important work, but we’ve perhaps lost sight of some of the other challenges set before us in the ministry plan.
I’ve talked to several of you recently who have said you’re frustrated because we seem stagnant or stuck. You’ve expressed concern that we have this new structure to make us more flexible for doing ministry but we’re not realizing it’s full potential. We’ve taken advantage of the new model and the Board does most of the work without asking others for help.
I am going to challenge the Board. I realize we have a lot of work to do before the end of the year. We’ve got a budget to plan and nominations to make. The Board is finalizing some plans to present to you for financing a new roof and a personal conduct policy setting some guidelines for relating to our children. Plus, we’ve got Advent and Christmas. So, let’s get that work done; then, in January, we’re going to take up the work of evaluating our 3-year ministry plan. Next year is the 3rd of the 3-year plan. There are still things that we said we were going to do and haven’t yet done. In January, I will challenge the Board to set goals for fulfilling those goals and begin to invite others to participate in the work. I’m going to give everyone a copy of the 3 year ministry plan at the November congregational meeting.
Between, now and January, I’d like for you to think about the activities of this church.
Consider, is the work we’re doing to build a Temple for God or allow God to create a kingdom through us?
Is what we’re doing going to glorify God or try to limit God?
Is what we’re doing meeting the needs of others?
Are we meeting God’s desires or our own?
When David offered a building, God offered a kingdom. We have to make a decision: are we going to create barriers to God or are we going to go out and meet God where He is among His people? Do we trust what God has planned or do we want to do what we want to do? Are we going to do things for ourselves or others?