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Showing posts with label Church Attendance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Church Attendance. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

What the World Needs Now is Love (Love is Patient)

Introduction
One of the most cherished words in our world today is also one of the most misunderstood and misused words.  Love.  In 1965, Jackie DeShannon sang, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  It's the only thing that there's just too little of.”  

I do believe love would solve the majority of our problems if we could learn to love one another.  This is the biblical message of the Christian faith.  However, the love that will change our world for the better must be the true kind of love that's defined by the Bible, the kind of love Jesus demonstrated as the core of God’s character.  In this message series over the next few weeks, I want to study the elements of the true, biblical love God has for us and that we are called to have for God and each other. 

True love, the kind of love God offers and that the world needs now, is clearly defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  You may be familiar with this famous passage.  It is often read at weddings to teach newlyweds how to love one another.  However, this passage was not originally intended for weddings.  The Apostle Paul wrote this passage to reprimand the Corinthian church for all their bickering, division, and strife and to teach them how to treat one another. 

When I think of how divided our world is today, how we argue with one another over politics and vaccinations and wearing or not wearing masks, I think these are words about love we need more than ever.  What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of.  But the kind of love we need, is written in God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. 

1 Corinthians 13:4-7
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful,
and endures through every circumstance.

Love is Patient
Today, I want to focus on only the first part of the first sentence of verse 4 – Love is patient. 

Patience is the ability to tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.  True patience means having a good, loving attitude even in the midst delay, trouble, suffering.  It is a weak, feeble patience that is constantly complaining and crying “woe is me!” the whole time they endure trouble.  A person with real patience has a good, positive attitude while they endure. 

Patience is an essential element of real Christian love.  It is the patience Jesus demonstrated on the cross as he endured the suffering and shame of crucifixion.  As the angry crowd mocked him and spat upon him, Jesus prayed for His enemies, “Father, please forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)  Jesus was able to be patient because Jesus is God and God is love and love is patient.  Jesus told a parable about God's patient, unconditional love.

Luke 15:11-12
11
To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them
this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

God is Patient
The father of the story is incredibly patient.  He agrees to his son's request even though the son basically said, "I wish you were already dead so I could have my inheritance now."  You see, this callous son doesn't really see his father as a human being worthy of love and respect, with whom he wants a relationship. To the son, the father is just a means to an end--something to use up and then leave.  

Many people see God like that.  God is merely there to serve our needs--to give us what we want or what we need or help us out of trouble.  We don't see God as someone worthy of our respect and love and adoration.  How rude we are with God! 

God is extremely patient with us.  Right now, I feel like people simply are not focused on God. Going to church is not a priority for people in our world. While Christians in Afghanistan risk there lives just to believe in Christ and worship Him, Christians in America can hardly bother going to church.  Even among “Christians”, people are not really interested in God.  God is not the first priority in people’s lives. He’s not even the second or third priority. He’s much farther down the list.  People say:
"Maybe I’ll go to church if I don’t have a trip planned."
"Maybe I'll go if my son doesn’t have a baseball game."
"Maybe I'll go if I'm not too tired (because I stayed out too late on Saturday night to make it to a church service that doesn't start until 11 AM)."

And so out of four Sundays in a month, a typical family may only attend church one or two times. (And this is a Christian family that claims they follow Jesus as their Lord and that God is the top priority in their life!)

This doesn't even touch on the subjects of attending Sunday school or Bible study (where you really dive deep in your faith) or serving or your prayer life or tithing (which is giving 10% of your income as the minimum financial contribution to the work of God’s Kingdom), or actually living out Chritian values in a secular world even if it puts you at odds with the culture around you.

Of course, some will say, “Preacher, you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. And just because you aren’t sitting in a pew every Sunday, doesn’t mean you aren’t focusing on your relationship with God.”  OK, that is theoretically true.  So what are you doing? If you are not attending church, how much time are you focusing on your walk with Christ?

For the average person in America who claims to be a Christian, but doesn’t attend church because “they can be a Christian and not attend church”, how are you staying focused? Who is holding you accountable to Jesus? What are you doing on a daily and weekly basis to worship, serve, fellowship with other believers?  How are you diving deeper and deeper into the most important relationship in your existence, the one for which you were literally created? 

For you who are "Christian" but not regularly attending church, where is the road you are traveling leading? Where is it leading the next generation?  Do you think you children and grandchildren are going to continue to be focused on God and the Christian values you say you believe in (things like love and forgiveness and patience) if you can’t even bother to go to God’s house regularly on Sunday mornings?

