A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
27 “But I say
to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate
you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat
you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one
as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give
to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take
them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to
25 A legal
expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain
replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
responded, “You must love the Lord
your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and
with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said
to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the
legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who
is my neighbor?”
replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves,
who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31
Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When
he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went
on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the
injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his
way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the
man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and
wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and
took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’
worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and
when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36
What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who
37 Then the
legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
“Love your neighbor.”Part of the Great Commandment, inseparable
from the command to love God with everything we have.The center of our religious practice,
holiness that is both personal and social, two sides of the same coin in this
command from Jesus to “Love God, Love neighbor.”
Perhaps you’re thinking,
“Easy for you to say, Jesus, – you don’t have to live next to my
neighbors.I don’t even like my
neighbors, how am I supposed to love someone I can’t stand to be around?Someone who leaves their trash bin open and
the wind blows it into my yard, someone who trims the trees on my side of the
line, someone who always borrows my tools, and either doesn’t return them, or
manages to break them before I get them back!This is the neighbor you want me to love?I don’t even know half my neighbors; I
actually like them more than the others!”
Love God.Love your neighbor.Simple to say.Sometimes difficult to practice.
For the last several
weeks, we have been exploring the ways God is calling us to grow as a congregation
as we move into God’s preferred future.We give thanks for where we’ve been, we appreciate where we are now, and
we rejoice that God’s not done with us, yet.As good as our history and heritage is, God is calling us to even better
things in our future.With God, the best
is yet to come.Moving into that future
requires some stretching.Some
deepening.Some growing.Where are we growing?We’re growing in faith.We’re growing in grace.We’re growing as disciples.And, we’re growing as neighbors.May we
I grew up in a city
neighborhood where the houses were built between 1920 and 1950.The houses were close together.There were public sidewalks.People parked on the street.No one had air conditioning, and you could
tell what everyone was cooking for dinner just by riding your bike up and down
the street.Summer evenings typically
found the adults out on the front porch with a glass of tea or some other
beverage of choice.I knew the adults,
kids, and pets of every home within a four-block radius, and they knew me.If my friends and I got into any mischief, my
mom knew about it before I got back home.
People in the U.S. feel
less-connected to their neighbors now than they did fifty years ago.It’s not that people are less-friendly than
they used to be, it’s that our lifestyles have changed so that we interact with
other people less and less.Look at the
way we’ve built our homes and neighborhoods.Public, tree-lined streets with sidewalks gave way to cul-de-sacs in
gated communities.Big front porches
gave way to private backyard patios and decks.Attached garages became the norm.Air-conditioning sent everyone inside to escape the summer heat.Thanks to technology, you can buy gas, shop,
and bank without ever having to interact with another human being.Our world is much more convenient than it
used to be, but there is a high price for all that convenience – a loss of our
sense of community and connection.
Human beings are social creatures.We are hard-wired with a need to connect with
other people, a need which increases as our social space decreases, and in a
world in which our neighbors feel less and less connected, the church is
presented with an opportunity to fill that void, and be the place in our
community where significant connection among neighbors happens.For the people of God, being a good neighbor
is part of who we are.It’s intrinsic to
being a follower of Jesus.
Consider the story of the
Good Samaritan we read a few minutes ago.A legal expert and Jesus are sparring back and forth on what is
essential in the life of faith, and they eventually settle that it is to “Love
God and Love neighbor.”But the legal
expert, as lawyers are prone to do, starts looking for a loophole, and asks,
“But who is my neighbor?,” a definition which would necessarily define some as
“not my neighbor.”The lawyer is
essentially asking, “Who don’t I have to love?”
