The State of the Congregation
2 Corinthians 8:8-12
One of the challenges of life in a congregation our size, with over 1,200 members and over 350 people in worship each Sunday, across three different services on two different campuses, with new people visiting our church each week and new families joining our church throughout the year, is to adequately communicate all that is happening. To adequately celebrate the work of our various ministries. To adequately convey a vision for what’s coming next.
We describe our congregation as a community of faith. And as a church family. And as everyone who’s ever been part of a busy family knows, keeping everyone up to speed, and keeping everyone on the same page, which is to say, keeping everyone informed of the family goings-on, is no small task. It’s easy in the day-to-day and week-to-week life of the church to lose perspective on the big picture.
So I think this particular Sunday is the perfect time to talk about how things are going in this particular congregation of Christ’s Church. First, because today is Commitment Sunday, as we prepare for the 2019 year of ministry by making our financial commitments for the coming year. It makes sense to step back and talk about the big picture.
And second, because next week we begin the holiday season in earnest with Thanksgiving Sunday. Which is followed by Christ the King Sunday and the Hanging of the Greens. Which is followed by Advent. Which of course is the season of preparation for Christmas. All of which means that, as we focus on the spiritual discipline of generosity, and before we turn our attention to the awesomeness that is the holiday season in the church, today is the perfect opportunity to take a look back at where we’ve been this year, as well as look forward to what 2019 will bring.
In other words, today we’re talking about the state of the congregation. And as you no doubt already know, there is much to celebrate.
For example, going back to early in the year, we have significantly transformed our main campus. In February, Bishop Mike McKee was with us to consecrate the $4 million project we’ve been working on for a couple of years. New heating and cooling systems. The new porch outside Binkley Hall. Dramatically improved drainage systems and landscaping. A new playground. New and upgraded parking. An acre of green space on the northeast corner. These are all highly visible renovations that make our church more inviting to newcomers and more hospitable for the coming generation of ministry.
But there’s also been a behind-the-scenes renovation going on this year that you may not be aware of. We have upgraded our technology infrastructure and implemented new software systems to manage the church finances and our member database. If you’ve ever been part of a software implementation in Corporate America, you know this is a big deal. These new systems will help us both be better stewards of the church’s finances and manage the growing ministries of our church, a point we’ll come back to shortly.
All of these renovations are vital because our church is growing, as you’ve no doubt experienced. 50 new members representing 22 households have joined our congregation this year, not including the 8 youth we confirmed in the spring. We have had 20 baptisms across all three of our worship services, 7 of which are youth and adults. Through last Sunday, there are on average 21 more people attending worship each week than there were through the same period the year before. Our School for Little People preschool is full. Our ministries with children, youth, and adults are thriving. And we have a college Bible study at Mosaic on Wednesday nights that brings 6 or 7 college kids to our church each week.
If you’re a numbers person and care about data like this, as a church we are continuing the trend of the past several years of growing at twice the rate of our local community, which is a healthy sign.
But of course, we realize that Christian ministry is not just about us. To that end, this year we launched two major missions and outreach initiatives. You’ve heard me talk many times about Family Promise of Grayson County, an ecumenical effort to address the need of families with children who are experiencing situational homelessness. Three separate weeks this year, we’ve welcomed these families into our church home, providing safe shelter and food as they seek to get back on their feet. This is a ministry of which we can all be proud, and in which I hope we can all participate in the coming year.
And in July, we launched our ministry with the Hispanic community by welcoming Rev. Nohemi Ramirez as our Associate Pastor of East Sherman Ministries. Nohemi has begun building relationships and laying the groundwork for the launch of a Spanish-speaking worshipping community on a new third campus of our congregation, in the building where Key Memorial United Methodist Church used to be located. I’ve personally been impressed with the work she’s already done in just the few short months she’s been here.
These are just the highlights. As you can see, it’s been a busy year! When someone joins a congregation of The United Methodist Church, they vow to uphold and support its ministries through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness. As the Body of Christ in the world, it’s our commitment to these vows that makes possible all the ministries that happen here.
If one challenge of a church family is keeping everyone informed, another challenge is financial stewardship. Like every family, we have to budget and plan for and manage our finances, and this is the time of year when we put together our plans for the coming year. So our primary focus for this morning is the vow of “gifts,” as in financial gifts. My dear friend Howard Raeke, a longtime leader in the church I served in Henrietta, always used to say that The United Methodist Church should change the word “gifts” to “giving” to be more specific. And I think he’s right.
Without all of our tithes and offerings, we would be unable to do all the ministries that God has entrusted to us. And to help us to reflect theologically on our giving, we’re picking up where we left off two weeks ago, in the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. The back story of this passage is important to mention.
As we talked about two weeks ago, at a certain point in his ministry, Paul launched a campaign among the churches he had founded to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. The Corinthians had made a financial commitment for the Jerusalem offering, but it had gone unfulfilled (8:10). Paul is urging them to continue to give generously, and in our passage this morning, he offers us theology about why we give…
[Read 2 Corinthians 8:8-12]
When we kicked off our stewardship campaign a couple of weeks ago, I made three points about the subject of giving that I want to recap briefly. The first is that the spiritual discipline of giving is as old as any of the spiritual disciplines in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Tithing literally goes back to the patriarch of our faith, Abraham. It shows up first in Genesis 14 and has been practiced by God’s faithful ever since.
The second point to be made is that everyone is called to give, regardless of our means. Because giving should be the first priority in our budgets, however large or small those budgets may be. The point of all of our spiritual disciplines is that they help us grow closer to God. And giving back a portion of what God has entrusted to us is as important in our tradition as worship, prayer, and Bible study.
