Lighting the Match

October 20, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Congregational Megatrends Series #8

Hopefully, you recall the "homework" I assigned last Sunday, and have been pondering it in your heart. For those who were not here, or who may have forgotten it, let me repeat. I asked that you consider what is the core, the essence of this congregation. If you were to put down on paper what is most significant about who we are in this community, what makes us different from the other churches around us, what would you say? Why did you come here in the first place and, more importantly, why do you continue to come - beyond a sense of obligation? What makes us unique, as you see it? This may be hard to put down on paper, but I ask you to do so - as simply and concisely as possible - sometime during this service. I then invite you to place what you’ve written in the offering at the end of the service. Your thoughts don’t need to be complete sentences, nor correctly spelled. Words, phrases, images, brief stories, whatever conveys your reflections, are okay.

Now, those of you who are visitors or consider yourself on the fringes of our fellowship, your impressions are important, also. Sometimes those who see us from a distance help to sharpen our vision. Our own denomination, rightly or wrongly, turned beyond itself to help answer this very question, the result being a marketing byline: "Church of the Brethren: Continuing the work of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together." A friend of our church, Russ Keat, recently described our fellowship to folks he knew in the Balt. area who are searching for a place to belong, and sent me a copy. It is fascinating to read how someone else describes you. Please take the time this morning, at some point, to briefly write down your thoughts on the insert in your bulletin, and make of it an offering to God later on.

As I said last week: knowing who we are at the core - what makes us uniquely the Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren - knowing this is important for planning. "Planning" is the focus of today’s sermon, the last in a series of 8 on Congregational Megatrends, significant changes taking place in the church in this society, at the end of this century. In the book I’ve been indirectly following for this series, C. Jeff Woods suggests that we are shifting away from secondary planning to primary planning in the congregation. What this simply means is that the people who are most interested and willing to be involved in a certain program, are the ones who should be planning it.

Haven’t we been doing it this way? In some cases, yes. An often unspoken rule in this congregation is that if there is to be a new program, it must have an advocate, someone who cares enough about it that he or she is willing to lead the way, what Brad Kay used to call a "champion." Brad was himself a sparkling example of this. His passion for a particular ministry was contagious, wasn’t it? He was at his best when doing primary planning, not secondary.... To design a program for someone else to implement is secondary planning.

For example, the local Presbyterian church has an evangelism committee whose members like to talk about evangelism, but are not as thrilled about actually doing it. They plan an "Evangelism Sunday" heavy on telling people they ought to be reaching out to their neighbors. Everybody thinks that’s a good idea, after all it is the great commission from Jesus. Something happens, though, between the planning and doing. Everyone agrees with the plan, but do they do it? No. One important reason is that those who planned it weren’t passionately enough concerned to be at the forefront of actually doing it. That’s secondary planning.

Next week’s CROP Walk was an idea ripe for a particular moment. It began in a discussion between 3 local pastors. We held an open meeting to see if there was any interest in the churches of our area in an activity that would work both at feeding the hungry and fostering a sense of community among Christians. A Bible study group at the Lutheran church had been talking and praying about those very things. There were persons passionately concerned about it, willing to do more than just talk, who answered the call to plan this walk. One is Mike Griffith. He’s so "on fire" that he has offered to attend any worship and plug the walk, if asked, even all the masses at the Catholic church. Unless I’m mistaken, he’ll be coordinator of next year’s walk. Planning has been done by a small team, whose job is for a set amount of time, after which it will disband, and is focused on one particular program. That is primary planning., and if Woods is right, it’s the wave of the future in the church.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to thrive, and not merely survive, there needs to be more primary planning. Our organizational structure needs to become more open to adaptation which allows primary planning to happen. That’s not an easy shift to make. But what would happen, for instance, if we drew together a Task Team of passionately concerned folks whose only job was to plan and implement our Christmas outreach program? There’s a beginning and an ending to the task, not long enough to burn out - something I worry about for certain members of our church board who are often very ready for their term to end, and may afterward pull back from involvement for quite a while. What would happen if more ad hoc primary planning groups were pulled together to care for our facility, instead of dumping all the work on the same people in the Stewards Commission? Likewise for the inner care of our church, the growing of disciples? Downsizing should not mean fewer people doing more of the work, though it often happens that way, doesn’t it?

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonika, he begins with a thanksgiving for a church passionately concerned about acting out their identity in Christ, not just talking about it. "We always give thanks to God for all of you," wrote Paul. We "constantly remember (in prayer) your work of faith, your labor of love, and your steadfast hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." (1:2-3) Faith, love, hope. Those virtues are repeated together several times in the New Testament, the most memorable being in the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. Here, Paul makes crystal clear that these are not just elements of a creed, not abstract principles to discuss. Instead, these are action words: work of faith ... labor of love ... endurance of hope. Faith, love, hope are verbs, not nouns. To those people in Thessalonika, the gospel was not only a matter of words but, as Paul wrote, a matter of power (v.5). That is, the gospel is acted out / lived out through the help of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul wrote of the variety of gifts, the diversity of ways of serving the Lord, the multitude of God inspired works. To each believer is given not only a special ability, but also a particular calling to put that ability into action. Each of us has (or is) a match, so to speak, and not just any surface, any activity, any mission will light our fire. The gospel becomes powerful among us, just like among the believers back in Thessalonika, when the Holy Spirit helps us to connect up each match with the work that can rightly ignite it.

This needs to be a part of the planning process. Those who are on fire for a particular ministry are the ones who should plan for it. Now, I’m not talking the formation of yet another committee. In reality, "committees" as we have known them, are things of the past. As Jeff Woods points out, Task Forces and ad hoc groups, composed of persons who have a primary interest, who care passionately about a particular area, whose matches are on fire (so to speak) by a specific topic; these focused, short term teams are replacing committees, which have been the bedrock of secondary planning. The caution that goes along with this trend is that primary planning is not easy. After all, when passionate people get together, sparks can fly.

The key, though, is lighting the match, isn’t it? If no one is "on fire" for a particular ministry, either God is not calling us in that direction, or somebody is not striking his or her match. The question I encourage you to ponder is the same as the children’s message this morning: what lights your match? As Paul wrote the believers in Corinth, the Holy Spirit gives each of us a match and a mission. What’s yours? We can’t plan without you.

There I go again, giving you homework. I hope you haven’t forgotten the assignments from previous weeks. Like, pondering the heart of our church, what makes this congregation uniquely the Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren. Be sure to write something down between now and the time for offerings. In addition, do you recall the homework from before then, about thinking of three persons you know who are not connected up to any church, and praying for them, or for yourself in relation to them? After our next hymn, I invite you to share any joys that came out of this, ways in which you felt God at work.

Shall we sing to the Lord, together: "be thou my vision," # 545.

see previous message on "The church as a seminary"

1996Peter L. Haynes

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