Since I turned 50 this year I went for a check up. The doctor took my pulse and when he found one, I was glad. He looked into my ears and didn’t see right through and so I thought that was a good thing. I also had all kinds of blood tests and so on. He was checking to see if I was healthy. Sometimes at these check ups, doctors discover things that are not quite as they should be and it means that you may have to make some adjustments or take some treatment. For example, if your blood pressure is high the doctor might prescribe exercise, less stress or give a prescription in order to get the blood pressure down. If your cholesterol is too high, the doctor might suggest a change in your diet.
Can you check the health of a church? They recommend that after you turn fifty you should have an annual check up. Our church is over 125 so we probably need annual check ups.
Well this is the third year that we have done so. On October 22 of this year, 30 of you participated in a survey to try to discern the health of the church and to discover what areas need the most attention in order to become an even healthier church.
What are the areas that need attention? What prescription will help us come to health?
We have talked about this before, but I would like to remind you again about this concept of the healthy church. Extensive research and Biblical study have revealed that a healthy church is effective and growing in eight essential areas.
These eight areas are:
Passionate Spirituality - which means that the members have a deep and growing love for God.
Loving Relationships - which means that those in the church care for each other.
Need oriented evangelism - which means that people of the church are aware of the needs of people who do not know Christ and seek to reach out to them.
Inspiring worship - which means that when the church gets together, the worship services encourage faith.
Gift based ministry - means that members are using their God given gifts to serve Him.
Functional structures - which means that the organizational structure of the church does not work against effective ministry.
Empowering leadership - means that leaders are allowed to lead.
Holistic small groups - which are groups which allow people to grow, be encouraged, cared for and held accountable.
The purpose of the survey is to discover which of these elements are the least effective at this time. The life of a church changes and is dynamic and so things are always in flux. This bucket illustrates the concept. This bucket will only hold as much water as the lowest stave. If you lengthen the long staves in the bucket, the capacity to hold water will not be increased. If you lengthen the shortest stave, then you will be able to put more water in the bucket. A church will be limited in its growth and effectiveness by the least effective of the 8 elements. The strategy then is to work at the least effective elements in order to bring a greater health to the church.
Of course, we always work on all of these things, but, to work intensely at all of them is overwhelming. The strategy we are following is to work in a more concentrated way on several of these elements.
Before I show you the two that ended up the lowest this year, let me answer another question. Now that we have done this for three years, are we finding that it does any good? Of course, in some ways the value of this cannot be determined in a few short years and this is a good thing to do because it deals with what is basic to being the church. Nevertheless, let me assure you that early indications are that it is helpful. The best illustration of that is to examine the least effective element from the last few years. The first time we did the survey, need oriented evangelism was the least effective element. We have worked on it over the last two years. This past year, the “Power to Change” campaign and the seminars with David Balzer were two things we did to work on it. God has also worked in us. Over the last two years, this element has increased so that it is no longer the least effective. Now of course, we cannot neglect this area and need to continue to be diligent in reaching out.
So what did the survey reveal as the least effective areas in our church? They are Passionate Spirituality and Loving Relationships. These are the things that we need to work on this year.
It is interesting and a little disturbing that these two have to do with what Jesus identified as “the greatest commandment.” We have worked on the great commission and now we need to give concentrated attention to the great commandment. One of the passages which deals with this is Matthew 22:37-40 and this morning we will read it and listen to what it has to say to us today.
Passionate Spirituality was the lowest area. Now let me encourage you that this area was low when we first did the survey and has improved, but we need to be very diligent in seeking to grow in our love for the Lord. This is the area that needs most attention.
In order to think about passionate spirituality and our love for God, let us consider why this might be a problem in our lives.
