A Pastoral Message for the People of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC,
by The Rev. Dennis Foust, PhD, Senior Minister, on August 21, 2022
Scripture: Nehemiah 2:11-18 and Matthew 28:16-20
Most of you are familiar with jazz legend, Louis Armstrong. He once joked, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” One of Louis’ best loved songs was, ‘What a Wonderful World.’ On the 1970 recording, he spoke these words of introduction to the song: “Some of you young folks been saying to me, ‘Hey Pops, what you mean ‘what a wonderful world?’ How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? They ain’t so wonderful either.’ But how about listening to old Pops for a minute. It seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret. Yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems.”
Beloved community, this is a wonderful world! And we are blessed to be alive during a period of seismic changes. Despite many problems and challenges, the rate of literacy has never been higher, life expectancy continues to increase, as global child mortality and poverty decrease.
As part of God’s Church, we continue Jesus’ ministry by embodying God’s love to make this world more wonderful. Whenever and wherever the people of God have loved well, problems are solved. Through the ages, the Church has been involved with God reconciling, serving, healing, and redeeming. However, the Church has also worked against God by being an evil, malicious, bigoted, and hate-filled abuser of this wonderful world. We see evidence of both extremes today. What about the future? And what about St. John’s future in this changing world?
Today and next Sunday, I am preaching on the subject, ‘Future Church Now.’ I mentioned to Paula that these two juxtaposed sermons are entitled, ‘How and Why the Church Must Change’ and ‘What’s Right About the Church,’ focused on what we should never change. My wise wife suggested that ‘if you don’t like this week’s sermon about change, come back next week.’
Today, Steve and Elizabeth dedicated themselves to nurturing Mabry “in an environment of Christian love, harmony, and peace.” They committed to God that they will “grant Mabry the benefits of nurturing her within the church, the corporate body of Christ.” Decades ago, Rob and Sarah Peacock did the same with Elizabeth, who is now a deacon in this church. And decades earlier, Tom and Marie provided the same experience for their son, Rob, and his sisters. Rob is also a deacon. Each generation has made the same commitment in changing times.
As you know, it is nothing new for the Church to change. The Church has been changing for 2,000 years. The earliest Church writings tell stories of changes or recommend changes.
If you and I started discussing only those changes in the Church in our lifetimes, we would be here for weeks. The question is not, ‘Will change happen?’ Nor is it, ‘Are we willing to change?’ We have proven over and over that we are willing to change. The question is this, ‘Are we willing to change in ways that make us relevant to the deeper needs and spiritual longings of people in this twenty-first century? Are we focused on helping people experience God’s love through us and our ministries as they grow in Christ with us?
We know this is God’s mission for us, as St. John’s – BECAUSE THIS IS GOD’S MISSION FOR THE GLOBAL AND ETERNAL CHURCH!
In this sermon, I am speaking to three ideas:
First, I will name three reasons why the Church must change.
Second, citing Nehemiah and Jesus, I will offer thoughts as to how we should approach change.
Third, I will present three ways as to how we should initiate change in St. John’s.
First, here are three reasons why the Church must change:
- God calls us to a life of salvation, which is a process of continual spiritual growth & change.
- The world is constantly changing, and we must change to offer a relevant witness to people.
- The Living God, who is Creator, is creating and still bringing about change within & around us.
BECAUSE GOD IS A GOD OF CHANGE, WE MUST NEVER HAVE A GOAL OF STAYING THE SAME OR MINISTERING IN THE SAME WAY.
Second, Nehemiah and Jesus offer us insights about how we should approach change.
Nehemiah initiated leadership in Jerusalem among people living through change.
They had recently returned from Babylonian Captivity after Persia overthrew Babylon.
Nehemiah was the most trusted servant of King Artaxerxes of Persia. As a cupbearer, Nehemiah tasted every beverage and every meal to be sure the king was not being poisoned. But Nehemiah heard reports that Jerusalem was a troubled city needing leadership. As a Jew, Nehemiah was burdened, and King Artaxerxes noticed Nehemiah’s heavy countenance.
The king provided Nehemiah with documents, an armed escort and building supplies to return to Jerusalem and build up the city. What Nehemiah found in Jerusalem were walls and gates lying in ruin. The walls and gates represented salvation and praise to the people. Nehemiah inspected the needs. He saw how sections of the wall were still partially standing. He noted how many stones were just lying there and how many timbers were still usable. In other words, they had most of the resources needed to rebuild the wall and gates. He shared his vision with others. The people responded with a strong affirmation: “Let’s start building!”
The key principle in this story of Nehemiah leading change in Jerusalem is this: there can be a need, a burden, a sense of call, a vision, knowledge, resources, and leadership – but nothing – NOTHING – will change for the better until and unless the people make a commitment to work together in accomplishing the task. The biggest necessary change was within the people.
St. John’s, this is our situation as we enter our second century while exiting a pandemic.
