Saturday, July 28, 2012

From Center to Edge, But Still Center

Ephesians 1:3-14
July 29, 2012
William G. Carter

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
   who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
   just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
   according to the good pleasure of his will, 
   to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,
   according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,
   according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time,
   to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, 
   having been destined according to the purpose of him
   who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 
   so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him,
   were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 
this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

And then these words again from our call to worship:

    Matthew 13:44-45
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field,
which someone found and hid;
Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;
On finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Happy birthday, Church. You are aging well. You don’t look a day over 99 years old. But I have noticed that something has changed. There aren’t as many people who think you are as important as they did one hundred years ago.

I realize that is an awkward thing to bring up, but it is the truth. There aren’t as many people as interested in the church as there were one hundred years ago. A century ago, any community in America would welcome a Christian congregation right in the center of town. These days, the church contends with the zoning board.

Like that Presbyterian start-up in Rancho San Diego, California. As the congregation worked with an architect to design the building, the neighbors began a protest. They didn’t want a noisy congregation on their streets, or noisy Vacation Bible Schools with noisy kids. They certainly didn’t want a steeple to block their view of the mountains. The neighbors paid a lot of money for their property, and did not want their housing values to drop when a church was built.

These are awkward times. Especially for Christians, for Protestants, for Presbyterians.

When the Disney empire decided to build a planned community in Florida, they designed it to look like Stepford, Connecticut. They called it “Celebration, Florida.” The middle of the designer town, the planners made room for a church. But it couldn’t just be any kind of church. They wanted to be a church that would not offend anybody. So they invited the Presbyterians to bring in a non-offensive church. I, for one, was offended by that. So much for the radical, transforming power of the Gospel! If there’s a church, they didn’t want it to upset anybody.

What they did not understand, in Rancho San Diego or Celebration, Florida, is that times have changed. If you simply put a church in the middle of a community, it does not mean it will be a stabilizing force. For much of our lives, the church was just that – a place for people to come together, a place for strangers to mix, a place for friendships to be made, a place to keep our kids busy, a place that determined much of our social life. I have heard many of the old-timers report how they remember fondly the meals that they enjoyed with others when everybody was younger. The church is not in the center of the town any more.

Gone, too, is the easy presumption that everybody is Christian. Even the Roman Catholic diocese of Scranton has discovered that everybody is not Roman Catholic! People don’t agree on the same life principles, the same governing themes, or the same deities. Nobody can presume that any more. American life is far more diverse than that.

And there is no assumption, either, that the people who say they are religious are following Jesus. One of my friends introduced me to a new comic strip called “Coffee With Jesus.” Have you seen it? A recent strip pictures a woman speaking to the Lord, “I find it encouraging, Jesus, that seventy-five percent of Americans, when asked, identified themselves as Christians.” The Lord responds, “My figures are a bit lower.”

She says, “So people can think they’re believers and not really be? How sad.” And Jesus says, “Wearing a cowboy hat doesn’t make you a cowboy, Ann.”

You have heard me say the statistics before: on any given weekend, only 22 percent of the people in this zip code are attending in a church. And I’ll bet we can brainstorm a number of reasons why:

·         Religious faith has little to do with how they live their lives.
·         They never outgrew the faith of childhood, and it does not fit the complexity of adult life.
·         A church or one of its people damaged them.
·         The religious people who speak on television sound like bigots or fools.
·         The church once fit everybody’s socializing plans. Now people make other plans.
·         People are too busy. Or their families are too busy.
·         Or their families are spread out, due to widespread mobility, and they go to visit them.
·         The culture makes fun of churches. Pay attention to how they are depicted in movies and on TV.
·         The culture is horrified at clergy abuse and disgusted at the official cover-up plots.
·         The culture doesn’t use religious language any more. It defines itself without God.

For instance: somebody said, “That was a nice song that they sang at the opening of the Olympics. I’ve never heard it. What was that?” It was “Abide with Me,” the Christian hymn!  Oh wait, you didn’t see it? The American network edited it out of the show. Instead we had to endure some more insufferable blathering by Ryan Seacrest, whoever he is.

            A hundred years ago, the church was at the center of American culture, just as it was once the center of British culture. There are still residual traces of respect, if you know where to look. On Friday’s opening ceremony for the Olympics, Rowan Williams was seated directly behind the Queen of Great Britain. Know who he is? He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England. Like most television networks of the world, NBC did not bother to identify him.

