Sunday, May 27, 2007

How to Fill the Church Every Week!

[This message was shared during worship celebrations with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio (near Cincinnati), on May 26 and 27, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, you're invited to worship with us any time.]

Acts 2:1-21
A few years ago, somewhere in the Upper Midwest, a disturbed man heard a Pentecost sermon about the need for the Church to be on fire for Jesus Christ. He decided that a fire was just what his church needed to attract people to Christ. So, he torched the church building, burning it to the ground. After the firefighters had come to battle the flames and much of the town showed up to watch the unfolding disaster, somebody from the congregation commented, “This is the best attendance we’ve had in years!”

On this Pentecost Sunday, I want to tell you that the best way for a church to attract people to Christ is for the whole church to be on fire. But that definitely doesn't entail barbecuing church buildings! It means something altogether different.

We see something of what it means in the life and words of a man named Charles Spurgeon. The simple sermons of this nineteenth century English preacher attracted thousands of people to his church. People wondered why. What was his gimmick or his secret? Spurgeon’s answer to such questions was as simple as his preaching: “God sets me on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

Last week, one leader of our congregation commented, “There’s no reason why every seat in our sanctuary shouldn’t be filled every week.” Now, we don’t live in nineteenth century England. In this age of...
the Internet,
video games,
outdoor shopping malls,
Interstate highways,
$89 round trip airline specials for your favorite getaway destination, and
three-day weekends...
people’s interest in seeing and hearing a simple preacher burn for God may be minimal.

We have so many distractions, in fact, that it's easy to lose sight of what's of fundamental importance in life. We forget God and we allow all our modern conveniences--what I call the crutches of our denial--to delude us into thinking we don't need God!

I was reminded of this a number of years ago when my first bishop, Reg Holle, told a group of us about his experience preaching and ministering on a trip he took to Namibia, in southwestern Africa. He arrived early one Sunday morning for worship with a Lutheran congregation in a remote Namibian village. "Bishop Holle," one of the church members told him, "when you preach today, don't give an American sermon!" Bishop Holle wondered what the man meant by "an American sermon." The member explained that some months before, another American preacher had come to their church and only preached for twenty minutes. They expected no less than an hour-and-a-half of preaching of God's Word when they gathered!

Bishop Holle was stunned by the dedication to Christ and the Church he observed in these Namibian Lutherans. Many of them walked by foot some two hours over dusty roads in order to arrive for a worship celebration that often lasted four-hours. They filled the simple building where they worshiped with their bodies and their praises of God! Afterward, they walked the two hours back to their homes. We're so distracted that, God forbid, on Super Bowl Sunday, no preacher dares to eat into people viewing the hours and hours of coverage given to that game on TV!

Where are our priorities?

Where is the fire of the Holy Spirit?

It sometimes seems that our lives here in America are too full to let God in for more than an hour a week, that we're too busy to be on fire for the Holy Spirit.

But I believe that that Friendship leader was right. Every seat in this sanctuary should be filled with people every week...even on Memorial Day weekend.

How can that happen?

Our Bible lesson for today, recounting the events of the first Christian Pentecost, when the Church was born, may help to answer that question.

But first, a little background. Even before the events in our lesson happened, Pentecost was an important holiday on the Jewish calendar. It was a harvest festival that fell fifty days after the Sabbath that came during the Passover. As with other Jewish festivals, pious Jews from all over the Mediterranean basin tried to get to Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. Many were in Jerusalem on this particular Pentecost. It came fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead and ten days after He ascended to heaven. In the events of that first Pentecost Sunday, I find many principles showing us how every seat in this sanctuary can be filled every time we gather for worship. But today, I want to talk about just one. One single principle that can change our lives, giving us purpose. One single principle that can transform Friendship Church.

It’s this: We let the Holy Spirit set our whole congregation on fire for Christ.

We let the Holy Spirit fashion our willingness to trust God into living faith.

We put ourselves at God’s disposal and let His Spirit work in and through us.

The first followers of Jesus were a lot like you and me, except that they were a lot poorer than us. But, like us, they were ordinary people. Most weren’t from the highest rungs of society. They weren't people of great influence.

On top of that, they were afraid. They’d taken the risk of following Jesus only to see Him brutally beaten and executed. Both the religious authorities and the government had opposed Jesus and promised to make life unpleasant for anyone who spoke a good word for Him.

And yet, just before He ascended to heaven, the risen Jesus told these fearful people to wait for the coming of His Holy Spirit. The Spirit, Jesus told them, would make it possible for them to tell people that if they turn from sin and trust in Jesus, they will be given new lives with God forever.

