Isaiah 40:31 – “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
How many of you use GOOGLE as your preferred search engine? I think the majority of people do. I read there are 2 trillion google searches per year—about 2.3 million per second. 74% of Americans use Google and I am one of them. In fact, will go on record as saying the best online “concordance” is Google. I say that because with programs like Bible Gateway if you want to find where a verse is in the Bible—you have to first remember which translation or paraphrase of that verse you are thinking of. Otherwise you might not ever find the verse. But—not so with Google. Just type in the words you remember and nine times out of ten the verse will pop right up.
I bring this up because recently I came across a story that referenced an article that introduced Google for the first time. It was written way back in 1999. The article described Google as an upstart company founded by a couple college kids that had a unique approach to Internet search.
It mentioned algorithms and things I don’t understand but it noted that the Google home page was pretty much a blank page. There was no portal, no departments, no categories, no advertisements — just a search box. This old article said that the Google engine was a good search engine, but that in the writer’s opinion there was no way to use Google in a profitable way. His conclusion was that Google was a novelty—it provided a good search function, but it didn’t have much marketing potential.
Of course, we know what has happened in the last 17 years. Google is now just a couple of acquisitions away from complete world domination. In fact, the word itself has become part of our everyday vocabulary. We don’t just search for things on the Internet—we GOOGLE them!
I bring this up because looking back at GOOGLE’s founding—well it’s amazing to see the VISION those college kids had. It gave them the boldness to break convention and attempt the unimaginable. You see, at the time Google began, conventional wisdom was that you need to offer something more than search. You needed to have a portal with lots of columns and content on the home page, like Yahoo and Excite, and Alta Vista and all the others. And conventional wisdom was that you had to have ads, lots of flashy, animated, loud and annoying ads—because if the ads aren’t obnoxious, people wouldn’t click on them. Even today, many commercial websites still believe this.
Google, on the other hand, said, “We’ll offer nothing but search, and on the results page we’ll put a few quiet little text ads, so they don’t bother anyone who isn’t interested.” From that simple concept came a multi-billion-dollar empire. And even though Google now offers Gmail and Google maps, and Google plus, and Google play, and Youtube and Picasso and Blogspot and a ton of other services, as you can see—their home page remains very simple: just a logo, a search box and a couple of vital links.
If you read about Google on their corporate website, you’ll find a page where they talk about their goals and their objectives and their mission. They offer a list of ten things that they have found to be true—principles that guide their approach to doing business. Here’s a few examples:
a. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
Most sites that want to generate revenue don’t focus on satisfying the USER, they focus on satisfying the ADVERTISER. Not google.
b. Fast is better than slow.
Nobody wants to wait for a page to load. Google understands this perhaps better than anyone else. There are other business principles listed but this next is my favorite:
c. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
In my opinion this is why their focus — in spite of all the additional services they’ve acquired—their sole FOCUS is still to offer the best possible SEARCH RESULTS. Okay—why am I spending all this time talking about GOOGLE? Can anyone guess? Google it if you want—but I’ll save you a few seconds. I mention Google because their success illustrates the power of visionary FOCUS—the power of doing ONE THING really, really well.
I’m reminded of the old movie City Slickers. Remember it? Billy Crystal plays a confused, dissatisfied thirty-something character who feels that he’s missing out on real life. Jack Palance plays a cowboy—ancient, leathery, wise to the ways of the world. Someone referred to his character as “a saddlebag with eyes.” Well, seeing Crystal’s angst, Palance asks him if he would like to know the secret of life. Then he holds up one finger and says, “It’s this,” Crystal replies, “The secret of life is your finger?” “No—it’s one thing,” Palance says. “The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”
Well, the same is true when it comes to a church’s health and effectiveness in the Kingdom. The secret is pursuing ONE THING. This is what Paul was getting at when he told the members of the church in Philippi: “This ONE THING I do: Forgetting what is behindand straining toward what is ahead, I press on.” (Phil. 3:13-14) Of course, Paul new that ONE THING is becoming like Jesus—it’s PERSONAL SPIRITUAL GROWTH. Everything else in a church rests on that. I mean, without mature and maturing members:
- A church’s finances won’t be healthy.
- Baptism rates will decline.
- The number of Christians joining a church will go down.
Let me put it this way. CHURCH growth won’t happen without that one thing—the SPIRITUAL growth of its individual members.
You see, the more we become like Jesus—the more motivated we will be to give of our money—and the more passionate we will be about sharing our faith—The more we become like Jesus—the better our fellowship will be—and the more involved we will be come in ministry—helping others with tangible need—like Jesus did. The more we become like Jesus—the more attractive our church will be to Christians looking for a place to serve. The key to church growth is ONE THING—the personal spiritual growth of its members. So–this year our vision in one word is “SOAR.” It’s time for us to grow. We are going to focus on doing that one thing really, really well.
By the way I think, it’s cool that two of our main programs already have compatible emphases in 2017. Upward’s theme is RISE UP and RBC CAMP is themed to SPACE travel—which is of course involves SOARING. On top of that—this past Wednesday the Taylors gave me this wall-hanging! So—God is already affirming this one-word vision!
I’m excited about this vision because the sad fact is when it comes to “soaring” Redland’s “elevation” has not changed much as of late. In fact, if we were to put our growth numbers on a line-graph it would look more like we are coasting with very little gain in altitude. This past week Charlie Brinkman did some algorithm research of his own which showed this. He reports that we have averaged 30 baptisms plus 36 new members each year over
our 50 year history—but in the last three or four years we have averaged just 17 baptisms plus 21 new members per year. In other words—our average growth rate has been cut in half. Sunday School attendance is down. Even without algorithms I can see that we used to average about 300—now it’s only about 250. Now—total worship attendance hasn’t changed that much—but studies show that most tithers, witnessers, and workers are also Sunday School attenders.
Of course—part of this slow growth is due to the fact that we live in a VERY transitional area. I mean, since the day I got here back in 1990, our growth has always been up and down. We gain “altitude”—we add members every year but we also constantly lose them to job transfer and retirement. It seems like for every two steps we make forward—we lose a step. In 2011 we were particularly hard hit because we lost 25 families in that way. These were all committed, involved families—and we are just now recovering from that “nose-dive.”
And don’t misunderstand me—this “come and go” is reflective of our unique task as a church in this transitional area. A long time ago we realized that in many ways we are called to be a “way-station church—”a church where the believers who come in and out of our area can quickly find a church home—a place of fellowship and service. We are good at being a way station—because we have a lot of experience doing that. But to be fully effective as a church we have to do more than that. If we are going to soar—if we’re going to do a better job of reaching the indigenous people of our community—reaching the UNCHURCHED people for Jesus—then we each have to make a renewed commitment to grow in the likeness of Jesus.
And to be VERY clear—-church growth—soaring—is not about NUMBERS. It’s about NATURES. It’s more about a change in each of us than it is about a change in attendance totals.
In our Chronological Bible Reading this year—we just finished the gospels and as we read through them it hit me once again that Jesus wasn’t concerned about numbers. His disciples were constantly giving the results of their counting of the multitudes—5,000 fed here—4,000 here—3000 additions on Pentecost, etc. But Jesus was more interested in teaching THEM—growing THEM—helping THEM mature—than He was in COUNTING. Our Lord knows that kingdom growth is not like other growth. You can’t always put it on a line graft. No—His kingdom is a kingdom of the heart—so the key to growing it is changing the natures of individuals such that they become more like Him. As I said last week—Jesus saw more kingdom growth in the widow who put two small copper coins in the offering than he did in all the stacks of gold put in by the wealthy. If you were at one of our town meetings this week you know that I am recommending a restructuring of our current staff—as a way to cover the jobs that Bobby Cook did. We need to do this before we make plans to proceed in permanent Rec ministry leadership. Remember we don’t hire staff to do ministry. We hire them to equip US to do ministry. Before we could support a full-time rec person—which I desperately want to do—–we need to add 50-75 more members—in order to give him or her people to do rec ministry with.
I also want to say that this staff RESTRUCTURING will help us with this focus on church growth—it will help us focus on doing this one thing really, really well. Kevin—a WONDERFUL example of a maturing Christ follower will lead our discipleship efforts. I can’t think of anyone better to help with that. Peggy will help us do a better job of tapping into the health of young singles and college students—a growth area we really need. She’ll also help us all do a better job of outreach. And I have to say Peggy is an “outreach magnet.” She has this spiritual gift—which is why Trunk or Treat attendance was way up this year—and why our STORY TIME nearly tripled in attendance its second week—with tons of unchurched moms coming. Finding someone to lead our growing senior adult population—helping them to pursue spiritual growth will help. Hiring an IT person will help us reach out in the new “social media mission field.” So, this new structure is more than a stop gap—it is a way of helping this church grow—SOAR.
But as I said, the key to all that is individual growth. Let me put it this way—you can’t get a church flock airborne—unless each member rises from the ground and begins to soar. With that in mind I want to point out four things about SOARING—MATURING—such that we become more and more like Jesus. I’ve taken these principles from Ortberg’s book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted.
(1) First spiritual growth is not OPTIONAL. It is NORMATIVE.
