It is no secret that the Church in North America
has been in decline for several decades.
This steady drop in church attendance and affiliation
is not unique to United Methodists
but has been experienced by most mainline denominations
in the U.S.
The experience is so widespread
that entire industries have sprung up
around the idea of church growth.
There are seminars and work shops
and small group curriculums
any and all gimmicks you can think of
designed to help you increase attendance and membership
in our local congregations.
About 20 years ago the mega church movement began.
Churches like Willow Creek, Mars Hill, and Saddleback
developed the concert model of worship.
People came in droves because Sunday morning
was like going to a rock concert and the messages from the pastors were “seeker sensitive” never getting too heavy
or asking too much of those in attendance.
This model of worship, as I said, brought in thousands of people
but at its core had a glaring problem
that the leadership in those churches
have only recently began to recognize.
You see amidst the awesome music
and the catchy t-shirts and messages
that left hearers feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside
those churches forgot that
we were not called to go into all the world
and make church attenders.
It isn’t enough to make Christian consumers or fans of Jesus.
We are called to go and make disciples.
To bring people the message of God’s love
and to teach them to walk with Christ.
Mega churches are not alone in forgetting their calling though.
Even we United Methodists have had our bouts of trial and error.
A few years back every where you went in Methodist circles
we had pamphlets and commercials about
how we need to “ReThink Church”
and the “10,000 doors” campaign.
Anybody remember those?
The whole idea was that every point of contact we have
– every one of us, every day – is a potential “door” to the church,
an opportunity to connect people to Christ.
A lot of flyers were printed up and some thinking
and rethinking got done but most of those 10,000 doors
have never been knocked on.
And I want to be clear.
I am not trying to say that all of these things are bad
or not worth trying. The Church saw a problem
and reacted to it and tried new things
and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
So long as those new things never obscure the old thing.
The old thing being our calling to make disciples,
to love God, and to love others.
Our selection of verses from 2nd Corinthians this morning
speaks of how the church is afflicted but not crushed,
persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed.
It goes on to tell us that all of that hardship and affliction is nothing
compared to the eternal glory that we share in Christ.
Right in the middle though, sandwiched in there in verse 16
is where I would like us to focus.
Because its too easy to get bogged down
on the negative afflicting and crushing of verses 8 and 9
and to be honest that just gets depressing.
And likewise if we focus too much on the future glory
of verses 17 and 18 well, as an old friend once told me
you “Don’t [want to] become so heavenly minded
that you’re no earthly good.”
Because the vast majority of our lives
are lived in the in between:
struggling with the despair, trying to hold on to hope
and it’s a hard place to be.
So right there in verse 16 we read
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature
is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
When life is hard… We do not lose heart.
When we are struggling… We do not lose heart.
When even the church seems to be falling apart around us…
We do not lose heart.
We do not lose heart, because even then
when it seems like death and decay and despair have gotten
the upper hand we remember that ours is a God of resurrections,
a God who restores our souls and renews us, day by day.
Friends I truly hope that I am not the first person to tell you this
but if I am this may come as a shock to you.
There is no great praise band, or catchy slogan,
or sign, or dynamic pastor, or amount of cleaning
and updating of the church that is going
to cause people from the community to flock through these doors.
There is no gimmick.
I don’t have any magic wand or magnet to draw people here.
But do not lose heart.
There is more at work than meets the eye.
Though out outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
No gimmicks. Just the gospel.
God still changes lives. That’s where our hope is found.
I have had the opportunity to share my story with a few of you
but most could probably guess that I have struggled
with my weight for most of my adult life.
I tried all the miracle weight loss drugs and the fad diets.
For a time I even considered one of the weight loss surgeries.
Then it happened. I finally discovered the secret.
The magic bullet for losing weight.
I lost over 120 pounds in the course of two years.
You want to know what it was that finally helped me
to lose all that weight? A healthy diet and regular exercise.
I know! It can’t be true right? That’s just an old wives tale.
The experts have been trying to sell us that one for years
but I stand here to tell you that diet and exercise
are the key to weight loss. It wasn’t easy.
It was a lot of hard work and sweaty days at the gym.
But it worked.
So what happened? I know right.
I think back on it every day and wish for those good old days
when I only had to go to the big and tall shop to buy hats.
So what happened? In short, I lost heart.
My son was diagnosed with leukemia.
He was afflicted, and I was crushed.
I felt abandoned. When he passed away I was nearly destroyed.
I lost control and I lost heart.
Its probably better to say my heart was ripped out, not merely lost.
This happens in the church too.
Events and circumstances beyond our control
cause us to lose heart. We forget to renew ourselves.
We opt to dream of the good old days
when the pews were full but we forget what it was that got us there.
You see the discipline of exercise and healthy eating
that I had learned and thrived on in the early days
were exactly what I needed to get me through the hard days.
But I forgot that. I let myself go. I made excuses.
We all do it. We make excuses.
The church is no different because the church is us.
We forget to reach out because we are too busy licking our wounds
and expecting the world to come to us.
We cling to the idea that its not our fault because
“The neighborhood has changed.
The world’s not like it was in the good old days.
I’m too old to make a difference.
I am too young for people to take seriously.
But this is the way we have always done it. It’s too hard to change.”
Folks the answer to the question of church growth
is not about the latest gimmick or guru.
There is no magic pill or 30 minute outreach video
with special guest star Tony Robbins.
Church growth happens in much the same way it always has.
We love God and we love our neighbors.
It’s as easy – and as hard as that.
Now how we love our neighbors can take many different forms.
It can be through Vacation Bible School, bible studies,
small group meetings, and Sunday morning worship.
But it is just as likely, if not more so,
in this day and age for it to take place at backyard barbecues,
birthday parties, and simple invitations of friendship
to those around us.
But none of that will matter if we do not take advantage
of the renewal offered to us by God.
I lost heart when Carl passed away
and it has taken me most of the past 9 months
to pick my heart back up and stop losing it.
That’s not to say that I pick it up everyday.
I have to make a choice to get up and trust
that a healthy diet and exercise are going
to work to help me lose weight again.
Somedays, to be honest, I don’t make the right choice.
But I can tell you that the days that I make the right choice
are starting to overshadow the days
that I make the wrong one.
I am making the choice to be renewed day by day and we,
as a church, need to make the same choice.
John Wesley, you might have heard of him,
one of the founding fathers of Methodism,
believed that the Christian life was summed up
in the idea that we are to love God and love others.
He took those two areas of love and broke them down
further into Acts of Piety and Acts of Mercy.
This is for Christians the common-sense, hard-work,
life-changing equivalent of exercising and eating right.
Acts of Piety are the things we do to care
of our own relationship with God.
Things like prayer, communion, reading the scriptures,
and discussing the things of God together.
The Acts of Mercy are the things we do to love and care for others
and help them to discover a relationship with God.
Things like visiting the sick, giving to the poor,
and volunteering to help the less fortunate.
Together, Wesley called these things the Means of Grace.
Or the different avenues by which we can experience God’s grace.
When we feel as though we are losing heart
the thing that we need most is grace
and it is through these channels of piety and mercy
that we find a most ample supply.
So that means as we move ahead and seek to love God
and to love our neighbors we must reconnect
to the grace God supplies.
We need to take a little more time to read our bibles
and discuss our faith journey with each other.
We need to connect with God’s people more than we have been.
Because before we can hope to give God’s love and grace to others
we must remember to partake of it ourselves.
We must allow God to renew us as we look into his word together,
as we pray together, as we grow together in God’s love.
Then we can fling open the doors
and find those in need of Christ’s love.
We can give it to them freely from our abundance
because we will once again be connected to the source
from which all love, grace, and mercy abounds.