September 15, 2013

A Singleminded Focus

Why are we here?  And I don’t mean that in a cosmic sense—although it’s a good question to ask with many answers available (most of which aren’t very good).  I’m speaking much more presently.  I mean, what are we doing here this morning?  Why are we bothering with all of this?  I mean, if you think about it, for many folks it takes quite a bit of effort to get here.  Sunday mornings, ironically, are usually the least placid mornings in our household.  What’s the point?  Why miss out on extra sleep or an early tee time or “my one morning off” or anything else along those lines?  For some folks they’re here because church is simply what you do on Sunday mornings.  Growing up in my house this was the case.  There wasn’t really ever an option on going to church on Sunday mornings.  It wasn’t necessarily forced, it was just the expectation.  Others might be here because they feel guilty when they don’t come.  They live lives the rest of the week that they know don’t really fit all that well with the life of Christ and by coming to church they placate some of the guilt they feel for it.  Some folks have real questions about God and life and faith and they’re hoping for solid answers.  These folks will tend to go from church to church depending on which ones seem to be giving the best answers, but they usually go.  Still there are others for whom church is a safe place of community.  They long for the relationships they have built here and come regularly to feel that sense of being a part of something larger than themselves.  The truth is that there are a lot of different reasons that people show up at a church with any degree of regularity.

A second truth, however, is that for a rapidly growing segment of the population, they don’t feel any real cultural expectation to show up as was the case a generation or two ago.  For these folks all the reasons we just mentioned don’t really hold any water for them.  They need another reason; a reason that goes beyond cultural expectations and guilt and getting answers and mere community.  They need to know why it’s worth their time and effort to come.  Why should this be elevated in importance beyond the host of other things already on their plate?  Let’s just call it what it is: young people today are incredibly busy.  Most of the folks in the room under the age of 50 are testaments to this fact (although folks over that are giving the younger ones a run for their money).  Unless they have a pressing reason to add something to their schedules that is probably going to cause conflicts with other things already on them they’re not going to.  You’re not going to.  If I can be painfully honest with you for a second, if you are a guest this morning or else perhaps you’ve only been hanging around here with us for a fairly short amount of time, you have a question buzzing in the back of your head.  It was there when you got up and decided to come this morning.  It was there when you walked in the room a little while ago.  It was there when I came up here a few minutes ago.  And the question is this: Is this going to be worth my time?  There are two others that go along with this: Is this group of people going somewhere that I think is worth going?  Are they creating something that I think is worth being a part of?  If you’re thinking that, I just want you to know that we know you’re there and we’re glad you’re here.  Those are good questions to be asking and I’m glad you are.

So then, what’s this mean for the church?  Well church, it means this: unless we’re offering a compelling answer to those three questions, there aren’t many folks who are going to come here who aren’t already here.  What more, most of the folks who already come here are going to lean harder and harder into that old expectation of Sunday church attendance as a reason for coming so they don’t feel like they’re wasting their own time.  And for those folks who are already coming here and maybe don’t feel that expectation as strongly as some of you…they’re going to stop coming.  After all, the reason people who aren’t physically incapable of doing so don’t come to church is that on at least that particular morning they don’t think it’s important.  And hey, if you’re coming because of an expectation, then you’re living by a rule; and if you’re living by a rule, then you’re not free; and if you’re not free, then you can’t be rightly related to God.  Now don’t hear what I’m not saying.  If you’re coming here, I’m glad you’re here.  I don’t care what the reason is that you’re here.  But the truth is that if you’re not already invested with this particular community of faith, unless we are able to give you a compelling reason to get connected, you’re not likely to stay very long.  Perhaps this is hard sounding stuff coming from the pulpit, but if we’re not going to be honest here, where are we going to be honest?

Fortunately, I happen to think that we’ve got a dynamite answer to your questions.  I think we’ve got an answer that has the potential to tap into the deepest relational, emotional, and spiritual needs you have.  What is it?  Well, before I give it to you, let me tell you how we got there.  A few years ago we started asking some questions that were aimed at helping us to discover what exactly it is that makes Central, Central; some questions aimed at helping us put words to the church’s identity.  We weren’t looking to say anything necessarily new, but rather we were looking to put some labels on the things we already knew about the church.  What is it that really makes Central stand out from any other church?  As we looked at ourselves in a mirror and thought about it, three words kind of floated to the top.  The first word was “belonging.”  Central is a place where people really can belong. When someone is part of this particular local body of Christ they are more than a number in a database somewhere.  Here you are a part of a family.  If you were here last week you heard a great testament to this fact from Marty Long.  You are surrounded by people who are not satisfied with knowing your name.  They want to know who your parents are, who your grandparents are, what their stories are, where you came from, how you got here, what kind of work you do, how your kids are doing, and what’s the status with your sick Aunt Ethel.  This is a church, in other words, where you can belong.  Now are we perfect about this?  No, but it’s still one of the things that most defines us and we keep trying to do better all the time.