            We can kvetch all we want, but the church has moved from the center of society to the edge. No amount of shouting or complaining is going to change that. We can lament about it, we can grumble about it, we can study it, we can move to South Carolina and pretend it’s not true – but the sidelining of the Christian church has been one of the most significant changes during the hundred years of this congregation’s history.

            And I think this is more of an opportunity than a tragedy. The cultural Christians (with a small “c”) are floating away. Those of us who are Left Behind have the great opportunity to figure out why Christian faith is so important. We didn’t have to do that, when everybody generally agreed with the Christians. The church got lazy, and spoke in 1950’s generalities. Believe me, I’ve read the old sermons – they rarely said very much, and they said it in such flowery language. Advancement in life was pretty much equated with advancement in faith. Preachers assumed conformity. Church goers were rarely challenged to take risks for God’s kingdom, to forgive the unforgivable, to take a stand against all forms of violence, or to speak out on the dignity of every human being.

            Why is Christian faith so important? Because it’s about Jesus. Christianity is Jesus. In the opening words of the Ephesian letter, the church sings of Jesus:

God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world
God adopted us as his children through Jesus Christ
In Jesus, we have redemption, we have forgiveness.
In Jesus Christ, all things find their final purpose.
In Jesus Christ, we have obtained an inheritance.
In Jesus Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit, God’s own presence.

            Over and over, the faithful church sings about Jesus. That is our calling, and that is our core. The church of the future will focus entirely on Jesus Christ – because he is our very reason for existence. We learn his stories. We chew on his teachings. We follow his example. We give our lives as he has given his life. And if there is anything in the church’s life that does not have to do with Jesus, it can be dropped. We can let it go.

Our purpose is to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the life of the world, that his way is the real way. Jesus is why we are here. He is at the center of all life – he has always been the center. Even if people and institutions have tried to push him to the edge, he abides at the center of all things.

That’s why I like the words that we used to begin our worship service. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The kingdom is like a hidden treasure. The kingdom is like valuable pearl. Jesus is this treasure, this precious pearl. He is waiting to be found – but you have to go looking for him. We don’t gain him by sitting passively, or assuming that wearing a cowboy hat will make us a cowboy. Christian faith is the search for the Christ who has already found us. He knows us intimately. He loves us, forgives us, he has the power to make us new. But we can’t really know this in our bones until we go looking for him. And should we find him, we will get rid of everything else so that we can be part of him – just like the man who stumbles on hidden treasure, just like the merchant who finds the most expensive pearl.

            I know, I know, the world has changed. Meanwhile Jesus is waiting to be found. And when he becomes real to us, everybody around us is going to know it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Got the Itch?

1 Timothy 4:1-10
2 Timothy 3:1-5
July 23, 2012

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.


Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron... Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness,  for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

             This summer, we survey how things have changed for our church over the past hundred years. This congregation is a hundred years ago. The world has changed and keeps changing.

            Here is one way that things have changed: one hundred years ago, people chose churches because of the things that the churches believed. Doctrine was public currency. A lot of people knew that churches differed from one another. Their parents that them that. Roman Catholics went only to Roman Catholic churches; they would never go into a Baptist church, and the Baptist wouldn’t want them. In my own family, just sixty years ago, there was a small crisis when my Presbyterian mother started dating a country boy who was a Methodist.

            As people moved into Clarks Summit a hundred years ago, they selected churches based on what the churches believed. They began with what they knew, what they had been taught by their parents. Does this church believe that we are saved by grace, or does it expect me to work out my salvation in good deeds? Is heaven a free gift, or do I earn it by rehearsing for it? Does this church believe in Mary, the saints, and the Pope? Has God already selected those who are saved and damned, or is the burden on us to believe the right beliefs? A hundred years ago, this is how people talked.

            The grandmothers who started this church started a Presbyterian church. They believed there was a need for that kind of brand, and they knew that a lot of the city Presbyterians were actually living up here in this little railroad town. So they rounded up as many as they could. Everybody was welcome, of course, as long as they were already Presbyterians, or willing to become one.

