"One Person at a Time"

September 15, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Acts 16:1-5

Congregational Megatrends Series #3

Last Sunday I gave a "homework assignment." Do you remember what it was?... I asked each of us to think of three people whom we know personally, individuals we think may not be connected up to a church anywhere. That’s all I asked. If you weren’t here last week, or if you forgot to do your "homework," the assignment is easy enough that perhaps you can complete it as I’m speaking. I’m under no illusions that y’all hang onto every word I say.

At the CROP Walk Recruiter’s Rally last Tuesday, one of the persons on our planning committee spoke of this upcoming Walk as an opportunity for lay persons to get involved. "Preachers talk a lot," he said, "but it’s us people in the pews who make things happen." That fellow was right: it’s you who make things happen.

This is the third in a series of sermons on changes taking place in the church, responding to changes in our society. Many have said that we are undergoing a significant alteration, a "paradigm shift." Though the basics of our faith are eternal, many of our underlying assumption about how we operate in this society are changing. In the course of these sermons, we’re exploring these shifts, one by one, what author C. Jeff Woods calls Congregational Megatrends.

Our focus last week was upon evangelism, noting how it is no longer a "mass" appeal that draws people to Christ, but more a "relational," one person at a time (friend-to-friend), long-term effort that connects persons to Christ and his church. Thus my "homework assignment: think of 3 persons." Now, while our present society may be indifferent, or even hostile, toward the church, let me share an interesting statistic from a recent study. "Today 63% of Americans feel positive about receiving an invitation to a church... compared to only 52% in the early 1980's." We’ll get back to your assignment, and what you can do to grow our church. Let’s turn, now, from evangelism to discipleship; from attracting folks into a personal relationship with Christ and the family of God, to the process of Christian education.The 2 are not unconnected.

During the last century, the centerpiece of Christian education has been the Sunday School program. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time this was a new idea, but it was only in the 1800's that Sunday Schools came into being, paralleling the development of public education. The Brethren were, at first, skeptical about this new-fangled method of education, believing that the home was the primary place for disciple-making to happen, as children learned through example. By the way, our ancestors were also not-too-sure about another new idea: "protracted" evangelistic meetings; that is, what we today think of as "old-fashioned" Revivals and Crusades. At one time, these were "new" methods for christian education and evangelism. The Brethren had a major split in 1881 over these changes. Eventually those "new ideas" became common practice, even among those who sought to conserve the old ways.

A Sunday School program, as we have operated it in the past, is based upon some assumptions. "We could, for instance, take for granted that those who were a part of it understood some basics about "church," for they were primarily the children of members, who had been raised in the context of the church and took in some of this education by osmosis. Raising our own has in the past been the chief method of evangelism and education. Those who entered from outside the fold were melded into this core. Which worked fine. However, as our society has become more diverse, we can no longer assume that people coming in from the outside enter knowing anything about "church." I wonder if the same can even be said of some of us who have supposedly been raised in the church. There are so many influences in our present society, which each command attention. For many people, "church" has become a sidelight (one of a multitude of voices and choices), rather than an integrative force which helps make sense of it all.

The education "megatrend," Jeff Woods draws our attention to in his book, is a shift from what he calls "tribal" education, to "immigrant" education. This is not merely a shift in methods, like the change from home school to Sunday School was in the last century. It is an alteration of mindsets. In many ways, it is a return to a first century set of assumptions. Back then, the church was not a dominant force in society. It was but one among many and a minor one at that. There was a diversity of religions, each competing for the hearts and souls of people. The church of Jesus Christ thrived because it took seriously one person at a time, and didn’t depend upon the culture to do its job for it. That’s the downside of having a "Christian society:" the church grows lazy.

In the early church, newcomers were like immigrants - people walking on altogether new soil, and the task of the church was to help them become oriented, to help them make sense of it all, especially hard work because those new believers still lived in an old world, filled as it was with many conflicting religions. With this in mind, we need to read the New Testament like a conversation. Those letters from Paul and the other apostles were written in answer to questions people had as they were trying to make sense of what it meant to believe in and follow Jesus in this new world, especially when there were people around them who were, at best, indifferent or, at worst, hostile to their new-found faith. In the past we have, perhaps, tended to impose answers from the New Testament upon people before giving them a chance to ask their own questions. Immigrant education begins with the questions, in an environment where it is safe to ask even dumb questions. But even when answers are put forth, it is in the form of conversation, because each person needs to make sense of it all in their own way.