One of the phrases in the Lord’s prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.” How many of us pray that daily? Do we really need to pray that? Is it not true that we have enough food in the freezer for many days. The sad reality is that we have so much and life is so easy many times that we really don’t need God. How often do we consider that if we didn’t have God in our lives we would still make it just fine? When tragedy strikes or difficulties come, we begin to look in God’s direction, but much of the time we honestly don’t need God. We have wealth and health and it seems to us to have come to us by our effort, so why do we need God? We nod at God and we give token attention to Him, but the evidence of our life reveals that we just don’t need Him.
I remember thinking before I got married that I didn’t want Jesus to come back now because I wanted to experience marriage first. As I thought about that, I knew that there was something wrong with that, but it reveals another problem in our lives in regards to passionate spirituality. If the truth were told, we don’t want God.
We have a life going that is just fine. We are busy with things that we enjoy. Our life is centred around things that give us fulfillment. We have all kinds of plans that we want to accomplish. They are good plans, nothing wrong with them, but we don’t want God to come into those plans and change what we have put our hope in and what we find joy and fulfillment in.
Living in a community in which most people attend church and the basic beliefs of faith and church participation are just underneath the surface in much of what we do is a tremendous blessing. We feel quite safe and content in such a community and that is a good thing. But there is a terrible danger in such a community. It is possible to be a church member and participate in the church and not really have a loving relationship with God. Is it possible that there are people in this community who are part of the church only because it is part of the culture to belong to a church. They need the church in their lives, but they don’t want God in their lives.
When it comes down to it, a third reason, and perhaps the reason behind these other reasons is that we don’t actually trust God.
I think that sometimes we have this idea that if we really love God, we will have to do something like pray 4 hours a day or become a missionary. We don’t trust God that he has our best interest in mind. We don’t believe that if we fully turn our lives over to God and love Him whole-heartedly that we will be turning our lives over to one who loves us deeply and wants to bless us. In other words, we don’t trust God. We don’t realize that if God should call us to pray 4 hours a day or become a missionary, that that would be the best and most exciting and interesting thing we could possibly do.
I am convinced that one reason why passionate spirituality is so low is because we don’t believe that God loves us and wants the best for us.
A friend of mine once stuck his finger in an augur while moving grain and lost several of his fingers. During and after rehabilitation, he mentioned to me that although it was very difficult, he would not trade it for anything because of the things that he had learned and how he had experienced God in the midst of his trial. I have heard that statement from people of faith many times.
Sometimes God uses difficulty to get our attention and invite us to focus on Him so that He can show us how much he loves us. Is that the only way we will come to God? I don’t think so. This is not a threat, it is an appeal. Let us turn towards God while things are good and learn to love him now.
The passage in Matthew 22 invites us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and the similar passage in Mark and Luke add “strength. Total love “dominates our emotions, directs our thoughts and is dynamic of our actions.”
To love God with our whole heart is to love him with our emotions. The heart is the part of our body that we use to identify the emotional part of ourselves. Do you sense and feel love for God at any time in your life?
Emotions rise in our heart as a felt response and it is a response to the love of God for us which he has showered upon us. Do you know how much you are loved? God loves us very much and when we understand and realize the love God has for us how can we not respond in a heart love for Him?
As Mennonites, we have sometimes been good at hiding our emotions. We don’t want to get carried away, but King David is commended when his wife accused him of getting carried away in the expression of his love for God. Perhaps we need to get a little more carried away.
“New Testament Christianity is essentially response to the revelation of the Creator as a God of love. God is a tri-personal Being who so loves ungodly humans that the Father has given the Son, the Son has given his life, and Father and Son together now give the Spirit to save sinners from unimaginable misery and lead them into unimaginable glory. Believing in and being overwhelmed by this amazing reality of divine love generates and sustains the love to God…”
To love God with our soul is to love him with the spiritual part of ourselves. I think that this is the part where faith resides. To love God with our soul means that we make a choice that we will accept whatever he brings into our lives and believe that it is the best or at least that God can use all circumstances of life to bring good to us.
To love God with our soul is to engage in prayer, to speak to God and tell him our doubts and fears and to be honest with him about what is going on in our life. It is the practice of trusting conversation with God.
Do you love God with all your soul?
The mind is of course the thinking part of us. Some people have believed that our mind is the enemy of God and have frowned on learning and education. I believe that loving God with our mind is filling our minds with as much of God and God’s world as we possibly can. Knowledge that is committed to God is knowledge that is filled with the things of God.
Are you reading God’s word? Are you becoming familiar with God’s truth? If you are not, how can you love the Lord your God with all your mind?
One of the things I have developed recently and am encouraging the College and Career to use is a Bible reading plan that will take you through the Bible in two years and through the Psalms and Proverbs four times in those two years. If you find that reading through the Bible in one year is too much and have no other plan for getting into the word, please come and see me for this Bible reading plan so that you can begin to fill your mind with the things of God and so love God with your whole mind.
Mark 12:29 and Luke 10:27 add “all your strength.” To love God with all your strength is to love Him in action. It is bending obedience to the will of God.
Over the last few years, I have done a lot of reading and growing in the area of loving God with my heart, soul and mind. Recently in my Bible reading, I once again was reminded about obedience. In many places, love for God is demonstrated by obedience. I think we have learned this fairly well, but must not neglect it. However, it must be exercised in concert with love for God with our heart, soul and mind.
Obedience is to be exercised particularly in relationship to other people, which means that love for neighbour, our next point and other weak element, is one of the most important ways in which we can show love for God.
One writer says, “Love is a principle of action… It is a purpose of honoring and benefiting the other party. It is a matter of doing things for people out of compassion for their need, whether or not we feel personal affection for them. It is by their active love to one another that Jesus’ disciples are to be recognized.”
Over the next year, we anticipate that we will be talking about and doing a number of things that will invite us to a deeper love for God. Please pray that God will work in our hearts to draw us into a deeper love for Him.
Although passionate spirituality was the lowest element, loving relationships was second lowest and concerns me more because it has decreased each time we have done the survey. I thought that one reason might be because two of the questions on the survey ask, “have you been invited out or have you invited anyone out from the church who is not a relative?” I thought that since everyone is related in this church that this might skew the results, and so in this survey, we defined “relative” as immediate family. In spite of that, the survey revealed that this item decreased once again. I have seen this congregation as quite loving and have experienced a great deal of love in this church family and have seen it exercised by people towards each other. Since we prayed that God would reveal what we needed to work on, I think the only solution is that God is telling us that we need to give diligent attention to this other aspect of the great commandment and that is to love our neighbour.
I would like to address the issue of loving relationships by suggesting three problems that might cause this concern. I don’t want to give the impression that these things are terrible. As I have said, I think there is a lot of love here, but if we work at this, it can be better.
One problem is that we have some baggage that we are carrying that prevents us from truly loving each other. Two bags actually.
I am reading a great book called “A Grace Disguised” it is about how the soul grows through loss. It is the reflections of a writer about a great loss he had in his life. In a car accident, a drunk driver smashed into his car killing his wife, daughter and mother.
In one chapter he writes about the desire for revenge that overwhelmed him. When the trial came, he hoped that a long sentence would bring some sense of justice, but the drunk driver was set free on a technicality and so once again he had to deal with a desire for revenge.
After a time of struggle, he came to realize what was really happening. He writes, “Unforgiveness is like fire that smoulders in the belly, like smoke that smothers the soul. It is destructive because it is insidious. Occasionally it flares up in the form of bitter denunciation and explosions of rage. But most of the time it is content to stay low to the ground, where it goes unnoticed, quietly doing its deadly work.”
I believe that one of the reasons why loving relationships is an area we need to work on is because there is unforgiveness in some people. Some of you may have been hurt and wronged by other people in the community or the church. Justice has not been done and it eats away at your heart. You go to church, but you can hardly see the other person without thinking about the wrong. You are often reminded and it smoulders in your soul. As long as that is the case, loving relationships will be stifled.