            And a hundred years ago, Presbyterians built their churches in the centers of towns. They intended to be permanent structures, long-lasting institutions. They had nothing to do with flimsy, fly-by-night flocks on the edge of town. They built a church to last, on an approach and perspective to Christian faith that was, at that point, four hundred years old. The church was built on firm stones, because the cornerstone himself was Jesus Christ. The Presbyterians believed that. Their faith was unshakeable more than it was enthusiastic. So here we are, on the corner of Stone Avenue and School Street, perpetually looking down on the Catholics. A hundred years ago, that was the posture of this church.

            That was a long time ago. Time moves on. And if people used to join up with churches because of what they believe, now they join churches because of what they do. Does the place have programs? Is there something to do? Is there a good children’s program? Are the teenagers kept busy? Is there good music, however understood? Pick the activity, choose the church. Shop around for the right church – not so much on what it says, but what it does. We have been going through a long season where doing seems to be more important than believing.

            So I wonder about this. There used to be a day when you could sort out the Presbyterians who believed in predestination from the Methodists who got all rowdy about prevenient grace. The distinctions mattered, once upon a time. They were hammered out carefully, sometimes forcefully, often literally.

            It’s always been that way. Christians were the people who paid attention to the words. They labored to speak the correct words in the best possible order. For about seven hundred years, Rome was at odds with Constantinople. Each glistening city was a center for the Christian church, just as each was the center of its own expansive empire. Rome was to the west, Constantinople was to the east. Each was a Christian city, and they lived in tension with the other.

The tension went back as far as the Nicene Council, convened in 325 AD. The council sought to bring unity to all Christians. One of the central unifying concerns could be stated this way: how much do God and Jesus overlap? Is God divine and Jesus human? Is Jesus half-divine and half-human? And the Nicene answer is that Jesus is completely human and completely divine. That’s what the church believes; issue settled.

But it was never settled. Not in church. You see, in church, all the votes may be a hundred percent, but it’s never unanimous. That’s why the church has parking lots, to continue discussions on matters already settled. The tension of the Nicene Council continued almost seven hundred years after the theology was decided. And then the Pope of Rome added a phrase that the Patriarch of Constantinople never wanted.

The issue was where does the Holy Spirit come from? The Pope’s people declared, “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Patriarch’s people said, “The Holy Spirit comes from the Father, only from the Father, not the Son. That’s what we decided in 325 AD.” And in 1014 AD, East and West split because of three words that the Western church added to the Nicene Creed. That was the proverbial straw that broke the single Christian church into Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church. A three word phrase! You can say, “What are three words?” The Pope and the Patriarch would say they make all the difference in the world.

People don’t pay attention to the words. Not like they once did. There is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – now they tell us that they are Christian. They call themselves a church. They mention Jesus Christ in their name. The Mormon marketing people say they are Christian – even though the historical Christian churches have never declared them close to our circles of faith.

That’s because the Mormon beliefs are profoundly different from anything that the Catholics, the Orthodox, or the Presbyterians would agree on. To a lot of us, the Mormon church is an American re-invention, based on the visions of a man who left the Christian church in 1830 and claimed to receive golden messages that nobody else has ever actually proved. Now it’s true that Mormon people lead exemplary lives, lives that could be great models for the Christians, but it’s also true that nobody pays much attention to how Mormon words differ profoundly from truly Christian words.

Does it make a difference? In the early church it made a difference. Not that the first, second, and third generations of Christ followers had every theological tidbit nailed down. But they could sniff out a few of the smelly beliefs that filled the air. And they discerned the truth that was grounded in Christ, and the nonsense that was merely a distraction.

            In the second of today’s scripture texts, a mature Christian leader advises a young Christian follower on what not to believe. He says, “The Spirit of God is teaching us. The days will come when people will leave behind our faith about Jesus and chase after liars and hypocrites.” Some of these people say the strangest things, like “don’t get married,” or “a spiritual person goes on spiritual diets.” Some of them even chase after demons. Stay away from these people. Keep your distance. As much as possible, train yourself to be like God while keeping your feet firmly on the ground.

It’s good advice. We worship a God who speaks, but who speaks quietly. And in that stillness, we have to be aware of the other voices that clamor for our attention.

We hear the voices all the time. They linger. When I arrived here so many years ago, somebody in town quizzed me - “What do you think of the ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ philosophy?” You may remember that self-help book from 1967. It’s a book for adults on how to grow up, and explores how the messages of childhood keep us from growing up.

