Scripture Text: Matthew 4:12-23 & Isaiah 9:1-4
Typically, the Pastor’s annual report is a written account of all the things that the pastor has “done.” The work that has been “completed.” Looking at my report from last year, I did just that – listed off all the things I had done and that we had done together as a church. And while it may seem like a list of tasks – it is a reflection of something greater. It is a reflection of a deeper change within us – both as individuals and as a congregation. Because something is happening among us here at Grace. Something new is taking shape. Something new is growing and developing. And that something new is that we are starting to claim our vocation as a congregation and growing more into Disciples of Christ. And so, for my annual report this year, I want to point out the ways we are growing.
Churches always have mission statements. But mission statements mean nothing if it goes right into the file cabinet after it’s written. Mission statements mean nothing if you never use it to guide the direction and future of the church as the Body of Christ. Our current mission statement, developed by the Session at the end of 2016 and approved by the congregation at the beginning of 2017 is “Welcoming ALL people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.” Sounds nice doesn’t it? It flows well. Has alliteration. And yet it is just words. Just something nice to say. A mission statement is supposed to change the direction of the institution. But if we are only talking about turning – but not actually turning – then our mission statement is a big, bold, lie! In other words, you don’t get to just “approve” a mission statement, and then do nothing. You must make a conscious decision, a choice, to transform the mission statement into mission action. It doesn’t truly become the church’s mission until the congregation chooses to make it the church’s mission. And your choice is exhibited by your actions or lack thereof.
And sometimes the act of following the mission – of claiming the vocation that God gives us – can be drastic and dramatic. The calling of the Disciples is a story you may have heard several times. How Jesus simply walks up, says “Follow me.” and the Disciples drop their nets and follow. The problem is, the way that the Disciples are often portrayed, we are made to feel as though they had nothing to lose in following Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. They were not poor. A fisherman was not a poor man’s job. At worst, they were small, family-business owners. To be a fisherman at the time meant you had to be able to afford the equipment to catch the fish, pay taxes on your catch, process and transport the fish, have a place to sell the fish, and even have employees (mostly family) to work on the boat and at the market. These Disciples were NOT poor and destitute and had nothing to lose. They had EVERYTHING to lose. And they gave it all up. Gave up their businesses. Gave up their family. Gave up all they ever knew and understood.
And they gave all this up for a man they had never even met before. Jesus just arrived in Capernaum. He hadn’t performed any great miracles or healings yet. He was simply picking up here John the Baptist left off – telling people to “Change your life. God’s Kingdom is here.” He was just another crazy, wannabe prophet like John. And yet, Jesus walks up to these fishermen, and orders to them to follow him. Jesus doesn’t lovingly invite them. Jesus doesn’t try to persuade or manipulate them into following him. Jesus orders them to quit the one calling they’d been preparing for their entire life and begin this new calling that they knew nothing about. Jesus just tells them to do it. And these young fishermen drop everything – the business they’ve built, the money they’ve earned, the skills that they’ve learned, even the families that they love – leaving their father in the boat by himself. They drop everything to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow this unknown Rabbi. And in so doing, they help fulfill the mission of God and discover who they are – Disciples of Jesus Christ.
Discovering who you are is not a mental exercise. It takes work. It requires you to make a leap of faith and do something unexpected, uncharacteristic, and uncomfortable. There was a time when this church knew who it was. But times have changed. And this church’s old identity isn’t true anymore. And so this Church must re-discover what it is all about. This church must re-discover its identity. This church must ask itself: “Who Are We?” And the answer to that question can’t be achieved by Sunday worship and personal prayer alone. Jesus didn’t call the Disciples just to worship and personal prayer. Jesus called them to a way of life that included worshiping, sharing, and serving. The mission of God includes all three. Claiming your vocation requires all three. Knowing who you are, requires all three.
And that’s why things are changing dramatically here at Grace Presbyterian – especially within the last year. Things are changing dramatically because – like the first disciples – we are finally dropping our nets and leaving behind everything we ever knew. Following Jesus in a direction that is unexpected. Following Jesus to do things that were once uncharacteristic. Following Jesus to places that are uncomfortable. Because that’s what discipleship is all about. Just look at what we’ve managed to do in 2018 in response to this calling to Discipleship.
We completed a full year of our Seasonal Team program which has been excellent for getting more people engaged in the mission and ministry of the church. Because while serving on a Seasonal Team is a LOT of work, unlike our traditional committees – which are an all-year commitment – you know that there is an end to your time on a Seasonal Team. And so people kept coming back to serve AGAIN on another Seasonal Team. And so many fresh and creative approaches to worshiping, sharing, and serving together grew out of the collaborative efforts of our Seasonal Teams.
(WORSHIPING) We worshiped in new and different ways that helped us to worship God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul, including:
(SERVING) We served together in fresh, new ways through original mission and community outreach opportunities including:
These are just the BRAND NEW things that we did this year to follow Jesus as we served our community together. There are also the things that we have done in years past that also had a great impact upon us and our community. When I try to think about the number of lives touched by these new missions – I’m not sure how to count them! (Maybe that’s something we need to encourage our Seasonal Teams to try and do this year – to count the people affected by their mission programs.) And many of our new mission programs were more than just making donations – they also involved hands and feet. They also involved meeting our community face-to-face. And that is what has had the greatest impact upon us – getting to know our community again. Getting to know each other on a deeper, more vulnerable level. Dropping our safety nets of “Sunday Worship” and following Jesus into places that for us are often unexpected, uncharacteristic, and uncomfortable. And for those of you who did the unexpected, who did something uncharacteristic, who step into something uncomfortable – you are the ones I have seen grow the most in your faith. You are the ones I have seen flourish over this past year. You are the ones I have seen get more and more excited about everything happening here at Grace. And it’s all because you made the decision to drop your safety net and do something you’ve never done before. All because you made the decision not just to say you are Christian, but to also take action to follow the Mission of God and pursue the call to become a Disciple of Jesus Christ. And through it all you discovered gifts and talents you never even thought you had. Through it all you found joy in places you never expected. Through it all, you built new relationships that have supported you along this journey we call faith.
