What if we put the church last?

Last summer, when we went on vacation with my husband’s side of the family we all were packed into two different vehicles on the way home. My neice and nephew were fighting about who got to ride in our car, and so to make it the most fair, we divided them up and they got to switch places about half-way through the 7 hour trip. My neice, Cami, rode with us first.

And for the first thirty minutes of our drive – we sang one song. Over and over and over again. “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar.” Cami did “Who me?” yes, you, “Couldn’t be” then who? You get the idea.

Only, my husband liked to mercilessly tease my neice. Whenever the song got passed to him – he fully admitted eating the cookies! =) He would make chomping sounds and say how good the cookies were and my neice would protest! “You’re not really supposed to eat the tookies!!!” The fun part of the game is that no one ever really gets caught. The fun part is in blaming other people!

But when I read our scripture from this morning and find Jesus catching the disciples arguing – it’s a classic hand caught in the cookie jar moments.

The disciples were having a rough day. First they did some hard ministry casting out demons and healing people and then Jesus has them leave and head back to Galilee – familiar homeland for some of these guys. Only, he makes them keep quiet about even being back home because he wants to spend some time with them personally.

That’s all well and good – except for the fact that Jesus started talking about dying but not really being dead again. They couldn’t figure out how that fit into the whole “good news” mission that they were on, and after the last time when Peter got told that he was Satan for speaking up, no one dared question Jesus motives.

Instead they decided to have their own little private conversations. And somehow the topic of the day turned to who was the best among the disciples. Each thought they had a certain quality that made them special – something that caused them to shine just a little bit brighter than the others. Their efforts to outdo one another with pride and bragging practically turned into a full blown fight as they begun to point out one another’s weaknesses and faults. Elbows were still being jabbed as they all finally sat down after a long days walk in the house in Capernum for the night.

And Jesus carefully looked at each one in the eye and said: What were you arguing about on the way?

And the disciples froze. Surely he hadn’t heard! Were they really so dumb as to argue about who was the best? Ugh.

They felt so stupid. They felt exposed. They were caught red handed. And there was no one else to blame.

It’s fairly easy to look back upon them and find the whole situation rather silly. Jesus is talking about giving up his very life for the sake of the world and they are arguing about which one of them is better than the other. It’s easy, that is, until we try to imagine what it would be like if Jesus sat down among us and asked what WE had been talking about… what WE had been doing.

Many of us would probably fall silent too if we had to explain our actions for the last week… or month… or year.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Jesus would say if he showed up in our congregation. In fact – whenever I hear Jesus talking in the gospels to an individual person – I’ve started substituting the world “church” in. Because I’m hoping for a word, a direction, a clue as to what we need to be doing next.

So last week, in our gospel reading Jesus said

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Reinterpreted:
If your church wants to follow me, it has to deny itself, take up its cross and follow me. The church needs to set aside its own wants and desires and head to those places of struggle between life and death, hope and despair in our world.

Whew… that’s a big old fat message!!!

I did the same this week:

After Jesus asks the disciples what they were arguing about… because he knows it was about who is the best, he tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

So I’ve been praying about that and here is what I hear when I put the church into that message:

Your church needs stop worrying about filling the pews, stop thinking that you’re so wonderful people should just be flocking to you… and instead needs to position yourselves as the last… as the least – as the servant of all and your church should go to where the people are.

To put it another way: God’s vision needs to come first – And God’s vision is for the people of this world. Look for where God’s heart is breaking in your community and humble yourself to go and serve there… everything else will sort itself out.

At the beginning of August – our church received an invitation. It was an invitation by our conference to participate in a journey that could help us do just that: follow Christ into the world and learn how to be the church in our community.

Jill Sanders, our Field Outreach Minister came down and shared this invitation with us at an Administrative Board meeting, and I know that some of you were there – but not all of you.

As we gathered – here were some of the statements that Jill shared with us that really rang true in our minds:

We live in an unchurched world and feel the church is ill equipped to respond. We look out at Marengo – at Iowa County – at our state and see so many people who need to hear that God loves them and we have no idea how to respond.

