Check Your Vitals (Introduction)
This weekend we remember a day we said we’d never forget. As no doubt you’ve been reminded often the past few days, it was 20 years ago that extremists hijacked four planes: two flew into the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and one was downed by a counter highjack by brave passengers.
And the skies went empty for the next several days. No doubt you remember where you were when you heard the news.
Suddenly the things that divided us seemed to have much less importance. Later that day, early 150 members of congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol; Senators and Representatives, Democrats and Republicans, stood side by side( in some cases arm in arm) to make a statement of unity, breaking into an impromptu rendition of “God Bless America.” It wasn’t Kate Smith, but it sent chills through those who observed it.
In the coming days and weeks, church attendance rose as much as 25% in parts our nation. Even here in the Pacific Northwest churches saw a tremendous increase in attendance. By November of that same year, the swell of people dissipated and church attendance returned to previous levels.
All of this may have caused some to ask, “Is the church still relevant?”
Over the past two years we have seen much division in our country and around the globe. As the pandemic burst upon us in early 2020 travel bans were put in place. Some saw it as xenophobic, others saw it as a pre-emptive step to try and slow the spread of whatever this was. As the virus spread around the world there would be masks, and shut downs. In the midst of those shut downs there would be virtual learning, and parents tried to help their children while working from home. Then we would learn of George Floyd and the need for social justice would again burst to the forefront of our minds. And of course, there would be different ideas on how that should happen too. Conflict, angst, perhaps intensified by months of being segregated and locked isolated in our homes worried about whether our jobs would ever come back. Then a vaccine was made available and the battles began again; some wanted it as soon as it was available, others refused, and on and on it goes.
And the question comes echoing back to us even today, “Is the church still relevant?”
I could ask you this question this morning, and my guess is that each one of you would in one way or another say, “yes, it’s relevant to me.” Of course it is, or you wouldn’t be here. Yet, our chairs are not full. Church attendance in our country piqued sometime in the late 50’s of the last century. According to one poll in 2018, only 41% of those professing Christianity as their faith attend church.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_attendance accessed 9/12/2021
In early 2020, our church and our church leadership began a journey of discovery of who we are, and our influence in the community. We began to ask the questions. We joined the Vital Congregations Initiatives and began to ask hard questions. It was to be a two year initiative, and then the pandemic hit and I will say that the timeline has been thrown out the window. Yet, we continue on this journey.
This past spring, most of you participated in a survey where we sought to glean information about who we are, where we are, and are we relevant. More than that, we are asking the question, “Are we vital?”
Are we vital - alive, and functioning?
Are we vital - to our community?
Are we vital - would people notice if we weren’t here?
We have those results. And I know that many of you commented personally to me, or a member of leadership, and even by write in comments that you hate taking surveys. So first I want to thank you for taking the survey. We had great participation. Many larger congregations than ours did not have as many surveys returned. They’re anonymous, so I can’t tell you who participated and who didn’t, but the results were enlightening, challenging, and we will be gleaning information from them for months to come.
Some have challenged whether we could have gleaned the same information just by asking in conversation. Yes, and no. There are things that we learned that were obvious to all of us. And that we probably could have gleaned from conversations in our entry. Yet, we invited everyone who is a member of our church (whether they currently attend or not) to participate in the survey. And, there were details that would have escaped us. My hope is to share much of this in the coming weeks.
2 Corinthians 5:11–6:1 (ESV)
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
A Reading, from God’s Holy Word.
Thanks be to God.
Please pray with me.
Lord, Jesus. We come before you on this day, to remember. We remember all that you did for us. We remember the love that was poured out for us, the death you died for all. We remember that our old self is no longer living, but we are new creations in you. Open to us now your message, open to us the message of reconciliation; Open to us the task of being ambassadors in the midst of our church, our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, and indeed the world. Lord, we thank you for bringing us together under your grace and love; fill us with that light today.
In Jesus’ Name we pray. AMEN
Hearing these words from the Apostle Paul, I want to share with you some of the results from our survey as we work through Paul’s message to us.
First, our overall vitality score:
Our congregation’s vitality score is 76%, which is on par with the 77% average of our PCUSA denomination among other congregations that have taken this same survey.
Anytime we are assigning a “score” to who we are it is a snapshot in time. At the time we took the survey we were meeting in the parking lot, and our building was for all intents and purposes shut down. Yet the message, the truth comes from Paul’s words in verse 11,
2 Corinthians 5:11 (ESV)
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.
Paul of course is referring to himself and Timothy as they wrote this letter to the church at Corinth. Yet there is truth there for us as well, we are known by God, better than we even know ourselves.
Again from our survey:
Vital Congregations: ”This Church is Spiritually vital and alive"
As we look at this, what you’ll notice is that 77% responded that this statement is “true or somewhat true about our congregation. 57% said it is true. In the midst of pandemic.
I want us to have an opportunity to dive into these results deeper, and we will have that time coming soon. Our hope was to have a big celebration with food and all, but with COVID we’re having to look at other ways we might do this. Stay tuned.
Still, we can celebrate 77%, and yet Paul reminds us again that we shouldn’t be boasting about ourselves but what Christ is doing in us.
We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.
and vs 14.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;
And that gets to the crux of what makes any church vital:
and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Paul concludes with a list of Therefore’s
2 Corinthians 5:16 (ESV)
... therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I began this morning reflecting on the impact of 9/11 on all of us, all of us that were alive at the time anyway. Yet, even more, there was a role that the church played in the midst of bringing our nation together, of healing the divisions, and of indeed reconciling people of different backgrounds, ages, experiences, economic situations, etc. together. Uniting us.
Finally, I want to end with one last result from our survey for today:
Vital Congregations: Greatest Strength
According to our survey results our greatest strength is: Caring Relationships.
Our congregation is least strong in “Outward Focus & Evangelism.”
I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone, and yet as we’ve been working together as a session and deacons, we have a slightly different take on that. We may be more outwardly focused that the average person in our congregation realizes, that still might be our lowest strength, but we’ll talk about that later.
I want to share with you a story. It goes like this:
On a dangerous sea coast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. But the few, devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for their own safety, went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost.
Some of the people who were saved, and various others in the surrounding community, wanted to become associated with the lifesaving station and to give of their time and money for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so small and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided for those who were being saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely. It became sort of a club.
Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions so they hired professional lifeboat crews who were specially trained to save lives. The lifesaving motif still prevailed, and a ceremonial lifeboat was place in the room in honor of all those people who had been saved in the past.
About that time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them were from a foreign country and couldn’t speak their language. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee of the lifesaving stations called an emergency meeting and decided to build a shower house outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up and properly instructed regarding the rules of the lifesaving station.
At the next meeting there was a split in the club’s membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Other members, however insisted that lifesaving was the primary purpose of the club. They pointed out that they were still called a “lifesaving station.” But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives, then they could start their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new lifesaving station experienced the same changes that occurred with the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore.
Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
As we consider our vitality, we must also consider our purpose. Jesus established his church to be a lifesaving station. His final instructions to the church are found in the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20 “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...” Our job is to go out as Paul would say, as ambassadors, into the world and rescue the perishing. It’s not just the job of a few professional life-savers, it’s our job too!