Jesus tells the story of a
man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road.I imagine that man praying, crying out to God
to send someone to help him.Two
respected religious officials come down the road, first the man’s pastor, then
his favorite Biblical scholar – surely, one of these trusted, Godly men will
stop to help.But both avert their eyes,
quicken their pace, and cross to the other side of the road as they pass by the
But then along comes an
enemy – the most hated and despised person imaginable, and the half-dead man at
the side of the road knows the situation is about to go from bad to worse.Sure enough this enemy stops over the man –
what evil trickery is he about to commit?He looks at the wounded man for a moment, thinking to himself, and then
reaches in his cloak, and pulls out the best antiseptic medicine he has and
starts to apply it to the beaten man’s wounds.He carefully takes the man into the next town, finds him a room, and
calls a doctor to look after the man until he comes back in a few days.
Oh yeah - he was a
Samaritan – a people group who were more hated than you can imagine.Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which one was the
neighbor?” and the lawyer is so disgusted by the story he can’t even bring
himself to say “The Samaritan,” and can only mumble, “The one who showed
It’s easy to love your
neighbor when your neighbors are lovable.What if the term “neighbor” also extends to those you despise the most?
When my Dad sold his house
in New York, I went up to help move him down here.I was cleaning out the garage, when a neighbor
from up the street came by.“So, your
Dad finally sold the house.These people
who bought his house, what kind of people are they?”
Now, I’m not dumb.I’ve known this neighbor most of my life, and
know that he is one of the most prejudiced, racist people anyone could ever
meet.When he said, “What kind of people
are they?” he was asking, “What color are they?Are they white like me, or are they something different?”
I said, “You know, I don’t
know.I haven’t met them.Dad went to closing on his own.I do know that the color of their full cash
offer is green, and that’s good enough for me.”Like it or not, we have no control over who our neighbors will be.So we may as well make up our minds to love
our neighbors, regardless of who they are.
It’s not only individuals
who are called to be good neighbors.Churches are also called to be good neighbors.I drive around and see churches who look very
unwelcoming: chains across the parking lots, or condescending messages on their
marquees that the church members probably think are clever but everyone else
finds cheesy or offensive, but each of those things are a signal about their
engagement with outsiders.They send messages
that repel their neighbors rather than draw them in.
A Methodist church in Charlotte
had been established 70 years ago, in a thriving mill neighborhood.Eventually, the mill closed, the neighborhood
changed, but the church remained.Most
of its members moved out of the neighborhood, but continued to drive in for
church, but fewer each year, and so the church was dwindling further and
further down.The church looked less and
less like its neighborhood, and became increasingly fearful and eventually
hostile of the people who now lived within walking distance of their church.
They organized a backpack
packing event at back-to-school time on a Saturday afternoon, and low-and-behold,
half a dozen people from the community showed up to help.The next morning, 20 first time visitors
showed up in worship.They were all a
different color than the established church members, and the church members sat
on one side and the guests sat on the other, and no one from the “church” side
crossed the aisle to greet anyone on the “guest” side.
None of the visitors came
back, and the church was slated to close later that year.The DS came for a meeting with the church
members, who were angry that he was closing their church.He had heard about this incident of not
welcoming the people from the neighborhood, and said, “I’m perplexed.You say you want to save your church, you
want to grow, you want new people.20
people walked in, and you did nothing to welcome them, in fact, you made them
feel unwelcome.Help me understand why
you did that?”
One man stood up, crossed
his arms, and said, “Because, they were the wrong kind of people.”
The Golden Rule is not
conditional: “Treat others as you wish to be treated – only if you like them and
they’re similar to you and you approve of their choices and it won’t put you
out too much and they’re the right kind of people.”Loving our neighbor does not hinge on who our
neighbors happen to be, how much we like them or don’t before we know anything
about them.The question is whether we
will commit to loving our neighbors no matter who they are.
Love God, and love your
neighbor.We ask, but who is my
neighbor?What kind of people are
they?It doesn’t matter.Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone
This story is more
offensive than we sometimes realize.The
words “good” and “Samaritan” had never been uttered in the same sentence, other
than saying that they were “good for nothing.”The story was as shocking in Jesus’ day as if he had told it as “The
Good al-Quaeda” or “The Good Hamas” or “The Good ISIS” or “The Good Taliban” in
our day.I’d be offended if Jesus said
that, today!But, our offense highlights
the significance of what Jesus says.
