I Corinthians 9:16-23
When our church’s rental house caught fire a couple of months ago I suddenly found myself immersed in a world I had never experienced.
That night I called our insurance agent, which became the stepping off point of countless other phone calls with numerous insurance agents, adjusters, contractors, restoration companies, not to mention the one person/one phone call at a time Governing Board meeting I seemed to have.
In most conversations I was asked questions I didn’t know the answer to—not because I wasn’t aware of what was going on, but because I literally did not speak the language that the questions were being asked in—the language of insurance and legal logistics.
Thankfully with the help of many from our church who do speak such language we as the church are in a positive place with a difficult situation.
All of it though has caused me to think about all that happened on different levels.
Now I often think, what if my house burned down—would I know all the steps I needed to take to tend to all that would have to be managed? Do I even know the extents of my home insurance policy?
Naturally this also got me thinking about these questions in regards to our church.
So when I was working on this sermon and came across an illustration that had a professional fundraiser speaking to a senior citizen and asking them the question, “If your church burned down tomorrow, would you give $10,000 to replace it?” of course I read further.
The illustration went on to say, “The older woman thought about the church that had meant so much to her over the years. It had been the site of numerous life-changing events: her wedding, a Bible study for young couples, the baptisms of her children, vacation Bible schools, potluck dinners, candlelight Christmas Eve services, youth group events, Easter sunrise services, senior citizen gatherings and recently the funeral of her husband. After this litany of thought the woman responded saying, ‘$10,000 to replace the church? Of course I’d give it.”
And with that answer the fundraiser said, “Well, the church will probably not burn down tomorrow, but still, it needs your $10,000 if it is going to remain vital and strong.”
And the concluding line to this sermon illustration was, “She wrote the check.”
Now, before I go any further—let me just say this is NOT another stewardship sermon. Well, indirectly I guess it is, but that’s because every sermon is indirectly a stewardship sermon.
But to be clear, this is not a direct stewardship sermon.
This sermon is about the worth of our church. How much is our church worth? How much is any church worth?
What is the dollar value of a class for young couples in which they establish lifelong friendships?
A vacation Bible school that introduces a child to Jesus?
A counseling session that saves a marriage?
A youth group meeting that prevents a suicide?
A senior citizen gathering that reduces isolation and loneliness?
An AA meeting that conquers an addiction?
A Sunday school class that teaches children right from wrong?
Add them up, and what do you get? What is the worth of our church?
Do we put a price on the Gospel?
Is there a dollar figure that is expected when it comes to the Good news of Jesus?
In our world today they say everything has a price, but Paul doesn’t want people to get worked up about costs. In fact, he says: “that in my proclamation I may make the Gospel free of charge.”
And that’s the attitude of most churches, isn’t it? To make the Gospel free of charge. To serve the community freely, with open hands and generous hearts.
But that still doesn’t answer the question, how much does it cost?
In 2010, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania and Partners for Sacred Places, a research group based in Philadelphia, searched for a dollars-and-cents answer to that specific question by calculating the economic “halo effect” of a church.
This group investigated a dozen congregations in Philly—10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish and a Jewish synagogue.
After collecting data and looking at the overall mission, ministry, and day-to-day activity of each church, they added up the money generated by weddings, funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools and elder care.
They included the salaries of church staff members and the wages of others who work around the church— roofers, plumbers, landscapers.
A dollar value was attached to intangibles, such as the work of helping people find jobs and teaching children to be socially responsible.
And what was the grand total for the dozen congregations?
This group determined that the annual economic benefits to the community in which these churches resided was over $50 million.
Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group said, “The numbers just blew us away.”
This research ought to help us feel more confident about our ministry and mission, because what we’re doing as a church has real value to our community.
In our worship services, Christian education, youth programs, music ministries, and counseling services, we have true treasures—and because we do, we are called to share them generously, and the way we are to do so is modeled for us by the apostle Paul who has such an enthusiastic outward focus that he says, “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Meaning he sees the people around him as potential recipients of the Gospel, and he pledges to do anything he can make sure they hear and experience the valuable benefits of the Christian Gospel.
Paul knows that he has been commissioned to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, and “woe to him” if he does not proclaim it.
Paul’s approach is the same one that we should be taking today as our congregation tries to reach people.
Everything we do—from weddings to youth group to music to free dinners—all is for the sake of the Gospel, so that we and others might share in its blessings.
Now, we do a good job at this—no doubt about it.
But could we do more?
Could we add even more worth to our community?
Well the answer to that question is easy. Yes.
Now, there is a word of caution that must be noted.
No church can truly be “all things to all people.” I believe this and have said this.
Trying to become such a church will bust our budget and exhaust us, not to mention it would simply be pandering to people in untrue and unfaithful ways.
But though no church can be all things to all people, the Gospel can be, therefore, congregations have to be strategic in their ministries by: discerning God’s call, knowing their gifts and passion for ministry, and managing their resources faithfully.
Then they are to, as the prophet Joel reminded us last week at Pentecost—have visions and dream dreams.
To make these dreams realities some congregations have created “English as a Second Language” or ESL classes to help immigrants become integrated into their community.
One of them, Riverchase United Methodist Church in Alabama, has expanding its facilities to include new classrooms, a student worship center, and a computer lab for ESL classes.
They have witnessed the value of newcomers learning English and finding a church home because people are being led to Christ and the church is growing.
At Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia, a “Friendship Class” was created for children with Down-syndrome. The class includes a Bible study based on the Sunday sermon, prayer, and fellowship. Students bring their friends, and together do their own outreach to the community by participating in walks to fight world hunger.
The class has grown to over thirty students with a variety of disabilities.
Is there worth to be found in a class for those with disabilities? Absolutely.
In the battle against hunger, some churches have established community gardens, on church grounds, which provide opportunities for church members and neighbors to work the soil together and grow food for the needy.
In Billings, Montana, this is done, and the community garden of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church is described as “a place not only to grow food but to grow relationships, especially a relationship with Christ.”
All gardeners donate ten percent of what they grow to a mission organization, a service organization, or a person in need.
What’s the worth of a community garden to hungry neighbors?
One recipient said, “This ministry has meant the world to me because there have been many times when I had nothing.”
The person who said that is now a volunteer in the program.
Meeting human needs and building relationships is priceless.
Churches have worth because they provide their community with personal and spiritual growth, through all the seasons of life—the source of that worth is God our Creator, Christ our Savior.
It is the call and mandate, then, of every church to offer ministries and programs that will provide lasting value to its people and the community around it with a generous and accommodating spirit.
But when you calculate the true worth of a church and the cost to replace it, you have to look outward and think of the ways that it extends the blessings of the Christian Gospel to others, particularly in our community.
For the past year our church’s Sanctuary Renewal Team has been working on the next step in its Vision component, and they are nearly ready to bring to you an account of their work along with a proposal.
That proposal is being delayed, however, because it seems that God is turning the difficult situation that was a fire at our church’s rental property into a potential Pentecost blessing of seeing visions and dreaming dreams.
There will be more information about this in the coming weeks, after the Governing Board has a special meeting in early July to discuss these ideas, visions, and dreams—ideas, visions, and dreams that will have among them Sanctuary Renewal and possibly a proposal for a broader community initiative.
We are aiming to do this because we are a faith community who has had an obligation laid on us to proclaim the Gospel—and woe to us if we do not proclaim it.
We are aiming to do this because we are a faith community, within a community, who is called to share the worth we have been blessed with—the most precious worth the world can ever know. The Good News of Jesus Christ.
So what is the worth of our church? It is priceless.
May we always be ready to give it away.