The last point to be made about financial stewardship is the one Paul makes to the Corinthians in our passage this morning. That our practice of giving reflects the state of our hearts. In asking the Corinthians to give generously to the Jerusalem church, Paul says: “I am testing the genuineness of your love” (8:8). Because genuine love for God and our neighbor is demonstrated by the way we live our lives. He points to the example of Christ, whose ministry modeled for us humility and selflessness and sacrifice. God, in Christ, has shown great generosity to us. Surely, then, Paul says, part of our calling as his disciples must be to practice generosity as well. It’s a compelling argument, I think.
And he closes by making a point that reminds me of a very practical question about giving that I get from time to time. A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about the stewardship campaign and he asked me if we’re expected to tithe on our income before taxes or after taxes. It’s a very logical — and consequential — question. He thinks the tithe is an after-tax expectation. Because, as he told me: “I can’t give the church ten percent of what I don’t have, pastor.”
Well, Paul unwittingly addresses this, I think, when he says: “…if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have” (8:12). Dave Ramsey, in his very popular and very helpful Financial Peace University, takes the same approach. Tithing, in the Dave Ramsey model, is giving 10% of what we take home. Which makes sense to me.
But the theology of giving, according to Paul, is not as much concerned with the amount as it is with the condition of our hearts. Genuine love for God is demonstrated by living a generous life. A faithful response to the grace of God in our lives is our eagerness to give a portion of our blessings back to God. In the next chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul puts it another way, saying: “God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7).
The Christian tradition, Christian practice, Christian theology is clear on this point. When it comes to our personal financial stewardship, disciples of Jesus Christ are called to tithe or to be growing toward the tithe. And when all of the members of a congregation of Christ’s Church take this spiritual discipline seriously, then together we can do amazing things for the Kingdom.
Combined with our other commitments of prayers, presence, service, and witness, our gifts make our worship services possible, and provide the spaces and the teachers for our Sunday School classes and small groups and Wednesday night programming for children and youth. Our collective commitments put on an amazing Vacation Bible School each summer, and keep our campus beautiful for events like Sunrise Worship on Easter and Trunk or Treat at Halloween. Our commitments of prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness provide the amazing music each Sunday that lifts our souls and introduces newcomers to meaningful worship. And they make sure that the sick and homebound are visited, and that the grieving are comforted and fed as they lay their loved ones to rest. In short, every person who calls this their church home helps make possible every bit of ministry that happens in this place. Which makes Commitment Sunday a very big deal.
In 2019, we’ll have some areas of focus. I mentioned earlier that we implemented a couple of new software systems this fall. One of these is called Church Community Builder, and it’s far more than a member database. It’s a way for each of our members to connect more deeply to the church, and to strengthen our own discipleship. It’s a kind of social network for our church family, not unlike Facebook (except mercifully without the politics), and I’m excited to see how it will help us grow as individual disciples and as a church. Guided by Pastor Sam, our Associate Pastor of Discipleship, we’ll start rolling out Church Community Builder to the congregation this winter.
In terms of our missions and outreach, we’ll be building on the momentum we’ve begun this year with Family Promise of Grayson County, as we continue to be a leader among local churches in this ecumenical ministry. And in our unique partnership with the North Texas Conference and local non-profit Hope on Houston, we’ll continue to work towards organizing a Spanish-speaking worshipping community. Pastor Nohemi, of course, will lead us in this effort.
All the while, we will continue to offer spiritually uplifting and theologically challenging worship. Our spiritual formation groups — Sunday School, Bible studies, and our ministries with children, youth, college students — will continue to inspire and shape us. Our various fellowship activities will give us the chance to gather as a community of faith, the next one being this Wednesday at our All Church Thanksgiving gathering. And we’ll have many ways to serve our church and our local community as the hands and feet of Christ in this part of the world.
The state of our congregation, friends, is healthy and vibrant and faithful, thanks to the commitment of those who call this place home. And it’s an honor for me to be part of it.
As I reflected on this idea of Paul testing the “genuineness” of the Corinthians’ love, and as I was reflecting on the state of our congregation, I was struck by something that happened this week. I have permission from those involved to tell this story. Some of you may know Rev. Jim Welch. Jim is a retired Methodist pastor and Army Chaplain who, with his wife Andrea, has been a member of our congregation for many years. Our Director of Youth Ministries, Brittani Welch, is his daughter-in-law, and both his son and one of his daughters and their families are active members of our church. (The other daughter lives in Minnesota, or I’m sure she would be, too!)
A couple of weeks ago, Jim started feeling ill during worship, and his symptoms led his family to take him to the ER. Over the past two weeks, they have had a series of difficult diagnoses. Jim has had a couple of heart attacks and a stroke. But it was the discovery of pancreatic cancer that has been most devastating. Jim and his family have decided to decline treatment, and go home on hospice care. This is a family that is deeply faithful. A family who knows that no matter what lies ahead, what comes next is good. They all have a tremendous amount of peace, even if it is mixed with grief. And it’s an incredible witness to our faith.
Well, Wednesday night, the night before Jim went home from the hospital, Brittani called a member of the Asbury Sunday School Class, which has been Jim and Andrea’s spiritual formation home as long as they’ve been members of this church. She asked Ron Nickels if he could build a wheelchair ramp at the house for Jim. The next morning, no questions asked, Ron and another class member, Bill Waldrip, were at the house. The ramp was built before Jim got home that afternoon.
To me, that’s what it looks like to be the church. That’s a community of faith, a family of faith, at its best.
“I am testing the genuineness of your love,” Paul says. “If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable,” Paul says. On Commitment Sunday, may we celebrate our work together as the Body of Christ in the world. And may we give thanks for the great privilege and honor of being part of this congregation of Christ’s Church.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.