Sermon: Unfolding The Deck Chairs (Intentional Faith Development)
Scripture: Philippians 3:12-14
I recently read an article about the archaeologists who several years ago found the location of the main gates of the Temple in Jerusalem as they would have been in Jesus day. When the Temple was destroyed in 66 A.D. they had been covered over. And perhaps the most interesting find were the southern stairs that led from the valley up to those gates. The interesting feature of those stairs was how uneven they were when they were built. It has always been believed that every part of the Temple had been built to precise specifications and so the stairs were striking in their random design. One writer says: It was by these stairs that weary travelers climbed several hundred feet from the valley to the actual Temple. The rise of the steps varies in some instances by several inches. The stretch or depth of the steps – in no discernible pattern – by several feet. And so we might conclude that the unevenness of the steps at the main gate of the Temple was a design error by the ancient engineers who designed the Temple. But the Rabbis of Jesus day offered a different explanation. They believed the unevenness was intentional on the part of the builders. They taught that the random, sometimes treacherous state of the southern stairs was a powerful metaphor for the journey of faith. They argued that the design engineers were people of faith who knew that to ascend the hill of the Lord hurriedly and without thought would be spiritually dangerous. Rather, those who would approach God must do so with intention, caution and measured steps – paying attention and learning all along the way. Because For the disciple, the journey of faith is often uneven and sometimes treacherous. And so this morning we want to focus on that journey towards fruitfulness. The first week of our series we said that the first practice of fruitful disciples and congregations was radical hospitality that invited everyone into community with God. And then last week we talked about passionate worship as our way of praising God for our community together. For His presence in our midst. And now this morning we want to think for a few minutes about Discipleship or as Bishop Schnase identifies it – intentional faith development. It is through faith development that God’s Kingdom is built. It is through opportunities for faith development that we grow in our understanding of the love and grace of God and we find our place in God’s church, His community. When we talked about radical hospitality I said that people are looking for a place where they can stick in our teflon coated world. Well it is through intentional faith development that faith becomes sticky.
Now I believe that of all of the practices, it is at the point of Faith development that many churches and Disciples fall short. A couple of recent studies seem to support that. One was a study done of those who identified themselves as Evangelicals. The pollster identified evangelicals as persons who want to share the good news and love of Jesus Christ in order to bring people to faith in Him. I believe that St. Luke is an evangelical church. Certainly our vision statement, Jesus Christ in every life, is evangelical in nature. But according to this poll, 80% of those who were surveyed and identified themselves as Evangelicals said that their faith makes no real difference in their lives. Now I found that to be pretty shocking. In fact, I’m not sure I really believe it. Because if that is true then why offer radical hospitality at all? Why worry about passionate worship? Why give our selves to a faith that makes no difference in our lives, and why try to bring others into that faith? And then a few years ago a poll was taken of persons that had joined a church in the past year and discovered that fully 50% of them had come in the front door of the church (joined) and within six months had exited out the back door and never really became active in the ministries of the church. 50% of new members become inactive in six months. That too, is a sobering statistic. It is an incredible turnover of membership in a church. And the study indicated that it didn’t really matter the size of the church. The statistics are the same for churches that have 20 in worship and those that have 10,000. Fruitful congregations are those which offer disciples opportunities to develop their faith in very specific and intentional ways. And when we do that, then faith becomes meaningful and people find a place in the church. And so how do we do that?
First, Fruitful Churches provide many avenues for disciples to find purpose and meaning in their faith. That’s what faith development is all about. I am a big fan of the Peanuts comic strip. In fact, I am such a deep thinker theologically that I believe that the greatest blow to theological studies in the last 50 years was the death of Charles Schultz. One of my favorite strips that I remember is one of those in which Charlie Brown has gone to Lucy’s psychiatric booth and paid his nickel for her services. And Charlie Brown shares with Lucy that he is struggling to find a purpose in life. Something that will make a difference. And Lucy thinks for a moment and then she says: Life, Charlie Brown, is like a deck chair. And Charlie Brown says, Like a what? And then Lucy goes on: Have you never been on a cruise ship, Charlie Brown. Passengers open up these canvas deck chairs so they can sit in the sun . . Some people place their chairs facing the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been . . Other people people face their chairs forward . . . They want to see where they’re going. . On the cruise ship of life, Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?”
Well, Charlie Brown thought about that and then, resigned to his fate, Charlie Brown says: I don’t know. I’ve never been able to get my chair unfolded.