Some Christians believe that spiritual growth is something they can take or leave—like extra frills on a new car they are purchasing. But the truth is everybody is in the process of growing spiritually whether they want to be or not. In Romans 12:1-2 Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In this verse Paul is saying that you are going to grow—that’s not in question. No—the question is HOW are you going to grow? You are either going to grow—change—such that you are CONFORMED to the forces of this fallen world—or you are going to be TRANSFORMED by God’s renewing power. So—the question is not IF you’re going to be influenced and formed spiritually; the question is BY WHOM will you be influenced and transformed? Now, to be sure—God wants us to become sanctified. He wants us to grow to be like Jesus. In 1st Thessalonians 4:3 it says, “It is God’s will that you should become sanctified.” So—God wants us to grow spiritually. He wants each of us to SOAR—but He will not force His influence upon us. No—it is our choice.
And if you don’t make this choice—if you don’t seek to be formed by God, then you have a spiritual adversary—the Evil One-who will be more than happy to do the task. Listen. We live in a fallen and falling world—a toxic spiritual environment that deforms people and pulls them away from God. It’s like a white blouse being washed with a load full of brand-new red T-shirts. Unless something is done, that white blouse is going to be changed! And it is the same with us — for we are so impressionable. If we don’t choose to be influenced by God. If we don’t “set our minds on things that are above,”—if we don’t set our minds on soaring—then the world will pull us down. IT will influence us.
Retired pastor and author Bob Russell shares this story that illustrates what I’m talking about. He writes: “Two months ago my wife and I were visiting our son Rusty and his family. One day Rusty was test-driving a foreign-made car and was frustrated because he couldn’t figure out how to change the speedometer reading from kilometers to miles. That evening he suggested we take the kids and all go out for ice cream. ‘We’ll need to take two cars, so you and mom just follow me.’ I followed him—and was surprised when a policeman whizzed up behind us with his lights flashing. I couldn’t imagine he was after me because it didn’t feel like I was speeding.
And besides, I was going the exact same speed as the guy in front of me. The officer came up to my window and said, ‘Sir, you were going 58 miles per hour in a 45-miles-per-hour zone. But wait right here, I’m going to deal with the car in front of you, and I’ll be right back.’ When he went to my son’s car, Rusty quivered, ‘Officer, I know this is going to sound like a line, but this is the first day. I’ve driven this car, and I can’t figure out how to change it from kilometers to miles, so I had no idea how fast I was going. The guy behind me is my dad, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing either!’”
We are all like Bob Russell—I mean, it’s so easy to be pulled into the world’s way of doing things. Instead of following Jesus—running the race with Him—we go with the flow of our fallen peers. So my point is you have to DECIDE to grow in Christ-likeness. If you don’t you’ll still grow—but instead of growing to be like Jesus—you will follow along with the rest of the world—growing to be like the adversary. Listen we are fallen and we live in a fallen society so unless we choose to be influenced by God, we will become ungodly. Spiritual growth—SOARING to be like Jesus doesn’t just happen! It’s a choice.
To help with this—next year we will be doing The Purpose Driven Life Campaign—40 Days of Purpose. I would change the title to 40 Days of Growing to be Like Jesus ON PURPOSE. We went through this campaign as a church in 2003 and it was one of the greatest times of growth we have experienced as a body. Warren has recently released a new edition of his book and so we’ll be studying it together. I will also be doing a series of sermons on personal evangelism—because leading people to Jesus doesn’t just happen either. We have to GROW—our skills in that area. We have to decide to witness.
So, spiritual growth—SOARING is not optional. It is normative. That’s principle number one.
Another thing we need to know about spiritual growth is that—
(2) It is s PROCESS—not an EVENT.
In Philippians 3:12 Paul wrote, “I have not already obtained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” In other words, the Apostle Paul himself said, “I haven’t arrived yet. I’m still on the road.” Spiritual growth takes time—so we’re not going to finish this one next year—or any year for that matter—no—in 2017 we’re just “setting our trajectory” in an upward direction. And this TIME deal may be the hardest thing for us to grasp when it comes to this subject. I say this because we live in such an instant gratification society. We impatiently want everything right away—which is another reason GOOGLE is so successful—it’s FAST! We have 10-items or less check out aisles at our grocery stores and nearly blow a gasket if we end up in one of these lines behind someone who obviously can’t count. We want elevators to respond to our needs instantly. I have learned that the slowest elevators in our county are in nursing homes—and the slowest elevators in a nursing home are in Wilson Rehab on the Asbury campus. Of course, I know why—PT’s and nurses are constantly moving wheel-chair bound patients up and down floors from their rooms to therapy or meals or whatever—but I still get impatient waiting. I still find myself repeatedly pushing the down key as if the elevator will realize I’m up there and will rush to get me. Not going to happen.