That was 1992, and this guy was still working through that book 25 years after it was published. He said it was the greatest book ever written, that “it was more important than the Bible.” Really? “Oh, yes,” he said, “that book helps me understand why I am the way I am.” He didn’t look very happy when he said it.

I hated to tell him that I had just read a critique of the entire self-help movement called “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional.” And the author pointed out that the biggest problem with self-help books, or motivational speakers, or the “just think positively” crowd, is that nobody in that bunch ever seems to find any practical help – they might feel a little better for the time being, but it rarely lasts - and the guru behind the whole movement is laughing all the way to the bank.

            It’s always been that way. It was that way in the beginning. As we heard from today’s first scripture text, “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires. They will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” And sooner or later, the Itch is exposed for what it is.

            There was a night in January 1998 when I took a water taxi in Fort Lauderdale. It was a strange night. Some friends took us to a steakhouse owned by Burt Reynolds, and they were picking up the tab. The water taxi made its way through the yachts on the Fort Lauderdale waterway, and they were some of the largest boats I have ever seen.

As we putted along, we passed by an enormous mansion. I’m going to guess it was twenty thousand square feet. There was a party going on by one of the three outdoor pools – disco lights, thumping music. We could hardly hear ourselves talk. My host said, “You know who lives there? It’s the guy who runs the Psychic Friends Network.”

            Remember the Psychic Friends Network? Dionne Warwick was the hostess. She introduced you to a psychic. And for $3.99 a minute, you could call your own personal psychic who would tell you how you were going to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. A lot of people were doing this. Nancy Reagan was doing this. All those minutes were paying for a 20,000 square foot mansion with three swimming pools.

About three weeks after we floated by, the place went up for sale. The Psychic Friends Network declared bankruptcy. I guess they weren’t getting good messages from headquarters.

Do the distinctions matter anymore between Presbyterian and Methodist, Catholic and Orthodox? I don’t know. Sometimes I would settle for a community full of Christians, without needing to sort them out by their brand names. You know what I mean? I realize I speak as a Christian who believes the Presbyterian government has the greatest potential for showing respect to every person, as a Christian who believes that our Reformed tradition of theology is the most grounded and inclusive approach to authentic faith, and most of all, as a Christian who believes that God is greater than the words we use to reach toward God. That’s why I think we need to keep working and working to find the best words we can, to get them right.

And there’s something more: faith needs something more than words. True Christian faith inhabits its own vocabulary. We cannot separate the best of what we say from the best we aspire to do. If we declare that God is forgiving, then we ourselves practice forgiveness. If we believe God is generous, then we respect the gifts we have received and share them generously with those around us. If we believe that God is love, we work for the benefit of every other person. This, too, is the practice of Godliness – speaking the truth about what is Holy and then putting our own skin in the game to embody what we profess.

            A mother in New Jersey watched her thirteen year old daughter go through confirmation class this year. Mom was critical of the teacher, sensing the class was disorganized, and noting the official class workbook rolled around in the back of her car and never being taken to weekly classes. She wasn’t sure if anything was getting through to Anna.

            But then the day came when Anna stood to say what she believed:

I believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I still don’t have a few doubts. God is something more in this world that makes everything come together. God sets the guidelines for our lives, but then also gives us certain paths we are able to take. God does make some decisions for us, but we have a lot of freedom in what we do. I also believe that God is the creator, but somehow works into science somehow. God is everywhere. He is there when we need him and wants us to do well in our life and for us to succeed. 

For me, Jesus is the hardest thing for me to believe in. It’s hard for me to believe in all of the things he did, all of his miracles. I do believe Jesus made a huge difference in this world. He changed the way people think. Jesus taught all of us his teachings and now many people follow in his footsteps.

Church is a community coming together. It’s a group of people that all love you and accept you whoever you are, no matter what your faith is. God the creator brings us all together into this wonderful community. This is what I believe, and I want to be part of it. (Thanks to Anna's mom for sharing this note and story!)

            When all is said and done, let’s define the church: church is the community of Christians who are still becoming Christians. It is this circle of people who labor to get the words right about God, to tell the truth about God, and then we work even harder so that others will see the truth about God in the ways we live and the ways we love.

We reach for the truth, it’s true, but only so we can embody it. . 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Church by the Numbers

Acts 2:43-47, 4:1-4, 6:7, 12:24, 13:48-49
Matthew 28:16-20
July 8, 2012

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. 

