It amazes me how little school buses have changed since my days at Crosby Garfield Sixth Grade Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The outside is yellow, the seats are vinyl, and the smell sees to remind you of the leftovers from yesterday’s lunch and sweaty gym socks. There was a routine to riding a school bus. You got up at the same time, ate breakfast at the same time, stood in the same spot to wait for the bus, and you sat in the same seat next to the same person day after day. The ride back home was the same process in reverse. But there was one day every nine weeks when the routine was broken. It was report card day. Some of the kids were so excited about their grades that they claimed the front section of the bus, ready to pounce out to share their grades with the parents with pride. There was also a group that claimed the far back of the bus. They knew what their report cards said and were in no hurry to share it with anyone. Let’s be honest, almost all of us fit in one of three report card categories. Some in this room were a part of the front of the bus crowd, ready to celebrate every time report cards were sent home. Odds are good that some of you were probably part of the back of the bus crowd, praying that a brother or a sister would forget tell mom and dad that it was report card day. Still others of you would have been with me in the middle of the bus, OK with the results but not quite ready to trumpet them to the world.
So what do you think a church report card might look like? I think our culture would have some quick and easy answers. It imagine that if we were to take a poll in the streets we would probably hear that the markers of success would be things like attendance, offering numbers, building size, and program diversity. Our cultures mantra calls us to bigger, better, and more – sometimes seemingly regardless of the cost. While I understand the motivation behind cultural markers, they fail to take into account that sometimes people are willing to settle for faith-lite, a faith that asks little of them and offers little to them, and others are willing to replace worship for grand religious entertainment that amuses them rather than calls them to the feet of God.
There is a passage of scripture that gives us a much better template for our report card. It calls us to something deeper and more relational than a casual statistical survey. It is found in a passionate letter that Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica. It is a church Paul loves deeply and longs to be with again. Every time Paul tried to go back to see them something else stood in the way so he finally sent Timothy to bring back a report on how they were doing. Timothy’s report on the church and Paul’s accompanying prayer provides us five critical markers in measuring a church.
Paul was worried about the church in Thessalonica. Those gathered at the church had only been Christians for a short time when he had to leave them and persecution soon followed. Had they stayed strong or fallen away? Paul eagerly awaited Timothy’s return. When Timothy brings his report Paul celebrates. 7Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? The first marker is a faith strong enough to thrive in adversity. Did you notice that I said a faith strong enough not just to survive, but to thrive in adversity?
We so often think of faith in personal terms. But a church too must be defined by the way the body has expressed itself in faith together. If a church walks together long enough there will be days of great joy and days of angst. There will be moments of grand celebration and moments of grave pain. A vital measure of a church is found not in the seasons of celebration. It’s not often you find a deep theological truth in a television comedy but at the height of one of the great M*A*S*H episodes we hear the sometimes often awkward Father Mulcahy proclaim, “A faith of convenience is a hollow faith.” (1) A hollow faith cannot sustain us in times of agony and angst. So, what happens when convenience gives way to pain? The temptation will be to hunker down and just try to survive. But, some churches will claim live and ministry in the midst of pain. Their faith is forged in the difficult moments and instead of hiding in fear, they choose to become places of refuge and hope for others who walk wounded in their midst. Instead of being defined by defeat they step out boldly in love. I believe one of the reasons this church is experiencing the movement of God in this era is that when downtown was more defined by vacant building than bustling homes, when the agony of the Murrah bombing lay fresh and others chose to leave, this church decided to stay and be faithful in ministry in this place. In a moment following a difficult season of conflict when it might have to find a different church family many committed to stay and minister to this community, even in the midst of their own pain. The hope we experience now was born in the deep waters of adversity. The faith you demonstrated has allowed this church to thrive.
The second marker in measuring a church is a ministry drenched prayer. Paul responds to Timothy’ great report with enthusiasm and tells them that he their ministry has been central in his prayers and the prayers of his ministry companions. “The language here becomes very intense. ‘Night and day we pray most earnestly,’ he says, ‘to see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.' The Greek verb translated as "we pray," is a gentler and more elegant rendition of the term than its potentially cruder translation, "begging." (2) Imagine the picture of Paul and his companions down on their knees passionately begging God in prayer day and night to sustain the church in Thessalonica. I truly believe that one of the reasons for the good news of the Thessalonians strong faith was because their ministry was drenched in prayer.
