When it comes to the last three months of church, worship, preaching, newsletters, and what have you, a particular idea has not been lost on me, and that is: By now you all might be more than a little over hearing about “When God Left The Building.”
Now before you laugh too much, and certainly before you come to me after worship and say, “I’m so glad you said that, I have been so tired of hearing about that movie!” it should be noted, very clearly, that I am in no way apologizing for the amount of time we have spent on this focus. I am in no way saying that I’ve come to the understanding that this topic has been more than covered and it’s time to move on. I am not saying any of that, or anything like that whatsoever.
Truth be told, I am not regretful at all for the amount of time and energy we have spent because… When it comes to the church being the church, there is no amount of time or energy spent focusing on such that is too much.
When it comes to the church living out its God given call to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that lives can be changed and transformed for the better, there is no amount of time or energy spent focusing on such that is too much.
When it comes to finding and meeting the needs of God’s children, there is no amount of time or energy spent focusing on such that is too much.
When it comes to ensuring that God does in fact leave the building, in faithful ways and not in sad ways caused by failure to evolve and change and focus outwardly instead of inwardly, there is no amount of time or energy spent focusing on such that is too much.
So yes, I get that since the beginning of Lent, way back in early February, we have been considering the decline of the mainline protestant church, taking a hard introspective look at ourselves, and how God is calling us to be the church today. But we have done this because myself, the Elders, the Worship Team, everyone who has seen the film, and everyone who was at last Saturday’s Congregational Conclave has come to the stark realization that the Church is in trouble—we are in trouble— because the Church is failing at living up to its call, failing to live out its call. We are in trouble because the Church is failing to be the Church—the place planted by Jesus and sustained by the Holy Spirit where any and all can come and not just be told about God their Creator and Christ their Savior, but experience God their Creator and Christ their Savior in life-saving, life giving, life sustaining ways.
So no, I do not regret whatsoever the amount of time and energy we have spent on this topic, idea, and focus. What we are called to do, who we are called to be, what we aim to accomplish is too important to rush past in a three part sermon series or even a seven week Lenten focus, after which we go back to business as usual. This topic, idea, and focus has been about interpreting the present time, as Jesus so pointedly talked about in our Luke text for today. Jesus has been showing us, over these months, through this film and our ongoing dialogues, that in this present time the Church needs to wake up, and hear again how God is calling us, in new and different ways, to be the Church.
The title “When God Left the Building” is meant to be a double meaning. Thom Schultz, author, film maker, and self-proclaimed lover of the church, brilliantly shows us the first meaning when he shows what happens when a church can no longer remain a church—the church closes and, essentially, God leaves the building because no longer can the church sustain itself, no longer are the people there, no longer is anything happening—no longer is a church the Church.
The second meaning of the film’s title becomes visible when Schultz shows churches that are focused less on doing church and more on being church. Examples of this are shown through Nathan Matz and his “Pub Outreach” endeavor, Tillie Burgum and her “Mission Arlington” church and Justin Mayo’s “Red Eye Missions of Love” ministry done on Skid Row in Los Angeles. In each of these ministries it is not about doing church in any particular way or structure, it is about being a church where people can come and have an experience with Jesus Christ.
Each of these ministries, each of these instances of the Church being church didn’t happen in a church, but they happened when God left the building—i.e. when the church left its building and went to where the people were, went to where God was calling them to go. It is as one person interviewed in the film said, “It’s not about venue. It’s about Jesus. Where would Jesus be?” That question was shared in the documentary, and ever since hearing it I have been absolutely in love with its challenge and conviction. “Where would Jesus be?” Where would Jesus be so that he could lead people to have an encounter with him?
Yes, of course, Jesus is in the church and the sanctuary on Sunday morning. That is where those who go to church can encounter him. But what about the rest of the week? What about those who don’t go to church, for whatever reason? Yes, Jesus went to the synagogue, he went to a church building. But that’s not the only place he went. He left that building and went to the people! That is the premise and the revelation and the double meaning the film is making and showing. And that is what we as a church are going to strive for ourselves. We are going to strive to have God leave our church building.
After one of the screenings of the film, during the discussion time, someone asked me, “So what is the formula for being the church today?” I thought that question was a great question too, with challenge and conviction as part of it. My answer was, “I have no idea!” To which I then added, “But that’s what we are going to figure out by going through this process.” And that is what we have been doing for three months.
