This Sunday I preached a sermon called Forgo Fear. I talked about the mystery and power behind the baptism of Christ and our call to go into the world without fear. God has placed a call on each of our lives to live out our baptismal covenant. When we take on the name of Christ, when we are baptized in water and the Spirit, we walk in the grace of what God is doing in and through us. Through the power of the Spirit, we are sent out to love our neighbors, to serve the least of these, to put God first in all things, and to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We are called to be more than self-focused, self-obsessed, and self-interested. We are called to walk as Christ did, love as Christ did, and face struggles as Christ did.
In the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit falls down upon him and the voice of the Lord proclaimed “this is my son, the beloved, in him I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, we are pursued and called, loved and built up. After Jesus’ baptism, he goes out into the wilderness where he is tested. As writer Daniel Benedict states, “the water and the wilderness are never far from each other.” The waters of renewal are never far from the wilderness of trial. The waters that claim us and name us, are never far from the wilderness where we are sent, where we must rely on our faith in God even when things do not seem survivable. The wilderness is where we are chiseled.
The call to the Christian life is a call to discipleship. To be a disciple does not mean living a life without suffering or discomfort or change. A disciple is one who chooses to take on the name of Christ and face the wilderness moments, the valleys and the mountaintops, for the sake of God’s mission in the world. A disciple is one who sets themselves aside for the lives of others, who dedicates their life to devotion and disciplines in the faith, who walks in the way that leads to life. Wesleyan Theology uses the term going on to perfection. Though we are not yet made perfect, we are, through our disciplines, acts of mercy, acts of piety, working towards getting better each and every day. As we grow and develop in our walk with Christ, our spiritual gifts become more defined and we are better able to serve others as God would have us do.
The challenge I see in churches I have served as well as churches I have done consultant work with, is that we have lost track of where we are in our journey. Far too often we are repeating the past and expecting it to work in the present, with a different set of circumstances and a different community of people. God is still active in these churches, still giving a mission to the communities, and still calling the people to active ministry. However, the desire to grow, especially when growth means change, is stagnant at best.
God calls each individual disciple to use the gifts God has given them for the building up of the kingdom. God also calls the community, the Church, to work as the hands and feet of Christ in the world. As we think about how God is calling each of us, let us also consider how God is calling St. Paul’s today. Though the overall mission of the church remains the same, to be the conduit of the Gospel to the world, the ways in which we live out that call shifts as the context shifts. Shawnee as well as the congregation of St. Paul’s, does not look the way it did 10 years ago, let alone 20-30 years ago. How we pray and connect with God should not be the same as when we began our relationship with God. There must be more than feeding ourselves individually and corporately with spiritual formula. At some point, we must learn to feed ourselves and we must begin learning to chew the solid spiritual food. Healthy growth means change. It must happen. It is a natural process of physical and spiritual maturity. It is the same with the church.
Most churches tell me they want to grow. They feel called to be a vibrant church again and see young families grow roots in their congregation. There is nothing wrong with this desire nor this understanding of growth. An unhealthy concept of growth from this perspective is when we become so focused on numbers as a part of our mission that we have lost the very call to discipleship. Many churches focus on making members, or putting people in the seats, or how many came to church for a given service. We cannot escape the need for a logical metric system. However, we must value human relationship and growth in discipleship more than we value the numbers. If we are only focused on a numbers based growth, then we will not sustain that growth. Instead, we will see a high turnover rate. People know when they are wanted merely for a seat warmer or statistic. People also know when they are wanted because they are children of God, because they are our neighbor, and because who they are is worthy. It’s time to turn the prism. People have never been and will never be defined by a number, they are human souls in need of connection. Authentic desire to connect with others is what makes the church a community.
You can be a church of 500 people, but 30 disciples. You can be a church of 30 people with 25 disciples. You can be a church with many members, but also many fractions and internal conflict. You can be a church with many members working together for a shared mission, practicing healthy systems. You can have a high turnover rate or a high retention rate. You can make disciples or your can make agnostics. Your witness can build people up and welcome them in, or your witness can tear people down and shut them out. Ultimately, you can become the church God is calling you to be, made in the image of God for Gods purposes, or you can become an exclusive club made in your own image to serve your needs.
As individuals or as a community, following what God wants isn’t always the favorite option. It catches push back. It means people are going to have to change how they’ve “always done it.” It means putting God’s ways above our own comfort zones. It means trusting God over holding on to our personal control. Growth, discipleship, is a challenging journey. It’s a worthy and necessary journey, best shared with others, but it will recall dying to self. If the local and global church seeks to get back to a day of thriving, we must get back to the mission God has for us and we must carry it out with the least amount of self-interest as possible. We cannot value the past more than we value God’s mission. We cannot value where we were more than we value where we are going. We cannot value politics over people. We cannot value our way over God’s way. We cannot value tradition over the Gospel call, and we cannot abandon our call for the sake of avoiding growing pains. No one ever said being a disciple was easy, they said it was worth it.
Where are we afraid of going? What is God calling us to that we are resisting out of fear of change or the wilderness? In what changes is God taking delight? Where is God calling St. Paul’s to release the past so that it can embrace the future? Where are you still holding on to the past and inhibiting the church from responding to God’s call? Where are you still telling God no and when will you begin to tell God yes?
As disciples and as a community of faith, we must decide to choose God’s ways in all things. God is building us up for where we are going, not for where we’ve been.