Tag Archives: Transformation

Is “Bigger Better” in Churches?

 

In America today we want everything “supersized”—-from our french fries at McDonalds to our huge houses where only two people reside..   We seem to live by the slogan:   “Bigger is Better!”  But is it?    I’d like to examine that question in relation to the size of churches.   Are megachurches more successful than small churches?

Those of us who have  attended  church  conventions know that the featured speakers and most of the workshop leaders will be  pastors from large churches.   Somehow  the “rank and file” seem to think that because they are large megachurch pastors they have all the answers and are personally successful as well as leaders of successful churches, and so we come to see what crumbs of wisdom they might cast our way that will help us and our small churches be”successful” like they are.—meaning having large membership numbers and a campus of buildings.   That these pastors are good administrators is a given here.   That they have a good deal of charisma and are deliver good sermons  is usually true.   That they have answers to the question of how to build a megachurch and manage it is also true.   Their churches offer tons of programs for children and adults—from support groups for people with various problems to children’s ministry and everything in between.   But are a variety of programs offered to attract large numbers of people to their church a measure of success as  Jesus defined success?  I’m not so sure of this—and that is the question we examine today.

I’m leading a Home Fellowship Group in a Bible Study of the Gospel of Mark.   At our last session we discussed this question of “supersize” as Jesus seemed to see it.   He accepted the large crowds he attracted—some so large along the Sea of Galilee that he acquired a boat to get in so he would not be crushed by the crowds seeking to touch him and be healed.   But Jesus tends to see those crowds as no reason for gratification.   He feels that many of them are there for the wrong reason, to be healed of their infirmities and to see the miraculous.   Jesus heals them and has compassion for them, but  proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God is his main mission.   That proclamation is his main mission because it  has the power to transform people’s lives,  and sometimes people who are only seeking physical healing and entertainment  can get in the way of that proclamation.

I think the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark shows the way he feels about the crowds he attracts.   You can read it in Mark 4: 1-9.   Sowing grain in that day was done by throwing it from right to left by hand.   Because of that there was no control over where the actual seeds landed on the ground.   Jesus says some seed fell on pathways and the birds came and ate it.   Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was not enough soil to support it and when it came up it had shallow roots and the sun scorched it and killed it. Some seed fell among thorns and weeds and they choked it the plant out before it could get established.  But some seed fell on good soil  and it brought forth grain that multiplied it one hundredfold.

Jesus saw the crowds to whom he sought to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in the same way.    Only a small portion of the crowd would actually be transformed by the good news of the Kingdom of God.   The rest would let other things choke it out of their lives and die unchanged.  Thus I feel Jesus was not impressed with numbers but with changes in the lives of people who heard him.

With the above in mind, now we need to look at what makes a church successful today.   I think the answer to my question “Is Bigger Better?” as it pertains to churches  is this:  it is not size alone that leads to success of any church, large or small, but it is  its ability to follow Jesus and in doing so  transform the lives of those who are a part of that church and those who that church reaches out to.   The measure of a church’s success is the number of lives that have been changed and transformed due to its proclamation both in word and in deed of the Kingdom of God.   The successful church  is the “good soil” in the Parable of the Sower” that brings forth transformation  of people’s lives and nurtures their growth in relationship to God and God’s Kingdom..   A successful church, regardless of the names on the roster, changes people into devoted followers of Jesus and his teachings as they live their lives each day.   Small churches can be just as successful as large churches in changing people’s lives as they live the great commandment to love God and neighbor as yourself.”   Sometimes because small churches are more personal, they are able to live this better than those with thousands on their membership roster.

It is not the numbers, but what happens to the lives of the people who are the numbers that indicates success for a church.  The early church was made up of house churches with small numbers—but they changed the world by living their faith every day, even in the face of persecution and death! 

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The Candles of Advent—Love

 

“Do We Really Want This Baby?

Text:  Luke 1:26-38

            Do We Really Want this Baby??    Due to the invention of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, that is a question often asked in our country these days.   Our discussions about abortion often generate a lot more heat than they do light on the subject.   Listening to the arguments, that can be vicious on either side of the question, you would think that in the U.S. children are very important!!