Now, Sunday School can, and has, functioned well in this way. But the key to the future is the recognition that we are not tied to one method of Christian education. Disciple-making happens inside and outside the classroom, inside and outside the church. Let me open up some other possibilities.

In this morning’s scripture passage from the book of Acts, we catch a whiff of a relationship between the apostle Paul and a young fellow by the name of Timothy. In a way, both these persons were outsiders to the faith at one time. Paul was not one of the original disciples, a fact he brings up often - sort of like a chip on his shoulder. Are you familiar with the story of his conversion? The long and short of it is that he was hostile to this new faith, persecuting those who followed Jesus, until he was knocked off balance, groping blindly for answers that made sense. He was an intelligent guy, but he no doubt needed to ask his dumb questions. There was no friend nearby to ask, so God sent one, named Ananias, who befriended Paul and drew him into the church at Antioch. You could say Ananias was Paul’s mentor.

Many years down the road, another relationship developed between Paul, now a key leader in this Christian movement, and Timothy, the son of a mixed-faith couple. Timothy’s mom was a Jewish Christian, but his dad wasn’t. One also gets the sense that mom wasn’t all that faithful, though his grandma was. Still, this Christian stuff was pretty new to him. The neighbors in his hometown were from all sorts of backgrounds, religiously. Though first century Lystra was not twentieth century Baltimore, Timothy faced some of the same barriers to faith as any youth today. A transforming point in his life was a friendship with Paul, who encouraged Timothy to join his mission. Paul became his mentor, just as Ananias had been for Paul. In the Bible we have 2 letters from Paul to his young friend, whom he referred to as "my son in the faith."

Mentoring is a personal, hands-on means of disciple-making - something we need more of in the church, especially today. One of the things we’re working at is connecting each of our youth to an older member, who can be a mentor to them. Of course, such relationships cannot be imposed - they "happen"as one person "clicks" with another. I dare say our young people are not the only ones who could benefit from a Mentor. There are persons both inside this congregation and beyond it whom I look to as Mentors. We may not call it such, but that’s what it is. Who has been, or is currently a Mentor in your life, someone to whom you look up to for guidance?

In a good mentoring relationship, 2 people are able to discuss any topic. Nothing is "off limits." The friendship is a "safe place" where questions can be asked, even silly questions. You know, the older we get, the harder it is to ask what we think are dumb questions. We think we should know the answers. Adults need mentors, also. In such relationships, Christian education happens, just as surely as it occurs in a classroom. We need to work more intentionally at developing Mentoring relationships. The good news is that God is actually working behind the scenes connecting us up, just like he coupled up Ananias and Paul long ago.

Disciple-making is relational. When I think back upon my Sunday School experiences growing up, I don’t remember any of the lessons. I do, however, recall my teacher, Perry Ellsworth. That relationship was more important than the curriculum. He loved and believed in Jesus, and he loved and believed in me when I struggled to love and believe in Jesus and myself during my junior high years. Furthermore, he had a sense of humor - a requirement to teach that age.

Disciple-making is relational. It happens wherever two or more are gathered in Jesus’name. That may be here in a Sunday School class, or in someone’s home, as a small group of people come together to grow in Jesus, a safe place where seemingly dumb questions can be asked, where persons work together at making sense of what’s happening, and move from talk through prayer to action. If you are hearing an inner call to become involved in a small group, beyond Sunday School, please say something to me. We are currently forming some new groups, and there is a place for you.

Let’s return to that "homework assignment" I mentioned earlier. As I said, evangelism and discipleship are connected. We reach out to people through relationships, and it’s through these ongoing relationships that people grow in faith. Your friendship with other persons is of utmost importance, not just in attracting people to Christ, as we said last week, but in helping persons become disciples (which is a life-long process). A "program" doesn’t do it. You do! One person at a time does it all. Through God’s grace, guidance, and strength, you are that person.

This weeks assignment: Think of at least 1 way that each of those 3 persons on your list could benefit from a stronger relationship with God. That "way" doesn’t have to be the same for all, and you’re not limited to just one. If you’re creative enough, come up with a barrel full. Regardless, do think of at least one way each could benefit from a stronger relationship with God. Okay, as that fellow said last Tuesday "Preachers talk a lot, but it’s us people in the pews who make things happen." Your turn.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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