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Monday, April 9, 2018

What About Church Brings Me Joy & What Breaks My Heart?

Watch the Lamb
            East Cobb United Methodist Church in Marietta, GA was the first church my wife and I joined as adults.  We were newly married and looking for a church home while attending college.  We attended ECUMC and the choir performed a song for Easter called, "Watch the Lamb".  (You can watch a powerful rendition of the title song, "Watch the Lamb here.) 
            "Watch the Lamb" tells the story of a Jewish man taking his children and a sacrificial lamb to Jerusalem for the annual Passover sacrifice.  He instructs the children to watch the lamb so that it doesn't run away.  The family arrives in the city just as Jesus, the Lamb of God, is being led away to be crucified.  The father is pressed into service by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus' cross (because Jesus is to weakened by the beating they gave him).  Simon of Cyrene (the father and the man Matthew 27:32 names as the man who carried Jesus' cross) is changed forever when he witnesses Jesus, the Lamb of God's, crucifixion.  He ends the song by telling his children again to watch the Lamb, but now meaning the true Lamb, the true sacrifice, Jesus.
            The song touched me deeply as a young adult seeking to follow Christ and we joined East Cobb UMC shortly after Easter.  I'm thankful for East Cobb and how they were a home and a beacon of light for Kelly and I in that critical stage of life.  Ever since, I have tried to watch the Lamb and follow him wherever He leads.
            Jesus died on the cross and rose on the third day.  Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples an important mission to go into all the world to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19).  Then, he gave them the Holy Spirit to empower them to succeed.  And even though those early Christians met stiff opposition, they began to multiply.  The book of Acts tells their story.  Here is a snap shot of that early church. 

Acts 4:32-35
32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

The Church Was Not and Is Not Perfect
            Acts 4:32-35 is an example of the New Testament Church at its best.  Some people are tempted to think the early church was perfect and look back through the lens of nostalgia and think if we could just go back and be like them it would solve all out problems.  This is a na├»ve point of view.  The New Testament Church was far from perfect.  Yes, they were growing exponentially despite persecution.  However, the church was made up of imperfect people and therefore imperfect itself.  There were politics, lies, and deceit.  They often disagreed about doctrinal issues.  They were still figuring out what Jesus meant by all his teachings and how their faith was to be lived out authentically.  One of the Church's most important leaders, Peter, had to be called on the carpet by Paul because Peter was more worried about what some people might think of him than actually doing the right thing (see Galatians 2:11-14).  So the Church never has been and still is not perfect, even though it was established by the perfect Lamb of God. 

A Thought Provoking Question
            One of my church members, DJ Seifert, is enrolled in a course called Leadership UMC.  He is one of only three people from my district chosen to attend this course for people noted for their passion for Jesus and potential to serve as leaders in the Church.  A few weeks ago, they invited the participant's pastors to attend a weekend retreat with the participants.  They asked a question that really got me thinking.  They asked: “What about the Church today brings you joy and what breaks your heart?”   That’s what I want to share with you today.  However, before I can answer that question, we need to consider what the church is.
            When we use the word church, we often mean a place or a building we go to attend religious services.  But that is not the true sense of the word church.  The Church (with a capital C) is the Body of Christ on Earth.  1 Corinthians 12:27 says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”  Jesus is not dead.  He is alive and he ascended to heaven.  But he has not abandoned this world.  His ministry here continues through the believers of his Church.  We are his physical presence here on earth to the world, His body. 
            The Church is Jesus’ chosen instrument to carry on his mission to make disciples.  Jesus did not make an alternate plan.  This is it--the Church.  So, like it or not, the Church (with all it's imperfections) is Jesus' plan to change the world.
            Some say the Church in America is dying.  I don't believe it.  It is true that attendance is declining at church services across North America.  However, the Church will never die.  The Church will always be here until the day Jesus returns in the clouds as promised (Acts 1:11).  Church buildings may close, church services may discontinue (at least as we have known them in our lifetime), but the Church (with a capital C) will never die.  Wherever there are people who truly believe in Jesus Christ and seek to follow Him, they will gather together for prayer, study, fellowship, and shared service (as described in Acts 4:32-35).  And wherever this happens, there is the Church.

