Dr. John Schmidt
July 30, 2017
I want you to turn to this page in your celebration booklet. I want to take a moment to look at two sets of numbers. The first is our average weekly adult attendance. It’s 602 for the year we just came through. Now, there were two major things that have contributed to this decline in attendance. The first is that a few years back, we had some controversy in our national denomination that caused a number of people to decide that they needed to go to a church that wasn’t part of the PC USA. Then we planted St. Moses. And about 60 to 75 people from Central have joined them in that exciting outreach.
I want to also point out the statistics about baptism. We had no adult baptisms last year. Now, we know that about 12 or 14 children, students, and adults decided to follow Jesus last year at Central. And, we know that about three of the baptisms that were done at St. Moses this year were people who made their decision to follow Christ when they were here at Central. They just got baptized later.
But I want us to look at these numbers again, and imagine that I don’t have an explanation for it. I say that, because this sort of decline in attendance and impact is affecting the vast majority of churches all over the nation. The fact is, the skills, the strengths, the patterns of church life that were so effective in the 20th century are ineffective now. The Church in America, and in Western culture, has to learn new ways of being church. Central is not immune. If we don’t change, these kinds of numbers will come up again and again in our future, and we won’t have a good explanation.
Any of you who have come to church here more than a few times know that this last year has been a year of discernment. During this time, we’ve been trying to listen to God to get a sense of what God is calling us to in the future. We were all invited to be involved, at one time or another.
The big picture of what came up again and again can be summarized in this phrase “To be transformed by Jesus so that we will impact our community.” Central has been great at this at times in its past. But the world is changing. What will be different?
In the past, our understanding of evangelism and discipleship focused a lot on religious activities. It had to do with church services, small groups, and classes. We felt that if we could only get people to come to these good events, they would hear the good news and move toward Christ. All of those things are essential, and we need to keep them. But the future of our impact on people’s lives isn’t in here. The cutting edge of our growth in Jesus is what happens out there, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and the communities that immediately surround us.
- Members not staff
- Relationships not programs
- Neighborhoods not church campus
The cutting edge of our growth in Jesus is what happens out there, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and the communities that immediately surround us. And that is where we will have the biggest impact on the spiritual lives of the people around us. It has to be that way. There was a time, when we met the new neighbor who moved in across the street, that we could invite them to church almost in our first conversation with them. People understood church, and even if they didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, they were open to joining us in a Sunday service. And there we could introduce them to Jesus. Move them toward Christ.
But the days of being able to invite someone to church in a first conversation is over. Suspicions about Christians are high. We need to learn how to build trust with people who don’t trust us already. And people need to be able to see the kingdom of Jesus demonstrated in their own neighborhoods, and not have to come to some church to see it. We have to find ways of gathering together Christians and non-Christians around the needs of the community, so that people can begin to see the heart of God and the hand of God right in front of them.
A few weeks back I shared about Julie B., who together with her husband Bryan felt God’s call to invest themselves in the public school their daughters attend. There was no organized parents group, but they prayed and invested themselves in a relationship with the principle and other school leaders. And God opened doors. Things happened. The values of the kingdom of God were demonstrated, and Julie discovered other Christians called to the same burden of serving that school. And now they are living out that calling together with people who are not yet Christ followers. But, the relationships and trust that grow in an environment like that have the potential of being a place where they will be able to share Christ effectively.
We have realized that this kind of life requires us to considerable growth on three fronts: It will require that we engage with God in deeper ways (transformation), to engage more honestly with each other in the body (community), and to engage more intentionally with the world around us (evangelism). I’d like to talk briefly about each of these.
Let’s begin by reading our text for the day. It comes from the Gospel of Luke chapter 14. We will be reading verses 15 to 24.
In this parable, Jesus is explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples. He compares it to a great feast organized by a rich man. But all the people that the man originally plans to invite make excuses not to come. We see that happening in verses 18 to 20. I want to focus on the response of the man in verse 21. He becomes angry. So the man changes his strategy. If one group won’t come, if one way of trying to fill the banquet doesn’t work, the man is willing to send out the invitation to different people in a different way.
The man changes his strategy, and he commands his servants to implement this new strategy: “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” Note the urgency: go out quickly. And note, he’s calling his servants to an active role. They are not commanded just to prepare a wonderful banquet and make sure the doors of the house are open wide, with may be a sign outside saying everybody welcome. No, he commands them to go into the streets and alleys to meet and engage with people who have needs. Later in the parable he even ups the ante and sends them even farther out to fill his banquet.
What does this command say to Central?
The first has to do with evangelism. We’ve always valued this. What is different?
One of the things we realized in the discernment process was that we had a gap in our obedience to God. In Acts 1 Jesus sends out his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
We realized that our Jerusalem is our body life here. It’s what happens here at Central, particularly on Sundays. It’s going pretty well. It can always be improved, but we’re definitely in the game in Jerusalem.
