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Be The Church

Preached by Pastor Dave Smith on March 21, 2015

audio version

 

 

Our church family is doing well at connecting with those who visit our church.

 

During one sermon last year when I preached on the role of hospitality in church, I called a secret visitor to the front to report on his or her experience in coming to our church. That secret visitor, posed as someone who knew nothing about our church and who was unchurched, reported for each of the worship services that he or she had been warmly greeted into fellowship.  They had been hugged and greeted  by strangers, they had been asked if we could help them with anything, and their questions about what was going on had been thoughtfully and sensitively answered. I asked each secret visitor to give our congregation a letter grade reflecting how well they had helped someone just walking in off the street feel at home in what to them was a strange environment. Two times the grade was an A; one time it was an A+.

 

Recently I learned of the experience of a family who moved here a few years ago. They were Seventh-day Adventists looking for an Adventist church to attend. They assumed that the Collegedale Church was too large to provide the warmth and fellowship they were seeking. So they attended several area churches.

 

One Sabbath, as it turns out, they visited this church. Their experience changed everything. They discovered a level of caring and fellowship well beyond anything they expected. They are now members of our church because they found what they were seeking—intimate and meaningful community with fellow believers.

 

Time after time individuals in the congregation have walked up to me between services and said things like, “I haven’t been in a church for twenty years. Today is my first day back. And I feel at home.” Others have written me, sharing their experience. They have recounted things such as sitting in their cars in the parking lot on a Sabbath morning and being moved to walk through the church doors to join us, not an easy thing for them. They have rejoiced in the experience they have had as they have worshipped with us.  I have watched you, the members of this church, bring your neighbors and friends to a worship service. You have seemed excited to bring them and they have seemed pleased to be here.

 

Why do I share this with you? Well, it’s certainly not to brag. We are a warm and caring church, but we are far from perfect. Not everyone who comes through our church doors has a positive experience. But we are on the right track.

 

I believe that God has been moving us toward becoming more of the body of believers He intends us to be. I believe that the Spirit is working on our hearts to open us to the needs of others, to place others before ourselves, to lift God up and humble ourselves before Him.

 

While God has been working on our church family, He has also been working on our pastor team. For over three years the pastors of this church have experienced a growing conviction that what this church needs is more facility space--not for corporate worship but for those experiences that build community. We believe that building on the success we are already experiencing, God wants us as a church to expand and renovate this facility in ways that support spontaneous fellowship, intentional community, and relational evangelism. We envision a church culture that motivates members to greet everyone who enters the doors of this church with Christ-like hospitality and which draws the unchurched, non-attending members, and seekers into fellowship with members and with Christ.  With adequate and functional space there is no limit to what members of this church could do to attract and serve those who join us on Sabbath mornings and throughout the week.

 

Our vision includes building an addition to the existing facility which would provide more functional and safer space for children’s Sabbath School classes, better space for Pathfinders, expanded space for Kiddie Kampus, and more flexible spaces for a variety of church needs. Creating this space will free space in the existing structure for accomplishing the goals I have already mentioned.

 

Today I want to share the core values behind our dream.

 

I would like to start by briefly sharing about a former neighbor (in another state). Because my neighbor was a staunch atheist, we seldom discussed spiritual topics. But we did talk about lots of things, especially world events. One day, in the middle of an ordinary conversation, my neighbor declared: “I think I might start attending a church.”

 

I asked him why he wanted to attend a church. He wasn’t seeking God or faith, he informed me. He was seeking fellowship. His wife had passed away and he was lonely. He had heard that a church was a great place to connect with other people.

 

Well, according to the media, my neighbor isn’t the only atheist wanting to go to church. Perhaps you have read about the recent trend of atheists creating churches to attend.  What do they do in these churches? They fellowship.  They experience community. They find that they can experience more meaningful human interaction in a church setting than they can in nearly any other public space.

 

But when you add God to the environment, the human interaction becomes far more significant and richer. Let me illustrate:

 

A number of years ago I was attending a special program when a man, whom I did not recognize, walked up to me and said, “I’m in the church today because of you.”

