Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We Have One Job

Note: This is the text of the sermon I delivered January 4.  Since I talked about the current state of our church and the direction I hope to see us go in the new year, I thought it would be helpful to post the entire thing here.  


We Have One Job
Matthew 28:16-20

            There once was a little town way out in West Texas. Like most West Texas towns, it wasn’t near anything else.  In an emergency situation, they knew they couldn’t afford to wait on professionals from one of the larger towns.  So the leading citizens formed a volunteer fire department.  Those who were physically able got trained in CPR, firefighting skills, and everything else they would need to know.  The rest of the town did what they could to support the vision.  Children sold lemonade, housewives threw bake sales, and old men donated money they’d been saving. They were able to build a small fire station and buy a fire truck and an ambulance.  Now you might think that a little town like that wouldn’t have many emergencies, but you’d be surprised.  There were grass fires, house fires and barn fires.  There were accidents involving cars, tractors, livestock, rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, not to mention accidental poisonings, heart attacks, strokes, and inflamed appendices.  The volunteers became very good at what they did.  They were passionate, skilled, highly-motivated lifesavers.  Word quickly got around to the surrounding small villages, and soon they had even more emergencies to handle.  Many of the people whose loved ones had been rescued decided to join the volunteers.  Others donated more money.  Big fundraisers were held.  Soon the department was able to build a much larger, more modern building, and hire a professional fire chief with his own staff to train new volunteers and coordinate their efforts.  The community members formed a board to oversee all of this. The department became known throughout the region, and more money and volunteers poured in.  By this time, the fire station was by far the largest, most well-appointed building in that part of the state.  People began asking to use it for weddings, parties, and other special events.    The entire town had been transformed from a sleepy, backward place whose kids couldn’t wait to grow up and move away, to a growing city with immense civic pride. 

            Time passed, and a new generation formed most of the board.  By this time, there was a constant tension between the board and the fire chief they employed. The chief and his firefighters complained that the volunteers had all dried up.  There were plenty of people who were technically members of the department, but none of them wanted to go out on emergency calls.  Instead, they saw their membership as granting them the right to use the building anytime they wanted, for events for themselves or their friends.  Often they would come and simply hang out.  There was poker night, movie night, and karaoke night…for members and their guests only, of course.  The board tried to explain to the chief that it was the members and their dues which brought in money, which enabled him to have a job and a nice, modern place to work. So the desires of the members should come first.  The chief said, “But I thought the purpose of this organization was to save lives!”
            That’s not a true story.  Well, not exactly.  If you translate that scenario from fire departments to local churches, it IS a true story, and one that has happened hundreds, if not thousands of times.
            In this new year, I plan to preach on the theme, “Following Jesus in the Real World.” I want to begin by considering what the purpose of our organization is.  There’s no better place to start than with the passage we know as The Great Commission, Jesus’ parting instructions to His followers.

  The Great Commission--Matthew 28:16-20

     16     But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.

     17     When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.

     18     And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.

     19     “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

     20     teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

            What was the purpose of Jesus’ life?  He said it in Luke 19:10, The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  We all know how He did that: He died for our sins.  But think about the course of Jesus’ life.  He didn’t simply appear on Earth, die on the cross, then leave.  First, He spent three years in active ministry.  Think about how He spent His time during that ministry.  When I went to Israel last Spring, the last place we visited was Caesarea.  It’s on the coast of the Mediterranean.  There’s a beautiful beach there.  It was the playground of the royal family and the nobility.  Herod the Great named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus, and they made it a Roman-styled city.  He built a sea harbor, bathhouses, markets, temples to Augustus and Rome, massive public buildings, and large amphitheater, where they held gladiatorial games, sporting events, and plays.  That theater still exists. 

The ampitheater in Caesarea.  That's our guide, Tim Rampey, at the bottom. We sat on the top row, and could hear him speaking clearly; it's a marvel of engineering.

When we visited it, I thought to myself how, if Jesus had possessed the mindset of a 21st century American preacher, He would have rented out the theater at Caesarea and put on a week of preaching and miracle-working.  He would have cultivated relationships with the rich and powerful of Israel, then used them to endorse His ministry.  But He didn’t do that.  As far as we know, He never even went to that city.  Instead, He spent most of His time on 12 men.  Yes, He taught large crowds, and certainly, He did miracles.  But often, He got away with those twelve people.  Next week, we’ll look at how one of those men became His follower.  The rest of the year, we’ll talk about how Jesus prepared him and his friends to change the world forever. 
            When I stand before Jesus someday and give an accounting of the job I did as Pastor of this church, He’s not going to be worried about how big our budget was, how impressive our buildings were, how happy the church member were with my job performance, or even how big the church became.  Don’t get me wrong; those things matter.  But they’re not the main thing.  All Jesus cares about is, “Did you make disciples?”  That is our purpose.  When I stand before the Lord, what will matter are these questions: “Did people who didn’t know me begin to know me because of the ministry of your church?  Did your church help those people go from conversion to spiritual maturity?  Did those people then become disciple-makers too?”  That is how God measures the effectiveness of this church.  
            So how are we doing so far?  Of course, only God can answer that question.  But I’ll share my perspective.  There are so many things happening around here that I am excited about.  A year ago, we started our new worship schedule.  I know that many of you made big sacrifices to make this happen.  I am still more grateful than I can say that you were willing to take this step.  When I tell other pastors what we did, they are in awe. They can’t imagine their own churches doing such a thing, purely for the benefit of people who aren’t even members yet.  And it has been worth it, in my opinion.  New people have joined our church in both services.  The 11:00 service was a bold experiment, and we’re still learning how to do things well there, but I am so thrilled with how well it has gone so far.  And that service is made up of a tremendous percentage of people who didn’t go here before a year ago.  The new screens have helped us immensely in that service, and in the 8:30 service, we should be able to use them within the next month or so.   