Well, we tend to be just as impatient when it comes to spiritual growth. But that’s foolish because sanctification just does not happen that way. Spiritual growth is life-time task that we never finish. It’s a non-stop flight—like the new plane FACEBOOK put up that flies pretty much non-stop providing INTERNET in hard-to-reach places. Another thing—in your life-long pursuit of godliness, you will often fail. There will be times when you lose altitude or even crash land. When this happens the Apostle Paul has a strategy. Remember the verse I read earlier? Paul says, “this one thing I do—FORGETTING what is behind I press on.”
You know we tend to think that forgetting is a bad thing—something we shouldn’t do—a symptom of aging that we need to fight against—but forgetting is indispensable to spiritual growth and maturity. We have to let go of the past if we are going to soar. Do you remember the story I told you once about an elderly couple sitting on a park bench? The husband looked at his wife and said, “I’m going over to that ice cream store. Do you want anything?” And she said, “Yes, I want a sundae. Strawberry ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts, and no cherries. In fact, you better write it down. You’re liable to forget.” But he said, “No I won’t. I have a mind like a steel trap.” She said, “No—I know what your memory is like. You will forget. Write it down.” He insisted, “No I will not forget.” Well, he leaves and is gone for an hour. When he comes back he hands his wife a brown paper bag. She opens it up and pulls out a ham sandwich. She looks at her husband and says, “You forgot the mustard.”
Now this is a silly story but we DO tend to think of forgetting as something that gets us into trouble or something we shouldn’t do—but the truth is you can’t make any progress on the road to spiritual maturity unless you follow Paul’s advice and “forget what lies behind.” Now we DO need to confess our sinful mistakes and learn from them but then we need to move on. We can’t be shackled by the past. We will slip and mess up as individuals—and as a church. That is guaranteed. But we must avoid the danger of becoming discouraged and quitting when this happens for spiritual transformation is a process—not an event. It is more of a marathon than a 100-yard dash.
This is where we part with the people at GOOGLE who are so into speed because God is not like that. He’s more interested in distance—progress. I imagine this principle is what inspired Oswald Chambers to say, “Discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.” You see, the biblical picture of spiritual growth is one of forward motion: a pilgrimage, a journey—not an arrival. In actuality we never “arrive” on this side of eternity—for the Christian life is not just a one-time commitment. It is an ongoing walk. In Colossians 2:6-7, Paul writes, “As you received Jesus Christ as Lord…so WALK in Him rooted and built up in Him.” We must be determined to move—fly—forward—to not let anything slow our forward motion as we strain to be more and more like Jesus day by day.
The underlying point I want you to get here is that a church never FINISHES its work. We never ARRIVE. Vision sermons—themes—will change over the years. Some years we’ll see growth—others we won’t—but we keep pushing forward—we keep striving on. We don’t slip into grumbling or complaining—with that attitude you will never soar. No we just forget the past and fly on.
So—Spiritual growth is not optional; it is normative; spiritual growth not an event—it is a process—and then thirdly, spiritual growth—SOARING…
(3) …is a TEAM effort between US and GOD.
You know counselors tell us these days that one of the primary causes of conflict in homes has to do with disputes over whose job it is to do what—the “division of labor” so to speak. Family members argue over who is supposed to take out the garbage and who’s supposed to wash the dishes, who’s turn it is to change the diapers, etc. I would ask for a show of hands if you’ve had conflict over this—but I think it’s better that I don’t! Well, for many Christians there is confusion about the “division of labor” when it comes to spiritual growth. They ask, “Is it God’s job to mature me or is it mine?”
Some Christians think that our becoming Godly is totally God’s job. They say, “If I do anything at all—if I make any effort to be holy, then I am living by works and not by grace. So sanctification is SOLEY God’s job!” They support their position by quoting verses like I
Thessalonians 5:23-24 which says, “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you entirely—the One Who calls you is faithful and He will do this.” Citing verses like this they say that human effort at Godliness is futile. It’s doomed from the start. They feel that spiritual growth is simply not their responsibility and that to teach that it is — is to be opposed to the doctrine of grace.
Then, on the other hand some Christians believe just the opposite and say that spiritual growth or sanctification is all our job. They may cite verses like Leviticus 11:44 which says, “I am the Lord your God. Sanctify yourselves, therefore. Be holy for I am holy.” In effect, they believe God’s job is to make sure He is holy; our job is to make sure we are holy. But the fact is—neither of these viewpoints is really wrong. They are both right for spiritual maturity is a joint effort between God AND us. In Philippians 2 Paul wrote, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But then he continued and said, “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to both will and to work for His good pleasure.” So, Paul pulls this all together and says that both God and believers have a part in their spiritual maturity.
To understand this further, look again at Romans 12:2 where it says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” In this verse Paul uses a certain grammatical form which is a combination of the imperative and the passive. Now, an imperative is of course a command like when you tell someone to do something like, “Stop!” or “Go!” But a passive is when something happens to you like when you get hit BY a truck. Well, in this text Paul uses a combination of these two grammatical forms known as a “passive imperative.” He says, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” So, Paul doesn’t say spiritually transform yourself. Nor does he say sit around and do nothing. He says actively pursue the transforming power of God. Do all you can to make yourself changeable by God.
You see, we DO have a role to play in spiritual growth but we don’t control it. Our spiritual maturity is a “both/and” thing—a joint effort between us and God. You know, in life there are some things we can control. But some things we can do nothing about like the weather. Only God and do that and apparently only God can help the Redskins. So—in life there are some things we can control and things we can’t but there is also a third category. For example, think about going to sleep. You can’t make yourself go to sleep the way you can make a phone call or drive a car. But you can get in a dark room, lay down on a soft mattress, turn out the lights, turn on a fan or some other form of white noise, play one of my sermon CDs, and eventually sleep will come. You can’t control it but you can make yourself more open to it. You can make yourself better able to go to sleep. Think of the differences between a motor boat and a sail boat.
In a motor boat I’m in control. I start the engine, control the speed, and go wherever I want. But Craig Floyd or Aris Harrison would tell you that sailing is different. You don’t control the speed.
Now when we’re sailing, we’re not totally passive, we have a role to play—we hoist the sails and steer with the rudder—but we are still utterly dependent on the wind. There is no room for believing we’re in control, because if the wind doesn’t blow, we’re dead in the water. When the wind blows, on the other hand, amazing things happen. The third chapter of John’s gospel records a time that Jesus was talking about life in the spirit. He said, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Jesus is reminding us that the wind is free and powerful — way beyond our control. And He compares the sanctifying, maturing work of the Holy Spirit to the wind. It is powerful and mysterious. We can’t control or manufacture it. We can’t come up with a program with predictable results we control. Spiritual growth is empowered by God. He is the One Who supplies the “wind.” But on the other hand, we’re not passive. There are several things we can do that enable us to catch the maturing, transforming wind of God’s Spirit. Things like developing a growing prayer life—or devoting ourselves to the study of God’s written word in a small group setting like Sunday School—or becoming active in a local church. We can “spread our sails” in these ways and be empowered by God to grow and mature as His followers.
If we don’t do this—if we don’t make ourselves open and available to God, then we are dead in the water spiritually. We don’t progress in our journey—our flight toward godliness. With this in mind, the first thing I am going to do sermonicaly next year is preach a series of messages on prayer. And coupled with that we will set up an old-fashioned thing called “cottage prayer meetings.” If you’re willing to host one, please let me know. But the idea is to begin our new year by saying, “God I want to grow. I want our church to grow. And I’m putting myself in a position of prayer—so that I can learn to hear Your voice.”
So, Spiritual growth is not optional. It is normative. It is a process, not an event. It is a team effort between us and God and then one more thing:
(4) Spiritual growth—SOARING is not SELF-CENTERED.
You know there is a danger in pursuing spiritual growth—because many times in our desire to become more and more like God we get off track and get individualistic and even narcissistic.
The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day are a great example of this, for they thought of themselves as very holy—very godly—but they were so absorbed with themselves that they lost their desire to love anyone else. You see, if we’re not careful, the pursuit of spiritual growth can get distorted. We can get preoccupied with how we are performing spiritually and how spiritually fulfilled we feel, and we forget to live a life of servant hood and love. We warp spiritual growth until it becomes all about ME. Then instead of becoming freed to serve others we become spiritually proud and self-absorbed. But, the real goal of spiritual growth—in one word is LOVE—we must love of others more than self.
Shane Claiborne, spent a summer in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa, and he wrote the following about one of his experiences there, “People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery—like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet. You see, her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But of course, I wasn’t going to ask, ‘Hey Mother, what’s wrong with your feet?’ One day a sister said to us, ‘Have you noticed Mother’s feet?’ We nodded, curious. =She said: ‘Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair—so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that—years of loving her neighbor as herself have deformed her feet.” If we want to SOAR—then we need to follow Mother Teresa’s example and love others as Jesus did. The more we do this—the more our hearts become changed “deformed” in a good sense. They beat for the needs of others.