October 14, 2012

Where Do We Go? Part 2

Alright, so this morning we are going to wrap up our vision series.  This morning I’m finally going to share much more specifically some of the things that have been on my heart regarding how we can bear the most effective witness possible in our community, how we can take this idea of creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ outside these walls and see it happening all over our community.  Last week I made you wait until the very end of the message to give you a glimpse of where we’re going with all of this.  This morning I want to go into all of that with you in a fair bit more detail.  But, before we get there, let’s run back through how we’ve gotten to this point in case you’ve either missed or forgotten any of the last three weeks.

Three weeks ago we worked through the story of Jesus’ final conversation with the disciples before His ascension back to the right hand of the Father.  In this conversation Jesus gave them their final marching orders.  He laid out what they were to be doing in order to keep themselves busy until He came back to get them.  More to the point: they were to be bearing witness until then.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  Well, that group of disciples is all long gone and Jesus still hasn’t come back.  This means Jesus’ instructions are still in play, but now, for us.  As a church dedicated to the mission of Jesus, we are to be bearing witness to our Jerusalem, our Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  Anything less than this results in our missing out on the fundamental purpose for our existence as a body.

From here we got a bit more specific.  Through the lens of Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus regarding how they could live up to their high calling in Christ we were reminded of the fact that the specific approach we as a church have been gifted by Christ to take in the task of bearing witness is to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  This is who we are as a church.  It’s who Jesus has called us to be at this particular moment in history.   What we want to see happen with this identity, in other words, our vision, is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Jesus gave to make us more like Him and, for us, this is what those gifts were intended to accomplish.

Finally last week I started to get a bit more specific with you.  The truth is that the task of bearing witness is a huge one even in a community as small as ours.  I put this to you in some hard numbers last week.  The most current estimates I could find suggest that just nearly 75% of Dinwiddie County aren’t connected to any church.  That’s right around 20,000 people.  That’s a lot of people.  I mean sure, there are churches in this country which count total memberships larger than that, but given that our entire county falls a couple thousand people shy of 30,000 that represents a huge number of people in our immediate area who are in need of having the witness of the coming kingdom presented to them in a winsome manner.  I mean if you want to break that down some, let’s assume there are 100 people in this room who are capable of bearing witness.  In order to complete the task of Christ we each need to reach 200 people.  I’ll confess, I don’t know 200 total people in the county yet, let alone 200 non-Christians.  Even narrowing our focus in to our immediate community leaves us with either 8,000 or 1,500 (depending on how many zip codes you include in the estimate) people who don’t connect with any body of believers.  And by the way, lest I be unclear, people who aren’t connected with a body of Christ may affirm Christ as Lord, but they are necessarily not growing in His image as they should for the simple fact is that you can’t grow in the faith properly apart from active involvement in a body of Christ.

So then, how does a church of 100 people reach at least more than ten times its size in order to bear witness to the coming kingdom?  The answer?  By not getting overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of the task, by stepping out in the directions we’ve been clearly equipped to take, and by trusting that God will fill in the gaps as we go.  Just like He did with Moses—remember the murderer on the lam from justice who became the greatest prophet in all of the Old Testament?—when God gives us a big task He sticks with us to the end.  Well, how do we avoid getting overwhelmed?  And so we’re clear: getting overwhelmed is dangerous for the church.  When we get overwhelmed one of two things usually happens.  First, we go into panic mode and start flailing about trying to grab everyone we can by any means necessary resulting in a lot of wasted energy and ill-conceived ideas.  Second, we shut down and quit trying.  We convince ourselves that we’re big enough, that we’re doing enough, that there are enough other churches out there doing the same thing, that we don’t really need to do anything outside our comfort zone and we’ll be okay.  Friends, in taking either of those approaches we are not okay.

