September 6, 2009

Mission Possible

Why are we here? This is the question for the ages. Everyone at some point in their life asks this question. It’s like it’s built into us. We have to know a purpose for our existence. Have you ever thought much about that—our need for a purpose? Well, let’s back up just a bit. Do we need a purpose for our lives? I mean, does getting up every day and going to the same job, coming home to the same series of dinners, doing the same things every weekend, going on vacation to the same places, and so on and so forth constitute a purpose? Because if it doesn’t then a lot of people might consider responding that we really don’t need a purpose for our lives. But here’s the reality: nothing is without purpose in this world. Now wait a second, is that true? After all, we just finished working our way through Ecclesiastes where Solomon drilled into our heads the idea that everything is meaningless apart from God and there sure seem to be a lot of things in this world that aren’t terribly connected to Him. Well, in the big picture things are neutral, but the people who make them and use them are not. People are either for or against God. There’s simply no middle ground. Either we are working to advance the purposes of the kingdom of God or we are working to subvert them. If we are working against God—meaning we aren’t connected to Him and thus according to Ecclesiastes have no purpose—we are not working according to our God-given purpose which is of itself pointless, and we have commandeered a new purpose: opposing God. All that said, people can attempt to work other than according to their purpose, in other words they lose their given sense of purpose. What happens to things which have lost a sense of purpose in this world? If you have a bunch of pointless junk sitting around your house you throw it out (unless you’re a packrat in which case some else has to throw it out later). How about this: what happens to people who have lost a sense of purpose in this world? Now we’re getting down to the important stuff. Let me ask that again: what happens to people who have lost their sense of purpose in this world? They develop a feeling of worthlessness and futility pervades everything they do. Beyond this, our identity is connected with our purpose. When we lose a sense of purpose, we begin to lose our unique identity. We also begin to lose hope since a purpose gives us something to hope for—fulfilling it. Hopelessness leads to despair which in turn opens the door to bitterness, hatred, and anger. When a person embraces all of these anything is possible. What I hope is becoming clear by now is the overwhelming importance of purpose. The question of why we are here is not an incidental one but the most important we could ever ask.

Now, everything we’ve said so far is absolutely true, but we don’t have to turn to the Scripture to discover any of it. That was just some basics about people and our need for purpose. God may have made us that way, but learning such things about people doesn’t depend on a knowledge or understanding of God. This next piece, however, very much does. God knows we need a purpose because He made us with such a need. To this end, He creates us with a purpose in mind and equips us appropriately to be able to fulfill it. Now, we can talk about this purpose both generally and specifically. In a general sense God created people so that we can connect with and glorify Him. That is awesome and true, but it’s not very helpful when we talk about God’s plans for our lives. Every person is different and so a one-size-fits-all purpose, while beneficial in general terms doesn’t help Kathy Brooks know how she is going to do that differently than Jack Bennett. In a specific sense, then, God calls and equips every believer with a distinct calling and set of gifts in order to see that calling through to reality. Well, what is true for individual believers is also true for the more corporate entities like, for example, the church. The general purpose of the Church is to stand as God’s representative on earth, proclaiming the message of the Gospel to a lost world. But there are different ways to do this depending on what part of the world and even what part of a city a specific church is located. A church located in downtown Petersburg needs to have a different approach to sharing the message of the Gospel than does a church in rural Dinwiddie County. The specific purpose of a church depends on a variety of factors including where the church is located, what the membership is like, what the needs of the community are, and who the pastor is. It is my sincere belief that every single local arm of the body of Christ has a specific purpose from God for its existence. Now, this purpose is not static and will necessarily change over time as the community changes. For instance, the area around the church I grew up in used to be primarily upper-middle class and the church’s makeup reflected this. Today, however, the area is primarily populated by economically lower and lower-middle class folks and so it cannot minister in the same way it used to be able to do. That being said, at any given time God has a plan for each of His churches and it rests on the shoulders of the church to listen to Him closely in order to find out what that is and set about doing it. When a church sets itself on discovering and seeing this purpose, this mission, come to fruition it will unlock some of the greatest blessings God has for it. Having a clear sense of mission (God’s purpose) and vision (what God wants to see accomplished by that purpose) will bring life and energy and joy to a congregation in ways about which they have only previously dreamed. To this end, the leadership of this church has been asking a series of questions over the past year aimed at discerning God’s purpose for Central Baptist Church. For the rest of this morning I want to talk with you about what this journey has looked like and what we have prayerfully come to see as God’s mission and vision for this church. This is the question I want to guide us this morning: What is God’s purpose for Central Baptist Church?