 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.

A young minister took part in our pastoral mentoring group. Tim was tall, good looking, square shoulders. In college, he played football for Ole Miss. In seminary, he won the senior preaching prize.

So they were delighted at First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC, when he joined the staff. Tim was the associate pastor for membership and evangelism. He was responsible for growing the membership list. 

At that time, First Presbyterian Church had 4500 members. The senior pastor was a man named Kuchinski. He pointed out to Tim that the congregation lost about 450 members a year to attrition and death. His goal for Tim was to bring in 40 new members a month, to stay ahead of the losses. Kuchinski said, "While I am the pastor here, the church will not shrink on my watch." 

So that's why Tim was there - to keep both the membership rolls and Kuchinski's ego fully inflated.

It proved to be a difficult job. Can you imagine how many people in Greenville, South Carolina do not already belong to a church? But Tim dug in. He gave brochures to the Welcome Wagon. He read the property transaction section of the local paper to see who bought a new house. He befriended the secretaries at the elementary schools so they could feed him the names of new families. And he led the new member classes that seemed to run continuously at First Presbyterian Church.

The boss had given him a goal: 40 new members a month. Can't let the numbers drop, because that would reflect poorly on the boss and his church.

One Friday afternoon, Tim was heading out to the parking lot from his office. As he made his way, he noticed a disturbance by the church's day care center. A deranged woman was shouting by the playground. She was waving a loaded pistol and making threats. 

Tim dropped to the ground immediately. He crawled between the cars in the parking lot. As he moved closer, he sensed that the woman was about to go over the edge. He spoke a quick prayer and then lunged at her. Tim wrestled away the gun, pinned her to the ground, and then yelled, "Call 911." The police arrived quickly. The woman was taken away. Tim sat for a good while with the children and their teachers, and led them in a prayer. That night on the new, the TV people called him a hero. 

A day and a half later, on Sunday morning, he got to the church at 8:00. Kuchinski came toward him as he unlocked his office. Kuchinski said, "I've been looking at the numbers, and you have been falling behind on your quota of 40 new members a month. You have a month to bring in more people or your days are numbered." With that, he spun around and stomped away. Not a word about the Friday incident. Not a word of thanks for saving lives. Not a word of affirmation or concern about how he was doing.

I suppose there are pinheads in every occupation. The ministry has had a few. And the story reflects one of the ways that the American church has changed over the past hundred years.  

One hundred years ago, the praying ladies who started this congregation were not thinking about how many people could be jammed into a Presbyterian church. They simply believed the Gospel of God. They trusted the news of Jesus Christ is true, that it has life-giving power, that the way of Christ can transform every human society. That was – and still is – the magnet at the center of Christian faith.

As we heard, the book of Acts offers ongoing summaries as the Gospel began to spread. Let me recall a few:

  • Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
  • The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly…
  • The word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.
And my favorite:

  • Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers. 
What is clear in each of these and other statements is that God was at the center of the growth. It is the word of God that spreads. It is God who advances the church. Want your church to grow? Get serious about God. That is the clear inference from the book of Acts.

But it’s hard for American people to keep that straight. For the past thirty years, we have heard accounts of really big churches, “mega churches” as they often called. They began to emerge about the same time that the Big Box stores replaced the corner hardware store. Same kind of philosophy, too: bigger is better. Higher volume is the game, and if there’s higher volume, you can lower the cost. With a bigger outfit, you can offer more services, employ more specialists, hire a marketing team, dress up the joint.

One of the flagship enterprises is the Willow Creek Community church, out in the suburbs of Chicago. They boast 24,000 attendees a week, in a $73 million sanctuary that seats 7100 people. It’s hard to imagine the scope of that.

By contrast, my jazz band played last Saturday at the opening worship service of the Presbyterian General Assembly. There were 4000 people there for a worship service that took six month to plan. I just deleted 173 e-mails about the planning of that one service. Every week, Willow Creek Church gets six times that many people. They installed hundreds of 62-inch TV screens around the auditorium so people can watch what’s going on. The inference is that bigger is automatically better. That’s the American way. We get that thinking from Texas.

But there are a lot of flaws in that thinking. The first flaw is that you can get to know Jesus better in a big crowd. It’s simply not true.

