"Seeing the Big Picture"

October 13, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon John 6:1-14

Congregational Megatrends Series #7

How hard it is to see the big picture!... Poor Philip and Andrew. They saw, and yet they didn’t see, what happened on that hillside long ago. Ted and Lee, a Mennonite comedy team from Harrisonburg, Va perform a hilarious skit in which they are these bumbling disciples who struggle to see the larger picture. At first they get caught up in figuring out how much they’d need to feed all those people, neither of them very skilled in the "new math," which didn’t really matter, for Jesus was not talking arithmatic on that mountain.

A boy comes forward with some food, enough to feed a family of 4, not a huge crowd. Snickering, the disciples bring the boy’s basket to Jesus, as if this was going to make a dent in everyone’s appetite. Then the amazing happens. After the distribution, there are leftovers. Andrew and Philip are left laughing at the improbability of it all. They can’t quite see the bigger picture, though what has just happened is a bit of the gospel in miniature, from the willingness of a young boy to share what he had, to the abundance of what God provides.

How hard it is to see the bigger picture!... John’s story of this episode doesn’t end there, for Jesus goes on to an even larger picture. The people (including the disciples) struggle to see past this sign of God’s kingdom, this miracle. "Give us this bread always," they cry. "I am the bread of life," Jesus replies. Given his explanation, it still was hard for folks to grasp the wider meaning. Even the disciples afterwards complained, "this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"

It is hard to see the bigger picture, even for those of us who look on after the fact. We struggle just like they did. This story, this truth about Jesus and God’s kingdom, is multi-dimentional. We can’t just view it from one perspective. It’s not like a painting, flat upon a canvas. It is more like a hologram. You’ve seen a hologram or holograph, haven’t you? It’s a 3-dimensional picture created without a camera on photographic film. I don’t understand the process of how it’s done, but I do know that when it’s viewed from a different angle it reveals a different perspective. Such is this "bread of life." From one angle we see an impossibility. From another we observe the simple graciousness of a child. From yet a further angle, we behold a miracle. Standing to one side, our salivary glands take over, and we are hungry for tangible food. Moving to the other side, something touches our inner spirit, and our hunger is for a different kind of bread.

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." That’s the larger picture which is difficult to really see. And yet, when we break off pieces of this figurative bread, addressing physical hunger, encouraging childlike generosity, becoming open to the miraculous in daily life, and hungering for "soul food;" in each of these pieces is contained the whole of the gospel. It is the same bread, even though the focus is upon a particular need, from a specific perspective.

If you’ll let me, I’d like to apply this to the church. After all, we’re in the middle of a series of sermons on Congregational Megatrends, changes happening in the church in this society at the end of this century. So far, we have addressed shifts in evangelism, discipleship, mission, leadership, and spirituality. Today, our focus is upon the programs a church offers, which relate (directly or indirectly) to evangelism, discipleship, mission, and spirituality, which are fundamental purposes. Like leadership, programming helps us get where we need to be, it is a method.

Hopefully, you heard me say earlier in this series that "programs" are no longer a cure-all for any ill in the church, that if we could only find the right program, things would just take off for us. That’s not the case, at least not any more. As a pastor, I’ve grown tired of all the "programs" out there, both from our own denomination and beyond it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a potential program, say in stewardship or evangelism, which says at the outset that "if the pastor is not 100% involved and behind this program, it will not fly." Like Philip and Andrew, I struggle to do the math. "Gee, if I’m 100% over here, and 100% over there, and 100% in yet another place, where am I?" Granted, I’ve taken on more pounds with age, but 300%? Of course, what I said concerning leadership applies here. I’m not the main player on the team. In reality, I’m not even out on the field, you are. I’m more like a coach or a cheerleader. Or, to use a different analogy, I’m like the cook on a wagon train. You’re the pioneers, as we follow Jesus onward.

Having just said that "programs" no longer are a "cure all," we still need to be involved in programming - which is the "how to" of the getting to where we need to be as a church. We have programs, but we can’t do them the way we always have. If I may, let me liken the "old way" of programming to what a bad mechanic does. It doesn’t require much skill to take out a worn out part and plug in a new one. How many times has a mechanic (or have you) done just that, and still the car doesn’t run right? A good mechanic knows more about the whole system than merely the parts that make it up. He or she sees the larger picture.

In the church, we often see programs offered in other congregations and want them in our own. One of the frustrations of being a smaller church is that we realistically cannot plug in all the programs other larger churches have, unless we want to grow to their size - which takes a whole different mindset.

C. Jeff Wood, in his book, Congregational Megatrends, asserts that the church is shifting away from segmented programming to holographic programming. To be honest, I didn’t find this trend as easy to grasp as some others. But, then, I also struggle to see the larger picture. That’s sort of the whole point. We can no longer treat each program separately, as it’s own individual segment distinct from the rest. Instead, each program is a part of a larger picture, not merely a component (a segment) which can easily be replaced. Each is a piece of the church which reveals the core of the larger picture, if only it were seen.

Now, I don’t understand holograms & holographs all that well, but I’ve read that if a hologram is broken, any piece of it can be used to reconstruct the entire image. That is, the whole is contained in each part. If, then, our programming is holographic, then the same could be said of each program: it contains the whole of our church. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be involved. It does mean that the core, the essence of who we are as a congregation is reflected in a particular program. When people are attracted to this church through the "aroma" (if you will) of a particular program, they are not surprized by a congregation different from what they expected, for the program itself contained the whole of the church.

Granted, this is easier to say than to do but, in a way, we’ve already been practicing it. We rarely just buy into a program without tailoring it to fit our identity and needs. "Mothers Together," for instance, started out as "Mothers of Preschoolers," a nationwide program. For a variety of reasons, it has been (and is still being) adapted to fit not only the needs of the women involved, but also the values of this congregation. What are those values? Ah, that is the million dollar question. We need to ask it all the time? We’re not talking here about a statement of beliefs, a creed - though, in a way, we are. It’s more our purpose, what makes our congregation different from other churches, when you look at the bigger picture. What is the core, the essence of Long Green Valley Church? Our Dream Team of a few years ago (not to be confused with the basketball jocks of Barcelona and Atlanta) worked at this question, but I’m not sure we fully answered it. We were anxious to move on to dreaming up new programs.

In a time when it’s not only the outside of the church that’s pretty diverse, but also the inside, this question is very important. When we plan (which, by the way, is the focus of next week’s sermon), the answer to this question should be prominent. We ought then ask of every program: how is it reflecting the whole of our church. If someone from outside were to take a bite of this bread we share, this program, would they catch a glimpse of the bigger picture? Granted, the church of Christ is not one or two dimensional. It is more like a hologram than a painting. This doesn’t make programming easier, by the way. It requires of us that we see the bigger picture, and that’s hard to do. We are like Andrew and Philip, trying to do the new math, and baffled by the leftovers.

Are you ready for another homework assignment? This week, I challenge you to ponder the bigger picture of this congregation. As you see it, what is the core, the essence of this church? Now, granted, we share much in common with other Christians, and these essentials are part of the core of who we are, which we need to state. Even so, what makes us different from any other church around us? What is the crux, what is at the heart of the Long Green Valley Church, that needs to be at the heart of any program of this church? Think about this, pray about it, chew on it between now and next Sunday. Then come prepared to write it down as simply and concisely as possible during worship, and return it as part of your offering to God. During my Pastor’s report at our Fall Council meeting in November, I’d like to share these anonymous offerings, that through them we might see the bigger picture which God is creating here in the valley.

Are you up to the challenge? Good, the baskets will be ready.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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