Today we have a special service to celebrate National Back To Church Sunday 2013. To begin today’s service, I’d like to play a short video titled, “What Is Church?”
Like the video said…Welcome to Church! Some of us are back from summer vacations, some of us are back just to be back, and some are here today just because we’re giving Church another try. Regardless of why you’re here, I’d like to welcome you, and thank you for taking the time to join us this morning.
We are all on a beautiful journey into a relationship with God, the Source of All Being. Especially during this special event, we welcome those who are just beginning their journey and giving thought to what Church might mean to you.
And, we welcome back those who, for whatever reason, might have taken a break from Church; but who continue on your journey none the less. As with all journeys, our spiritual journey begins with the first step.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
~Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One reason we’re celebrating Back to Church Sunday 2013 is because a lot of us have chosen to take a break from church — some for a few weeks, some for a season, and some have pretty much given up on the church altogether. Studies are telling us that young people are leaving the church in droves. In fact, according to Barna Research, 70% of church-going high school students will leave the church when they graduate, and only a small percentage will ever return.
Why are so many leaving? Honestly, for a lot of reasons. You can probably fill in the blanks. Some leave simply because they’ve made a change in their life and never really got back to it. Some left because they’ve seen too much hypocrisy, some because they felt judged, some because they were bored, and some because they felt like they’ve not been allowed to think and ask difficult questions. Mostly, people leave the church because they don’t see what difference it really makes.
So that’s the question for this morning…“What difference does it make?” If I were to ask you that question, the answers would probably be all over the map? If we’re being honest, over the course of history, often in the name of Jesus, the church has done a lot of good – and, to be sure, it’s done a lot of bad.
But what about Jesus? He’s certainly made a difference, hasn’t He? This morning, I want to ask you three questions. How we answer these three questions can not only transform our perspective on why we’re all here this morning, but also give us hope for the sort of church we can become and the kind of life we can live.
What difference did Jesus make in history?
Without much argument, believers and non-believers alike would agree that no one has had a greater impact on history than Jesus Christ. This man, who spent the first 30 years of His life in relative obscurity would leave a greater mark on history than any man before or after Him. Now, 2,000 years later, in spite of all the attempts to silence His message, more books have been written, more pieces of art have been created, and more songs have been sung about Jesus than anyone else in history. This man, a carpenter’s son from humble beginnings, who never traveled more than a few hundred miles from the town He was born in, has impacted billions of people in every corner of the world.
Napoleon said, “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison.” Napoleon went on to say that all great empires had been built on force – except for the Kingdom of God, which was built on love. And ultimately, it would be the only kingdom to last.
Though he never met Jesus, let’s take a look at what the Apostle Paul said about the influence of Jesus. In Ephesians 1:21-23 we read, “Now He is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made Him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is His body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.”
Before we go on, let’s talk briefly about the word “church.” We speak of coming “to church.” In that sense we use the word “church” to mean the physical meeting place. But that’s not how Paul is using the word “church.” Remember, at the time, there were no “churches” as we think of them today. There were no grand buildings with tall steeples, no pews, no stained glass windows. Yes, the original Christians were Jews, who met in synagogues. But, when the Christians were kicked out of the synagogues, there were no great buildings in which to gather and worship. The church was literally the people. And, when we examine Jesus’ messages and writings such as Paul’s, that’s what we have to remember. It’s not about buildings large or small, denominations, dogma, rules, and regulations – it’s about the people.
Getting back to Jesus and His place in history, John Knox said it well when he said, “No one else holds or has held the place in the heart of the world as Jesus holds. Other gods have been devoutly worshiped; no other man has been so devoutly loved.”
It’s not as though Christianity has had an easy run. For centuries, indeed millennia, emperors and rulers and societies have tried to silence the church, destroy the word of God, and minimize the impact of Jesus. Ancient Rome made it illegal to be a Christian. In many parts of the world, at various times in history, it was a crime not to be the “right kind” of Christian. Bibles and books have been burned, people imprisoned, tortured, and killed, church buildings bombed and set on fire, all in an effort to silence His message. It has never worked.
Even people who don’t identify themselves as “Christian” live by Christ’s principles. A famous Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, famously said, “Even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in the inmost being still follow the Christian ideal.” Even the great writer and professed atheist H.G. Wells admitted the impact of Jesus when he said, “I am a historian. I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is the dominant figure in history.”
Think about this for a moment. Socrates and Aristotle taught for 40 years each, Plato taught for 50 years, and Jesus taught for only three years. How many of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato’s teachings come to mind. How many of their teachings are talked about, debated, taught, and lived out in virtually every part of the world? And yet the influence of Jesus’ short three years has been and continues to be, without question, more influential than the combined 130 years of three men who are arguably the greatest philosophers of all time. The difference Jesus made was much more than just philosophical.
