Scripture: Leviticus 19:1; 33-34
It has been my observation that by and large there are two kinds of people in the world. There are writers or mathematicians. It seems the people who are good at writing tend to be not so good at math, and the people good at math tend to hate writing. There are a few people who are great at both, and they tend to be super geniuses. Unfortunately, I am not one of the super geniuses and I am very much of a writer. Give me an empty blue book, a question, and ask me to write 500 words and that will be fairly easy for me-even if I have no real knowledge on the subject. However, give me a ten question Geometry quiz, it will not matter how many hours I study, I will probably do poorly on it. I am very much a writer, and math has always been a challenge for me. Despite being terrible at math, I really like statistics. I am fascinated by numerical trends, even when they do not mean anything. For example, back in 2006 when I first got an Xbox 360 I immediately signed up for a website that connects with the Xbox and keeps track of all kinds of statistics. So I know how many days in the past eight years I have played video games, what my most played game is, and just how many different video games I have played. The answer to those things is too many, by the way. Now in the grand scheme of things these particular statistics do not mean anything, but I still find them interesting. Perhaps the appeal of statistics to me is one of the reasons why the United Methodist church is such a good fit for me, because we LOVE statistics. In the next several weeks we will be filling out our charge conference forms which collect all kinds of statistics, and then in a few months we will have to turn even more statistics for what is referred to as “check day”. All of these statistics are compiled somewhere deep in the conference office and they are used for a whole variety of things. Some of these statistics are encouraging. For example we are the only conference where the rate of new professions of faith (new people joining the church) is outpacing our death rate. However, some are not so encouraging like the fact that 17% of UM churches in the state have not had a single baptism in five years.
The justification often given by the conference for why they collect so many statistics is that “we count people because people count.” People do count and keeping track of numbers for trends is important. I love statistics, but I sometimes wonder if in the church world we love statistics too much. If we are not careful numbers become more important than everything else. For instance, when I go to clergy gatherings and people ask what church I am at, the second question is always (ALWAYS!) “How many people do you have?” Even outside of the church, when I meet people and they learn that I am a pastor I am very often asked “how big is your church?” Again, numbers are important but they do not mean everything. In his book Forgotten God, Francis Chan makes a sobering observation, “Even our church growth can happen without [The Holy Spirit]. Let’s be honest: If you combined a charismatic speaker, a talent worship and, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming. It simply means that you have created a space that is appealing enough to draw people in for an hour or two on Sunday.” Every church wants to grow, and we should. However, growth for growth sake is not why we exist. Our mission is to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world.” If we do not actively make new disciples from time to time then we cannot succeed in that mission. Our mission is not to grow numerically, our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I strongly believe growth in churches needs to be redefined away from just being numbers. Instead of just growing wider, we need to grow deeper as well. Deep and wide should be the focus of church growth. Not only should we be concerned with making new disciples, but we should be deeply concerned about ensuring those who are already here are daily growing in their Christian maturity and love of God. We grow should be part of who we are, because growth is vital to fulfilling our mission. This morning’s scripture gives us some direction for how we can grow both deep and wide.
As we continue through our four week “We Are” series, we talked about last week how important it is for us to love others, and that we need to show our love by reaching out and by loving people where they are. However, we cannot stop there. To make and nurture disciples of Christ is a multi-step process. By going outside of our walls and loving the community around us, we introduce and living examples of God’s transforming love. Being introduced to God’s saving love does not make someone a disciple though. They must respond to that love and accept its truth for themselves, there must be an invitation. We need to reach out in love and then out of love invite in. To grow wider as a church we must invite people to join us and be part of the family of faith.
If we had to choose between reaching out or inviting in, most of us would prefer to reach out. The idea of serving someone is more appealing to us than the idea of inviting someone. When we reach out to people we are helping them, we like doing that, and there is still some distance between “them” and “us”. Inviting though, makes us vulnerable. When we invite someone, we are opening ourselves up to them. We are opening ourselves up to the possibility of rejection and we are opening ourselves up to accepting someone new into our previously closed “church circle.” Inviting others is something we are not good at, and the statistics back that up. A study was done to see how often United Methodists invite new people to church. This is not inviting people who they know attend other churches, but inviting brand new, non-churched people. When all of the answers were averaged out, the average United Methodist only invites someone to church once every thirty eight years! Obviously I have not done the research, but I pray that our average is a little bit better here. Inviting can be scary because a true invitation is specific, personal, and relational. It is something that we have to invest in, it is something that requires true relationship risk. It is also vital, because study after study have shown the most effective way to make new disciples is to invite them to church.
