Anybody who knows anything about college basketball knows that John Wooden was the greatest college basketball coach there has ever been. And while we certainly can’t know what the future may hold, there’s a good chance that many of the winning records he set will never be broken. His UCLA teams won not just 13 conference championships in a row, they went to the Final Four 12 times…in a row! Of those twelve, they won the championship 10 times. In fact, they won the NCAA championship seven times in a row. During that period they had four undefeated seasons including two in a row and during their seven year total domination of the college basketball court went 205-5. Most teams lose at least five games every season…they lost five games in seven seasons. Who does that?
But of all the almost mythical stories about Wooden, one of my favorite was best told by Kareem Abdul Jabar. The story is about his first day of practice after traveling from New York to Los Angeles to play for Wooden—something relatively rare in that day. Once the players had all gathered in the gym, Coach Wooden asked them all to sit down on the floor in a circle. At first nobody moved. Many of them hadn’t heard a set of instructions like that since kindergarten. Noticing that nobody was moving, Wooden calmly invited anybody who didn’t want to sit in a circle on the floor to leave and suddenly there was a circle of elite basketball players on the floor. Sitting down with them, Wooden told them to all take off their shoes and socks. Again, at first nobody moved. This really was a trip back to kindergarten. Again, Wooden made the same offer as before and suddenly there was a circle of naked feet. He went on from there to teach the players the right way to put on their socks and to put on their shoes.
And while several of the players perhaps still thought the whole thing an exercise in silliness, Wooden had a point. If you don’t put your socks on the right way, all the running and stopping and quickly changing directions on the basketball court will give you blisters. If you have blisters on your feet, your feet hurt. Players with hurt feet can’t play as well or can’t play at all. That hurts the whole team. If you don’t tie your shoes the right way the stress of a game situation could make them come untied. Untied shoes means a stoppage of play. Everybody has to wait while you fix your problem that could have been avoided from the start if you had done it the right way the first time. What more, momentum in sports is a funny thing. A team that is playing with a lot of momentum could have it sucked right away from them if the game stops like that. Just ask the San Francisco 49ers after the power went out during Super Bowl 47. The bigger and even more important point is this: While things like putting on socks and tying shoes are basics learned early on in life and not thought about much thereafter, if you forget about them entirely or don’t do them properly, it makes everything else you do much more difficult and sometimes even impossible.
This morning as we get the Fall season at Central underway (and wasn’t our kick-off at the Kitchen Table Wednesday a blast?), this is usually the time of year when we pause for a few weeks and are reminded of who we are and what we’re doing. It was in September not all that many years ago that after a long process of prayer and discernment with the deacons I shared with you our then-new mission statement. Central is a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. I’ve repeated that idea to you basically every week since so that we all not only know it, but think in those terms. And every September since we’ve taken a few weeks to talk more about it.
If I can be just a bit personal with you for a minute I’ll tell you why we keep coming back to this; why it’s so important to me that as a body we get it. You see, I love the church. And while I mean Central, I don’t mean just Central. I love the whole church. I don’t love everything about it. It’s got warts. It’s got some ugly spots I wish just weren’t there. But as an institution, I love the church. When I left home to go to college I was one of those weird kids who not only had found a new church home within the first month, but I moved my membership there. When I went home for a weekend I would get up at 5:30 on Sunday mornings to drive back in order to make it in time for Sunday school. I did all that because I love the church. And the reason I love the church is not because I’m a preacher. It’s not because my parents told me over and over again when I was little: “You will love the church.” It’s not even just because I went to church every Sunday growing up.
No, I love the church, because I experienced the church. Let me explain. Growing up I was a part of a church body that had a pretty balanced set of generations. There were young couples. There were lots of kids. There were middle aged couples with older kids who were still involved. There were empty-nester couples. There were senior folks. There were single folks. There were a few weird folks who were nonetheless loved and counted a part of the community. And as far as I knew as a kid these folks all loved each other. They served each other. They served with each other. They cared about one another. They grew together. They worshiped together. They were a family…a church family.
I still remember that my second grade Sunday school teacher, Julie Schulenberg, would buy packs of Bible character trading cards and mail all of us one each week that we had been there the Sunday before. I waited at the mailbox looking for those things. I still remember that David Stone would make this funny Donald Duck sound when I was a kid that could always make me laugh out loud. I still remember learning how to have a quiet time from Ken Woodruff and Roy Goerz when I was in Junior High. I still remember counting the days to Wednesday and Sunday each week because I knew that when I got there my two best friends in the world were going to be there (two of the three of us, by the way, are pastors and the third is a vital member of his home church). I remember our Wednesday night services when we would gather with a roomful of friends and family, of parents and surrogate parents, of grandparents and surrogate grandparents and enjoy table fellowship together and then break in separate directions to learn and grow more in groups. I remember having deeply imprinted in my soul that church was the place where you had lots of fun and everybody loved you.
