Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message: Acts 2; Date: 15 July 2012
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One year ago – together with most churches across the nation – we filled out the National Church Life Survey – over one hundred people from our midst answered more than one hundred questions each. The results are interesting and encouraging:
Aspects we most value are 1) sermons, preaching or Bible teaching [2011: 50%, 2006: 35%, Region: 37%], 2) community care or social justice [2011: 40%, 2006: 10%, Region: 10%], 3) reaching those who do not attend church [2011: 37%, 2006: 13%, Region: 9%] and 4) praying for one another [2011: 34%, 2006: 23%, Region: 25%].
All these figures are above the regional average and are above our previous score from 2006. Most important to us is a solid foundation in the Word of God but then we have had a 30% increase in community care and social justice and a 24% increase in our desire to reach those who do not attend church. This means that we have been growing significantly in our heart for mission.
Aspects we hope for are 1) strong community [2011: 44%, 2006: 36%, Region: 30%], 2) encouraging people’s gifts [2011: 34%, 2006: 25%, Region: 29%], 3) spiritual growth [2011: 32%, Region: 25%] and 4) including new people [2011: 31%, 2006: 34%, Region: 29%].
There is an active desire in us to build a stronger community and include new people in this church. We want to grow in our faith and use our gifts to serve others. In many ways, our aspirations point to more work that needs to be done but they also confirm our strengths. Where we have passion, we want to excel even more.
46% of us say that in the last year they have experienced much growth in their faith through this church [2006: 31%, Region: 24%] but we want more. 28% experienced some growth in their faith. Out of nine core characteristics, faith rates third at Living Grace. Number one is worship – 83% say that they always or usually experience inspiration during worship services – what an awesome figure: 83%! – [2006: 72.5%, Region: 69%].
Then, the number of people who are certain that they would follow up people who are drifting from church has doubled – from 6.8% in 2006 to 15.5% in 2011 [Region: 6%]. 63% say that they are very likely or likely to follow up someone drifting away. Another outstanding figure is our sense of belonging at Living Grace. 71% experience a strong and growing sense of belonging. This compares with 47.6% in 2006 and 44% as the regional average. We are doing well with our sense of community – this is a strength – but – according to the figures – we still hope for an even stronger community. 91% say that our leadership keeps us strongly focussed on connecting with the wider community [2011: 82%, Region: 63%].
Again, these figures seem to affirm that we like this place [46% experienced much faith growth and 83% always or usually experience inspiration during worship services] and do well in creating a sense of belonging [71% experience a strong and growing sense of belonging] and care for each other [63% are very likely or likely to follow up those that are drifting away]. We know that we have something good to share and encourage others in remaining part of this community.
One of my favourite figures is the one on vision. 49% of us are aware of and strongly committed to the church’s vision, goals and directions [2006: 25%, Region: 26%]. 30% are aware and partly committed to our vision. (And we had the survey before the prophetic season with men from the Solomon Islands prophesying over us and Suzette Hattingh at the end of 2011. We know that we want a greater outpouring of God’s glory and presence through the Holy Spirit.) 66% are fully confident the vision can be achieved [2006: 47%, Region: 30%].
This means that we know who we are, we know where we are going and we are confident that we are going to get there. This makes it easy for others to come on board and share the journey.
I give you our core qualities score: summary scores out of ten:
1. Alive and Growing Faith. [Attenders have had “much growth in faith in the past year, through this generation.”
2011: 8.6 2006: 6.0
2. Vital and Nurturing Worship. [In church, attenders who “always experience inspiration”.]
2011: 10.0 2006: 5.2
3. Strong and Growing Belonging. [Attenders whose “sense of belonging is strong and growing”.]
2011: 7.0 2006: 4.6
4. Clear and Owned Vision. [Attenders who are “aware of and strongly committed to the vision of the church”.]
2011: 7.3 2006: 4.3
5. Inspiring and Empowering Leadership. [Attenders who agree that “leaders encourage attenders to use their gifts and skills to a great extent”.]
2011: 4.6 2006: 4.2
6. Imaginative and Flexible Innovation. [Attenders who “strongly agree the congregation is always ready to try new things”.]
2011: 10.0 2006: 10.0
7. Practical and Diverse Service. [Number of different ways attenders have helped others in the last 12 months.]
2011: 7.1 2006: 5.6
8. Willing and Effective Faith-sharing. [Attenders who “have invited someone in the last 12 months”.]
2011: 5.5 2006: 4.6
9. Intentional and Welcoming Inclusion. [Attenders who are “certain they would follow up someone drifting from church”.]
2011: 7.3 2006: 3.5
Every single one of the nine core qualities at Living Grace is better than in the past. We have improved on all accounts – except in our attendance numbers. Why? How can this be? We are more inspired than ever, have a greater sense of belonging and inclusion, serve each other better, value much more reaching those that do not believe in Jesus – we think that Living Grace is a much better place than before – but this has not translated into growing numbers. Why?