What is going to become of the institutional church?  What will the world be like without it?  

Usually, it isn’t until people experience some crisis or tragedy that they regain some of their focus on God and His Church. Nothing gets people praying and seeking God’s help like a diagnosis of cancer or a financial disaster.  However, when life’s good and our belly’s are full, we don’t want to celebrate and worship the Lord. We wanna go have some fun doing whatever we want to do so we forget about God.

God is extremely patient with us. He gives us our blessings and puts up with us while we ignore Him. He patiently waits for us to come to our senses—either because of some disaster or epiphany where we finally wake up from our sinful, selfish attitude.

Luke 15:13-16

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
 
20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

The True Meaning of the Parable
In case you didn’t know, this story is about God and us.  The Father in this story is God.  The son who ran away and then returned home represents a lot of the people in this world who turn their back on God.  The Father in the story (God) is able to welcome His wayward son home because of His patience.  You see, the Father wasn’t bad-mouthing His wayward son the whole time He was gone.  He continued to love His son, even though His son didn’t deserve it.

If the father wasn’t patient, He would be much be much more apt to be angry when His son retuned.  He would be much more prone to say “I told you so! I told you this was gonna happen!”  But we see none of that in this story.  The Father sees His son coming while he is still a long way off and He runs out to greet His son and welcome him home.  There’s no hint of anger or smug vindication in His attitude.  The Father loves the son and is genuinely and completely glad His wayward son has come home.

That’s the kind of patience we are called to have as we love one another. You see, that is truly what the world needs now—love, sweet love. Love that is patient when people don’t do the right thing.  Not an attitude of “See!  I told you so! I was right!  You were wrong!”

That’s the arrogant, mean spirited attitude the other brother has in the story--the older brother, the so-called “good” brother.

Luke 15:25-30
25
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

No Patience
The older brother is not like his Father.  He has no patience for his younger brother’s foolishness.  He is angry—not just at his brother, but also at his Father.  There is no love in his heart.  He hates his brother.  What does he want?  Would he have preferred his brother had starved to death in that foreign land and never returned?  That's how it seems.

When you think of the people with which you’ve lost patience for one reason or another, what do you want for them?  Do you really want them to get what they deserve?  Would you like to be a able to stand over them with smug indignation saying, “I told you so!”  If someone doesn't get vaccinated and get's very sick or dies from COVID, do you want to be able to wag your finger at them and scream, "I told you so!"  If someone does get vaccinated and then has complications, do you want to be able to stare at them indignantly and say "See!  I was right and you were wrong!"  And what of the billions of people who do not follow Christ, who think he is just a myth and you are an idiot for believing in Jesus?  Do you want to see them burning in Hell just so you can laugh at them and feel good about yourself because you did “the right thing” and you were a “good person” and they are getting what they deserve?

That's not patience.  That's not love.

Luke 15:31-32
31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

Still Waiting
When Jesus told this story, he wisely didn’t tell us how it ends.  Does the older brother finally get it?  Does he also “come to his senses” and realize he’s being unloving and is just as much at fault as his rash younger brother?  Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of the story because you and I will be the ones who finish it.  We finish it by the way we choose to live. 

Closing

And God patiently waits.
How will you respond today?·
Do you need to come to your senses and start truly putting God first in your life?
Do you need to come to your senses and repent of your own smugness, realizing you are no better than anyone else?
Do you need to learn to truly love people by being more patient?

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...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What If Churches Were More Like Football Stadiums?

The Satirical Truth As Far As I Can Tell…

Matthew 2:10-12 – 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

            The Wisemen traveled from far, far away to come worship the Savior who was born king of the Jews.  They counted it an honor and privilege to go to such great lengths to see baby Jesus and offer their precious gifts.  Oh that we all were as determined to worship Christ as were they.  
            I am always pondering ways to get more people in church to worship the King.  Football is king in the south.  People go to great lengths to see their favorite team play.  Millions flock into overcrowded stadiums each weekend.  Maybe what football stadiums do will work for the church.  You think?

What if we sold expensive tickets for admission?
            Attending church is free.  Sure, we take up an offering, but
it’s totally voluntary.  Maybe that’s the problem.  The cheapest ticket you could buy for the Nov. 10 Auburn/Georgia game was $189/seat (and that was in the nose bleed section).  Good seats on the home side of the 50 yard line were closer to $800-900/person.  So you couldn’t get your family of 5 seats at the game for less than $945.  With prices like that, our church could generate at least $100,000 per service in ticket sales alone.  The only problem I see here is determining which are the best seats in the House.  Most people want to sit up front and close to the action at the game, but usually on the back row in the church service. 

What if we made people pay for their programs?
            We hand out church bulletins for free and they usually end up in the trash or left in the pews after the service.  Last year’s Superbowl program sells online for $17.99 + tax and it’s a collector’s item.  Churches are tax exempt, so you’d still get a bargain if we sold ours at a comparable price.  We could earn thousands from program sales.  (Now we just need to figure out concessions—Holy Communion maybe?) 
Since people are dying to pay these exorbitant prices to squeeze into cramped stadium seats to watch sweaty athletes chase each other, surely they will flock to our church to sit in comfortable cushioned pews in a beautiful sanctuary to worship the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins.  Our sanctuary will be packed and our parking lot won’t be able to handle all the cars.  So…

We’ll need to charge for parking.
            People will pay $7 to park at the SEC championship game, but that’s 10 blocks away.  They’ll have to pay $40 dollars or more to get reasonably close.  Perhaps the church can be generous and just charge $20 for a spot in our lot and subcontract out the rest to nearby businesses.  Those parking lots will only cost $5-10 depending on how far away they are.

What if a church service was as long as a football game?
  No one will pay football prices for a 1 hour church service.  That’s just dumb.  The average football game last 3 hours (even though the ball is actually in play for only about 11 minutes).  People deserve to get what they pay for, so we’ll graciously extend the worship service to 3 hours.  Preachers need a lot more time to go deep anyway.  Think how fast we will be able to cure the biblical illiteracy and moral decline in our nation when we commit so much time, energy, effort, and money to worshiping and learning about Christ in church.  Of course, I’m no expert and I certainly don’t claim to know everything, but that’s the satirical Truth as far as I can tell…
Remember, God loves you and so do I!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Truth As Far As I Can Tell... Church Attendance

The Truth As Far As I Can Tell…

Hebrews 10:25 says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.” 

Attending church regularly is important.  A wise pastor once preached a sermon on the subject without saying a word.  I’d like to share that message with you today as I once heard it shared with me.

The Lonely Ember 
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going. 
After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire.  
Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a big chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself comfortable but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs.
After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet fascination.
As the one lone ember's flame diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and "dead as a doornail."
Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.
Just before the pastor was ready to leave, he picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, "Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday." 

Attending church regularly is important.  I challenge you to miss no more than 5 Sundays this year.  You will be blessed.  The fire of your faith will burn brighter.  Of course, I’m no expert and I certainly don’t claim to know everything, but that’s the Truth as far as I can tell… 

Remember, God loves you and so do I!

 
 
 
 
 

Monday, January 4, 2016

The State of the Communion Address

Introduction
    One of my favorite scriptures is Philippians 2:5-11 because it summarizes who Christ is and encourages us to imitate him.  Listen to these powerful words as you consider how you will live in 2016.
 
Philippians 2:5-11
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
 

What is this Address?
            Near the beginning of each year, the President of the United States gives a “state of the union address”.  This televised speech is made to a joint session of the congress reporting the condition of the country and outlining his legislative agenda and national priorities.
            My message this morning is a blatant rip-off of this presidential tradition.  However, I hope it will be a useful one.  I wish to report on the condition of our church (our “Communion”) and outline our agenda and priorities for the coming year.  Above all else, I pray that everything we do this year will be done with a Christ-like attitude as laid out in Philippians 2:5-11--with humility, with self-sacrificial love, giving glory to God alone, and looking forward to the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom. 

Children’s Ministry
            Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In 2015, we baptized 5 people and we had 9 people saved to become disciples of Jesus Christ by profession of faith.  Of the 69 United Methodist churches reporting in our district, Pleasant Grove had the 8th highest number of professions of faith.  
The majority of our professions of faith come when children go through confirmation classes and choose to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Children are vital to the success of our church.  We have a duty to bring them to church, make sure they attend Sunday school, children’s church, and our Wednesday night children’s program so they can grow in their faith.  As children mature, they are soon able to choose Christ for themselves.  This is the primary way we initiate people into the Christian faith.  Without children, we will fail at our primary mission.  We must not fail!
            In 2016, I want Pleasant Grove to focus on strengthening our children’s ministries.  I want to see excellent communication about all children’s programing, more children participating, parents that are thrilled to bring their kids here, and children that are growing in faith.  This is the only way Pleasant Grove can be successful.  I am committed to do whatever it takes to make sure kids get everything they deserve at our church.  I ask you to join me in praying for our children’s ministries, volunteering to do your part, and let’s make our children’s ministry the best in the district.  This will be our number one focus in 2016.   
 

Spiritual Growth
            Discipleship begins with a profession of faith, but it continues as a person grows closer to Christ and more committed to their faith.  People experienced spiritual growth in a number of ways at Pleasant Grove in 2015.  One measurable way I can report is that we had 11 people attended Chrysalis or Walk to Emmaus spiritual revitalization retreat in 2015.  Chrysalis and Emmaus retreats are a powerful way to experience the amazing love of God, learn the basics of our faith, and be inspired to serve Christ in our church and community.  I would like to see more people attend Chrysalis (for youth) or Walk to Emmaus (for adults).  Regardless of your level of spiritual development, Emmaus is a tangible way you can grow spiritually.  I would like you to attend. 

Worship Attendance
            Declining church attendance is a concern all over our nation.  Every denomination has seen decline. Pleasant Grove has struggled with attendance as well.  Since 2004, our attendance has declined steadily.  Our average attendance in 2015 was 129.  This was an increase from the previous year, but we can still do better.  There is no reason Pleasant Grove shouldn’t be filled with people every Sunday.  I know it is possible and we have seen what a full church looks like. 
            Our highest attended Sunday last year was on December 20th when we had our children’s play--207 people packed our pews. 
Our second highest Sunday was Easter with 200 people.  Our third highest Sunday was the Christmas cantata on December 13th with 185 people.  And of course you all saw how many were here for the Christmas Eve service.  People came to these services because you invited them and because these were special services.  We have to continue to invite people because every Sunday at PGUMC is a special Sunday.  It is a day Jesus Christ is here waiting to change people’s lives.  Don’t you miss out on that or let someone else miss the opportunity for Jesus to change their life and maybe their eternal destination.
            In 2016, will you join with me in renewing your commitment to be present at church every Sunday?  Let’s commit to miss no more than 5 Sundays this year.  Can you do that?  That still leaves room for several absences for vacation or for sickness or for unexpected situations.  Missing no more than 5 Sundays is very reasonable for the typical person.  
Now, maybe you’re not a typical person.  Maybe your situation is such that you need to miss more than 5 Sundays because of your job or something else really important.  Then I ask you:  what is reasonable for you?  Make weekly church attendance a top priority and decide today what your attendance goal is going to be this year and then stick to it. 

Study Groups
In 2015, it was a pleasure to work with such a creative and talented worship team to plan excellent worship.  David, Sarah, Dale, and I collaborated to bring you services covering relevant topics such as:  reconciliation, the meaning of love, purifying your life, making a new start, the 10 Commandments, the Great Commission, and arguing with Jesus about tough issues.  We finished the year with the sermon series I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  We listen for God’s direction and work very hard to bring you the best.  So you can be sure if you come (and if you invite someone to come with you), you will be blessed because we will offer you the very best that months of praying, planning, and preparation can offer.  
            Study is also vital to spiritual growth.  There are a number of ways you can plug into a small study group at Pleasant Grove.  Last year, Gary and Jean Carter took charge of our young adult program teaching a weekly Sunday school class.  This is a unique offering for young adults that not many churches have.  If you are a young adult, I urge you to take advantage of our young adult Sunday school.  Talk to Gary and Jean and let them know what you would like to see happen with young adults.  And tell your young adult children, grandchildren, or friends to come get involved with the young adults of our church.  Let’s not take our young adult program for granted.  Everyone should be active in a Sunday school class or one of our other study groups like Wednesday night study, youth, children’s ministry, or Thursday morning Bible study.
            On Wednesday nights, we completed 6 studies:  Taking Care of Business (about the Christian work ethic), Soul Detox (about purification), Before Amen (prayer), The Committee (church revitalization), Earn, Save, Give (Christian finances), and Ask: Faith Questions in a Skeptical Age.  On Thursday mornings, we completed a 6 year, in-depth, book by book journey through the whole Bible.  We are about to beginning a new, one-year study of the whole Bible in chronological order.  I invite you to join us in the fellowship hall starting this Thursday at 10:30 AM.  Or come on Wednesday night for dinner and stay for a study; this month, we are doing The Committee part 2, a series on church revitalization.  Or perhaps you would like to make it your goal to be active in a Sunday school class.  Everyone needs to be active in a small group study to grow spiritually in 2016.  Everyone means you.   