Who needs theologians like Kierkegaard and Tillich, when we’ve got Charles Schultz. And so here’s the point, when we engage in opportunities for faith development, we point our chairs to the front of the boat and reach for where we want to go. The Apostle Paul understood that when he wrote to the church in Phillipi, “Not that I have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers I do not consider myself yet to to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I think Paul would be one who would set his chair facing the front and is encouraging us to do the same. When we work to develop our faith, we our constantly moving forward and upward. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement talked of that movement forward and upward in terms of being sanctified, and the goal for every fruitful disciple, he said, is entire sanctification. And he believed that disciples reached for entire sanctification (or perfection) in two ways. One was through service which we will talk about in detail next week. And the other was through spiritual formation or intentional faith development. It was clear to Wesley that persons weren’t moving towards sanctification and entire sanctification through worship in the Anglican Church alone. For one thing there were an awful lot of people who did not feel comfortable worshiping in the Anglican Church and quite frankly there were many who were not really welcome in the Anglican Churches. And so the Methodists were born from within the Anglican church in order to help persons who were mostly outside of the church have the opportunity to develop their faith. And the key to the early Methodist movement were the Wesley Class Meetings, or what came to be known as the Methodist societies. Small groups of persons who met weekly for Bible Study, accountability and service. Wesley understood that the great masses of people in his day were living lives with little sense of a purpose to move them forward. They put in their time in the fields or the mines in order to scrape together an existence but did not have much of a sense that their life could be more meaningful then that. And so when Wesley began to go to them and preach about purpose and sanctification, he gave them a hope that through faith their lives could have a greater meaning and Methodism grew like a wildfire.
Faith development is about purpose; specifically finding the purpose that God has for each one of us. And living to fulfill a purpose gives life meaning and excitement. And the fact that 8 out of 10 evangelicals are struggling to find any real purpose in their faith, and that 50% of those who join a church are gone six months later, indicates that many churches aren’t doing a good job in providing enough meaningful opportunities for faith development. We may be practicing radical hospitality and engaging in passionate worship as we have talked about the last couple of weeks, but fruitfulness also requires that we help persons find their purpose, develop their faith. One writer offers an interesting perspective on where people are today. He says:
Life without purpose is a life without meaning. I have become convinced that the popularity of the so-called “reality TV” phenomenon is the result of many people living lives without a sense of great purpose. With no purpose of their own to embrace, they vicariously get their purpose by watching and emotionally participating in the lives of others. Since it seems impossible for some folks to find purpose in their own responsibilities, and in their relationships with family and friends, and in their employment, they find purpose in the lives of others while they sit on the couch and watch on TV. Of course, this really isn’t much of a life, and certainly it is not a life of great purpose.
Faith development becomes intentional when disciples seek out ministries that will lead to an exploration of purpose and forward movement towards sanctification and entire sanctification or perfection (though we don’t like to use that word.) But, you know, Paul certainly indicates that perfection is the goal in faith development. Look what he writes to the church at Corinth:
Our prayer for you is for your perfection. This is why I write these things (with) the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Finally, brothers, Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
John Wesley also believed that perfection is the goal of Faith Development. Even today when a pastor stands before the Annual Conference for ordination, they are asked these questions, among others: Have you faith in Christ? Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Fruitful disciples are those who are going on to perfection. And fruitful congregations are those that give disciples the opportunity to find their purpose and be made perfect.
And, I think, that Fruitful Congregations, are those that understand that Intentional Faith Development does not take place simply in the context of passionate worship. Worship is the entry point, the front door, but it is not usually the place where people move into deeper involvement. The other day I was reading an article about the struggles that some of these mega-churches are having maintaining their ministries that were once so vibrant and alive. And the writer commented that some of those church leaders are now realizing that their ministries have been a mile wide, but an inch deep – that in their zeal to grow the Kingdom larger they had not done anything to grow it deeper. They had neglected the practice of faith development. And the result has been that people have just passed through the church because there wasn’t anything that made them stick. Anyplace to form meaningful relationships and come to truly know God. And so many of these churches have shifted their focus to getting people involved in small discipleship groups for Bible Study, Fellowship, Accountability and Service. As St. Luke continues to grow we need to be very intentional about offering opportunities for faith development. Whether they know it or not, they are channeling John Wesley, because that’s the same thing he discovered when he established the Methodist Societies. He once wrote: Christianity is essentially a social religion; and . . . to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it. The Spiritual life originates in community and leads to community. And Robert Schnase mirrors that when he writes:
Faith development refers to how we purposefully learn in community outside of worship in order to deepen our faith and to grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.
