(Preached at Alger First UMC on 9/13/2015)
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
Well we’re on the second week of a series we’re doing here that we’re calling “Transforming Evangelism.” And what we’re doing with this is trying to figure out what in the world this thing that we call evangelism is and how to do it. I know that word evangelism tends to scare some people and turn people away, maybe from bad experience or a conflict with beliefs or whatever. But I hope to show you that this thing called evangelism is not that scary AND that Jesus Christ has called his followers to do it.
So last week, we took a look at the last three verses in the Gospel of Matthew, normally called Jesus’ Great Commission and talked about how Jesus’ last words on earth, at least recorded by the writer of Matthew, were a command to share this salvation that we’ve experienced and invite others into the transformed life that comes with that salvation.
A lot of you know that my dad’s a pastor, he’s actually now our District Superintendent, but he’s been a pastor my whole life. In the United Methodist Church, that means every few years you’ll be reappointed to another church and you’ll have to move and take your family with you, so I moved around some when I was growing up. And whenever we would get to a new place, the first couple months were always the hardest. It was hard to get settled in. And at times, I didn’t feel very invited. My family moved to Findlay last summer, but before that my dad pastored a church in Circleville. And Circleville had the real small town atmosphere, everyone in my school knew each other, and they’d known each other since the first grade. So it was hard to make friends and kind of break into those tight-knit circles where people have been friends for years. At lunch, it was hard to find a table to sit at-and in high school, that’s a paralyzing question, right? So I didn’t feel very invited or welcome for a while, not until I’d reached out and made friends, and that takes a while. So when we first moved there, I just didn’t feel very invited or welcome.
Now I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being on the outside of something. Maybe you had to move to a new school, maybe you started a new job, maybe you moved to a new area. And you had to do that work of figuring out where everything is, how to get where you need to go, who your friends will be. And maybe you didn’t feel very invited or welcome until you established your own social circles, you figured out who your friends were.
Well this week we’re continuing our series on this thing called evangelism, and we’re talking about how it happens within a community-evangelism isn’t done by a solitary person working on their own, it’s done within community. Specifically, it happens within a community that’s both inviting-welcoming of new people-and sustaining-keeping those who are already followers of Christ strong on their journey. So if we, Alger First UMC, if we are going to be an evangelistic community, a community who works to share the salvation and transformation that we’ve experienced with others who haven’t experienced, we must be inviting and sustaining. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about that.
Could you all turn in your Bibles to Acts 2:42-47? Let’s have everyone turn there, so if you don’t have a Bible, use one of the red pew Bibles in front of you, and the page number for those is in the bulletin.
While you’re turning there, let me give you the context for this passage. Last week, we talked about the Great Commission, Jesus’ last words before he left earth. Our passage today is placed probably a couple weeks past that. Jesus has ascended into heaven. Pentecost has happened-the Holy Spirit was poured out onto Jesus’ 12 disciples, and the Apostle Peter preached the first Christian evangelistic sermon. In response to the work of the Holy Spirit and Peter’s sermon, 3,000 people became followers of Jesus and joined the community. So this passage gives us a snapshot of what the community that resulted from this expansive growth looked like.
“The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the communty those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47, CEB)
So this is a pretty idyllic picture, right? The community of believers is getting along, they’re loving each other, they’re sharing and playing nice, and God’s doing crazy stuff among them, right? Now, most scholars believe that this is kind of an idealistic portrayal of the community-the writer of Acts was using hyperbole here, they were exaggerating the character of the community to really emphasize certain points that they wanted to bring out. But what we see here is a picture of an evangelistic community, which is what we’re talking about today, right? Evangelism really happens within a community, and right here we have kind of an idealized picture of what it means to be a truly evangelistic community, what it means to be a community who works to share the salvation and transformation that we’ve experienced with others who haven’t experienced it yet. That’s what evangelism is, and it happens in community. And it really all comes down to two integral parts of a church’s identity: Inviting and sustaining. An evangelistic community must be inviting and sustaining. So let’s unpack what each of those mean, ok?
An inviting community has their energy and passion focused primarily on those who are not a part of the church yet, who are not followers of Jesus yet-their eyes are firmly planted outside of the building.
There’s a truth I want to share with you, and it could be a little hard to hear, but I want you to hear this. Once you join a church, church ceases to be about you. Once you have committed to being a part of one church community, it’s not primarily about you anymore. So often, we hear that we should come to church for reason that only benefit us, and when we aren’t being catered to by our church, then watch out!
But a healthy church, an evangelistic church community, focuses on the spiritual and physical needs of people who are outside of the community, who haven’t stepped foot inside the church yet. And not only that: an evangelistic community works to make physical contact with those we reach out to, who are outside of our community. We don’t just make detached contact through sending money or giving them food and sending them away. We make actual physical contact with them and place ourselves in their lives. And through that, an evangelistic community seeks to transform itself and those who are not yet a part of the community through love. It’s the transformation we’re seeking, the transformation in those who haven’t experienced this amazing transformation yet.
But along with being inviting, an evangelistic community is also sustaining. They work on sustaining those who are already members of the community in their faith journey.
Now, this does NOT mean that a church caters to the desires and preferences of those already in the community. A church is not sustaining you if they’re simply doing what you like them to do and what they’ve always done.