In order to help us understand what the deacons have been uncovering for the last year we are going to take a look at a couple of different passages of Scripture. The first is in the book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 42-47. At the beginning of Acts 2 Luke tells us the incredible story of the coming of the Holy Spirit of God into the world. He descended with the sound of a great wind and tongues of fire appeared over the heads of each of the apostles as He indwelt them. This was the event that jumpstarted the growth of the Church. Brimming with the power of God through the Holy Spirit the apostles went out and proclaimed the message of the Gospel like Jesus did—authoritatively. Peter came out of the upper room and preached an incredible sermon that saw 3,000 people give their lives to Christ. From this point forward the church had a clear mission: proclaim the message of the kingdom and organize itself into a body that could spread the Gospel as effectively as possible. Let me read these verses for you: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.”

Now, understand that entire books have been written about this passage and the ideas contained in it. We’re not going to unpack every detail of what Luke describes here. Instead, I want to draw your attention to three features of the early church that ring with familiarity for this body. One of the real emphases here is that all the people were deeply connected to each other. In other words, there was a strong sense of belonging among these early believers. This was important because they were not only founding a new movement, but they were founding a new movement that would stand in direct opposition to the established world order. If they didn’t have a strong sense of belonging they would have fallen apart when trouble first came—and trouble wasn’t long in coming. Yet if all they had was a sense of belonging they wouldn’t have been much different from any other tightly connected group in the country. Verse 42 noted that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Because this was a truly new group, there was much to learn and so learn they did. But you see, all this belonging and learning did not make them a church. It made them a school. There was a final ingredient here: serving. They made sure that there was no one around them who had a need. It was this service that inured them in the hearts of the people as v. 46 pointed out. So there were a number of things going on in the early church but it was these three features: belonging, learning, and serving, that were foundational to its growth and development.

The obvious question in all of this is: what does it have to do with us? Well, as the deacons and I have been thinking and praying over this question of God’s mission for Central Baptist Church, we have spent a lot of time talking about who we are. This search for a mission is not about having an identity crisis and reaching for anything close that seems like it will ground us and make us more appealing to our community. Churches have gone this route before. They get an idea fixed in their heads that they need a mission from God (which is itself true), but rather than doing the hard work of figuring out who they are, they grab the first mission that looks good and run with it. Often this is a mission that another church (usually a big one) has promoted as successful. The problem with this approach is that unless the church lucks into what God really has for them, taking on a mission like this tries to fill a need without seeking to understanding the shape of the hole so that it can be filled appropriately. Make no mistake: the mission might seem successful at first because a well-defined mission generates interest. But if this isn’t the mission God has for the church it is destined to fail, ultimately leaving the church emptier than when it began. It’s like when people try and fill their need for God with something else—drugs, sex, shopping, electronics, cars, work, school—it feels good at first, but since it is not what we really need it will fall through leaving us more broken than before. Here’s the thing with this church: it’s been around a long time and most of its members having been coming here for a long time. Relatively new members have only been here ten years. That’s longer than most Americans have been going to a single church. To try and claim that we don’t know who we are feels silly to our ears. And it should. People here generally have a pretty good idea of who we are, but perhaps they’ve never really tried to put words to the idea. Well, after much conversation and prayer, it became clear that there were some good words to describe us: belonging, learning, and serving. In the next three weeks we are going to take a closer look at each of these and how they describe who we are, but this morning I want to focus on the bigger picture. And this bigger picture is a mission for Central Baptist Church. A mission for any church is like a door with a clear label on it. It proclaims for all who care to look who we are and what we are all about. It helps to distinguish us from any other church. It establishes guidelines by which we say “yes” to some things and “no” to others because they don’t fall in the parameters of what we are all about.

