We had some interesting reflection on what that even means. I confess
the phrase “a successful church” makes me a bit uncomfortable.
I can hardly even say it without putting air quotes around it. A
“successful” church. It’s an adjective I’m
more accustomed to using to refer to for-profit organizations, where
success has some pretty standard measurements: such as, is this
business profitable? What’s the bottom line? I’m not
sure we can evaluate a church: either a denomination or a congregation
in the same way. What’s our bottom line?
Is it the number of members and if that number is increasing? Does
that mean if pastors, deacons and friends have spent months supporting
a long-time member who is dying, that unsuccessful because when
that member passes away we have one fewer member? If a successful
church is one that manages its financial resources responsibly,
does that mean that if a ministry team has a great idea but it exceeds
their budget line, that’s not a successful ministry? Anyone
who has ever cleaned their house for company knows that there are
lots of things which are welcoming that no one ever notices unless
they’re not done. Those of you who have been studying Outrageous
and Courageous may remember the story in chapter 4 from the church
whose bathrooms had been accumulating mildew for years. The members
of the church hadn’t even noticed. When it was pointed out
to them , a member of the church ferociously scrubbed the bathroom
doors, and then said, “There! Now people from the neighborhood
ought to start coming.” Unfortunately, not everything which
takes effort is likely to qualify us as successful. We’re
probably not going to generate buzz as “That church with the
clean restrooms,” or “That community which doesn’t
overspend its budget.” Those things are important, but it’s
only when they’re neglected that anyone is likely to comment
Let me share some comments which I have heard, directly or indirectly:
• At the Jr High cross country meet at OxBow park, a parent
asked a Creekside member: Aren’t you the church that hosts
the lunch for firefighters and police officers?
• I’m part of a women’s group at Camp Mack. There
are about eight of us -- not a large group. When I introduced myself
and said that I was a pastor a Creekside Church, a woman I knew
jumped in and said, “Her church does wonderful things in our
district! They hosted a benefit auction for Nigeria and had the
Nigerian Women’s choir there!” And another woman in
that group, whom I had never met, said, “Don’t you have
a labyrinth at your church? I’ve walked that labyrinth.”
• Just this week I was at the hospital and introduced myself
to someone who asked, “Where’s your church?” I
said “on CR 113, a bit west and south of Meijer,” and
he brightened up and said, “I know that church! I was there
for your Fish Fry this year!”
Does being talked about -- in a positive way -- in our community,
make us a successful church?
Here’s a modest proposal for a successful church. It isn’t
my definition, and it doesn’t come from contemporary research
on church growth. It may not be a complete definition, but it’s
a good start. It was written nearly two thousand years ago by the
apostle Paul to the fledgling Christian Church in Rome. Here’s
what Paul says in Romans Chapter 12, beginning in verse 9: “Let
love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love
one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing
honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in Spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute
to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
That, friends, is a pretty ambitious definition of a successful
church. It’s notable for what it says, but also for what it
doesn’t say. As we look at these verses and the ones which
follow, It may be helpful for us to think of church as a community
that balances belief, behavior, and belonging. How we think these
things should interact, or which we think are more important will
affect the character of our community. There is very little in this
passage -- although plenty in other parts of Paul’s letter
to the Romans -- about belief. There aren’t any doctrinal
statements here about the nature of the trinity, the virgin birth,
or bodily resurrection. But belief is important, isn’t it?
Isn’t that what brings us together? A common belief that Jesus
Christ is our Lord and Savior? A shared commitment to be Jesus’
followers? Do we all have to believe all the same things in order
to be a successful church? That is a tough question; one which denominations
are wrestling hard with. Can we be a successful church if we believe
different things about the authority of scripture, women in leadership,
our peace witness? How about the role of gay and lesbian people
in the church, or gay marriage? What about social issues like abortion
and gun control? Do we have to believe the same things about that?
Do we all have to believe the same person is the best candidate
for the next president of the United States? What if we don’t
all vote the same way next month? (I can predict with 100% certainty
that we won’t).
Although there are core beliefs that I hope we share, I know there
are, and always will be, places where we differ. I don’t think
belief can be the only measure of a successful church. One measure
of a successful church is how we treat other people -- especially
those who may not share all our beliefs. Our passage from Romans
12 is a bunch of directives about how Christians ought to behave:
Hold fast to what is good, love one another, be ardent in Spirit,
serve the Lord, rejoice, be patient, persevere, contribute to needs,
extend hospitality. Verse 16 says, “live in harmony with one
another.” We are not directed to behave this way because it’s
easy, or it comes naturally, or it just makes sense. This kind of
behavior is hard work. It takes practice. It is learned behavior,
not automatic behavior. Blessing those who persecute us and extending
hospitality to strangers is not natural -- it is counter-intuitive;
it is intentional; it is Christ-like.
This kind of behavior is the only way a church can foster a sense
of belonging which is different from belonging to any other charitable
organization: the PTO, the music boosters, the athletic boosters.
Those are all fine organizations; we participate in them and wish
them success. They are fundamentally different than the church.
Here’s how: belonging to a successful church will change you.
Churches are not simply places where people are nice to each other.
Churches aren’t even just places where we gather with people
who share similar convictions about and commitments to Jesus Christ.
A church is a place that creates space for transformation. That
cannot happen without the gift and the practice of hospitality.
In his book Reaching out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life,
Henri Nouwen writes, “Hospitality means primarily the creation
of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead
of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them
space where change can take place.” Hospitality makes space
for transformation. The people which hospitality changes first,
are those who commit to practice it: those who are willing to risk
seeing strangers as friends. I don’t mean only strangers from
our neighborhood who come to our doors, or strangers from other
countries who come to our shores, but also people in our midst --
sisters and brothers in Christ -- whom we have avoided or rejected.
What kind of transformation would it take to restore those relationships?
Not, how would they have to change, what kind of apology would they
have to beg for, but what kind of transformation would it take for
me to live in harmony so that love is genuine. Jesus Christ, and
Christ alone can accomplish that transformation if we are willing
to offer that space where change can take place. If we have the
courage to open that space for Jesus Christ, we will be transformed.
And that, brothers and sisters, is the bottom line: a successful
church is a church in which people are transformed by Christ. That’s
my definition, and I’m sticking to it. We are transformed
by the hospitality which Christ offered us so that we can offer
that hospitality to one another. Amen.