|Special Sermon: Heritage Sunday at Woodmont Hills
Life In a "Safe Church"
March 22, 1998 / Acts 4:32-35
Today has been something of a "free-standing Sunday" at Woodmont Hills. If you are a regular attendee here, you know that I prefer to teach lessons in series. My sermons typically work through books of the Bible (e.g., the recently completed series from Romans) or develop a biblical theme (e.g., the current "Names of Jesus" series). But today is a deliberate departure in which we simply celebrate what God has done among us as a church.
This is both a biblical and healthy thing to do. If Godís presence and activity cannot be discerned clearly in the life of a church, something is terribly wrong in that church. And if his closeness and work are visible, it would be terribly wrong not to celebrate his goodness.
The festivals of Judaism were celebrations of Godís activity in the history of a nation. The New Testament ó particularly The Acts of the Apostles ó is a record of his faithfulness to the earliest followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to periodically rehearse for ourselves, our children, and new members of this body what God has done in this congregation of his people. Call it "Homecoming Sunday," "Heritage Sunday," or some other appropriate name, but it needs to happen with some degree of regularity. All of us owe a great debt to those who have come before us, made some things possible for us, and left us a godly heritage.
Yet there is a lurking danger in celebrations of this sort. That danger is either that outsiders could see it as boasting or insiders might use it for coasting. I wouldnít want anyone here today to misread the prayers and testimonies that have come before my remarks or anything I am about to say as either of those.
Boasting? Anything good that has happened in this church has happened because God has been wiser than our folly and stronger than our weakness. He has done and continues to do good things here ó as most of you have heard me say over and over ó "in spite of us rather than because of us." We are sinners saved by grace and are pursuing God with our whole hearts. We donít know as much as we ought. We donít do things as well as weíd like. And we certainly donít mean for today to be understood by anyone as strutting and preening on our part. We are celebrating Godís gracious work in our midst, not ourselves.
Coasting? Days like today remind us how far we have yet to go. They do not excuse us for settling in, resting on the laurels of past events, or taking our vision off a challenging future. The greatest things in the life of this church lie in the future, if we truly believe God has been with us in our past.
In my few minutes today, I simply want to testify to what I believe God has been doing at Woodmont Hills in the 19Ĺ years I have been associated with you. In a word, I believe he has been working to create a "safe place" where sinners can feel his grace, learn about his grace, heal by his grace, and grow into his grace.
In the initial descriptions of the infant church in Jerusalem, Luke describes a fellowship of people delighting in the Lord and his word, the fellowship of one another, and the daily renewal that came by the Holy Spirit in their midst. That church was constantly "praising God" and "enjoying the favor of all the people." It was engaged in good works that blessed the poor. And it continually proclaimed the resurrection power of Jesus Christ to those who did not know him (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35).
Last week a friend of mine e-mailed me about a book he thought I would like. The book is Safe People. It is an excellent book about healthy relationships and how to create and nurture them. It wasnít the book in its entirety, though, but a brief description of "safe churches" in it that Steve thought I would appreciate. I went to the bookstore, purchased a copy of the book, and thought how superbly descriptive it is of my personal experience of the Family of God at Woodmont Hills.
So my sermon for today will be the sharing of someone elseís description of a safe church. I did not teach these qualities to this church. I have experienced them for my own life and family and have consciously sought to model, promote, and share them with others who have come to this body.
One place where one can find safe people is in churches that have a safe character as a group. Many churches have good orthodox doctrine, but they are not bodies where relationship is really preached and community is formed. Safe churches, however, have the following qualities:
Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are to be treated.
Truth is preached without compromise, but also without a spirit of law and judgment.
The church leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and humanity. Instead of "having it all together" and being insulated from confrontation and change, they are in a process of healing and opening up to their own safe people for support and accountability.
The church uses small groups to touch peopleís lives, and sermons focus on community in the body of Christ as well as doctrine.
The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous religious Pharisees.
The church, instead of being a self-contained unit and thinking it has all the answers, is networked into the community, availing itself of input from other sources such as churches, professionals, and organizations.
The teaching has a relational emphasis as well as a vertical one. Relationship between people is seen as part of spirituality as well as relationship to God.
The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process.
There are opportunities to serve others through a variety of ministries.1
Let me just stop at reading those points for you. I am convinced they are the appropriate features for a church that can function as the spiritual body of Christ, a "second incarnation" of Godís presence among his people.
I have found this to be a safe church. Others of you can bear witness to the same. We have, undoubtedly, failed to be that place for others ó who have had to look elsewhere to experience grace, healing, and relationship. I agonize for for apologize to those whom we have failed. Yet I know God has other safe places to offer hurting souls, and he will not abandon those who are seeking them but will lead them there in his own good time and in his own perfect ways.
If God has given you a safe place among safe people here, give him the praise and glory. If you are looking for a safe place, please examine this church closely for what God may be able to give you here.
The challenge for all of us who call this church our spiritual family is to be a body of believers whom God can use to supply for others what we bear witness to having found here ourselves. What a challenge. What an opportunity.
1 Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 164-165.
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