Now a couple of questions that might be coming up in your minds are: Is this about becoming a bigger, more modern church? and Don’t we want to reach everyone? To the first question: absolutely not. This is about becoming fully who God made us to be. Nothing more; nothing less. If in this process we grow or modernize ourselves to some degree, so be it. We need not be afraid of either, but neither will we make these our goal. To do so would be to fall to the sin of idolatry. In answer to the second question: yes, but. We absolutely want to see everyone in this world come to a saving knowledge of God. But we also have to deal with the reality that we are not in a place to reach everyone in the world. We are in a place to and want to reach all the people God wants us to reach. No more; no less.

Well, with all this said, let’s get down to the mission statement itself. After much prayer and conversation and more prayer, the deacon body and I submit to you as the mission for Central Baptist Church: We exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally. This is a simple description of who God made us to be. We are a family of spiritual seekers at Central in every sense of the word. Our church here is one in which people can feel a genuine sense of belonging. And we are all about helping people who are genuinely interested in connecting with God and other believers find a place to do just that. In fact, if you are not a fully connected member of this church and have been worshiping with us for very long I invite you formally to consider officially joining our ranks. This will open the door for you to be able to utilize the gifts God has given you in ways that will quite simply bless your socks off. We are also a place of learning here at Central. While we’re not perfect, we try our best to have Bible study opportunities for deep spiritual growth for every age group in the church. And honestly, some of the driving force behind this comes from my own passion for teaching and seeing people come to know and love the word. If we are not learning well the facts of the faith, we cannot grow in all the ways God has for us. The final piece is the fact that we are a serving body. If you have not yet experienced this hang around for a while and you will. Central folks are serving folks both in official and unofficial ways. The people here love this church in ways that many other churches can only dream about. With this as our banner, we are charting a course for becoming fully who God made us to be. God’s purpose for us is to become fully ourselves. We can see all three of these elements together in Hebrews 10:22-25. Let us belong: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…not staying way from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as [we] see the day drawing near.” Let us learn: “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” And let us serve: “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works.” So you see, not only have we accurately captured our identity, but it is one which is profoundly Scriptural.

This is an exciting thing, to know who we are. And again, many of you perhaps already knew this but may not have been able to put words to it. What we now have is another tool in our belts that will help us describe who we are when telling other people about us. Yet, simply knowing who we are isn’t enough. If we don’t do anything or go anywhere with this knowledge what have we accomplished? In addition to a clear mission statement that accurately reflects who we are, we need a clear statement of where we are going with this. This statement is a vision. A vision gives us direction. Knowing who we are and who we are intended to be does us absolutely no good if we don’t take any steps towards becoming that person. The same thing applies for the church. And a vision may seem like kind of an amorphous concept, but it’s much more familiar than you might think. We have visions for all kinds of things. Lisa and I were on vacation in Williamsburg all last week. We planned for our trip for a long time—we had a clear vision for where we wanted to go. It wasn’t a terribly detailed vision, but it was a vision nonetheless. Had we decided last Saturday that we were going to stay for a week somewhere we might have eventually gotten ourselves somewhere, but such spontaneity would have cut short some of the enjoyment of our well-planned trip. Whether we can clearly express them or not we have visions for our kids. These may or may not fit with their visions for themselves or more importantly God’s vision for them. A vision isn’t something written in stone. It isn’t even necessarily an accurate prediction of the future. A vision simply says, “I’m here now; I’m going to be there tomorrow.” We may very well end up somewhere different from that depending on how things go, but without a vision we can be sure that we won’t get anywhere. No vision means no movement. And no movement means we atrophy which is always a precursor to death. In sum, we need vision. We need both big visions and little visions that help us get there. If we have just big visions we run the risk of becoming discouraged and disillusioned with the process. But if we just have little visions and no overarching trajectory we’ll wander around aimlessly until we are pulled back on the path. And a clear vision is a powerful thing. It gives people something to sink their teeth into. It lets people take ownership in an organization in such a way that they know without a shadow of a doubt that they are making an integral contribution to something larger than themselves in order to see God’s kingdom made manifest on the earth. This will consistently bring incredible life and joy to any organization.