Whoever you think, “the
wrong kind of people” are, that’s who the Samaritan would be.It would have been bad enough to tell the
story as if the Samaritan were the one beaten and subsequently helped, but to
make one’s most bitterly-hated enemy the hero of the story?That was too much.It’s not only that our enemy is our
neighbor.The enemy has seen us as neighbor, responding with grace
and compassion toward us.
If the person we despise
most, one of the “wrong kind of people,” can see our sacred worth as a child of
God and love us as a neighbor, might we rethink how we see and love
others?If grace has been granted to us,
will we not grant it to others?
Growing as neighbors means
that we have an increasingly positive impact on the lives of those outside our church.Sometimes people ask, “Shouldn’t we just
focus on who is already here?” “No.”The problem with that question is in the
word, “just.”Because, we should focus
on who is already here.We need to
nurture the faith and relationships of the church family, we need to build the
body up, support and encourage each other.But we don’t do “just” that.
Growing up, there were
things we did together to build and support and nurture each other, things we
did inside the home to grow as a family.We also did things outside the home to grow as neighbors.It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.We didn’t “just” take care of the family, nor
did we “just” look after the neighbors.It was both.As church, growing
as a family and growing as neighbors are not mutually exclusive.We are called to do both.
It’s sort of like
breathing – you have to breathe in AND breathe out.What happens if you only breathe in?You get so puffed up and full of your own hot
air you eventually pass out!And what
happens if you only breathe out?You
give out everything you have to give until you eventually pass out!There’s a rhythm to it, of internal and
external – staying healthy requires both.
John Wesley famously said,
“The world is my parish.”By that, he
was called to minister to those outside the church walls, to take the message
of God’s love and grace to the people who hadn’t darkened the church’s
doors.He didn’t open the door and hope
a few wandered in.The early Methodists
took the message beyond themselves, freely sharing God’s love with anyone and
everyone.Methodists have been in
mission since the very beginning.It’s
who we are!By focusing not only on
themselves, but on those around them, they were putting their love of God and
neighbor into action.They were known as
In our corner of the
world, our parish, how is Morehead Church known?My prayer is that the people who live within
our parish, our neighbors, the people God has entrusted to our love and care, whether
they are members or not, whether they have ever darkened our door or not, will
know us a good neighbor.They will know
us as warm-hearted and genuine, a people who share freely and generously of
what we have, a people who give ourselves for others as Christ has given
himself for the world, that we are more concerned with what we can do for them
than what they can do for us.With the
help of God, we are called to be good neighbors.
Where are we growing?What is God’s preferred future for Morehead
Church?We are called to grow in
faith.We are called to grow in
grace.We are called to grow as
disciples.And we are called to grow as
May our neighbors know us
as good neighbors.Once they do, watch
how many become part of the family.
25 A legal
expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain
26 Jesus replied,
“What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
responded, “You must love the Lord
your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and
with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said
to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
3 This is how
we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. 4 The
one who claims, “I know him,” while not keeping his commandments, is a liar,
and the truth is not in this person. 5 But the love of God is
truly perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know we are in him. 6 The
one who claims to remain in him ought to live in the same way as he lived.
Did anyone have a place growing up where you measured your height from time
to time?Maybe at your house or
grandma’s – a bedroom or closet door, the wall inside the pantry – somewhere in
the house with your name and a series of dates that tracked your growth?
What if we did that in church, too?What if there was a doorway somewhere with our name on it, where,
periodically, God measured our spiritual growth and compared it to where we
were a few months ago, a year ago, a decade ago?Would God say, “Wow!Look at how far you’ve come!Look at how much you’ve grown!”
For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at the ways we are called to
grow as a congregation as we move into God’s preferred future.We’ve already looked at growing in faith and
growing in grace.Today we build on that
– in God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow as disciples.May we
In one of my college applications, we were asked to write an essay on this
topic: “If you were to have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would
it be, and why?”It was supposed to be a
way to let the admissions committee know who your influences were, who were the
people you admired most.I couldn’t
think of who to write.It’s not that I
couldn’t think of someone, I thought of so
many people, it was hard to narrow it down to just one.
