January 10, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
CHURCH AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE
The first in a series of five.
What is God up to in human history? What is God’s great, grand purpose? Those are rhetorical questions. That means I don’t expect you to answer them out loud. But what if they weren’t rhetorical questions? What if I pointed at one of you right now and asked you for an answer? What would you say? What do you think God is trying to accomplish here on earth through people like you and me?
There are many ways we could answer that question but one way would be with one word. Community.
There’s a book called The All Better Book. It’s a book that poses problems and then gives you solutions to those problems that have been suggested by grade school age children. You’d be amazed how smart these grade school age children are. Maybe we should consider lowering the minimum age to be President of the United States. One of the problems posed was this: “With billions of people in the world, someone should be able to figure out a system where no one is lonely. What do you suggest?”
Kalani, age 8, said: “People should find lonely people and ask them their name and address, then ask people who aren’t lonely their name and address. When you have an even amount of each, assign lonely and not lonely people to each other.”
Max, age 9, had an even more creative idea: “Make food that talks to you when you eat. For instance, it could say, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘What happened to you today?'”
There’s Kaitlyn who’s also 9: “If they don’t feel like they’re pretty, you could say, ‘You’re a lot prettier than someone I know who has big bulgy eyes!”
Matt is 8: “We could get people a pet or a husband or a wife and take them places.”
And then there is Brian, age 8: “Sing a song, stomp your feet, read a book. Sometimes I think no one loves me, so I do one of those things.”
“With billions of lonely people in the world, someone should be able to figure out a system where no one is lonely.” Guess what? Someone has. It’s called small groups. If community is God’s purpose, and I think it is, then small groups are God’s method. They are God’s way of achieving community.
This is important. There’s more to say than I’m going to have time to say in one sermon. This is going to be a series of five. And this is important enough I’m going to encourage you to not miss any of these five. There are no more 11 am games with Kellen Moore starting at quarterback. And the Super Bowl starts late in the afternoon. If you just sit still and don’t go anywhere, you have one of the five in already. Just four more to go. If you do have to miss a Sunday, all sermons are always available on our church website. Or you can just call the office and we’ll send then to you. I’m convinced that small groups are a big part of the future of this church and that’s why I want as many of you as possible to hear this series.
Throughout the history of the church, without exception, whenever there has been a great movement of the Spirit, small groups have been part of it. Whenever there has been renewal or revival, whenever God has been up to something big, people have always entered into small groups. Jesus did this when he selected the twelve and formed them into a small group. We read in the book of Acts how the early church met in homes and had fellowship in small groups. In the fourth century with the Desert Fathers, again this happened. Then the monastic movement of the Middle Ages, the pietist movement in seventeenth century Germany, John Wesley’s revival in England in the eighteenth century. The same thing every time. Right up to all the house churches today in China.
It’s always been the case. It’s God’s plan to build the church and to build the church you have to first build the people who will be the church. That takes small groups.
We conducted an experiment last fall. I announced in a newsletter article that I was going to be leading a small group that would be limited to the first 12 who signed up. We had more than 12 sign up, so we started a second group. Rochelle Killett led it. The groups took a break over the holidays. They started back up last Wednesday. There is room for more. So you can be in on the ground floor. You can be one of the “early adopters”. Or you can wait until I’ve had a chance to convince you and you can be one of the “laggards”. Either way is fine.
It’s possible, in fact it happens all the time, for people to be in the same church their whole lives and never really know anyone and no one ever really knows them. People sit in the same place each Sunday, smile at the same people, talk about the weather or Kellen Moore. Every church has these “familiar strangers”. Nobody really knows them, what they struggle with, what they’re afraid of. Nobody knows what sins they regret, what hopes and dreams they hold dear. Nobody knows what makes them laugh or makes them cry. People in church every Sunday and nobody knows them! That’s not the church. That’s not church as it was meant to be.
God made us for community. We’re healthiest and happiest and at our best when we are living our lives in relationship. In relationship with God. In relationship with other people. Small groups are God’s method to make that happen.
There are two things that happen in small groups that every one of us desperately needs. The first is our need to love and be loved. Small groups are for caring. The Bible tells us over and over again, in many places, in many ways how much God cares for us. Jesus was always teaching us about God’s love.
Once he pointed to some birds and he said, “God cares about them, but how much more God cares about you!” (See Matthew 6:26). On another occasion he said that not even a sparrow can fall out of the nest without God knowing and caring. And then comes one of the great understatements of the Bible: “You are worth many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
Every human being you will ever meet is the object of that kind of extravagant love! And God’s plan is for each one to know of that love from other people who will also love them and who also are loved by God. To love and be loved. That’s a most basic need. And yet there are people this morning who live close enough to this church, they wouldn’t have to drive to get here. They could walk. But they stayed home. And they are singing a song or stomping their feet or reading a book because they think no one loves them.
There’s a second thing that happens in small groups that we also need. We not only need to love and be loved. We need to know and be known. We not only need caring. We need accountability. We might not be as eager to admit our need for accountability, but we do need it, and small groups are a great place to get it. Confession has never been very popular but it’s always been necessary. Not just in Catholic churches. If we are serious about leaving our sins behind and finally making some progress spiritually, we’re going to have a hard time doing that without some help.
It’s been said that we’re about as sick as our secrets. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” Unconfessed sin holds power over us. But it’s a power that doesn’t have to be. It’s easily broken. The simple act of confession sets us free. In our tradition, we don’t confess to a priest. Most of us, I’m guessing, confess in our private prayers to God, if we confess at all. But what then of the verse we read earlier: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed” (James 5:16)?
This is a verse that was important to John Wesley. He used it in the rules he wrote for his small groups. He used the King James Version, so it sounds a little different, but it’s the same verse.
The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed”.
We had a series last fall on the Wesleyan Revival. John Wesley lived in England in the 1700’s. He was God’s instrument for a great spiritual awakening that came to England and eventually made its way to America. All United Methodist and Nazarene churches trace their history back to John Wesley. We said in the series that it wasn’t so much that he was he was a great preacher. It was more that he was a great organizer. And the Wesleyan Revival was organized around small groups.
Church as it was meant to be is a network of small groups. John Wesley understood that. His genius is that he was able to get people into these groups where they could love and be loved, know and be known, and grow up in Jesus Christ. He called them societies and class meetings and bands. Participation was not optional. The leader of each group was responsible for the spiritual development of the members and also for collecting money for the poor.
There was a heavy emphasis in these groups on accountability and that was made clear from the start in these rules John Wesley drew up. They were in the form of interview questions. Each new prospective group member had to answer “yes” to each one. Here are a few of them:
- Does any sin, inward or outward, have dominion over you?
- Do you desire to be told of your faults?
- Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that clearly and plainly?
- Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?
- Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?
- Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?
- Is it your desire and design to be on this, and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?
We didn’t quite get around to asking those questions in the small groups we started in the fall. A lot of groups never get that deep. And that’s OK. Wesley actually asked these questions in his bands, not in his class meetings. The bands were either all men or all women and were designed for some very in-depth accountability. But the general rule is, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. The more you put in, the more you get out. Those who are willing to entrust their very souls to other Christians in a small group are the ones who will be most richly blessed by their participation in that group. We’ll be talking more about the rewards of small groups next week.
I want to close with a personal story. This one goes back a few years. I was living in Medford, Oregon. I was associate pastor at the UnitedMethodistChurch there, my first assignment out of seminary. When I wasn’t working I was running. There were some goals I hadn’t reached in college and I figured that the time to chase those goals was while I was still in my 20’s.
George was in his 40’s. He was 15 years older than me. We met in a race. We were dueling it out most of the way. We decided to start training together.
We had some incredible early morning runs. For one thing, we’d hold each other accountable. It was harder to ignore the alarm clock when we knew the other would be waiting. And also, once we got going, the pace would inevitably accelerate. Neither one of us would complain. He was the one to push the pace but he always claimed it was me. Didn’t matter. We were each pathologically competitive. And we were good for each other. He helped me and I helped him get into the best shape of our lives.
One day the phone rang. It was George. He could barely get the words out. His wife had left him. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know who to call. So he called me.
Our runs those next few weeks were a little slower. It had to be slow enough for us to talk. He had a lot he needed to talk about. And I was there to listen.
Some time later, I had the privilege of officiating at his second marriage. This one lasted. George and Marie are still happily married. A few months ago he managed to track me down on the internet and we had a lot of catching up to do.
I’ll never forget that phone call. This was one of the strongest, toughest men I’ve ever met. He was crying like a baby. He didn’t have a church. He didn’t have a small group. He didn’t have many friends. He just knew this kid he ran with so that’s who he called. Because he knew that what he was facing was too big for him to face it alone.
God designed this world so we wouldn’t have to face our problems alone. God built community right into the blueprint of creation. It’s right there in the first story of the Bible. God says it’s not good for us to be alone. With billions of people in the world, someone should be able to figure out a system where no one is lonely. God has. It’s called church. But not just any church. Church as it was meant to be.
Thank you God for people with whom to share our lives. We confess that whether we are extroverts or introverts or somewhere in between, none of us has fully availed ourselves of this great gift. I pray that you will be at work in this church as we contemplate what all this means for us. May it be a season of prayerful discernment, for this is important. We all need to love and be loved, to know and be known, and to have a place where we belong. In Christ, Amen.