Sermon: Imagine A Church: Simply The Best
Scripture: Colossians 3:23-24
Date: January 25, 2015
Well another season as a Packer Fan and another broken heart. When you follow the Packers, as I have since I was about 7 years old, you come to expect to be disappointed in the end. When I started following the Packers, Vince Lombardi was the coach. Now, of course, over the years Lombardi has taken on a persona that is bigger than life. What made Lombardi such a great coach with influence that transcends the years was not just what his teams accomplished on the field, but also what they accomplished beyond football. He was a great coach but also a pretty good philosopher and theologian.
One of his constant themes was excellence in all things. He once said, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” He often would say to his team: We will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.
Look again at the insert. Two of our value statements relate to striving to be excellent. One says that striving for excellence in all that we do honors God. The other one says that risk taking and embracing change as directed by God’s Spirit is who we are.
Well, here’s the thing. When we first started talking about these goals, we identified them as audacious in nature because of the sheer numbers that we were talking about. And perhaps we would not reach all of these benchmarks. However, if we are diligent and faithful in the pursuit, even if we fall a little short, we will be better as a church because we reached for them. The only way we are going to reach these goals is if all of us commit ourselves to excellence in the church. Knowing this means we are going to need to take some risks and embrace some change. So when God imagines excellence in the church, what that would look like?
Let us pray.
I recently read a man’s account of his first visit to a church. He writes:
I drove into the church parking lot at 10:40. I thought I was five minutes early because the sign out front said the service started at 10:45. I soon discovered that the sign had not been changed since the new minister came and didn’t reflect the actual starting time of the service. I noticed that the grass had been cut recently which evidently was badly needed because it looked more like a newly cut hay field then a lawn, and nobody had raked. As I walked into the church I was greeted with an unenthusiastic hello and handed a bulletin. I noticed that the bulletin had a big dark line running through the middle. Evidently, the copier had not been cleaned in some time. I went into the sanctuary and sat down, expecting the service to begin right away. Twenty minutes later a piano player began playing some chords on the piano. She wasn’t very good. Finally someone shuffles to the platform and says, “Take your hymnals and turn to number 150.” It was obvious when we started to sing that the song leader was chosen more for his courage to stand in front of people then for his musical ability. We struggled through a couple of hymns and then the song leader said: “We’re going to have a special number from the girls trio.” With that one girl stands up not far from where I was sitting near the back and slowly walks down the aisle. When she gets all the way to the front, another girl stands and begins the journey forward. I was waiting for the third, when the first girl says,” Sheila is not here today, so there are only two of us. And please bear with us, because we haven’t had much time to practice.” With that they launched into a rendition of “Give Of Your Best To The Master”. After they sang, everyone watched as the two of them slowly made their way back to their seats. When they were seated, the song leader stood up and said, “Now, we’ll take up the offering. Bob, how about you coming and taking the offering.” With that the usher that had greeted me started toward the front. As he came, he tapped people on the back and they stood and followed him. The last man he tapped had evidently dozed off, because when he was tapped he sat bolt upright and his hymnal went flying. A prayer was offered, but I couldn’t hear it and then there was a discussion about which way each one of the ushers ought to go. As they passed the plates the pianist played a tune. The service continued with a sermon that was long on time but short on content. As the preacher came to a conclusion, he says, “Do I hear anyone shout “Amen.“ No one does. I wanted to shout, “We can do better than this!” An invitation is given, but no one responds. And then the benediction was pronounced and though I headed for the door as quickly as possible, I was nearly trampled by others moving faster than me. Do I need to say that I did not go back?
That testimony kind of puts in perspective what Paul writes to the Colossians when he says:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
This morning, as we continue thinking about what God imagines the church to be, we are going to talk about excellence in the church. Being the best that we can be in all that we do. I believe that to reach these goals that we have set, we must practice excellence in all that we do. My premise is really pretty simple and I believe it’s what Paul is saying and that is: We serve a perfect Lord who wants the best for us, and expects our best in return because the church is the reflection of Jesus Christ in our world, and so it must be its best to truly reflect our Lord. Though the church is not perfect, we must be striving for perfection in all that we do. In doing so, we will catch excellence.
One writer observes:
When you come to church and the grass isn’t cut, the paint is chipping off the walls, the bulletin boards have notices of things that happened a long time ago, the greeters are sloppily dressed, the children’s class has no teacher, and the service is slipshod, not only is it unworthy of Jesus Christ, it also negates our efforts to evangelize.
I have been rereading the scriptural accounts of the calls of the early disciples, and there is one phrase that is common to most of the stories. It is the phrase “come and see.” “Come and see” is what Andrew said to his brother Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” Philip tells his friend Nathanael that he had found the Messiah, and when Nathanael questioned that statement, Philip says to him, “Come and see.”
The Samaritan woman at the well goes back into town after her encounter with Jesus, and she says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.” When we strive for excellence, we say to our community and our friends and neighbors, “Come and see. Come and see the God whom we worship. Come and see the God we serve. Come and see, the God who loves you and me.”