Maybe I should have taken the easy route and written “Jesus.”Who doesn’t admire Jesus?Everyone admires Jesus.Jesus is consistently ranked as one of the
most admired people in history.
Admiration has its place.Much of
worship is admiration. However, it is easy and convenient for us to admire
Jesus from a distance.We can admire his
teaching, his works, his example, his influence – without having to get too
close, without having to consider how his life might affect our lives.
It is easy for us to admire Jesus like some sort of holy fan club, but Jesus
isn’t looking for fans; Jesus already has more than enough fans.No, Jesus is looking for followers.
A disciple is one who follows something or someone else.An old blessing that was often given to
disciples at the time of Jesus was, “May you follow your Master so closely, you
are covered with the dust of his feet.”I
love that image – walking so close to Jesus, literally in his footsteps,
following his lead, growing more and more like him every day such that we
eventually become like him.
That’s a tall order, isn’t it?To
become like Jesus?Yet, I am called, you
are called, we are all called to be like Jesus.Frederick Buechner said, “Where your feet take you; that is who you
But here’s what I find, and maybe this is true for you, too: my feet have
trouble finding the footsteps of Jesus.My feet take me a lot of different places, many of them very good
places, and sometimes I think it’s that desire to go everywhere that keeps us from getting anywhere.
So, let’s keep a singular focus on sticking close to Jesus.
One of the trends across American Christianity right now is that young
adults – Generations X and Y, the Millennials, my generation and those younger
– are leaving the Church and staying away from the Church in record numbers.
There has been a ton of research on why so many are opting out of church,
and there are some excellent resources you can pick up: unChristian by Dan Kimball and Gabe Lyons, When Christians Get it Wrong by Adam Hamilton, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church by Dan Kimball.
Before you start to shake your head and say, “What’s the matter with kids
today?Why, in my day . . .”Before you do that, much of the research
shows that emerging generations rate higher in terms of openness to
spirituality and particularly to Jesus than previous generations.They love Jesus!They just find that, often, the Church is
driven by agendas and conversations that aren’t about Jesus – they see Jesus
acting and talking one way, and the Church acting and talking another.
Perhaps it’s not “What’s the matter with kids today,” but an invitation to
re-center our lives around Jesus, to lay down other agendas that are simply a
distraction, and to whole-heartedly, single-mindedly, authentically focus on
How many of the great religious movements throughout history have been a
call back to authenticity, and how many of those movements were started by
young people?Methodism began among a
bunch of college students at Oxford University.Martin Luther was 33 when he sparked the Protestant Revolution.Even Jesus was in his early 30s for his
public ministry, and his disciples were mostly young men, including at least a
few in their late teens.
It isn’t a generational thing.It’s
a Jesus thing.Perhaps these young
people who are opting out of church are providing us with an opportunity to be
who we claim to be, growing up to become more like Jesus.
And yes, growing up can be hard.Growing
up, becoming a mature person comes with certain responsibilities.I remember being in a big hurry to grow up,
especially to get my license and therefore secure my independence.I hadn’t banked on very grown-up things like
car payments, gas, tires, insurance, oil changes – responsibilities that came
along with growing up.
Happens in our faith, too.Sometimes
we’d prefer to have a Peter Pan faith – one that doesn’t grow up.The Church can reinforce that, too.“We don’t want to burden people with a lot of
expectations and responsibilities.We
can’t ask too much of people. We should
just be happy that anyone showed up at all!”