The difference Jesus made in history can be seen in the way He transformed nearly everything and everyone around Him — young and old, men and women, black and white. During His three years of public ministry, Jesus humbly and without fanfare or concern for personal glory, went about healing the sick, caring for the poor and loving the loveless. Much of what He said and did, we pretty much expect today; but in Jesus’ day, it was pretty culture-shaking. He befriended those who, in the Jewish culture, would be seen as unclean or unworthy. He interacted with undesirables such as the “half-breed, heathen” Samaritans. He broke Sabbath law to heal people and to feed the hungry – because people were more important than “the Law.” He didn’t care about a person’s past, what color they were, whether they were considered “good Jews,” etc. He simply cared about people – all people.
Who didn’t Jesus have much regard for? He had great disdain for those who used religion as a weapon of control, and as a means to personal wealth and power. Jesus didn’t care much for “religion” – He cared more about having a relationship with God.
Jesus was all about the people – regardless of “who they were.” In Luke 4:18 & 19 Jesus echoed the words of Isaiah when He said, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for He has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”
Think of the culture in which Jesus lived. Did you know the average age of a child in Jesus’ day was only 8 years old? Children who were sick or illegitimate were often just cast aside and left to die. Jesus taught his followers by His words and actions that all children were precious to Him. This was big news back then. He healed children, gathered them to Himself, and even said that “unless you come to me like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The early churches took Jesus’ command seriously; and began a movement to value and take care of the “least of these.”
In fact, by the Middle Ages, churches had developed such a reputation for caring for children that it became a common practice for people who couldn’t take care of their own children to leave them on the front steps of a local church. The first orphanages were founded by the Orthodox Church in the 1st century. The largest orphanage in the United States was founded in 1740 and followed the model the Catholic Church had used for over 1000 years!
In addition to children, Jesus also set the example for human rights for women as well as people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. From the Woman at the Well to the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus broke societal and cultural barriers, and began a revolution of love and freedom that extends right up to today. Jesus’ impact on human rights was only just the beginning. His mark on medicine, education and art can’t be ignored, either.
Did you know that during the Council of Nicaea in 325, it was determined that wherever a church was built, a hospital for the poor should also be built? This is the same meeting of the early church leaders that expressed the importance of the nature of Jesus, established the date of Easter, and created the first Biblical canon. From the beginning, the church realized that part of Jesus’ very nature was to care for the sick and the poor. Up until this time, hospitals, such as they were, were reserved primarily for the rich. But Jesus changed that.
Collectively, the church is the largest provider of health care in the world? That’s how it should be. Jesus, known as the Great Physician, set the example by caring for people’s physical needs and then caring for their spiritual needs. In Luke 9:11 the Bible says… “But the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.” Remember, the sick were considered impure, unclean. It was a violation of Jewish law to touch the unclean. Jesus was the first to break those barriers. How many millions of people have been treated, cared for and cured because of the advancements in medicine? We can thank Jesus for much of that.
Of course, the impact of Christianity was echoed in the very formation of America. Though they worshipped differently, many of the early fathers of this country were deeply devout and wanted to form a country that reflected Jesus ideals.
At the moment of George Washington’s inauguration, he knelt and kissed the Bible and then, after the inauguration, he led the members of the House of Representatives to a local church for a two-hour worship service.
Most people know that the very first book ever printed was a Bible. This began a massive wave of education for the masses that up until that time had been unheard of. The vast majority of all education for the first 200 years of American history was Christian, including most of the first 100 universities formed —including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and William & Mary. These schools were all originally founded so that young people could seek to love God with all of their heart, soul and mind.
Jesus’ impact can be clearly seen simply by walking through the streets of the great cities of Europe or the great museums of the world. From soaring cathedrals built to the glory of God, to works of art set behind bulletproof glass, painters, architects and sculptors throughout history have told God’s story. Many of the great composers, from Bach to Vivaldi, were impacted by Jesus’ life. Even movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Braveheart, and many, many others use metaphors and symbols of Christianity.
In human rights, medicine, education, art and even politics, Jesus’ impact can be clearly seen and felt in history. Were there times when “the church” got it wrong? Yes! But that doesn’t negate the positive impact the church has had. But, what about today? Some say the impact of the church has slipped recently. That might be true in some places. But what is being done around the world in the name of Jesus’ is as powerful today as it ever was. And that leads us to the second question:
What difference can Jesus make today?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus stood before His disciples and gave what has become known as the Great Commission. He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” When He said that, personally, I don’t think He was just saying, “Go tell people about Me.” For three years, His followers had watched Him heal the sick, embrace the hurting, clothe the naked, feed the poor and love the unlovable. Essentially, what Jesus was saying in Matthew 28:19 was, “You’ve watched me…now it’s your turn. Now, you are my hands and feet.” Our hands are to become His hands, our feet become His feet, our actions become his actions and our words become His words. And that’s what following Jesus is really all about.