We are tired of just going to church and want to really be the church. We are tired of waiting for people to come to church and want to go make church happen in the world!

We are challenged by the passion and vitality of newer congregations. We want to know what makes them tick. We wish we had the energy and passion to be out there in the world bringing people to God.

We also said that we hoped God might give us increased clarity of purpose as a congregation. What are we here for? What are we specifically called to do?

And how can we develop leaders in our congregation? How can we help to nurture people, energize people around the tasks that God has called us to?

And Jill’s response…

That we are ready. That we are no longer a congregation that is merely surviving. That in these past two years we have grown and we are in a healthy place and that if we really want to answer those questions – that she has an invitation for us.

My hope was that in the weeks following that event, those who were there would talk about what that invitation entailed: this missional transformation process and that word of this thing might spread throughout the congregation.

But for those of you who haven’t heard… or those of you who may have forgotten – I want to share again what that invitation is.

The Missional Transformation Process is a two and a half to three year journey where we as a congregation ask:
Why does our community need this church?
What does God want us to do here?
And how will our church live out God’s vision in our life and mission?

Those are big questions. And to answer them, we would be invited to do a few things.

1) We need a committed group of 4 or 5 people who would be willing to go with me to 6 day long workshops. These workshops will be spread out over 2-3 years, and each one prepares us as a congregation to take the next step forward.

2) We as a whole congregation move through those steps through prayer, conversations, bible study, and by listening to God.

3) we open ourselves up to possibility. And we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us the courage we need to answer!

4) we do need to make a financial commitment to this process. As a congregation – spread out over three years – we would commit $1250 that would go towards the cost of workshops, materials, and a partner that will work directly with our church.

This process has six steps:

1) Getting Ready for the Journey
2) Discovering our Missional Context
3) Discerning God’s Call
4) Crafting our Missional Strategy
5) Shaping Missional Life and Witness
6) Living into a Faithful Future.

What might this all look like when we are done?

Possibilities: family church; youth church; Hispanic ministry; elderly ministry; something we can’t even imagine.

Can I be completely honest with all of you? When I first saw this process all laid out my first reaction was a huge sigh of relief. Because I desperately want to help our church to grow and thrive… but I know the only way to do that is to get on board with what God is doing here in Marengo. And as a new pastor, this resource is amazing. It takes the best of what we have to offer and molds it with what God wants from us.

But even as I’ve been excited about it, and as I have sensed some of you are getting excited about it, I have also sensed some really big reservations. It’s almost as if you all are thinking – this is a really great thing, but…

First, you think you’ve tried this before and it didn’t work.

Second, you may think this is a great idea, but you aren’t sure that you can personally make the commitment. We have to have 4-5 people who are committed to these workshops. People who are willing to not only show up, but who are willing to bring these materials back to the church. People who are willing to ask tough questions, people who aren’t afraid to speak up with creative ideas. People who are full of passion and energy. And what I have realized is that these may not be the people who have been faithfully serving our church in the past. They have been working long and hard and they are tired! And so what we need is prayer for God to place this calling on the hearts of a few people and we need the courage to look for people to stand up from places we may not have expected.

At our next Ad Board meeting – on October 4, we will sit down and decide if we are going to say yes to Jill’s invitation. What I need from all of you is serious considered prayer. I need you to think about this at home, with your family. I need you to listen for God’s prompting. I need you to look at any reservations you might have and to PLEASE come and talk with me or other people in leadership here at the church about them. I need you to ask questions, to share your feelings and your passions.

And probably most importantly, I want us to look back on our prayer of confession for today. I want us to think about what it means to put ourselves second or third in order for God’s vision and will to be in the front. And I want us to say those words again together…

God of patience and mercy, we come to you, offering “lip service” to serving you, but when things get difficult; when we are called to do something which is hard for us, we shy away from the duty and the opportunity. We turn our back on service out of fear of failure.

Forgive us, gracious Lord. Heal our fears and our weaknesses. Strengthen us and give us courage to truly be your disciples, not counting the rewards, but rejoicing in the work. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. AMEN. (Cokesbury Worship Connection)

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