Two Sunday ago, we began a series of lessons about the need for us to reach out to the community around us. And I made the observation that going to church is no longer considered a normal part of American life. Gone are the days when everybody went to church on Sundays. According to Barna Research, 43% of Americans are “un-churched,” which means they have not attended a church service in the past six months.
And, so, there is this great chasm that exists between the church and the world. We don’t have the same values. We don’t have the same priorities. We don’t have very much in common at all. And so, we are left with a wide chasm between us and the world that seems to be getting wider every year.
And I suggested that we will not bridge that gap with the world by yelling at people on the other side to tell them how bad they are. We will not bridge the gap by centering our focus on our own needs and wants. And we will not bridge the gap by simply telling people on the other side about how we have the truth and they don’t.
As I pointed out last week, we live in a postmodern culture. And what that means is that people around us are likely to believe that there really isn’t any such thing as truth. “You have your opinion and I have mine.” Or, as our young people would put it, “Whatever!” More and more, we are finding that truth is being defined as a matter of one’s own preference or perspective, if it even exists at all.
But, as I said, it’s not exactly true that our postmodern world doesn’t care at all about truth. It’s just that, to the people of this world, truth has to be more than just words. They don’t want to hear preaching about what truth is; they want to see lives that demonstrate what truth is. They want something they can see.
And so, we need to be how Robert Lewis described the church – “a community of people who stand firm in the truth…who present living proof of a loving God to a watching world.”
This is something that Jesus and the apostles made clear in their teachings.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount to “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).
And the Hebrew writer says that one of the main reasons we come together on the first day of the week is to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24). Which is what the world needs to see when they look at us – love and good works.
And I said last week that the best way for us to accomplish that is to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus not only taught the truth; he also lived out the truth. To put it another way, Jesus was not only interested in being good; he was focused on doing good. In fact, when Peter summed up the story of Jesus in Acts 10, he said that Jesus was someone who “went about doing good.” (Acts 10:38).
As we saw last week, Jesus did that by associating with people (a lot), by serving people, by having a special heart for those that society looked down on, and finally, by calling them to follow him.
And, as we follow the example of Jesus, we need to do the same things. And when we do, then people will see the truth of Jesus Christ lived out in our lives, and we will be able to build those bridges to the community around us.
This morning, I want to talk about what that means in the life of the church – both in the life of the early church, and in the life of the church right here, right now, the Cruciform Church of Christ here in Spring Lake.
As we go back to the beginning of the church, we see that the early Christians believed that their motivation for helping others should be God’s agape love for us, which is a reflection of his nature. As the apostle John said, “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4:10). And then, John went on to say that “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (I John 4:11).
And we know from history that the early Christians were known for showing love to their church family. Justin Martyr, a Christian in the second century, described it this way. He said, “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
Those early Christians showed love to one another and helped others, especially those who were weaker and more helpless. They showed a special concern for the protection of unborn and newborn babies.
But it’s important to see that their Christianity was more than just words. When a second-century pagan ridiculed Christians for their lack of education, one Christian replied, “We don’t speak great things. We live them!” And that was the essence of early Christianity. It wasn’t a religion of mere words, but of good works.
And the love of those early Christians wasn’t limited simply to their church family. Christians also reached out in love to help non-believers who were in need: the poor, the orphans, the elderly, the sick, the shipwrecked
Lactantius, a Christian who lived in the early part of the 4th century, wrote, “If we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers? … Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good — giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.”
I want you to understand just how radical that idea was in those early centuries. In those days, the idea of individuals helping others was virtually unheard of. Now, the Greeks and the Romans had government agencies that helped others, but it was rare for individuals to do anything.
But, God’s love demanded from Christians a response that would demonstrate his love to others, especially those who were in need. In fact, James defined “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” in part as caring for “orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27), which is biblical shorthand for helping all those without protectors and who are in need.
And, in that regard, Christian beneficence went further than Jewish benevolence, because the Jewish community was only required to help its own. But Christians learned a new standard from Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. In that parable, Jesus shocked everyone when he said that it was the despised Samaritan who proved himself to be a neighbor, having compassion on the wounded man and giving him medical aid when even the priests and Levites of his own religious community passed him by.
And so, as a result, Christians lived out their faith by helping others to an extent never seen before. Church leaders encouraged all Christians to visit the sick and help the poor, and each congregation established an organized benevolent ministry. They collected money every Sunday, which was distributed by deacons to those in need. Widows and deaconesses provided a special ministry of mercy to women. Despite being persecuted and despite their small numbers, Christians maintained an extensive ministry to those in need.
And, by the third century the number of people who were receiving aid from the church had grown considerably, especially in large cities. In fact, around the middle of the third century, the church in Rome is reported to have ministered to about 1,500 widows and others in need every year.
Around that same time, there was an epidemic that spread throughout the Roman Empire. It lasted about 20 years, and at one point in Rome as many as 5,000 people a day were dying from this plague. The public officials didn’t do anything to prevent the spread of the disease, treat the sick, or even to bury the dead.
The Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families out into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.
You see, those early Christians took Jesus seriously when he said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The early church didn’t just speak the truth; they lived out the truth. They lived it in a way that others around them could see their faith in action. They did it in such a way that they were able to connect with the world. They built bridges by doing good.
Michael Green wrote in his book Evangelism in the Early Church, “Such lives made a great impact. Even the heathen opponents of Christianity admitted as much…It is difficult to overestimate this moral emphasis in the growth of second century Christianity.”
And so, we have the example of Jesus building bridges to the people around him as he met their needs. And we have the example of the early Christians building bridges to the people around them as they met their needs. And it would seem obvious that we need to be focused on building those same kinds of bridges to our community here in Spring Lake.
But first, let me share with you another bridge story. This story begins with an island. Over a long period of time, living on an island shapes the way you think. Because you’re isolated from most everyone else, that tends to make you different from others, it sets you apart. And it really doesn’t matter which island you’re talking about, there is a big difference between those who live on that island and those who live on shore. From the perspective of the islanders, it’s us and them. And that’s pretty much inevitable, given the fact that the island is separated from everyone else by water. And most islanders wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s one of the reasons why they chose to live on an island.
And so, island living is usually peaceful, serene, undisturbed, and largely disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s a very intentional, easy-going way of life. And so, for centuries, the people who lived on Prince Edward Island enjoyed a peaceful existence just like I’ve described.
Prince Edward Island is an island in Canada located just off the eastern coast. It’s an island that was once described as “two huge beaches separated by potato fields.” Everyone who lived on that island was separated from the chaos of the real world by eight miles of ocean.
And so, it was very peaceful. If you’ve ever seen the movie, Anne of Green Gables, or read the book, you get a sense of the serenity on that island, because Green Gables is a farm located on Prince Edward Island. And so, everything on this island was calm and serene. Until 1997.
In 1997, an 8-mile bridge was completed, connecting the mainland of Canada to Prince Edward Island. It was an amazing accomplishment, costing over a billion dollars.
And, from that point on, everything changed. The island was suddenly filled with tourists, who were not at all interested in their calm, serene lifestyle. All sorts of changes began to take place. Wal-Mart, Sears and Home Depot went up. Locally-owned businesses closed down. And if you go to visit Green Gables, you will find that Anne’s name is now being used to promote dolls, T-shirts, potato chips, a golf course, restaurants, and a wax museum. Many residents believe that Anne must surely be rolling over in her fictional grave.
For many of the island’s longtime residents, there was a lot of fear about what was going to happen in the future. Some of them were angry with those whom they held responsible for the changes. On the other hand, some people welcomed all the new jobs and appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to wait any more in long lines for the ferry. Those caught somewhere in the middle figured they might as well get used to it.
Because, with the completion of that bridge, only one thing is certain: Prince Edward Island, for good or for bad, will never be the same again.
And I think that’s a good illustration of the church as we consider our relationship with the world, our relationship with the community. If we succeed in building a bridge to our community, things will never be the same again.
And that’s a scary thought. There’s a certain amount of comfort that comes from huddling together on our island, separated from all the rest of the world. But, as soon as we start building bridges to the community, things will change and things will never be the same again, either for them or for us.
So, let me talk for a few minutes about some of the things that tend to hold us back and keep us from trying to connect with the people in our community.
The first thing is what I’ve already suggested – fear.
I think one of the first emotions that we feel when we think seriously about how we can personally make a difference “out there” beyond the safe borders of our church, is fear. And fear may well be the biggest enemy to our ministry. In my opinion, it is fear, and not love, that is the driving force in most churches.
For example, I heard about a small church in Ohio that was considering building bridges into its community. But, there was a member of that church who was honest enough to admit that he didn’t like it. He said, “This is our church and we don’t want to give it up.”
You see, he recognized something very important. If the church is going to be serious about reaching out to the community with God’s love, it is going to disrupt our serene and cultivated sense of identity. Dealing with people and their needs can sometimes be messy and uncomfortable. And the truth is, I’ve known a lot of Christians through the years who have expressed something similar. Some have even been honest enough to admit, “I don’t want this church to grow. I like it just the way it is.”
Because if we bring “those people” into our church building, things are not going to look the same anymore. And we don’t want our church to change. The problem, though, is that we sometimes forget that the church isn’t our church. It’s His church, and God wants us to build bridges to the world. He never intended for the church to live the lifestyle of islanders.
But we live in fear. There’s the fear of change. But, perhaps the greatest fear is the fear of our own inadequacy. The task is too big! Our abilities are too small! And there are certainly a lot of examples in the Bible of people who had that same kind of fear. Remember Moses, when God called him to lead the Israelites out of bondage? He said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).
It was the same response that Gideon had when he was called by God to lead the Israelites in Judges 6. I can’t do it. I’m not strong enough. I’m not capable enough.
