Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sermon for June 19th: Matthew 28:16-20

Inviting others to follow Jesus

I want to start with some short stories that have been around in churchland for years. Forgive me if you’ve already heard them!

The first is the story of the elderly lady who was shaking hands with her minister after church. He had just preached a sermon about evangelism, and she said to him, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about evangelism; surely everyone in this town who ought to be an Anglican already is!”

The second is not a story so much as a couple of sayings that Anglicans and mainline church people in general like to take refuge in. You know them by heart already; in fact, you’ve probably used them yourself. The first one goes like this: “Some people talk about their faith; I just live it”. The second is, “What’s so important about getting more bums on pews?”

Finally, there’s the cartoon I saw years ago in a church leadership magazine. It showed a simply enormous church with a small group of worshippers down in a holy huddle in front of the preacher, and vast numbers of empty pews all around. The preacher was saying, “The Bible says we should spread the gospel to other people; the bank that owns our mortgage thinks it’s a good idea too!”

So here’s the unpleasant reality that these stories and cartoons point to. Mainline churches are shrinking at a frightening rate, and many are struggling financially and being shut down. In those mainline churches, there are some long time members who can’t understand why people who call themselves Anglicans or Roman Catholics or Lutherans just don’t show up like they used to. These good people would desperately like their churches to grow, but their motives might just be a little suspect: after all, “Will you please fill our pews, join our duty roster and share our deficits?” is hardly a joyful announcement of the message of Jesus, is it? And they would also like this church growth to happen magically, without them ever having to actually talk to their non-Christian friends about Jesus.

Now, contrast this with the confident, outward-looking vision we see at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts, where Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and continue his work, doing the Father’s will, sharing the good news that they had experienced, and inviting people who are not yet Christians to turn to Christ and follow him – all with the help of the Holy Spirit’s power. There’s a version of this commission in each of the four gospels and in the book of Acts, but let me remind you this morning of how it’s worded in our reading from Matthew. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (18a-20).

What is the vision of the Church that Jesus is holding up before us here? The vision is actually a very simple one: the Church is a community of disciples who go out to make new disciples under the authority of Jesus.

This is not just an issue of getting more bums on pews. Bigger congregations are not necessarily more desirable to God than smaller congregations. Jesus doesn’t just want us to make more churchgoers – he wants us to make more disciples. People who are just churchgoers go to church on Sundays, for whatever reason, but their lives are not impacted by it. Disciples are apprentices of Jesus: they have put their trust in him, decided to follow him as their master, and are learning each day how to put his teaching and example into practice in their daily lives.

This is important because this is the way God changes the world. The world will not necessarily be changed just by more people showing up in church on Sunday. But if more people live as Jesus taught us – putting God at the centre of their lives, loving God and their neighbours and even their enemies, living simple and generous lives, forgiving seventy times seven, caring for the poor and needy and working for peace and justice – then the world will be changed for sure. And the best way for this to happen is person to person –followers of Jesus talking with their friends and neighbours and coworkers and relatives and so on – and spreading the good news like a good infection.

Actually, it seems as if the first followers of Jesus had already been doing that before Jesus gave them this Great Commission. Many of us are familiar with the stories of Peter, the fisherman who became a great apostle and leader of the early church. But we often forget that Peter would never have become a follower of Jesus if it had not been for his brother Andrew. Andrew met Jesus before Peter did; he spent a day with Jesus and was obviously very impressed with what he saw and heard. John’s Gospel tells us that after he left Jesus, the first thing he did was to go and find his brother Simon Peter; he took him to meet Jesus, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The same chapter of John’s Gospel tells the story of Philip, who became a follower of Jesus and then went and told his friend Nathanael about him.

‘He said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see”’. (John 1:45-46).

So Nathanael went along with Philip, and ended up staying and becoming a disciple of Jesus too.

This story has been repeated over and over again in the history of Christianity. There have been many famous evangelists who have travelled thousands of miles and preached impressive sermons to enormous crowds, but the most successful method by far of making new disciples for Jesus is person to person: the invitation of a friend who says, ‘Come and see’. Some of you in this church today are churchgoers because someone invited you. Some of you have become followers of Jesus as a result of a process that began when someone said to you, ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ And, like Peter, some people who have responded to this simple invitation have gone on to become influential Christian leaders. Archbishop Michael Peers, who was the leader of our Canadian Anglican Church until a few years ago, often told the story of how his Christian life began when he was a student in Ottawa, when a fellow-student invited him to go to church with him.

And that’s what ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is all about. ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is an initiative that began in one corner of the Church of England less than ten years ago. It is based on a very simple concept: one Christian inviting a friend who is not a churchgoer to come to church with them. There’s no big media campaign and no bells and whistles. None of the advertising is aimed at bringing strangers into church; it’s all aimed at convincing nervous Christians to be brave, step out in faith and make the invitation. In just a few years Back to Church Sunday, on the last Sunday of September each year, has become a regular part of the life of the Church of England, and now it has come to Canada. Our Diocese of Edmonton tried it last year, and we participated here at St. Margaret’s. Our vestry has agreed that we will do it again, and so on Sunday September 25th, we will join with many other churches in our diocese in celebrating ‘Back to Church Sunday’.

As we think about Back to Church Sunday and our part in it, two questions come to my mind: ‘Do you have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do you have a friend worth sharing it with?’ Many of us have dear friends who we love very much but who do not share our Christian faith. Perhaps we’ve seen them going through crises in their lives, and wondered how on earth they manage to get through them without having God as their rock. Perhaps from time to time we’ve had conversations with them about Christian faith. Well, here’s an opportunity for those conversations to move to the next step: invitation. As Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see!”

