This is a sermon preached by Pastor Drew on March 5. It’s the first in a 5-part series called, “Why Should We Care About Them?”
Read: Luke 15:1-10
Have you ever had the experience where you walk into a restaurant on a hot summer day only to discover that the A/C is turned up so high that you need a heavy sweater to stay warm? For years my mom has kept a sweatshirt in her trunk for this very purpose, because it’s almost to be expected. Well, one time I was so cold in a restaurant that I asked to speak with a manager – which is something I never do. Their response: we keep it this temperature for the sake of our kitchen staff because it gets too hot in there if we turn it down. It was clear who mattered in that restaurant…and it wasn’t the customers. When it came to being comfortable, what mattered the most was their staff. Whether or not you agree with their reasoning, that restaurant was internally focused…at least in terms of comfort.
One of the things that new parents quickly learn, especially if they didn’t know it before, is that they themselves are no longer the center of their own universe. Once that baby comes into the world, their world is no longer about them; it’s about that new little person. That baby is now the center of their daily universe. The baby’s needs trump almost all the needs and desires of mom and dad for a good long time. In other words, for mom and dad, it’s not all about them. And it can be terribly difficult to change your world like that.
So, what might happen if new parents failed to order their lives around their new baby? (For the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re talking about parents who can’t afford parent substitute, like a nanny). If mom and dad said, “Hey, it’s my life, and I’m going to do what I’ve always done,” what kind of effect might that attitude and approach have? Probably not good. And that’s because by nature parenthood is all about someone else. Or course, that changes over time as the child gets older. But early on, parenthood is not about self; it’s about someone else. Or, to put another way, it’s about being externally focused.
I’m going to ask you a question, and I’m pretty sure that most of you, if not all, know the correct answer. Churches that are healthy and thriving, are they internally-focused or externally-focused?…… They’re externally focused. Churches that are thriving, growing, and making a real impact in their communities are churches that have bought into the notion that they don’t exist for their own sake, but for the sake of those who aren’t there. Does that sound weird or counter-intuitive? It’s true. Generally speaking, externally-focused congregations are much healthier and have a greater impact than those who are internally-focused. Now, while it’s probably not true that all internally focused churches are necessarily dying, it’s probably fair to say that most if not all dying churches are internally focused. I’m sure there are exceptions; there are always multiple factors that go into a church deciding to close their doors. But, if those dying churches are located in settings where other churches are growing, then I would bet my year’s salary that that dying church has lost touch with its mandate to “go and make disciples.”
I want to be very clear about something. The good news is that we are not an internally-focused church. Quite a number of you actively serve in the community and volunteer through our church and on your own. You deliver Meals on Wheels. You build wheelchair ramps. You’re quilters and dress-makes who give your work away to those who need them. You make flower arrangements for shut-ins. You bring meals to the homeless at Share the Warmth, and spend the night in the shelter. You tutor children in school. You visit church members in their homes and nursing homes. You volunteer at the Bixby hospital and Hospice of Lenawee County. I’m glad to say that we are not an internally focused church. It’s something we can celebrate.
But…and I say this out of sincere love for you…there’s lots of room for growth. We’re not internally-focused, but as a congregation we could stand to be more intentionally externally-focused. It’s my hope and prayer that the Holy Spirit will use whatever Chris and I offer during this sermon series to motivate us to buy into the notion that we don’t exist for our own sake, but really for the sake of those not here already.
Here’s how Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson describe externally-focused churches:
- They are inwardly strong but outwardly focused.
- They integrate good deeds (service) and good news (faith-sharing) into the life of the church.
- They value impact and influence in the community more than attendance.
- They see themselves as the “soul” of the community.
- They would be greatly missed by the community if they left.
This describes a kind of church that I want to be a part of. How about you? Who here doesn’t want to be impactful, and greatly missed if we up and left?
So, why are so many church more internally-focused than externally-focused? Well, there’s no one, single answer to that question. But I think it typically boils down to our sin nature. We’re wired for self-preservation. We have to learn to not be otherwise. Even when it comes to church life, we’re still people, and we’re still governed to a degree by our natural inclinations, and those inclinations often lead us to say, “I’m the one paying for your salary and the light bill, and so I expect us to do things that keep me happy.” Maybe not in such a crude fashion – but the spirit is still prevalent in all of us…including myself.