I’ve heard that from church leaders, before.Not here, thank God, but I’ve heard it.Way to set the bar high, right? Talk about creating a culture of mediocrity!People will rise no higher than the level to
which they are challenged.Expect
mediocrity, and people will give you exactly what you asked for.Expect excellence, and people will dazzle you
Take a look at our membership expectations in the bulletin (see bottom of post).We have a culture of excellence here.Being a disciple of Jesus, one who follows
him so closely we are covered with the dust of his feet, allows no less.I’m okay putting responsibilities and
expectations on you, because I want you to grow as a disciple.It’s my job to help you grow as a
disciple!I want you to have a grown-up,
mature, Christlike faith; not a Peter Pan faith. Those membership guidelines – they aren’t
about what you’re going to do for the church, they’re about what you’re going
to do for yourself as you grow deeper in your discipleship!We’re making and forming disciples here,
folks – that’s important work – important enough that if we really want it, we
should be willing to put a bit of time and effort into it.
More than just showing up. Sitting
in a church doesn’t make you a disciple any more than sitting in a garage makes
you a car.It takes more than showing
up.It takes spiritual commitment,
adopting the practices that will help grow up and mature as a disciple and become
Last week, we talked about growing in grace, having a warm welcome and
embrace for all people as wide as the arms of Jesus himself, because all people
are loved by God, created in the image of God, and therefore are of sacred and
inestimable worth.We welcome others
because Christ has welcomed us.
This business about growing and becoming like Jesus, that’s another aspect
of God’s grace working in us.Ann Lamott
says, “Grace finds us where we are, but it doesn’t leave us there.”Grace first welcomes us, but it’s not done
with us there.Sitting at the feet of
Jesus should make us different, changed, somehow.Grace welcomes us to Jesus, and then grace
continues to transform us to become like Jesus.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the couple who were celebrating their 65th
wedding anniversary, and a reporter was sent to interview them.He said, “Wow, 65 years!Tell me, sir, what’s your secret to staying
married to the same woman for 65 years?”The man said, “You idiot, it’s been 65 years – she’s not the same woman
now she was when we got married!”
Our relationships change and grow over time, don’t they?Our relationship with God is no different.Spending time with Jesus changes us.It changes our priorities.It changes how we spend our time, talent, and
treasure.It changes our attitudes, our
habits, our actions to grow us more like Jesus.
Go back to our membership guidelines.You’ll see that we set a high bar here, we ask a lot of our members, we
expect a lot because it takes a lot to become like Jesus.Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t do all of
these things,” or “Very few of our members do these things,” yet we don’t lower
the bar.If you want to be an olympic
athlete, there’s a high bar for that, same is true for being a disciple.We keep the bar high.God expects you to give your best.God expects excellence and we are giving you
an opportunity to shine.It takes a lot
to grow and mature as a disciple.It
takes a lot to become like Jesus.
Maybe as you’ve looked over those membership guidelines, the Holy Spirit
has already convicted your heart of where you need to grow.Things you need to do, things you need to do
more of, maybe things you need to not do.Maybe you have attitudes and behaviors you need to let go of so you can
grow and mature to become more like Jesus.
A word on that – sometimes people will say things like “We need some sermons
on gossip, because there’s some people around here who need to hear a sermon on
that, like old so-and-so.”It’s tempting
to point at the shortcomings of others and diagnose their sins and tell them
all the ways they need to repent.Yet,
God does not work in all hearts alike.Whatever is a barrier in someone else’s spiritual life is between that
person and God.They may ask us to help
us with that thing, and it’s a holy privilege to do so.As people grow in their faith and draw closer
to God, God will reveal the things in their life that separate them from God
and other people, the things that keep them from growing and flourishing in God’s
love.How about we catch ‘em and let God
How?What I want you to do today is
commit to growing where you need to.Don’t worry about where your neighbor needs to grow, focus on where God
wants you to grow.I don’t need to tell you; you already
know.God has already put it on your
As Dorothy comes to play, spend the next few moments praying about how you
are being called to grow, making a plan to grow, and then committing to that
plan.Wherever you are, take a next
step, because I hope we will all have a mature, grown-up faith. Don’t settle for being just a fan of
Jesus.Be a follower. Follow Jesus so closely, you become like him.
