5 Practices of a Fruitful Congregation
Deut. 10:19 & Hebrews 13:2
Deuteronomy 10:19 (NSRV)
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Hebrews 13:2 (NSRV)
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Why do people need Christ? Why do people need the church? And why do people need Indian Trail United Methodist Church? These are three questions that Adam Hamilton in his book, Leading Beyond the Walls, states all churches should be clear about. Each of us in this church should be able to answer these questions without hesitation and without effort. But let’s face it, how many of us struggled with them?
On my first Sunday here I asked you all to fill out notecards and tell me a little bit about yourself, the church and what dreams you have for this congregation. 95% of the cards desired that we grow as a congregation. In order to grow we have to be fruitful. To be a Fruitful Congregation we have to live into our mission. Our mission is found in the last few verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says, “Therefore, go 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 obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” That is our great commission as a Church (with a big ‘C’) and church (with a little ‘c’). If we are to be the love of God in this world; if we are to be image-bearers of our God; if we are to Body of Christ then we have to live into this mission. Over the next five weeks we will be looking at five different practices that keep the church focused on this mission. Bishop Schnase states that if we follow and work on these five practices we will become a fruitful congregation.
The five practices are labeled here on this jumble of fruit. They are Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional faith development, Risk-taking mission and service, and Extravagant generosity. Today we are looking at Radical Hospitality.
When I was a youth pastor, Alycia and I took a group of youth up to New York City to work with a group called Youth Service Opportunities Project, YSOP. For a week we journeyed around the five boroughs of New York City working with soup kitchens, clothing closets, church ministries, homeless daycare centers and many other ministries that reached out to the homeless population of New York City. As we traveled we took public transportation. What was fun was watching the youth being as polite as possible. It was almost like the high school boys were in a competition to see who could be the most polite. Every time we were on the subway and the doors would open they would hop up and invite a woman, child, or an elderly person to take their seat. On one trip the train wasn’t too full but as a group of middle aged women got onto the train, two of the youth jumped up and offered them their seat. The women were astounded and very grateful. As one of them said thank you the other smiled and said to one of the youth, “You aren’t from around here are you!”
What those boys were doing was beyond polite but they were being hospitable. Showing people hospitality is a basic characteristic of what it means to be a Christian. Open the Bible to the New or Old Testament and you will find story after story of God’s hospitality to us humans or humans showing hospitality to other humans. Rahab showed the spies of Israel hospitality by letting them hide. The Pharaoh’s wife showed the baby Moses hospitality by welcome him into her family after she found them in the basket in the river. Mary and Joseph found hospitality by in the Inn Keeper who finally found them a place to say and give birth. Jesus was welcomed in the home of Mary and Martha and the disciples found places to stay as they journeyed to spread the church. Hospitality is in the basic DNA of our faith.
The Deuteronomy text reminds us of where our lineage starts. We trace our religious heritage through the Hebrew people who were once slaves in Egypt. The story of their exile is our story as well and paints the picture of a God who loves his people even when they are strangers in a foreign land. They understood what it meant to be strangers and now God is asking them to remember that when they meet strangers in our midst. This can be a hard concept to digest but as Christians how we treat the stranger in our midst tells a lot about where we are on our faith walk. As the Hebrew text reminds us, we never know when we will be entertaining angels in our midst.
True Christian Hospitality is seeing people the way that Christ see them. How did Christ treat the stranger in his midst? He made them the heroes of his parables like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the religious ruler or the priest who stopped to help the man, it was the hated foreigner, the stranger, who took care of him. Jesus had a heart of the least of these in the world. He ate with despised tax collectors and women of questionable careers. He reached out and gave water to the woman at the well and let his feet be bathed in expensive oils. He had a heart that was always open for anyone and everyone and that is the heart that we should have as a church.
I am currently reading a book called 10 Temptations of Church and in it there was this astounding quote. “The church is the only organization that doesn’t exist for the sake of its members.” I have clergy friend who when he welcomes people into the church he says, “We welcome you as a member of this church and now it is not about you.” Remember our core mission, we are to go out into the world and make disciples. Church, at its heart is not about us, it is about them. Those who are outside these walls come here looking for answers, guidance, and a way to connect. Our job is to be as hospitable to the stranger among us. God welcomes and embraces everyone and so the question is turned back to us, as the church. Do we mirror that attitude?
Like about every place in the Bible belt on my way from my old parsonage to church I passed another United Methodist Church. They had an older marquee sign out front and on it had a little bit of the United Methodist slogan. The slogan is supposed to read, Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. But at this church it read, Open Hearts, Open Doors. I laughed to myself every morning because they were promoting to anyone who knew that slogan that they did not have open minds. I know I would enter that church with some presuppositions that it would be hard for me to come in and feel at home. If their minds were truly closed then they probably only wanted clones of themselves.
The problem many churches have is that they want to grow, they want young families and lots of kids as long as they can stay the same. But to grow is to change and to change means we have to realize we have to welcome new sheep into our flock. Those new sheep may look different than us, act a little different or come from different countries like California or New Jersey. If we are to be a fruitful congregation then we have to learn and live out radical hospitality.