So again, how do we avoid this?  We first remind ourselves that our God is bigger.  Bigger than what?  You name it.  The power at work within us is greater than the power at work in the world.  There are no obstacles that are really obstacles to Him.  There are only opportunities for His glory to be increased by displaying His power through our weakness.  He just needs faithfulness to make that happen.  Second, we focus on bearing witness to the people to whom we are best equipped to reach.  And who are these people?  Where are they?  I answered this question just before we ran out the door last week: the students of Boy Scout Troop 185 and Midway Elementary and their parents.  Think about it: Given the nature and extent of connections we as a church have with both of these fantastic organizations starting here as we begin to reach out with a great deal more intentionality to our Jerusalem than we as a church have in perhaps a very long time makes perfect sense.  All of our school-aged kids with no exceptions I can think of either go or went to Midway.  You as parents and grandparents of Midway students have generally been incredibly involved in the school during and sometimes even after your students’ tenure there.  We have a past and future Midway PTO president here.  My goodness, we even have two Midway staff members here.  And when it comes to the scouts, we have 40-50 kids meeting in this building once a week many of whom are part of that 1,500 currently unchurched population along with their families.  We barely have to try to have a huge impact here.  There is quite simply no reason we as a church should not be intimately involved in both of these important pillars of our community helping all those involved understand the depth of their worth in God’s eyes and empowering them with the Gospel in order that they might make a further impact on the community for the kingdom.

So then, when it comes to who the Father has designed us, Christ has equipped us, the Spirit has empowered us as a church to be we now know the what, the where, and the who.  All that remains is the how.  How do we go about starting this process of bearing witness very specifically to the parts of our community we seem to have been especially equipped as a church to reach with the message of the Gospel?  I’m glad you asked.  I have two answers for you this morning.  The first is Scriptural and the second is more directly practical (although that’s not to say Scripture isn’t practical!).  I want to take a quick look at both of these in the remainder of our time this morning.  I believe that success in the venture of bearing witness will come when draw from both of these answers.  More specifically, when we pursue the second with the framework established by the first, we will find the kind of success God designed us to experience.

Let’s start with the Scriptural answer.  Sometime shortly before Jesus’ final conversation with the disciples in which He commanded them to bear witness He had another important conversation with them.  This conversation, recorded by Matthew, presents the how to the what of Acts 1:8.  If Jesus told the disciples that they were to be bearing witness immediately prior to His ascension, sometime shortly before then He told them how they were to bear witness.  Let me read these words for you from Matthew 28 starting at v. 16: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

So what’s the method, the approach commanded by Jesus for His disciples to take to the task of bearing witness to their Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth?  He commanded them to make disciples.  We are commanded in Scripture, by Jesus Himself no less, to the task of bearing witness to the coming kingdom.  The manner specifically prescribed for accomplishing this task is to make disciples.  And I know what you’re thinking at this point: “Okay, preacher.  You’ve done us a real favor.  You’ve answered the question of how with a method that itself has a huge, unanswered ‘how’ component.”  And, to a certain extent, you’re right.  Discipleship is a huge topic that has been endlessly analyzed and debated since Jesus left the practice to us almost 2,000 years ago.  A quick search on Amazon for books related to the key word “discipleship” yields just over 10,000 hits.  How do you even start to propose discipleship as a method when no one seems to be able to agree on how to do it in the first place?  Simple, really.

In spite of the millions of words written on discipleship throughout Christian history, all of them have at least one thing in common.  Pinpointing this great commonality comes easily when you look at Jesus’ relationship with the original twelve disciples.  What was it that Jesus did that was so powerful in shaping the lives of Peter, James, John, James, Judas, Matthew, Simon, Andrew, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Philip?  How did He take them from second rate nobodies who were on track to live out their lives in either obscurity or perhaps localized infamy?  How did He draw men from radically different social circles—at least four were poor fishermen; Matthew was a tax collector and thus probably a fairly wealthy collaborator with Roman authorities; as many as three may have been associated with the Zealots, a radically nationalistic Jewish sect and thus naturally disposed to hate men like Matthew to the point of murder; and one may have been associated with a group of assassins for hire—and forge them into an cohesive group radically committed to the advance of His message?  It sounds like it must have been a miracle when put like that, and indeed in one sense it was entirely a miracle—an act of God that interrupted the natural flow of things.  But in another sense it was something entirely more straightforward than that: He involved Himself in their lives.  Making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.  Aside and apart from all the methods and manners, all the tips and tricks, all the curricula and catechisms, all the things deemed important to learn and teach in the process of discipleship is the fact that making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.