Serving Others
            C.S. Lewis said, “A church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members.”  Just as Jesus gave up his divine privileges in Heaven to come save and serve a lost humanity, the church is here to serve others sacrificially.  On average, our church served 74 people outside of our congregation each week in 2015.  We did this primarily through:
  • Family Promise - Four times a year, we house homeless families in our church for a week at a time in conjunction with 15 other churches in our community through Family Promise of Whitfield County.
  • Be the Church - In September, we called off our regular worship service to go into our community and do service projects for people in need.
  • Sack Lunches - On Wednesday nights, we packed sack lunches to deliver to needy kids at Pleasant Grove Elementary and North Star School so kids have at least on healthy meal to take home to eat over the weekend.
  • DOCUP - We contributed money in cooperation with other area churches to DOCUP to help needy families with rent, utility bills, food, and clothing.
  • The Layette ministry - We provided clothing, blankets, and other necessities for newborn infants in need at Hamilton Medical Center.
  • We also offered boxes of non-perishable food and various other forms of assistance directly from our church to people in need in our community.
Of course, these are only the service projects for which we have a record.  The real service of the church happens through you--the people of our church who spread throughout the community and serve people everyday in a million different ways by the way you live out your Christian faith in the world.  Thank you for being the church everyday, wherever you are.  There is no way for us to quantify all the people you serve and the tremendous impact you have on our world, but I know you make a significant difference.  Let me encourage you to keep doing good. 

Build New Relationships with Hispanics
            Pleasant Grove has 3 long range goals that guide everything we do.  They are:  1) give hope to the hopeless, 2) build new relationships, and 3) help our community.  One of the greatest opportunities God has given us to build new relationships at PGUMC is with the Hispanic community.  Every Sunday, a Hispanic church meets in our chapel for worship.  We have already begun building relationships with them in several ways.  For instance, their pastor--Isabel Ochoa--preached at one of our services last year and I preached at her service.  Also, I helped with a Quinceanera for one of their families and they helped with our Operation Christmas Child packing party.  I would like to see us growing even closer in the coming year.  We have come to a place where it is time for you (the members of this congregation) to build friendships directly with the people of Isabel’s congregation.  I hope you are ready to build these new relationships and will look for ways to build these new friendships in 2016.  I will work to lead you in that direction. 

General Conference
            2016 is a General Conference year in the United Methodist denomination.  That means United Methodist representatives from all over the world will gather for the first time since 2012 to discuss important issues about the direction of our worldwide communion.  One of the most important issues they will discuss this year in Portland, Oregon is how United Methodists will respond to homosexuality.  As you know, public opinion about homosexuality in our nation has shifted greatly and our supreme court has ruled same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states.  How will the United Methodist Church respond?  I invite you to join with me in prayer about this important issue facing our nation and our church.  And pray for our General Conference as it seeks to provide leadership for the United Methodist Church.  Next Sunday I will begin a four week message series examining what the Bible says about homosexuality and how we can respond.  Please come with an opened mind and a humble heart. 

Summary
            In summary, I want to highlight again the issues I want Pleasant Grove to focus on in 2016:
  • Provide exceptional ministry to children
  • Spiritual Growth through worship, study, and service
  • Be present at church every Sunday (missing no more than 5 Sundays in a year) and invite more people to come with us.
  • Focus on building relationships with the Hispanics of our community
  • Pray for General Conference (May 10th - 20th)
 
New Van
I would be remiss not to point out one more great accomplishment of 2015.  Through your generosity, we raised over $40,000 to purchase a brand new church van!  This Ford Transit has already been ordered and will be ready for service very soon.  Our van will stand out everywhere it goes.  People will see it and say, “That’s the Pleasant Grove church van.  That is a great church!”  And they’re right!  We are a great church and we’re going to be even better because our van will give us the ability to take more trips safely and conveniently, go out into our community more often, and pick up people to bring them to church (I would love to see us picking up van loads of children to bring them to Sunday worship and Wednesday night activities).  
Thank you so much for your generosity that made our new van possible.  The purchase of this van just goes to show you how Pleasant Grove can take on a very big challenge and accomplish it. When we believe in ourselves, trust God, and are faithful and persistent, we can accomplish great things.  I believe this church can do anything God wants us to do if we put our minds to it.  Let’s all commit to meet the challenges facing Pleasant Grove this year--all for the glory of God!   

Reflection
What is God calling you to do in 2016?
  • Give your life to Christ?
  • Attend Church more often?
  • Get active in a study group?
  • Befriend a Hispanic person?
  • Help with our children’s ministry?
  • Make a significant change while trusting God?
God empowers and strengthens you to meet whatever challenges lie ahead. 
Trust in God, believe in yourself, be faithful and persistent, and 2016 will be a great year!