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Sun, May 14, 2017

Questions for a growing church

Duration:11 mins 55 secs

Our scripture reading for today comes from the Book of Acts, chapter 6, verses 1-7. Following their arrest by and release from the council, the apostles and other disciples continue to preach and teach in Jerusalem. The number of believers continues to grow and that brings a challenge. Let us hear this Word of God.

1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

This is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Wonders and signs; all things in common; distributing proceeds to all, as any had need; worship and fellowship; eating together and praising God. That is the vision of the church’s life together in the Book of Acts. And the testimony is that when the church lives out this common vision, God brings new people. Yes, day by day the Lord adds new people to the church. This is great news!

Yes, a growing church is wonderful news. We rejoice here at Reid Memorial that we are a growing congregation. We have new members, like Gena, Mary Ashley, and Morgan today, who join our church nearly every month. We have visitors and guests every Sunday who are drawn here by your invitations, by the ministry they see enacted, and the Word that they hear proclaimed. There are thousands and thousands of churches of all denominations, but especially Presbyterian, who would love to have the number of visitors in an entire year that we have with us just this Sunday. Yes, this is great news! My friends, God is at work in a powerful way in this place.

And that was the case for the young church in Jerusalem. They rejoice that more and more people are hearing and believing the Word. And yet, they begin to recognize a problem. All is not running smoothly in the ministry area known as “the distribution of goods and proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is essential work for the early church. Providing care for one another, especially those in need, is not optional. So, it is a serious concern when the report comes that the widows of the Hellenists are being left out. The quickly growing church has a logistical problem.

Now, when you have a logistical problem, the way forward is fairly clear. It may take some creative thinking to arrive at a solution, but the process for addressing the problem is simple:

Define the issue
Brainstorm potential solutions
Identify challenges or obstacles
Create an action plan.

In this case the apostles have a defined issue – the widows of the Hellenists are being left out. So, they bring everyone together to brainstorm. An obstacle is identified: the apostles cannot do the entire ministry alone. So they create an action plan to choose seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom. And they carry it out. Problem solved. Yes, if you have a logistical problem, you follow the steps, you think creatively, you work hard, and you fix the dilemma.

But what happens when the problem is not logistical? When the problem is not running out of physical space or having enough people to serve or collecting enough money to pay the staff and keep the lights on? Certainly Reid Memorial is not perfect, but it is in a good place with all of those. So what happens when the problem is different, say when the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply? What happens if the way we have done ministry for generations, i.e. by opening the door and expecting people to come in, no longer works? What happens when we face a new world?

I believe the challenges for the church today in general and Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in particular tend to fall in the latter category. As one scholar, Bob Johnson, has written, “After centuries of stability and slow, incremental change, in less than a generation our world has become volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” What does that mean for the church? Well, to begin we can no longer assume everyone who walks in the door already knows the basic Christian story. We can no longer assume that dedicating even an hour a week to gather in this sanctuary necessarily provides more meaning or community than sitting at a soccer field or a dinner with friends. We can no longer assume that people are even looking for what the church claims to provide.

These are not logistical problems that can be solved with a better sermon series, new exciting music, flashy technology, or more programs. That may have worked in previous generations, but, my friends, the world has changed.

At Reid Memorial we are in an amazing place to think about this new world and what it means for our life together. For God’s call to the church remains the same: wonders and signs; all things in common; distributing proceeds to all, as any have need; worship and fellowship; eating together and praising God. But how we live into that call in this new world requires us to reframe some of the questions: For example:

We have new members joining every month. How can we empower them to not just be a number on the membership role, but active, engaged, growing disciples of Jesus Christ?

We worship every Sunday and every Wednesday. How can we design and we all prepare for worship not to merely fulfill personal preferences but to facilitate life transforming encounters with Jesus Christ?

We offer a variety of Christian Education opportunities for all ages. How can we measure our efforts not just by the number of people who sit in a Sunday School class, but by those who come to know Christ and who discover new heights and depths of faith which equip them for ministry?

We serve in our community, nation, and around the world. How can we envision our mission and service not just as drive by, occasional Band-Aid work, but as opportunities for new relationships that teach us about life and faith as much, or even more, as we share the gifts that God has given us?

My friends, those are the new kinds of questions that are energizing the leadership of this church. Mainly because we do not have easy answers to them. They are not just logistical problems we can figure out on our own. No, they require faith and hope and joy and an extra measure of the Holy Spirit. This is exciting and faithful work in a growing congregation.

There are some in our midst, our children and youth, who know this new world, primarily because it is the only world they have ever known. As we prepare to hear our Children’s Choir, present their musical this morning, know that the adventure is just beginning. Don’t you want to be part of all that God is calling us to be and become?

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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