I remember when my granddad died—one of the only family members I lost growing up—the place was packed with folks who came to tell us how much they loved us and were mourning with us. I remember when the church went through a split after I had gone to college and joined the church up there. I remember sitting in on the meeting in my parents’ living room of folks who ultimately left the church in a group—not to start a new church, but to plug themselves into various other churches around the community and continue their ministry in a new location. I remember seeing the passion in their eyes and hearing it in their words. Not an angry passion because of some perceived injustice over which they were having a little petty fit and leaving the church for not getting their way. No, no, this was a passion fueled by their love for the church (and their love for the pastor they were preparing to gently, but firmly rebuke) and the realization that following through on their course of action (which I am convinced was the right one) would do harm to relationships and separate them from the community…from the family…they had all known and loved for decades.
In other words, I learned to love the church. I learned in every possible way that whether things were going great or were unbearably hard, whether they were just as I wanted or nothing at all like I wanted, you had to love the church because that was where real life was found. It was sometimes broken because we are still broken by sin in this life, but it was more real, more whole, more joyful, more fulfilling than anything else out there. I learned to love the church.
Since then I’ve gone on to learn more about the church than I even thought possible then (with much still to learn I might add). I’ve learned the history of the church. I’ve learned the theology of the church. I’ve learned tips and tricks for doing the most effective ministry possible. I’ve learned a tiny bit about how to lead a church (although that will long be a work in progress!) I’ve learned dozens of ways to do church. But in spite of everything I’ve learned, apart from the basic foundation of loving the church, none of the rest of that will work well or long. It will invariably wind up as attempts to play at some social notion of the church without ever actually reaching the point of deserving the title.
With all of this in mind, for the rest of this morning and the next couple of weeks I want to talk about how foundational this love for the church is and three specific ways it needs to work itself out in our community if we want to have the kind of church that will leave our kids and grandkids loving the church for the rest of their lives and working out that love in the context of a deep and growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
Are you ready for the first one? If you love the church, you need to come to church. It seems like we shouldn’t even have to say that, right? I mean, here you are. You’re the last group that needs to hear something like that, right? Well, maybe not. Consider this: the rate of church attendance in the U.S. is on a slow decline. As I was doing some research for this morning the sense I got is that while no Christian research groups want to come right out and say it, most churches in the country are either not growing or else are in an active decline. There are a few exceptions (most notably megachurches…and tiny churches oddly enough), but most churches are just scraping by. They may not be actively losing members, but the average attendance is decreasing. Think with me about why that is. Let’s say a church has 80 members who are there every week. In that case the average attendance would be what? Eighty. Simple. But let’s say that half of those 80 folks miss one Sunday a month. Now what is the average attendance? I’ll save you the math headache: it’s 70. What if that same half misses two Sundays a month? Now the average attendance has dropped to 60. Suddenly, whereas the church used to be able to fairly accurately describe itself as knocking on the door of 100, now it’s facing the reality of being only half that size. And here’s the thing: nobody’s left the church. The total membership hasn’t changed a bit and we would still say that everyone is pretty active in the church. But, the average attendance has fallen by 25% because of a slight change in behavior; because half the folks have an extra ball game to attend or some extra vacation time to use or are just too tired from the previous week a little more often than they used to be. Come a bit further with me here. The church is in the people business. If a company loses 25% of its business it usually goes into panic mode and starts doing wacky, desperate things to try to regain the lost ground.
There’s something more important here, though, than simply lost “business.” Paul made clear in his first letter to the church in ancient Corinth that the body of Christ only works if every part is doing its part. “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” And again, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” If you are connected to a local arm of the boy of Christ it is because God has placed you there for a specific purpose, namely, that through the healthy exercise of your spiritual gifts the whole body might be more successful in its mission. And what is its mission? To expand the kingdom of God both in the lives of the people of God and into the lives of those who currently aren’t. Our unique, God-designed piece of that larger pie is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.
Let’s make things plainer and then I’ll show you the proper source for all of this. It is good and wise and even necessary for believers to gather together regularly for fellowship, prayer, corporate worship, and service. Let me push just a bit harder on this idea. If a believer, a church member, is not getting a regular dose of all of those elements, that person is not growing in his faith as God designed and desires. Let me get even more personal. If this one hour a week is the max of what you’re getting as far as church goes (and by church I don’t mean time spent in this building, I mean time to gather with the body for fellowship, prayer, corporate worship, and service), you aren’t growing in your faith as God designed and the rest of us are suffering for it.