I am so excited about the prayer retreat that Brad has put together for our church. It will be held in just a matter of weeks. The retreat is entitled. “Abandoned to God.” If you have not signed up yet, you may want to catch Brad after the worship service. I think this retreat will prove to be meaningful for everyone who chooses to take part. This retreat was inspired by the youth prayer retreats and is a powerful symbol of the growing passion for prayer emerging in the life of our church. I am thankful for the many ways you are engaged in prayer already. But I pray that our prayer life my move from a beautiful stream to a might river. I dream of a movement of prayer across the life of our church where we are begging God on our knees for the missions and ministries of our church and for one another.
The third and fourth measures of a church lay side-by-side. They are witnessed in an overflowing love for one another and others. We hear these two markers in one breath from Paul’s prayer. He prays for them; 12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. I love the way that Eugene Peterson captures the heart of this image with his interpretative translation, The Message. He describes this first part of Paul’s prayer this way; And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you.
Paul prays that they will have an overflowing love for one another – a love that splashes all over each other. Jesus tells us that his followers will be known by how they love each other. This kind of love is not forced or contrived. It is an authentic reflection of how we love and care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As we continue to grow we will have to be unapologetic in our choice to embrace those who come to be a part of our church family. There is no room for isolated clusters, we are called to have open hearts and open lives for each other. We are called to splash all over each other with an overflowing love born in God’s love for us.
Side-by-side their love for each other, Paul prays that they will have an overflowing love for others – a love that splashes all over those they encounter and minister among. This morning I celebrate how our church family has expressed itself in its love for others. It is witnessed in the ministries of Good Shepherd, seen in the faces of those who served as a part of the S3 community ministry outreach, and expressed one-on-one in the service of the KidsHope mentors and their prayer partners. We see it lived out in our ministry among side of refugees and in the new churches born to reach out to new people in our area. We also see it demonstrated as we send mission teams across the state lines and national boundaries in the name of Jesus. God is moving in us and through us as we splash God’s love on our community and the world. Let us not grow weary in doing good.
The fifth marker is expressed in passage is a passion for holiness. We hear it as Paul prays, 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. This marker stands in sharp contrast to the cultural version of faith lite. A passion of holiness invites us into a way of life and faith that beckons us deeper in our relationship with God and calls us to become a living reflection of the holiness – of the way - of God. It carries us from this moment until the return of Jesus. This transforms the way we approach Bible study, becoming central in our desire grow in our spiritual lives. It transforms the way we approach worship, claiming it as moments in the presence of God. This means that we leave no one on the edges as casual participants, but beckons us all -together-to fully invest in each other and in this grand Kingdom enterprise.
I believe if we claim these five markers for the measure of the church we will claim a healthier, more Biblical model of what it means to be church.
• I believe that if we are the church that God calls us to be then cultural markers like attendance numbers, offering dollars, and ministry scale will fall away and allows us to focus on seeing God working in us and through us in transformative ways in our community and our world.
• I believe if we are the church that God calls us to be then God will bless us and others will come and join us serving at our side.
• I believe that if we are the church God calls us to be then God will provide us the resources we need to fulfill His will for us.
• I believe that if we are the church God calls us to be then we, all of us together, will claim a spirit of generosity that will invite us to share our gifts and talents and fiscal resources faithfully so that we may see our ministry together respond to the opportunities that God places before us.
As I look at our church I am thank for the hopeful picture that emerges. It is a report card that allows us to join those on the front of the bus, ready to pounce out of the door to share the good news. I am excited to see where we are now, and can hardly wait to see what God will do in our midst in the days ahead.
(1)In the episode “A Holy Mess" broadcasted in 1982
(2)Michael Joseph Brown, “Commentary on Second Reading” originally dated November 29, 2009, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=11/29/2009&tab=3 on August 26, 2010.