Relentlessly Outwardly Focused

Last night as our social media team and I were trying to communicate with Kimberly Knight over ustream, (storms in the Atlanta Area made internet communication difficult) we finally decided to tackle the assignment of mapping our congregation’s social network.

We came up with a map that looked something like this:

I sat and looked at the Social Map we drew and suddenly noticed an important issue.  Almost all of the lines of communication on our map are directed inward toward the congregation.  This is but a symptom of the inward focus of our congregation in general.  We need to learn that it is not about us.  We are God’s instrument to take God’s love out into the world.  We should be looking for a map with all kinds of communication lines leading out from the congregation to people outside of the church.  Again, it is not about us.  Our purpose is to take the gospel to people outside of the church and make disciples.

As I say this is just a symptom of a larger problem in our congregational culture, and congregational cultures only change slowly and with great difficulty.  I think we need to redo our map and talk about how we can redirect our lines of communication outward — relentlessly outward focus. 

That means we have to get over ourselves.  Most members of the congregation would say that the purpose of the church is to serve the needs of the members.  Wrong!  the purpose of the church is to spread the love of God by focusing on the needs of people who are not yet a part of the church.  That may mean that we may have to experiment with some ways of communicating the faith that some members of the congregation won’t like.  Some people presently have the attitude that if the church is doing something they don’t like, then the church shouldn’t do it.  We have to help these people get over themselves. 

Beth gave me a book by Dale Carnegie.  I am going to copy the chapter about the biggest obstacle to selling.  The biggest obstacle to selling anything a product, an organization, or an idea is to spend your time telling people how great you are.  The only way to convince other people to buy what you have to offer is to concentrate on their needs.  As we think about a Website, or a Facebook Page, perhaps even our worship service, we need to be relentlessly outwardly focused, and concentrating on the needs of that population outside the church we think we might be able to reach.

 I now think we need to move the congregation out of the center of the picture (that is hard to do in a congregational church).  And instead we need to see ourselves more off to the side and engaging with people and organizations outside of ourselves in order to accomplish Jesus’ great commission to go to all the world (especially our own increasingly secular neighborhoods) and make disciples.

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Go Make Disciples

Go Make Disciples

            The tomb is empty, Christ is risen, and if he doesn’t see his shadow we will have six more weeks of Lent.  No, the tomb is empty, Christ is risen, but so what?  Nearly 2,000 years have come and gone; what difference does it make whether or not Jesus rose from the dead?  And that is why our scripture includes both the story of Easter morning, but also the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee.   

            The empty tomb is the place Jesus can no longer be found.  As the angel said, “he is not here, for he has risen. . . . He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  So here we are on Easter Sunday morning and Christ wants us to run to catch up.  We are followers of Jesus, and that means we actually have to follow him into the world to engage with other people to encourage them to live the way of Jesus – go make disciples, baptize, teach, change lives.

            How do we make disciples?  By sharing with others how our lives have been changed by following the way of Jesus – love, forgiveness, sharing, God centered consciousness through prayer.  In order for Jesus to be alive in the world today, Jesus has to be alive in us.  Otherwise the resurrection makes no difference. 

            Our book study Unbinding Your Heart makes an important point about our reticence in making disciples:

            All nations!  All authority!  Everything I have commanded you!  To the end of the Age!  That’s daunting.  This is part of the problem.  We see the big picture, get scared, and the guilt takes control.  We decide if we’re not converting Africa single-handedly that we’re not doing evangelism.  We feel guilt and we forget to invite our next door neighbor to church on Sunday.  Surely we can find some middle ground in between those two extremes.

            We don’t need to travel around the world or even across town there are people in our neighborhood who would like to experience the love of God in community.  They don’t want to study theology, or listen to someone tell them that God loves them, they want to experience the love of God by being welcomed and accepted as part of a community of faith.  That is why extravagant welcome, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here is so important!”  But for that to be a reality we have to live the message. 

            Part of living that message is providing some decent eats, when people come.  And we do need help in providing decent eats.  Since we slashed our budget to try to bring about a balance between expenses and income, we have been eating more than we have been giving.  So please talk to the Fellowship Committee about what you can bring in order to continue our extravagant welcome.

            Of course one of the difficulties of living the message that you are welcome here is people come bringing their baggage with them.  People come with their hopes, fears and doubts, their addictions, their illnesses, their diagnoses, their egos, their struggles with themselves, and their struggles with God — their issues.   Folks who come looking for Jesus out of deep need are seldom neat and tidy.  Often people who come seeking the love and acceptance of God are in some kind of trouble financial, legal, marital, health, grief, and they are an emotional and spiritual mess.  In the 50’s and even the 60’s people joined churches, because it was the nice middle class thing to do.  And of course no one ever let on they had problems.  Today, when people turn to God, they usually have some deep and abiding need that is driving them spiritually.  And if we answer the call to make disciples we have to be open to those deep and abiding needs that are often messy. 

            We all have garbage, and it is an incredible vanity to assume that our garbage doesn’t stink.  Pippa Abston wrote an incredible statement of her belief that will appear in Friday’s Huntsville Times.  She writes that if we would let her, she would rename the church –  “the Welcome Church.”  Here is  link to her blog:  http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fblog.al.com%2Fliving-times%2F2011%2F04%2Fphysician_poet_dancer_pippa_co.html&h=249b5.

And that reminds me of a story Abraham Lincoln liked to tell about a man from Illinois who was arrested for passing a counterfeit bill. The judge who was hearing the case asked the man a question.

“Did you take the bill to the cashier of the bank and ask him if he it was good?”

“I did.”

“What did the cashier say?”
“He said it was ‘a pretty tolerable, respectable’ sort of bill.”

So applying the story to a foot-loose, fancy-free, conniving preacher he did not respect, Lincoln said he thought the man was a “pretty tolerable, respectable” sort of a preacher.

It is so easy to become a pretty tolerable, respectable sort of church.  Don’t welcome new people into your fellowship and you can keep all the messy people out.  But friends, the tomb is empty.  Christ is alive and going before us into the world, and we have to run to catch up. 

Especially when we share the bread and the wine, Christ is here among us.  And everyone is welcome at this table.  We can’t be too messy for Jesus.  In the bread and wine God is reminding us to embrace the self-sacrificing love of Jesus in order to welcome everyone, no matter who they are or where they are on their life’s journey, for they are welcome at the table of Jesus.   Share the good news!  Christ is risen and lives in us!