What makes for a great church? In part, the answer to this question depends upon how one defines, “great.” For some, “great” means “large.” For others, “great” equals “growing.” Yet others would include references to the music, socials, friendliness, excellent preaching, programs, facilities, and a host of other things in their definition of “great.” However, none of these things—alone or in combination—characterize a “great” church. Now don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong, per se, with any of these things, but they do not (individually or collectively) constitute a “great” church.
As I have reflected on that question especially in light of where we are as a church here in the midst of our annual stewardship and our capital campaigns I have come to believe that there are two primary things that are necessary to make a great church. I want to just give them to you right up front. They are:
- A “great” church is totally focused on their mission.
- A “great” church is focused on people.
If you take these two ideas home with you and they really begin to sink into your heart this affects almost every endeavor in life. Being clear and focused on your mission. And being focused on people.
Let’s talk first about the church being clear and focused on its mission. I mean that’s really what today is all about; that’s what these beautiful banners represent - our missions and our ministries.
So when you think about a mission and being clear and focused on your mission – a mission answers the simple question, “Why are we here?” So whether it’s in the corporate world, on a battlefield, or in a Sunday school class, or in a youth group, or a church, the mission answers the question, “Why are we here?”
And a really great mission is pretty short. It’s the kind of thing that compels you to act. It moves you. It motivates you.
And so when I think about this and the importance of a good mission statement – if you’re not clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing then you’re probably going to do all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit into your mission. And this is true in your work, in your business, in your marriage, in your parenting and really in every aspect of life.
And for us as Christians our mission starts with Jesus because the church calls Jesus its Lord. The word Lord means master, sovereign, ruler, or king and so we look at Jesus in corporate terms as our CEO and he’s casting the vision for us and he’s setting the mission for us. And so we better pay attention to what He has to say. And it becomes important for the church as well as individual Christians to be clear, “What is Jesus’ mission for our lives?”
Now when I think about the importance of mission in the corporate world I think of two things. I think about what I read recently about the Hallmark Company, you know the people that make all of the greeting cards and the sappy commercial and movies. Did you know the mission statement of Hallmark Cards consists of three words? The mission of Hallmark cards is “to enrich lives.” How interesting. It isn’t to sell cards, it is to enrich lives. And they believe that if they do that well then everything else works. This is why they exist – to enrich people’s lives.
Or what about another commercial that I hear on the radio station that I listen to over and over again. Kaiser-Permanente. You can probably quote the slogan with me that they end all of their advertising with: “we want you to live long and THRIVE.” That’s a great word for a health care company! That is why they exist to help their customers live long and thrive.
And for these two companies it captures this sense of mission and vision. We want to enrich people’s lives. We want you to live long and thrive. And those are a greeting card and a health care company.
But you know you’re the church. Paul says, “You are the body of Christ. You are the physical incarnation of Christ in the world.” And He came to heal a broken world. He’s God’s answer to the brokenness in this world; in our own lives and in the world as a whole. So when we see things that are messed up in the world, God doesn’t send angels to fix it, He sends the church. And the church is the body of Christ. And Jesus came and He spent His life healing the sick and reaching out to the lost and bringing the strays back to God. And so we’re supposed to continue to do those things. And that mission ought to compel us and move us.
And we’ve got to be clear about that. You know we don’t come to church simply to get something out of it. Of course that’s a part of it. But in the end once you become a Christian and you’re serious about following Jesus it’s not just about what you’re going to get out of it, but it’s about what are going to do in response to the call of Jesus, because He doesn’t call you to simply get fat and comfortable as a Christian. He calls you to actually go do His work to heal the world. That’s what He’s asking us to do. And that’s what it means to be the church.
And when we think what it is that Jesus asked His disciples to do you know you could read all four gospels and you could find a ton of verses that might capture what a mission statement might look like, or what our mission as Christians might look like. But I want to offer you three verses and these three verses give you a high level look at what Jesus is expecting of us if we are His disciples.
The first we might call the Great Invitation: As Jesus is inviting people to follow Him He first goes to the seashore in Galilee and He sees these fishermen and this is the invitation: “Come and follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” That’s pretty amazing. He doesn’t say, “Accept me as you Lord and Savior,” right then. That comes later. He just simply says, “Follow me! Follow Me and I’m going to make you fish for people.” And so if we took this as our mission statement it might say: “The mission of a Christian is to follow Jesus and to draw others to Him.”
And so that’s pretty easy for me to think about. Every morning when I wake up I’m a follower of Jesus and I say once more, “Jesus I want to follow you today. And use me to draw other people to You.” And we do that by our actions and by our words. So this is the mission. This is what those disciples were going to do. They’d give their lives for it in the end.
Now Jesus also gave us the two Great Commandments, and many of you know them by heart. So Jesus was asked, “What is it that God is really looking for from us,” and he said this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
So this is pretty easy for us to remember. And so we wake up and we say, “Lord, I want to be on your mission. You’re the captain of my ship. You’re the Lord of my life. I’ve given everything I have to you. You’re the Master. And so I’m going to ask you please help me to do this; to love you with everything that’s within me, and to love my neighbor as I love myself.” Not too difficult to remember. Every day in every circumstance, in every situation somehow we’re trying to live this out.