But God’s response to both of those men was the same – he said, “I am with you!” And we need to constantly be reminded that the possibility of great things being accomplished has nothing to do with our ability. Rather, it has to do with our availability, as we allow God to use us and to work through us.
Reaching out and connecting to others in the world is similar to college graduation. It’s a scary thing. It forces you to make changes. But it’s also healthy! To stay in college may feel safe, but the truth is that, after a while, staying there will stifle your life. Change is needed to grow.
The same thing is true of us spiritually. There are times when we need to step away from what’s comfortable and what’s easy to develop spiritually.
There’s another thing that holds us back from building bridges, which also relates to college graduation – the uncertainty
You may remember what it was like to graduate from college. If so, you know how confusing this transition can be. There are so many questions, not the least of which is the question, “What now?” College graduates often need help finding a job, preparing for interviews, making hard decisions.
The same thing is true as we build bridges into our community. Some of you may not be sure which direction to go. What now? As elders, we understand that it is our job as leaders to help each of you to find your area of ministry. Some of you may want to plug into ministries that are already going — for example, our food pantry twice a month, our need for volunteers at Manchester Elementary, donations for gift bags, willingness to pray.
But some of you have expressed a desire to build other bridges and we want to do what we can to make those ministries a reality as well – things like the ASH ministry to support those women who’ve had abortions, Celebrate Recovery to help those with hurts, habits and hang-ups, Financial Peace University to help those who are having trouble getting a hold on their finances, a nursing home ministry to encourage those who are elderly and confined.
There may be other interests as well. We would love to have a full-blown Hispanic Ministry. We’re in need of a deaf ministry. Disaster Follow-Up, Divorce Care, Divorce Prevention, Habitat For Humanity. But, it doesn’t even have to be an official “ministry”. It can be simply be an intentional effort on your part to make a personal connection with someone in this community – maybe with a waitress in a local restaurant, or the gamers who gather at Gamer’s Guild a few doors down, or the employees of Carco or Rent-a-Center on either side of us.
For most of us, though, the question is not, “What can I do?” but “What do I want to do? What really excites me?” And, when it comes to serving God, that’s an important question. Nobody wants to work simply to punch a timeclock. People want to find purpose, meaning and fulfillment in their serving. Anything less than that ends up feeling like Israel’s “forced labor” in Egypt. And any ministry that’s not done out of passion will never get people through the inevitable pain and difficulty that will come from time to time in having a ministry.
The third roadblock comes down to a matter of faith. We sometimes find ourselves asking the question, “Will it really do any good?” Maybe we think to ourselves, “I just don’t think that it will. The need is so great, the problems are so many, the community is so corrupt – anything we do is just going to be a drop in the bucket. So why even do it? Nothing’s really going to change.”
And then there’s the even more pessimistic approach of, “What difference can I make? I’m just one person. I have so little that I can offer.” And even if we don’t verbally express those things, we feel them in our hearts. And, at times, it can be much easier to criticize the world for its evil than to work in it for its good.
But, as we look back in history, we see that the early church certainly had reason to question their ability to impact the world. What difference could they possibly make? When you look at the big picture of the 50 million people who in the Roman Empire, the church was extremely small.
And even if they could make a difference, how could anyone believe that difference would ultimately do any long-term good? After all, we’re talking about the Roman Empire, perhaps the most powerful civilization ever to govern the face of the earth.
And yet, as we look back from our perspective, we can see just how much they were able to do. And while we stand in awe of what they were able to accomplish, the truth is that the apostles never proceeded with the intention of “succeeding”. At least, not in the way that we normally define success.
They simply did what God called them to do and they left the results up to God. And they measured their success by how much they loved others, not by how much the culture changed. The objective in their love and their service was to bring glory to God.
Peter made this point in I Peter 4: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10-11).
So, when we find ourselves asking the question, “What difference can I make?”, we’re asking the wrong question. The question we need to be asking is, “What gifts has God given me that he expects me to use to draw others to Him?” And when we ask, “What good will it do?”, we need to be reminded of what “good” is. Because if God has been glorified, we have done good. Real good.
So, there are things that hold us back – fear, uncertainty, doubt. But, in spite of these roadblocks, we need to do what we can to build bridges to those around us.
I started this series by giving you my vision, and I want to close by giving it to you again.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be the kind of church that the community in which we live is genuinely thankful for our presence?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the city leaders in Spring Lake valuing this church’s friendship and participation in the community?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the people around this church building talking behind our back about “how good it is” to have this church in the area because of the way we demonstrate the love of God?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see this community actually changing because of the impact of our church’s involvement?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people in Spring Lake who were formerly cynical and hostile toward Christianity, actually praising God for this church and the positive contributions we are making here?
You see, I have a vision of those things actually happening. And I believe that this vision can become a reality, so that, like Jesus and like the early church, we connect with the people as we do good works, demonstrating God’s love as we work to meet the needs of our community.