Growing in Faith and Love
A sermon on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 November 2007
Growth in faith and love come as we work through tough times together for God.
In the discussions at our congregational business meeting last Sunday, several people expressed concerns about where we are at present as a congregation. Some of the concerns were around us not connecting and relating sufficiently with one another. For a long time we’ve been aware of that we have a problem in this area, and that the fact that don’t live near each other but come here from all corners of the metropolitan area is a cause, but I thought that last week there were some important new observations about other dimensions and causes. There were also newer concerns raised about our worship and spiritual formation. Has our worship stagnated somewhat? Have we begun to take it for granted, and neither put as much into it nor get as much out of it as we used to? Are we caught in a bit of a going-through-the-motions stage, and are we no longer as sure what the point is as we once were? And have many of us stagnated a bit as individuals too? Are we not growing in faith and wholeness as we should be or could be or perhaps once were? And importantly, are all these concerns and questions actually symptoms of something bigger? Are they suggesting that there is a more general problem that we need to address? These are good questions, and while I share many of the concerns and have been involved in similar conversations among the Pastoral Council, I was quite encouraged by the way they were being asked and that the alarms are being sounded from within the congregation and not just by the designated leaders.
My thinking about these questions has connected with a couple of other things this week. One of them was one of our scripture readings tonight. We heard from the opening of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. Paul commends the Thessalonian congregation and suggests that they are something of a model congregation; a church he can boast about when talking to other churches; a church for other congregations to model themselves on. In particular he says of them, “your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” Growing in faith. Growing in love for one another. A model to aspire to for sure. So that had me wondering whether there is anything we can learn from the Thessalonian congregation that might offer some helpful wisdom in the face of the questions we are asking of ourselves.
The other thing that caught my attention this week and connected to these questions also had to do with the idea of a model church, a church that others would seek to copy in their quest for success. The Willow Creek Community Church in the outer suburbs of Chicago USA is one of the most influential model churches in the world, and there was some extraordinary news from there this week. Like many Christians when visiting Chicago, I made a visit to the Willow Creek church a couple of years ago. Willow Creek has been at the forefront of the movement to make church “seeker friendly” by carefully researching their target market and tailoring the worship services, sermons, and programs of the church to best suit the felt needs of the people and marketing it to them with all the slick skills and strategies of the mainstream advertising industry. The auditorium style seating is plush, there are several cafes and a small food court within the church, the music is dynamic, contemporary, and very professional, the drama presentations are TV studio quality, and the preaching focusses around relevant lifestyle needs like making your marriage work or finding fulfilment at work or drug-proofing your kids. Contemporary evangelical churches the world over have hung on every bit of guidance that came from the leaders of Willow Creek in their quest for growth and relevance and success. Even here in Australia, only the Hillsong Church could rival it in terms of its influence on our churches.
But this week, there has been a startling admission from the leaders at Willow Creek. They have released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry and have conceded that the report reveals that most of what they have been doing for the past couple of decades is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. It has been drawing ever-increasing crowds, for sure, but it has not been producing solid growth in faith, love and discipleship. Perhaps the consumerising of the gospel has undermined its own goals. Bill Hybels and his team are to be commended for being so honest about this, and not seeking to cover it up and plough on with expanding their auditoriums and their bank balances. What they will do with it over the coming years will be a fascinating story and will doubtless have repercussions for churches around the world.
Now we are not a church that has modelled itself on Willow Creek, and it would be a lot easier to list the differences between us than to spot the similarities, but it seems that we are asking some similar questions. Given our different starting positions, though, we could expect to be needing rather different answers. Interestingly for us, some of the voices of concern last Sunday were saying that they thought that the decision we took to commit ourselves to changing over to a new style of a capella singing for our liturgy might be a significant step in addressing some of these concerns. I think we can fairly confidently predict that Willow Creek won’t be making the same change! But I think there is some real truth in this hunch.
Looking back at our passage from the Thessalonian letter again, we can see that the Apostle Paul links his commendation of their faith and love with their steadfastness in a time of persecution and affliction. While it is not spelt out definitively, Paul seems to imply a connection between their endurance under pressure, and their exemplary growth in faith and in love for one another. The prayer he offers for them is not so much for more growth, but for more resilience, for God to make them worthy of his call. Their growth in faith and love seems to be seen as a consequence rather than as a first cause. Now Willow Creek would have also seen it as a consequence, but they had thought it would be a consequence of making the gospel and discipleship as comfortable and accessible and non-threatening as possible, and now they think they were wrong. The Apostle Paul seems to see it as a consequence of tough times, of shared suffering, or endurance under fire.
Now the marketing gurus may have got it wrong, but the social scientists are on the side of the Apostle. Anthropologists and psychologists say that the most profound and intimate and committed relationship are born in shared struggle. People are drawn together most powerfully when they are communally vulnerable and intensely dependent on one another to survive. We see this in small towns that have been hit by bush fires or cyclones or the like, and we see it even more dramatically in groups of people who survived P.O.W. camps or concentration camps together. The social scientists sometimes use the word “communitas” to describe the heightened experience of community that is forged in such circumstances, because they say that just using the word “community” fails to communicate how much more intense and powerful this is from the range of rather bland things we sometimes call community.
Now the connection of this idea to what Paul is saying about the Thessalonian church is obvious enough, because they were going through a time of persecution. The struggles they were sharing produce this heightened sense of communitas which in turn is a spur to growth in faith and in love for one another. But what are we to do with it? Surely the idea is not to provoke persecution?! Well no, although as I said in my sermon on Thursday night, actually seeking to live out the beatitudes together may well arouse more hostility than we are used to. But trauma imposed by outside forces is not the only thing that can facilitate such communitas. The social scientists also say that the same phenomena can be observed in groups who take on risky projects together where they are all dependent on one another working together to carry it off.
I offered a disparaging reflection a couple of weeks back on the aggressively evangelistic Christian group  I was involved with at University in my late teens. Now, although I wouldn’t advocate resurrecting their approach to evangelism, I can certainly attest that the experience of being all together in such bizarre public behaviour led to a very strong sense of being bound to one another and dependant on one another. We might not have grown much in sensitivity to outsiders, but we certainly grew a great deal in our love one for another. But I’m not proposing shared public stupidity for us either!
Another place where the social scientists say this experience of communitas can often be observed is in theatre companies and choirs. The experience of getting closer and closer to the opening night and knowing that no individual can make this come off, but only all of us, each offering our best and working together can enable us to pull it off and avoid disaster and public humiliation has a similar effect to surviving persecution together. Any of you who have bee involved in some sort of amateur theatre or music with a public performance will recognise this. I remember being in a couple of youth group stage musicals and then later playing in a band for a few years.
Perhaps now you can see the connection with the idea of us embarking on a new and rather riskier approach to our worship music. The safe way would be to simply put some money into hiring additional piano players to fill the gaps. To remove the opportunity for us to hide our voices behind the piano and make the sound of our offering to God more dependant on us all learning to use and blend our voices is a lot more intimidating, but perhaps exactly the sort of communal challenge we presently need. Now some of you may, naturally be rebelling at the comparison and saying that we should not be thinking of our worship as a performance. Some of you may even, with some justification, ask whether one of the mistakes the Willow Creek types have made is to allow worship to become performance for an audience. I’m going to both agree with you and disagree with you. When worship becomes a performance by those up the front offered to those in the congregation as the audience, then there is certainly a problem. But if we see ourselves in the congregation as the performers, offering our very best in a performance that is a gift or an offering to God, who is our audience, then I think it is a very good image of what worship is all about.
As we go down this risky path, we will be far more dependant on one another for what happens when we worship. We will be relying on each other to put in in practices and to be present on time and ready for the first note in our weekly offering to God. This will, I think be as bigger risk as the one we took when we decided to change to this style of worship for our main service. It may even, like that one, cost us some disgruntled people along the way. But we will only become the kind of church that the Apostle could boast about if we are willing to take the plunge and risk everything on being the best we can be together.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that this decision is going to solve everything, even if it works spectacularly well. I think there will be a number of other areas in which we will have to face questions about how we connect with one another and what we work together on. In particular I suspect that the fact that we haven’t made big progress in finding answers to how we work together in God’s mission in the wider world is also a factor behind our concerns. But I do think that this singing one will be a positive step and a step that might enable us to see ways forward in some other areas as we discover the power of risking all together in the quest to give our best to the God who calls us to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ and to offer ourselves to be glorified in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen? Amen!