Sure, we can read all kinds of books and articles and blogs about what the formula could be—trust me, I got the books in my office and the article and blogs in my search engine history. We can even watch documentary films that show us great examples from which a formula could be derived. But until a church does the hard introspection and intentional discernment, the formula that works for them will never be discovered. And this process, for us, reached a crescendo last Saturday at our Congregational Conclave. For a lengthy time we did that hard introspection about our church, asking questions like: What is our church’s reputation, and how do we feel about it, does it set us apart from our culture? What do we believe is the mission of our church? What role does God and our faith in God play here at FCC Stow, and what might overshadow our relationship with Jesus? How much of our attention do we spend on ourselves versus on those who are not yet part of the Church? How is success measured at our church, and how should success be measured at our church?
These questions and others were all asked and considered, forcing us to answer them honestly—which we did. And as we did, we broke our introspection down into three main headings: “The Mission of our church.” “Taking the church to the people.” And “Other Things,” particularly things that are already created and coming up; and things that perhaps God is calling us to create. The notes and thoughts around these three main headings are now part of our display in the Gathering Area.
Among the numerous visions and calls and directions that this process brought into focus was an answer to the great question asked, “So what is the formula for being the church today?” And that formula is this… Live out our mission by proclaiming the word of God, leading others to Christ, worshiping, serving others, endeavoring to Live-Grow-and Give, finding needs and filling them, and most of all by being a church of love. We will do that by being a presence, striving for visibility, building relationships, and from time to time—leaving this building.
That is the formula. If we as a church live out this formula of proclaiming the word of God, leading others to Christ, worshiping, serving others, endeavoring to Live-Grow-and Give, finding needs and filling them, and most of all by being a church of love in ways that show us as a visible presence of Christ—through actions inside and outside of our church— then we will never have to worry about our church closing for we will be faithfully pursuing our God given call and command.
We put this formula to work when we looked at the events and ministries we are doing—the created ministries, while at the same time considering what events and ministries we might create. We talked about how we can “up our game” so to speak, when it comes to our Ice Cream X-treme, Loaves and Fishes, the 4th of July Pancake Breakfast, Vacation Bible School, and a Toys for Tots motorcycle run. We talked about events that folks are creating and how we can get them created, like a Public Relations Team, a greater neighborhood presence, an all church tailgate event before or after church, and the one I am really excited about: May Doughnut Days. More information about these endeavors will come in the coming weeks. I hope you will consider being part of them to make sure God leaves our building!
All of this—the sermons, worship, newsletter, watching the film, the conclave—has been a response to the challenge to be intentional about being the church, being the body of Christ, being the hands and feet of Jesus beyond ourselves.
At the conclave we read John 3:16-17, and then asked: What do these verses say about Jesus’ mission? What bearing should these verses have on our mission?
I have said it before during this process, but I’ll say it again… The world around us is in need. It is in need of what Jesus brought to the world. Hope. Peace. Grace. Compassion. Forgiveness. Second and third chances. A sense of Belonging. But most of all, Love.
Jesus brought what all people need and then planted and created the Church so that we could ensure the world would always be able to get it. That is what we have been called to do. That is what we have been called to be. The Church. And there’s no amount of time or energy that is too much when it comes to being the church because what we are too do is too important.
So may we all embrace a role in this important work. May we all respond to this call to be the Church. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer April 24, 2016
God, what are we doing here? Why do we get up early on a day off, get dressed up and come to a place where people are going to ask us for money we struggle to make, so they can say they build a church and maybe help other people? If that weren’t enough, why do we come to a place where often we are made to feel guilty for all we’ve done and should be doing? We were taught that coming to church on Sunday is what you desire, but sometimes we just don’t feel like it. Too many things are pulling at our attention. Too many people and places have their hands out. Too much “need” is needing attention and there just isn’t enough to go around.
God, this is often our prayer, and it is a prayer of truth, for sure. We are overwhelmed and we are outnumbered. Which is why we need you to help us rediscover why we come to church.
Creator, we know deep down what really matters: to love you with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love and serve others in the name of Christ. This is the call of the Church, so help us tear down whatever is keeping us from meeting this call. Help us rediscover who we are and what you would have us to do as such a body, as the hands and feet of your Son. Help us not just overcome reasons for not coming to church, but help us become the church in new, life giving and lifesaving ways.
For this to be so, we ask your blessings on each person, on each ministry—those that are continuing and those that are being created, by you, here at First Christian. By the power of your creating hand, mold us and craft us into the church where all who respond to our invitations, all who are impacted by the ministry we do, will have an encounter with you where their life will be changed and blessed. Make us into the church O’ God that you would have us be.
We ask that you would hear now the prayers that come from our hearts in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus, our risen Lord and Savior, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”