If we think about it smaller Faith communities have always been a part of the faith experience of humans in interacting with God. The Ancient Israelites lived together in tribes. Though they subscribed to a common set of principles, they learned about and practiced their faith in the midst of tribes or communities. And, of course, Jesus called together a community of twelve and it was in that community that he practiced His faith and offered His teachings. If we read them carefully we discover that nearly half of the Gospels deal exclusively with the interaction between Jesus and His Apostles. That’s Intentional faith development. The faith of the Apostles was developed as they experienced learning, and fellowship and accountability and service in the context of a small community. And there are many ministries inside and outside of St. Luke that mirror that. Sunday School classes, Youth Fellowship, Methodist Women, the small groups that the young adults have established, the Wednesday night study groups, the choir, and I could list so many more. I am so excited about the Not A Fan Church Wide Study that is going to start in a few weeks. There will be several small groups that will be starting as a part of that. I pray that all of us will participate. Part of the ministry fair this morning is an emphasis on small groups through which we are intentionally leading persons through faith development. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that to be fruitful Disciples, we all need to be involved in one or more such groups – to be fruitful disciples we need to be involved in study, fellowship accountability and service. And I also believe that Fruitful Congregations are those that seek to involve everyone in opportunities for Faith Development. Schnase goes on to say: The fruit of Intentional Faith Development is not merely to know more about God but to know God, to see through the idea of God to God himself. That’s Intentional Faith Development. The more opportunities there are for persons to develop their faith the more fruitful our discipleship will be and the more fruitful the church will become. For us to reach our vision of Jesus Christ in every life, each one of us needs to be involved in ministries that will challenge us to be moving forward in our faith. Churches that are declining have to many people who have their deck chairs facing behind, reflecting on what’s already been. Or who, like Charlie Brown, are struggling to get their chairs open at all. Intentional Faith Development propels us forward. Fruitful disciples anticipate tomorrow with great joy and excitement. And so if you have been content to have your deck chair facing to the rear, it’s time to turn it around and join together as we press toward the goal which is ours in Christ Jesus.
And then finally I would say that Fruitful Disciples are ones who commit themselves to a life time of Faith Development. John Wesley taught that it was very much a process – moving from sanctification to entire sanctification. He asked disciples if they were “moving on to perfection.” One writer says:
People who grow in grace realize that if they follow Christ for a thousand years, they will still need to learn as much on the last day as on the first. The sanctifying love of God never ceases.
But we can’t stop there because congregations become fruitful when they are filled with Disciples who are devoted to helping one another become fruitful disciples.
Fruitful Disciples participate less as a consumer of religion and more as a cultivator of spiritual life.
Faith Development becomes intentional and transformational when it becomes the witness of fruitful and faithful disciples – when you and I are the ones to step up and teach Sunday School classes, and become children’s workers and youth counselors and choir members and piano players and prayer warriors, and small group leaders, and worship leaders.
And faith development becomes intentional when fruitful disciples take faith beyond the church into our homes and work places and when we teach the faith to our children – when in everything we do and say and teach, we seek to connect God to everyday life. Faith development becomes intentional when we are engaged daily in Bible Study and prayer and service. And when we share our faith with our family and friends. Bishop Schnase concludes his discussion with this thought:
People who value Intentional Faith Development teach their children to learn about spiritual matters. They enroll them in children’s choirs, Sunday school classes, or vacation Bible School. They talk with their children about what they learn. They cultivate a home atmosphere which encourages faith practices and rewards inquisitiveness, curiosity, and exploration of the spiritual life. They share wonder and honor the enchantment and mystery of life. They make their homes a place of affection where God’s love is felt and God’s grace is named. They teach faith.
So let me ask you:
Have you faith in Christ? Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? And are you helping others in their faith. That’s intentional faith development.
I read this beautiful description of a fruitful disciple and I close with this as our challenge this morning.
Fruitful disciples enjoy much laughter and more love. They need community as much as they need air. They pray for one another, stay in touch, follow up, express sympathy and practice compassion. They love people without needing to fully understand them. They rescue one another from the self absorption that drains something essential from the soul. They love enough to gently correct. Caring for others heals their own souls.