Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Jan. 11, 2009.
Ephesians 1:4-5 (NLT); Philippians 3:7-11; Matthew 28:19-20
Several years ago a book was written about a guy who sailed across the Pacific Ocean and was hit by a hurricane. The storm overturned the boat, breaking off its mast, and washing all the navigational equipment overboard. Somehow the sailor survived the storm, regulated the boats jury-rigged a sail, and started sailing again. But now he was sailing in circles, and coming close to running out of food and hope.
Desperate, the sailor got the idea to try to remember the formation of the stars. He put a board together, drew a pattern of the stars on the board, and calculated a direction from the stars. Just knowing he was on a course that might lead to his rescue ”or at least to an island ”changed his spirits and gave him hope. Eventually, with his renewed energy he navigated his way to safety.
There’s much the church can learn from this story. As you may know, one of the ancient symbols of the church was a ship. And like a ship, without steady attention to its direction, a church can easily drift off course and travel in endless circles. And judging by how poorly so many churches are doing these days ”80% are either plateaued or declining ”you could easily surmise that many churches are off course and don’t even know it.
Another way to put this is ”many churches have lost touch with their God-given mission, if they ever knew their mission in the first place. In his book, The Present Future, Reggie McNeal says, The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia. It has forgotten why it exists. And the results, he says, have been devastating and demoralizing.
What’s interesting is that every church has a mission of some kind. But what drives a church may not be consciously understood, much less biblical. Many churches are simply driven by tradition, what they’ve always done before. Others are driven by the personality of the pastor, or a staff member, or some other strong leader in the church. Many congregations are driven by a multitude of programs and events designed to attract attendees. Sadly, few churches are consistently driven by a clearly understood, biblically based, spiritually discerned mission.
Today as we continue our conversation about the identity of First Baptist Church, we’re examining our church’s mission statement. It’s printed on most of our church literature, including our worship folder this morning. It says, We are a family of faith, seeking to know Christ and make him known.
A whole lot has changed in our church since we initially approved this statement in 1995. I remember well when a consultant convinced us that we needed a short, concise, easily remembered statement of mission to guide us so we wouldn’t be like a ship sailing in circles. I’m glad this statement has stood the test of time because I thought then and still think that it encompasses the essence of what we should be about in our church.
What difference does a well-defined sense of mission make? The best example I can think of is President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the American people, delivered in 1960, to land a man on the moon within a decade. What happened after that?
Listen to a computer scientist with the Apollo space program: I have never seen a group of people work with such absolute focus and fervor as these people, who saw it as their own personal mission to send astronauts to the moon. They worked incredibly long hours, under intense pressure, and they loved it. They had something that added meaning and value to their own lives, and they gave 200% to make it true. (As quoted by John Beckett, Loving Monday, p. 142). You know the rest of the story. Nine years later, forty years ago, Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts landed on the moon.
The right mission challenge can generate incredible energy. Personally, I would love to be able to say, year in and year out, about our church ” I have never seen a group of people work with such absolute focus and fervor as these people. We’d all like to say that, wouldn’t we?!
So, let’s revisit our church’s mission statement, breaking it down into its key parts. Part number 1 is this: We are a family of faith. Actually, this may seem to be an odd way to begin a mission statement because we assume a mission statement will describe what we do. But our mission statement begins with who we are ¦as it should. You can’t know what to do until you know who you are.
What does the Apostle Paul tell us in Ephesians about who we are? We learn that we are not random accidents in a meaningless universe but precious and planned-for from the beginning of time. We are loved, treasured by God, and chosen by God to be holy in his sight.
Further more, says Paul, we are children of God, and part of God’s family. (God’s) unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure. Isn’t that interesting? It’s not just our worship and giving and service that bring God pleasure. God is so pleased when we treat each other like family.
Paul reminds us of an important truth here. First and foremost our church is a family. When we say, I’m going to church, what we probably mean is we’re headed to that big building located at 5th and Spruce. But the church is not a place you go. It’s not an institution, or a building, or a business, or a club. It’s a family of people, yoked together through their common faith in Jesus Christ.
I’ll be saying much more about this piece of the puzzle when it’s time to discuss our recently approved strategic vision and its focus on community. But for now let me offer what hopefully is an obvious observation about families ”they’re made up of people who don’t just exchange pleasantries, but share life with one another at a deep level. Otherwise, they’re not family. They’re just a group of familiar strangers.
In his book, Who Stole My Church?, Gordon MacDonald writes about a fictional group of church members who are discussing the changes in church music that have disrupted their church family. As they talk about the tension between those who love traditional hymns and those who prefer contemporary Christian music, the discussion turns to hymns that have been especially meaningful to them personally. One childless couple shares how a particular hymn has sustained them as they grieved their inability to have children. Another couple breaks down and shares how another hymn sustained them after losing a child to leukemia.
