Well, I don't know what we're going to be celebrating in four months, but for a lot of us this is the real New Year. So I'd like to welcome you back from your summer, and also to wish you a Happy New Year, or at least a happy September.
What I'd like to do this morning is to talk about what's ahead for us as a church for the coming year, and then as we get ready to go to the Lord's Table to talk about why it's so important.
As we start into Fall, it's usually the time that our ministries kick off again and we begin to ask what's ahead for the coming year. You may be aware that we're in a state of flux right now, with some change in staff and a move to a new leadership structure with elders, who will provide spiritual oversight of the church. As well, there are lots of smaller needs and challenges and happenings in many of our ministries, but I want to take a wider view at what I think will be on the agenda, besides all of these things, for the coming year as God allows.
There are lots of books out there on what it takes to have a healthy church. They list anywhere from six to twelve features which have to be present if a church is going to be healthy and grow. I have many of these books, and it's hard to keep up. But a pastor in New York named Tim Keller has wisely, I think, suggested that when you distill everything, there are only really three church growth principles. Here they are:
- Sound doctrine
- Continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit
- A contextualized philosophy of ministry
From this I'm going to pull together a phrase. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.
Let me explain what I mean.
Tim Keller said that churches need sound doctrine. In other words, we need to get our message straight. And the message that we need to get straight most of all is the Gospel. Why? Because Paul said that the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16 ESV). It is "the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord's people" (Colossians 1:26). It is how we have received a "new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" (1 Peter 1:3-4). It is, the apostle Paul said to Timothy, the "good deposit entrusted" to us (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14).
More than anything, if our church is going to be healthy and grow, we need the gospel. If we don't have the gospel, we have nothing. If we have the gospel, we have the power of God to everyone who believes.
So let me just take a minute to ask the question, what is the gospel?
There are really, when you get down to it, three ways to live. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. One way to live is to be the prodigal, and to squander our lives in wild living. These are people who know that they're sinners. They're not even sure that they believe in God, but even if they do, they sure now that they're not measuring up. These people need the gospel.
But there's a second way to live that's just as lost. Remember that the prodigal son had a good older son who stayed at home and never rebelled? He said to his father, "I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders" (Luke 15:29). There is a way to live that is morally upright and law-abiding. It's about following rules and maybe even about going to church and living upright lives. But this way of living is equally lost, because when we live this way we're acting as our own lord and savior. When we live this way our trust isn't in God; it's in ourselves. The prodigal son and his morally upright brother were both equally lost. You can be irreligious and lost, but you'd better be sure that you can also be religious and lost. The gospel has nothing to do with moving from irreligion to religion, because both are essentially the same. In both cases we'll still be lost.
The gospel is really about a third way to live. The gospel is not that we are righteous before God and therefore he owes us something. It's that God demonstrates his righteousness through Jesus Christ and then freely gives that righteousness to us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The gospel is that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again to bring us salvation.
The gospel isn't good advice about what we have to do. It's good news about what Jesus has already done for us. The gospel isn't just the means of salvation, but it is the way that we grow as Christians. It is not the ABCs of the faith but the A to Z of the Christian faith. That's why Paul wrote to Timothy, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2).
In a few minutes we're going to celebrate the gospel as we take communion. But the gospel has to be part of everything we do. Every message, every ministry, every small group meeting, every action in this church has to have as its center, as its motive, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me hit the other two quickly. Our ministry must not only be gospel-centered but Spirit-empowered. We need continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit. Somebody asked me a while back how I ended my sermon on the day of Pentecost. I really didn't know, so he took me to the website and read it for me. Here's what it said. I ended the sermon by quoting J.I. Packer who said:
The Christian scene today in the Western world highlights the importance of attending to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The lack of divine energy and exuberance in most congregations, even some of the most notionally orthodox, is painful to see. The current quest for church renewal…demands that we get clearer in our minds about the divine Renewer….It is as if God is constantly flashing before us on huge billboards the message REMEMBER THE HOLY SPIRIT!…We study and discuss God, Christ, body life, mission, Christian social involvement, and many other things; we pay lip service to the Holy Spirit throughout (everyone does these days), but we are not yet taking him seriously in any of it. In this we need to change.
