240505 – We Sing of A Church

Our United Church has 4 documents that together are considered our ‘doctrine’. The latest statement of faith document was adopted in 2006. It’s called A Song of Faith. The ‘A’ is critical. It’s not ‘the’ song of faith, as in this is THE final word. It’s ‘A’ song of faith – for now. Likewise the Creed we all recited last week during the baptisms is called “A New Creed” – not THE one and only creed. That’s part of our denominational DNA – to say ‘a’ rather than ‘the’. I like to say we are a people of the indefinite article!

This sermon explores one small section of A Song of Faith from near the ending of the document. Here is a link to the whole document.


The section of A Song of Faith that we heard today begins with this bold proclamation: We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.

I love that it says seeking to continue the story of Jesus – not remember the story, or cherish the story, or debate the story – but to continue the story. Because it isn’t just ‘his’ story – it’s ‘our’ story! It’s your story – and it’s unfolding right now in your life. Some chapters have been written – but many, many more are still to come. How will Faith United continue the story of Jesus next?

All through A Song of Faith each section begins with “we sing of…” Today, we sing of a church… When most people hear the word church they instantly think of a building – but as you well know, the word actually refers to the community of followers of the Way of Jesus. You are the church – this is just a building that you agree to meet at. These bricks cannot embody Christ’s presence in the world – only you can. Buildings are not the vessels that carry the continuing story of Jesus – bodies are.

I’m just as guilty as anyone about this. Just about every day I say something like “Well, I’m off to the church now” – which is supposed to be a community of people – but I go to a building. I suppose it would be weird to say, “Well, honey, I’m off to continue the story of Jesus again. See you at supper time!”

The problem is that if church is a place to go, then it can also be a place you can leave behind. The language is important. The building doesn’t move – it’s stationary – inert – anchored into the ground. And we can lock the door and walk away from ‘church’. If church is a building – it’s separated from us.

No one ever looks at a house and says “that’s my family” – because it’s just a house – your family is people. And your church is people too – your church is you, and you, and you, all of you, one-anothering one another. And I think we know that – we really do – but we’re caught in the reality that in order to organize, coordinate, and mobilize a church (the people that is) you really need a physical place to organize, coordinate, and mobilize from. Don’t you?

If you want to know just how important our buildings are to us – answer this question honestly. When faced with a nasty budget crunch, is the usual solution for a congregation to move to a part-time minister or a part-time building?

Ok, quick – tell me this, what was the most successful ministry ever? Jesus and his 12 disciples, right? What did their church building look like? If we’re his followers, shouldn’t we model his building?
“Yeah, but Larry, that was 2000 years ago – and you’re always telling us how things have changed so much…”

Well, that’s true. So what’s the most successful ministry today – maybe we should emulate that? It’s hard to measure ‘success’ – but certainly worship attendance is a primary indicator. Saddleback Church in California has literally 20,000+ worshippers each week and it has a massive campus. However, Saddleback did not build their campus until they had – wait for it – ten thousand members! In their first 10 years they moved locations 72 times before they had a permanent facility. Their church was their people.

Maybe you’d never want to be part of a church that size – but that ignores the point. Show me in the Bible where it says the church is supposed to be a private club where we know everybody? Read the scriptures – everything about the New Testament says “go – share the good news.” But somewhere along the line we became all about building sanctuaries and trying to attract people into them. We are an attractional church. “If you build it, they will come.” Well, we did – and they didn’t. Maybe they used to, but not so much anymore.

The Bible doesn’t tell us to be attractional, it calls us to be purposeful. Catch the vision and give it legs. That’s what a purpose is – making the vision happen. Another mega-church called Willow Creek has this as their purpose statement: “We have a white hot commitment to turning unchurched people into passionate followers of Jesus.” It’s not just a commitment with them – it’s a white hot commitment! White hot! Are we – the United Church of Canada – Faith United – white hot about anything?! And what are those folks white hot about? – keeping their buildings open? No! They’re white hot about turning unchurched people into passionate followers of Jesus.

Does that mean that the members don’t really care about each other? – that they only care about the ‘outsiders’, and evangelizing? – that the place is big so it must be cold and unwelcoming? If that were the case, do you really think they’d have so many members?

You’re in the midst of visioning for the future right now. So, should Faith United become a mega-church? Probably not going to happen. But shouldn’t that general idea be your goal? Aren’t we supposed to be all about sharing the good news of Jesus? Don’t you think that every single person in Clarington would lead a fuller, richer, deeper, more meaningful, peaceful, joyous, and connected life if they became followers of Jesus?

Every now and then churches try to stir enthusiasm by setting a modest goal of growing by, say, 20 families. Not a bad thing. But why do churches want those 20 more families? Is it because they have a white hot commitment to help those 20 families know the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, or because 20 more families will help us with our deficits? Perhaps I’m being unfair? Perhaps not.

