A Sermon based upon Matthew 18:20
Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
My Old Testament Professor at S.F.T.S., Robert Coote, put together a book of essays which included three of my seminary classmates among others who accepted calls to small churches in a variety of settings. He titled it: “Mustard Seed Churches.” I enjoyed the book and their insights about the challenges and joys of being a “small” congregation in a culture that equates “big-ness” with success. Of those three classmates, one is now retired, and the other two left the ministry after a few years.
One of the problems “small churches” face is a general lack of appreciation for things that are “small” to begin with!
At the Brown Trout Festival, for example, prizes go to the ones who catch the largest fish. In October, we’ll certainly be impressed by someone’s huge-sized pumpkin. In November, when hunters hang their deer on the buck pole, it’s the biggest one with the most points that “wows” the on-looker. Who’s got the biggest hamburger, tallest skyscraper, the most muscle, the highest salary are (for many people) the measure of excellence. I call it “size-ism”. (“My dog’s bigger than your dog.”)
In the world of the Church, it’s the minister who has more members, or the bigger building, or the larger salary, or a faster growing Sunday School… who becomes the envy of the others.
Last Fall, our Stewardship Committee appreciated the fact that we were asking a 150-member congregation to provide $140,000 of financial resources to keep our church moving ahead. Pledges came in at $130,000, for which we thank you!
For many people, the number of members on the roster and the number of dollars collected are taken as indicators of success. And the presumption is that those numbers should be growing, if we are going to continue to succeed in the future.
Now, before I go any further with my remarks, let me say there is nothing wrong with that. I am in favor of church growth! I do hope we get new members, & I hope our stewardship drive next October meets its goal for an increased budget next year.
My concern, however, is when growth in numbers – the number of members or amounts of money – is taken to indicate a measure of our church’s “success”. It might be an indicator, but that’s not the point of why we track those numbers.
I think both our membership numbers and our finances should be sufficient – so that our ministry is sustainable. And those numbers should be accurate – well-balanced between income and expenditure, between new members joining and those who move away (or pass away). And it’s important that all the numbers be transparent -- open to public knowledge -- and accountable. Transparency, consistency, accountability… those are the measures of one’s integrity. (!) And that (in my opinion), more so than growth in numbers, is a key to our success.
So, the question regarding our size – whether a church is small, like ours… or even “mega-church” celebrity super-sized – is whether their numbers are (1) sufficient, (2) sustainable, (3) accurate, (4) transparent, (5) accountable… If not, it’s not good! I personally would not attend a church that did not demonstrate that kind of integrity, let alone donate my money to its ministry.
So, before being impressed by size, or being put off by “smallness” – before insisting on “growth” as a measure of our success – I would have us look at the character of a congregation… as we would in making a new friend, or in choosing a business partner, or finding a spouse… We look for integrity -- transparency, consistency, accountability -- and some beauty!
Transparency simply means: “what you see is what you get.” No masks. No false-front… no pretending to be what we’re not really. Jesus called pretense “hypocrisy”, and he condemned it when he saw it happening among the religious scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law in his day. I’m sure that Jesus would condemn it even more harshly if he were to see it in our day, especially in churches that gather in his name! Without transparency & consistency, there is no integrity.
Consistency means: “I am who I am, come hell or high water.” Regardless of changing circumstances and situations, who I am remains consistent. You don’t have to wonder “what’s he gonna be like today?” In the ups & downs -- the “yin & yang” of every-day stresses and strains -- in the midst of joys and concerns, my sense of who I am (and, hopefully, your experience of me) remains consistent. Transparency plus consistency equals integrity.
But let’s get back to the topic of church growth and the relative merits of size…
Out in California, my little church in Torrance (which had 55 members when I accepted the call to be its Minister in 1993, and where I served for 17 years) was surrounded by hundreds of much bigger, active, charismatic Christian congregations. You could watch some of them on TV, if you didn’t want to get dressed and go out on Sunday morning. Rev. Robert Schuller, for example, was doing his Crystal Cathedral thing in Anaheim back in those days.
The Forum in Inglewood (the stadium where the LA Lakers used to play before they built the Staples Center in Los Angeles) had been converted into a church with ten thousand seats, a huge stage for their Praise Band to perform, and the preacher appeared on the Jumbo-tron screens overhead… a spectacular experience rich with Hollywood special effects, sound & lighting.
By comparison, what did our little church have to offer?
I asked one of the new members why he started coming to our church. First, he said he wanted to belong somewhere – the TV church services were entertaining, but he was alone watching them. The big Church he attended for awhile had a good choir and great music, but the sermon was repetitive…
Every week (he said) they were told that God has certain rules to live by; we break them by our sin, Jesus saves us by his death; and, if we believe that, we should now go out and tell others to come join them in worship. The church grew larger every week, as people did as they were told… week after week. He felt that he was not growing in his faith. He wasn’t learning.
The next church he attended for awhile (St. Andrews) had a good reputation in the community for its contemporary worship, but this new member said that the preacher “acted like a teen-ager.” For an older man like himself -- a widower, retired -- it all seemed irrelevant. He was looking for a church of the right size.
When Jim Williams (who was that retired executive) said that to me (many years ago), it struck a chord. Our little, local congregation offered him a church that was “the right size.”
In a culture like ours, where “bigger” is considered “better” – where “biggest” is synonymous with “best” (and “quantity” often wins out over “quality”) – it’s tough for a small-town church like ours to compete, or to hold our heads high in a world that’s obsessed with growth & size.