Excellence is our witness of our most excellent God. As is true in every field of endeavor, quality attracts and mediocrity breeds indifference. So this morning, I want us to think about what I’m going to call “keys to excellence” in the church. Those ways that we say we are giving our best to the Lord.
The first key is that excellence takes hard work by all of us. I am humbled by the hard work that people put in at St. Luke. The beautiful church grounds are the result of the hard work of the Trustees. There is always something that needs to be done, and there are always people who are willing to do it. But it takes a lot of hard work. And excellence in our ministries takes hard work. For many years, St. Luke has had a reputation of having outstanding children’s ministries. We do because there are folks who are willing to work hard. The same is true in so many areas. I’m going to get in trouble if I start listing them all. We have an excellent choir and praise team and handbell choir. They work hard. God deserves no less than our best and it takes persons who are willing to work hard.
The second key is that excellence is reflected in the small things as well as the big ones. It is most often evidenced in the smallest details. You know, all of us, who are involved in the planning and implementation of the worship service really strive for excellence every week. Some weeks that is more evident than others. There is so much that goes on Sunday morning that reflects on the excellence of the church. Our goal should be excellence in every aspect of our service.
Often times people’s perceptions of excellence are formed before they ever set foot in the sanctuary. Now I am going to admit to something that you might find a little bit strange, but I feel like I should be kind of vulnerable here and I know it won’t go beyond this room. Karen and I eat out a lot. I have my favorite places I like to go, of course. Here’s the vulnerable part. My favorite places are not necessarily ones with the best food. In fact, the places around here are pretty comparable as far as food is concerned. I tend to form impressions about places based on their bathrooms. There I said it. If a place has a nice spacious bathroom which is kept clean and well stocked, I am much more likely to go back there then if the opposite is true. I believe that you can tell how much a place values its customers by the way they keep their bathrooms.
You see, often it’s the little details that create a climate of excellence in the church. When people pull into the parking lot, they have the right to expect excellence. Plenty of space. Handicapped spaces. Places reserved for guests. A clean and attractive area. A parking lot says so much about a church. You can tell a lot about how open and welcoming a church is by the parking lot. And then the greeters are so important. We must greet with excellence. The ushers and greeters are often the first impression that people have of the church. They are so important.
Parents who take their children to the nursery, have every right to expect our best. A woman who was new to the church was asked why she had chosen to be a part of that church after visiting several others and she replied:
We were looking for a new church home. We went to the children’s department, and as we were signing in our child, they asked if our child had any food allergies. Our child is deathly allergic to peanuts. Of all the churches we’ve ever attended, you were the first to ever ask us that question.
And, of course, the cleanliness of the bathrooms is so important. And the preparation of the Sunday school teachers. Every task that is done in the church is so essential and we must strive for excellence in all things. Surely God deserves our best in all that we do. When I was still early in ministry, I went to a meeting with the Bishop. He talked about how when he was a pastor, he went to the church early every Sunday and made sure that the doors were unlocked, the bathrooms were clean, the heat was on in each room and the lights were on. The church was ready for those who would come. I thought at the time, that’s a little compulsive. Shouldn’t a preacher have other concerns on Sunday morning? And then I went to Harrodsburg as pastor and I found myself doing the same thing on Sunday morning. I even went down and made the coffee for the fellowship time. Well, the chairperson of the Board discovered that I was doing that and he said to me, “You shouldn’t be doing that.” And I said, “Of course I should. It’s my church too.” And he said, “Well you shouldn’t have to make the coffee.” And I said, “It’s no big deal.” And he said, “Yes it is. I know you have other things to do on Sunday morning and besides,” he said, “you make lousy coffee.” He found someone else to do that. I appreciated his desire for excellence. Sometimes we think that our role in the church is not that important, but excellence is found in the details. Everyone’s place is essential.
This leads to the third key and that is that excellence is everyone’s responsibility in the church. If you come into the church on Sunday morning and there’s no one there to greet you, don’t ask where the greeters are — grab some bulletins and start greeting. If you go into the bathroom, and there’s some paper on the floor or the toilet paper role is empty, do something about it. If the ushers are shorthanded, stick around and help them out. If someone needs help making the coffee, jump in and help before someone like me comes along to mess it up. Whatever you see that needs doing to move the church towards excellence, do it. Don’t wait for someone else. Because true excellence can’t be the goal for one or two people, it takes all of us working together. These must be goals for the church. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure the church of Jesus Christ is the best it can be.
And then the fourth key is realizing that excellence comes most easily in the area of our giftedness. Paul talks about how the body of Christ is made up of persons with many different gifts. There are few things more frustrating than seeking excellence in areas where we are not gifted. The church is often guilty of placing persons in ministries in which they have no gifts because we have to have someone to do that job. Sometimes we end up with Sunday School teachers who have the heart but not the ability to teach. Or we place persons in positions of leadership and administration, when they have no talent for that. Or we put preachers in the pulpit who have no ability to preach.