 

I had no idea what he was talking about until he reminded me that for several years he had attended a Sabbath School class I frequently taught. Apparently the experiences he had in that small group drew him to Christ. It also drew him into fellowship with other believers. In that class there was a safe place to ask questions, to study the Bible, to grow together in our walk with God. We had wonderful fellowship that extended well beyond the Sabbath School time. We were on a journey together—a very special journey.

 

This man wasn’t in the church because of me. He was in the church because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves on our hearts to draw us to God and hold us to Him. But the Spirit often does this through the relationships and fellowship we experience in a church setting.

 

Two days later another man said much the same thing to me. His experience also happened in a small group, a Sabbath School class.

 

This is the experience we want more people to have in this church, but our space is limited. Our present facility can accommodate only eight small groups meeting during any Sabbath worship service period. Frequently we have had to tell members that they cannot start a small group, particularly during the Adoration 2 time period, because there just isn’t room. How many people are missing the spiritual blessings that could be theirs if we had more room for small groups to meet for fellowship, study and community? This question troubles and motivates us.

 

When my mother called me one Friday evening to tell me she was going back to a Seventh-day Adventist church after being away from the church for 40 years I hardly knew what to say. But I did know what to pray: “God, please let this be a loving church. Please help these people help my mother come back to church and come back to you. Let this church be a safe, loving community.”

 

God answered my prayers for my mother in a remarkable way. Those church members welcomed her with open arms. They warmly accepted her into their church community. Everywhere my mother went in that church facility—in the hallways, the children’s Sabbath School room where she volunteered, and the fellowship hall--she was welcomed into the church family.

 

These people were so loving and so accepting that when the church produced a member directory, my mother insisted on having her picture in the directory even though she wasn’t a member. She felt that these people were part of her family.

 

My mother heard some good sermons in that church. She sang hymns with the congregation just like we have today. She prayed with that congregation just like we did today. She heard some wonderful special music like we have today. But it was interaction with church members that drew her back to God and back to church. It was the people, partnering with the Holy Spirit and fellowshipping with her who won her to Christ.

 

My mother came back to church because she discovered that “church” is not a building but people—people connected by community and mission. The love of people won her over to the love of God. And we want that same experience for every person who comes into our church facility. That is what our building campaign is all about.

What my mother discovered that we need to understand is that church is not something we “go” to. Church is what we are, each of us. We are the church.

 

In The Christian Atheist (119-120) Craig Groeshel observes: “To many people, church is a place. It’s a building, bricks and mortar, a destination. We go to church. The problem with thinking ‘we go to church’ is that it gives us a consumer mindset: I’m looking for a church that meets my needs.’”

 

This view of what church is leads us to think that church is all about us. But it isn’t. It is all about God. And all about others needing to know God. As one author puts it (Erwin McManus in The Christian Atheist 220) “The church does not exist for us. We are the church, and we exist for the world.”

 

Groeschel (221) states: “God is not calling us to go to church; he is calling us to be his church, the hope of the world.”

 

Consider what church meant to early Christians. Church was not an addition to their life; it was their life. Virtually every aspect of their lives revolved around what today we call church. Church was not a building. It was people. It was experience.

 

Acts 2:42, 44-47 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

 

Perhaps the closest we come to this experience in our church is when members regularly participate in an intentional community-building experience. People tend to migrate to where the bonds of friendship and community are strongest.

 

Do you know that in most cases, when our members are forced by circumstances to decide between attending a small group experience or corporate worship, the majority attend the small group experience. And why not? That is where they best experience the sense of community and family that church is designed to provide.

 

God created a partnership with hypocritical, fallible, weak human beings—we call this partnership “church.” When He could have used angels, who always obey and do things perfectly, to carry out His work on earth, instead He chose us. And we are the church, the church of Jesus Christ. Christ is the head. We are the body. As the church, we are God’s vehicle of grace for the world. We are the conduit for spreading His good news.

 

Ephesians 1:22-23 “And God placed all things under [Jesus’] feet and appointed him to be the head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

 

Jesus takes us, diverse and fallible as we are, and He builds us into one body with one purpose. The strength of the church comes from Jesus which passes through us to the world.