I love that scene in the Monty Python movie, “The Life of Brian.” It’s a satirical look at a man named Brian who was born at the same time as Jesus, in the very next cattle stall. One day he and some others go to hear the Sermon on the Mount to hear Jesus. But the crowd is large, and they can’t hear him. Jesus is up front preaching, and the dialog at the back of the crowd goes like this:

“What did he say?”
    “I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
“What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
    “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”[1]

And on it goes. The people in the back of the crowd can’t hear Jesus. And they are so bound by their worldly preconceptions that they cannot understand him, much less follow him.

The second flaw is that an obsession with big numbers misses the individual touch of true Christian ministry. Jesus may have preached to a few crowds, but when he healed people, it was one person at a time. If we scratch beneath the surface of those successful summaries in the book of Acts, we discover the church advances one soul at a time, one household at a time, slowly and deliberately. That’s what my young friend Tim discovered at the  Greenville church, and what prompted him to quit after 18 months: people are more important than mere numbers. No life is merely a statistic. Jesus loves us one by one.

Christian faith is rooted in relationships with real people. When the Sheetz station came to town, with its in-your-face bright colors and cheap gas, instantly they had a lot of business. People said, “Look at the prices!” I went there a few times, but I still go to Butler’s Sunoco. It’s the difference between personal relationship and high volume bargains. The kid at Sheetz can sell you a candy bar but he doesn’t know anything about the rattle in your car. That’s why you need to know Bill Butler.

When it comes to our ministry for Christ, it’s that personal connection that matters. The Big Box Churches struggle with this. It is easy to get lost in one of those glitzy places. It’s difficult to meet people, impossible to connect with everybody, and something important can be lost.

A few of us were chatting with Eugene Peterson. He’s a Christian writer, a deeply spiritual man. He’s a Presbyterian pastor, too, who started a congregation from scratch in suburban Baltimore. He served there for 29 years, and then one day he up and quit. We found the courage to ask him, “Why did you leave the church that you started?”

He said, “It grew so big that I couldn’t know everybody. You can’t do pastoral ministry under those conditions. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to be a Christian under those conditions. Faith is lived out with these people, right here, right now. You can’t do that from a distance.”

A third flaw with the bigger-is-better approach comes from the Willow Creek people themselves. In 2005, they did a major study of their own congregation. And to their shock, they learned they had been creating consumers of religious services, rather than people who actually live out the Gospel.[2] “We have failed as a church,” said lead pastor Bill Hybels. “We have sunk millions of dollars into programs to keep people busy, rather than teaching them to read the Bible, pray, and develop supportive relationships with one another.”

It was a daring confession, and seven years later, that church is still trying to figure it out. They can’t make a really big shift, after all, because they might lose some of those 24,000 people who are coming to consume their stuff every week.

Let’s right to the heart of the matter: why are we here? Why do we exist as a church? I think we are here to point to Jesus Christ, to call people to follow him and to love him. That is our purpose. Everything else we do is rooted in that, and that alone. It is the work of making disciples, our first and final commission.

Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of every nation. Baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Teach them what I teach. Instruct them in welcoming my presence in all of life.” This is why we are here. It happens as we encounter the actual words that Christ spoke – the very words that he still speaks: Love your enemies, forgive those who have wronged you, refuse to retaliate. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Be generous to those in need. Be strong for those who are weak. Stay humble. Pursue peace. Speak the power of love to those obsessed with the love of power. Trust God with all things.”

The great commission comes from Matthew 28. The Gospel of Matthew is a good place to start. Find yourself a Bible where the teachings of Jesus are printed in red letters, and start there. Matthew tells us about a teaching Jesus. And if we dwell in his teachings long enough, Jesus himself will start dwelling in us. A heart full of scripture is a very good heart.

What we have to resist is the alien notion that bigger is better, that more is more fulfilling. Oh no! Discipleship is about going deeper, not wider. It’s about sinking into the grace of God, about welcoming his grace into our lives until it becomes our governing principle.

Sometimes we learn this grace from others who have been learning it, too. The three children who will be baptized today, for instance, selected a woman to be their sponsor because they know that she loves them. Through her love, they experience the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s how disciples are made.

We learn that love - we practice that love - we live that love - one person at a time. And it makes all the difference. All the difference in the world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved, including the rights of original copyright holders.

[1] From “The Life of Brian.” Quoting the film does not imply an endorsement of it. J