I concluded, "Pentecost reminds us that, more than anything, we need to pray that the Spirit would renew, revive, and empower us. Don't ever think that we have the power in ourselves. We need the Spirit to move. I want you to pray with me to this end."
Do you believe this? When we have the message of God and the power of God, we will be a church that can be used by God. So let's talk lots about the gospel this coming year, but let's also spend time in prayer asking for the Spirit to renew us and to show his power to do what only he can do.
Last point before I talk about why this is so important:
This is where Richview becomes different from any other church that exists. This is also one of our greatest needs and it is something that I believe we have to address in the coming year.
Keller talks about a contextualized philosophy of ministry. Out of all the churches in the world that exist, God has put us in this particular location for such a time as this. We are not called to be a People's Church or a Willow Creek or any other church. We were put here in this postal code because God wanted us to be Richview, to learn the shape of ministry in our neighborhood.
There are two kinds of churches. One says to the community, "You come to us and learn our language, our interests, and meet our needs." The other kind says, "We will come to you. We will learn your language, your interests, and meet your needs." Only the second type of church imitates when Jesus became human and moved into the neighborhood. God is calling us to discover what it is that he wants us to do to love our immediate community. This year, we're going to ask for your help in figuring out what that means.
That's it. It's simple. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.
And here's why it's so important.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:10: "[God's] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." Paul has been writing about how Christ came to break down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, which was the greatest division of his time. God has made them one people through his death on the cross. Paul then describes his life's work and how it fits within what God is doing, but then he gives us the purpose of the church.
The purpose of the church, according to Paul, is to display before angels and demons the multifaceted wisdom of God. If someone asked you why Richview exists, this is the answer: so that angels and demons can see the wisdom of God. How? By showing that his plan of redemption has worked, and is so great that it has created a new community of people that has overcome social barriers and unified us. We don't exist as a voluntary association. We don't exist to make our members satisfied. We exist so that angels and demons know that the gospel is real because they see the evidence of the gospel in the life of this church. "The church," someone has said, "became the mirror through which the bright ones of heaven see the glory of God." The church is the theatre for the display of God's wisdom.
That's why this is so important. Speaking on this passage, John Piper says:
The church of Jesus Christ is the most important institution in the world. The assembly of the redeemed, the company of the saints, the children of God are more significant in world history than any other group, organization, or nation. The United States of America compares to the church of Jesus Christ like a speck of dust compares to the sun. The drama of international relations compares to the mission of the church like a kindergarten riddle compares to Hamlet or King Lear. And all pomp of May Day in Red Square and the pageantry of New Year's in Pasadena fade into a formless grey against the splendor of the bride of Christ…The gates of Hades, the powers of death, will prevail against every institution but one, the church.
Somebody I read this week said this:
Though no local church is perfect, and the universal Church often looks more like a cheating spouse than a faithful bride, I identify myself with this bungling bunch of believers. The church is home. The church is God's beloved. The church has been bought with precious blood.
Though the presence of the Kingdom is not as intensely felt in the church as I would like, it is the sign of the Kingdom in this age, faults and all. And if Jesus is content to give his life for an unruly Church, I must find satisfaction in serving his church with all my heart and soul. Because he died for her, I live for her. (Trevin Wax)
The principalities and powers in the heavenly places are watching. Let's show to them by the way that we live and function as a church that his plan isn't failing.
Father, thank you for the privilege of displaying to angels and demons the multifaceted splendor of the wisdom of God. Who you've called us to be is no light thing.
I pray that in the coming year we would be a church that displays your wisdom as we center on the Gospel, as we rely on the Spirit, and as we look for ways to serve our particular community.
Most of all, as we come to the Table, may we be a church that finds our strength in the cross. In Jesus' name. Amen.