And in 2019 – we are going to go even further! In 2019 we are going to become even MORE involved in our community and build even DEEPER relationships with one another. On the page 44 of the annual report you have the new 2019 Goals and Benchmarks for our congregation. Session discerned these during their retreat this past September. And they intentionally decided to keep our goals to only three so that we can truly put our energy into these goals.
Our first goal is Marketing and Social Media. Our goal is to have daily posting on social media and weekly updating of our website. In particular, posting content that is engaging – that has people discussing and interacting about their faith throughout the week. All the research shows that this is how you first engage younger generations. Your social media feed is your new front door. Many people will engage with your social media for weeks or months before they ever actually attend a worship service. So we are going to put more energy and time into building this up. Because if we don’t, then we are never going to bring in the next generation. And you can support this by not only “liking” our posts, but also “sharing” our posts. You can’t just share the things that you personally like on the church website – you’ve got to share it all. In this day and age – where we are experiencing the greatest communication shift in the last 500 years – this is a new form of discipleship and evangelism that even Presbyterians can do. You don’t have to “know enough” or be “skilled enough” to share the church’s content. If you know how to share your grandkid’s pictures or the latest inspirational meme, you can share Grace’s Facebook content. Yet the day when I asked everyone to take out their phones and share the trailer for our Christmas services, only four people actually shared it. I can see how many times it is shared and the name of everyone who shares it. I know who actually helps our social media outreach and who doesn’t. Refusing to share our social media outreach is not going to help you or your church. So please, just share. It literally takes a second to do so.
Secondly, we are going to encourage each Seasonal team to provide a local mission program that all generations can participate in. Whether it’s kids and adults working together to collect canned food items or making hygiene product bags – we must continue building our intergenerational relationships while simultaneously serving our community. ALL the research on church growth and youth ministry shows that congregation members building relationships with children and youth in the church is one of the best indicators of whether or not those kids will continue going to church as teenagers and adults. At the same time, being out in our community more has dramatically improved our image in the community – with more people asking me about the outreach programs we are doing and how they can be involved. They aren’t asking to come to worship. They are asking to be involved in serving their community. Unlike in the past where worship attendance drove engagement – today, engagement drives worship attendance. The more we are active in our community and invite the community to participate in serving their community, the more likely they will come and worship with us as well. The more we provide these opportunities for our community, the more our church will grow.
Third, we are going to work on building deeper relationships with one another. To move beyond our old cliques and Sunday morning, social niceties. We are going to start asking people to form different types of small groups, including: Affinity Groups (built around activities you enjoy doing), Discipleship groups (for those who want to learn more about their faith and scripture), and Covenant Groups (for those who want to engage in mutual sharing, prayer, and support of one another). Some of these groups will be short-term and organized by Seasonal Teams, and some of them will be long-term and independent. Small groups can drive church growth because it is often easier to invite someone to attend a small group at your house than to invite them to worship at your church. People – especially young people – are desperately looking for real, authentic, community. Small groups can provide that. Plus, the next step for those who engage on social media is often a small group and then worship. So the formation of small groups is vital to the growth of our church. And you are going to have to be the person who steps up and lead them. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)
So that is where we’ve been. And that is where we are going. I know that it’s been difficult, even painful, at times. In Isaiah’s prophecy, the promised land is conquered by the Babylonians and left in darkness and destruction which God allowed to happen. Yet, the prophet also tells them that now is the time to hope because, “the time is coming when he’ll make that whole area glorious.” The entire nation is about to be resurrected. God is about to “repopulate the nation…expand its joy…The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.” For some of you, things may seem bleak and dark right now and that’s because resurrection is always preceded by death. Easter is always preceded by Good Friday. But there is hope for “The people who walk in darkness” There is a light at the end of the tomb. Resurrection is on the way. But resurrection is messy. And the resurrected body is different from the previous body. I highly doubt that Jesus arose from the grave pristinely clean, in a glowing white robe, and perfect hair. I imagine he arose stained with blood, with dirt under his nails, and his hair all matted. And Jesus’ resurrected body could move through locked doors and suddenly appear in rooms – even though it could also still eat and drink. So just hold on – resurrection is happening – it’s just a messy process.
At the same time, I highly doubt that the family and friends of the first Disciples were okay with them dropping everything to follow around a total stranger. I’m sure that their family relationships were strained. And we know that these Disciples struggled for the rest of their lives. Struggled physically, emotionally, spiritually, in pursuing their vocation as Disciples of Christ. We know that only ONE of them died of old age. The rest were executed. But their discipleship not only helped them grow in their faith and push through their struggles, it also grew the Church even in the midst of Roman oppression.
And you can do the same. In 2019, you can make this church grow by leaps and bounds. But you first have to make the conscious decision to grow as a Disciple of Jesus Christ yourself. You have to take action by doing that which is unexpected of you, uncharacteristic of you, and uncomfortable for you. To only do what’s expected, to only be a caricature of a Christian, to stay in your comfort zone will only cause your spirit to shrivel and die. But life in Christ shuns safety and risks everything for the fullness of life found in the Kingdom of God that is already here. You are graciously invited to come and follow Jesus and to continue his work as a Disciple – to claim your vocation and serve God’s mission here in our community.
In 2019, join us in welcoming all people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.