February 7, 2016

Thank you. Thank you for the gift of being away last month. My sabbatical was a time of rest, reflection, recharging, rejuvenation, and rethinking some of what I do and why I do it.

hoping_liberia1In almost thirty years of ministry, there have been two other times that I have had extended times away from my work. Once I spent a month in Liberia and it led to the writing of my book, “Hoping Liberia.” These extended times away from my work have helped me see congregational life from a different perspective and helped me ask questions about the church and myself that I would not have asked had I continued in the daily work of congregational ministry.

Each week that Sunday rolled around reminded Tina and me that we had a choice about attending church. I really don’t have a choice about attending church if I want to eat, which is a bit different for the rest of you.

A mother went to wake her son for church one Sunday morning. When she knocked on his door, he said, “I’m not going!” “Why not?” asked his mother. “I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me. Two, I don’t like them.” His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why YOU WILL go to church. One, you’re 47 years old. Two, you’re the pastor!” http://www.charlesspecht.com/a-funny-christian-joke-or-two/

“Christianity Today” interviewed 734 pastors that quit their church last year and some of the top reasons for leaving their job were that the church did not adequately communicate the nature of the job and the church before the pastor arrived, which led to conflict and there was no sabbatical plan and no help with the counseling load, which led to burnout.

So I am thankful that we have a better plan. You have kept your promise and provided me with some rest, which I used wisely, and unlike the 47-year-old pastor, I love you and I feel loved by you and I am glad to be back.

During my time away, one question that did keep coming back was this: “What compels us thto come to church?” More broadly, “What compels anyone to leave home each Sunday morning, or any other day, to attend church?” You could be doing many things right now other than being here.

The most obvious answer is that you are here to worship God, but I have a neighbor that we invited to come to church and he let us know that he would not be attending our church or any church because he lead his family in worship each Sunday in the privacy of his home. I thought, “Well, that’s one way to avoid attending committee meetings, and I bet his deacon’s meetings are always short, and you can always beat the Methodists to the restaurant.”

Can’t you worship God without the church? Can’t you worship God at home, in the mountains, at the beach, on the golf course? I’m sure you can. But what if we all did that?

What if we just worshipped God as individuals and there were no churches? Would the world be a better place? Would God’s kingdom be stronger or weaker? Would more or fewer people come to know the Lord? Would you be stronger or weaker as a Christian?

th-1So do you come to church out of habit? I bet most of you grew up attending church. Most of your parents took you to church whether you liked it or not. Some of you probably didn’t like it but somewhere along the way you began to understand your need to worship God and fellowship with Christians.

Going to church sort of stuck to you, like cockleburs stick to wool pants. Now it’s part of you, too. You’d feel guilty if you were not here because you’ve been doing this for a long time.

But I know a lot of people who were once in the habit who are now out of the habit. If you think about it, it doesn’t take too many weeks in a row of not attending church before you are out of the habit.

A lot of things can get us out of the habit: a divorce, an embarrassing incident, moving to a new city, an illness, travel ball, a new job, a depression, an argument with a church member, an accident, moving off to college, the death of a loved one, and old age. Just a few weeks of not going and we are out of the habit.

As people move through these seasons of life, some discover that the church doesn’t do as good a job being the church as they thought the church dud. People are hurt because they are not missed more. No one called quickly enough, or at all. No one came looking for them like a lost sheep. While away, hurting and lonely, some become disillusioned with the church and don’t return. They feel betrayed. So they become inactive members. Do you know any of those?th-2

They became disillusioned, disappointed, and discouraged that the church was not Jesus to them or to their family in a time of crisis or great need.

They are still spiritual. They still pray. They might even catch some preaching on television but they are not in the habit of attending church and have no plans to start.

Sometimes a person is unable to come to terms with some inadequacy within himself or herself and is unable to reconcile it. People may think they are not church material. Perhaps they think they will be judged.

Perhaps the church offered grace and it was not accepted. Sometimes the church wants a person to change his or her lifestyle before attending, so some people choose to stay away.

But why do you come?

Do you come to church in order to gain a measure of respect? This is Jefferson, you know. It is still a small enough place that it still matters to some whether we belong to a religious body. To do so is still good for business and reputation, but that seems to matter less and less to a growing unchurched population.

To be truthful, there are those in every church whose ethics, business practices, and morals are known to have very little kinship to the ways of Jesus, but these individuals can also be known as powerful leaders in their respective churches.

Sometimes, because of their reputation, they do as much to keep people from attending their church as they do in attracting people to it. For modern-day Pharisees, the seduction of power alone seems reason enough for them to attend church.

When I was a young pastor a man who was running for political office came down the aisle. He was emotional. He told me he wanted to join the church, but when I asked him questions regarding his relationship with Jesus, he didn’t have an understanding that one had to have a relationship with Jesus to become a member of the church. I suggested that we meet and continue our conversation. I went to his home that afternoon. For over an hour I shared with him the gospel as simply as I could. He was unwilling to commit his life to Jesus, or pray to invite Christ into his life. He never came back to church. I don’t suppose it was the first time someone wanted to use the church to get the evangelical vote. We are seeing that right now during the Presidential campaign.