And, all too often, that’s what is forgotten about Jesus’ message. Unfortunately, many people get so caught up in “telling” others about Jesus that they forget this essential part of His message. When the church stops being like Jesus and gets too caught up in the business of church that we begin to lose our way. And I think that’s when people begin to walk away. On the other hand, when we realize that we have the incredible privilege of announcing Jesus’ Kingdom, that’s different. I’ve spoken about this before…we must stop “telling” people about Jesus and start “showing” people Jesus. We must live His message, not simply talk about it. When we can do that, when we can turn our focus from ourselves and to Jesus and His mission on earth, things get exciting. And people will say, “Oh, that’s what being Christian is all about? Sign me up!” – they’ll want to be a part of it.
Let me give you a few examples of people who, without getting caught up in the “religion,” have lived Jesus’ message and made an impact in today’s world.
In 1999, Matthew Barnett moved to the famous Skid Row area of Los Angeles, determined to be part of God’s plan to make a difference to the “least of these” in the City of Angels. He began with 39 people in his inner-city congregation; most of them drug addicts and prostitutes, and today nearly 40,000 people are fed, clothed, and ministered to in the name of Jesus. Not only that, but he led a sort of revolution as hundreds of other churches have launched Dream Centers in their cities.
Scott Harrison, is a Christ-follower who wasn’t exactly excited about what was happening in church. He was working as a nightclub promoter in Chicago when he decided to take time to volunteer for a non-profit. While spending time as a photojournalist in Africa, he learned that 80 percent of the world’s diseases could be traced back to bad water. Determined to do something about it, Scott did what he knew best and threw a party when he got home. He charged $20 per person, and 700 people showed up. He used the money to dig three wells in Uganda. Those three wells have turned into more than 3,000, and now Charity Water has raised $95 million for clean water projects all over the world.
Let me tell you one more story. In 2008, Christine Caine was tired of hearing about young girls trapped in slavery, and so she started a movement to abolish injustice in the 21st century through a comprehensive system of preventative measures, victim protection, prosecution of violators, and strategic partnerships. Today, the A21 Campaign is bringing hope and help to thousands of women all over the world. There are other amazing organizations and people are taking up the charge to be the Church Jesus desires. World Vision, Compassion International and others bring hope to millions of children through their advocacy programs. Organizations such as the YMCA, Alcoholics Anonymous, and, here locally, the Gospel Rescue Mission which provides food and shelter to hundreds of men, women, and children each year were all founded on the principles of Jesus’ love to others.
There’s a bit of a misconception that the Church is shrinking. In fact, the opposite is the case. Around the world, the church is exploding. According to a recent study, by the year 2050, nearly every continent will grow by hundreds of millions of Christians. In fact, today there are over 300,000 Christian churches in America and nearly 6 million churches worldwide. That’s a lot of impact. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” For centuries, kings and kingdoms have tried to thwart the growth of the church and to silence the Jesus’ message, but the church has continued to grow and thrive.
Do Jesus and His church make a difference today? Without a doubt. It’s easy to focus inward and forget God’s call on us as His church, but today I just wanted to remind us all that we are part of a much bigger movement. And as often happens when good things are happening, people try to take the credit and build their own empires. That’s not a new thing.
It can be argued that history has always tried to contain Jesus. The Romans built an empire around Him, the Europeans built a culture around Him and Americans have built a business around Him. But He cannot be contained.
Much as many would try, He cannot be reduced to a formula or set of rules or a campy song. Jesus is more than the most influential figure in all of history. There is simply no way to contain Him.
Here, today, we are part of revolution 2,000 years in the making, a revolution of love and hope and peace.
So, we see that Jesus has made a remarkable difference in history, and we see that many of Jesus’ followers are making a difference in the world today. But here’s the nagging question still left:
“What difference can Jesus make in my life … right now?”
Again, we can all see what sort of difference Jesus and the church have made in history and the difference that Jesus is making in the world today. But what does that mean to us, right here, right now, in our everyday lives? Here’s the secret – the larger impact of the church is only what it is because of the transformational power of Jesus’ in the lives of individual people — people just like you and me. It’s not the church – it’s the people!
I don’t know how you came in here this morning. Some of you probably came in and everything is going pretty good. That’s awesome, and we love that. But there are probably some of us here this morning that need Jesus to do something in our lives. There are probably a lot of us here today that need God to make a difference in a very real, very personal way. Please know that Jesus sees you today right where you are, exactly how you are.
Maybe you’re here this morning and you’ve never made a decision to follow Jesus, and you’re wondering if He can really make a difference in your life. Or maybe you’re here at church but there‘s someone else, someone you deeply love, that you wish were here with you, and you’ve almost given up hope, and you’re really wondering if God can make a difference in that person’s life.