When we consider Baltimore City, we see the partners that we have in ministry. Helping Up Mission, Acts4Youth, HopeSprings, Grace Beyond the Walls, and here in the county, Uncuffed ministry. And that’s just some of them. We are engaged with our Samaria. We have solid partners there who know how to do ministry in urban life, and we join them. We’re in the game in Samaria.
And Central is strong to the ends of the earth. We support missionaries. We send out our own missionaries. Just this year we’ve added Scott and Hoa Cost to a long list of people who’ve taken this step of obedience. We are in the game to the ends of the earth.
But that leaves our Judea. Judea is our own neighborhoods. We have measured this again and again, across a period of years. We have some wonderful individuals who are connected deeply to their neighborhoods and networks, but it’s the exception not the rule.
Just think about your own life. Does anybody trust you deeply enough to want to hear about Jesus from you?
Or, think about it another way: “Do you live a questionable life?” What I mean is, are there some things that you do that cause people to ask “Why do you do that? Why are you like that?” And, I mean in a good way, not a bad one!
Last week I had lunch with Yakubu Bakfwash. Yakubu is a Nigerian doing church plating down in Dundalk. Yakubu was in Chick-fil-A a few months ago when he noticed some parents with a young girl right behind him. And he saw that the young child was strung out and hungry. She was whining about how long it was all taking. So, Yakubu turned around to the family and said, “Please step in front of me and go first.” The parents declined, but he insisted. “Your daughter is hungry and stressed out. Please. It would be my pleasure.”
As Yakubu was later sitting at the table eating his meal, the young girl came up to him and asked, “Sir, why did you do that?” And Yakubu got a chance to tell her just a little about Jesus, and about his church. It was just a few moments. And then he handed her his business card. A few weeks later this family shows up at church, and they are now active members.
Yakubu lives a questionable life. Do we?
Living this way is not something that most of us can do on our own. We need to be part of a community that shares this kind of vision. Who lives it every day. If God is sending out an invitation to his kingdom feast, why should people want to come? When people look at us, the messengers, they want to see people who are already learning how to love each other. Who know how to be deeply accepting of each other, who know how to extend grace. People who know how to deal with grief and struggle. They need to see people who know right and wrong, but know how to support people being overwhelmed by what’s wrong in their lives. They need to see real relationships, real community. And our culture is just not good at this. But it’s a lesson we need to learn, and that’s why we spent weeks in Romans 12 talking about it.
Living this kind of questionable life in our own neighborhoods, in our workplaces, among our network of friends won’t be easy. It’s not just a matter of more head knowledge. It’s having an experience with God that is so alive that we recognize his voice. We sense his grief over the brokenness in the lives of the people that we meet, and are stirred by his love. And it’s about taking the risk to obey.
And what will be going on in us spiritually that will make us willing to pay that cost? To make that sacrifice and take that risk? To not just be part of a church that reaches out, but be people who reach out? We are called to be actors in this incredible drama of what God is doing in the world, not just be an audience to it.
A book called Canoeing the Mountains, tells us of the journey of Lewis and Clark, who, in the early 1800s were commissioned by President Jefferson to find a water route from the Eastern side of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark were picked because of their great skills handling boats and navigating rivers. People were convinced that if we could just go upstream far enough toward the West, that we would come to a mountain chain like the Appalachians. At that point, the explorers could portage their boats over those mountains and into the streams right on the other side, and then begin the journey to the Pacific Ocean. And Lewis and Clark had just the right skills for that journey.
When they actually went upstream and came to the foot of the Rockies, what they discovered was very different. The mountains were over twice as high as they expected, and they went on west beyond the horizon. They were chosen because they were good with boats, and now they had to make a decision whether they would turn back because boats were useless, or whether they would press forward and learn entirely new skills. It would require that their little community be stronger than ever. It would tap deep into who they were as people and would require great courage.
The decision they made changed history. They went into the unknown, leaving behind the skills of the past and taking on the skills they needed for the future. And they were successful!
Central has a glorious past. We have been good at sharing the gospel, and serving Christ in this world. But now we have come to the foot of the Rockies. And we have to make a choice. Do we hold on to the skills and patterns of the past, and effectively turn back? Or do we press on into new territory and learn whatever we need to learn along the way?
I know what my choice is. The reason I preached from this text in Luke today was because at the discernment prayer time, that happened right in this worship center, this passage was presented for us to meditate on and pray about. And in those moments God raised a fire in my heart. And it was around these words. After the master tells everyone in verse 21 to go out into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor the crippled the blind and the lame, the servant comes back later with a reply. It’s in verse 22, “what you ordered has been done.”
With all of my heart I want Central to be able to say that to God about this call on our lives. Sir, what you have ordered has been done. Jesus what you have ordered us to do has been done!
May it be so!