September 11, 2016

Stay Hungry

This morning we are going to do one of what I think are the more important things we do around here each year.  We are going to take a few minutes together to remember who we are and to tell the story of how we have come to understand this more and more fully over the past several years.  Each September for the last seven years we have taken a week or two to put a fresh set of eyes on our mission and vision as a church.  This year it’s really even more important than usual because we’ve got a lot of folks who have become pretty permanent fixtures in our community within the last 10-12 months and while you have obviously connected deeply with what’s happening at Central and we’re so glad for that fact, you may not fully understand who exactly we are—who exactly you are—and why we’re doing the things we’re doing.  I think this is actually a great story and as far as churches in this area go really makes us stand out as different from all the rest.  This story gives us an identity that creates the lens through which we can and should filter all the ministry we are doing.  But—and this is also a part of this yearly conversation—we’re not going to settle for merely telling this story.  We are going to look forward together to where God might be taking us as we continue moving in the direction of becoming more fully who He created us to be.

Not all that long ago, Central was a church that, while doing some great ministry, was mostly treading water.  And lest you think I’m picking on Central, this fact put us right in line with the vast majority of churches out there right now.  Way, way too many churches—and for some reason especially churches that are out in the country—have contented themselves to take what might be described as a shotgun approach to ministry.  They are involved in a ton of different things, none of which are all that impactful by themselves.  The sum total can at times be pretty strong, but the efforts aren’t usually terribly accurate.  That and they’re really only effective at close range.

In any event, we started a conversation around here driven by a fairly simple and intuitive idea: if we know who we are—or at least who God designed us to be—we will be able to be a lot more effective in our efforts to become that church.  We spent about a year asking some questions aimed at clarifying all of this for us.  As the deacons thought and prayed through all of these questions and our answers to them a few ideas began to rise to the top.  These are ideas that ought to sound pretty familiar.

The first idea was that Central is a place of belonging.  Now, at the time we were having these conversations Central was a family church in a very literal sense of the word: everybody was related.  It was my family and one other who weren’t related by blood or by marriage to at least somebody else in the church.  That was it.  In the whole church.  Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can be a really good thing because of the familial atmosphere the church develops which can be really inviting to new folks.  But, for a lot of churches in that kind of a position, rather than harnessing the potential of this situation, they merely enjoy the weekly family reunions and become essentially exclusive country clubs instead of churches.  Under the leadership of the deacons at the time, though, we didn’t walk that particular path.  We embraced this ethos of belonging and opened it up for anybody and everybody to experience.  The results have been…well…I’d say pretty successful so far.  We’ve come a long way in a few short years.  We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken some big steps in the right direction.  We are a family church in the Gospel sense of the word.

The next idea that rose to the top was that we are a place of learning.  Whether in groups large or small, we are a place where people can come and learn the deep truths of the Christian worldview in a way that they can apply them to their lives and be transformed by them.   The baseline assumption here is that we don’t know everything we need to know about being a follower of Jesus on our own.  We don’t learn that kind of thing simply by osmosis—especially in our culture today.  We need to be taught not simply which beliefs are foundational for Christians and why, but even more basically than that, how to think as Christians.  Paul called us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  If we do not think like Christians, we’ll never act like Christians.  At Central, we are a place aimed at seeing that natural gap filled.

The final idea was that we are a place of service.  Central is a generous, service-oriented community.  It’s just who we are.  If you connect here, you are going to be given the opportunity to get involved in serving the community right here and beyond to the world around us.  That was the case years ago as we were having these conversations and it is the case today.  Here’s just a single example of many: This past August when we did our Midway Supply Contest, in just three weeks you guys gave…are you ready?…40 pencil boxes, 63 tissue boxes, 21 binders, 30 packs of wipes, 76 composition books, 10 containers of disinfectant wipes, 13 rolls of paper towels, 19 bottles of soap or sanitizer, 32 packs of index cards, 81 boxes of crayons, 43 packs of paper, 70 boxes of Zip-locs, 95 notebooks, 132 folders, 35 boxes of colored pencils, 23 packs of erasers, 53 pens, 8 scissors, 6 rulers, 102 highlighters, 357 glue sticks, 1,366 pencils, and a partridge in a pear tree.  And as if that weren’t enough we have at least two of our folks serving inside and outside of Midway (not counting our members who are employees) every single day of the week.  Serving is just what we do.

Well, after yet even more conversation and prayer, these three ideas were gradually distilled down into a single phrase that may perhaps sound familiar to you: Central is a place where people matter (belonging) and are empowered (learning) to engage their world for Christ (serving).  That’s not just something I say each week as part of my welcome to you, that’s an ongoing reminder of what our fundamental identity is as a church.

Seven years ago we first introduced this idea.  From there we set about soaking the ground with it. We dug down deep over the next several years to make sure we planted it securely and watered it thoroughly.  And as we have continued tilling the soil, in the last few years we have begun seeing fruit come to bear.  Or perhaps to put that another way, we have started seeing successes related to our mission.  Just consider the last few months.  Our VBS this year was the biggest we’ve ever had—105 kids!  But that number only tells part of the story.  The energy as a whole was way up over past years.  We’ve had more and more new faces around here—a steady stream that has a growing tendency to flow in rather than merely through.  We even have guests visit a time or two and then come back with more guests.  Folks, when guests are inviting guests that means a whole lot of things are working.  The Kitchen Table kicked back off this past week in grand fashion, but before our August break we were regularly pushing 120 for dinner more often than not.  We hit that number again this Wednesday.  If you weren’t able to get how there I wish you were!  It was loud, it was chaotic, it was crowded…and it was wonderful.  And I say that as a raging introvert who tends to shut down in large, crowded gatherings.  But I don’t here because there was a life in that room that doesn’t exist anywhere else that I know of.  It was like a family meal, just with a little bigger a family than you’ve got at your house.  Recent mission projects have been smashing successes.  We’re seeing more growth and leadership among our youth and children than we’ve seen in a long time.  The list here goes on and on.

But you know, there’s nothing quite like success to make you hungry for more success.  Think about our own successes.  I’ll be honest: VBS this year just made me hungry for more.  (And as an active VBS teacher I’m not asking for punishment that I won’t be a part of receiving!).  But what if we had to have a waiting list for VBS.  Our facilities were just about totally maxed out this year.  What if we had to break the mold to find creative solutions because we were so overrun by kids getting to experience the joy of the Gospel firsthand?  What if we had to have a whole team of folks dedicated to finding more and more local missions opportunities because so many folks were getting involved in serving around here.  What if instead of one Friends of Barnabas Team we had to branch out and sponsor a second one because so many people were signing up to go take part in the long term impact they are having on the Honduran people?  What if we had to evolve our Sunday school approach because we were out of room on Sunday mornings?  What if the Kitchen Table was the hottest ticket in the county on Wednesday nights?  What if reservations weren’t just something we begged for for the sake of our chefs, but something we had to demand because we were running out of space to seat people?  I mean, this past year we had to go buy more tables so we had a space for all the people coming to eat.  What if other churches were actively coming to us to ask about what we were doing because we were so effective in creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ?  Folks, this is what the Gospel does.  It advances.  It expands God’s kingdom.  And there’s not many things God wants to see happen in this world so much as the expansion of His kingdom.

Friends, it is undeniably clear that God has given us a ton of amazing blessings.  But let me tell you: He’s got more to give us.  The work He designed us to do isn’t finished.  And when God has more to give, as great as things seem, we can’t settle.  We can’t rely on what has worked.  We can’t even hold long to what is working.  Jesus is on the move and we’ve got to keep up.  In order to keep up, we’ve got to stay hungry.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.

This is actually a truth borne out in the Scriptures.  2 Kings 13 offers us an odd, but cautionary tale in this regard.  The story takes place near the end of the northern kingdom of Israel.  The people were in a spiritual and moral state not all that different from where they were near the end of the book of Judges.  The main difference was that they had kings to help demonstrate for them what was right and what was wrong.  Unfortunately, Israel never had any good kings.  Still, God was just as patient with the people then as He was during the period of the judges.  Much of this patience and grace was expressed through the prophets Elijah and Elisha.  In 2 Kings 13:14 we find Elisha on his deathbed.  The king at the time, Joash or Jehoash, even though he was no follower of God, still recognized the importance and power of Elisha and the poignant loss his death would mean for Israel.  Most importantly, he understood that the loss of Elisha would represent the end of God’s miraculous help to his nation against the challenges of the much more powerful neighbors currently threatening them.  In other words, he wasn’t so much concerned about faithfulness to God as he didn’t want the gravy train to stop.  Yet God was still going to be faithful to His people and offer them yet another help when they least deserved it.  But instead of receiving the help God wanted to give, Joash settled.

Check this story out at 2 Kings 13:14: “Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him and wept before him crying, ‘My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’  And Elisha said to him, ‘Take a bow and arrows.’  So he took a bow and arrows.  Then he said to the king of Israel, ‘Draw the bow,’ and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands.  And he said, ‘Open the window eastward,’ and he opened it.  Then Elisha said, ‘Shoot,’ and he shot.  And he said, ‘The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory of Syria!  For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.’  And he said, ‘Take the arrows,’ and he took them.  And he said to the king of Israel, ‘Strike the ground with them.’  And he struck three times and stopped.  Then the man of God was angry with him and said, ‘You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.’”

Now, we’ll have to talk about the details of the story another time, but what Elisha is getting on Joash about here is that instead of receiving the wealth of what God wanted to give him, he settled for just a little bit.  He could have seen this potent enemy dealt with in their entirety had he been willing to commit himself to enthusiastic, forward-leaning obedience.  Instead, perhaps so as not to appear greedy with God’s offering, he settled for merely doing the minimum.  As a result, he missed out on the fullness of what God wanted to give.  Now, God still gave him what he was willing to receive.  It’s not like God said, “Oh, so you don’t want the full load, do you?  Fine, no soup for you!”  God gave the gift He promised, but He only gave to the extent that Joash was willing to receive.

One of the challenges that confronts many churches in the place that we are is this very tension.  Suddenly there’s more life and energy and excitement than we’ve experienced in quite some time.  It’s really easy to get all caught up in enjoying it and find ourselves trying to hold on to it because we don’t want to lose it.  But when this happens, instead of opening our hands to continue receiving the fullness of what God has to give, we instead close our hands in an attempt to hold on to what we have now.  Yet in doing so we are settling.  We are giving up what could be in favor of what is.  Now, make no mistake: pushing forward to continually grow and receive more and more of God’s bounty isn’t always comfortable.  Growing means growing pains.  It means having to deal with space issues and more complex personnel questions and stretching out into financial territory that takes a great deal more faith and sacrifice than to which we are accustomed and so on.  Yet those are all growing church problems.  Given the choice between growing church problems and stagnant or dying church problems: I’ll go with the former.  Stagnant and dying churches are struggling to figure out how to get people in the door, how to make ends meet, how to motivate volunteers, how to get people to get up and do things.  They use gimmicks like “invite a friend Sunday.”  You know why that’s a gimmick?  Because inviting people to church is sort of what our game is.  If you have to make that kind of thing a specific Sunday focus it means it probably isn’t happening the rest of the time.  That’s a problem.  That’s a stagnant or dying church problem.  But it’s a problem that has developed because somewhere along the line the church settled.  Yet the warning of 2 Kings 13 is clear: never settle when God’s got more to give.

Folks, God’s got more to give us.  He’s not done and neither can we be.  We are on a journey that if we stay on it will very likely result in a whole lot more changes in the next five years than we’ve experienced in the last five.  These won’t always be comfortable.  Some of them may mean letting go of long cherished traditions and approaches to ministry and expectations of staff members and even our understanding of what it means to do church.  But if they are moving us in the direction of who God designed us to be, they’ll always mean receiving more of what God has to give us and that’s a good place to be.  It’s a good place to be because the alternative is to close our hands at which point we can’t any longer receive what God has to give; or worse, it’s to try and go back to what we were doing in the past.  What worked in the past isn’t going to work in the same way or even at all in the future.  We should remember it and celebrate it—much like we’re going to do for our Homecoming Celebration in about a month—and then we should turn our faces to the future and journey forward expectantly into what God has waiting for us there.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.  Indeed, when you read through the story of the earliest church in Acts you see a group of people who constantly lived on the edge and had to pause every now and then to work through significant growing pains.  But once they did, they kept moving forward.  When we embrace what God is doing and stay on the forefronts of where He’s going we’ll get bruised up from time to time.  But we’ll also be there to see and experience when He moves.  That’s good stuff.

Now, when we started our conversation this morning I told you that we were not merely going to retell the story of us today, but that we were going to push further to talk about where God might be leading us in the future.  Well, over the past few months the deacons have been talking again.  Good stuff seems to happen when they get into conversations like this.  Over the past several years we have made some small moves forward with our mission, but we’ve mostly just been soaking the ground with it.  As we’ve talked about, this soaking has been fruitful, but it’s time for us to get more intentional in our movements.  God’s got some great things going in our midst, but I think He’s got even more for us just around the corner.  When God’s got more to give, we must not settle.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.  And one of the best ways to avoid settling is to adopt into the language and mindset of the church some specific vision statements that both describe the places we think God is leading us and rhetorically and intentionally commit ourselves to moving in that direction.

