Monday, 8 June 2015

7 Marks Of A Healthy Church - Mark 5, Operates As A Community

Sermon preached at St Martin's Church by Penny Wheble on Sunday 31st May 2015  

An elderly woman walked into a local country church. The friendly sidesman greeted her at the door.
‘Where would you like to sit?’ he asked politely.
‘The front row, please,’ she answered. (This can’t possibly have been an Anglican church!)
‘You really don’t want to do that,’ the usher said. ’The vicar is really boring.’
‘Do you happen to know who I am?’ the woman asked.
‘No’, he said.
‘I’m the vicar’s mother,’ she replied indignantly.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked.
‘No’ she said.
‘Good’ he answered and walked away.

The Gospels start with the birth of Jesus and go on to describe his life and works. Acts starts with the birth of the Christian Church and goes on to describe the life and works of the new Christians and congregations.

The Church sought to follow Jesus’ ideas and practice. He was a very different leader to the Pharisees. They had society divided up into different groups. Priests/lay, men/women, Jews/gentiles, healthy/sick, righteous/sinners. The Temple in Jerusalem was designed with all these separations built in. Jesus famously said he was going to tear this edifice down and rebuild it in three days. Jesus ignores these divisions amongst people and treats everyone with equal respect, responding to human need wherever he found it. He was famous for his care of those whom the Pharisees said were not worthy of Gods interest.

So when the Spirit came upon all the people in Acts 2, the church was born in power and purpose, which was to continue and extend the work Jesus had begun.

To some extent, the two words ‘community’ and ‘fellowship’ have similar meanings, but there is a richness to the word ‘fellowship’ that needs to be explored further.

The meaning of ‘fellowship’ is summed up by some of the ‘one another’ sayings of the New Testament. So, for example, the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Roman Christians:  
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.” (Rom. 12:10) In 1 Thessalonians, he writes: “Encourage one another and build each other up.” (1 Thess. 5:11)

And then , John urges the recipients of his letter: “Let us love one another, for love comes from God.” (1 John 4:7)
If a church doesn’t have this sense of fellowship, then it isn’t really a community at all, but simply a group of individuals that gather for for their own individual purposes, with their own individual agendas.

In a short reading from Acts 4, we find the most wonderful sense of fellowship amongst the early believers. It says this:“All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. … There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.”
May we here at St Martin’s Church enjoy this sense of fellowship here amongst us and love one another, as God has loved us.

The second feature of a healthy church is that it is A community of welcome

I personally feel that the people who meet and greet people at the front door of the church on Sunday mornings and evenings are incredibly important. They are the first point of contact that visitors have with the church and so often, first impressions count. When people receive a warm welcome on the door and from those inside the main part of the church, they feel more at ease and ready to worship. And it also makes it more likely they will come again the next week, as well! But being a community of welcome means more than just the greeting one receives at the front door – it also means making people feel accepted, giving them a sense of belonging and trying to address their needs.

One of the most important ministries of the ancient Christian monasteries was the ministry of hospitality. Now, a ministry of hospitality was a costly business for the monastery, because if you have an open house, who knew how many would come in? The Celtic Christian, Columba, founded a monastery in Ireland which is thought to have provided meals for up to one thousand hungry people each day! Just imagine the work involved in making food and drink for that many people! Monasteries would also have within their walls a guesthouse and the finest food and drink was always given to its residents.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matt 25:35-36)

The monks felt that, in looking after strangers, they might well be entertaining angels, or even Jesus Christ Himself. They practised what you might call radical hospitality and that came with a cost, but also with an even greater blessing.

As a local church, we too need to exercise a ministry of hospitality, accepting and valuing every person who comes through our doors, making them feel that they belong, whatever their circumstances. 

A friendly word will put someone at their ease, a listening ear will help them feel valued, a servant heart will make them feel loved.