The crazy thing is that these first Jesus-Followers believed Him. They gathered together and waited for the Holy Spirit to come to them. The Spirit, our Bible lesson tells us, showed up like tongues of fire filling each believer. Their speech was inspired by the Spirit. And all of them hit the Jerusalem streets to tell people the message of new life through Jesus Christ!

This same miracle can happen in and through us, too. We can share Christ's love boldly and humbly if we will dare to want to do it!

I have seen this happen in believers in Christ in my own lifetime. I've seen people set on fire by the Holy Spirit share their faith with others! A few examples...

Years ago, I taught the Witnesses for Christ class on intentional witnessing, created by Pastor Ed Markquart, to groups of folks from all three of our area Lutheran congregations --Friendship, All Saints, and Resurrection. As I told those who recently took the class here at Friendship, I told those groups that not only has Jesus commanded all of us to be His witnesses, the Holy Spirit has also given us the power to be His witnesses. We simply need to be willing to witness.

Not everybody believed me when I said that. One man in the class--we’ll call him John--was a quiet person. “I never want to witness,” John told me at the outset of the class. “But for some reason, I felt like I should be here.” Back then, when I taught the course, I did the full ten weeks of material. Along about the seventh week, John showed up and with a tentative smile on his face, said, “I think I witnessed this past week.” He told me about a conversation he’d had with a coworker. Listening to her problems empathetically, he shared the comfort, hope, and peace he got from relying on Christ. After years of thinking he could never be a witness for Christ, he realized that, like the first Christians on the first Pentecost, he simply needed to let the Spirit set him on fire.

Another true story...

A friend of my family when I was growing up--we’ll call him Bob--came to faith in Jesus Christ when he was in his late-40s. This was a great surprise to us. Even though Bob didn’t feel he could do it, he volunteered to be part of a group of people who went into their neighborhood and invited people to worship. One man Bob visited proved to be especially receptive to learning more about Christ and the Church. Bob couldn’t believe it when he found himself witnessing, telling this elderly man, who had never had any connection to Christ or the Church, about how Jesus could change his life. Long story short, the man Bob visited became a follower of Christ. Several years later, Bob died suddenly. I’ll never forget the moment at the end of the funeral when the man to whom Bob witnessed approached Bob’s casket. Even in his posture, you could see the many emotions felt by that man. Among them, grief, of course. But also, gratitude. He was grateful that Bob had shared the Good News of Christ with him!

One other true story--one some of you have heard before--has to do with someone whose name I can use, that of my son, Philip. When Phil was in the first grade, we were living at our former parish and about to have a Friend Day in the fall. We were encouraging our members to invite their non-churchgoing friends to worship with us. Philip asked me if it would be okay if he invited someone from his school, a boy who didn’t go to church. He did that. At first, only the boy and his little sister came to worship and Sunday School. Later, his mom came with them. That was pretty much where things stood when we moved here to start Friendship. But sometime later, we learned that because his whole family was going to church, the dad thought it might be a good idea if he did, too. Being Roman Catholic by background, he asked his wife and kids if it were okay if they started going to the local Catholic church. The wife and kids were thrilled to say yes. A few months later, the wife, the son, and the daughter, who had never previously had any connection to Christ and the Church, were baptized!

On that first Pentecost Sunday, after Christians shared the Good News of Jesus and Peter preached a simple message, three-thousand people begged to be baptized. The power of the Holy Spirit set those first Christians on fire!

For two-thousand years now, the Holy Spirit has been using ordinary believers like John, Bob, and Philip, on fire for Christ, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Even today, the flame of belief in Christ is spreading like a wildfire. On any Sunday, around the world tens of thousands of people are being baptized. And on any Sunday around the world tens of hundreds of new congregations are being started...and we need more of them!

The Bible teaches that every believer in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit as their companion. That means that every one of us can share Christ...
  • You don’t have to be a preacher.
  • You don’t have to be an adult.
  • You don’t have to know all the answers or have the Bible memorized.
  • You don’t even have to go through the Witnesses for Christ training, although it will give you good tools for sharing your faith if you do take it the next time the class is offered.
All you need is to be on fire for Christ! And for that to happen, all you need is to be willing to let God use you and direct you in the way of His choosing.

The bottom line: Friendship, like every other church in the world, has the power to grow so that every time we gather for worship, every seat is filled. Every time we gather for worship, every seat should be filled. That will happen when we let God set our lives on fire for Christ and let the world around us see the light of Christ burning in us!

[THANKS TO: Eric Jones, filling in for Andrew Jackson at Smart Christian, for linking to this post.]

No comments: