Read an Excerpt
Preaching for Church Transformation
By Bill Easum
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Bill Easum
All rights reserved.
AN IMPOSSIBLE MISSION
WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE, SO IT IS BEST TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE.
You can't begin this series until you have a clear vision of where God wants your church to go, because somewhere in this message, you will need to share that vision with the congregation. If you don't have that vision, put this book down, take your Bible, and go off to a place where you can listen to God. Pray and ask God for a vision for the community he has called you to lead.
You may be thinking, "I can't know the vision until I've spent time with these people I'm leading." While it is true that your leadership vision will and should be shaped by those with whom you are following Jesus, the core of the vision must begin with you. God never gives a vision to a committee. God gives a vision to an individual, and it is the work of that individual to inspire and form people around that vision. Once you have a solid, vivid vision, continue with this book.
Remember, there could be several messages in this chapter. It depends on how depressed the church might be.
Man of La Mancha is one of my favorite musicals. I'm captivated by two of its characters. Don Quixote is the dreamer of impossible dreams, lover of those who won't love him back, and tilter at windmills. The other character is Sancho Panza, the faithful follower who never dreamed of something better or dared to color outside the lines.
You may want to play the video of the actual scene where Don Quixote sings "The Impossible Dream" to the prostitute Aldonza, whom Quixote thinks is Dulcinea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfHnz YEHAow.
Sancho Panza reminds me of so many church people who are content with muddling along merely surviving. I don't know about you, but I don't want to pastor a church full of Sancho Panzas. I don't want to be part of a church that is content to merely survive. And I hope you don't either.
I want to be part of a church full of Don Quixotes who dream the impossible dream; who dare to take on the world and shake it till it rattles; who help people reach their God-given potential; who thrive on the inherent risks of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. And I'm trusting that you also want to be part of that kind of church.
JOIN ME ON AN IMPOSSIBLE MISSION
My first Sunday morning, I asked the thirty-seven people present to join me on a journey to grow a church of thousands and transform the city of San Antonio. On the surface, it appeared to be an impossible mission. But we all know that nothing is impossible for God. They needed to hear that since they had failed to launch the church through two previous pastors. Whether your church is on its knees or poised to take off, this message has merits—you have to have a vision larger than life to lead a thriving church in today's environment.
You will have to fill in this message with the particulars of your situation. You will also have to make sure God has given you a mission large enough to capture the hearts and imaginations of key leaders in your church. If this is your first year as pastor of this church, you might want to read an article on that subject, because the last thing you want to do is pass up a golden opportunity to step out and lead. That opportunity won't come around again. If your church is declining and you are attempting to turn it around, you would do well to read my article about the risks of turning around a church.
If your church is in decline or on a plateau, during your opening message you may want to put a graph up that shows the seriousness of the situation. The worse it is, the more important to show the graphics. Remember: people change in direct proportion to their discontent level. So the higher their discontent, the better. Even if the church is on a plateau, the people in the pew are probably getting older every year. (The only exception is if the church is replacing its elderly members with younger ones.) So don't pull any punches. Paint them a picture of what is going to happen over the next few years. This preparation will be important to their response no matter what your situation, so don't ignore it.
Here's the graph I showed the church on my first Sunday morning. I put the graph up and then drew a line from 1963 down to 1969 and beyond, so the line went entirely off the graph. (I had to do this on an overhead projector. Aren't you glad you don't have to do that?) My only goal was to cause them to be discontent with the situation.
So, I'm asking you this morning to join me in what would appear to the normal eye to be an impossible journey. I'm asking you to join me in a mission to grow a church of thousands and to transform the city of San Antonio. You heard me correctly—to turn this small band of people into thousands of people whose actions will transform our city, our state, and our world.
We can do this. You know how I know? Because God tells us in the Scriptures we can. And the Apostle Paul tells us why. He reminds us that we "can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens [us]" (Phil. 4:13). Do we really believe these words? More importantly, how many of us live as if we believe it? All things are possible if we believe. Now, I know that is a big if. But I also know our God is a big God. The only thing that keeps God from achieving his dream for our world is us.
Begin now making a list of what your city might look like if transformation actually happened. List the things that need changing and how your church might take part in that change. Build this list as you go through this series, and be prepared to share some of your ideas when it seems appropriate in the series. In order to build this list, you will have to spend more time out in the city than you probably are spending at the moment. So set aside some time each week for this specific purpose. Later, you will be asked to form a small group of people to meet with each week. In time, you will want to involve them in compiling this list.
"I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me."
The first time I read this text, I stopped and asked myself, "Do I really believe this? If so, what do I have to change about my life?" All we have to do to answer that question is to watch Paul's incredible journey from being a Pharisee in Jerusalem to being the greatest Christian missionary of all time.
Paul was a great Christian missionary—the greatest of all time. It's been my observation that great Christians envision what seems to be an impossible goal, then push the envelope until they find their limits of possibility. I think that is what both Jesus and Paul are trying to tell us—that with God, it is possible for us to do whatever God asks us to do, even if it's to share our faith to the ends of the earth. I want to be a great Christian and trust you do also. It's time we stepped out on a mission with God.
This text poses a question we must answer during this series—if we really believe that all things are possible with God, what would we change about our lives and our church if we truly incorporate this text into our lives? We will spend some time in the next few months answering this question.
Now, how could Paul make such a statement? You have to remember that everything about Paul's life, even his name, was transformed when he met Christ. He didn't grow up in the church like many of us did. He didn't grow up knowing God's love. He grew up under the burden of religious legalism. But when he met Christ, all of that changed. As he said, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV).
OUR ANCHOR: THE BOOK OF ACTS
Acts will be the anchor for my preaching for the next few months. I've chosen Acts because it chronicles the story of the birth and spread of the church throughout the known world. Without it we would have no knowledge of the early church, except what we could glean from Paul's writings.
Most authorities believe Luke, the physician, is the author of Acts. I do also. Therefore Acts could be considered the conclusion to the Gospel of Luke. If that is the case, then we know the reason Luke wrote Acts.
If you remember, in the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke Jesus is on the road to Emmaus with two travelers who do not recognize him until he eats dinner with them. The significance of traveling to Emmaus is that Emmaus was mostly a Roman garrison, a Gentile town. One of the last remembrances of Jesus in Luke's Gospel is of him traveling away from Jerusalem, away from the Temple, away from the Jewish world, away from the religious professionals, and toward the Gentile world.
That's like you and me walking away from the comfort of these four walls, away from rituals that are comfortable to us, away from our traditions, away from our man-made doctrines, into the world of the unchurched, dechurched, and neverchurched world.
You see, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the life of Jesus. Acts tells us about the church that carries on the life of Jesus.
So I picked Acts for our initial time together on Sunday morning because I believe an examination of the pivotal points in the story of the early church will help us fall in love with what it means to be Christians who are on the road to mission with Jesus and members of a church that does what a church is supposed to do.
The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the birth and expansion of the early church. As such, it shares with us a unique framework around which to lead our congregation.
An interesting thing about Acts is the way it's constructed. It falls into six neat sections. And at the end of each section, Luke gives us a progress report on the spread of Christianity in that area of the world.
Acts 1:1–6:7 tell us of the progress of the church at Jerusalem and ends with "The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith."
Acts 6:8–9:31 describes the spread of Christianity throughout Palestine and Samaria and ends with "Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up ... [and] increased in numbers."
Are you willing to do whatever it takes to push through to the limits of possibility?
Acts 9:32–12:24 includes the conversion of Paul, the extension to Antioch, and the reception of the Gentile Cornelius into the faith and ends with "The word of God continued to advance."
Acts 12:25–16:5 tells of the expansion of the church through Asia Minor and Galatia and ends with "So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily."
Acts 16:6–19:20 describes the expansion of the church into Europe and ends with "So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed."
Acts 19:21–28:31 ends with the arrival of Paul at Rome—the center of the known world at the time—and ends with "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance."
I think you get the picture—Acts is about the spread of the church and the fulfillment of Acts 1:8, which is our anchor text for the next few months.
Many questions have been raised about Acts, such as:
Why are so many things repeated and so many things we know from letters written by the Apostle Paul left out?
Why do we have so few chronological points of reference?
Why is it that Peter fades out of the picture after the fifteenth chapter?
Why is it that Paul takes center stage after Acts 9?
Although no one really knows for sure the answers to these questions, I think Luke wrote only what the Holy Spirit wanted us to focus on—the fantastic story of the birth and rapid growth of the early church. In thirty short years, the church grew from an insignificant Jewish sect to a powerful force in the Roman Empire.
Luke also wanted to establish the spiritual authority of Paul, which was seriously under attack at the time. Every great moment must have an undisputed leader.
Acts provides essential background information for the churches Paul founded during the first sixty years of Christianity and the letters he wrote to them. Acts is a companion letter to Luke's Gospel and shows that Christianity was not a political threat to Rome but was the outworking of the Holy Spirit.
One thing is obvious in Acts—Luke wanted us to know more about Paul than any of the other apostles. I think the reason is simple—more than any other apostle, Paul did what all Christians are supposed to do—he spent his life sharing Jesus with lost people. And we should do the same.
This text will be our anchor for the entire series of messages. Throughout the series, we will examine what it means to be an Acts 1:8 church in today's world. This one verse has been called by some "The Legacy of Christ."4Everything we know about the post-Resurrection Church of Jesus Christ was birthed on this day.
The setting for our text is Jerusalem, not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples are hunkered down doing what Jesus had told them to do—wait for God to fill them with power. This power is called the Holy Spirit. Anytime the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Acts, the author is pointing to one simple truth— whatever we achieve as God's people isn't our doing: we accomplish it by God's power. That's one reason our mission can never be small and puny.
On that day, Jesus said, "I want you to be a witness of me, first in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and then to the end of the world." I don't know how Jesus could be more clear—the mission of the church is to spread throughout the entire world. So our mission is also clear. We are to share our faith with the world and make a difference in our city. This is Christ's legacy to the world.
Over the next few months, I will refer to this text as "The Ever-widening Circle." We aren't called to take care of ourselves or build a huge institutional church. We are called to transform the world, beginning right here in our city and spreading throughout the state, the nation, and the world.
So let me share four axioms I try to live by. Perhaps they will show you how serious I am when I ask you to join me on this journey of transformation.
You may want to use each axiom in a PowerPoint slide on the screen.
AXIOM ONE: IT'S ALL ABOUT JESUS CHRIST.
The goal of a real church is not to be an institution with charters and rules and regulations. The goal of the church is to bring people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Having a deep and personal relationship with Jesus is the ultimate goal of Christianity. Everything else is mere window dressing. When Christ is the head of the church, all petty stuff disappears. When people live under the Cross, they don't have time to sweat the small stuff.
Jesus said, "You shall be my witness." The Apostle Paul put it this way, "For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11 NASB). In one of Peter's sermons, he says, "Salvation is found in no one else" (Acts 4:12 NIV). We will see this truth lived out over and over throughout the story in Acts. In fact, most—if not all—the stories in Acts are about how Jesus and the Holy Spirit transform lives.
You may want to spend some time on the meaning of the word witness. If so, here are some things you might consider.
In a legal sense, to be a witness is to give an account of one's personal experience, as in "I know this to be true."
Witness is not just about words; it's also about how we live. People come to Christ just by watching how some Christians live.
The word witness means martyr. Being a witness for Christ means being willing to sacrifice even our lives, if it comes to that.
AXIOM TWO: THE ONLY WAY TO KNOW THE LIMITS OF OUR POSSIBILITY IS BY PUSHING THROUGH THEM TO THE IMPOSSIBLE.
Great Christians have the willpower and persistence to "push through" the normal and the everyday to the other side of normal and everyday issues. They never see impasses, only obstacles in the way—obstacles that have to be removed and overcome.5 Spiritual giants understand the importance of resilience and perseverance. Like a dog with a bone, they push into areas of life that, on the surface, seem beyond their ability. They understand the power behind the early church— that the presence of the Holy Spirit makes anything possible. Until we believe that, we're really not the church of Jesus Christ.
Now, if we believe this axiom, two things are likely to happen to us on this mission. On the one hand, we might experience a horrible failure. This journey I'm asking you to join me on isn't any slam dunk. We could fall flat on our faces, because it's beyond our ability to pull off on our own. On the other hand, we might be tempted along the way to give up our mission before achieving it. Either one of which is where the "pushing through" comes into play. Let me share two stories with you.
Excerpted from Preaching for Church Transformation by Bill Easum. Copyright © 2010 Bill Easum. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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