But don’t just take my word for it. This isn’t just me standing up here waving around my feelings at you. This is me offering up to you what Scripture proclaims. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Hebrews 10:19. I’d like you to take a look at this with me.
“Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God…” Let me stop there a minute. That’s basically a summary of the previous eight or so chapters. That’s very much Jewish-background language the author is using. The “holy places” were those places in the Temple that only the priests could go because they were thought to be nearest to God and thus the most holy. The “curtain” is the thick, woven veil that separated such places from the outer courts of the Temple. To go behind the veil or through the curtain was to enter into the holy presence of God. The high priest was the only one who could enter the inner sanctum and did so on behalf of the people. Jesus changed all that, made Himself the high priest, and now through Him we can have direct access to the Father. What the author is saying, in other words, is that because we have this access, because we can enter into the presence of God thanks to Jesus our great high priest…here’s what we should do. And what should we do? Well, keep reading with me.
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” So what’s the author saying here? In light of the fact that we have this great high priest in Jesus, we should draw near…to what? To God the Father. And how should we do this? With our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. That’s a reference to the cleansing and purification rituals which were part of the process of preparing the high priest to enter the holy place in the Temple. We are now cleansed by Jesus Himself through the Spirit and made ready to enter the presence of the Father. Now, today, through the Spirit, we can enter into the presence of the Father anywhere. In fact, we should remain in His presence at all times. We should walk with Him wherever we go. But the author here seems to have more than a personal, privatized relationship with God here in mind. Indeed, the original audience would never have thought in those terms. A person’s relationship with God was something that was played out in community. It was only in community that someone could be fully who God designed them to be. It was only in community that a person could hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Think about it: where is it easiest to acknowledge and live out your relationship with Christ? Is it not when you are in the presence of fellow believers? It’s much easier to act on our beliefs when we’re surrounded by people who believe like us than it is to do so when we are on our own. Indeed, while pursuing times of solitude is a positive spiritual discipline for us to follow, a believer who does not have regular, healthy fellowship with the body of Christ is not going to be a healthy believer. And in the last point notice that it is necessarily communal in focus. After all, how could we stir one another to love and good works if we’re not regularly around one another?
Finally in v. 25 the author sets all these instructions in their proper context: “…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” You see, again, we can’t do any of those things the author lists out as action steps in light of all that Jesus has done for us apart from active involvement in a community of faith. And I don’t say that to try and draw you out like a double-dog-dare might have done when you were in grade school. I’m just stating a fact. Apart from an active involvement—and barring some physical limitation, active involvement means more than just being in this room for an hour a week—in the church body, you can’t grow in your faith like you should.
The fact is, now, just like was apparently the case then, there are professed Jesus followers who have a habit of not meeting regularly together with the body for community, prayer, corporate worship, and service. They have deluded themselves into thinking that a little church once in a while is good enough as long as they do some good things on the side. That idea sounds really nice, but it’s total hogwash. It forms in the minds of people who for whatever reason do not love the church. There may be a number of different and totally understandable reasons why they don’t love the church, but they don’t love the church. And in their lack of love, they’ve left off something basic; they’re getting wrong one of the foundational elements of the Christian faith lived well. And eventually, they’re going to pay for it. Not because somebody’s going to come around and scold them for the lack, but because they’ll hit a place in life when they need the help, hope, and fellowship found only in the Christian community and they won’t have it.
So what am I getting at with all of this? I want you to fall in love with the church and love it as much as I do (or more!). I want you to work out that love by committing yourself to seeing the church accomplish her mission of advancing the Gospel of the kingdom of God in the lives of the people of God and into the lives of those who aren’t. I want you to pull out all the stops to see this church accomplish our part of that mission by creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. I want to see you become fully engaged with this community such that you’re not just making sure the pews don’t leave the floor on Sunday mornings; so that you’re not just treading water in your faith. Jesus is going somewhere and if we’re not going too, we’ll get left behind. I want to see you engaging in fellowship with the body so you can be encouraged and encourage others in their faith and all the more as the Day draws near. And I want to see you doing this because of what Jesus has done for you. He is the root of our fellowship and if we are fully His our fellowship will grow to bear much fruit. Friends, love the church. It’s the hope of the world. Love the church and show it by showing up. We need you and you need us too. Love the church.