Of course the key is after we invite we have to be ready to love. We have to be open to accepting people into our midst without condition. We have to be willing no matter who comes through our doors to love them the very same way that Jesus does. There is a difference between being nice and hospitable and truly loving someone. Unfortunately, there are too many people who have had negative experiences at church where people have not understood that difference. Unfortunately I have had that experience. When Abigail and I were newly married and just graduated college we spend a couple of years down south in Corydon, IN. I worked very part time at a church there in youth ministry. We were the youngest couple in that church by about fifteen years. We wanted to find people and Christian fellowship our own age, so we traveled 20 miles to the closest mega church that had a ministry specifically for post college twenty-somethings. Even though we were not part of that church or even close to the area we tried to get involved in that ministry and took part in in for several months. Though we stopped going after a specific instance. After a few months we showed up and a young woman who was one of the group leaders came up and introduced herself to us as if we were new. Now we had met her several months ago, but there were over a hundred people coming and several new faces so I politely shrugged it off. However, the very next week the same young woman came and introduced herself again, as if she had never met me. Of course, that is because she had not. Not really. She was already staring past me looking for the next people to be welcoming towards, without really being loving.
That is what this morning’s scripture was all about. This morning’s scripture is nestled in among a whole slew of random Old Testament laws. Seriously, sometime look over the entirety of Chapter 19, the laws here are all over the map in sense of subject. Towards the end though, there is this beautiful law about loving the foreigner. In the ancient times of Leviticus, a person’s people group was everything. Who they were, their sense of self-worth, pride, and value all had its basis on this tribal connection. Everyone who was not part of one’s national group was an outsider. Often the outsiders were second class citizens, and usually this lower status was codified by law. Yet here in Leviticus, God gives his people a command that is radically different. “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as a native born. Love them as yourself.” God commanded the ancient Israelites to love the outsiders among them, to invite them in, and treat them with love. That command still stands today, as Jesus reinstituted by saying the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbors as yourself. Perhaps if we were going to take Leviticus 19:34 and rephrase it today, we should steal a line from Olive Garden: “When you’re here you’re family.”
We must be willing to invite people in, and once we do we must be willing to go out of our way not just to be nice, but to be loving. There is no doubt that this is an uncomfortable and sometimes scary prospect. When we are open to inviting and we are open to loving others we make ourselves very vulnerable, and this goes against our natural defensive stance. This is why in order to grow wider we must also be growing deeper. Leviticus 19:2 states “speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: Be Holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Jesus put it this way in Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect therefor as your heavenly father is perfect.” Part of nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ is constantly becoming more like him. Remember, a disciple is someone who follows their rabbi, who strives to be like their rabbi in everything they do. There is an incredible spiritual exercise we can do that is incredible because it is both powerful and humbling. At least once a year we should seriously ask ourselves, “In my thoughts, my actions, and my faith am I more like Jesus than I was a year ago?” Are you? It is a question that we need to seriously ask ourselves, and if we cannot answer “yes”, then it reveals that we have some work to do as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”
In Ephesians Paul prays this prayer for the believers of Ephesus “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love may have power . . .to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this the love that surpasses knowledge.” May that be the prayer that we pray for each other regularly. That prayer is found in Ephesians chapter 3:14-21, let’s lift one up in that prayer by name often. Let’s pray that each and every believer in this church family will grow deeper in their faith and understanding of God’s love. Because as we grow deeper in understanding the love of Christ, we will grow wider in sharing it. Imagine trying to quantify the immense love of God. Remember how you have personally and deeply felt and experienced that love in your own life. As we grow deeper in the reality of that love, how can we not share it? The love of God is so great, so grand, and so wonderful, we cannot keep it to ourselves. May we grow to a depth of faith where God’s love is literally bursting out of us, where we cannot help but invite people constantly because we know that inviting people, is inviting them to share in God’s love.
We count people because people count. But may numbers not be our goal. Our goal is the love of Christ that cannot be measured or numbered. Our mission is sharing that love with others and inviting them experience that love for themselves. May we be a church that loves everyone who comes into our building. Everyone. It does not matter if they come for Sunday morning worship, for weight loss support on Monday for Lighten Up, to play Volleyball, or come to a youth 5th Quarter; may everyone who enters our building experience the amazing love of Christ. May that same love motivate us to be zealous about inviting others. May we overcome our fears and discomforts as we reach out so that we can invite others in. We love, and because we love-we grow. May that be who we are, now and forevermore.