Now, let’s be clear: this means discipleship is messy.  I actually think that may be one of the chief reasons why professed followers of Christ like ourselves neglect the command to disciple-making.  We love our Lord, but we don’t want to get involved in the messes and complications of someone else’s life.  We feel like we have enough baggage in our own life to take on all the baggage of someone else.  But, the sometimes hard truth is that making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.  It means showing them the love of Christ that transcends their physical, relational, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual circumstances.  And there’s just not a terribly effective way to do that apart from being involved enough to communicate it in the middle of the messes.  Now, this doesn’t mean disciple-making is only messy.  There are joys and spiritual rewards to be reaped that surpass by a great margin anything this world has to offer, that surpass by a great margin the dopamine-driven rewards afforded us by the things we pursue instead of disciple-making.  There is simply no more satisfying experience than being a witness to the work of God when He frees someone from a chain that had formerly been holding them down in this life.  But this kind of thing can really only be experienced at a close range.  Thus, making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.

With this understanding in place, let’s get more specific, more practical for our situation.  This is the second answer, the more direct “how” answer.  This past week I actually had the chance to sit down with the principal at Midway, Kathy Burgess.  It was a great meeting.  What became clear as we spoke both this week and over the past couple of weeks by email is that our vision and Midway’s vision are very much complementary.  Midway wants to see its students become the full version of themselves.  We want the same thing.  We are simply able to take it a step further by acknowledging that Midway students and everyone else for that matter will discover this fullest version of themselves when they connect deeply in an active, personal, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.  This is the goal of disciple-making and making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.  Reaching this goal, though, again, first requires getting involved.  So the question for us is: how can we get involved?  And so we’re clear: the question is not, “How can we get involved in order to present the Gospel to them?”  The question is, rather, simply, “How can we get involved?”  How can our community become a consistent, intentional presence at Midway School?  Now, the reality is that in a lot of ways, we already are a consistent presence.  Again, we are well represented at Midway both in the classrooms and in the hallways.  This isn’t the problem.  The problem before us is: how can we be more intentional about our interactions there?  How can we serve unconditionally as a function of our attempt to create a place where people matter?  Because the truth is, until someone trusts you, they aren’t terribly likely to listen to what you have to say about Jesus, about living the kind of lifestyle necessary to dwell within the spacious grounds of the kingdom of God.  So again, how can we become an intentional, vision-driven presence at Midway?  Well, I’m not entirely sure yet.  The exact shape of our involvement in our community in this way is still something that’s taking shape.  I’m standing before you this morning not to say I have all the answers, but rather to say that there is no question in my mind that God is pointing us as a church in this direction and we need to get to work in figuring out how to take the tools He’s given us to join in what He’s already started.  You see, I know something about this congregation.  There are some dreamers in here.  There are some idea folks.  Some folks who love to visualize what could be.  What I’m saying to you is: take and run with this.  Let’s see how creative we can be in reaching out to our Jerusalem in order to cement a presence that leads to trust which in turn opens the door for proclaiming the truth, shaping the way our community views the world, and empowering people with the Gospel of Christ.  And, as it turns out, after talking with Mrs. Burgess for an hour this week I do have a few ideas to get the ball rolling.  Let me share some of these with you and we’ll go out from here to start piecing things together.

In visiting with Mrs. Burgess is seems that there are three general areas with potential for involvement for us.  The first area is educational in focus.  She said there are a variety of students who start at Midway cold.  They’ve received no kind of preparation for the culture shock of sitting in a classroom all day being told that a number of things are really important which previously weren’t even on their radar and having to get along with a bunch of other kids who are pretty different from them and some of whom they don’t even like.  Pre-school certainly helps some students, but there are a pretty good sized group of students whose parents make too much money for government sponsored programs like Head Start, but who don’t make enough to send their kids to a private program.  Fortunately, most kids are resilient enough to weather this transition, but what an awesome thing it would be to make sure that every student entering Midway had had some exposure to the educational components, but also had learned basic social skills and were utterly affirmed in their self-worth as a result of their being created in the image of God.  A few grade levels up, the biggest educational needs seem to fall in the categories of math and writing.  Not only do students very naturally struggle with these, but given new approaches to teaching math and the fact that many adults never learned how to write well, imagine the potential impact we could have in taking a stand in the gap here?  What if we had a once-a-week after school homework help program?  Or what if we sponsored an essay contest with an award sufficient to attract a large number of applicants who would not only write their best, but receive tips and advice in the process aimed at improving their writing abilities.  There is also a regular need for tutors and mentors during the school day.  This is an area with a huge potential for kingdom impact, but it requires a great deal of commitment.

