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When a Church is Not a Church
May 30, 1982

First United Methodist Church of Modesto


It made the Lord sick. There are some periods and times in most churches that make the Lord sick, nauseatingly sick, when a church is not a church. The church in Laodicea of which we heard in the New Testament lesson was such a church. In the book of Revelation seven churches are sent messages telling them to shape up. One of these churches was Laodicea. You heard what the message to that church was, “I know that you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other, but because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth.” Some churches make the Lord sick like hot food that cools off to lukewarm, like cold food that warms up to lukewarm and becomes stomach turning. “I will spit you out of my mouth.” The church in Laodicea was convinced of its wealth, but was blind to its poverty. It didn't know its own situation. And John adds these words, “You do not know how miserable and pitiful you are.” This was a church in form without vitality. 

On this Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the beginning of the church, when we celebrate and look at what a church is all about, let us look at the church. What makes a church a church? What is the absolute essential that makes a church? What Is that necessary requirement that makes a church? Some might say you can tell a church by its tower, or the bells ringing, or the steeple, or the cross. But the church is not really identified with a building. The early church met in the homes of people. The early church, especially when the book of Revelation was written, met in catacombs, hidden in secrecy under the city, meeting in caves among the tombs. They had no building, but they were the church. The  building is only the place where the church meets. Can you tell a church by the way we dress? Not really. By the songs we sing? Not really, go over to Africa. Can you tell a church by the music? 

What is essential about the church? The ancient Articles of Religion that have come to us through the Church of England which John Wesley incorporated into Methodism some 200 years ago, give this definition of the church. “The visible church is a congregation of the faithful where the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered.” That makes a church a church. Roman Catholicism throughout much of its history has emphasized the sacrament, the Mass, and has proclaimed that the presence of Christ in the Mass in the sacrament is what makes a church the church. The sacrament is the mark of Christ’s presence regardless of the morality of the priest, regardless of the competency of the priests. It's the sacrament that is essential. And where the sacrament is not administered, there is not the church. 

The Protestant reformers in the 16th century, primarily Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli in the reformed tradition, emphasized preaching the Word of God as the essential mark of the church. In the reformed tradition, the preaching of the Word is central to the church. The sacrament of Communion is relegated to special times throughout the year. It's not even a weekly occurrence in churches of the reformed tradition. The worship service became focused on the sermon. The preaching service, called the Sunday preaching service, became the focus of the church, the high point of the church. So without the preaching of the word, they would say, there is no church. 

John Wesley, some 200 years later in the 18th century, the founder of Methodism, balanced the two. He said the sacrament and the preaching of the Word are both essential and necessary to be a church. And then Wesley added another dimension that was lacking in the Church of England of his day, namely, the “faithful congregation”. Remember the definition of the church is “a congregation of the faithful where the Word is preached and the sacrament is administered.” Wesley picked up “the faithful congregation” as being essential also, and said that when Christ is present in the sacrament, in Holy Communion, and when the Word of God is preached, there will result in the lives of people a living, demonstrable faith. Essential to be the church is a congregation of people in which faith is living, dynamic and vital, in which there is love for one another, in which there is caring about the world, its situation, its sin, its evil, its hurts, and its pain. 

Wesley organized small groups of fellowship of all of his followers where they mutually encouraged one another, cared about one another, prayed for one another, and challenged one another to grow into Christ-likeness. Wesley’s definition of a church can be put in a different form of language and say that a church is a church when it is God-centered and people-oriented, and you must have both. First, God-centered. A church is a church when it is God-centered. A person who was a former Methodist was asked why they changed churches. This was the answer, “We left that Methodist church because we weren't being nurtured spiritually. We just loved the people there. And many of my closest friends today are still members of that church, but we were looking for something more, a genuinely spirit-filled church.” That Methodist Church was emphasizing people-oriented and people had a difficult time finding God and being blessed by the Holy Spirit. 

Dr. Browne Barr, a former minister of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley and now Dean of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, a Presbyterian seminary, writes in a recent Christian Century article that the achievement-oriented culture in which we live has contaminated and corrupted the church, so that we see ourselves primarily organized to do rather than called to be. The first question to ask is not what does the church do, but what is the church? The church is called into being to be God's people, to embody the Spirit of God, and to be the example to the world. We are called, first of all, to be who we are. The doing follows. 

One result of this deficiency in our day is the loss of the sense of awe and wonder in worship, a loss of the fire and wind associated with Pentecost. Our worship experience should be primarily one of awe, wonder and reverence when we come before Almighty God—the wonder of God's creation, the wonder of the intricate pattern, the dazzling beauty of all that God has made. We took our guests to Yosemite this past week on Tuesday. You must drive up to Yosemite this spring. Water is running like I have never seen it. You cannot help but feel the wonder and magnificence of God's creation. And included in God's creation are human beings such as you and me and all that we do to one another. 

Perhaps the ultimate awe and wonder before God is the realization that this Almighty God who has made all that there is loves you. Isn't that amazing? God cares about you, reaches out to you and touches you with love, compassion, healing in the coming of Jesus. Wonder, fire and wind are the marks of a God-centered, Christ-centered church. Dr. Barr then becomes quite critical of modern Protestant worship. He reports that he and his wife in a recent 14-month period visited churches from coast to coast. They must have gone to 60 some churches. Listen to his report. “With a half dozen reassuring exceptions, the services we attended were centered on the glorification of human life, human potential, the human community. They often began with a “Good Morning friends”, as though we had come primarily for human conversation. Frequently the minister had removed or otherwise abandoned the pulpit, preferring as one said, ‘just to be closer for a little visit with my people’. There were many proper and imaginative ways to help us get acquainted with one another in the congregation—name tags, boutenniere  flowerettes, pads to be signed and passed which were entitled Who's Who in the Pew. This had been changed to Who's There in the Chair in one church. The pews had been removed so the congregation could sit in a circle and look at each other. This was altogether fitting because there was scare suggestion that there was anyone else to look to, or to listen to for the Bible had been closed and dumped under the pulpit. And the communion table had been employed as a stand for candlesticks and flowers and other brick-a-back. The human dimension seemed invariably to dominate.” 