The pastor who is leading the discussion is in a quandary. There’s more he wants to say before the end of the meeting, but God seemed to have other plans. Here we were talking about music. We weren’t even singing the songs, just talking about them. But suddenly something ¦precious ”priceless maybe ”had happened to us. We were not a group any longer; we were becoming more like family.
FBC, my dream for our church is that it can be said about us ” We were not a group any longer; we were becoming more like family.
We are a family of faith, our mission statement says, seeking to know Christ. Once we are clear about who we are ”a family of people who have faith in Christ ”then we can be clear about our first order of business. And our first order of business at First Baptist Church is to know Jesus Christ.
By the way, the long-range planning team of our church meeting in 1995 didn’t just come up with this idea out of thin air. No less than Paul says knowing Christ is the first order of business for any Christian.
In Philippians 3, Paul gives us a glimpse of his impressive resume, not because he wants to impress us but to make a point. Against those agitators in Philippi who say you cannot belong to Christ if you are not circumcised, Paul says what we do to or through our flesh is really beside the point when it comes to faith.
To make his point, Paul points to himself. In effect he says he was born to the finest family and comes from the best Jewish stock in the world. He was raised in the synagogue and he understood and followed the Law to the letter ”he was so zealous he persecuted Christians for a living. He went to the finest schools, and quite frankly would probably have wound up Chief of the Sanhedrin Court had he not become a Christian.
And yet, Paul says, all that is rubbish compared to one thing ”knowing Jesus Christ. Notice Paul doesn’t say, knowing about Jesus. This is not about knowing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to a virgin, worked as a carpenter growing up, began his ministry at 30, was crucified at 33, etc. This is about knowing Jesus through personal experience in a way that totally transforms your life.
Above everything else, Paul says, I want to know Christ ”yes to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.
We have a lot going on in our church. But absolutely nothing is more important than spiritual formation, or the process of knowing Jesus Christ in an intimate way. If any other activity or program ever replaces our first priority of knowing Christ, we are on our way to a shipwreck that will send us to the bottom of the ocean.
Again, I will say more about this priority in my sermon on vision. But very quickly, let’s look at the clues Paul offers that verify that we know Christ. How can we know we know Christ?
¢ We are found in Christ, Paul says, meaning we are in an intimate relationship with him.
¢ We know the power of his resurrection, meaning that we do not operate simply out of our own abilities, but have a sense that a power greater than us is living and working through us.
¢ We participate in Christ’s suffering, meaning that we don’t avoid the suffering of others, but find a way to suffer with, and help those who suffer around us.
¢ We live and die in Christ, meaning that we are alive to his will and dead to our own life-agendas.
¢ We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, meaning that no matter how many times we’re defeated or deflated, we never give up hope because we know heaven is eventually on its way.
We are a family of faith seeking to know Christ, our mission statement
says. And there’s one final, very important part. We also want to make Christ known.
Now the order of things in this mission statement is very important. Baptists tend to start with the making Christ known part, which is why we emphasize over and over the Great Commission described in Matthew 28:19-20. Make no mistake ”the Great Commission is very important, and these two verses in Matthew 28 are two of the core verses of our church’s blueprint.
But at the risk of committing Baptist blasphemy, missions is not the first order of business in or church or even the second. After we come together as a family of faith, and after we come to know Jesus in an intimate way, then we mobilize to share our faith with others out of the spiritual overflow of our relationships with Jesus and each other.
When a church is struggling to reach people for Christ, you can be sure that it has not paid attention to first things first. That’s why we risk everything if we ignore the quality of our relationships with Jesus and each other.
Once we’re on track with loving Jesus and each other, it’s only natural that we’ll turn our attention outward to love others. Years ago, Paul Tournier put it this way ” Our task is to live our personal communion with Christ with such intensity as to make it contagious. And I would add, Our task is also to have such a loving, caring community that others will want to become a part of us, too.
Notice in Matthew 28 that Jesus challenges us not to come to church but to go into the community, not to make church members but to make disciples (Christ-followers), not to make individual believers but to baptize believers into the community of the church, not just to fill people’s heads with facts about the Bible but to teach them in such a way that their hearts will change and they will want to obey Jesus.
By the way, the Great Commission is so important that it is repeated in one way or another in all four gospels, plus the first chapter of Acts. In fact, you could say that the Great Commission flows through every chapter of the Bible, a book that features a God who is willing to move heaven and earth to reach people with his love.
We are a family of faith, seeking to know Christ and make him known. FBC, this is our North Star, our reason for being. If we ignore this mission, God help us. If we stay forward on this mission, God only knows where we can go.