Although Jerusalem’s new wall included pieces from earlier walls, it was not identical to the walls of yesterday. There were many changes.
In like manner, what we will build into the future salvation and praise of St. John’s will be different from the past. It will include some familiar approaches, ministries, programs, and emphases. However, the external changes will only happen because of the deep spiritual changes and commitments we make within ourselves saying, “Let’s start building the future.”
Jesus’ familiar words, as reported in Matthew 28, proclaim change. First, Jesus announced his authority and then said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe everything I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always and all the time.” Jesus gives us two guiding principles in how we should approach change as his followers. We must remember that Jesus has the authority – not us. We do not have a mission; we commit our lives to participate in God’s mission of teaching and making disciples of God’s love – for this is what Jesus taught us. And, Jesus is with us as we go on God’s mission.
Now, let me briefly outline three ways St. John’s must change as we enter our second century.
But, trust me, there are more than three.
Change #1: Numerous studies and books discuss how the Church will increasingly be more on the margins, rather than at the center of people’s lives. Therefore, we must make sure that every gathering has multiple purposes, and make more effective use of digital technology.
In past years, most people had three to five deep commitments. Today, people may have ten to twelve commitments with a few having more depth than others. Time is the currency and people make their decisions about church involvement based on several commitments. Very few people in Charlotte are looking for something to do. We must plan with more precision of purpose. When we are the Gathered Church, it must be for the purpose of worshipping The Living God, investing in spiritual growth, strengthening our fellowship, and living out God’s mission. Then, we send out the Scattered Church to be Ministers in Daily Life in Charlotte and beyond. In addition, we must upgrade our internet capabilities and strengthen our facilities for Livestream, Zoom, and other video technologies that will appear. Internet is now another utility, like electricity, for us to use in spiritual growth and communications. And, when you are not present on Sunday, you need to tune in on Livestream. While I was away for two Sundays, I participated virtually. It’s not the same; but it is better than losing touch.
Change #2: Several books and research studies present the need for ‘radical hospitality.’ Close to ninety percent of people outside the Church describe, “church people to be judgmental.” I know, I know, we are welcoming and affirming. Several of us will walk in the Pride Parade this afternoon as an expression of our ‘radical hospitality.’ I know we work against racism, welcome immigrants, and embrace and value diversity and individuality. I get it. But, beloved, we still have much to learn about our blind spots and insensitivities. We must keep learning and let this city know how we embody the message, “God Loves Everyone.” We must get our message out in fresh ways, so people know we are not like the Christians they hear about in the news.
In his book, What People Expect from Church, Robert Randall reminds us that we never get a second chance to make a first impression. He reports how people desire to be known and understood in the church. We must always guard against making guests feel like outsiders. People outside the church want relationships that bring vitality, trust, and meaning to their lives.
We must do door greetings well and expand our use of common space for intentional fellowship opportunities. We must continue to be friendly and welcoming to our guests and be sure every person is welcomed as someone we want to know. We must contact guests each week and invite them to be our guests for conversations in our small groups, over meals, and in-service pathways. We may need as many as thirty persons involved in Hospitality Ministry.
Change #3: Numerous sources report that parents are looking for engaging and safe ministries for their children and youth where they can build relationships with trusted adults of faith and enjoy learning. Ten years ago, in a sermon, I made this statement: “We are a church that throws our arms wide in welcoming people – but our facilities do not say so.” We have made some improvements in the past decade. But, friends, we need to continue to update our facilities to say, “WELCOME” to all children and youth and their families. And, we will need up to forty persons involved in our ministries with infants, preschoolers, children, and youth.
In other words, there are no changes we must make that are beyond our capacity.
Let me conclude by telling you something you may not have heard and reminding you of something you already know.
First, you may not know that, for the first time in decades, mainline churches like ours outnumber evangelical churches. In July of 2021, the Public Religion Research Institute reported a dramatic decline in people who identify as evangelical and a slight increase in people who have an interest in congregational faith. At the same time, there has been an increase in persons who identify as mainline protestants.
Young adults and Generation Z are increasingly interested in churches that are welcoming and affirming while at the same time involved in building a better world. Friends, we are already on this path and we must proclaim our identity and our message to the people of this city.
Second, you already know there is a great deal of discussion about and involvement in deconstruction in these post-modern years.
De-construction is important.
It is good when lies, falsehoods, empty beliefs or allegiances, and ineffective practices are torn down.
However, too often, this deconstruction has no idea of what to construct after deconstructing. Anger becomes demolition and cynicism becomes destruction.
This world desperately needs congregations like St. John’s to participate with God in the necessary process of change as we construct God’s loving and wonderful world.
It just may be, beloved, that we have the song this world needs to hear so they can also sing:
I see trees of green Red roses too
I see them bloom For me and for you
And I think to myself What a wonderful world
I see skies of blue And clouds of white
The bright blessed day The dark sacred night
And I think to myself What a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”
I hear babies cry I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself What a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself What a wonderful world
Amen and AMEN!