                 Our Bible study attendance is also up, which means an increasing number of people are helping each other grow through Bible study, accountability and just plain Christian friendship.  We’re not content with that; in fact, soon we’ll start small groups that will meet on weeknights in homes, so we can reach people who haven’t gotten connected to Sunday morning Bible study.   

                  This next summer, we will head south to assist a church plant that is doing outstanding ministry on the border.  Not only will we help them make disciples, I believe it will transform us, motivate us to become more intentional disciple-makers.  We already give hundreds of thousands of dollars externally every year to people who make disciples in our city, our state and around the world, but in the future, we hope to do even more of that.  And it’s not just about giving money.  This church agreed that every small group would do four external ministry projects every year.  Four times a year, members of this church should be visible in our community, helping people in practical ways to show the love of Christ to those who will never otherwise experience it.  And I don’t have time to tell you about the fantastic growth in our youth ministry, or the families our children’s ministry touches, or the tireless faithfulness of our senior adults. 
            Still, I want to spend more time in that baptistry, helping new believers declare how Christ has transformed their lives.  I want to spend more time walking with those new followers of Jesus, helping them discover all the riches that are found in their new family.  I want to see more members of this church involved in intentional disciple-making relationships.  I know times are different than they used to be.  Most churches aren’t seeing these things happen anymore.  I heard an evangelist say a few years ago that churches in America in the 40s, 50s and 60s experienced a bumper crop, but that has dried up.  It takes more work now to produce less of a harvest.  Maybe people aren’t as receptive anymore.  Or maybe we need to rediscover the passion our churches once had for the lost.  I know I do.  

               So that is my prayer for this year.  I pray that we won’t see our church as a place where we consume religious goods and services, where we get a little encouragement and a few good moral lessons to help us live better, more fulfilling lives.  But instead, our church will equip and inspire us to change the world, just as Jesus did for those original twelve.    

                 This year, I plan to talk about how you can find the role God designed you for in His Kingdom, something which is not so very different from a comic book superhero discovering his power and destiny.  I hope that leads to people getting excited about the purpose for which God created them, and seeing incredible things happen as we transform into an army of irresistible love in a community that desperately needs that.  So goal number one for us this year is that everyone would know why God put them here, and be active in ministry.

                 I plan to talk about the process God uses to change us into His image, and what our part is in that process.  You’ll be trying some exercises you may never have heard of, and experiencing God in a brand-new way.  Anytime that happens, it changes people around you, too.  So goal number two is that we all would experience God in new ways, as we add new exercises to our spiritual walk. 

                 But I want to do more than just preach sermons.  I want to do more than just oversee programs.  I want to spend more time equipping people to minister than I spend ministering to people; I want to spend more time preparing disciple-makers than I do preparing messages.  I hope you’ll yearn for the same things.  I hope that, when you think about our church, when you talk about the worship service or some other program, you won’t just rate it like you do a movie or a restaurant.  But instead, you’ll say to yourself, “What does my involvement here have to do with hurting people being helped, with lonely people being loved, with lost people being saved?” My third, and most important goal, is that every one of us would be involved in at least one disciple-making relationship.  Maybe that means there's a friend or neighbor or co-worker who is distant from God who you are loving and praying for and hoping that your actions and words can lead them closer to Christ.  Or maybe it means there's someone newer in the faith than you who you are investing in on a consistent basis, so they can be encouraged to grow.  

            I’ve been here seven years now.  And this church has been here for fifty-one years.  Someday, we’ll look back from Heaven’s perspective and see what it was all about.  I don’t want to find out, on that day, that all of our activities and programs and money and efforts were really for our own benefit.  I hope we don’t find out that all we really were was a fire department that became nothing more than a great place to have a birthday party or a poker night.  Our purpose is to save lives.  I hope that this year, and in the years to come, we’ll do a lot more of it.


David Dennard said...

Thanks for this post, Jeff. What a good way to refocus for the new year!

KEmmaus said...

i'm praying with you and for the church. i miss it. God bless