Morehead United Methodist Church
is a way of saying, “Morehead Church is my church! I believe in what God
is doing here, and I want to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ here, with
You do not
have to be a member to participate fully in the life of Morehead United
Methodist Church. Everything we do is open to you whether you are a
member or not. We consider you part of the Morehead family from the moment you
walk in the door. So why join? Membership is an important act
of commitment as you grow deeper in your faith. Membership at Morehead
United Methodist Church is an expression of your commitment to the ministry
happening in and through this faith community.
I committing to if I become a member?
Attend worship at Morehead weekly unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.
Participate in at least one activity each year designed to help you grow in your faith (Sunday School, Bible study, accountability group, small group, spiritual retreat, etc.).
Give of your time at least once a year through the ministry of Morehead.
Give to fund the ministries of Morehead in proportion to your income, with the goal of tithing (10%).
commitments are not stringent requirements to be “enforced” or used
punitively. Rather, they demonstrate practices that are consistent in the
lives of people who wish to grow as deeply-committed followers of Jesus
Christ. We believe that persons who commit to these practices will grow
in their relationships with God and with each other.
God’s grace to become a loving, Christlike person, we ask all members
Be positive and joyful.
Seek opportunities to serve others before themselves.
Be teachable in all areas.
Be slow to speak and quick to listen
relationships with others inside and outside the church, we ask all members to
Demonstrate respect and grace.
Accept differences and value diversity.
Publicly support other members, church leaders, staff, and the pastor.
Avoid damaging words and actions toward others, including gossip.
May the God
of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other,
similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. 6 That way you can glorify
the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.7 So welcome each other, in
the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.
11 In this
image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian,
Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.
as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility,
gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and,
if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord
forgave you, so also forgive each other.
People often ask what we
as Methodists believe, and I tell them, though we believe a variety of things,
what unites us and really lights our fire is grace.God holding us in grace, us holding others in
that same grace.It’s all about grace.
If you believe God is more of a loving parent
than a strict judge, that being loving is more important than being right, that
the highest expression of the Christian life is to love God and neighbor, well,
then, you’re probably a Methodist.
We are in a sermon series
on the preferred future to which God is calling us as a congregation, the
various ways we are called to grow into our future.Last week, we talked about growing in
faith.Today we’re going to look at
growing in grace. In God’s preferred
future, Morehead Church will grow in grace. May
Through the years, I’ve
done a fair amount of consulting work with other congregations.I’m always trying to gain a sense of who the
congregation is, and how they perceive themselves.One of the first things someone always says
is, “Oh, we’re a very friendly church” – I haven’t been to a church yet that
didn’t describe themselves as friendly.My experience and observation, however, is that many churches are
friendly the same way your family dog is friendly: affectionate toward members
of the family, but with a tendency to bark at strangers.
Everyone thinks their
church is friendly, but that’s usually an inside perspective, not an outside
one.Long-established church members
experience their church as friendly because their friends go there.They may be completely oblivious to the needs
of a stranger, who is not having a friendly experience, just a few feet away
One of you described a
situation to me of worshiping in a large membership church, going to coffee
hour to get to know other people, and the fellowship hall was full of little
clusters of people who already knew each other, having a great time, but that,
as a newcomer, even as an extroverted and outgoing person, there was literally
and physically no way to break into one of those groups.
Another friend of ours
described walking into a church one Sunday with 18 people in attendance.As a newcomer, she was definitely noticed, as
18 sets of eyes stared her down.The
message was clear: “Who are you, and WHY are you in OUR church?”The only person who even spoke to her was the
new pastor, well, except for the one woman who came in and rudely informed our
friend that she was in this lady’s seat, and demanded that she vacate it and
find somewhere else.Our friend did not
go back to that church, despite the fact that her husband was the new pastor.
I’d bet that both of those
churches would describe themselves as friendly, but to the experience of a
newcomer?Anything but friendly.
There’s a myth out there
that the bigger a congregation gets, the colder and more impersonal it
becomes.Large church, small church –
doesn’t really matter.It’s not a
church’s size that determines how welcoming it is – it’s its heart.Disposition is not a function of size, no, a
church is warm or cold because of its heart,
not because of its size.