            I’m not saying that children are not important.  I am saying that sometimes we have mixed emotions in the United States as well as the rest of the world about children.

            On the one hand, we have couples who spend thousands of dollars at fertility clinics trying to have a child.  On the other hand, we have couples who want to abort their prospective children if they are the wrong sex, have some physical disability, or if they think they are “not ready yet.”   So what do we really think about having children.    In truth, when we look at it statistically in the U.S., Germany, and Japan we see a we see a baby bust, not a baby boom.   People are having fewer and fewer babies.   In the U.S., the total birth rate has dropped from 3.2 children per woman in 1920 to 2.1 children today.   In Europe, the birth rate is even more changed—from 2.8 children to 1.5 over the period of 1970 to 2000.  WHY?  Lots of “experts” give lots of reasons that vary from:

The cost of children in the U.S.—that exceeds $200,000 per child, not including college.

The fact that we have good retirement insurance and don’t need children to take care of us in our old age.

The shift from an agricultural/non-industrial culture which needed lots of children to help do the work and keep the family alive, to a technical/industrial culture which needs less children.

A world dominated by terrorism threats causes parents to hesitate to bring children into such a world.

Whatever the reason might be, these statistics raise the question as to whether we as a nation are less welcoming to children, less willing to bring them into the world than we once were.   

“Do we really want this baby?”   the sermon title asks.   That is a question that Mary might well have asked as we look at our text this morning.  In that text we heard how the angel Gabriel visited a young peasant woman named Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter in her hometown of Nazareth.

            We often don’t realize how alarming what the angel said to Mary must have been to her!    “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

            That wasn’t necessarily good news to a young woman getting ready for her wedding night to find out that she was going to be pregnant although she had not yet been with her husband Joseph.  !    Her first question was:   “How can this be?”   It might well have been  “What am I supposed to tell Joseph?”

            In  first century Jewish culture what she had just learned would be seen by her religious neighbors as adultery and was grounds for stoning and not just grounds for divorce or breaking the engagement!   An engagement or betrothal was as binding as marriage.   Mary’s life was endangered by this news!

            Mary questioned the news saying:  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” and the angel answered her:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the son of God.”   WOW!!  And the angel told her that the child’s name would be “Jesus”—the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Joshua” that means “He will save” in the Hebrew.   WOW!!!

            Mary could have said:  “No way, Gabriel!   I’m not going to touch this baby thing with a 10 foot pole!   Way too much at risk here—my marriage, my very life is at risk.   Sorry—find someone else.  I don’t need this kind of a burden at this time of my life!

            What Mary said was“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!”  In other words:  “Yes, Gabriel, I want this baby if that is God’s will for me!”

The same question comes to us this Advent Season as we read the announcement of the angel Gabriel– The question is:  Do we really want this baby Jesus? Are we really ready to birth and cradle this Christ child in our own lives?   Are we really ready to welcome the adult Jesus that he will grow into as a part of our world today?    Are we??

            Or are we more inclined upon hearing the claims and risks involved with accepting this Jesus into our world to hit the road and get outta town?   Because when we birth and cradle this Christ Child in our lives we will find that this baby grew up and that the Christ will challenges us to be transformed as a member of God’s kingdom on earth that he came to proclaim.  He will challenge us to also reach out our arms to others who will need our love and and the God of love that Christ proclaimed  in their lives.  And that might be inconvenient!   That might be risky!   That might we dangerous!  That might make demands on us we don’t want to meet!

            You see, if we truly welcome this Christ into our lives, our lives are going to be changed in a significant and total way, just as Mary’s life was changed significantly and totally!  

            It is significant that Mary said “yes” to the angel and to God and was willing to risk her reputation, her marriage, her very life, in order for the Son of God to enter the world.   She didn’t worry about her engagement, her social standing, her health, or her long-term financial security.   She didn’t spend a minute thinking about retirement benefits or whether she could use a child to take care of her in her old age.   Instead she said “yes” to a baby who would grow up to be called Jesus of Nazareth, and be called the Son of God who would proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom and rule had entered the world and who would reveal God to us in a new and wonderful way as a God of love.   Are we receptive to this rule of God in our lives?   Are we hearing the call of God through Jesus to be transformed?   Are we willing to embrace the Christ Child and the man, Jesus of Nazareth and allow his proclamation and his teachings and his example to make a difference in our lives?

