If I seem a little tired today, it’s only because of the wonderful time I had yesterday at Rock the Loch, the day-long music festival at Loch Leven, which, as you know, is our camp and conference center in the San Bernardino Mountains.
I was one of several people on the planning team for Rock the Loch, although I must say it was Leah Dewey and Doc Rogers who did most of the work. Doc, especially – who knows something about putting on a concert – did much of the behind the scenes preparation. For me, it was kind of scary, not really knowing what all needed to be done, and also because we as a region had never done anything like this before. We didn’t know if we were capable of handling all the logistics, or even all the people that we hoped would attend. Issues like parking and stage setup and electrical power capacity and weather forecasts gave us plenty to worry about.
But we knew we wanted to provide an opportunity to show off a place that has come to mean so much in the lives of so many people. Did I ever tell you that it was at Loch Leven that I finally heard God’s call to the ministry? For hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the Pacific Southwest Region, Loch Leven has been a place of spiritual growth and renewal, a place to hear God calling, a place of life transformation.
So that’s why we wanted to show it off by inviting the region up for a day-long music festival, and maybe even raise a little support for this place that so many of us love so much, a place that has become so important to so many lives.
Our schools are doing a little bit of that “showing off” this week, at least the schools of the Long Beach Unified School District. Back-to-school nights are mostly about meeting the teachers and finding out what your children will be doing in their classrooms in the coming school year, but there is also a time for someone – the principal, usually – to speak and show off the school a little by highlighting a few programs or accomplishments.
A couple of us here have already heard one such speech a week and a half ago, at the Back-to-School Night at Brethren Christian. Yes, the evening did provide an opportunity for the school to “show off” a little.
We heard how much higher test scores were at Brethren Christian than state or national averages. We heard about how much money had been raised for the construction of the new gym – and how we could help raise the rest that was needed. And we heard what percentage of students from Brethren Christian went on to college after graduation.
And while the presentation of these impressive statistics was taking place, I started wondering: if I were to make a similar speech for Bixby Knolls Christian Church, what would I say? What would be the programs and accomplishments that I would highlight if I only had five or ten minutes to show off how successful we are as a congregation?
The most common measure of a congregation’s success is its average worship attendance. When I go to gatherings of other pastors, that’s probably the most common question we ask one another: “So, how many people do you have in worship?”
Now, I love it when worship attendance is up. Having a lot of people in worship is a good thing, and every Sunday I give thanks to God for every one of you who is here in worship. Whether today is your first Sunday here or your 500th, your presence here is a blessing to me, just as I am sure that you are blessed by being here.
Nevertheless, I don’t know how important a sign of success it is that we can get so many people to come in here and, for one hour, sit still.
As if, by coming in here and sitting still for one hour, we can save ourselves … or save our church … or save the world.
Granted, we do a lot more than sit still for one hour when we come to worship. But think of it this way: Jesus came to save the world. As his disciples, that’s our calling as well: to save the world; to bring wholeness to a fragmented world.
Writing to the Philippians, the apostle Paul told them to let the same mind be in them that was in Christ Jesus; to think of themselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. Being one with God, Jesus could have sat on a throne and insisted that people come and serve him, but instead he set aside those privileges and took on the status of a slave, serving others. He lived a selfless, obedient life, and even died a selfless, obedient death, all for the sake of those he came to love and serve.
Church folks cannot sit inside their sanctuaries and wait for the world to come and approach them. That’s what the stereotypical kings and queens of old, in all their haughtiness, did. They sat on their thrones in a grand room inside their castle (a room that wasn’t all that difference in appearance than a chapel), and waited for their subjects to come and bow down before them and offer to them their gifts and their pledge of loyalty and their commitment to serve the crown.
Christ is not that kind of king. Christ doesn’t wait in a palace, on a throne, for his subjects to serve him. Instead, he’s out in the streets, the slums, serving others.
So worship, I think, is not the ultimate demonstration of our success as a congregation. Worship is very important; in worship we honor God and we are equipped for Christian living. But worship is not the end of our obligation to God. It’s where we find out what our obligation to God is.
In that sense, worship is just the beginning.
Our obligation to God is not fulfilled by spending one hour a week sitting in this or any other place of worship. Our obligation to God is
• to follow the example of Christ,
• to go out into our neighborhood, out into the streets, out into the world;
• to humble ourselves and serve others;
• to reach out in love and service; to show kindness and hospitality to strangers.
Our obligation to God is
• to spread the love of God through acts of service and solidarity, uniting ourselves with the world, and especially the poorest, lowliest, and neediest in the world
• to give our lives in service to Christ by serving the least of these
• to recognize that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper
• to know that our welfare and their welfare is connected.
• To know that our lives suffer when someone else in our community is suffering, that a person on our block who can’t afford health care makes us sicker, that a person in our neighborhood who suffers from discrimination and prejudice robs our lives of dignity, and that a person in our community without a home or the money to buy food makes our lives poorer.
So, if I were called upon to give a five or ten minute speech showcasing the highlights of our church’s ministry, the signs of our success, I think I’d talk about the group of our members that gathers here on the second Thursday of every month to cook food for the homeless.
I’d talk about how many youth and adults have given up a half hour of their Saturday to improve our neighborhood by picking up trash.
I’d talk about the children around the world who will be warm tonight, wrapped in a blanket they received because of the donations to our blankets+ offering.
I’d talk about the man in Cambodia who lost his leg when he stepped on a landmine, and who contemplated suicide because of the despair he felt at no longer being able to provide for his family, until he received medical care paid for by money we gave to Week of Compassion, and then a water buffalo – a source of income for him – which was paid for by the money our children at Vacation Bible School raised and sent to Heifer International.
I’d talk about the good that so many groups do in our community – boy scouts, girl scouts, karate – that they are able to do because we provide them a place to meet.
I’d talk about the number of young people who commit themselves to lives of service, serving in the Peace Corps, choosing service-oriented careers like teaching or social work, even accepting calls to ministry, because of their experiences at church youth group or camp at Loch Leven.
I’d talk about the number of sack lunches we hand out to people who come to the church office who are hungry.
I’d talk about the many members of our congregation who give back to their community through volunteer work, providing leadership and support to youth organizations, volunteering at the hospital or with the Red Cross, serving on their local PTA, serving on the board of various community and civil rights organizations, sharing their talents with community music organizations or acting companies…
If I had five or ten minutes to show off how successful we are as a congregation, these are the things I would highlight. Worship, I think, provided much of the inspiration for all that we do. The importance of worship in transforming lives for Christ should not be overlooked.
But when the people of Christ look not to their own interests but to the interests of others, making a living sacrifice of their lives by serving their community and their world, giving their life to others in this way … they most fully unite themselves with the mind of Christ, having the same love that he had for the world.
And that’s what it really means to be a follower, a disciple, of Christ.