I have experienced large
churches that excelled at personal touches for every single person there, and
large churches where I felt like a number.I have also experienced small churches where I was embraced as a member
of the family, and small churches where it was made clear that I didn’t belong
there because I wasn’t one of them.
I would like for us to
stop describing ourselves as “a friendly church.”Instead, I’d like us to describe ourselves as
“warm-hearted.”“Friendly” is a moving
target, largely dependent on whether or not your friends are already here.
“Warm-hearted,” however, is a disposition no matter who is around us, such that
we are positioned to welcome and rejoice over the presence of others, whether
we have known them our whole lives or are meeting them for the first time.
Morehead is a warm-hearted
congregation.It’s what we’re known
for.It’s one of the things I always
hear from guests and newcomers.Folks, that
warmth has nothing to do with our size;
it has everything to do with our heart.
Sylvia LeClair invites
everyone she meets to come to worship with us.Many of you are here as a result of Sylvia’s invitation.God help you if you are her neighbor, because
she has made it her mission to bring her entire community to Morehead, and I
think eventually, she’s going to do it.
I asked Sylvia how she
does it.She laughed and said, “I say,
‘If you come to Morehead and you don’t feel the love, I will buy your dinner.’And I haven’t bought a dinner yet.”
That warm-heartedness is
in our DNA, it’s not going to go away, which is why in God’s preferred future, we will be warm-hearted, no matter what
size we become.
Answer me this: can you
imagine a congregation that includes someone like Sylvia ever becoming a cold
and unwelcoming place?Not just Sylvia,
but so many of you who have such a naturally warm-hearted disposition that
welcomes and cares for others as Christ welcomes us – that’s just part of who
we are, and it brings glory to God.
We average about 150
people in worship in both services.Here’s what I know – we could have 500 people in worship and be just as
warm and welcoming as we are now, because it’s a function of our heart, not our size.
Sometimes I hear our
congregation described as a place where everyone knows everyone, but in order
to really be and remain a warm-hearted congregation, I need you to let go of
the idea that we’re a congregation where everyone does or is supposed to know
Why?We only have room in our minds for a finite
number of people we can know.Most of us
can consistently remember about 150 names and faces; 200, if you’re really
good.Beyond that, the average human
mind just doesn’t have the file space to remember more.
So long as we think
everyone needs to know everyone, we’ve created a church culture that can
accommodate about 150 people.How many
people, on average, did I say we had in worship, again?About 150.Do you think it’s any coincidence that, for the last several years, any
time our worship attendance gets a bit beyond 150, it always settles back?
Describing ourselves as a
congregation where everyone knows everyone actually works against us – imagine
you’re a person who has only worshiped with us a short time, and you keep
hearing that everyone knows everyone, and you’re looking around thinking, “Gosh,
I don’t know everyone, I must be doing it wrong, everyone knows everyone,
except for me, maybe I don’t fit in here.”
By trying to have a
culture where everyone knows everyone, we are inadvertently sending the message
that our church is already full, no more room for new names and faces, which,
when you think about it, is quite the opposite of being warm-hearted.
And see, even at 150,
that’s actually too big for everyone to know everyone.You can keep 150 names and faces straight –
200 if you’re really good – but even that
doesn’t mean you actually know those
people.50 is more like it, which means
we need to get rid of about 100 people so everyone can actually know
everyone.So I figured today, let’s go
ahead and start a list of the 100 people we need to get rid of so we can be a
church where everyone knows everyone – whaddya say?Who’s in?Who’s out?Who are we gonna have
to cut loose?Whose name is going on the
Can’t do that, can
we?Wouldn’t be very Christlike to do
that, would it?Maybe more like the
Pharisees, but certainly not like Jesus!We wouldn’t be able to do that and still call ourselves warm-hearted,
would we?And so, in order to be
warm-hearted, we need to let go of thinking everyone is supposed to know
But instead, let’s be a
place where everyone is known by someone.Our desire to know everyone is actually the
desire to be known ourselves.We don’t
want to get lost in the crowd.We don’t
want to be a church where you’re just a face in the crowd or a number, and we
won’t – so long as we commit ourselves to making sure everyone is known.
