Sermon preached by the Revd Phill Ball on Sunday 28th June 2015 at St Martin's Church Walsall, based on the 'Healthy Churches Handbook' by Robert Warren
As we come to the end of our series on ‘The Seven Signs of a Healthy Church’, it seems like we’ve been on quite a journey – one which I hope has been useful to us individually and especially as a church.
The final sign of a healthy church that we are going to look at this morning is, in my opinion, one of the most important of all the seven signs: namely, that a healthy church does a few things and does them well. You know, I believe that all of us here today need to take this principle on board in our own personal lives, as well as to apply it to our life as a church fellowship.
I want to begin, though, by taking a considered look at our second reading, a parable that Jesus used as He taught His disciples. So, let me read for you Matthew 25:14-30 …
Parable of the Talents and the Three Servants
14 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. 15 He gave talents s of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.
16 “The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more. 17 The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. 18 But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.
19 “After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. 20 The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, ‘Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.’
21 “The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
22 “The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more.’
23 “The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’
24 “Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn’t plant and gathering crops you didn’t cultivate. 25 I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.’
26 “But the master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! If you knew I harvested crops I didn’t plant and gathered crops I didn’t cultivate, 27 why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’
28 “Then he ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. 29 To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.
30 Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This is a pretty dramatic story and one that I have always found fascinating, because Jesus told it in order to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
We all know how the story begins and develops: a wealthy man who is going on a long, foreign trip decides that he doesn’t want his money to stand idle while he’s away, so he divides it between his staff according to the level of ability of each servant.
One servant was given five talents of silver, another was given two talents, and a third servant was given one talent. These were huge sums of money: it’s reckoned that the value of the eight talents he distributed was equivalent to between 3 and 4 million pounds – that’s some trust the wealthy man had in his servants!
While their master’s away, two of the servants put the money to work, while the third just hid the silver he’d been given in the ground. When the master returns from his trip, he calls them into his presence to see just how much more money they’ve made for him. The servant given five talents of silver brings those and five more, so his master is understandably very pleased with him. The servant given two talents of silver brings those and two more and he, too, receives great praise. But the servant who was given one talent, brings just that one talent back – he hasn’t done anything with what he’d been given and he is cast out of his master’s presence, out of his employment, out of his master’s house. He’s all washed up.
Now I’m not going to go into detail about the meaning of this parable right now – let it suffice to say that God gives us spiritual gifts and other resources, so that we will diligently serve Him and extend the boundaries of the Kingdom of Heaven. On the other hand, if we fail to use what He has given us to good effect, we face a pretty awful judgment.
In fact, what has really spoken to me this week from this parable is something entirely different, something a little bizarre, but interesting nonetheless. Remember how the wealthy man gave five talents of silver to the first servant? And how many extra talents did that servant make while his master was away? Yes, five more. So, he earned a 100% return for his master.
Now, remember how the second servant received two talents of silver? How many extra talents did he make during his master’s trip? Yes, two more. So, like the first servant he earned a 100% return for his master.
You know, whenever I’ve read that parable before, I think I have always subconsciously considered the servant who was given five talents to be more effective than the servant who was given two talents – maybe because it’s implied he was more able. But when you come to think of it in these terms, they both did equally well looking after their master’s fortune. And then you also realise that the story doesn’t actually suggest that the first servant worked any harder than the second servant, or that he was any busier, or that he was any more successful. Both were commended for the quality of the work they had done with what they were given. It’s just the one who does nothing at all who’s on the receiving end of a right dressing down!
As I said a few minutes ago, this morning we discover that the seventh sign of a healthy church is that it does a few things and does them well. It’s not the size of the church that matters, neither is it the degree of busy-ness that counts, it’s about how effectively we use the talents God has given us in order to serve Him. This means that small churches with few members can still be extremely successful for the Kingdom of Heaven and, as a result, can experience growth.
In his book, The Healthy Churches’ Handbook, Robert Warren argues that a healthy church
- does the basics well;
- does set-piece services – baptisms, weddings and funerals – well;
- recognises that how it goes about being church is important;
- enjoys what it does.
They will need some explanation, so let’s take them in turn.
A healthy church does the basics well
The churches that were found to be thriving were not doing particularly extraordinary things, nor were they doing a huge number of different things. But they were doing the basic things well:
§ church buildings were tidy and uncluttered
§ meetings were well run
§ worship services were well prepared
§ pastoral care was sensitively delivered
Another reading tells of one occasion when Jesus was staying with Mary and Martha. Martha was busy trying to get a meal ready while Mary just sat on the floor at Jesus’ feet listening to what He had to say. When Martha complained, Jesus told her that it was Mary who had got it right.
At first, it may seem as though Martha is the model for the healthy church, staying busy and doing everything as quickly as she can. But, in actual fact, the healthy church is more like Mary in that it gets the basics right – it recognises what is important and doesn’t get distracted from it. Yes, the healthy church does the basics well.
The second significant feature of a healthy church is that …
it does set-piece services well
By this I’m referring to baptisms, weddings and funerals – the one-off services which are so important to individuals, families and communities. In healthy churches, Robert Warren found that these services were prepared and conducted sensitively and prayerfully, such that they established good relationships with those involved. It’s as simple as that, really.
The next important feature of a healthy church that was identified is that …
it recognises that how it goes about being church is important
Very often, the way we do things is as significant as what we do, because it speaks very loudly to those outside the church. The way we conduct ourselves will often communicate the gospel to people long before we have an opportunity to actually speak to them about faith.
Churches that concentrate on doing a few things and doing them well were held in much higher regard by those outside them and were much more likely to attract people in than those churches that were frantically running around trying to do lots of things, but not managing to do any of them particularly well. Some churches fall into the trap of believing that if only they did a few more things, all would be well – that isn’t true. Healthy churches are those that concentrate on quality, not quantity.
Some of these healthy churches have gone so far as to encourage their members to take on just one task within the church and to do it well, rather than doing many things and find they don’t have the time to do each task justice. For this to be possible, though, requires that everyone within the fellowship is actively involved in the mission and life of the church.
For many churches, this will take a long period to achieve, because it involves quite a drastic culture change.
And the final sign of a healthy church I want to look at today is that …
it enjoys what it does
Laughter is one of the marks of a healthy church. A sense of enjoyment communicates well to other people and draws them in. If we enjoy being church together, if we enjoy what we do for the Lord, it will be very attractive to many who are on the outside looking in.
I’ll finish with a story from the Healthy Churches’ Handbook:
A rural church was eager to communicate its faith, but wanted to do it in a way that both connected with the surrounding community and didn’t leave themselves with an overloaded programme or unachievable goals.
They decided to hold four ‘Food for Thought’ evenings each year in the village hall. A very good meal was laid on and tables were beautifully laid and decorated. Each evening they had someone with an interesting job who came to speak about their work and their faith.
The vicar reported that his primary job after the first couple of years was persuading church members not to attend, so that those who weren’t churchgoers could have a place, as seats were sold out several weeks in advance.
The evenings were done well, were very enjoyable and resulted in a steady stream of people coming to church to explore the Christian faith further. At Christmas, over one third of the population of the local villages attended church.
We’ve looked at all seven signs of the healthy church now and it is my hope that this will have prompted and helped us to consider where we are as a church in our service of God in this town. Ultimately, we aren’t aiming to be a healthy church merely for our own sake, but primarily for the sake of Him who gave His only Son that people might not die, but have eternal life through Him.
Are you using your God given talents well, are you putting your talents to work in the service of the kingdom, or burying your talent to keep it safe and only for your use?
Will the Master be pleased in what returns you give him?
To God be the glory. Amen.
Is St Martin's a church that does a few things, and does them well?
- Weak & holding us back 0%
- Only a few signs 0%
- Some evidence of this 9%
- Making progress 30%
- Evidence of much of this 57%
- This is a strength 4%
What we need to work on....
- Not too good (sometimes) about the not-rushing-around bit
- I feel that somethings we do particularly well – long may they continue! I pray that in other areas (particularly on Sunday mornings) we could be more joyful. We’ve got a lot to be joyful about i.e. Jesus!
- Encouraging more people to be on just one rota.
- Greater encouragement to those who do a lot.
- Need to what is done to be admitted and made into a cohesive mission for the year running forward. E.g. what is St Martin’s about?
- Need to work on communicating what is done well to everyone.
- Welcoming new people, praying for them
- Evaluate what is being done. Does anything need to stop so that something else can start. Limit people to two things only in the church so all are then able to do something.
- I think we do the basics quite well, but it concerns me that too few people in the church do a great many tasks – their talents are spread too thinly
- More people need to get involved with things going on such as flowers, sides-persons, helping at coffee and offer rotas
- Re. last point (enjoys what is does: and is relaxed about what is not being done) – we need to make sure we do enjoy what our church does more. A lot of people have a lot to do – ensure they don’t feel pressurised. I don’t think we are relaxed enough about what is not being done enough.
- I think we do well at lots of things but I think we do too much which stretches our resources. I think we need to concentrate on the things we do really well. Perhaps evaluate our best features we actually enjoy the jobs we do. The opportunity to serve others and raise a smile is our aim, and thank God for these opportunities.
- Acknowledge what works well and celebrate this
- We need to celebrate what we do well rather than trying to find other/new ways
- Getting the young adults into church. We need youth clubs and the scouts, etc. back.
- If a things worth doing its worth doing well. Brings people together. Be sensitive to others faiths. Be a beacon of hope in the community.
- Spreading the load! Too few people doing too much for the church.
- In many ways St Martin’s shows great strengths – the basics and in getting people into the building. We need to get a significant number to transfer into the church proper
- Very little in the way of ad lib – never stray from the script. No allowance for Holy Spirit or extra worship songs. The choir need to smile”! Be nice to have different music groups. The big services are great – but the everyday services can be tedious.
- It is difficult to get an accurate picture of this is you are unable to see those things in operation. It only comes by word of mouth for many of us.
- Regular flyers to encourage community to join us for services (not just special services)
- Raise awareness of our services to community so they know we are here for them in various ways (loneliness, bereavement, children’s services, etc.)
- More fellowship meals to encourage members and non-members to chat and get to know each other (e.g. monthly fellowship meals – bring a dish)
- We are not always relaxed about what is not being done… we tend to be driven rather than be lead
- More and better poetry in song, speech and worship, and in life.
- Using our talents – church members don’t know what they have.
- Things not being done should be drawn to the attention of the congregation.
- Bring more people in as suggested.