Today concludes our series on "The Church." What does the Bible tell us about God’s vision for His Church? What should the Church look like? Through this journey we have noted that God’s Church should be a place of blessing in the knowledge of who Jesus is; a place whose default position is love—loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbors as ourselves—a place where disciples are built up and new disciples are made; and the Church should be a place where witnessing to Jesus Christ takes place—in our neighborhoods, our cities, throughout the country and to the ends of the earth…and there is no Plan B if we fail to do that. We are it! Today, we look at the Church, as the Body of Christ in the world, seeking and saving the lost. Our Scripture passage is the familiar story of Zacchaeus, found in Luke 19:1-10. (Read)
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that God’s "default" position is love. Strip away everything else we know about God, strip away all the other labels we have for God, and we are left with a God of love. Even in the Old Testament, where some of our greatest struggles regarding the image of God are found, at the very core of God’s being is love, as the Psalmist reminded us in our Assurance of Forgiveness for today (Psalm 103:8). And if God’s default position is love, if the basic motivation for all that God is, says, and does is love, then it ought to be the Church’s also—loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Today we learn where God’s love is especially directed. I’m sure there’s a word in computer lingo to describe it—perhaps "hardware," or "hard drive," maybe "operating system"—but whatever the analogy might be we are told by Jesus, in our Scripture passage for today and in many other places in Scripture, that what especially captures the heart of God is the lost. Jesus’ concluding statement in this familiar story of Zacchaeus and his climbing up a tree in order to see Jesus is this, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Don’t let that statement get lost in the cute story of Zacchaeus. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." God’s default position is love…and what especially captures the attention of His love is the lost. God’s heart breaks over those who are far from Him and His desire is to bring them to Him. A man short of stature—both in his physical height and in his social standing because of his occupation as a tax collector, in other words collecting exorbitant taxes from the Jews in order to support the despised occupation by the Romans—such a person as Zacchaeus draws the attention of God’s love. A woman caught in adultery and being used by the religious authorities in an effort to trap Jesus captures the special attention of Christ’s love. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." And so should Christ’s Church.
To emphasize the point, turn with me to a few chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, Luke, chapter 15. In a context very similar to the story of Zacchaeus—recall that the people observing Jesus’ attention to Zacchaeus began muttering, "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,"—in the 15th chapter of Luke similar mutterings from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law leads to Jesus telling three parables in rapid succession—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Each one a variation on the same theme: God passionately seeks the lost and there is great rejoicing in heaven when one of the lost is found. The lost capture special attention in God’s heart…and the same must be true for the heart of the Church if we are to fulfill God’s vision for His Church.
Yet, too often, the Church is like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son…or the muttering crowd in the story of Zacchaeus. "What about us?" we ask. "Don’t we observe special recognition from God?" And God, like the benevolent father in the Prodigal Son, responds, "You have been with me always. All that I have is yours. The blessing is yours! But use it for more than your own edification. Use it to seek and to save the lost. And celebrate with me when the lost is found!"
To illustrate the point, I want to use a portion of the power point I’m using in our Shepherding Group home meetings. By the way, I hope you will make every effort to attend the meeting of your Shepherding Group. Many of you have received invitations to the meeting scheduled in your group. The rest of you should be receiving invitations as those meetings get scheduled. Please attend. The power point we’re going to see in a moment is just a small portion of what is shared and discussed at the Shepherding Group meetings. Don’t let seeing that small portion today suffice in lieu of your attending the group meeting. But I wanted to show you this portion of it today because I think it illustrates the point and brings to a closing summary this series on what the Church that God envisions should look like.
First of all, I need to give credit where credit is due. This is a portion of a power point I saw in a workshop at the Outreach Convention back in November. The workshop was led by a man named Ken Priddy and the power point is his. That is why you see the label United Front Ministries at the bottom of the slide. Dr. Priddy is the co-founder of United Front Ministries. He was kind enough to make his power point presentation available to those attending his workshop.
I was interested in receiving his power point presentation for several reasons. For one, as you can see here, it addresses the life cycle of a church, something we’ve talked about here and first introduced to Shepherd at an Officers’ Retreat during the time of Les Avery’s ministry here as interim pastor. At that retreat a representative of Denver Presbytery illustrated this life cycle and asked the officers of Shepherd of the Hills to identify where they thought Shepherd was in this life cycle. The officers placed Shepherd somewhere along here—a church in the beginnings of "decline." We’ve talked before about that retreat, this lifecycle and our place on it. What was helpful to me in this power point was the descriptors given of churches at three points along the lifecycle—churches on the incline, recline and decline. The point is this, any church experiencing "recline" and especially "decline" must begin a new period of "incline" in order to survive. And I would suggest to you, as we look at the descriptors for these three different places in the life cycle of a church, it is the place of incline that is God’s vision for His Church. What does that look like? Let’s take a look.