And that doesn’t happen
just in the worship service.It happens
primarily in Sunday School classes and Bible studies and other small groups where
we get to know one another and encourage each other in our Christian
journey.In fact, the larger the church
grows, the more important those smaller groups become, because we may not know
everyone, but everyone is known by
It’s so critical, because
people are important.Too important to
lose in the crowd.Too important for us
to cut any loose.People are important,
valuable, precious, if for no other reason than each and every person is
created in the image of God and therefore a person of sacred and inestimable
worth.Growing in grace provides us with
the opportunity to recognize each person’s worth in the eyes of God, that
everyone – everyone – is lovingly created by the God who is Love, who creates
us all in love, by love, and for love.Just as we wouldn’t cut other people loose, neither would we deny them a
place to experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ and his church.And so, as we grow in grace, we will be a safe and welcoming place
for all people who want to come and sit at the feet of Jesus.
Andy Langford is the
pastor of Central United Methodist Church down in Concord, NC, and his church
was being picketed by a group who, for whatever reason, thought it was their
God-given purpose in life to point out what everyone else was doing wrong.Andy was walking into the church one day,
when the head of the group got up in his face and said, “Pastor, did you know
you have sinners in your church?”Andy
thought the guy was joking and said, “No kidding, how did you know?”, but then
the guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a list of, I kid you not, the
sinners in the church.
That sort of picking and
choosing is a behavior more akin to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than to
anything Jesus actually did, said, or told us to do.They were always drawings lines of
distinction between the righteous people and sinners so as to include some and
exclude others.Unfortunately, that’s a
story as old as religion itself. Andy said
the list of sinners should have included the entire membership, because we’re
all sinners. I’m a sinner, you’re a
sinner, every one of us!
But see, Jesus came for
sinners.Good news for sinners like you
and me!Jesus is one who made room at
his table for flawed people, people with issues and baggage and drama.Jesus had a special place in his heart for
imperfect people, thank God! Jesus kept
drawing the circle wider and wider, to include those previously excluded, to
let them know how much they mattered to him and were loved by God and were just
as an important part of God’s story as anyone else.Jesus’ ministry was a reconciling ministry,
breaking down the barriers that so often get built up between people, particularly
walls of religion that divide people into categories of insider and outsider,
saint and sinner.
And yet, how is it that
we, the church, the followers of this same Jesus, fall so easily and often into
the temptation to draw the very lines of separation and division Jesus worked
so hard to erase?The arms of Jesus are
always open wide – wide enough to embrace all.Anytime it’s less, we are the ones who shortened his reach.
Friends, we can do
better.We must do better.And as a people shaped by and growing in
grace, we will.
Our own Bob Sawyer
frequently says, “Our doors are open to all and closed to none.”
As we look upon people
through the eyes of grace, we move from exclusion to embrace, the indelible
image of God upon every person becomes increasingly recognizable, and we
realize the sacred worth of every person.I hope and pray that we will have the warm hearts and open arms that
welcome and love without distinction.Christ has graciously welcomed us; will we not welcome others in the
If you want to sit at the
feet of Jesus, you’re welcome to do that here.There are no bouncers at this church.We don’t have a list of who gets in and who has to stay out.I don’t care you who are, what you are, where
you’ve been, where you’re going, if you want to sit at the feet of Jesus – the same
Jesus who was criticized for being a friend of sinners because he welcomed and
ate with the marginalized and outcast of his day; the same Jesus in whom there
is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor,
insider or outsider, saint or sinner; the same Jesus who came into the world to
save the world not condemn it, if you want to sit at the feet of that Jesus, consider this a safe and
welcoming place to do so.
We are a people of
grace.We will continue to grow in
grace.We will welcome others as Christ
has welcomed us.