The second area is focused on the kind of environment Midway creates for students to feel welcome, to feel like they belong.  Every morning, when a parent drops their student off at Midway—as many of you know I suspect—there is a teacher there to help them out of the car and welcome them to school for the day.  On mornings like we had at the tail end of this past week this is a pretty light duty.  Things change a bit when the weather does.  What if we had volunteers from Central who were committed to creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ in the Church Road community there to greet the kids during this 35 minute period each morning in order to give the teachers a few extra minutes to prepare for the day ahead of them?  What if we had some loving adults who could greet the kids on a regular basis at school and then also greet them by name on the occasion they happened to convince their parents to bring them to church on a Sunday morning?  Can you even wrap your mind around what kind of an impact that could have?  From the perspective of a young person, having an older person who seems to care about them know their name, recognize that they exist and are worth remembering, does more to affirm their worth and value than just about anything else in life.

The third area is focused a bit further up the Midway family.  There are really dedicated teachers at Midway who have helped to create one of the most positive school atmospheres in the county for sure and I would put it up against any other school in the state.  But teaching can be kind of a thankless job.  Parents are quick to call and rant and rave when things don’t go well, but the recognition and appreciation on the other side aren’t quite as quick.  What if we as a church, especially considering the depth of involvement we have with Midway, were intentional about recognizing and appreciating Midway’s teachers, administrators, and staff?  What if on National Teacher Appreciation Day next May (the 7th if you were curious) we went out of our way to bless Midway’s teachers in some way?  Perhaps you’ve experienced a genuine gesture of gratitude from someone.  How did that make you feel?  Did it draw you in to a relationship with the person expressing it?  Did it open you up to their way of looking at the world?  Again, can you imagine the impact of something like this?  The potential here is simply unlimited and these are only a very few ideas.  I suspect you have even more; some of you probably do already!

And then, to turn and focus on the Scouts for a bit, there are some great, dedicated leaders there as well.  I’ve had the opportunity to see them in action.  They do a fantastic job training young boys in what it means to be young men.  As I’ve said before from this very spot: far too many boys never get any real training in how to be men.  They simply become bigger boys.  The scout leaders for troop 185 are standing in that gap, working to stem the tide.  Let me throw out some ways we can be more involved in serving here.  First, we continue making our facilities as readily available as we possibly can.  Just next weekend the scouts are going to have a camp out on our back field before they have a fun event on Saturday morning.  Certainly they can’t do everything here, but the more we can open our doors to them, the better.  Second, I understand that some troops can be sponsored by an outside organization.  Given the parallels between our respective organizations, what’s keeping us from sponsoring the troop in hopes of extending the reach of our vision to students and parents who are already here on a weekly basis?  Third, we can start reaching out in some creative ways.  I mentioned the overnight happening this coming Friday.  We’re providing dinner for the campers.  That’s a simple way to make a big impact.  And the idea came from someone in this church who was thinking about how to expand the reach of our vision and serve the community without conditions.

Now, will all of these different ideas result in new disciples dropping to their knees in fidelity to Christ?  Perhaps not.  But what these and others like them will achieve is to see this community of faith get involved in the lives of people in our community.  And, making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.  So, no, they may not all result in new disciples of Jesus, but we won’t make any new disciples without them.  Unless we are leaving the borders of our temple in order to bear witness to our Jerusalem and outward from there, we aren’t being faithful to the commands of Christ.  It’s as simple as that.  And I happen to believe wholeheartedly that God is calling us to move in these directions.  What we need now, though, are some people willing to take on the burden of leadership.  This is a big request for an already busy people.  I’m well aware of this.  It might require one of you to give up something else that has been a good thing for you to do.  But this is a best thing.  And if your hands are too full, you won’t be able to receive it.  It’s time to step up, friends, in order that we can begin stepping out.  Our comfort zone has been nice, but real kingdom living is out there and it’s time to go find it.  Making disciples means getting involved in someone else’s life.  Will you step up in order to step out?