He goes on, “Indeed at one church in an Eastern University community, we picked up a parish newsletter in which a deacon proposed the abandonment of public worship altogether. He explained everything worth happening in church happens in the coffee hour.” Barr concluded, “There is indeed a loss of the sacred.” He’s a little hard on us, isn’t he? Did you squirm? I squirmed when I read that because there is a tension, a delicate balance between God-centered and people-oriented. It's tempting to turn worship into a three-ring circus. If you notice, we don't say “Good Morning”, we use the ancient Christian greeting that has come to us from centuries past, “God be with you,  “And with you”, or “Christ is risen.” “Christ is risen, indeed.” And we pass our pads and share our joys and concerns at the beginning so that we can then worship God and put our full attention and concentration on God. And hopefully, the sermon is preaching the Word of God, trying to be true to the Bible and not be cute, or try to win a personality contest, but to stand behind the pulpit and preach out of the Bible, the Word of God. A church to be a church must be God-centered where Christ is worshipped, and where people have an opportunity to enter into relationship not just with each other, but with God. 

Secondly, a church to be a church must be person-oriented. Other people were interviewed in this study of why they change churches. You heard about the one who left the Methodist Church. Here is one who changed to a Methodist Church from a Baptist of all places. This person said, “We never did make any friends in the Baptist Church. So one Saturday when our neighbors invited us to come over to a backyard party they were hosting, we went. It turned out to be a combination party and the first rehearsal for the fall of their church choir. Before we left, we had joined the choir. We've been Methodists ever since. And today, every one of our close friends come from this congregation.” The importance of fellowship, 

Another person changed churches for this reason, “When my husband and I divorced, I felt that I had to leave the church we had been members of for over 20 years. My 16-year-old daughter and I started to shop and we found this Presbyterian Church which had a wonderful support group for the recently divorced and a great high school youth group. So we had our membership transferred.” John Wesley knew the importance of the fellowship dimension. He insisted that it was a viable part of a church. He criticized the church of his day which had become cold and barren. The Church of England of his day had glorious services of the sacrament. The liturgy of the Church of England, the Episcopalian churches, has a glorious liturgy. But, in the church of his day they had glorious liturgy but no one was there, except rich people. John Wesley criticized them for their lack of caring and concern for people. He asked these questions of the church of his day, “Who watches over the people in love? Who prays with them and for them?” Christian fellowship is watching over each other's souls and bearing one another's burdens. And so he instituted small groups where people intimately encouraged one another, prayed with one another, served one another and the world. 

A month ago, I was at a district meeting. A woman to the entire group told this story, “Several years ago, my husband died and I had to leave our home. I had to move to Modesto. My health was failing. I had to give up my home. I went to church. I went to that big Methodist Church downtown—First Methodist. No one spoke to me. No one greeted me. I felt so lonely. I felt on top of all the other problems, I couldn't even find a church who reached out to me.” By that time, I was slinking way down in the chair and saying, “First Methodist, where's that?” She continued, “I went to the other big one, too. That wasn't any better. And then I went to the little Wesley Church, and I've been happy ever since.” 

Thank God for Wesley Church, but don't you all leave and go over there!  Let's take that as a challenge to you and to me. A church is a church when it is person-oriented.  May there be fire on our heads if anyone comes in and out of this service and feels like nobody cares and nobody reaches out! If you're a member of this church, it's your responsibility to speak to everyone you don't know. It's easy. Just say, “Hi, my name is Douglas Norris. I'm glad to see you.” You don't have to say “Welcome” because they may be a member. You don’t have to put your foot in your mouth. Just be comfortable and say, “I'm so glad to see you”. And then start talking. Get out of your shyness and speak to people. Reach out in love. 

A church that is not person-oriented is not a church. Be aware of our scripture passage this morning, “When you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” This passage ended with another warning, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them listen to what the Spirit says.” It's easy for a church to cease being a church and become just a club, an exclusive club of like minded people who think the same, have the same politics, same color of skin and come from the same economic class. It's so easy for a church to become a nice exclusive club who look down their noses on all newcomers and on anyone who is different. If you know a group like that, that is not a church. In the name of Jesus Christ, that is not a church. That's a little social club. God did not call us into existence so we could be a nice little club. 

Likewise, a church is not a church, and it is so easy to cease being a church when it is so “God-centered”, it is irrelevant to the modern day. Or it's cold, formal, and barren. 

But there's always hope. This passage ends with Jesus saying, “I stand at the door and knock. And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat dinner with them.” The image here is of the evening meal, not a hurried breakfast, not lunch gobbled down between meetings, but the evening meal which in that day took the whole evening where they sat, reflected and talked. Jesus said that he wants to have that kind of relationship with you—an Intimate, sharing relationship.

The invitation is to every church—“ I stand and I knock.” And the invitation is to you as an individual—“I stand and I knock. I want to love you. I want to be with you. I want to eat with you. I want to be your friend and your companion.” That's the invitation. 

When a church is not a church, it makes the Lord sick. When a church is a church, the living Christ is present in the sacraments. The Word of God is preached. Almighty God is worshipped and people are loved, encouraged and they serve. 

© 1982 Douglas I. Norris