A church is sustaining if there is a deepseated trust among members of the community about matters of the soul, of your faith, of your walk with Jesus. In a community that sustains, the members walk with each other in their lives-they don’t just ask how you’re doing and stop at ‘fine,’ they walk with each other through great joys and great pains and sorrows, and they call each other out when they see something not quite right in their lives.
And through this, the hope is that the lives of the members would become more like Jesus Christ over time.
Now it’s hard to find a church that strikes this balance. A lot of times you’ll find churches who do a great job at sustaining-their members feel loved, they are supported in their spiritual lives by each other, and they are pushed to grow in their walks with Jesus, BUT they’re not too good with inviting-they don’t make others feel welcome. OR a community is great at making those outside of the community feel welcome and involved, but they’re not so good at sustaining those who are already members. But Jesus calls us to be about this thing called evangelism. Jesus calls to share our experience of salvation and transformation with others who haven’t experienced it, hoping that their lives can be transformed too. We called to do the work of evangelism, and that work is really done in a community. And in order to be an evangelistic community, we are called to be inviting and sustaining.
Now the real question is, how do we do this? How do we live into our calling to be both inviting and sustaining?
Well I can say that this church does well at sustaining you who are committed to this church on your faith journey. For one, we have our shepherds. The whole congregation is split up into groups we call flocks and these groups or flocks are cared for by our shepherds-this is where the nurturing and supporting care that is necessary for a congregation happens. A quick aside here, if you don’t think you’re in a flock, see me after church and we can help you out.
But besides the shepherds, there is a genuine family-like atmosphere here, we all love each other when we’re here and we walk with each other on each of our faith journeys. And in order to be a healthy and evangelistic church community, that is necessary and good!
However, we could do better at being an invitational community. I want to stress again what I said earlier, once you join or commit to being a part of a church community, that community is no longer about you and fulfilling all your wants and preferences. Once you join, the church is no longer primarily about you. The church is the only group, organization, system, or whatever whose primary purpose of existence is for those who are not here yet.
The truth of this is that sometimes, we just love our church family so much that we forget that others who might be new don’t feel quite as welcome as you do. See, being an invitational community is not just about inviting others to come to church, it’s also about how welcoming we are when others come.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is completely new here. If you were coming here for the very first time, and you didn’t know anyone here, would you know where to park? Or what door to go in? Would you know where the sanctuary is? When you come into the sanctuary, would you feel welcome? Would you know where to sit? If you had kids, would you know if there was child care? During the service, would you know what’s going on? If you were knew and didn’t know anybody here, would you still feel welcome during the announcements or prayer time? Or would you feel like an outsider, since you don’t really know anybody that’s being talked about?
We are called to the work of evangelism, and evangelism happens within a community that is BOTH inviting and sustaining. We are called to be a church that does things not because they make us who are here feel good and comfortable, but because they meet the spiritual needs of those who are not here yet. If that means we have to change what we do, then we are called to change what we do and how we act.
So I’m going to challenge us with something this week to help us to be inviting. The first one is simple. If you were here last week, I asked you to write the name of one person on the line at the bottom of your outline and commit to pray that God would open their hearts and minds to the message of God’s transformation and salvation, and that God would put you into closer contact, right? If you weren’t here last week, that’s ok. Now, I’d like for all of us to look at the bottom of the outline I gave you. See the blank line there? In a few minutes, we’re going to have a time of reflection. And during that time, I’d invite you to write the name of the same person you wrote down last week, if you were here, who you’ve hopefully been praying for this whole week, and commit to invite them to church. If you weren’t here last week, that’s ok, just write the name down of one person who you think you could invite to church this week.
Now that seems simple, but don’t just pass it off. Next week, I’ll be preaching about knowing God and how we can come to know God. That’s a message everyone needs to hear, at least I think so. So talk to the person whose name you wrote down and make it clear that you would love to see them come to church. And go a step further, offer to pick them up or go with them to church. Make sure they feel welcome, don’t just expect them to show up and know what’s going on. And explain that you think they might get a lot out of the message. And just invite them for this one week, don’t have the expectation of continuing to attend hanging over their heads, you know?
Now the point of all of this is for you to actually invite that person to church. And imagine what would happen if we all actually did this-if we all put ourselves in the shoes of a newcomer, if we accommodated to them instead of to our own interests, and if we actively invited people to church and worked hard to make them feel welcome?
What would happen if we all owned the idea that church is not about us? Three years ago, I did an internship at a church in Dayton called Fort McKinley. And it was the craziest experience, because here was a church who knew how to be both inviting and sustaining, and they were growing big time. But one of the coolest things I’d heard that summer came from one of the more senior members. This guy had been a part of the church his whole life. The church had changed almost everything about itself in the last few years in order to be inviting and welcoming-new worship style, new discipleship process, new programs, new ministries and especially new music. And this guy had lived through all of that, wasn’t a big fan of some of the changes, but he stuck with it. And he told me one time that he hated the music that they played in the worship service, it didn’t do anything for him. He hated the music, but he loved the transformation that he saw happening in the people’s lives who had started coming to church since they changed all of that stuff. He hated the music, but stuck with it because he saw Jesus Christ transforming lives. That is what we are to be about-transformation. That is what being an inviting and sustaining church community is all about-transformation in our lives AND in the lives of those who are not here yet. And I don’t know about you, but I want to see that transformation happen.