The second word that came up as particularly descriptive of us was “learning.”  A whole lot of the things we do around here are aimed at helping people learn both the information necessary to become fully who God designed them to be along with the direction necessary to put that information to use in productive ways.  Now I’ll admit, some of the reason for this comes from me.  I am at heart a teacher.  My gifts do not primarily fall in the arena of counseling or pastoring—just as the poor folks who’ve endured my attempts at doing either can probably attest.  I am a teacher.  I love to teach.  I love being there in that moment where someone goes, “Aha!”  That is food for my soul.  But, separate and apart from me, Central is a place where people have been learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus for a long time.  Stating that we are a place of learning wasn’t establishing anything new, merely describing what already was; putting words to our God-given identity.

The third and final word was “serving.”  Central is a place that is all about serving.  We love service.  We love it whether it is close to home or across the ocean.  When the people in this church are made aware of a need—whether it’s a need in our community here or in the community around us—we jump to action to see the need met.  We don’t rest until there isn’t anything more necessary to satisfy the need.  And frankly, we’re not all that concerned if the person or situation is particularly deserving of the help.  We help because we were helped first.  Furthermore, while we do a fair bit of “official” serving under the church’s banner, the people of this body go way above and beyond that quietly on their own.  They do this because, again, it’s part of who we are.  It’s in our blood.

Well at this point if it sounds a little bit like I’m being a cheerleader for the church there’s a good reason for that: I am!  This is a fantastic church that I think is more than worth your time and energy.  And yet, having three random words floating around doesn’t really answer any questions, most especially the question of whether or not I’m right in my assessment.  I mean, think about it: Why should I go to that church?  Belonging!  Learning!  Serving!  Huh?  What we needed was an idea that really captured this essence and pointed it in a single direction; that grabbed hold of who we are and focused it on a problem that the kingdom of God is capable of addressing.  And so after even more prayer and conversation, eventually just such an idea began to crystallize.  We became convinced regarding the direction we should be traveling.  And this direction is captured in the phrase you hear me repeat every Sunday morning.  At Central we are all about creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.

In this statement we find both identity and direction.  We find meaning and purpose.  At the core of who we are is this drive to see people find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  That’s the reason that God has allowed this church to stand and operate up until now.  And where we are going with this drive is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  We will know that we have successfully lived up to the identity God has given us when we see people come to understand the depth of their worth; when people are walking out of our doors on a regular basis with a deeper appreciation for, grasp of, and ability to accomplish what God designed them to do; and when people take all of this knowledge and put it to practical application as they go about their lives resulting in an expansion of the kingdom of God.  This is who we are and where we are going.  This is the answer to your questions.

Let me tell you why and then I want to show you from the Scriptures why I think our particular mission and vision are right on target with God’s broader vision of bringing about His kingdom in this world.  First then, how does this idea answer your questions?  Here’s how: All of those questions I mentioned a minute ago spring from a deeper longing inside of us to find a place, a community, wherein we can become something more than we are now.  We all, each one of us, longs to know that we have an intrinsic value that goes beyond the rat race of things we pursue every day.  We also have this awareness that there is something more to this universe than simply us.  There’s something out there bigger and more powerful and wiser than we are.  Something which for lack of a better word we describe as divine.  And we have a hunger for this divine that really isn’t ever satisfied until we access it.  Indeed, many of the things we do are aimed at putting us in contact with this sense of the divine.  The apostle Paul really captured this idea when he was speaking in the Areopagus in Athens addressing the crowd gathered there: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.  Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…”

All people throughout all times have been wrestling with these kinds of questions.  God has designed this church uniquely to address them.  Do you see it yet?  We are all about creating a place where people matter.  Here you can have that deep longing to be a part of something bigger than yourself satisfied.  As I said before, you are part of a family here.  It’s a family that values you for more than simply what you do.  Here you are valued for who you are.  You may be broken, but hey, so are we.  You know, sometimes I hear people try to excuse their not coming to church by saying something like, “Well, those church people are all just a bunch of hypocrites and I don’t want anything to do with hypocrites.”  My answer to this: yep.  You are sitting in a whole roomful of hypocrites who are nevertheless aiming at helping each other become less hypocritical and to live more consistently in line with the life of Christ.  So put your arm around the person next to you, hold your purse or wallet extra close, and know that you are surrounded by people who may be different, but who are in fact facing many of the same kinds struggles and doubts and pressures that you are.  They’re facing those and they are willing to walk with you through them so you can wrestle with a partner rather than alone.  As the wisest man who ever lived wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”