            If we say “yes” to these questions,  we’ll find ourselves changed.   If our lives are not changed by saying “yes” then we really haven’t said it with honesty.   Because if we say “yes” then we will become a person who has Christ at the very center of who we are, just as Mary received the life of Jesus into the deepest and most intimate part of herself.   We’ll turn into a person who can say along with Mary:   “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your will!!   Are we willing to say that?

What we are talking about in this sermon is the word that we don’t find in the Bible but that the church invented to describe the mystery of Jesus’ birth—-INCARNATION.    John’s gospel tries to describe it as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the word as “Immanuel”—God with us.”     The incarnation means that our God, who stands outside of time—who is infinite (without ending)—-becomes finite (ending).   The God who is all powerful becomes all-vulnerable.   The God who brought the world into being now is born of Mary’s womb to bear the good news of God’s love for the world.  

This is the gift of Christmas—the gift of God’s love for the world that came as a flesh and blood baby—Jesus.    This Jesus was not some glow-in-the-dark-Christ- Child        Jesus, the very God incarnate, was a real, live, ordinary, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting baby.   And just as with all babies, his greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and reassurance.              

He in turn, as we was brought up with love by Joseph and Mary, would reach out in love and show us that God was a God of love.   That God cares for us.   That God is with us at all times.   And that challenges us, because as God seeks us through the incarnation, God’s love demands that we answer this question:   DO WE WANT THIS JESUS IN OUR LIVES?

            If we do, we will be forever changed, just as Mary was forever changed—-and we, in turn, will reach out to others,   not just in this season of advent, but in all seasons, saying:   “HERE WE ARE, SERVANTS OF THE LORD.   LET IT BE ACCORDING TO YOUR WILL!    ARE WE WILLING TO DO THAT?

            Let me close with a story that took place during World War II:   

            A soldier was concluding sentry duty on Christmas morning outside London.  It had been his custom in other years to attend worship in his home church on Christmas Day, but here in the outlying areas of London it was not possible.   And so, with some of his buddies, the soldier walked down the road that led into the city just as dawn was breaking.    Soon the soldiers came upon an old greystone building over whose entrance was carved the words:   “Queen Anne’s Orphanage.”   They decided to check and see what kind of celebration was taking place inside.   In response to their knock, a matron came and explained that the children were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the London bombings.

            The soldiers went inside just as the children were tumbling out of their beds.   There was no Christmas Tree in the corner and no presents.   The soldiers moved around the room, wishing the children a Merry Christmas and giving as gifts whatever they had in their pockets; a stick of gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or a dime, a pencil, a knife, a good luck charm.   The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner.   He looked a lot like his own nephew back home, so he approached and asked,  And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?   The boy replied,  “Will you hold me?”   The soldier, with tears in his eyes, picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms and held him close.” 

That’s what Emmanuel, God with us, means.   .  That’s what Jesus taught us:  God does not keep us at arms length, but reaches out lovingly to us and hold us as the soldier held the little boy.  

            IF CHRIST IS BORN IN US THIS CHRISTMAS, WE TOO WILL REACH OUT WITH OPEN AND LOVING ARMS TO THOSE IN NEED—WE TOO WILL HAVE A HANDS-ON LOVING RELATIONSHIP WITH ALL AROUND US.   WE WILL SHOW BY OUR CHANGED LIVES THAT WE REALLY DO WANT THIS BABY JESUS!   Amen.

          Today we light the 4th Candle of Advent—the Candle of Love. And the birth of Jesus tells us:    IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE!!    God so loved the world that he sent his only Son!    Jesus—that Son, told us that all the law and commandments and the prophets were summed up in this simple yet profound statement—-“You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—-and your neighbor as yourself!”   

Jesus  didn’t say just at Christmas time!    He didn’t put any limits on how much or how often!   And when he said “love”  he said  “love as I have loved you!”    Amen.