Bishop Schnase explains why he put the word Radical with hospitality because usually those two words don’t go together. We are used to southern hospitality, warm hospitality but radical? What Schnase means by radical is “people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ to others. Churches characterized by Radical Hospitality are not just friendly and courteous, passively receiving visitors warmly. Instead, they exhibit a restlessness because they realized so many people do not have a relationship to a faith community.”
Churches that exhibit radical hospitality remove from their minds the phrase “they ought.” I have heard numerous people in many different church settings say, “They ought to invite some new people to come to our church.” Or they look at the staff of the church and say, “They ought to make sure those people know about this ministry of our church.” What a congregation who practices radical hospitality thinks is “I will.” I will invite that family that just moved in down the street. I will make sure that family with that young baby that just shows up knows we have a nursery available if they want to take advantage of it. Radical Hospitality moves us to be empowered to move from what they should do to what is it that I can do to reach out to the strangers in my life that are looking for a way to connect to God.
I have been doing some research on the demographics that make up our community here. I looked at a three mile radius of the church and I’m starting to learn a lot about Indian Trail. I am learning that it is the opposite of where I have been for the last five years. In Thomasville there was around 25,000 people and about 90 congregations. There were 11 United Methodist Churches within a five mile radius. There are only four United Methodist Churches in Indian Trail; Faith, Union Grove, Mill Grove and us. One other stat that is a huge difference is how many people think it is important to come to church. In Thomasville only 14% of people thought it was important. Here 25% of people think it is important to attend church regularly and be a part of a faith community. That means one in four people you meet are hungry to connect with God, if they haven’t found a place to do that, why not invite them here? If you were one of those people who said you wanted to see this church grow, that means you need to say to yourself, “I will invite someone to this church.”
Everyone who is active in this church can probably point to someone else was instrumental in bringing them here or having their faith grow. If you were born into this church and have known no other, you are the fruit of your grandparents and parents who brought you here every week. If you were invited or welcomed into this church there is someone here or was here that gave you a sense of belonging and made you feel comfortable and loved. Bishop Schnase says, “Every member of the Body of Christ is the fruit of someone’s ministry and faithfulness. Who is the fruit of yours?”
Radical Hospitality demands that we do things in our church that makes it accessible to those who are new to the faith. When I read this book for the first time I was smacked across my face with how many times I lead worship thinking everyone knew what was going on and why we did what we did. I went to a funeral a couple years ago at an Episcopal church. Now I am an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church. I have been trained and have two degrees focused on Bible and Religion. I have lead hundreds of worship services. I am a professional clergyperson and I was completely lost in that service. I sat down in those pews and I looked at the Common Book of Prayer, two different hymnals that had the labeling worn off so I didn’t know which one was which. Then there was a bulletin that only had references to what I guess was which book was what. But there were still times when people stood without the priest asking them too. There were times when they recited stuff I didn’t know what to say. I felt left out and lost. I had to look really hard at how I was leading my worship services and the call to be radically hospitable to the stranger among us.
That is why the screen is one of the best things that has happened to worship. Not only is it a big piece of paper that some people can actually read the words to the hymns now (can I get an Amen) but it can be a way to share with stranger what we do and when to do it. After I read scripture I say, “this is the word of God for us the people of God,” and you all repeat, “Thanks be to God.” With the screen I can put that small little liturgy up there and if you don’t know it you can act like you can. Same with the Lord’s Prayer. We assume, and there is something that happens when you assume, that everyone somehow knows the Lord’s Prayer. But there is growing population of people out there that didn’t grow up in church and may have heard the prayer before but don’t have it memorized. Or they grew up in another denomination that may have a slightly varied way of saying it. Either way, when the Lord’s prayer is up on the screen everyone can join in together whether they know it or not.
There are plenty of other ways that we can show radical hospitality within our worship service. Visitor parking, great signage, greeters who know how to direct new people to key places like bathrooms, nurseries or a place to sit. How would you feel if you walked into a church and the greeter greeted you and said, “It is nice to meet you and we are glad you are here today. Is this your first time worshipping with us? Great, glad you are here. If you don’t mind follow me and let me introduce you to someone. This is Joel and Missi. They have two sons who looks to be about the same age as yours.” What that greeter did was make a connection for those visitors. It went beyond a simple greeting to engaging people and connecting them to someone. That is a radical way of showing hospitality.
There are plenty of other ways and I hope we can get into those in the small groups that will be happening at 7:00 tonight and 10:00 tomorrow morning. I hope you will plan on coming to one of those session in order to help discuss what we do to be radically hospitable already and how we can grow to be even more.
As we continue down this journey we need to always have those question Adam Hamilton laid out, “Why do people need Christ? Why do people need the church? Why do people need this particular church?” If we journey together to find out those answers and the enable ourselves to live those answers out through these five practices. We will be a fruitful congregation and one that is growing and reaching people out there that need the God we have come here to worship.
And all God’s people said…Amen.