Welcome back from the summer! It’s good to see some of you that we haven’t seen for a few months now. Maybe to start things off we can say hi to one or two people that we haven’t seen recently.Pastor Ed forgot to make one announcement about next week. We’ve decided to have a No Excuse Sunday. It’s designed for those who have very good reasons for not attending church. We’re trying to make it possible for everyone to attend church next Sunday:
Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.”There will be a special section with lounge chairs for those who feel that our pews are too hard.Eye drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching TV late Saturday night.We will have steel helmets for those who say, “The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.”Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold, and fans for those who say it is too hot.Relatives and friends will be in attendance for those who can’t go to church and cook dinner too.We will distribute “Stamp out Stewardship” buttons for those that feel the church is always asking for money.One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature.Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday.The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them.We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and cotton for those who can!…and golf clubs will be available for practice swings.
Last year, on the first week after Labor Day, I did something new. We had just been through an incredibly tough year as a church, and last year I spoke from my heart about some of the challenges we were facing as a church. I remember speaking on 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”At the time, I really had no idea what kind of year we would face. I think it’s true that when things go wrong, most often it’s our fault, but when things go right, God gets all the credit. This past year, God has most definitely been at work. We’re not perfect – far from it – but we’ve really seen God doing some great things around here this past year. I’d like to take credit for this, but I can’t. It’s been God at work. We’ve just been able to come along and enjoy the ride.Today, I want to take a bit of a risk and speak more personally than I normally do about how God has been challenging me in the past year. It’s a risk, because what I say may not resonate with you, but sometimes in sharing more personally, you discover that others can relate to you even more than usual. In the past year, God’s been doing something in me, and it’s affected my own walk with God, along with the way that I see the church and my role.
The Dying Follower
The passage that God has been using is found in Mark 8:34-37. Up until this story in Jesus’ ministry, everything had been on the upswing. People saw Jesus – his ability to heal, the authority he had when he taught – and followed him. There was nothing not to like, at least until this story.It’s as if Jesus said, “I’ve got to give them the complete picture of what it means to follow me.” He began to explain that his life wasn’t just about healings and authoritative teaching. He explained that he would suffer and be killed, and that following him would mean suffering and sacrifice.Peter, the disciple we all criticize because he resembles us so strongly, took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Jesus dealt with Peter. But then Jesus did something significant. It’s almost as if he realized that this was a teaching moment. He called the rest of his disciples and the rest of the crowd together. Let’s read what he said:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Last October, Charlene and I attended a conference together. Those of you who know me well know that I’m a conference junkie. I love conferences of all kinds. This one was great because Charlene was with me. The messages were all challenging, and God seemed to be speaking to us in a unique way.I’ll never forget sitting with Charlene during one of the break sessions and talking about what this would mean in our lives. We had a sense that God was calling us to do something new. We didn’t know exactly what, but we knew it involved taking some new risks. It might cost us something. God began to use the passage we’ve just read to ask me some pretty tough questions.I don’t like to admit it, but I’ve got it pretty good here. I began to ask myself, “Would I follow Jesus away from my current comfortable situation into uncomfortable situations?” I mean places in which my pay might be cut, or I may not get paid at all; places which have fewer resources, less to offer me in return. I sensed that God was asking me to do something new, which would involve more risks and less safety. Was I ready to follow?We live pretty modestly, but I began to look at my lifestyle differently. I found this website. You punch in your income, and it tells you where your income rates in terms of the world. I was in the top 2%. I’m one of the top 2% richest people in the world – and so are you. Would I be willing to risk any of that to follow Jesus?See how uncomfortable this gets? God began to challenge me about how much I was the focus of my relationship with God. When I read the Bible, it was to find passages that would help me. When I prayed to God, it was prayers for my welfare. When I sang songs to God, it was about which songs I like and which songs I didn’t care for. God was really messing with my mind.It’s about dying to self. Jesus said, “If you’re going to follow me, you’re following a dead man walking. You’ve got to pick up your cross daily.” The image is of a person who’s been condemned to die, and who’s carrying the instrument of execution with them, because they’re about to be killed. Jesus says that’s what it means to follow him. It means we stop living for ourselves and our concerns.Jesus also talked about denying ourselves. I wish that he meant that we should deny ourselves something. That would mean that all I would have to do is to give up chocolate for Lent, or to give up watching Friends for the coming year. But Jesus wasn’t talking about giving something up. He talked about denying ourselves – to stop making ourselves the center of our lives. This is what it means to follow Jesus.If this scares us – and it should, because it’s going to cost us – Jesus also gives the other side. He says that only in dying to ourselves do we discover true life. Some have literally given up their lives for Jesus, but they’ve discovered true life. Some have suffered incredibly as a result of obeying these verses, but they would never go back, because they’re living with more freedom, more life that was ever possible before. Erwin McManus puts it this way: “Jesus wants to take us places only dead people can go.”Here’s what it means. It means that I’m no longer the center of my life. It means that I follow Jesus, no matter where he leads, and no matter what it costs. It means that we’re willing to die for Christ, knowing that it’s the only way that we discover true life.Wow. It would have been enough if God had left it at that. But have you ever noticed that God doesn’t stop working when you think you’ve had enough? God wasn’t finished with me yet. God began to challenge me in a different area. It’s not enough to die to self and follow him. We don’t follow God in isolation. There’s something else that we call the church.
The Dying Church
Last Fall, somebody used our building to host a conference on being a turnaround church. Somebody asked, “What’s a turnaround church?” I heard somebody else answer, “We are!” “But I thought we were a purpose-driven, naturally developed, disciple-making church.” I think there were a few more labels attached as well.Over lunch, somebody told the presenter, “We need your brand in Canada.” It really struck me. We have all kinds of brands of tools that help churches grow and become healthier. We have excellent tools that help churches develop and become stronger. There’s nothing wrong with a lot of those. But I began to ask myself, “Does the church need to get stronger and healthier? Or does the church need to die, to take up its cross and die to itself? What about the dying church?”For years, I’ve bought into the slogan, “The local church is the hope of the world.” I now think that statement is wrong. The Gospel is the hope of the world, and churches can help bring that hope to the world. But churches are only the vehicle. By making the church the hope of the world, we put our energies into building churches, and working on their advancement and growth.There’s nothing wrong with wanting a church to faithfully bring the Gospel to a community with as much effectiveness and wisdom as it can muster. But I’ve become more and more convinced that church growth and health isn’t the point. Following Jesus is the point. Jesus may want to lead us as churches to places that will hurt our church’s growth and health. He may want to lead us to places in which our churches won’t even survive. The issue isn’t church growth or health. The real issue is whether or not a church is willing to follow Jesus.What about this – a church that is willing to die to its own interests and welfare, to pick up its cross, and follow Jesus? What about a church that, if faced with a choice between following Jesus into unknown and dangerous territory, and taking a safe route that would lead to growth and health – what about a church that would willingly take the dangerous route in order to follow Jesus?I really began to struggle with this. I didn’t know if Richview was ready for this, whether it would mean staying here or leaving. I even used Biblical language. I said, “Lord, you know our deacons, how they are a rebellious and a stiff-necked people.” Actually, they aren’t. I began to look around and realize that there was nobody in a position of power or influence who wanted to do anything but follow Jesus, no matter where he leads, no matter what it costs. As I began to communicate some of this, I sensed that it resonated with the type of church that we want to become.What does this all look like? Where does it all lead? I have no idea. I know it involves following Jesus, with no regard to what it costs us.I did write down a few outcomes of this decision. A dying church is one in which:
Its own growth and health is not as important as its willingness to follow Jesus wherever he goes, whatever it costs.It is willing to turn its back on everything – its building, programs, staff, everything – in order to follow Jesus.Institutional advancement is not as important as Kingdom advancement.The church is not concerned with its own institutional survival.Pastors are not CEOs managing/leading people toward a goal, and plans/goals/numbers/budgets are not the main thing. Following Jesus has been the main thing. The pastor becomes somebody who’s hopefully helping to set the pace in following Jesus, but is only a co-follower with the rest of the people.
It hit me as I prepared this message that every church is a dying church. There are three types of dying churches. One is the church that is literally dying. Its membership is declining. It’s probably not going to survive much longer.The second type of dying church is glitzy and successful. It’s maybe got a big building and programs every day of the week. It looks alive, but in reality it’s never died to itself. It’s trying to maintain its own life. That church doesn’t look like it’s dying, but in trying to save its own life it’s actually losing it.The third type of church is one which says to God, “We will follow Jesus no matter where he leads and what it costs. We will gladly lay down our institution and our building and our survival to follow him.” This church may be small and overlooked, or big and well-known. But it doesn’t care about that. It only cares about following Jesus.Every church is a dying church. Only the last type of church will experience a resurrection. Only that church will experience the life that comes on the other side of death to itself. To paraphrase Erwin McManus, Jesus wants to take us places that only dead churches can go.I don’t know how this has resonated with you. I invite you to sort through it, sift through the stuff that’s from God, and the stuff that’s from me. But most of all, I invite you to take the dangerous road, the road that Jesus is calling us to take, so that we go anywhere Jesus wants us to go, no matter what the cost.Prayer:
I think Jesus would say to the church:
If any church would come after me, it must deny itself and take up his cross and follow me. For the church that wants to save its life will lose it, but whatever church loses its life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a church to gain the whole world, yet forfeit its soul?
Respond to this call; pray silently to God.I know, Father, we’re all in different places when we hear this call. Some of us are scared to death. Some of us are saying, “Let’s go.” You’ve been taking me through this process for a whole year. Thank you for relentlessly challenging us, yet for showing grace when we don’t follow as readily as we should.I pray that you would make us a group of people who really don’t care about preserving our institution as much as we’re concerned with following Jesus. May we become a dying church. In Jesus’ name, Amen.