So let’s see how we’re doing since this is the 3rd week into our sermon series. What time is it church? (It’s not too late!)
That’s right. It’s not too late too eliminate poverty. It’s not too late to eradicate the killer diseases of poverty.
And today, we’re going to see how it’s not too late too rejuvenate the church. Let’s watch this brief video.
To start with, let me just say that I love the church. I grew up in the church. My mom and dad raised four children and every Sunday, they made sure that we went to the Stewartstown United Methodist Church located in the rolling farmland of south central Pennsylvania.
It was because of this church; the pastors, the people, the Sunday School teachers, the youth ministry leaders, the Sunday School classes, that I was able to grow in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Being from a small town of only a couple thousand people, that church really was the hub of social life in our community.
It was in this church that I was baptized, confirmed, and married. This is the church that sent me to church camp where I experienced the presence of God in a way that I had never experienced before. This is the church that gave me hope whenever I was going through difficult times in my life. This is the church that helped me to make a recommitment of my life to Jesus Christ during my college years. And this is the church that helped me to discern a calling into the pastoral ministry.
So as you can see, I’m biased when I talk about the church.
And this is why it pains me to know that the United Methodist Church, the denomination that I love so much, has been declining in membership for the past 40 years. And this is why one of the four areas of focus of our denomination right now is all about rejuvenating the church.
And yet, there is also a lot of hope that God isn’t finished with us, just yet. Think about our history as a denomination.
During the 1800s, which was an incredible century of growth for our new denomination, we grew and grew in part, because we were always on the move, planting new churches wherever the population was forming.
In 1850, 1/3 of the American population was Methodist. One-third of our population! Why that many? Circuit rider preachers! It was because of the circuit riders who were willing to ride on horseback and form new churches in different towns and villages that 40,000 new Methodist congregations were able to be formed.
And here’s how this would work. A circuit rider preacher would come into a town and with the help of some of the town’s people, would get a Methodist class meeting formed. The circuit rider would preach and teach and more and more people would join the new Methodist class. Eventually, the circuit rider would say to those new Methodists that he needed to move on to the next town to begin another Methodist class meeting.
And then he would give them a copy of John Wesley’s sermons and tell them to preach and listen to those sermons to continue to build up their new congregation. Eight weeks later, this same circuit rider would ride back into town to see how they were doing, preach and teach, perform weddings, celebrate the Sacraments, and officiate for any weddings. Before too long, he’d ride off again to the next town and would make a circuit which is why they were known as circuit riders.
This is why the Methodist movement grew so much in the 1800s. These circuit riders were able to form all of these new churches because the townspeople were able to continue on with the ministry while the preacher was on his way again forming new churches.
In addition to all of these new churches, eventually Methodists also established hospitals, soup kitchens, shelters, and schools because they believed that their mission was to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.
But in the 1900s, the growth started to slow down to the point where we have been in decline over the last 40 years. One statistic that really stands out to me is that when the Methodist Church was really growing in its best years, we were establishing an average of one new church every single day. One per day.
In the 1970s, that slipped the whole way down to only 20 new churches per year. Think about that. We went from starting almost 400 new churches a year to only 20 new churches per year on average. Our previous success had become our greatest weakness. We had become satisfied and lost the hunger to continue to reach new generations for Jesus Christ.
Companies and businesses run into this same problem of success and decline as well. It’s called life cycles. Just take a look at the bell diagram on the screen. Look at the left side of the bell curve. Most businesses when they first get started are excited and enthusiastic about going after their mission and purpose as a company. If things go well, this is the growth phase of the company. They are in their birth, infancy, childhood, and adolescent years where vision, leadership, mission, purpose, and core values are held at a very high level by the organization.
As those early years go by and as the people continue to be excited about vision, leadership, mission, purpose, and core values, a company will hit their prime where they are running on all cylinders and the company is very profitable.
But over time, success, while a good thing, can cause a company to become too satisfied and lose their passion and vision which was the reason for them getting started in the first place. It’s here where the organization starts putting more focus on management and rules and less time on vision and innovation.
Eventually, as you can see on the right side of the bell curve, the company is in need of redevelopment and if they miss that opportunity to reclaim their vision and purpose, they end up continuing down the slope away from their prime and eventually they end up going out of business.
The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a book that is written specifically for seven churches that were located in Asia Minor. These are churches that had already hit their prime and they were beginning to lose their vitality and effectiveness.
One of those churches was the church in the city of Ephesus. This is a church that had a proud history with the Apostle Paul who wrote a letter to them bearing their name. This was the church where John, the Gospel writer spent the last years of his life preaching and teaching. And yet, by the time the Book of Revelation was written, this was a church that was on the decline.
And so, in the Book of Revelation passage, this church is told that they have abandoned the love that they had at first.
This is just like the bell curve diagram where a church goes past its prime and is in need of redirection, refocus, redevelopment, and rejuvenation. The Book of Revelation is trying to help the Church of Ephesus understand that this is their opportunity to reclaim their vision, leadership, mission, purpose, and core values. This is their opportunity to return to their first love which is Jesus Christ.
I believe that the United Methodist Church is at one of those critical moments in our history where we can either redevelop and rejuvenate and return to our first love, or we’ll just continue down the slide on the bell curve and lose our effectiveness all together.
But what does it mean to reclaim our first love? It means that we never forget what God has done for us by sending his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. It means that we never forget that with God there is always hope. It means that we never forget that our primary purpose for existence isn’t for ourselves but it is all about sharing the love of Jesus Christ with everyone around us through word and deed.
So what can First United Methodist Church do to be a church that has its best years ahead of us rather than behind us? What does it mean for us to be a church that doesn’t lose sight of our first love which is knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ?
Robert Schnase is a United Methodist Bishop in the Missouri Conference and he’s written the wonderful book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.” It’s a book to help rejuvenate our denomination.
Bishop Schnase claims that there are five core values that every single United Methodist congregation needs to live out for it to be a fruitful and growing congregation.
The first core value is Radical Hospitality.
Let me read something to you and I’ll let you be the judge if this captures where we are today. Here’s the quote and this comes from a famous person. “In a commercial country, a busy country, time becomes precious, and hospitality is not much valued.”
Does that sound like where we are in the 21st century? Well, that quote actually came from Samuel Johnson who was writing in the 18th century! In the 18th century, the industrial revolution took place and all of the sudden, productivity was important and time itself became a precious commodity.
If that was true in the 18th century, think of our own day. It’s gotten to the point where we have relegated hospitality to the restaurant and hotel industry and to other places that rely on hospitality to make money.
Hospitality is at the heart of the bible. Again and again, the scriptures remind us to show hospitality and a genuine welcome to people within and outside our church walls.
I Peter 4:9 says, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Romans 12:13 says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
Radical hospitality is the first core value.
The second core value is passionate worship.
In his excellent book, “What’s So Amazing about Grace,” Philip Yancey shares this powerful line, “It is a terrible thing I found to be grateful and have no one to thank. To be awed and have no one to worship.”
This is why Paul can say in our Colossians reading, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Every time we gather for worship, we are to offer our gratitude and our thanks for what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
After a worship service here a few months ago, one of you came up to me and with tears in your eyes, you said, “The closing hymn caused me to cry as I was singing it, because in my mind, I could see the face of a woman who our church helped this past week and who is caught in the cycle of poverty. My heart just breaks for her.”
This is why worship can be so passionate and meaningful. As we are fully engaged in worship, God speaks to us and often times surprises us with his presence. One person put it like this, “There are some moments during worship where it’s like God enters the room in a way that I had not experienced before.”
Passionate worship is the 2nd key core value to reclaim our first love.
Bishop Schnase then talks about intentional faith development as the 3rd core value. Intentional faith development refers to participating in a bible study group, a Sunday School class, or a share group that can help us support and encourage each other as we move forward in our faith journey.
The Book of Hebrews says to “Do not neglect to meet together as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
And I might add, this is another of the major reasons why the Methodist movement grew so rapidly in those early years. Those new churches began as small groups or classes as they were called by those early Methodists. These small classes offered encouragement and accountability among the group members which led to spiritual growth.
Risk taking mission is the third core value in order for the church to experience rejuvenation.
Risk taking mission reminds us to not play it safe, but to respond to God’s calling to leave our comfort zones and serve Christ in ways we never thought were possible.
One of the churches I served as pastor hosted an evangelism seminar at our church. About forty members from our church attended. It was a seminar to help us take more risks and to share our faith out in the community. After the first day’s session, the seminar leader gave us a homework assignment. He said, “Between now when you leave from here and tomorrow when we reconvene for our seminar, I want each of you to share your faith with someone out in the community in a specific way.”
Well, this just about overwhelmed the forty of us, because quite frankly, we had never really been that intentional in sharing our faith with others. The next day, after we reconvened, the seminar leader asked us to share how it went.
And to everyone’s surprise, including me, this one person who you would least expect to try something like this, immediately jumped to his feet and could hardly contain his enthusiasm. He told our group, “After we left here yesterday afternoon, Betsy and I went out to dinner here in town. And I struck up a conversation with our waiter and to make a long story short, tomorrow, we’re going to pick this guy up at his apartment and bring him to church with us tomorrow.”
It was priceless to see the joy on this man’s face as he told us this story. And that young man who was a waiter, ended up attending our church on a regular basis, all because of this member’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone to be in risk taking mission.
Risk taking mission can take many forms from sharing your faith with a waiter, to serving a meal for those in need, to going on a mission trip. But it involves being willing to step out in faith.
And the fifth core value for a fruitful congregation is extravagant generosity. Just think of how much God offers to us: eternal life, forgiveness of sins, hope for any situation we may be facing, guidance, strength, abundant life, and the list goes on and on.
Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
God’s mercies are endless and we see them every morning. In response to this grace, we are called to be extravagant in our giving to be a blessing to others and to our church.
II Corinthians 9:6 says, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Extravagant generosity is the fifth practice of fruitful congregations.
Radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk taking mission, and extravagant generosity.
I thank God for the many ways that our church is living out these fruitful practices. In preparation for this Sunday, the people who are serving on our Church Council as well as our staff have been praying a prayer for rejuvenation in our church. It’s a prayer that we will be praying each day this year. And it’s a prayer to remind us of this third area of focus. It’s not too late to rejuvenate the church.
You can find this prayer in the bulletin. I invite us to pray this prayer every single day this year. Just think what a difference it will make as we see this prayer become a reality this year here at First Church.
Let’s pray this prayer together.
Dear God, thank you for First United Methodist Church. Strengthen us through the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
I love the church!