But wait, there’s more.  For many of you, you really feel like you need more information in order to move forward with much success.  Well, as it turns out, we are a place where people can be empowered with the knowledge and tools they need to become fully who God designed them to be.  We’re glad you’re here, but we appreciate you as more than just a warm body and some extra weight to keep the pews on the floor.  In fact, once we finished doing some renovations a few weeks ago, the pews were bolted down really tightly so they’re not going anywhere and extra warm bodies in the room cost us more money to keep the place at a comfortable temperature.  We figure we might as well get some worth out of money.  So, we are going to pour into you so that you can be more than just a warm body and a pew weight.  We want to see you become fully who God designed you to be.  Now, there will be some challenges incipient in this goal because who God designed you to be and who you want to be may not be totally harmonious ideas.  But, if you’ve spent much time working toward who you want to be, you know how well that works…or rather, doesn’t work.  So why not shoot for a different target that stands a pretty fair chance of being more fulfilling in the long run anyway?  We want to empower you to do just that.

But, we don’t want to simply empower you.  Because I have two young boys with a variety of electronic toys that run on batteries (at least the ones I haven’t gotten to in order to remove them) we have a battery case in our hall closet full of batteries.  Do you know what all those batteries are accomplishing in the closet?  Not a single thing beyond providing an uneven surface to collect dust.  We are committed here to seeing you become more than an uneven surface to collect dust.  We are all about empowering people not for the mere sake of empowerment, but in order that they might engage their world for Christ.  And I say “their world” there because the reality is that you’re probably not going to travel the world anytime soon spreading the Gospel.  That’s okay.  I’m not even really all that concerned with anyone here leaving their comfort zone to spread the Gospel.  My suspicion is that there are enough people in your comfort zone who either don’t know or aren’t living out the Gospel that if you start there you will find plenty to keep you busy for a while.  We want to make sure that you have the tools to just that.  Because in seeking to engage your world for Christ you will find the place He designed you to fill in this world, and we happen to think that’s a pretty special thing.  But, it can only happen when you are plugged in and a part of this body.  Indeed, God designed this whole process such that it won’t happen apart from the body of Christ.  In order for this goal of creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ to happen it is going to take every part of this body doing their specifically designed best.

Again, this is by design on God’s part.  Listen to some more words from the apostle Paul that I think wrap up everything we’ve been talking about and set out a good broad scale vision for the church.  These particular words come from his first letter to the believers in the ancient city of Corinth which was itself primarily focused on how the community of faith can successfully be about the mission God gave them.  If you have a Bible or Bible app handy you can find these words at 1 Corinthians 12:12-20.  Listen as I read: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”  Got that?  In Christ we who are many are actually one body—His body.  Whatever our former distinctions were are wiped away as we are joined to Him through the Spirit.

Now, running further on this body analogy, Paul unpacks this a bit more: “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?  If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?”  Do you see how this perfectly captures our vision?  In the body every part matters.  This is the place we are committed to creating.  And not just within these walls.  We want to see this idea of creating a place where people matter expand well beyond the borders of our property to the whole community.  We have started some intentional efforts to see this start to happen at Midway.

As for the rest of our vision, keep reading: “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.”  You see, God doesn’t do anything randomly.  Everything He does is done with a specific purpose.  It is all aimed at seeing His plans for His creation come to pass.  Everything He does is laser-focused on that goal.  Stay with me now.  Since everything He does is purposeful and focused, if you are here it’s because there’s a reason for it.  If we are going to be worth our snot as a church we had better be all about helping you figure out what that is; we had better be about building in you the knowledge base from which to draw in order to be successful.  And then, we had better be focused on sending you back out of here to accomplish whatever it is you were designed to do.

In this way the church generally and this church specifically is a place where a whole bunch of different people with different backgrounds and different life experiences and different strengths and different struggles are all brought together and focused on a single goal: the advancement of God’s kingdom.  That’s the broad range goal that the church universal is to be pursuing in every way we can conceive.  But, because not all churches are the same, their particular approach to seeing God’s kingdom advanced in this world, in their community, will each be a little different.  Our particular approach happens to be wrapped up in creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  I happen to think that’s a really important vision and one which you have a unique potential to enable to be made real.

Each week I try to leave you with a single clear idea by which you can call to mind what we talked about during this time.  This week, though, I have something else I want you to keep in mind.  I want you to leave here today knowing our vision.  We are committed to creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Let that idea be planted deep in your heart and mind.  Central is a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Then, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to call you to do more than simply plant it.  I’m going to call us to get fully on board with it and take some action to see it made manifest.  You will not want to miss it.  Central is a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  I hope you’ll be back to learn how you can be a part of it.  See you then.