In this week’s Newsletter, I wrote that this beautiful Besser concrete-block high-vaulted wooden-beam sanctuary has stood here on the corner of Washington Blvd., Second Ave., and Lockwood Street for 65 years. It’s a great downtown location and a grand facility! First Congregational UCC has been a visible public institution in Alpena for 156 years, with a prominent building, alongside a fairly well-traveled highway intersection. We’ve got a lot going for us, wouldn’t you say?
Because of that, I am surprised when I mention our church in conversation (when I meet people) to find out that they haven’t heard of us. I describe the building and the location… and they’ve never even noticed it. I say the name, and they don’t know what “congregational” means. (!) Some will say: Are you a non-denominational church? (!) Neither “Congregational” nor “United Church of Christ” are known to them.
Frankly, the UCC is about as “non-denominational” as an organized denomination can be. We don’t have a centralized structure; each local congregation is considered the “church”, and we freely “associate” with others who are like us, but without vesting any “higher authority” in those regional associations or state conferences… nor even the national setting of the Church Officers in Cleveland. Each local UCC church is an autonomous entity in every small town; running its own ministry in that setting.
(We’ll get a taste of that at the end of the month, when we take a road trip to visit Lewiston’s Congregational UCC church and Atlanta’s First Congregational UCC’s Baby Basket ministry.)
The UCC is not a large denomination. We have 5,000 churches all across the USA, with a total of 880,000 members. (That’s less than a million of us UCC’ers!) By comparison, there are 2 million Episcopalians (like Trinity, across the street); and almost 3 million Presbyterians. (!) There are four-&-a-half million Evangelical Lutherans like Grace Lutheran & St. Paul Lutheran. There are almost 8 million United Methodists; and twice that many Southern Baptists. (!) We’re teeny-tiny in size.
If you wonder why people think of a conservative, evangelical, Baptist-like believer when they imagine an American Protestant Christian… it’s because there are 16 million Southern Baptists in the public eye, and only 880,000 of us UCC-types. We are a tiny minority among the many options for Sunday-morning church-going folks to choose from. The Alpena News lists 50 congregations in Alpena County on its “religion” page.
In the State of Michigan there are 137 UCC churches; our United Northern Association has 14. State-wide, the average church membership is 189; our church is only 150, but most other UCC congregations up north are even smaller than we are.
I would worry about whether or not that smallness is sustainable in today’s economy, except for two things. First, the fact that Jesus tells his followers (in the Sermon on the Mount, that we read and discussed just this past Monday morning during Bible Study) not to worry about tomorrow: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Matt. 6:34)
In our middle hymn, we sang: “I don’t worry o’er the future, for I know what Jesus said; and today I’ll walk beside him, for He knows what is ahead. Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand. But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.” (lyrics by Ira F. Stanphill, © 1950, Singspiration)
The other reason I don’t worry about the relative smallness of our church, is this morning’s text, when Jesus says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Two people, three people… we’ve got that covered twenty-times over! We gather in Jesus’ name, ready to learn together and ready to lean on one another. Jesus is in our midst!
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am...”
This saying puts an emphasis on interpersonal encounters, not “flying solo” as a Christian. We’re not designed to be “Lone Ranger” Christians. We need one another if we are to be fully alive as the Body of Christ in our day.
Of course you and I may feel the nearness of Jesus when we are alone. “He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Yes, we may feel the Holy Spirit of Jesus well up in our soul in a powerful way when we are alone. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.”
That inner, personal walk with Jesus is the source and center of the experience of being Christian -- a Jesus follower. You have that experience of Jesus’ nearness deep within you… as do I. And that personal assurance that Jesus is with you -- just as you are, wherever you are -- is the foundation upon which faith is built. “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” Jesus is in you, and you are in him… safe and secure.
But today’s text adds an important dimension to that inner-most personal faith. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” The emphasis is placed on interpersonal encounters -- what happens when your faith meets another person.
Keith Miller, the author of “A Taste of New Wine”, says in his sequel “A Second Touch” (Word Books: Waco, TX, © 1967, page 56):
“For years I had been trying to witness to congregations and conferences and to those I considered to be ‘important’, while the people along my daily path might as well have been trees walking by me. … I don’t know what my beginning to see ‘persons’ did for the people I encountered, but it certainly changed me. I had a sense of ‘having time’ for people, and the exciting feeling of being on ‘new ground’…
“[By thinking of Jesus being right there with the two or the three of us] gave me the sense of being on a secret mission of faith for Christ. I was creatively trying to learn how to love people on their own terms and to pray for them. …
“I found that just a question -- an interested ear -- might create a ‘thirty-second island’ of caring in a person’s otherwise impersonal day. The focus of [my] life was almost imperceptibly changing from the distant horizon of tomorrow (or next month) to the immediate present, the now…
Keith Miller admits: “I had marched into the future looking straight ahead – passing by the searching eyes of those people beside me on the road I was travelling.
“This simple change of the focus of my attention to the immediate events of the [present] moment -- as the important events from God’s perspective -- made me realize that … my past was preparing me for the events and encounters of this day, however insignificant this day may seem from my ordinary perspective.
Every day, each relationship, began to take on new importance. God might have something new to do in this relationship!” (ibid., page 57) Right here. Right now.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Jesus’ emphasis is focused on interpersonal encounters -- what happens when your living faith meets another person -- in a present moment, when you take time (in Jesus’ name) to actually engage them. That’s what it means to “be Christian” in its most elemental sense: seeing the other person as a person, who is beloved by God and deserving of attention. We do “unto others” as we would have them do “unto us”. We “love our neighbor” as we love ourselves. We take the time to get to know one another, in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake.