This was my sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2010. The scripture passages I used were Colossians 3 and Luke 12:13-21. It wa a harsh sermon, but one I felt needed to be preached. If you have a chance to read it and have a comment for me, I would appreciate it.
A new Pastor in a small Oklahoma town spent the first week making personal visits to each of the church members,
inviting them to come to his first services.
The following Sunday the church was all but empty.
So, the next week the Pastor placed a notice in the local newspaper.
He said that, since the church was dead,
it was time to give it a decent Christian burial.
The funeral would be held the following Sunday afternoon.
Out of curiosity, a large crowd turned out for the “funeral.”
The church was packed for the first time in years.
In front of the pulpit, they saw a closed coffin, covered in flowers.
After the Pastor delivered the message,
he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.
Wanting to know what the corpse of a “dead church” would like,
all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin.
Each “mourner” peeped into the coffin then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.
In the coffin, tilted at just the right angle, was a large mirror.
Every church, like every organization or living organism, has a life cycle.
Plants, animals, people and churches are born, they grow, they mature, and they also die.
When an organism’s or organization’s life is full and complete,
when it goes through it’s life cycle naturally,
death is often welcomed and seen as a fitting ending.
But if the death is not from natural causes,
if it comes early or is unexpected,
then death is seen as an unwelcome intruder.
First United Methodist Church is dying.
If present attendance and giving trends continue,
First United Methodist will have to become part-time church in 2 years or so,
and by the end of this decade,
there will fewer than 30-40 people worshiping here on a Sunday morning.
A church that has been a part of this community for over 170 years will be on life support,
perhaps breathing its last breath.
A congregation that once had over 500 people attending Sunday School,
now has fewer than 20 on any given Sunday morning.
Worship attendance that averaged over 400,
now hovers around 80.
Many of the people here today will not be here in 10 or 20 more years,
and since my arrival we have had more than 120 members die.
The funerals I conduct each year far outnumber the baptisms, new members we add, and the weddings I perform,
even when they are all combined together into one number.
Financially our church has also struggled for years.
Even before I got here, there were deficits at times of almost $50,000 a year.
And though we have been able to survive some tough times through several large bequests and the regular giving of our members,
the deaths of so many have begun to take a toll on our finances.
Your bulletin this morning tells you that we have a deficit of $16,000.
The fact is that this deficit is based on giving and expenses coming in and going out in equal rates throughout the year.
Of course, this is not how giving and expenses work.
As of last month our deficit was actually $25,000,
and our giving for the year was down $5,000 from last year at the same time.
We could very well end the year with another $50,000 deficit.
Needless to say, this can not continue for very long.
First UMC is dying.
We are hemorrhaging members and money and we are not long for this world if present trends continue.
Now if we are reaching the end of natural life cycle then fine.
Let us celebrate what has been accomplished here,
the many ministries that have been carried out,
and the hundreds, even thousands, of people who have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because of First Church.
Let us acknowledge what has been done,
give God the glory,
give the church a decent and proper burial,
and then move on.
But what if this isn’t our God-given time to die?
What if our life as a congregation is being cut short by unnatural causes?
What if we are killing the church by what we are doing or not doing?
I think this is what is happening.
First UMC is dying because we are killing it,
We are choking the life right out of it in two notable ways.
First, we are not living our lives in Christ.
Second, our priorities are all messed up,
that is, we are not at all concerned with what is most important:
the lives and souls of people.
First, we are not living our lives in Christ.
Paul talks about life in Christ in our reading from Colossians.
So if you have been raised with Christ, Paul says,
seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly:
You must get rid of all such things-anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
And then he goes on to add in verses just after the ones we read:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another,
forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.
Some of you know that I have been trained as a conflict consultant.
In addition, I was appointed to two churches that were high in conflict before my arrival – in Tamaqua and Elysburg,
and have done consultations in over seven churches.
In my experience there is nothing that kills a church faster than its members not being in Christ.
Churches in conflict and decline are known for high levels of pettiness, and they are places where people have forgotten about the dangers of the tongue.
You remember what James said about the tongue, don’t you?
“The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless our Lord and Father,
and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
My friends, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:8-10 ESV)
And in case you don’t think these verses apply to First Church,
let me say that I have seen some of our members leave Church in tears because of things that were said to them or that they overheard someone else saying.
People have walked into our church while members of the church stand outside its doors loudly complaining about things that bothered them about the service they just attended.
And when it comes to issues we might have with others,
with mistakes they make or concerns we might have,
we will talk to anybody and everybody about them,
but never approach the person we have an issue with.
This is not life in Christ,
and this kind of behavior is deadly for a church.
What would our church be like if we truly practiced, in Paul’s words,
compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love?
What a place of joy this church could be if we got “rid of . . . anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from” our mouths.
What if we actually tried to work with each other and treat each other as fellow children of God and followers of Jesus?
And what if, instead of complaining and griping to each other,
we followed the advice of Paul who once wrote to the church at Philippi:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
What would happen if we did this?
Well, maybe, just maybe, we could not only live again but thrive.
Second, our priorities are all messed up.
In this way, we are very much like the rich man in today’s gospel reading.
