It was the summer of 1970. My family and I piled into our white 1968 Plymouth Fury station wagon for a 10 day road trip around Lake Superior. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized how courageous my parents were.
How many of you have ever taken a road trip vacation with kids? I have several times and I lived to tell the tale. Two I remember well: 1997: 10 days, 4 locations and 1998: 12 days, 3 locations. Besides how to pack really, really well, two things in particular I learned: travel light and don’t move around once you’re settled. This week’s Gospel reminded me that what I learned on my trips is Biblical.
Today Jesus sends out 70 or so of his disciples in all directions to heal and evangelize people. What he said to them and how they went out is good advice for us and for our church. Jesus tells us the best way to take a road trip, grow a church or even raise a family.
What did Jesus say?
Jesus said take no bag, not even sandals. By that he meant take no great possessions. Why?
A) Nothing much to steal
B) without possessions they were dependent on God
C) nothing to lug around. How does this apply to us and to churches? Well, if you focus on the things you have, you miss the point of the Gospel. Without possessions you are freer to focus on God. This is just as true for churches as it is for individuals. Let me explain.
When, in the life of a church does a church grow the fastest? According to David Olson, a church growth expert, most times it’s in the first 30 years of its existence. In the first 30 years of a church there is lots of energy and excitement. Why? In part because when a church starts, members are focused on growth and outreach. People are excited about building something new and different for God. Little of the energy and money goes into paying for and maintaining a building: Most of the time, a new church HAS no building.
So how does that relate to Zion? Now that this church is built, should we tear it down so we can focus on evangelism? Of course not, but we should use the existing building wisely, so we spend no more than we must on it, no more energy, time and money than we have to. That’s a good, Godly way to live.
What else did Jesus say to his disciples today? Jesus said to take no purse, no money for the journey. Does that mean we should never save money? Of course not, but it means that we must never let our wealth stand in the way of the Gospel. If we focus on our money more than our faith, whether a person or a church, we are in danger of making money our God. Worse yet, if we do succeed and have lots of it, it’s a problem. We can even come to believe we can get by without God. When that happens, a church, lovely as it is becomes no more than a social club.
What else did Jesus do?
Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs. There is something encouraging in journeying with like-minded people. Any important task is easier and better with the help and support of others. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians. We are part of a community, and even one other Christian helps along on a journey. If you go it alone, you burn out.
How about not moving from house to house? What did Jesus mean by that? It means that when you’re evangelizing, don’t focus on getting close to the rich. There’s a reason that there are very few ways to say “getting close to rich people” in English without being vulgar. Everybody knows it’s wrong, few people like it when other people do that, and God certainly doesn’t. It also means that we as Christians should help others because we are called to, not for our own glory whether in the church or out of the church.
But evangelism is not just a subject we talk about whenever a Gospel reading about evangelism comes up. Evangelism is something we have to DO.
Let’s be honest: this church has lost members over the last few years. That’s sad ,but a lot of that is normal. When a denomination gets embroiled in theology, like it did in the ’09 sexuality vote, it’s normal to lose members. When a church builds a new building, not everybody is on board, and it’s normal to lose members. When a long term pastor leaves, some can’t imagine a church without a beloved pastor, it’s normal to lose members. In the entire ELCA, and even the whole American Christian church, year after year, it’s normal to lose members. Few American churches are growing.
But normal isn’t the way things should be.
When it comes right down to it, we are no different than the 70 Jesus sent out 2000 years ago. Jesus sends us modern disciples out every day, every hour into the world to share the good news of God’s love. We go out to welcome new members. Not to fill committees, not to maintain the budget, or continue paying off the mortgage, Not even to have a bigger, more fun worship on a Sunday morning. If that’s our motivation, we may build a great social club, but not a church.
No, we reach out because faith changes lives. People who go to church live longer, people who go to church are happier. People who go to church make the world a better place to live. We are the salt of the earth. We reach out because Jesus calls us to reach out.
Now it is tougher for a church to grow than it was 50 or 60 years ago. Back in the day, you opened the church doors on Sunday morning, and people came streaming in. Back in the day, American culture was for us Christians, not against us. Because of these reasons and a thousand more we should not be discouraged if many people ignore God’s good news. Jesus tells us to be ready for that. It happened 2000 years ago, it will happen today. We are not responsible for numbers, God is, but it is our responsibility to try.
Zion is a wonderful place. People out there NEED a place like this. A place where people share sorrows and believe in forgiveness. A restful place of shelter from the craziness of life OUT THERE. A place where people strive to make a difference in the world. A place where people learn values even more important than those of family and country. Values that people can trust throughout their lives, in a crisis and out.
I spoke with Laurie Ventor this week. She was reminiscing about how she came to Zion. She and Mark had been in the area for years when she was invited to the church. What attracted her was the members she met were EXCITED about Zion, about the joy of this place. How many of you here can tell the same sort of story? Don’t all of us want to be the sort of member disciples who make that kind of difference in other people’s lives?
What it boils down to is this: what is keeping you from focusing on God? Whatever it is, put it behind you. If we can do that, we can be amazed by what God has done through us. Not by our power, but by God’s.
Put these ideas of Jesus into practice. Fully practiced, these ideas will change your life. Fully practiced these ideas can change your church. Even more, fully practiced, these ideas can change the world! Go on your way today’ Rejoice in your church, God’s church. Rejoice in what was done for you when God brought you here. Rejoice in what you can do to help other people to know that joy. Amen!