What is a church?

Good morning, Friends!

I’m so glad to see you all here this morning. The last week was a very tough time for just about everyone in this community. We’re all grateful that we were spared the damage and destruction which hit so much of our state. But it was not an easy time for many of us.

I think everyone appreciates the warning which the news media shared with us during the days before the storm hit. That warning undoubtedly saved many lives! But it was crazy-making! No one really seemed to know when the storm was going to arrive, where it was going to strike, how hard it was going to hit, how much rain there was actually going to be, or how long it was going to linger in our area.

If I had to divide up the content of what was on the news, I would have to say it was about 5% actual, scientific information, 5% what you could do that would really help, and about 90% was nothing but anxiety. It felt like we were being bombarded by fear, for close to two weeks, and we all got tired of it.

In the same way, I think that’s what most of the regular news has become, and the proportions are generally about the same – 5% accurate information, 5% useful things we can actually do, and 90% pure anxiety. If you go on social media, you can change that to 90% anger and anxiety.

The church has not been immune to this. A lot of churches are very anxious places. From the pastor down to the people in the pews, churches reflect the spirit of the times. Unless we are very careful to guard the way we think, and pay attention to the Spirit, we’re going to get swept up in the anger and anxiety of our times. We’re going to forget what church is supposed to be all about.

Anxiety and anger are a very poor substitute for faith.  The amount of rage I see running around today, when we should be praying, when we should be building, when we should be teaching and leading, gets me down sometimes. It’s the wrong response. Anger doesn’t build.

In the same way, anxiety is not a good substitute for trust in God. People ask me all the time why the church isn’t growing, why churches are declining. I think it’s partly because a lot of people are turned off by the church.

Churches, more than anywhere else, should be places where people feel welcome and safe. People should feel that they’re welcome not just in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.

Everyone who comes in through our doors is a gift! You are God’s gift to our spiritual community. We need you! We welcome you! We want to hear your story. We want to share our life with you, just as we want you to share your life with us.

We want to share the things which give us faith. We want to share what has helped us to make it through the storm! We need to know when any person is struggling with the dark night of the soul, and we want to share the Light that helped us through.

That’s what church is about. It’s sharing the Light that helps each of us through.

When I first came here, 3 years ago, I warned you all that I was going to repeat myself. I promised that every year you were going to hear me read from the first letter of John. First John goes to the heart of what it means to be a church. It tells us exactly who we are, and what we need to be doing.

We have been through some hard times together. But we have never been alone. God is always with us. And we have never, ever, been abandoned by the love of God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

– I John 4:7-21 

This is what it’s all about, from the moment people walk in the door. No one should ever come here, and not know that love is the center of our life together.

The immediate welcome we want people to feel – if you just came here today for the first time, we want you to know that we like you, that we want to get to know you, that we think you’re interesting, that we think you have something to contribute.

Think about all the friendships and memories people have here – some people here at Springfield have been close friends going back 60 and 70 years! We want people to know that you’re not a stranger any more — you can be part of those friendships, too!

The hundreds of hours of time which people here give enthusiastically to learning, to teaching, to working with young people, to visiting, to listening, to staying in touch with people who are sick or homebound – that’s all love at work.

The support we give to each other in all of our different ministries – cheering each other on, encouraging each other, praying for each other, thanking each other for the work we do – that’s love in a way that you can feel.

The donations people bring in every week – not just money, but food and clothing for COAT, gifts for the shoeboxes for kids we’ve never met, food to celebrate together at the different meals we have all during the year – that’s all love.

I care about how people use their minds today. But I know that being right or wrong isn’t what gets us to Heaven. What gets us to Heaven – both the kingdom of Heaven here on earth, or the Heaven we all hope to be welcomed in forever – what gets us into Heaven is the love God has for us, and the love we show each other.

What we heard today in First John puts it so clearly: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.”

If you can’t remember anything else – if you get confused by all the different beliefs, if you can’t hang onto all the fine points – just remember this. “If we love one another, God lives in us. . .”

Isn’t that the most exciting thing you can ever imagine? God lives in us!

Almighty God, the creator of Heaven and earth, the one who made everything we can see and all the things we don’t see, who gave his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior, whose Holy Spirit gives us life, God who has walked with us through all of human history, God who knows all things and hears every prayer – God who moves mountains, God who calms storms, God who heals, God who saves, God who sets people free – God lives in us, if we love each other.

That’s pretty big!

Anxiety doesn’t make things better. God is with us when we’re scared and anxious. But Jesus said that all the anxiety in the world doesn’t add one inch to our time line.

Anger makes us feel good for a while, and I guess that’s why so many people seem to enjoy being angry today. Anger feels like energy, but it very seldom gets worthwhile things done. Anger doesn’t attract friends – it only attracts other angry people. Everybody else leaves.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger doesn’t build up friendships. It doesn’t build much of anything. If you’re in a small group and one or two people are angry all the time, everyone else wants to leave.

If you’re in a church and the pastor is anxious or angry from the pulpit, that church is only going to attract other anxious or angry people. That’s not the kind of growth that lasts. That’s not the kind of church Jesus wanted to see, or that he gave his life for.

Most of the people who aren’t coming to church, really do believe in God. But they get turned off by the way a lot of churches behave. They’re turned off by anxious and angry preachers. They’re turned off by people who judge them, or who tell them what to believe before they even get a chance to say where they’re coming from. They’re turned off by churches which substitute something else for the real good news they’re hungry for.

Jesus told people that there’s only two things we really need to do. Remember what those two things are? #1 –  Love God and #2 – love your neighbor.

That’s not very difficult to remember. But Jesus said that we have to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.

Too many people, and too many churches, don’t do that. They love God, but it’s not really at the top of their priority list. I can’t really tell for sure, because only God knows where we really are. But I’d guess that a lot of people love God with only about half of all their heart, mind, soul and strength. Sometimes only 25%. On busy days, maybe not at all.

You can see that there’s a difference between a small part, and the whole thing. If we want to grow a church, we need to grow in love. If we want to grow as individuals, we need to love more.

If we open our hearts to God’s love, if we let it work in us and enlarge us, we will grow. If we open our minds to the love of God, if we search for that love, if we study that love in the Bible, if we focus on the love of God, we will find it.

If the love of God is our core, if it’s our passion, if it’s what drives the bus, every day of our lives, we will grow. And if God’s love is what motivates us, if it’s what we share, if it’s what we build on, we will be strong.

“Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in them. . .”

This is what the church is all about. If we don’t know that, we don’t know anything at all. When we look at our meeting, when we evaluate our ministry, when we plan for the coming year, we need to ask, “How does this help make everyone know the love of God better? How will this communicate Jesus’ love to the newcomer, to the stranger, to the person who doesn’t feel welcome at the church they come from?”

What will our kids learn about God’s love from this experience? How will this help someone who’s searching? Will what we’re doing right now give someone faith, or hope, or courage for the week ahead? Was God’s love shared here today?

That’s what a church is really about. If we aren’t doing that, then let’s change.

It doesn’t all have to happen at once. I believe in changing one or two things at a time, and I know from experience that we all need to be on board before we do something.

I want to talk some more about this next week, and in the weeks to come. There are some goals I want to hold up, and there are some specific things I want us to try together.

But today, I want us all to remember the big reason that needs to drive everything around here: the love of God in Jesus Christ. The love God shows to us. The life-changing power of love in our hearts and lives. The love we show each other.

“If we love one another, then God lives in us. . .”

I think that’s the reason we stay here, and I think that’s the reason new people will want to join us. If we share anything else, they’re going to drift away. If God’s overwhelming love is what we share, we will grow.

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