Here’s a little test. As many of you know, we’ve been in the beginning process of taking steps to begin a second worship service. Let’s say I spent a year doing some very thorough research of the people in our community who don’t go to church. And let’s say that I came to the conclusion that about the only way these folks would even consider starting to go to church would be if it was at 10:15 on a Sunday morning. What would your initial reaction be to us planning this already-existing worship service around the yet-to-be service for those who aren’t even here yet? That is, giving them their 10:15 worship time, and us moving to a time either earlier (maybe 8:45) or later (maybe 11:30)? I think most of us would push back against that idea. Why? Because logically it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make such drastic changes that have a huge effect on us for the sake of people who aren’t even here. But believe it or not, that’s who Christ put us here for. The 1 or 2 who aren’t here. Like the sheep. I realize that’s kind of an extreme example, but does get us thinking about what it means for a church to be truly externally focused.
I guess this is the question we have to ask ourselves: what are we willing to do in order to be the kind of church that those outside of the church want to be a part of? I think that’s important question, but it’s about more than just doing something—although that’s vital. I’m interested in changing the underlying attitudes and beliefs that drive outward-focused actions. We could change our entire Sunday morning schedule to accommodate those not yet here, but if we do so begrudgingly and because Drew says we’re supposed to, that’s not likely to bear much good fruit. My prayer is truly, Change our hearts, O God! Change our hearts!
So, let’s look a little at this morning’s reading from Luke. I’m not going to spend much time parsing the story of the lost sheep that Jesus told because it really does speak for itself. However, do let me point this out. Jesus tells this story in response to the grumblings of the religious leaders who accused him of befriending “sinners.” Read: those outside the religious establishment. In our case, the church. But even more to the point, people who were unabashedly unreligious. So he makes up a story about a shepherd who realizes that one of his sheep is missing, and literally leaves those 99 to go in search of the one. We’re not told how long he was gone, but it could have been for a long time. They were left unprotected. Unlooked-after. And yet, he left them for the sake of one. Who here would blame him if he’d said, “It’s better that one should die for the sake of the 99” and so focus his attention on the remaining 99?
Listen very closely to the ‘moral of the story.’ In v. 7 Jesus reveals something very important. He says, “In the same way [the shepherd celebrated finding the one lost sheep,] there will be more join in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.” Did you catch that? He said that God is more joyous over the salvation of one “lost” person than over the ongoing salvation of the rest of us. I realize it can be difficult to hear this, but it seems to me that Jesus is saying that he prioritizes those on those outside the fold over those on those inside the fold. He places a higher priority on them compared to us. Why should we care about them? Because Jesus cares deeply about them.
Now, does this mean God doesn’t care about us? Of course not; please do not misinterpret me. But I am suggesting that based on this story, he places a high value on searching out the “lost” even if it means leaving the “not lost.”
So, let me be the first to confess that searching out the lost has never been a priority of mine, either as a lay person nor as a pastor. To be honest, most of my years as a pastor has been spent simply keeping things going as they’ve always been going. If someone new shows up, great! If someone comes to faith in Christ on their own, great! But I will confess that this idea that God prioritizes them over me is both new and a little threatening. But you know what? It’s also exciting. Because for years I’ve been praying that God would make me want what he wants. And I’m beginning to feel my heart strangely warmed in ways that I haven’t always felt. I’m actively praying for us, that the Lord might begin to not only soften our hearts for those outside the church, but that he might fill us with a desire to order our own lives around doing whatever we can to make this a community of faith that they would want to connect with.
Let me close by giving us a picture of what we’re becoming by God’s grace. 1) By God’s grace and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit we are becoming a church that is convinced that good deeds (service) and good news (faith-sharing) cannot and should not be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Our mission is simple and straight forward: to develop new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ. That alone is our task. To develop new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ. And we do it in part through acts of service.
2) By God’s grace and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit we see ourselves as vital to the health and well-being of the Adrian community. The city government and other social services play an important role in our community’s health, but we have a vital role as well. The question isn’t, How’s our own health apart from the community around us but, rather, What would this community be like apart from us? Our mission is to make disciples. And what do we believe is the outcome of doing that? A transformed community. That’s the vision that drives us.We envision a transformed Adrian as a result of making followers of Jesus Christ.
3) By God’s grace and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit we are believe that ministering and serving are the normal expressions of Christian living. It’s not just what the pastor does. Or what members of the Ministry Team do. It’s what we all do. And it can be as natural as breathing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God is making us the kind of church where serving sign-up sheets fill up right away, and we don’t have to continually announce them in order to “get people to sign up.”
4) By God’s grace and through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit we will be a church that is evangelistically effective. While it’s not about getting rears in the pews, as we grow into being more externally-focused, we will see both numerical and spiritual growth. To this end, we must replace the usual question, “How well are we doing at getting more people here?” with the better question, “How well are we connecting with those who aren’t here?”
Why should we care about those who aren’t already here? Because Jesus cares deeply about them.