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.
Loving Neighbors into God's Family (Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 19:10)
16 Now the
eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When
they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus
came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on
earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.
Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
10 The Human
One came to seek and save the lost.
Opinions are like belly-buttons:
Everybody has one.
Nowhere is that truer than in the church.Everybody has an opinion about a great number of things.My email inbox testifies to the reality that
you all have opinions.Come to a
committee or Church Council meeting, and you will see with your own eyes that
people have opinions.Opinions about a
great many things, from issues large to issues small, we can be an opinionated
Many of those opinions are quite good and worthy of serious consideration –
not all of them, but I won’t name names – but really, many of the opinions
expressed are good.The tricky thing is
to discern among those many good opinions which opinion gets the most serious
Growing up, we had a neighbor who had opinion about everyone else’s house
on the block.“I think you should paint
your house or your trim this color.”“I
think you should re-do your front porch in this way.”“Your yard would look so much better if you
planted this and trimmed it like that.”He had all sorts of opinions about what everyone’s house should look
like and what everyone should do, but there was one big problem.His neighbors owned those houses, not him.
What about the church?Who owns the
church?To whom does the church
belong?That’s a question with only one
right answer.It belongs to Jesus.He is its owner.He is its Lord.The church belongs to Jesus.
The church doesn’t belong to the pastor.Even if the pastor is the founding pastor or has been around for
decades, the church doesn’t belong to the pastor.
The church doesn’t belong to any group within the church: not even the
trustees or the Church Council or the leadership team.
The church doesn’t belong to the denomination, even though they own the
building, even though we are proud of our theological heritage, the church
doesn’t belong to the denomination.
And lastly, the church does not belong to the members, not even the founding
members.That doesn’t change the fact that
members sometimes act like they own
the church, such as the lady who said to me one time, “I was here before you,
and I’ll be here after you,” which was apparently her reasoning for why we
should do what she wanted to do, and I replied, “That’s true, but there is
someone who was here before you, and he’ll be here after you, and his name is
Every church has only one owner – Jesus.And unless we’re clear on that, we’ll always struggle about what we’re
supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it.You see, our opinions and desires need to be informed by Jesus – his desires, his wishes, his will for
Ultimately, the church belongs to Jesus.He is its owner.He is its Lord.We don’t own the church, but it’s been
entrusted to us by its owner – we are here to do what Jesus wants us to do.
And what does Jesus want?Look at
the Scriptures we’ve read today.He
wants the church to make disciples.Why
do we exist?To make disciples.What is our purpose in being?To make disciples.Do you have a different opinion?That’s nice, but this church belongs to
Jesus, so we are going to do what Jesus wants – which is to make disciples.
The Scripture from Matthew 28 we read is called, “The Great Commission” –
it’s where Jesus gives marching orders to the fledgling church about what their
mission will be after he returns to Heaven.
Sometimes we get this idealized picture of the early church – a golden age
of the perfect group of Jesus followers who were super-spiritual and effective
at their mission, but they were deeply-flawed and prone to bickering and
confusion – like us.That realization
gives me some hope that if they could do it, maybe we can, too.Just look at the text:
Eleven disciples, worshiping and doubting
It starts out by saying “The eleven disciples went to Galilee.”Not the 12 Jesus called.Not the 12, that number of perfect, symbolic
harmony and completion.Nope, 11 – not
altogether with it, not perfect, flawed.11 – a reminder of thebetrayal
of Judas against Jesus that took place within their midst.
Some worshiped, and some doubted.Clearly, they weren’t all on the same page, they weren’t in agreement
about who Jesus was and what their next steps were, some were all-in and ready
to move ahead, others were still questioning everything and holding back –
sounds familiar, doesn’t it?The church
then wasn’t that different than the church today.Jesus didn’t wait for them to all come
around, rather, he gave them their marching orders, their reason for existing,
which was – to make disciples.Jesus
trusted his life’s work and mission of seeking and saving that which was lost
to this flawed, imperfect group of believers and doubters.Sometimes, not everyone is going to come
along or get on board with where the church is trying to go, but again, our
opinions, enthusiasm, or lack thereof doesn’t change the mission.We don’t change the mission based on opinion
polls or surveys or to suit the needs of skeptics and doubters.Jesus commissioned his flawed and imperfect
church to make disciples, and that’s what they did, and what we’re still doing,
Go, and Make Disciples
Jesus told them to, “Go, and make disciples.”He didn’t say, “Sit inside a building, make
sure the doors are unlocked, and if any happen to wander inside on their own,
make sure they learn about me.”No, he
said, “Go.”Get up, get moving, take the
initiative.Build relationships with
people who are not part of any church and invite them here.Tell them about your faith.Tell them the
difference Jesus makes in your life.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Everyone I know goes to church!” In fact, the
longer you’ve been a Christian and part of a church, the more likely it is that
most of your relationships also go to church. If that’s you, then it’s time to
meet some folks who don’t.Join a
bowling or golf league.Join a garden or
hiking club.Get involved in some sort
of community-based organization.Get to
know your neighbors.There are all sorts
of people all around us who don’t have a church to call home; we just need to
get to know them.