They started taking the gospel to people like themselves and ended up taking the gospel to literally anyone who would listen irrespective of their race, language, background, gender etc. They did this not so much by big evangelistic meetings although Paul and Peter did do those, but more often the church grew as local Christians got together and invited their friends and received enquirers. 1 Cor. 14:23

This takes us back to the matter of welcome to visitors to our church. How do we know if we are a welcoming church? The fact that we in the church feel welcome isn’t proof that everyone else does. The fact that some feel welcome is no proof that all do either.
We may work hard to see that everyone gets a warm welcome, but does it extend much beyond a simple hello? Do we allow people to tell us their story or are we only concerned to tell them ours? Some visitors will come again and become regular attenders. Is this the goal? No, the welcome is only fulfilled when people join in and participate. As people are able to give and receive within the fellowship then the church has demonstrated its healthiness in that it welcomes all.

This should be the ambition of every Church. The point of its existence. The way it moves through history and through the generations. But we note that some within the church are very anxious about this process, because a true welcome involves change to the status quo, and not all change is for the better, so change is often resisted to be on the safe side. To be fair, the early church did encounter a lot of difficulties because of its growth policy. The letters written to the various NT Churches often contain lovely words of thanks, encouragement and joy at their new life together in Christ, but the letters were often written because many problems arose within the churches that needed to be addressed and sorted out by applying the Gospel to them. Just note that in churches, having a problem is not the problem. Being unable to solve the problem well is the problem.

The NT Christians and churches were amazing . They were made up of people who had been scattered against each other since Genesis 11 but were being brought together with God as Lord and King in churches. Jesus showed the way about treating everyone equally before God, and the church put it into practice giving dignity to lay people, the sick, women, gentiles etc, because a healthy church makes room for all, all are welcome here.

Today, as we continue to look  at what makes a healthy church, we recall how a healthy church is energised by faith, has an outward looking focus, seeks to find out what God wants, and faces the cost of change and growth.
The fifth mark of a healthy church is this:
It operates as a community, rather than functioning as a club or religious organisation.
It’s a place where:
Relationships:  are nurtured, often in small groups, so that people feel accepted and are helped to grow in faith and service.
Leadership: lay and ordained work as a team to develop locally appropriate expressions of all seven marks of a healthy church.
Lay ministry: the different gifts, experiences and faith journeys of all are valued and given expression in and beyond the life of the church.                    

It’s interesting to think about early monastacism, - how monasteries and convents were the major centres for Christian learning and mission. Following their examples, we as a church  can learn some important lessons.  In the monastic life, the emphasis was upon serving the Lord together as a community, not upon individuals going off to do their own thing. Everything – pastoral work, evangelism, worship and teaching – was undertaken by teams of men and women, the gifts that God had given to them complementing one another. The monastery was a centre, a hub, from which these teams went out to minister to the people in a whole multitude of ways.

Today, we are thinking about how a healthy church operates as a community! And as we consider this a little more closely today, let’s keep in mind the monastery idea.

“Healthy churches are communities and operate as such rather than as a club, or religious organisation” – so says Robert Warren, author of ‘The Healthy Churches’ Handbook.’ The focus of a community should, first and foremost, be to build and develop good personal relationships; whereas, an organisation will undoubtedly have other priorities and, by its very nature, is usually more impersonal and controlling. A church that acts as a community is better at relating to people - and, for many, is a more attractive proposition - than a church that styles itself as an organisation. Whereas smaller churches are naturally suited to being communities, larger ones can often feel more like organisations. The larger churches that thrive tend to have a flourishing small group structure that encourages and promotes a sense of community.

But what sort of ‘community’ might the local church be? I think that the New Testament gives some good indications.

First of all, the healthy church is A community of fellowship

So as you can now see, ‘fellowship’ is all about nurturing relationships, all about encouraging one another, all about making people feel valued. It’s about being willing to serve one another and to use the gifts that God has given each of us for the well-being and building up of others.

Those first believers in Jesus Christ put this idea of fellowship into practice in radical ways, with the result that they all felt valued and able to contribute – they truly were united in heart and mind. And, possibly most importantly, their faith was strengthened.

But, for us, a ministry of hospitality might also mean opening our doors even wider to let community groups supporting the most vulnerable people use our building. It might mean us opening up during the week to provide refreshment and friendly conversation to people in need of a quiet space and moment.

Generous hospitality will be demanding in terms of time, effort, money, and, of course, emotion, but that is what we are called to by Jesus Himself.

A healthy church is a community of welcome and it is also A community of disciples
Last Sunday morning, we had a reading from earlier in the Book of Acts, where it said: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …” (Acts 2: 42)

The church community always has been, and always should be, a centre for learning. Whether it be at a service on a Sunday morning or evening, or at house group on a  weekday evening, we should as a church be devoted to the written word of God – eager to hear what God wants to say to us through it. But so much Christian learning also goes on outside of more formal church situations – Paul tells the Christians at Rome: “I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them.” (Rom 15: 14)

The point I’m trying to make is that Christians can learn from one another whenever, and wherever, they meet – in each others’ homes, out socially, at work.

The word ‘disciple’ literally means ‘a learner’, ‘a pupil’, and the most important thing is that we need to be open to learning. We all know that, just because someone is in a particular lesson at school or university, it doesn’t mean that they are learning – I can remember plenty of occasions when I have been physically present at a  lecture, or conference presentation, but haven’t learned anything, because instead of listening I was concentrating on what I had to do in the following week, or daydreaming about something quite trivial.
You see, being a disciple is an attitude of mind – it’s about being eager to learn; it’s about being open to teaching, and unless we have that eagerness, that openness, we will stay exactly where we are and will not become the people, the community, that God wants us to be.

A healthy church is a community of disciples. It is also a community of prayer

Christian monasteries have always been communities of prayer, with monks or nuns gathering for prayer numerous times during the day, and sometimes the night, too! The life of the monastery revolves around prayer and so prayer brings a helpful rhythm to the lives of the monks. It’s quite comforting to know that monks and nuns around the world are in prayer around the clock – perhaps we could be inspired to try to pray three times a day using a book of daily offices, such as the Community of St Chad’s  Rhythms of Grace.

Even the Jews of Jesus’ time  gathered for prayer five times each day and we know that, to begin, the early Christians followed that same pattern. So, the early Church was also very much a community of prayer and their prayer times also gave them a rhythm to life.
They all joined together constantly in prayer… (Acts 1: 14)

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer at three in the afternoon.  (Acts 3:1)   
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. (Acts 10:9)

Prayer must be the heartbeat of the local church – regular and persistent. Just as the heart is the powerhouse of the human body, so prayer is the powerhouse of the church. The famous Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon knew that to be true – before each service at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, he would have hundreds of people in a downstairs hall praying for God’s blessing on the service.

Prayer must be the heartbeat of this church, too. We have morning prayer most weekdays and  Prayer and Praise on the first Sunday evening of the month, - everyone is welcome. We also have a monthly Prayer Diary, telephone and internet prayer chains. Please ask if you’d like to know more.

Let us be a committed community of prayer – it’s a key to church health.

Finally, the healthy church is A community of mission

The truth is that the Celtic monks of about 1400 years ago wouldn’t think in terms of engaging in mission and evangelism. Instead, they practised what has been called a ‘ministry of presence’ – they saw their role “as simply being there in the midst of the people.” So they would go out from the monastery in teams of two or three to listen and advise people, to preach the gospel, and to offer pastoral care where needed.

The monks saw themselves primarily as ‘witnesses’, rather than ‘evangelists’ or ‘missionaries’ in the modern sense, and I think that this can be a helpful way of looking at it.
I imagine that few of us would think of ourselves as evangelists, or missionaries, but maybe we feel happier being called ‘a witness’, someone who is simply there in the midst of the people – whether it be at work, school, or in a social setting – bringing light and salt into that situation and being a channel for the love of God. We are told that, these days, ‘friendship evangelism’ is the most effective way of bringing people into the Kingdom of God – is this not what being a ‘witness’ is all about? And doesn’t the concept of ‘Street Pastors’ resonate with the monastic idea of a ‘ministry of presence’? If you wish to find out about Street Pastors in Walsall, do have a word with Simon after the service.

Ultimately, as a local church, we are called to be a community of mission. In the Great Commission Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28 . And so, we must work together as a team to reach our neighbourhood for Jesus Christ, by whatever it takes. The church building then becomes a centre, a hub, from which we go out and to which we return.

I love this church. I love the fact that I can be part of a group of people who are loved by God and love each other unconditionally.

I love the fact that I can go anywhere in the world and finding other Christians and being church with them.