Excellence comes when persons are encouraged to use the gifts that God has given them in ministry. We set people up for frustration and failure when we insist on them being involved in areas that are beyond their gifts. I would love to be able to sing in the choir, but I am not a musician. And as much as I would love to be able to do that, it is not where my gifts lie. Not only in the church, but in all things, we need to strive for excellence in the areas where God has gifted us.
No church can be all things to all people. We can’t meet the needs of everyone. And we shouldn’t try. No church can do everything that needs to be done in ministry. There are areas in which each church is gifted. There will be ministry opportunities that are beyond our giftedness and resources. Ministry done well, with excellence, is a powerful witness to the greatness of God, but ministry done poorly is a poor reflection of God.
It is hard sometimes, but churches, as well as individuals, must realize where their gifts lie and strive for excellence there. I love the T.V. show M.A.S.H. In fact, I thought I was going to have to go to bed for a week, a year or so ago when I mentioned MASH and one of the younger staff members said they had never seen an episode of MASH. Well, I was watching the other night and it was the episode when the new surgeon Charles Winchester arrived. The doctors are preparing to go into surgery, and the Colonel give a particularly difficult case to Winchester that causes Hawkeye to ask what’s so special about him. Winchester replies, “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. And then I move on.”
Well, churches certainly can be engaged in more that only ministry at a time. Here’s the point as we look at these goals–churches and individuals need to understand their limitations and concentrate on those things that they have the gifts and resources to do with excellence. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to serve and minister in new ways. It does mean that every time we try something new, it should be done the best that we can possibly do it. And it means that if a ministry is not bearing fruit, we should not settle for mediocrity. Instead, we should be willing to drop it and put our energies into those things that are bearing fruit.
Think about the garden– good gardeners know that sometimes plants need to be pruned in order to produce the best fruit. It is the same in the church. Sometimes ministries that bore much fruit in the past will stop producing, and we are reluctant to let them go because they have meant so much in the past. As people change in the church, so do the gifts they bring to ministry and the church that is striving for excellence will reflect those changes.
Recognizing this, does not invalidate what was done in the past, but rather empowers that which needs to be done today. Excellence in life as well as the church requires daily diligence or we will slip from striving for excellence in some things and settling for mediocrity in most things. And ministry that settles for mediocrity does not witness to a perfect and excellent God, but rather witnesses to a mediocre God. Too much of our world settles for mediocrity. As disciples of Christ, as the body of Christ, we must reach much higher than that.
Quickly, this leads to the final key that to achieve excellence in what we do we must be bold and willing to risk failure.
One writer remarks:
Contrary to what others might think, being committed to excellence doesn’t produce pride — it breeds humility, because there is a frequent sense of failure. You never really measure up to the picture of perfection that you have in your mind.
When we set our sights on the highest standards, there will be many times when we fall short of reaching those standards. Though this can be very disappointing, it must not defeat us. In the process of striving for perfection, we are pulled to a higher plain of life. The Apostle Paul knew this, I think, when he wrote to the Philippians these words. He talked about striving for perfection and then he said: “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and striving toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
God imagines a church that is pressing on toward excellence because our witness honors Him, and our witness changes the lives of others. It takes great courage sometimes to be the church. And sometimes we will fall short of the prize, but in constantly striving for perfection, we will surely reach excellence. I recently read the testimony of a new member of a rather large church in which he wrote:
I had recently moved from New York City. I was impressed that things at the church were done well, but as a struggling actor, I wondered if it was all an act. I wondered if the worship leader was really that sincere, or if that is just his “sincere act.” Then I volunteered to usher for the Easter pageant — in part to get a little closer and investigate what was going on. The first night after I ushered, I went it to watch the performance. I cried through the whole thing because I was so moved. I couldn’t believe how powerful the story was. I went home and got down on my knees and prayed, “Lord, I’d do anything to be a part of something like that. I’d clean up after the camels if that’s what it took.” I was moved that night because a few people had decided to do something with excellence.”
I believe that excellence in the church, our worship, our outreach, our Sunday School, our Missional Communities, our stewardship, our fellowship, and excellence in all that we do in the church witnesses to our perfect and most excellent God. When we give the best of ourselves, we invite everyone to “come and see” our most excellent Lord.
Is that the testimony of your life? When people look at the witness of your life do they think, “I’d like to live my life with excellence?” What about our witness as a church? These are big goals that call us, challenge us, to serve our God with excellence. To give our best. And so when people leave St. Luke after visiting on Sunday morning, Wednesday night or any other time, do they walk away saying, “Lord I would do anything to be part of that”?
Paul says remember Colossians, remember church, It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Will you join me this morning in praying this prayer?
Please Lord, may our witness be of such excellence that we glorify you and bring persons to your Kingdom. May we always strive to be our best for you and in you. Amen