John Wesley, when he was 85, John Wesley in one of his sermons distilled this down in this way. He said the aim of every human being is, “to know, love, and serve his great Creator.”
I know you know all of this. I’m simply reminding you of something that’s really important because sometimes we forget. I find as a Christian I struggle from spiritual amnesia. Sometimes I forget that Jesus is Lord. And sometimes I begin to think that Randy is lord. And then my mission in life is whatever’s going to make me feel good or happy. And I forget that I have a primary mission to my Lord which is to know Him and to love Him and to serve Him and to make Him known to other people; to love my neighbor as I love myself.
Then there’s not only the Great Invitation and the Great Commandment but there’s the Great Commission. And this occurs at the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And again it is a passage that most of us know by heart.
In Matthew 28 Jesus turns to His disciples and these are His final words to them. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Luke mentions these final words of Jesus slightly differently. In Acts 1 we hear Jesus say: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We are sent out to share this good news with a world that is full of bad news; to be His witnesses and to make disciples.
And so we have these three. We have the invitation to follow Jesus every day and go fish for people. And we have these commandments to love God and to love our neighbor. And then finally we’re sent out by Jesus to go out and to make disciples.
We’ve articulated our mission here at Sterling UMC in these words, “Building a Church for Life.” And that must drive everything that we do. It drives how we finance and what we do with our budget and how we look at buildings and starting new ministries; everything is geared toward Building a Church for Life.
A church for life is a place where people of every age, race and station can connect with one another and care for one another, serve God together, worship together, minister to one another. To build a place where people who do not know the Lord can come and find out that there’s a God who loves them, where they can find life, new life. Where all of us together are building a life in which we are all knowing, loving and serving God. That captures our mission as Christians individually every day and as a church, the body of Christ.
So being clear about your mission is really important because it drives everything else that you do. And if you’re a business, or a Sunday school class or your Bible study group is clear about why they exist; if you’re clear when you wake up in the morning it changes how you look at everything else that you do.
Now that leads to the second thing that I believe makes a church “great.” A great church is focused on people. And you know when it comes down to it any effective business, any company; great leaders are going to be focused on people. It’s all about connecting and impacting people. If we’re going to make disciples, if we’re going to fish for people then you’ve got to care about people.
And you know this and maybe you’ve heard it said before, but I really believe its true, that, “people don’t really care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Right?
My experience is that very few people become followers of Jesus because of our superior theological arguments. Most people become followers of Jesus because somebody cared about them who was a Christian that they respected and they demonstrated a love and care for that person. And that caused them to say, “Well maybe I’m interested in what else you have to say.” Now we should have great theological arguments. We should be able to make a case for our faith. But the first thing we have to do is make a case for our faith by our actions, by the way we treat people and the way we love people.
So this is part of that loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus said it this way. He said, “You are to let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to your Father who’s in heaven.”
It’s fascinating. It starts, Jesus’ evangelism plan starts with the good works that we show, the acts of love and kindness toward other people that draw people to us.
And maybe this is why the church is shrinking and losing its influence in our society. Maybe the examples of Christians aren’t always kind and generous in spirit and caring and humble. Instead sometimes they act like know-it-alls and they judge other people, and they talk down their nose at other people. And people are repelled by that. And the only way that changes when there are real Christians that are willing to be identified as Christians who actually demonstrate what Jesus talked about, which is love and mercy and kindness.
Jesus said it this way in the gospel of John. He said, “By this the world will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.”
Let me ask you a question. Who are the people you have influence over or with? What are the gifts you have you could use to bless other people, to let your light shine before people. It makes a difference. It makes an impact. It might be something simple like making a meal. Or mowing someone’s lawn. Or some other way of finding a chance to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to bear witness to your faith. This is what you’re called to. It’s not optional. It’s the call of our Lord to change the world one person at a time, by acts of kindness, mercy, and being bold enough to share our faith.
Here’s the thing. I love that quote from St. Francis of Assisi. You’ve heard it before: “Preach the gospel at all times, only when you have to use words.” I think that’s right. You should be preaching the gospel by your actions all the time. But there comes a point where you need to be able to use words.
And you don’t need to be able to explain everything. It might be as simple as saying, “I’d love to have you come to church with me next Sunday. I’ll take you out to dinner afterwards.” Or it may be simply saying, “I just want you to know, I go to SUMC and I’m praying for you this week. I know you’re going through a tough time. I just want you to know I’m praying for you.”
You don’t have to have a sermon. You live the sermon, but a very simple invitation that’s not pushy or threatening that says, “Here’s the difference Jesus has made in my life.” Or simply, “Come to church with me.”
So I’d ask you have you been living out the Great Commission? Are you filling your mission?
Now this idea of it all being about people explains why what we do around here is important. Every time you volunteer to teach a Sunday school class, you impact the life of a child. When you come to rehearsal and sing here in the choir you help make music that lifts our spirits and touch the heart of a person sitting in these pews, helping them connect with God. When you serve as an usher or a greeter you are on the front lines of making this place feel warm and welcoming and inviting impacting the life of someone who may be new here. When you back a backpack or hand out food at Grace Ministries you impact the life of a person who is hungry and in need. Every time you make a pledge or contribute your financial resources you impact the life of a person.
That’s what ministry is; it is making a difference and impact the life of another person with the grace and love of Jesus. The things that you do, do you realize the impact that it makes on people? All of the numbers you heard reported in the ministry processional, those numbers are not significant for numbers sake. They are significant because every number represent a person whose life is touched and impacted by the ministry of this church. And it makes a difference. Why? Because it’s all about people; connecting with people. And this is true in every ministry area in our church here but it’s also true in your job as well.
I learned that when I was selling furniture at Sears in Lexington, KY while I was in seminary. And I worked with a woman named Edna. And there were people who wouldn’t let me wait on them. It would be Wednesday her day off and I’d be out there on the floor trying to sell a sofa, trying to put myself through seminary. And we worked on commission and these people would come in and say, “Is Edna here?” “No she’s not here but I’ll wait on you. I’m here!” On no I’ll come back tomorrow when Edna’s here.” “No! I’m broke! Please! Let me wait on you!”
And finally one day I asked Edna, “Why is it that these people will come back the next day for you to wait on them and not let me wait on them?”
And she said, “Well for 30 years I’ve been selling furniture here and every time I sell a piece of furniture I go in the back room and I write a personal handwritten note to thank them for letting me wait on them. And after 30 years of writing personal handwritten notes to people they’re not going to let anybody else wait on them but me.”
Just about everything we do around here is similar. It is a personal statement to people that we care. You matter. You are important. And so many of you do the little things that make that possible.
But on those times where that doesn’t happen, the people miss that. Which is why it’s important. It might be just a little thing but it’s important. It matters.
I was thinking about the role we play in caring for each other. You know we lose people every year here at SUMC who join the church. And then they feel like – maybe they volunteered for something and nobody ever called them back. And that’s probably happened to every one of us at some point in the church. And I’ve sometimes failed to call people back. Because we get hundreds of phone calls around here all the time – there’s no excuse it just happens sometimes.
But here’s the thing. If you’re heading up a ministry and you don’t make sure everybody gets a call back then for that person that may be the last straw for them and they’re not back at the church again because they feel that the church doesn’t care and they volunteered and they never got a call back.
You see all these little things matter in what we do here at SUMC, because it’s all about people and we’re about making disciples. And you know when people are new and they’re not really committed to Christ yet, the failure to get a phone call back may be the one thing that turns them back away.
But it also has to do with how we care for people when they’re hurting. You know if you belong to our church you can go to our website and read and listen to the sermon online. The thing you don’t get when you’re online is people. And so to be the church is to be the body of Christ. We care for each other.
And so I was thinking about that this week. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen you do this. Someone has a crisis in their life; a difficult diagnosis, a loss of a job, the death of a loved one and this congregation rallies around and surrounds them with love and care.
You know what? That takes a determination to fulfill a mission. Because it’s easier to say, “Well, somebody else will take care of it. Somebody else will do it.” But instead there’s a part of you that says, “I better do that because Jesus is asking me to be His hands and feet and voice to this person so I can come alongside and help this person. Why? Because Jesus asks. Why? Because you love your neighbor as yourself. Why? Because in this the world will know that you are my disciples. Why? Because someday you’re going to be the person who’s going to need someone to come alongside you and help you. And what you find is there are a lot more people to come alongside you when you’ve done that for somebody else. Because you’ve modeled it for other people. That’s the impact of ministry!
I just want to ask you, do you get this? Are you investing in other people, are you pouring into other people’s lives? Are you loving people? Are you doing the things that are challenging in order to care for them when they need it? Because it’s easy to say, “Well, I’ll pray for you.” But, “I’ll pray for you” is not enough a lot of times. Right? Because God’s answer to our prayers is people. God doesn’t miraculously send angels very often in answer to prayers. You are the angels that He sends. But that means you’ve got to listen and pay attention to your Master when He’s calling you to show up at somebody’s door, or at the hospital, or wherever it is needed.
Sometimes this means doing what is difficult, what is inconvenient, the stuff you don’t want to do but you do it anyway. Why? Because it makes a difference. It has an impact!
What kind of impact does our church have on the lives of people? Take a look at this:
(Play Cardboard Testimony Video):
Are you still the kind of people who would do whatever it takes to welcome and love and minister to people? Or are you just a church that wants things convenient and easy? Because if that’s what we’re going to be then we have no future; and we shouldn’t. But if we are the kind of people who say, “We’ll do whatever it takes, whatever He asks because He’s my Master and Lord and I’m on His mission.” And if we are willing to do the hard things; to sacrifice and give, to offer ourselves to love people and to let people see His light shine through us; then we are truly becoming a great church; then we are on the road to building a church for life.
Sermon Topics: Church Growth