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.
God's Preferred Future: Growing in Grace (Romans 15:5-7, Colossians 3:11-13)
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.