With this in mind, let me offer you some food for thought.  As a church we are a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  That’s simply who we are.  It’s also who we’re becoming.  But it’s not very specific.  A clear vision statement will fix that.  Try this on for size: Because we are this church we want to continue to expand our community so that even more people can experience firsthand what God is doing in and among us.  Okay, but how is that going to happen and do we really want to do that?  I mean, isn’t that just going to make us a big church?  Let’s go in reverse there.  This isn’t about or even aimed at making Central a big church.  It’s about continuing to create a welcoming, transformational, and exciting community and making sure that as many people as God intends to connect with us do connect with us.  And so, yes, we really want to do this if we are going to stay on track with where God is taking us.  As for how, here are three specific goals aimed at pointing us in this direction.  First, we will add a second worship service to our Sunday morning offerings within the next 3 years.  Here’s why that’s important.  Number one, we’re getting pretty cozy in here on most Sunday mornings and there are absolutely no plans to make any major structural changes to this building.  It’s got too much character and history for that to be in the cards.  Also, worship spaces like this one tend to fill to about 80% of capacity and then stop.  When guests can’t easily find a seat, they don’t come back.  Have a second service will create a lot more space and fix that problem.

Second, we will plant a new church or campus within the next 7-10 years.  Here’s why this matters: when you put too many people under one roof it becomes challenging to maintain the kind of intimate, familial fellowship that is a major part of what makes us so attractive to people.  By creating new churches or campuses that share in our mission while we may not have that kind of fellowship with them, we know the kind of fellowship they’ll be having and can celebrate that with them.  After all, if we really enjoy what we have here, why wouldn’t we want other people who aren’t already connected to another church to have the chance to enjoy it as well?

Third, we will hire two full-time staff members within five years.  The reason for this should be pretty obvious: effectively leading and ministering to a church body much larger than this one takes more than one person.  It’s becoming more and more painfully apparent to a growing number of folks that the next staff person we need to hire is someone to lead our youth and children’s ministry.  We have been searching for a part-time minister, but I’ll be honest, that hasn’t been very fruitful as of yet.  It may be time to start having the conversation about taking the plunge on a full-time minister with the awareness that in the beginning that is going to be a financial step of faith bigger than just about any this church has taken.  It will require a sacrificial generosity that will be the subject of the stories our kids and grandkids tell.  But, if that’s where God is taking us—and a great deal of prayer needs to go into that kind of a decision—He will make certain we are able to handle it.  If He’s got more to give us—and I believe with all my heart that He does—He’ll make sure we are able to receive all that He has to give.  He needs us only to be willing.  He can make us able.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.

If God’s going to give us more, though, it is going to come with the expectation that we give more and I’m not talking directly about money anymore.  We are a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Because of that, here’s a second vision for us: We will become even more involved in our community and world.  How?  By continuing to expand our partnership with and ministry to the Midway community.  We’ve got greeters there every morning.  Mrs. Brooks has asked if we can put a team of six folks together who can work the lunch room by themselves once a month to give the teachers a break.  I think we can do it.  I think we can do it more than once a month.  Okay, but how else?  By expanding on our fledgling ministry to and with the WHF ball program.  By continuing to strengthen and expand on our partnerships with our Boy Scout Troop, Cub Scout Pack, and Girl Scout Troops.  By getting more intentional and active with our international missions partnerships with The Friends of Barnabas, the Georges, and Samaritan’s Purse.  By intentionally seeking out a national ministry partner so that we are not overlooking our Judea and Samaria as we minister to our Jerusalem and the ends of the earth.

When God gives to His people it is for us to enjoy to the fullest, yes, but the way we will reach the fullest levels of enjoyment will be when we give the most generously from what He has given us.  Friends, God has more to give us.  Receiving it will be a challenge and it will stretch our faith in ways we perhaps have not experienced.  But if we settle, while He will not necessarily take away what He has given us, those gifts will not stay good forever.  They were given to get us from then to now.  When later comes, we will not have what we need and we will fail.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.  Instead, we rise to the challenge, we step boldly into the unknown with our known God, and we experience together the riches of what He has in store for us.  Never settle when God’s got more to give.  Receive it.  Let us receive it together.