Now, all of this may still be a bit unclear, but let me give another example that for most of you will shed incredible light on things. For several years now, this church has been floating along without a well-defined, overarching sense of mission or vision. Has this fact made it somehow less of a church? Of course not. But neither has it been able to fully maximize its God given potential. In spite of this, there have been a few instances in the past in which the church caught a small vision and experienced the life and joy this can bring in a big way. The first was when the new part of the building was added on to the church. The people caught a vision of what the church could be with this new space for learning and fellowship and service and a building that could have taken years to pay off was finished in less than a year. For you who were here then do you remember the shot of life and the excitement of seeing this vision come to fruition this brought into the church? The second example was much more recent. A little over a year ago, Lisa and I were looking forward to moving out here and becoming a part of this community. But things weren’t quite ready for us. The church had come a long way under Bob’s steady leadership but things like the parsonage were not ready for a family to move in. But when it became clear that things were moving forward, this church caught a vision of the new pastor and his wife arriving and needing a good place to live. From the stories I’ve consistently heard, the church caught this vision as a full body and it generated more life and excitement than anyone had seen or experienced in a long time. It took all hands on deck to make it happen and people were proud of the work they were able to do. Now, if that’s what a small vision can do, imagine what a big one can accomplish. Yet this blessing is not the goal but merely a side effect. The goal is becoming fully who God made us to be which is the secret to unlocking the abundant life that Jesus came to bring us. And we have help in this. As Paul so beautifully declared in Philippians 1:6: “I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God is going to keep on working in us, both individually and corporately (those two are not able to be separated), until we are literally perfect in His glorious image. To this end, after much prayer and conversation the vision for Central Baptist Church is: to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.

If you look very closely at that statement it seems awfully similar to our mission statement: We exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally. The theme running through both is belonging, learning, and serving. If we are successfully helping spiritual seekers to find a place to belong then we will necessarily be creating a place where people matter. If we are learning the Christian faith then we will necessarily be empowered with the Spirit of God. And if we are serving without conditions then we will undeniably be engaging our world for Christ. In other words, if our mission defines who we are as a church, then our vision is about becoming fully that church. So where do we go from here? How do we see all this come to fruition? With patience. This won’t be an overnight process. We are not going to be making any sudden and drastic changes to the way we do things at Central. In fact, at first it might look like not very many things are changing at all. There’s a reason for this. We’re not trying to become any other church. We’re trying to become ourselves. This means making sure that we are using the gifts God has given us—that would be you guys—to their fullest potential. This means taking a hard look at everything we are doing and examining whether or not it fits with our mission and vision. If yes, we will not only keep doing it, but look for ways to do it even more effectively than we already are. If no, then we will systematically prune it away until we are clear of anything unnecessary that takes away from our ability to bear fruit for the kingdom. Yet I also realize that for most of you this is new stuff (in content if not in concept) and that we need more time to process all of this together. With this in mind we are going to spend the next three weeks examining a different aspect of our mission and vision. We’ll talk more about belonging and Paul’s vision of the church as a well-functioning body next week. In a couple of weeks we’ll take a look at Moses’ admonition to the Israelites to give themselves fully to God and what this means for our learning. Then on the last Sunday of this month we’ll revisit the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet for a look at what serving means for us in light of the other two characteristics. And I want feedback. I’m nearly always available in person, by phone, or by e-mail to hash through confusing aspects of this or to brainstorm ways we can really see it happen. In the immediate future what you can be doing is praying; praying that as a church we are faithfully following God’s lead and that He would make clear the things we need to do in order to see that happen. This morning then, instead of a normal invitation—though if you want to join the church or talk to me about how you can connect personally with this I’m going to be up here—I’m going to open the altar to anyone who feels a special burden to pray for this. As we sing our closing song this morning feel free to come right on down here and pray and stay until you have finished. Know this well as we go from here: God’s purpose for us is to become fully ourselves. Let us then seek to become this together.