Jesus was pretty hard on unforgiveness. Have you ever realized that unforgiveness is sin? When you do not forgive, you emphasize the wrong done to you. Even if a terrible wrong was done, the nature of forgiveness is that it chooses not to hold the wrong against the other person. Have we ever realized that when we don’t forgive, that very act of not forgiving makes us guilty of the death of Jesus? The Bible is that serious about unforgiveness and if we want to go on in loving relationships, that baggage will have to be dealt with.
Another piece of baggage is that we tend to be self centred. We are hoping that people will pay attention to us. When they don’t, we feel sorry for ourselves. Self pity is nothing else than self-centredness expressed.
I admire Carla’s mom and aunt. They are 90 and 83 years old. I have never heard them complain about being alone or left out. In fact, they still host people for coffee even though it is a challenge physically.
If we are self centred, we will not take steps towards loving relationships because we will always be wishing that others will show love to us. I think scripture is clear that we are to do to others what we wish they would do for us. So if we wish someone would come and visit us, we should go visit others. If we wish someone would invite us for lunch, we should invite them for lunch. If we would appreciate some baking given to us, we should go and give someone else something we have baked.
Love means dealing with the baggage in our lives and turning it over to God as He instructs.
Last Saturday in our ministerial retreat, we talked about loving relationships and tried to identify the problems. One problem that we recognized was that we live lives that work against loving relationships.
At one time, people worked in their place of business all week - most often a farm. When the weekend came, it was a great opportunity to visit with friends. There was no television to distract. They did not travel to Winnipeg one day, Winkler the next and Steinbach the next as I did this weekend. They stayed home and enjoyed the fellowship that they could get. Sunday after church, I am told, you never knew how many people would come for lunch, but you were always ready and when it was time to do chores, everyone went home.
That is how it was, but it is not like that today. We have more gadgets to give us more time, but we have less time. We have more toys to entertain us and we take a lot of time to enjoy them. We travel around a lot and are not home all that often. After a busy week of work and a weekend of running around, we finally get a chance to sit at home and relax a little and we desperately need that time to restore some sense of balance into our lives.
In a world like that, when do we have time to nurture loving relationships?
I believe we recognize the value of nurturing loving relationships. What we need to do is find new ways of nurturing such relationships that fit with the realities in which we live. We won’t change the realities, but we can fit what is important into the existing realities. Let me make some suggestions.
Small groups that are places of refuge and encouragement where we can unload in safety and know we will be cared for are wonderful places to nurture loving relationships. Many of you are in such a small group and I would encourage you that this is a great place to love. If you are not a part of one, it is not too late this fall to join, just see me.
The other day we talked to someone about getting together, they mentioned going out for lunch and said, “we both have to eat.” The implication was pretty clear, in our busyness, eating out together may be a good way to connect.
What are some other ways of nurturing loving relationships in our world?
Over the next year, we may try some different things that create opportunities to get together and nurture relationships that can turn into loving relationships.
One other aspect of loving relationships that I would like to mention is that true loving relationships in a spiritual community are more than just fun times with good people. There is nothing wrong with fun times with good people, and they are often the way in which we begin to nurture relationships, but if that is where we stop, we are no different than the world. We need to ask God to help us go deeper than “how’s the weather?”
The great commandment is a basic teaching of God’s word. To be told that this is the weakest area of our church may be somewhat discouraging. I would encourage us not to become discouraged. If God has revealed this in us through the survey, then we need to recognize that it is his word to us to help us become an even healthier church. I was so encouraged last year when the realization that we needed to work on “need oriented evangelism” came exactly when the “power to change” campaign was on. I saw that as God at work among us. If God has now revealed the need for us to work on passionate spirituality and loving relationships, I am looking forward to how God is going to work among us in these areas.
Let us open our hearts to Him and His work in us.