We also need to let go of the idea that “everyone” goes to church, because
“everyone” doesn’t.Across North
Carolina, right here in the buckle of the Bible belt where many counties report
having more Baptists than people, any given weekend only 22% of the population
is in church.
78% of the people around us are not regularly engaged or connected with a
faith family. Some folks see that as a travesty, but I see an opportunity, not
one that’s rocket science, either.Churches who reach those people in their communities have three major
things in common.
First, they are crystal-clear that Jesus is in charge of
the church, and Jesus wants the church to make disciples, and they stay on
target with that, no matter what.
Second, they discover something
about who they already are that lends itself to making disciples.
Third, they create a culture of
invitation among their members.
Friends, I believe with every fiber of my being that Morehead Church has
the potential to be one such church.We
have the potential and the ability, if we are also willing.
First, from this day forward, let us be resolute in the conviction that the
church belongs to Jesus, and is here to do what Jesus wants.Regardless of our personal opinions, let us
be firm in the knowledge that Jesus wants us to make disciples.From this day forward, let there be no
argument that this church belongs to Jesus, and we exist for the purpose of
Second, what do we have to offer?We
have a reputation for being a warm, welcoming, inclusive church.We have a reputation for being like family in
the best sense of the word.We are the
family of God!78% of the people around
us are not regularly connected to a church family – that means we have the
opportunity to be their church family, if we are willing to do the third part:
create a culture of invitation.
This is one we need to work on.All
of us.We have a culture of welcome down
pretty good.When folks show up, they feel
the love.What we need to do is move
from being welcoming, which is good, to also being invitational.Morehead Church is one of the best-kept
secrets in town, and friends, it doesn’t need to be kept a secret any longer.Every person here is part of getting the word
out, as each of us invites people to be part of this family of faith.
We’re not trying to be obnoxious or pushy, we’re not trying to shove
religion down people’s throats, but hopefully our experience as being part of
this family of faith is beneficial to us, and we want other people to
experience the joy and meaning we have found.News of new life in Christ, and the acceptance we find in this church is
too good to keep to ourselves.News like
that is meant to get out as we love people into the family.
In fact, if all those pieces come
together, that’s a good description of what we can, should, and will be as a
neighbors into God’s family.
Friends, that is what I believe we are called to do.It’s a vision that brings together Jesus’
desire that we make disciples, and the best of who we already are as a church:
a faith family.The only thing that’s
really missing is that culture of invitation, but here are some tools to help
you out in that regard.
The Morehead bumper sticker – I want to see one of these on every car in
the parking lot.It’s a simple way you
can let people know you are proud to be part of this church.It raises awareness and visibility of the
church every where you go, and you never know the conversations it might open
up.I have also found I am less rude as
a driver with that thing back there – it’s hard to cut someone off in traffic,
with the name of our church staring back at them as I do.
These “join us” cards.We’ve got
stacks of these lying around all over the church.I find it can be easier to invite someone to
church if you have something in your hand when you do, and these little cards
give you that.Give them to a neighbor,
people you work with, wherever.Sylvia
LeClair uses these in the drive-thru: she hands this card to the cashier as she
pays for the order of the car behind her, and says, “Give this card to the
people behind me and let them know that the people of Morehead Church love
them.”If you see Sylvia pulling in the
drive-thru lane, it’s a good idea to get in line behind her.
From time to time, we put together postcards advertising a special event or
sermon series, such as these advertising our upcoming Advent series.These can also be handed out to invite people
– it gives you something tangible to offer them, and something they can hold
onto if they’re interested.Again, we
have stacks of these all over the church – pick a few up and give them away.
Never under-estimate social media, either.Don’t be afraid to post things that are happening at church, invite
people to them, or share what you appreciate about this church family.I’ve seen great conversations open up that
resulted in an invitation to church, all because you put up something about what
you appreciate about this church.
Be prepared that not everyone is going to accept every invitation.You may have to invite 7-10 or even more
people before one accepts your invitation.You may also have to invite the same person 7-10 or even more times
before they accept your invitation.Again, don’t be rude or pushy about it, and at the same time, don’t be
disappointed when they aren’t ready yet.Every no you receive is just getting you one step closer to a yes.
Above all, be genuine and heartfelt in your approach.You’re not trying to “sell” anybody
anything.You’re simply speaking from
your own experience – considering what you value and appreciate about being
part of this church family, and the difference this church makes in your life.As part of this part of God’s family, that
should come easy.
You and I may have opinions about what the church should be doing.Opinions, after all, are like belly buttons –
everybody has one.So let’s put our
opinions to the side, because Jesus, the one to whom the church really belongs,
has asked us to make disciples by capitalizing on the best of who we are – a
family of faith.
Why are we here?What are we doing?
What’s our purpose?We’re loving
neighbors into God’s family.