But we might get a little nervous about inviting people to ‘come and see’; maybe we’re not altogether sure they’ll like what they see! And so as we prepare for ‘Back to Church Sunday’, we’ll need to think together about whether our church is really as welcoming and accessible as we think it is.

For instance, most churches are really good at making it difficult for strangers to find a place to sit. Most of us sit close to the back, so the back pews fill up first, and visitors who come late have to walk to the front in full view of everyone else. Also, many of us take the aisle seats, so that people who come after us have to climb over us to find a seat. What is that saying to our guests?

And what about the coffee hour: who do we talk to? Do we just talk to our friends, or do we intentionally seek out people we don’t know, so that we can get to know them? Would strangers find our coffee hour welcoming?

So as we go through the summer I’ll be putting little ‘welcome notes’ in the bulletin; things for us to think about so that we can improve the quality of our welcome. They all involve a change in mindset for some of us. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the guests in this church, but Back to Church Sunday challenges us to think of ourselves as the hosts instead, and to do our best to welcome the guests that Jesus will bring our way on that day.

But how should we go about this? What’s the process by which we decide who we should invite, and then go on to actually make the invitation? Let me suggest this simple process, which you’ll find on the insert in your bulletin today:

First, ask yourself the question, “What do I value about my church that would motivate me to want to invite others to join it?” After all, people are enormously talented about creating new and excruciating forms of misery for themselves; they don’t need our help, and if church is a miserable experience for you, you really shouldn’t try to inflict it on anyone else! So what is it that keeps you coming? How does it enrich your life? How does it help you connect with God and other people? How does it motivate you to live a different sort of life? If you can identify what it is that you value about St. Margaret’s, you’ll be more confident in inviting someone else to join you.

Second, ask yourself another question: Who in my life might God have been preparing for me to invite to Back to Church Sunday? Reflect on this – pray about it and ask God to guide you. As names come to mind over a few weeks, consider which of them might be the one you invite. You see, there’s an assumption here that God is already at work in people’s lives. It’s not our business to do all the work ourselves. It’s our business to try to be obedient to God and to follow his leading. So who might be the one we might invite? Ask God to guide you about this.

Third, pray for the person you invite – long before you invite them! And not just that: pray also for everyone else in our church as they invite their friends too. Pray for the services on that day, that they will be really helpful for people who are new to churchgoing and new to Christian faith. Pray for those who will lead the services, and for everyone else in the congregation who joins in welcoming our guests. This is God’s work, and it won’t go anywhere unless we pray.

Fourth – and this is the simple, crucial step: make the invitation to your friend. You can practice it if you like: it’s only about thirteen words long. It goes like this: ‘Would you like to come to church with me on September 25th?’ I know that some of you here have asked much more threatening questions than that – “Will you vote for me in the upcoming civic election?’ for instance, or even “Will you marry me?” So why not break the sound barrier and give this simple question a try?

Fifth, if your friend says yes, offer to pick them up and drive them to church on September 25th. That way there’s none of that anxious waiting at the door, wondering if they’ve forgotten or if they’ve backed out at the last minute. Also, that way you can introduce them to the greeters on the way in, and they’ll already have made one or two new acquaintances before the service has even started. And you can sit with them during the service, help them find their way around the bulletin, and help them with any other books they might need for the service.

Sixth, after the service, introduce them to your friends over coffee and include them in the conversation. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen new people come down to coffee hour after church and watched about three quarters of the regular churchgoers totally ignoring them! It’s true that there are a few people in our church who are very good at welcoming newcomers, but many of us could stand to learn a little more hospitality toward the guests of Jesus! But once again, it will be so much easier for your friend if you bring them down to coffee hour yourself and introduce them to a few people.

Lastly, assume they’ll be coming back. Ask them afterwards, “Shall I pick you up again next week? Would you like to go to lunch together afterwards?” Don’t assume that they hated the whole experience! Over the past few years I’ve invited friends to come to church with me for ‘Bring a Friend’ services on a number of occasions, and they’ve always told me afterwards that they enjoyed the experience.

So – this is our simple plan of outreach for September 25th. We’ll be joining with millions of Christians in different parts of the world in this effort to share the gospel with people. I myself plan to invite a friend to join me on that day, and I’m already thinking and praying about who that friend might be. Mind you, it might be a little more difficult for me to sit with my friend during the service and help them find their way – I might have to ask for your help in that!

Let’s remember what we said at the beginning: this is not just about getting more bums on pews. If all we do is get more people to come to church – even if they like it and keep coming back – we haven’t necessarily fulfilled Jesus’ Great Commission to make more disciples. So we can’t stop with Back to Church Sunday; we have to keep having conversations with our friends, discussing faith issues with them, and praying that the Holy Spirit will lead them. We’re going to do our part at St. Margaret’s, too; we’re going to schedule a Christian Basics course immediately following Back to Church Sunday in case there are people who come who are attracted and want to find out more about faith in Christ.

So – over to you! Does this excite you? Scare you? Challenge you? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been excited, scared, and challenged by many of the positive experiences I’ve had in my life! Why not step out in faith and participate in this outreach project? Do you have a faith worth sharing? Do you have a friend worth sharing it with? Well, here’s a simple way to share your faith with your friend. Why not give it a try?

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