And why 20? Why isn’t the goal to grow by 200 families? Do we only think the good news of Jesus is important for 20 families? Don’t you think the purpose of the church is to share the love of God with as many people as are open to hearing it? I’m serious – why isn’t the goal to grow every United Church by 200 families? Or 400 families! Why don’t our United Churches, and this one, have a white hot commitment to that?

(Yeah, yeah. I know. We’ve never done it that way before.)

Our Song of Faith says, We are called together by Christ as a community of broken but hopeful believers, loving what he loved, living what he taught, striving to be faithful servants of God in our time and place.

This is how a church continues the story of Jesus. And, honestly, this IS what Faith United is all about. This is a wonderful expression of church. When you’re articulating your renewed vision for this place, like you’ll be doing today after worship and this week, you have the incredible advantage of primarily just telling the story of who you are and what you do – because Faith does church great!

But then, the Song reminds us: The church has not always lived up to its vision. It requires the Spirit to reorient it, helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition, challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement…

That word cuts us doesn’t it? Entitlement. It’s all ‘my will’ over against ‘God’s will’. But the hard truth is that as a church – the United Church – the mainline church – has lost the plot when it comes to vision and purpose. That spirit of entitlement has crept in and somehow convinced us that it’s ok to keep buildings open that seat 500 people but only have a couple of dozen worshippers just because they have enough reserves to pay their bills – or that it’s smart to have 10 United churches within a 15-minute drive of this place. We have seriously lost the plot.

So what are our choices – as a denomination? We could do nothing and just let the financial crunch come and watch churches fade quietly into nothingness. Not a great plan! And it’s happening all around us.

Or, we could overcome our ‘deep pockets and short arms’ problem and meet the bottom line of our budgets. We could commit to the ‘E-Word’ (evangelism) and intentionally reach out to draw others to God’s presence – maybe hundreds of others. We could radically refocus efforts into some new specialized ministry direction. We could dream some dreams. We could amalgamate or merge congregations together, or maybe build regional churches. We could close churches, strategically, so others could grow.

Every congregation that gathers to engage these hard questions absolutely loves their church – and I don’t just mean the building – I mean the people. Hopefully the realization will come that collectively we may have not lived up to the vision of Jesus, and hopefully we’ll find the courage and the humility to open ourselves and allow the Spirit to reorient us.

Our Song of Faith doesn’t have the answers to these hard questions – but it does remind us of what we’re supposed to be about – and it offers a means to move forward. It casts a grand vision of what it means to be church – a community of broken but hopeful believers, loving what Jesus loved, living what he taught, striving to be faithful servants of God in our time and place.

And it speaks of how to do it – through faith nurtured and hearts comforted, gifts shared for the good of all, resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize…members of a community held and inspired by God…each contributing to the ministry of the church through leadership, witness, worship, comforting, guiding, wisdom, social justice, and service.

Then it challenges us with this: To embody God’s love in the world, the work of the church requires the ministry and discipleship of all believers. All followers of Jesus. Every single one of you. Ministers – in your own way according to God’s call on your life.

Faith United has been engaging in this kind of visioning. You’ve had thought provoking questions in the bulletin last month. You’re in the midst of responding to a print survey about church life. And today you have the first of 3 interactive conversations, or workshops, to dig in together to figure out what kind of church you want to sing about in this next season.

Songs consist of verses, choruses, and bridges. The chorus of Faith United is in your bulletin each week – the mission statement. It describes your core values and gives wonderful verbs to propel those values into action. The verses of Faith’s song have featured a variety of characters and stories. You’ve had several ministers offer leadership in this Community of Faith over the years. The verse that you and I have written together is drawing to a close. But the chorus remains strong.

Next you’ll have a bridge – a part of the song that, after a few verses and choruses, transitions from one part to another – and then you’ll get on with more verses and more choruses. You will continue to sing of this church, in renewed and revitalized ways. Ministers come and go – but you, the body of Christ in this time and place, are the core of ministry here.

The passion and conviction necessary to carry out God’s vision and purpose for you as followers of the Way of Jesus is available to you through your church – your gathering – through each other – and through the Spirit that flows within and among you. It’s not an easy song to sing – and it’s not an easy vision to hold – and it’s not an easy purpose to carry out – nothing great and transformational ever is. And sometimes our voices catch in our throats as we try to sing. That’s how it goes.

What is crystal clear through it all is that we cannot do it alone – neither as individuals, nor even as a church – without the energizing and renewing fire of the Holy Spirit. And so we worship and we pray as we sing.

We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus by embodying Christ’s presence in the world. It’s time to write the next chapter of his story – and the next verse of your song.