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When A Church Is A Church
July 18, 1993


There have certainly been periods in history when the church has not been a church. A strong case can be made that if either Judaism or Christianity had been viable and strong in 8th century Arabia, a man by the name of Mohammed might never have been compelled to start the religion we now know as Muslim, or Islam. He was searching for God, searching for meaning, and if the church had been the church, there might not have been a vacuum for Islam to fill.

There are cyclical periods--ups and downs--when a church moves between strength and weakness, growth and shrinkage, vitality and inertia, advance and retreat. As in a person's life, so the church is not always "on top." There are cycles. I have been hearing a great deal about the history of our church since I've been here, and we have certainly had our ups and downs

What makes a church strong, vital and growing? Paul wrote to the Colossians, When a church is a church, it is doing God's work of redemption. In my first two sermons from this pulpit, I preached God's redeeming love. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life, John 3:16. A key verse of Paul's letter to the Colossians is 1:20, Through Christ, to reconcile to himself all things. What God is doing in the world is redeeming it, reconciling it, bringing it back to what God created it to be.

When a church is a church, it is doing God's work of redemption. It is serious about peaching, teaching, living, embodying, influencing in Christ's name and for Christ's sake that everyone may come to know the love of God. There is a world out there to redeem. There is a world out there where people hurt: youths ruining their bodies and minds with drugs, people crippled by alcoholism, marriages failing, children abused, wives beaten, families destroying one another; a world where people are dehumanized and victimized. There are children who try to sleep at night without ever knowing what it is to be full. Their stomachs are swollen, their bodies crying for nutrition. When a church is a church, it is concerned. It cares about people, and responds to human need with God's love and compassion.

An artist was once commissioned to paint a dying church. People expected him to paint a small wooden structure in a declining rural community, with weeds in the yard, paint-starved boards, and a handful of people. But, the artist painted an urban church. It was well maintained. The patio was swept, the windows were washed, the paint was fresh, the pastor was well-fed! And there were people, lots of people standing outside the doors visiting with each other, and lots of people entering the building.

Viewers were intrigued with the title, A Dying Church. The artist said, "You have to look closely." Almost with the need of a magnifying glass, they could see a table just inside the church door with an offering plate over which a sign read, "Offering for Missions." Extending from the top of the sign to the outside of the plate, covering the entire plate, was a cobweb. No one had touched that plate in a long time. No one had made an offering for missions in a long time. "This," said the artist, "is a dying church."

When a church is more concerned with its buildings or its own congregation than with the world out there, it may be a nice club or fellowship, but it is not a church of Jesus Christ which has been called solely for the purpose of going into the world, preaching the gospel, teaching the nations about God's redeeming love.

When a church is a church, it is doing God's work of redemption. There are multitudes of people here in the Merced area who have no church. When was the last time you invited someone to come to church with you? There are people in your own neighborhood who have no church. There are people in your workplace who need the love of God. There are children in your neighborhood who never go to Sunday School. There are people from other lands, other cultures who find themselves overwhelmed, who need comfort, help, and encouragement to build a new life. There are people who are lonely, discouraged, overwhelmed with life; people who yearn, who long to be reconciled with Christ. Do you give them a good word about Jesus? Do you tell them what your faith means to you?

When a church is a church, it is engaged in ministry doing God's work of redemption. And the ministry is performed by the members. I like what our bulletin says on the cover, the members of this church are the ministers. I firmly believe God not only loves you, but God calls you to a ministry. I want us to build a church using each of your ministries. I'm not talking just about church work. Church work needs to be done, committees need to meet, plans need to be made, policies set; but the purpose of church work is to enable each of you to discover, develop, and do your ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.

I am very impressed with the numbers of you who have found your ministry and are doing it. Jess Smith has a greeting card ministry. Charlene Smiley has a convalescent hospital ministry. B.J. Hunt has a ministry with children through the CATCH program. Many have a teaching ministry with our children and youth. I can name so many more, and I've only just begun to know you. My challenge is to all of you: what is God calling you to do in ministry through the Merced Church on behalf of the world out there, on behalf of the people of Merced who have no church, and who need God's love?

In order to be the church and do God's work of redemption, we need to be clear what it takes internally. We need to be clear about how we function together so that we may be a strong, vital, dynamic church for Christ. Paul in chapter two of Colossians gives us some characteristics that are essential if we are to survive as a church.

First, when a church is a church, we are knit together in love, Colossians 2:2. In order to survive as a church, in order to keep from dying, in order to be a church serious about redeeming this world, we must support, sustain, encourage and love one another. I can't make it alone, and I doubt you can either. We can only make it when we truly care about one another. John 3:16 defines love, God so loved he gave. We love one another when we share, care and give our support to one another. A young boy walked miles across windy, cold Chicago every Sunday morning to get to Dwight L. Moody's church. Someone once asked him, "Why do you walk way over there? You pass many churches on the way; why don't you go to one of them?" The boy replied simply, yet profoundly, "They love a kid over there." You know what he means. You know what kind of a church he is describing. When a church is a church, they love kids; they love one another; and they love Jesus.

Secondly, when a church is a church, it is (Colossians 2:7) rooted and built up in Christ and established in the faith. The Good News translation reads, Keep your roots deep in Christ, build your lives on him, and become stronger in your faith. Jesus Christ must be at the center of all that we do. A church is devoted to Christ, not to a pastor. A church builds on Christ, not on vanity or pride. A church finds our strength in Christ, not in getting our own way by pushing our pet ideas and opinions. If we are to survive as a church in this tumultuous age, we must be rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ. We need to pray together, study together, grow together, get the Bible into our heads, into our hearts, and into our fellowship. Together, let us study the faith and apply it to the world, resolute and firm in our commitment to Christ, upheld by our love and support for one another.

Thirdly, when a church is a church, it (Colossians 2:7) abounds in thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the constant and characteristic note of the Christian life. Thanksgiving is the theme of every worship service. Be thankful to God. Praise God continually. And be thankful to one another. Thank one another; do not criticize, blame, or tear down. A church builds one another up, and does not tear one another down. Life is hard enough out there in the world; within the Christian fellowship we need to be affirmed, appreciated, and thanked. I haven't been here long enough to know how you treat one another, but I have been in enough churches to know I don't want to be part of any church that talks behind backs, tears one another down, and bad mouths the church. If you can't say something kind, keep your mouth shut! Is my English plain enough? If you can't thank someone, and be kind and gracious, keep your mouth shut. When you have a real concern, contact the proper committee chairperson, or come to see me, and express it positively and graciously. Don't turn it to a phone tree!

Would you want to go to a church where people put each other down? When an outsider hears complaints about our church, or the people in it, is it any wonder he/she does not want to come? Tell Merced about what is good in our church, not what you think is bad. Tell your neighbors what is right about our church, not what is wrong. Be proud of your church, and abound in thanksgiving to God and to one another for our church.

When a church is a church, it is doing God's work of redemption, concerned about people, caring about people, inviting people to Christ, inviting people to the church where we are knit together in love, rooted in Christ, and abounding in thanksgiving.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris