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"Bare Minimum Church: Two or Three, plus Jesus"

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?