A number of years ago now, I decided to shake things up in the summer by preaching on several controversial topics in a row. My hope was that it would increase attendance. Homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty, heaven and hell, it was a smorgasbord of tough issues for the church. To make sure people knew that the sparks were going to fly, we sent out postcards to all of our members telling them to come and hear.
The hordes of people we hoped for did not come, but something else did happen. It made a nervous wreck of me. I was so afraid I was going to say something that would get you mad that I was overly observant of your reactions. Any movement or facial change, would startle me, “I think Charlie just grimaced. Did I hear Ron groan? Does Charlotte look mad? Why are Howard’s eyes closed? Oh, he is just asleep. That’s normal.”
At one service, a long time member in the back got up in the middle of the sermon and ran right up the center aisle and out the back door, right when I was saying the most controversial things. I stuttered. Stopped. My mind went blank. I had to go get my notes to continue. I had really made someone mad. After the service, she was nowhere to be found. I was in a panic. That night I called her up to apologize and possibly finesse what I had said. “Well, you probably thought I meant this, but really, really, that isn’t quite what I meant.” She answered the phone. I said hi. She said, “Pastor, I am glad you called.” Here it comes. “I owe you an apology.” Huh? “I have had the flu and I had no business coming to church, but I really wanted to hear what you had to say and I was loving it. I am just so embarrassed I had to run out like that. You don’t want to know why.”
Her leaving had nothing to do with me and for that matter, my sermon series overall seems not to have affected attendance at all. This is always difficult for me to accept. I am not the primary reason most often that people come to this church or leave this church. People choose churches for a variety of reasons and consistently when asked they rate the pastor as fourth or fifth on their list of considerations. Preaching doesn’t seem to impress the average church goer when questioned. Pastors surveyed consistently rate their preaching as excellent, while parishioners rate their pastor’s preaching as middling or worse. Yet, they still attend. Why?
If it isn’t because of me, why are people coming to Messiah? We grew again in worship last year to 387. Our giving is up 8% to $436,000. Unfortunately we are bucking the trend in the ELCA, which is finding their churches shrinking. Even our neighbors in Columbus are struggling. Even though I tell my mom something different when I talk to her in Toledo on Sunday night, what I know about churches tells me Messiah isn’t growing because of me.
I can come up with several reasons. The most obvious is that here they fill their God hole. This is a term I like that gets at that spiritual sense within each and every human, the mark of our creator within us. This is what our friends are talking about when they say they are spiritual but not religious. In our fundamental make up as species, we all long for God, to know God, to experience God, to trust God, to be in the presence of God. People come to Messiah to fill that God hole.
This can’t be the entire reason, however. There are many good churches in our area they could come to meet this spiritual need. Why Messiah if it isn’t because you have one young, athletic, handsome pastor and Pastor Thadd, too? We know from Church growth gurus that our building is a plus. Buildings are important. People feel more welcome in churches that are neat, orderly and clean, like their homes. A church entrance should look at least as nice as the entrances to the homes around us. Plus, things like fellowship space, modern big bathrooms, spacious bright nurseries are important. Which is why several years ago, we built all those things at Messiah. It has helped. Significant growth has occurred since that building project.
By the way, council would like for me to mention that we are still paying for that great addition. When you make your commitment today, we are hoping every family at Messiah promises at least $10 a week to the building fund, even more if you could afford it. Our mortgage was the only area we were short last year in a year full of positive results.
The building helps, but I doubt if anyone here when asked would say they come to Messiah because of it. Plus, churches have built similar things and have not experienced growth. If it isn’t that you have an articulate, intelligent preacher and associate pastor, and not just the building, what else? Surely, part of the answer has to be our ministries. People want to be a part of churches that are impacting the world. They want to make a difference with the time they commit to their church.
In our Messiah Moving Forward Meetings last week in we heard and saw that we are impacting this world. Over 200 kids, most from outside our membership rolls, come here for VBS and many join us from this experience. Our Preschool is not a business that rents space from us. It is a ministry of our Church that is teaching both academically and about Jesus too. Plus, we are introducing new families to our church through this ministry. Every year, people join us from our Preschool.
If churches grow that impact the world, than our servant ministries are surely a reason for our growth. Hundreds of people every month are fed meals at shelters by our members. Forty children had an abundant Christmas because of our Giving Tree. In a year, literally a thousand people are clothed, and their households outfitted with plates, refrigerators and couches by our joint ministry with St. Pius, Parkview and others. All of these servant ministries are staffed by us, moved by Christ to serve.
I think there is one more reason, to consider. Messiah is growing not because you have a young, cool, hip pastor and an associate, not just because our building is clean, modern, and attractive and not solely because of our ministries. It is growing because of the people inside this church and inside our ministries. It’s our people.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say our people are especially attractive. Just look at the men in worship today to blow that one out of the water. We aren’t especially wealthy either, even though somehow we managed to raise our giving by almost 100% since 2003. We even got peculiar people around here. Like Forest Gump said, we are a full box of chocolates at Messiah, some with nuts and all. Yet, I know it is our people that have made Messiah a church that people join, serve and worship at.
Why do people stay at Messiah? Because our people are passionate. We take seriously the light of Christ, a light that each of us has within us. We know that our light alone is small, but when we gather together as church we create a bonfire. At our best, we are brothers and sisters. Whom we worry about when they are sick, grieve when they pass away, celebrate with when they give birth, encourage in the midst of parenting, and dance at their weddings. We are a family bound together not by our blood, but by the blood of Christ that calls us to be church. This is who we have become. This is why people come to Messiah, to share their light with our own.
In moments, I want you to come forward with your commitment card for the year. On average our members commit $35 a week for operations and $10 a week towards our building. Many, many commit more than that because they are on a journey to share more and more of their life with God financially. They might be faithfully working towards a tithe or challenging themselves every year to give $5 or $10 more a Sunday. For some, this year the $35 average is not likely because of job losses, fixed incomes and rising costs, or family difficulties. We celebrate all good gifts.
Whatever you have decided to commit, do so joyfully, knowing that your brothers and sisters are committing today with you. Bring it forward with joy. With a smile, that acknowledges the blessings God has brought to Messiah and to your life. Bring it forward led by the light of Christ that shines within you, and joined with your brothers and sisters in Christ, shines brightly for all of Reynoldsburg, Blacklick, Pataskala, White Hall, Pickerington even Columbus to see. Why do people come to Messiah? It is not because of the athletic pastor and the associate, the beautiful building, the many ministries. It is because of the light within us.