To begin with, an incline church’s orientation is toward the future—imagining and envisioning effective ministry down the road. A recline church’s orientation is to the present—what’s happening now and how do we maintain it. And a declining church’s orientation is, as you’ve probably guessed, to the past, a longing for the good old days of what I call the mainline denominational high point of the 50’s. We, that is most mainline denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, et.al.—have been slow to adjust to the shifting culture from that time period.
What drives the churches in these three phases of lifecycle are—in an incline church, vision, related to envisioning the future; in a reclining church it is program, what programs are we operating as a church in our present orientation; and in a declining church it is structure. The best way I can explain that is how Ken Priddy described it. He was once assigned to revitalize a church that had dwindled down to 13 members. 13 members! One of the first tasks he had with that church was to meet with its governing board made up of 7 members, more than half the membership! The sense was that as long as they had that structure—a governing board with committees, they were still the church. So, a declining church is structure driven.
Next is the focus of the church. In an incline church the focus is on the community. One way to look at that is the focus being on the lost. Contrast that with a reclining church where the focus is on the congregation. That makes sense if your orientation is in the present and your driving force is on the programs of the church which are designed for the congregation. And in a declining church the focus is on the core. And Dr. Priddy described that as a group that has been in the church a long time and are the voices to the past. That’s about all that was left in that 13 member church he was assigned to.
The next descriptor of these three phases of a church is how money was viewed. Again, in keeping with the themes of each cycle you’re probably not surprised to learn that incline churches viewed money as an investment—investing in the vision of the future addressing needs within the community; recline churches view dollars as provider—providing for the programs that meet the present needs of the congregation; and declining churches view dollars as preservers—as long as there is some money set aside we preserve our structure which reflects the past of our core.
And finally, there is the growth factor. In incline churches, growth is occurring through conversion—people far from God, like Zacchaeus, the lost, are being found through the vision and focus of incline churches, more importantly through the love of God expressed through His Church in seeking and reaching out to the lost, and the lost are coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ. In recline churches, what growth there is is transfer growth. The lost aren’t being found and brought to faith. Rather, the church is being found by already believers in the area who are transferring their membership from one church to another—either because they’ve moved to the area or they’re unhappy with their old church. Make note of the fact that in transfer growth there is no Kingdom growth—the Kingdom is merely shifting from one place to another. And, as you might expect, in a declining church there is no growth.
I think this illustrates the point of the Zacchaeus story and the three stories of things that were lost, then found. And it summarizes well this series on God’s vision for His Church. This (decline) is certainly not God’s vision for His Church. No seeking the lost, no witnessing to Christ, no making of disciples, little love for God and neighbor, and the blessing of knowing who Jesus is becoming a fading memory. And this (recline) falls short of God’s vision for His Church. The blessing is remembered but shared only with the already blessed. Love of God is probably happening, but not with the emphasis of God’s heart toward the lost. And, like the Pharisees and the muttering crowd, neighbor is narrowly defined as those who share in the fellowship of our beliefs. Disciples are being made within the church, but no new disciples are being produced. Witnessing to Christ is happening only within the church walls and not out there in our Jerusalems, or our Judeas, our Samarias, nor to the ends of the earth. It is here (incline) that we find God’s vision for His Church. The blessing of knowing Jesus being shared with others. Love of God taking place with fullness of heart, soul, mind and strength; and neighbors being loved as much as we love ourselves. And our definition of "neighbors" is a broad one—really, anyone God brings across our path each day. Then, in the church God envisions, disciples are being made of all nations as we witness to the truth and grace of Jesus Christ in our neighborhoods and beyond to the very ends of the earth. And the lost are being sought out, the love of God being expressed to them in tangible ways that draw them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That is, I believe, God’s vision for His Church.
Can we be that church? For our silent reflection this morning, let’s contemplate our response to these two questions posed by Dr. Priddy as key questions to be answered in the strategy to become the kind of church God envisions us to be:
How will we make contact with the lost in our community?
How will we develop them once we’ve made contact?
You see, once again, it’s not an either/or issue. As in last week’s lesson that mission, witnessing to Christ, is not an either in our neighborhood or to the ends of the earth issue. It is a both/and issue, witnessing both in our neighborhoods and to the ends of the earth. So too is today’s lesson a both/and issue and not an either/or issue. It is not a matter of our ministering either to our members or to the lost. It is both ministering to our members and to the lost. The second question addresses how we will do both making disciples of our members and the lost. The first question, however, addresses if we will minister to the lost at all.