Obstacles to Church Growth

God abhors you

I believe there are two primary obstacles to church growth these days, two obstacles that prevents people from being baptized.

1)       Some believe their sins are so great, that they are outside of the boundaries of God’s love. Or, they at least they believe they will be treated that way if they go to church.

2)       Some believe no one is outside of the boundaries of God’s love, but they believe most churches today believe that some people are.

This is why I believe the 21stcentury church needs to pay careful attention when this Ethiopian Eunuch asks Phillip if there is anything preventing him from being baptized.

Which begs another question, “Are we doing something, or are we not doing something, that is preventing people today from coming to Jesus?”

I believe Acts chapter 8 has much to teach us on this subject, especially those of us who are trying to do church in 2018.

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go…:

One obstacle that I believe stands in the way of people coming to Jesus is that we have forgotten our call to “get up and go” to meet people where they are. Too many Christians these days are sitting back, expecting people to come to us.

And not only do we need to get up and meet them where they are, out on the road, even on a wilderness road, we are to meet them where they are, period.

The problem is that churches too many churches not only expect people to come to them, but they expect them to come in a manner that meets their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come to them that look like them, behave like them, and believe like them.

Let’s face it, excluding the other seems to be something that comes very naturally for us. I think if we are honest, we would admit, that we would much rather be around people who are a lot like us.

Some have said that it may be part of our evolutionary DNA. It’s some inborn, natural instinct of survival. Fear the different. Beware of the other. Trust no foreigner. Avoid the outsider. So we instinctively put up these barriers all sorts of obstacles.

But this is what fuels racism. It supports white nationalism and isolationism. It builds walls, discriminates, excludes and demeans the other.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he talks about the dangers of being led by the flesh and not by the Spirit. Because we human beings can easily be led by the flesh. A false prophet or Anti-Christ-like leader can quite easily stoke the fear of the outsider that is inside all of us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a stable genius to lead us  to hate the other.

However, the Spirit leads us to take a higher road.

Notice that Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urgePhilip, the Spirit had to push Philip, pull Philip, to get up and go to this chariot to meet this Eunuch from Ethiopia.

Philip, I know this may be hard for you. I know this may be against your natural inclination. But go to this chariot and meet this stranger foreigner, this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith, this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality, this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says Eunuchs are forbidden to enter the temple, this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go to his chariot and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

I believe there are thousands of people living here in Fort Smith who are not here this morning, who are not worshipping in any church, because the church simply refuses to be urged by the Spirit to go out with love and grace to meet people where they are, especially those considered to be outsiders.

Philip meets the Eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah. This should not surprise us. For this is one of the most hopeful books in the Hebrew Bible for those who have been marginalized by sick religion, for those who have been taught that they are despised by God. Imagine the hope that burned in this Eunuch’s heart when he read the following words we find in Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
beside those already gathered.

Philip heard him reading from Isaiah and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Eunuch responded: “How can I understand it unless someone interprets it for me?

What a great question! What a better place this world would be if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted.

I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that churches are in decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice.

And because of that, there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of sick religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

Then Eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’

The Eunuch was asking: Who is this one was also ostracized and marginalized by others, as I have been? Who is this who was led like a sheep to be slaughtered? Who is this one who has been humiliated and denied justice? Who is this who had his life taken from him? Who is this one who is just like me? Who is this one who relates to me so well, who understands my pain, who knows my heartache, who empathizes with my sufferings? Is it Isaiah? Or is it someone else?

Then, Philip tells the eunuch the good news. The one who understands your pain, the one who knows your heartache, who empathizes with your sufferings is none other than Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one who relates to you, identifies with you, and because of that, loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, and forgives you like none other, is the very one that others said despised you.

When the Eunuch heard this good news about Jesus, the words of the prophet became not only hope for the future, but good, glad, certain news for the present:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Suddenly, the barriers fell. Walls crumbled. Obstacles disappeared. And the very doors of the Kingdom of Heaven swung wide open.

It is then the Eunuch, this one who had no name and no future, but now has an everlasting name exclaims, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me then from being baptized?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And the church grew.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to get up and go out to meet people where they are (not where we might want them to be) meeting them without judgment, without condemnation. Guide us always interpret the scriptures in the light of Christ, sharing the good news of his unreserved love, unconditional acceptance, and unearned forgiveness with all people. And all means all. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

The bread is ready, the cup is filled, the table is set for all people.

Let all who are hungry for the love of God, come and be fed.

There are no hurdles standing before you. There no walls to climb over, no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to go around.

Let all who are thirsty for new life, come and share the cup.

There is nothing preventing you.

Let all who want to follow Jesus, come and join the feast.

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