This sermon was preached on April 10, 2016. it is the second in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.
We face six big choices as a church. Here is the second of them.
Choosing Community Over Isolation
You know what they say on Easter afternoon in my line of work: “Christ is risen; the pastor is dead.” That old clergy joke brough me some much needed laughter this Easter season, when I have been laid low all week by a bug, and shared it with Resea, who has also been sick all week. It’s been a tough week.
But it has also been a wonderful time, because we are beginning to see a good response to the study of our little book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. Our church faces six critically important choices in these challenging days. Last week we addressed our first and primary challenge: Choosing Life Over Death. Can we be a people that welcomes new life, or will we choose instead to cling to cour fears, our doubts, and our unbelief that change and growth and renewal is possible? A group of eight gathered at the Manse after worship last week to discuss this idea, and we will gather there again today over pizza to discuss the topic of today’s sermon: Choosing Community Over Isolation. You are invited to attend, or if you can’t make it, join us Tuesday morning at 9:30 in my office.
There is a deep, abiding hunger in our world for meaningful community, says Paul Nixon. Churches that organize themselves to feed that hunger find that they are thriving, and they repeat the pattern that we heard in the gospel this morning: People, joyful, gathered around Jesus the Risen Christ, who feeds them. Peter and the apostles are repeatedly told, Feed My Sheep! Don’t let anyone tell you that the world out there is not hungry for genuine spiritual communion. The world is literally dying for it. Sadly, the institutional church seems to have forgotten how to fee a hungry people.
Today, almost no one will remain loyal to any church or organization unless they perceive that it works for them, and not for itself. In a world of splendid and sumptuous menu choices, too many of our churches are offering up reheated Spam, available only at certain hours of the week, served to bored people who receive it without joy. Church has become ritualistic, tasteless drudgery. As Paul Nixon says, In a world of wonderful choices, there is simply no reason anymore for any of us to waste our time on enterprises that we perceive as boring or irrelevant. There are too many other good things to do out there that are far more tasty! A recent study of college students tracked from their freshman to senior year discovered what I have always known to be true: with each passing year, the students interest in exploring life’s spiritual dimension increases! Yet, over the same time, their sense that organized religion is relevant to that exploration steadily diminishes. Church, as we know it, simply doesn’t work for most young adults. It is important for us to realize that it neither the quest for spirituality nor for authentic community that turns this generation off. Rather, they are exasperated by the wearisome, irrelevant, institutional expressions of spirituality and community.
Our churches have become bastions of isolation, not places of thriving community. Go worship in any mainline protestant church in the country and here is what you are likely to find, according to Nixon:
- People scattered across a worship space that is too big for the crowd present, sitting in isolation from one another.
- No systematic design for contacting or connecting with people when they drop out of worship participation for more than a couple of weeks, feeding the common perception that “nobody cares whether I show up or not.”
- A nice coffee time after the service, but a lack of settings where people move beyond small talk to share real hurts and hopes with one another.
- Fortress-like buildings erected in another era by people that used to live in the neighborhood, but who etierh died or moved somewhere else—so that the building now functions as an alien and intimidating presence in the new neighborhood, typically locked up for 165 hours a week.
- Ministries to the poor often offered at arms-length distance from the people served, rather than drawing neighbors together in partnership and authentic spiritual community.
I have been personally challenged recently to think more intentionally about how to move beyond isolation to authentic community. This week I drafted letters to area hospitals and funeral homes, offering my services to those in need of pastoral care during times of sickness, loss and grief. I’m also sending letters to service organizations in the city, looking for ways to get engaged in the work of the community, going back to my roots as a community organizer in Springfield, Ohio, where I was a visible presence in that community for decades, often going door to door, leading an Adopt a Block Program, neighbors reaching out to neighbors. As Paul Nixon observes, the most effective pastors turn off their computers, grab their cell phones and leave their offices for a meaningful period of time each day to interact purposefully with others in the community. I want to spend time with the groups that meet in our building, dropping in occasionally to let them know that I am here, that I am available, that I am a friend.
But no pastor can do it all. Everyone in this church must begin to think: community first. So let me make a deal with you: I am willing to meet any of you for lunch if you will arrange to bring with you a colleague from work or a friend, so that I can meet them as well. I’d even be willing to set up a short term group at your workplace or in your home, for communion and fellowship, for study and fun.
We know that people are hungry for communion, hungry for community, hungry to be heard and accepted and loved and welcomed, so let’s do it! All of this works best in small groups, which is why we are seeking to set up more small groups in our church. Small groups can be powerful forces for spiritual life! Thnk of a small group as a party, where we gather at least once or twice a month, to break bread together, to intentionally welcome new people into the circle, to pray together and to serve the community together, and to experience the presence of the Risen Christ together, there in our midst, serving us, feeding us, blessing us.
We are all apostles, sent by Jesus into the world to announce the good news that there is bread and fish enough for everyone, and everyone is welcome at the table!
Choosing community over isolation will require the development of new leaders who can carry the fire. What impresses me most in the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is that the other apostles recognized him, and accepted him, even though they were initially afraid of him, because he had been a major persecutor of the church! But they soon recognized that God had called Paul, and Paul had leadership ability, and they invested their lives in him, and were not afraid to welcome him into the company of the apostles. Anyone who has had an experience and encounter with the Risen Christ is an apostle, and you do not need to be knocked off your horse on the road to Damascus to be an apostle: You simply need to acknowledge that your relationship with the Risen Christ empowers you to do everything that is required in the ministry that God calls you to do, and that may include founding and hosting a small group.
In our small group last Sunday someone expressed a desire for an intimate, quiet space, where on could go to be in the presence of God, in quiet prayer and contemplation. Someone suggested using the Chapel just off the sanctuary for this purpose! All it would take is to light the candles, perhaps put a chair or two in the room, or a prayer cushion on the floor, and voila! Others expressed a desire for something to happen midweek—for various small groups where we can gather for discussion, for study, to learn some new skill, like cooking or baking, and to invite members of the community to join us. All of these things are possible, and I am here to encourage you and to assist you as you carry out the ministry to which you have been called. Jesus spent the majority of his time in leadership development with his band of twelve. The old world way of looking at church leadership is focusing on selecting the right people for the church committee structure. But when we choose community over isolation, we may discover that developing small group leaders is far more critical to our future than filling slots on a committee.
Choosing community over isolation means that we will need to trust each other, pray with each other, work with each other, and above all, listen to the needs of the community itself! And the community, in turn, will respond, because who doesn’t want to be fed, who doesn’t want authentic community, who doesn’t want to feel that they are being heard and that they are loved and cared for? Listen again to the earliest testimony of what life was like in the early church of the apostles:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
So be it. Amen.
- Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.