I love the way churches are all the same at their core and yet very different in their packaging, from state of the art buildings to our partner churches in West Malaysia.
I love the history of the church, carrying out the same God-given mandate and activities from the birth of Christianity until now.

I love the promise that church growth depends on God, not us.

I love the fact that church is a gathering of people making their way together to God’s new creation.

McDonald’s use the slogan ‘I’m lovin’ it’. – and if McDonalds can say that how much more should Chrsitians?

I’d love it if we could encourage others to start loving it too. We all have our part to play.
Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 ‘I will build my church’ – what a marvellous promise! But have we lost confidence that church can be fun? I can’t think of a more fun way to spend my Sunday morning than meeting with Jesus and his people. Church doesn’t become dull with the passing of time – it can offer a freshness and vibrancy as when it first began. Millions of people across the globe still say, with Jesus, ‘We’re lovin’ it!.

We’re told by Robert Warren that a healthy church is one that operates as a community, and that is completely borne out by what we read in the New Testament writings and in church history. May we here at St Martin’s grow to become a community of fellowship, a community of welcome, a community of disciples, a community of prayer and a community of mission – for our own health and for the glory of God.

A healthy church operates as a community
A community of fellowship
A community of welcome
A community of disciples
A community of prayer
A community of mission 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Does St Martin's operate as a community? 

1          Weak and holding us back     0%                  
2          Only a few signs                     0%      
3          Some evidence of this            11%    
4          Making progress                     22%        
5          Evidence of much of this        61%     
6          This is a strength                    6%      

Operates As A Community: what needs working on….

  • Drawing together, e.g. much prayer happens, but there is no official prayer group
  • Encourage all ages to mix more, i.e. have youngsters taking turn in the welcoming (have rota) so not the same people being relied on.
  • Continue to build on what we’re doing and seek more opportunities to develop church community.  Seek areas that can be developed more e.g. seek out visitors or individuals that can be made to feel more welcomed and encouraged to get involved.
  • Encourage more people to be a part and use their gifts.
  • All things seem to be working forward
  • Involve the whole church – know what the church needs to work as a community
  • Accept that everybody is different and not everybody will like change
  • Instead of talking about variety and meeting people on their level, do what we can
  • Have a process that allows the gifts within St Martin’s to be discerned and used
  • It’s very important to welcome people, but to be aware that some people to be quiet, and might be put off by what they might see, as fuss (they might want to be in the background)
  • One people, one vision, one Lord
  • Tweens group which will support older children to progress their learning of God.  Visit more schools more often in the community
  • Knowing people in order to know their strengths and what they can bring to the church/community
  • Some weakness still in pastoral care, e.g. following up absences from church.  Also outreach into the community could be more vigorous
  • We do welcome new people, we are friendly and kind.  We are a community of disciples, but need to encourage more.  We do pray, but could perhaps do more prayer ‘events’.  We need to share our experiences of the power of prayer.  Perhaps we need to encourage more on to the mission field both locally and further afield. 
  • Social activities to encourage people to meet informally and enjoy the community spirit which could encourage them to come to church. 
  • I think we are a welcoming church and many relationships are made and help and support is offered but it is not always shouted about.  Some people are better at talking to people than others, some are better at caring, some are better at organising.  The more I get to know people I find these things are happening just as the scripture is saying about different gifts.  Maybe we need to encourage people to found out where their gifts are. 
  • Mission needs broadening to avoid attracting only more evangelically inclined members
  • Welcome those who are not church members as well as those that are
  • Prayer & mission
  • It is difficult for me as a working mum to see exactly what happens at St Martin’s over the course of a week.  But I can see what is advertised on the newsletter so there is lots going on.  I was able to come to the cafe last Thursday which was great.  I have benefitted from the Pilgrim & Alpha courses and I see what joy Messy Church brings to so many children and adults.  The fact that so many other organisation use church building shows that we are in the community but not quiet in the centre of the community, AA, bereavement, girl guides, dance, kumon, etc.  The church weekend also shows a community feel.  Our prayer diary shows we are praying about others and the church.  Our prayer email is good too.  I have been able to use the chain and help the chain for prayer requests.   
  • We need to continue our efforts in all areas lest we become complacent

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