Maybe you’re here for the first time — or for the first time in a long time — and you’re just sort of holding on, wondering if you’re going to be hurt or disillusioned by church or church people like in the past. Maybe you’re wondering if things can be different in church this time around.
Maybe you’re here this morning and you feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Perhaps you did someone a favor by showing up, but you don’t think that this “Christian” thing is for you. Or, maybe you feel like your past is just too complicated and too messy for Jesus to fix.
I don’t know how you came in here this morning, and it doesn’t matter because I do know this — Jesus is here and He’s absolutely able to make a difference in our lives today.
The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!”
Think about that. Jesus wants to take us, just as we are, and do the sort of thing in us that no one else can do. He wants to work in our lives to make things right. No matter what you’re going through today, the same power of God that has transformed history can transform your life – and that’s pretty amazing.
So, let me ask you a few questions…
- How many of you believe Jesus has done amazing things in history?
- How many of you believe the teachings and message, indeed, the Spirit of Jesus is still making a difference in people and in places around the world?
- And finally, how many of you believe Jesus can make a difference in our lives, here, now, this morning?
Awesome! We are all in the right and perfect place at the right and perfect time. I invite you to continue your journey, strengthening and deepening your relationship with God. And I hope the love, teachings, and message of Jesus is an instrumental part of your journey.
In a moment, we’re going to take some time in prayer. First, though, I’d like to show you two short videos. The first speaks to some of the reasons why people don’t come to church. But, it also speaks to the ideals to which we should strive, and to the kind of church I hope we are – supportive, open, affirming, accepting, and loving. The second is about inviting someone to join us. Inviting folks to join us is important – more important to me is the subtle message. (Watch the Videos: Reasons Invite A Friend)
Let’s start with that last video – the Invite. Like I said, inviting others to join us is an important message. The subtle, and to me, the more important message is about preconceived notions. How many thought, at first, the “Christian” speaking was the clean-cut, studious fellow trying to figure out how he would invite this scruffy guy with a mohawk to “his church?” I think most of us probably thought that. And that, my friends, is why its message is so important. As a church, we must be cautious of forming those kinds of preconceived ideas about who would and would not be interested…even who and who would not “fit in.” And that brings me to the first video titled “Reasons.”
How many people feel they have to “get their lives together” before they would be welcome. It’s up to us to be a community that helps people get their lives together – to have new beginnings.
Are churches filled with imperfect people? Yes…and there’s always room for one more. We’re not perfect. We should be afraid to let people know that, and that even if they’re “imperfect,” they are welcome.
Do some churches over-emphasize money…the “business” of the church? Sure. Is money important? Yes – without it the “business” side of the church can’t survive. But that can’t be our primary message. But it’s got to be about more than that – people have to come first.
You know, I’ve actually had people ask me if we have a dress code. My response is pretty much the same as in the video – yes, you have to wear clothes…Come as you are…we don’t care what you wear, or if you have tattoos, or a Mohawk, or how many piercings you have, we care about what’s in your heart.
Are some people nervous? Sure. I hope that we make people feel at home.
If someone says, “I’m not sure I believe what you believe,” we should remember we don’t necessarily all believe the same either. That’s okay, this is the place to work through our questions and our doubts.
And we need to help others know that we don’t care about their past. We all have a past; Jesus teaches forgiveness – none of us are perfect, and we welcome everyone regardless of their past. Regardless of their background or faith-history, they’re welcome here.
We believe it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship. That was one of Jesus’ main points when he broke with many of the Jewish traditions and customs. We’re all on a wonderful journey into a deeper, stronger relationship with God; and we’d like to be a part of that journey with you. We’re not perfect. You may just be embarking this journey. We don’t care about what you wear or how you look or about your past. We are dedicated to being a place of Love, Peace, Healing, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Acceptance. It is my hope that we are living examples of that dedication, and of the wonderful and powerful message we find through Jesus.
To those who are regular attendees – thank you for your continued support and dedication.
To those who are returning after an absence – welcome back!
And finally, to those who are joining us for the first time I’d like to say welcome, and thank you for joining us this morning to celebrate Back To Church Sunday 2013 with us. Oftentimes in church we tend to feel like we need to believe in Jesus, then we need to become the person that God intended us to be, and then, maybe, just maybe, we can belong to God’s family. Perhaps some of your previous experiences with church have left you feeling that way. Well, I’ve got good news. That’s not the way it works at all. Today, here, now, I want you to know that no matter where you are on your faith journey, you belong to the family of God. And, we want you to feel that way here, in this church, too.
- Ephesians 1:21-23
- Luke 4:18 & 19
- Luke 9:11
- Matthew 28:19
- Matthew 16:18
- 2 Corinthians 5:17
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