 

1 Corinthians 12:12-13 “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

 

As members of Christ’s church, we have the commission to encourage each other, to build up each other as part of the body. God uses the relationships we have with each other to further the mission of the church. Nearly everything significant that happens in the church body happens in the context of relationship.

 

1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up. . . .”

 

Philippians 2:1-4 “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

 

We have the commission to love each other with Christ-like love which is our primary witness to the world.

 

John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

 

And we have the commission to share the gospel.          

 

Matthew 28:19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. . . .”

 

Ellen White,  Acts of the Apostles (9) “The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.” Let us never forget this.

 

Having a facility which provides ample space and opportunity for spontaneous fellowship, intentional community, and relational evangelism feeds the mission and the life of the church.        

  

A few weeks ago I shared the experience of a drug addict who stumbled one Sabbath into a small Seventh-day Adventist church. I simply want to remind us of what happened. After being greeted by a church member who hugged him, getting vomit on her Sabbath dress, he asked this lady why she had hugged him. It scared him. She said, “I love you, God loves you, and we’re glad you’re here.”

 

She sent him into a Sabbath School class. He knew nothing about the Bible and none of what he heard made sense. But the people were nice to him. They encouraged him. And he found himself Sabbath after Sabbath wanting to be with these people. After two years, he decided that he wanted what they had and he was baptized. Today he is a pastor.

 

It was his participation in a small group, his fellowship with members, and the impact of their love for each other and for him that won him to Christ. And that is the experience we want for those who come to us in this church, regardless of the reason they show up here.

 

Karen Kingsbury tells the story of Lucy, a 7-year-old girl living in the early 1900’s. One day she left her home to walk across the street to attend the church where she had watched children go all of her life. Her parents did not go to church. But that day Lucy decided that she should go.

 

She was met in the church by one of the pastors who told her that the Sunday School class was full; there was no room for her. She would have to go back home.

 

Lucy couldn’t understand how a church could turn away children from Sunday School. Why couldn’t they build a bigger church so that all children who wanted to attend Sunday School could do so?

 

She prayed that God would help her collect money to help build a bigger church. She managed to save 57 cents. Then just before her eighth birthday Lucy fell very ill and died.

 

When they came to remove her body, the people discovered the 57 cents and a note stating that she was saving money so that all children who wanted to could attend Sunday School. She would collect enough money to build a larger church.

 

As people learned about Lucy’s plan they began to donate money for building a larger church. The local newspaper appealed to readers to support Lucy’s cause and contribute to the project. Then a local developer offered the church a large plot of land upon which to build a bigger church. His price? 57 cents.

 

Today Temple Baptist Church is the biggest church in Philadelphia. In that church, which has all the room it needs to accommodate anyone who comes to church for any reason, there is a picture of Lucy on the wall. A picture reminding all who see it that a church ought to have enough room to accommodate the needs of those who come to it seeking God and seeking fellowship. No one should ever be turned away from an opportunity to meet with others, to enjoy fellowship and community, to journey together with believers, because there isn’t enough room. (CD Lifeway Women’s Devotions Vol. 2)

 

As pastors, we believe the same as Lucy. Our facility should never restrict the opportunity for members or guests to experience the fellowship and community that a church can best offer. We have a dream, planted in our hearts over a period of three years. We want to invite you to join us in this dream.

 

We dream that if the Spirit brings someone into this facility, our facility will accommodate their spiritual needs. We dream that those of us who comprise God’s church will reach out to visitors and guests and connect with them. We dream that there will be no limits to the saving experiences people might have when they join us on a Sabbath morning. We dream that there will be as many different intentional communities and as much flexible facility space as we need to make true fellowship, discipleship, evangelism and community possible between members and guests. We dream that there will be spaces in this church where we can fellowship and simply enjoy each other as children of God, without ulterior motive or formal programming but just let the Spirit work. We dream that there will be a culture in this church that permeates every interaction between members and others—a culture fed by the desire to do whatever we can to help others experience the love of God.

 

This is our dream. We invite you to make it yours.

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