What About the Church Brings Me Joy?
            There are many things I enjoy about church.  Sunday worship is my favorite time of the week.  I love feeling the Spirit of God move as we sing the songs of our faith.  However, the thing that brings me the most joy in the Church is seeing people’s lives changed for the better. 
            God changed my life forever for the better.  As a child, my life was not on a good trajectory.  If I had continued on the path I was headed, I would have ended up in a very dark place.  Many of the friends who walked that path with me ended up in that dark place.  Some are not even alive anymore.  But, praise God, Jesus saved me and set my feet on a new path.  As I've followed Him, I have found meaning, peace, and joy.
            And since I am so thankful that Jesus graciously took a  retch like me and turned his life around, I love seeing Him do the same for others.  Sometimes it happens in very dramatic ways--like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable in Luke15:11-32.  More often than not, it happens in more subtle ways.  Sometimes the hardest cases are not those who have made an obvious mess of their lives.  The most challenging turn arounds are for those who think they are already good people who have it all together and do the right thing.  They are more like the self-righteous, unmerciful "good" son in the prodigal story and the Pharisees and religious leaders who crucified Jesus.  But I have had the joy of seeing even some of these lives changed by my Lord and Savior.
            Part of the joy of seeing a person's life changed by Christ includes watching people find their calling.  The Holy Spirit gives each of us a special gift to help serve the Body of Christ.  It is a wonder to behold when a person discovers their gift and start using it.  I love helping people identify their gift and find a place to put it to good use.

What About the Church Breaks My Heart?
            As I said before, the Church is not perfect and so there are also things in the church that disappoint me.  Like many others, I dislike the politics, the petty squabbles, and the ugliness that sometimes happens within church congregations.  However, what really breaks my heart is all the people who are missing out on the joy that can only be found when you're truly engaged in Christ's Church.
            My heart breaks for those who aren't here.  Church attendance is down across our country for many reasons.  Many have stopped coming because they are more focused on the things that disappoint them about the Church than the Lamb who makes the Church holy.  Others are too interested in the things of this world which choke the desire for the authentic spiritual connection Christ's offers through His Church.  Some grew up have never having come to church or establish the spiritual habit of gathering together with the Body of Christ; they don't even know what they're missing!  Others, who once came, have fallen away.  And then there are also those who come to church, but who are not really engaged.  They attend church but aren't really present; and these too are missing out on the fullness of what Christ has to offer and it breaks my heart.
            My heart is especially broken today for the many young adults who are not in regular worship at my church (or others).  We have at least 25 young adults (aged between 18-30) associated with my congregation who do not regularly attend my church.  This is the age when I experienced so much spiritual growth and it troubles me that others in that age range are absent when so many important, "course of your life" decisions are being made.  Consider some of the decisions you make in your young adult years:  what (if any) college to attend, whether to stay in college or drop out, who to marry, having kids, choosing a career, deciding what you really believe about God, where to live, who to live with...  These are big decisions and people will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.  And it breaks my heart that these years are also the years most young adults drift away from the Church when they need the Church's spiritual guidance the most.

Go to Church and Invite Someone to Join You
            The Church is not perfect, but it is the Body of Christ.  It is where we come to watch the Lamb of God.  It is where we see people’s lives changed forever for the better as they grow closer to Christ.  It is where we are changed forever—if we will let Jesus’ love into our heart.  I would like to invite everyone reading this to come to Church.  If you live near Dalton, GA, I'd love for you to come to my church--Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church.  If not here, then find a church where you are.  There are many great options available.  Find one near you.  If you think traditional "church" like we've been doing it in America isn't for you, think outside the box and find some way to plug in to Church with a capital C.  Get together with a group of Christian believers to pray, study the Bible, fellowship, and serve together.  It is absolutely critical.
            And if you are already attending and active in church, praise God!  I commend you!  Keep at it.  Now, invite someone to join you.  This is absolutely critical too.  It's not an option for believers.  It's what Jesus commanded us to do.  It is the purpose of the Church.  Jesus said, "Go make disciples..." (Matthew 28:19-20)  So invite someone to church!  And then another and another and another...

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