[Of course, we had a sizable segment of the church break away in 2008. There was a group that wanted to pursue a different direction.] 47% of us have been here longer than five years [2006: 28%, Region: 73%]. 17% are newcomers to church in the last five years [2006: 10%, Region 5%] – 13% of which are people returning to church after an absence of several years [2006: 4%, Region: 4%] and 4% are people who have never regularly attended anywhere [2006: 6%, Region: 2%]. 21% of us have been here less than a year [2006: 7%, Region: 6%]. According to these figures, we do attract new people to Living Grace but – still – we are not growing in numbers. Why?
Maybe there are some for whom Living Grace is a refreshing experience but also a little exhausting in the long run because of our 10 out of 10 score in innovation. 90% of us believe the congregation is always ready to try something new [2006: 93%, Region: 62%]. 80% would tend to support innovative change to the worship service they attend [Region: 62%]. 82% agree that leaders here encourage innovation and creative thinking [2006: 87%, Region: 63%]. Maybe for some there can be too much change in our congregation. We tend to apply the same radical approach to our relationship with God where we are always ready to learn something new and grow in our faith (see the paradigm shifts which we have undergone over the past few years).
I am sympathetic to some people’s longing for a more restful faith experience. If you had a tiring week, maybe on Sunday you just want to sit here and hear words of affirmation rather than being stretched into further growth. I think that this can be legitimate in many cases.
However, going over the names of those that have left Living Grace, this is not the reason why people have left us and our freshness – being alive in God – is what we (most of us) like and what – at least in the first place – attracts others. Why are we not growing? Maybe we can work harder still and do even more in creating a loving community but – to be truthful – I am not beating myself up over any perceived shortcomings. The National Church Life Survey figures are great – absolutely encouraging. We love the Word of God and 83% of us are always or usually inspired when we come together.
My sense is that we are in the will of God and I know – and you know – (that) – when everything is said and done – it is God who is growing the church. God alone! He adds people and he takes people away. After Jesus rose from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the church leader Peter preached the first sermon to non-Christians in the history of the church. We read in the Bible:
Acts 2:40-41: With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and God added about three thousand to their number that day.
It was God who “added about three thousand to their number that day”. Here at Living Grace, we can trust that God keeps adding people to the church and numbers them with those that are being saved. If I was to say anything at all, I would encourage us to trust God more and – coming on board with him – learn more about Peter’s first sermon, what he preached and the circumstances of the occasion.
There is one statistic in the National Church Life Survey which I find a little strange. 76% of us feel at ease talking about our faith [2006: 67%, Region: 69%] but only 45% invited someone to church here in the last year [2006: 38%, Region: 32%]. If we are comfortable talking about our faith and love this church and what we experience on Sunday mornings [46% experienced much faith growth and 83% always or usually experience inspiration during worship services], why do we not bring people along more?
Now I get away from the survey and offer you some anecdotal evidence – what I seem to hear on the grapevine and seem to pick up in conversations here and there – especially over the last two weeks. I have the feeling that a fair number of us love what God is doing here but would not want to bring newcomers to Living Grace for the fear of our church being too “full on”. What do you think? Is this right?
Last week I had a chat with another pastor who is ministering in many countries in the world. I told him about Living Grace – how awesome the testimonies are but that we are not growing – (at least we are losing as many as we are gaining) – and asked him what to do. He said: “Offer another Sunday service that lasts for only one hour – 60 minutes. Make it a little more traditional – two hymns and a shorter message – and this will appeal to a fair few people.” Hmm. I was open to the suggestion – excited even – maybe this was the idea that would break the deadlock – but – at the same time – immediately – I said: “This suggestion goes against all of our values.” What do you think? Are you uncomfortable bringing friends to our Sunday services now but would do so if we offered a more “accessible” hour of worship?
What do we fear is making visitors nervous in our church? What is too “full on”? I think that we may be nervous about two aspects in our worship services: Both the message and the experience of God – (what the Spirit of God may do) – may be too confronting. For instance, we may worry about radical words on money – (you bring a business person and I preach on tithing) – and/or we may worry about – (and this is probably more common) – strange miracles like talking in tongues, holy laughter and gold dust. Would a visitor be able to handle the experience? (This is an important question for us. Are we pulling in the same direction?)
I come back to the first sermon that was preached to non-Christian in the history of the church. The message was “full on”:
Acts 2: 14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say ... 22Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you ... 23 ... you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him ... 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it ... 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah ... 40 ... Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.
There was a blunt accusation of killing Jesus – an innocent man, accredited by God, the holy Son of God – but – so the message – the wickedness of his murder was not the end. Jesus is alive now. God raised him from the dead and made him Lord and Messiah. He is in charge. Therefore, you are in trouble unless you repent and turn to him. Repent of rejecting him and killing him – nailing him to the cross – save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Don’t share the fate of others. You were wrong about Jesus. Trust him now.
This caused a reaction – Acts 2:37: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” It is a “full on” experience to be cut to the heart. God confronts you with the truth – which is not flattering for anyone – a change of life – salvation – and the new life – immediately – is also a “full on” experience:
Acts 2:42-47: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
You go from being a curious church visitor to a member of a church where people devote themselves to Bible teaching and prayer, where people share their possessions with each other, where they meet every day in the church and also in their homes. This is “full on” but God this was also God because he “added to their number daily”.
Carl, would you please come forward? Could you please demonstrate to us how you play golf? Teach us how to swing the golf club and hit the ball. [Carl demonstrates the golf swing and hits a practice ball.] This looks rather difficult. Your technique seems to be “full on”. What do you find the most difficult aspect in swinging the golf club? There is the expansive swing, the movement of the knees, the shoulder rotation, the stillness of the head, the stretching of everything, the speed of the club-head, the grip position and the choice of club.
Is it possible to make this a little less “full on”? Could I just take a swing at the ball without moving my knees or rotating my body? Or could I first get a more comfortable grip? Or maybe could I simply do a decent back swing, hit the ball but then worry about the rest some other time? The answer is “no”. This is how a golf swing looks like and if you want to play golf, you need to do this action from the beginning. It is “full on” right from the start. [“Carl, what would happen if a newcomer to golf was taught a faulty golf swing? How serious would that problem be?”] You are not going to be perfect from the first day but you practice the correct golf swing from day one because the practice hours create a memory for the body – you practice until the movement happens automatically (without thinking) – and it is very difficult to undo a flawed body memory.
It is the same in the Christian faith. It is the same with our relationship of God. Unless you do it right from the beginning or aim for perfection from the beginning, you will always struggle to transition into something more mature later on. If you want to be a Christian, Jesus is the Lord over your life. It is no longer about your will – but his and he is holy. This is “full on” but there is no other truth. Either God is God and you obey him or you do what you want with a bit of Christianity thrown in – (but this second option is not viable – it does not lead to salvation).
Our fear may be that – with this kind of message – no one is ever going to take up God and no one is ever wanting to come back to Living Grace – this is all too hard – but – according to the Bible – our fear is misplaced. Yes – there are those that will choose to be offended – many responded to Jesus in the same way – but others will not. Don’t worry. God is adding to his people those who are being saved. God is touching hearts. God is cutting through the resistance and human pride. Jesus died for us. At its core, our message is one of love and God is making sure that his love wins over the offence of being confronted with sin. [We do not even preach much law but simply testify to the possible closeness to God.] There is nothing wrong here. This is what a relationship with God looks like. It’s “full on” but it’s right. Trust the ways of God and do not protect people from a confronting Sunday morning experience. It’s good.
So we don’t change the message but what about some other “full on” aspects – confronting encounters with God’s power and strange outworkings of his presence? I know what people mean – gold dust, people falling to the floor, miracles of healing. This doesn’t seem to be everybody’s cup of tea but have another look at the first sermon that was preached to non-Christians in the history of the church. Jesus told the disciples not to preach to anyone or plan a worship service for anyone until the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:4-8). So they waited until the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit finally came upon them and they began preaching.
At this early beginning – how did God design the service and the circumstances of the message?
Acts 2:1-47: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? ... —we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people ... And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know ... God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear ... ”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name oJesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit ... ”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles ... And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Jesus told his disciples that they depended on the Holy Spirit – absolutely nothing would happen without him – but when he came, he was not only powerful but also “weird” – deliberately “full on”. The Spirit came with a sound like the blowing of a violent wind which was so loud that the whole neighbourhood showed up at the disciples’ doorstep. The strange sound of a howling wind – noisy as anything – alarmed people and then God increased their confusion by making his disciples speak in tongues – their words and praises of Jesus were heard in many languages: “ ... a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked ... ”
And if the miracle of a strange wind sound and speaking in tongues was not enough to provide a “full on” experience for the first mission crowd, God made his disciples look like drunk men so that people made fun of them and Peter was forced to explain: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose.” Peter explained that their “drunken state” had to do with the promised Holy Spirit which had come with an intoxicating influence. [Where was that in the Bible?”] They were invited to share in the same Holy Spirit. “Full on” – but this is how God designed the preaching and outreach.
Miracles, wonders and signs – evidence that could be seen and heard – played an important role back then and is now. [There is nothing worse than people leaving a church not sure whether the spiritual world is real.]
“Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know ... ”
“Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear ... ”
“Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”
Can I encourage you? You may want to spare visitors the confronting sight of a person that is drunk in the Spirit or is falling to the floor. You do not want to challenge rational people with miracles, signs and wonders. You do not want to bewilder anyone but relax (because) God does on purpose. This is God’s design. When God is present in the worship service – when the Holy Spirit is present in power – there is always going to be something that is going to be “full on” – confronting – offensive even. This is okay. God knows what he is doing.
Why does he offend or test people whether they take offence? He offends to humble human pride. People in the Bible have always been tempted to take offence at God but God tested them with his kind of foolishness.
Much about Jesus seemed offensive. People questioned his place of origin and asked, “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there” (John 1:46)? They scorned his sharing of meals with suspect people and said, “Here is a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). They objected to his power over sickness and demons and made this claim, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (Matthew 12:24). People objected to his preaching and even Jesus’ own disciples struggled so that he was compelled to ask them, “Does this offend you” (John 6:61)?
According to many, Jesus was a wining and dining healer and preacher from Nazareth who managed to upset people all of his life and then made his own death the worst offense. Instead of reigning in glory, he claimed to be a crucified Saviour and his followers continued with the same message. They preached that power flowed from the tool of torture that was the cross of his death. This was hardly acceptable to anyone but Jesus’ followers stood their ground. The Apostle Paul wrote in the Bible:
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 [NIV]: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing ... God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles ... For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
In the time of the early church, people kept stumbling over the apparent foolishness of the cross but our problem today is that we have accommodated ourselves to the message and are no longer offended by anything that Jesus has done. Yet, God does not give up so quickly in offending us; therefore also keeps employing more current means for disconcerting good Christians. For instance, the Bible reflects his ongoing tendency to work through people whom others judge objectionable:
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 [NIV]: “ ... Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
Luke 10:21: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’”
All of this means that wherever the Holy Spirit is present in power, there is going to be something that could cause offense. Yet, this is God. The only alternative would be to have indeed a one hour service where we push through our agenda and program without giving too much space to the Spirit. Yet, without the Spirit – without his power – no one is going to be “cut to the heart” – (there is no evidence of God) – and God will not add anyone to his people. This is one of our core values. We want the Spirit of God. We want more of him – not less.
I encourage you again. Bring someone along and relax. The worship experience at Living Grace may be “full on” for your friend but this is by God’s design. The message is confronting because it is about a radical change – it’s about belonging to God – and the experience may be confronting because God is going to display his power – sometimes in surprising ways. These days, I am not shy in stopping “weird” behaviour when it is not necessary. I want our services as accessible as possible – no needless stumbling blocks – but when it is God, I trust him and I rejoice.
[One week ago – at the Friday meeting with Peter Kumar – Peter announced to the young woman in front of him that the fire of God was all over her. There was some kind of breakthrough coming for her. As soon as he said this, the woman began to yell out and began to stumble but Peter roused at her: “Stand up under it.” Two more times the fire came and she yelled out in some sort of agony until she fell to the floor. Maybe this was a little confronting for visitors but this was God and the goodness of God. We don’t want to have services without this and at least visitors could witness that something of God was present here.]
When we had the second “Encounter The Supernatural” meeting, our church president came to check us out. He is a traditional Lutheran and then – in the service – we had an extended time where the joy of God was in the building and people – all over the auditorium – laughed. No one told a joke but the Holy Spirit made many of us laugh. I remember how NN was prayed for on the platform – all of us watching him – and he fell to the floor wailing in pain – the pain of his heart – but then God touched him and – from one moment to the next – his wailing was changed into joy – laughter. I loved it and I was relaxed. Some of us were so tense because the president was here. What would he think? Would we get in trouble? I thought that this was God’s problem. What happened in the church was him and he would deal with the reactions. God – on purpose – can be a little “full on” – even for presidents.
Yet, I conclude with a word of wisdom. After the first recorded sermon to non-Christians in the Bible, the preacher continued his work – Acts 2:40: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” We cannot change the message and we cannot change the workings of the Holy Spirit. If you want to see what Christian worship looks like, then you will see some “full on” aspects. The relationship with God is what it is but – on the other hand – we can also speak “many other words” and “plead” with people. We can prepare people before they come and we can debrief them after they have been. Before you bring a friend along, you may have a little chat about what might happen – (or you may offer an entire course of introduction to the Christian faith) – and, after the service, you can explain and unpack the experience – why do we sing for so long, what was the preacher saying, what was this and what was that.
You will be surprised. Let God be God – “full on” – relax about his message and power – and he will add people to his church. This is the witness of the Bible and his promise. We love Living Grace. The results of the National Church Life Survey are so encouraging: 46% experienced much faith growth, 83% always or usually experience inspiration during worship services, 71% experience a strong and growing sense of belonging. There is nothing wrong with where we are going. Invite someone. Amen.