Do you attend church because of the group of friends you have made? Well, I certainly hope that you have friends here. I certainly hope if you do that you don’t have enough and that you continue to make more. Other people are looking for friends, too, you know.

Let me ask this question another way. Would you attend church if you shared nothing or very little in common with the people who sat around you? Would you attend church if you didn’t know anyone else, but you knew you needed to connect with God? If every one of your close friends stopped attending church, would you still go?


Years ago when I was a pastor of Clarkesville Baptist Church, I developed relationships with a group of men from the Victory Home. The Victory Home is located just outside of Tallulah Falls, GA. Men that live there enter into a three-month, faith-based 12-step program in order to become free from alcohol addiction. These men attended our Sunday evening services. Many times I attended a Friday night graduation service for one of the men in the program.

Once when I was visiting the Victory Home, I discovered that one of the men was of the Episcopal faith. I knew the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Barbara Brown Taylor, very well. We were part of an inter-city clergy group that met each month and I served on the board of Foothills Counseling Center that met in her church.th-11

Knowing Barbara, I felt comfortable going with this man to the 8:00 A.M. Episcopal service. The historic white church set just off the main highway in Clarkesville will seat only about 100 people, but it was always full because Barbara was and is a very well known preacher. To receive communion you must leave your seat, go to the communion rail and kneel. Then you cup your hands to receive the bread from the priest. This was all new to me but all very familiar to my alcoholic friend.

th-4That morning as I knelt beside him with my hands cupped to receive the communion bread, I had a powerful and lasting experience that to this day reminds me why I go to church. It is the image of the cupped hands, the image of kneeling humbly, asking to receive that has remained with me.

Jesus began his greatest sermon with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 5:3 NIV

Whenever you think of a beggar, the image you have is one who is so destitute, so deprived, so needy, that this person is not too proud to hold out his or her hands and ask for help. This person is hopeful that if he asks, he will receive. A beggar is humble. He has come to a point of being willing to acknowledge that he cannot make it in this world without help.

th-5Jesus began his great sermon on Christian discipleship by saying that in order to be spiritually blessed, we must come to God with that kind of attitude. We must come in humility. We must come acknowledging that without God we cannot find our way.

That day I sat in a church that was not my church, before a minister that was not even of my denomination; beside a man who had to come to a point in his life where he first had to admit that he was powerless over a drug called alcohol.

It takes humility to go forward and kneel and receive communion with opened hands, but it also takes humility to leave your family for three months and stand up in front of a group of strangers, state your name, and confess that you are an alcoholic. I was kneeling down beside him, with a church full of strangers, and the one thing I knew that bound us together was that we all needed the grace of God, and so we all came before Him with our hands opened asking for God to forgive our sins and to show us how to love each other.

The minister told us that the bread that we were given symbolized the broken body of Christ and we were to remember his love for us was greater than our sins.

Sometimes as pastors we get really, really excited about people coming to church because as long as the seats are full and the offering is good the deacons will be happy, and when the deacons are happy pastors have job security.

Meanwhile, some A.A. meetings can come closer to resembling real church than churches do because more people go there with their hands cupped, broken, ready to admit that they are powerless and that they need a Higher Power present in their lives or they are not going to find sanity, peace, or recover their family, or restore their health.th-6

“So why do so many of our churches feel more like country clubs than an A.A. meetings?” One author has surmised that ‘we think church is for the healthy, even though Jesus told us time and time again he came to minister to the sick.’ We think church is for good people, not resurrected people. So we fake it. We pretend we don’t need help and we act like we aren’t afraid, even though no decent A.A. meeting ever began with, “Hi, my name is (Michael) and I totally have my act together” (“Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Evans, p. 1113).

So, I will confess to you, I don’t know if I will ever outgrow a desire to see pews filled and budgets met and those reasons are not always spiritual. However, I do have within me a deep passion for people to come and journey with us and find a body of honest, authentic worshipers, people whose hands are open to receiving God’s love, grace, and mercy for our lives because we are honest enough to cup our hands and say, “Lord I need you.”

So whatever reasons we have for coming to church, we must first and foremost come as needy people. We must come knowing that there are areas of need in our lives that only God can fill, and Jesus said we would be blessed if we had the right spirit about us. If we come with that attitude and others know that we are that kind of people, they will want to join us on that kind of journey.

People are looking for authenticity and honesty about their faith. They want to be free to ask difficult questions. People need to know they are welcome here and that we don’t have all the answers but are willing to journey with them as they search for God.

When others see that our worship is authentic and that our spirit is confessional, that we come with our hands open to the moving of God’s Spirit, and that our hearts toward them are not judgmental, then the pews will begin to fill.

Are your hands open this morning? You can’t receive a blessing if your hands are closed. Open hands are for receiving blessings, for coming to God in humility, for embracing others, for receiving love and forgiveness. If you are not poor in spirit, you can be in church and still not be where God wants you to be. So where are you this morning? Open your hands and your heart and receive what Jesus wants you to receive this morning.