He has spent all his time and energy in trying to get ahead,
but he has forgotten the most important thing of all.
Many churches do the same thing,
and I am afraid that we are a part of that many.
Let me ask you,
what is the purpose of the church?
What is our reason for being?
And yet how much time or energy do we spend sharing Jesus with the world?
How much of our budget is focused on ministry or mission?
How much time do we spend in committee meetings talking about Jesus and our calling to make disciples?
I’ll tell you how much: not much at all.
Instead, almost all of our time and energy is spent on preserving the church for ourselves and our needs.
Our focus is internal rather than external,
on maintenance rather than mission and ministry.
I don’t know about you,
but I do not want to be a part of a church that is almost exclusively concerned with keeping its doors open while outside of its doors is a world that is going to Hell in a handbasket.
I want to be a part of a church that, in the words of Darryl Dash,
is willing to follow Jesus wherever he goes, whatever it costs.
A church willing to turn its back on everything – its building, programs, staff, everything – in order to follow Jesus.
A church where institutional advancement is not as important as Kingdom advancement,
and a church that is not concerned with its own institutional survival,
and where pastors are not CEOs managing/leading people toward a goal,
and plans/goals/numbers/budgets are not the main thing.
I want to be a part of a church where following Jesus is the main thing.
Where, in fact, it is the only thing.
Any focus that is not on Jesus, that isn’t geared toward mission and ministry is a focus that will lead to death.
Evangelist Robert Linthicum said this at a Presbyterian Church conference in New Orleans recently.
“If the church is caught up in trying to preserve itself and its institution, then preservation and continuance is exactly what is going to slip out of its grasp. Trying to save the store is the surest way to lose the store.”
Rather than trying to save itself, Linthicum said the church has to focus on its changed surroundings and serving the community.
“The church will not be saved by trying to preserve itself
but by giving its life away in service to the world.
Such service and ministry to the world is the surest way to salvation.”
It was the great Christian write, C. S. Lewis, who once wrote:
It is so easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects – education, building, missions, holding services.
[Yet] the Church exists for no other purpose but to draw men to Christ,
to make them little Christs.
If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.
Another (Wade Hodges) has added:
The greatest crisis facing most churches in America is not a financial/attendance crisis.
It’s that our ministry in the world, our way of being in the world,
looks so unlike the ministry of Jesus in the gospels.
And to this, John White, says:
Our churches, like secular associations, are concerned with fund-raising, beautiful buildings, large numbers, comforting sermons from highly qualified preachers, while they display indifference to the poor, and to the pariahs in society – drunks, whores, homosexuals, the poor, the insane, and the lonely. Jesus himself would have no place in our all-too-respectable churches, for he did not come to help the righteous but to bring sinners to repentance.
Our churches are not equipped to do that sort of thing.
And not only are we ill-equipped to reach out to the world beyond our doors,
but on the rare occassion when the world actually comes to us,
we can be cold and distant and unwelcoming.
Last week I met a woman who attended one of our worship services while I was away.
I was saddened to discover that her experience was less than satisfactory.
In fact, she said that not one person in the church actually said hello to her or welcomed her,
let alone tell her that they were glad she was here.
I say saddened rather than shocked,
because I had heard the same thing before.
Here is a letter I received a few years ago from a woman who attended our church one time.
And please note, this woman actually took the time to sit down and write.
Her words are a warning to us.
To the Pottstown Methodist Church
Sunday, June 25th, I went with my daughters to visit your church. I am a life-long Methodist from Kansas and visit in this area often. We have been trying to find a church in this area to attend. This church seemed like the right kind. However, I think we must have been invisible. As we stood in the dark entryway a woman’s voice called down “The sanctuary is up the stairs.” We traipsed up the dark stairway to be met by an usher who handed us programs but made no attempt at a greeting. We found our own plae to sit in a nearly empty church. The organist was very good and the service was good. We enjoyed the hymns. [But] no one looked at us; no one even nodded to us; we left at the end and no one seemed to see us. We were invisible. I hope this was an unusual occasion because you will never have a church in this way.
I think she was and is right.
And what this woman wrote about 4 years ago has become a word of prophecy for our church.
Will we heed it?
I hope and pray that we will.
Now I realize that I have been a little harsh this morning.
But I am critical because I care,
and if you are like me,
you care about our church as well.
If you are like me you want to see First UMC live.
You want to see us rise above the negativity and pettiness.
You want to see us get our priorities straight,
and you want to see this congregation be a light for the world around us.
You don’t want to see our church die a premature death.
If this is true,
then let us begin this morning to reject attitudes and a focus that will only lead us to that death.
Let us put on Christ,
who has been, is and will always be the source of our life.
Let us strive to reorder our life and focus so that it is only on Jesus Christ,
and let us reject the ways that lead to death and seek to live.
I end with some words from Dallas Willard, who wrote:
Now, some might be shocked to hear that what the “church” – the disciples gathered – really needs is not more people, more money, better buildings or programs, more education, or more prestige.
All it needs to fulfill Christ’s purposes on earth is the quality of life he makes real in the life of his disciples.
Given that quality, the church will prosper from everything that comes its way as it makes clear and available on earth the “life that is life indeed.”
To that I can only say, Amen.