These days every civic organization, every service club and every church is talking about it. Every week when they meet together and look around the room at the empty chairs and pews that were once filled with people, it is obvious to everyone that something needs to be done.
“We need to do something to reach more people.” “We need to change something increase our numbers.” “We need to expand our club.” “We need to grow our church.” And sadly, we need to grow not so we can do more things, change more lives, make more of a difference in the world; no, we need to grow just so we can maintain what we have. We need to grow so we can just keep doing what we’ve always been doing. We need to grow to just prevent us from dying.
This was the focus of our weekly Kiwanis meeting this past Thursday. And it will be the focus of our church meeting tonight, as it is the focus of countless churches across America today.
Yes, these days, the church has a lot in common with civic organizations and service clubs everywhere.
However, there is one main difference. And we have a word for that difference, and that word is “Epiphany.”
By the sixth day in January, the culture has moved well past Christmas.People have returned to work. Kids are back in school. And Wal-Mart has replaced Christmas decorations with gas grills and lawn mowers.
The church, on the other hand, insists on a full 12 days after Christmas Day to remember the visit of the Wise Men, gentiles from a foreign land, to the young Jewish Christ Child.
First recognized in the fourth century, Epiphany celebrated the revelation that the wall that was thought to divide humanity from divinity has been torn down. Epiphany celebrated what we call the incarnation, the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, of God becoming human, the revelation that Jesus was God and God was Jesus, the revelation that in Christ, God became one with humanity, the revelation that no wall, no barrier, no temple curtain, no obstacle in all of creation can separate us from God.
The revelation of this unity prepared the way for another unity, that is Gentiles, as represented by the Gentile Magi, should be one with Israel. This made it clear: Along with the wall that separated God and humankind, any wall of religion or politics that separated Gentiles from Jews, or separated anyone from the promises of God, should be torn down at once.
This is what Paul is proclaiming in our Epistle lesson this morning, and it is the revelation he began proclaiming in the first two chapters of Ephesians as he declares to his Gentile readers and hearers that they have been chosen by God for adoption.
“Adoption”—it is a wonderful word Paul uses to make the point that we do not have to be born into the people of God to be the people of God. It means that all are God’s chosen people. Although Gentiles thought they were separate from God, Christ reveals that they are not. As the Divine and the human became one in the incarnation, the entire human family is one in Christ.
Paul points out that it is because of his proclamation of this Epiphany that he is now a prisoner. We read in Acts that Paul is locked up because his inclusive message breached the walls erected by the religious powers-that-be. They accused him of teaching “against the law” and “bringing Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:28).
Can you imagine a preacher being accused today of teaching against the law by bringing a certain group of people into the church?
I think you can.
I believe this is the reason that Paul says that in former generations this revelation was not made known. No one had the courage to preach such radical inclusion.
Notice that Paul not only has the courage to preach it, but he seems undaunted by his circumstances in prison. That is because, for Paul, Epiphany is not just one day, or even a season, but Epiphany is his very purpose. He preaches and doesn’t mind being imprisoned because God has revealed this revelation to him giving him a holy purpose to share it with the world!
Through Paul’s courage, the Spirit has revealed what has always been the eternal plan of God, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, fellow participants in the promises of the gospel.[i]
When the church tears down the the walls that divide us, when we welcome and include all people, and all means all, then the church proclaims the creative diversity of God’s eternal wisdom. As we welcome and include and add to our membership different races, classes, and genders, we proclaim the mystery of God who brings all of God’s creation together by becoming human, by becoming a Jewish baby worshipped by Gentile kings from the East.
So, although we have much in common with civic organizations and service clubs these days that need to grow, that need to add to their memberships in order to survive, there is a major difference, and we call that difference “Epiphany.”
We should grow as a church. We should intentionally work to add to our numbers. We should all do all that we can do to fill these pews; however, it is not so we can pay our bills. It is not so we can keep up our property or care for our buildings. It is not so we can keep the staff we have or even pay the preacher. We should grow as a church, because this is our holy purpose, this is our divine calling. And it has always been a part of God’s eternal plan.
As a pastor, I have been to many church growth conferences and seminars. In almost everyone, the leader points out the number of churches that are closing their doors for good and selling their property. And the point is usually made that most churches are not willing to change anything, not willing to do the work they need to do to grow the church, until they wake up to the reality that if they don’t change, if they don’t grow, they too will soon die.
However, I pray this is not our motivation for concentrating on church growth in 2019. Avoiding shutting down the church like the government should not be our reason for welcoming, including, adopting more people into our church family. The fire that needs to be lit under us to do the work to grow our church must come from another place.
What I believe we need is a church growth Epiphany.
We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to what has always been the eternal plan of God; that is, the promise of the gospel, the unconditional love of God, is for all people.
We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to the radical inclusiveness of God’s love, especially for people who have always felt outside of God’s grace.
We need a church growth Epiphany, an awareness that this revelation has not always been taught, and in many churches today, is still not being taught, so it is up to us who have received this revelation to proclaim it boldly and loudly.
We need a church growth Epiphany that reminds us we are on a courageous mission trying to selflessly follow the way of a brown-skinned, Jewish Palestinian refugee who gave his life trying to tear down the political walls of hate and bigotry and to put an end to the divisiveness and exclusivity of religion.
We need a church growth Epiphany that refuses to build any wall that separates us from people who do not look like us, dress like us, or even believe like us.
We need a church growth Epiphany that this inclusive work is not for the fearful or the cowardly as this work has put many apostles in prison and has gotten many preachers fired. We need to be willing proclaim the inclusive good news of the gospel even when our neighbors and members of our own family ridicule us, try to shame us and shun us.
We need a church growth Epiphany that is continually and courageously reaching outward, beyond, as far away as the Wise Men were from Bethlehem when they first saw the star, to welcome and adopt all people into our family to join our mission of inclusive love and grace, mercy and justice.
We need a church growth Epiphany of the eternal plan of God to love, include and save all people. Because if we try to grow for any other reason, if we try to fill these pews in order to pay the bills, to keep up the property or to compensate the staff, we will die as a church. We will surely die.
Even if we add 1,000 new members, even if we begin ending each church year with a budget surplus, if we grow only to maintain and preserve what we have rather to fulfill our mission as bold proclaimers of the promise of the gospel of Christ for all people, we may live on as a club, but we will be dead as a church.
May it never be so.