Is You Is or Is You Ain’t?

Ephesians 2:10

These past couple of weeks as we read through the book of Hebrews in our Life Journals, we were given a glimpse into a church that was struggling. They had obviously been Christians awhile – the writer indicated that when he said, “by this time you should be teachers, but you still need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again…” (Heb 5:12). They had let other concerns take over their priorities, thus the repeated warnings not to drift away, fall away or fall short of the goal. They were letting their busyness keep them from assembling with other Christians, thus the warning to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Heb 10:25). And, to top it off, they had a fierce independent streak that kept them from sharing their lives with each other, disregarding their spiritual leaders, and just not being there for each other. And I thought, you know, that sounds a whole lot like us.

I think most of us like to know where we stand with folks. I had a friend who always used to say, “Just tell it like it is.” And sometimes that can be kind of painful. Because that means we can’t just hide behind a fake smile and tell everybody we’re “fine, just fine” when we’re not, and everybody knows we’re not, but they have to act like we are because we told them we’re “fine, just fine.” And then one Sunday, we’re not in our usual seat because we’re not “fine, just fine.” But everybody gives us the benefit of the doubt and assumes we’re just off at the lake or working or home sick. But we’re off looking for another church where we can be “fine, just fine.” And then one Sunday turns into two, and two turns into three, and then finally word gets back through the grapevine that we’ve placed our membership at the Down the Road Church, because they’ve got everything it will take for me to be “fine, just fine” once again.

But we’re back here at the Glenwood church, looking around at the empty seats where our friends used to sit and we feel like we’re on a downhill slope with gravel under our feet. And we thought we were “fine, just fine,” but so many people are leaving, I must not be, and the church must not be and maybe I’d better look around too.

We don’t talk about it because if we talk about it then we should oughta do something about it, and we’re not quite sure what we oughta be doing. And if we talk about it then there are some folks who might not be aware of anything wrong and they’ll start to wonder also. So, maybe if we don’t talk about it then it will just quietly resolve itself and go away and everybody can go back to being “fine, just fine.” The professional counselors call that magical thinking. That’s Scarlet O’Hare dressing herself up in tattered drapes and pretending that she’s got everything in control. But the truth is, our drapes are pretty ragged and we’re not fooling anyone. We’re losing members, our giving is a month of Sundays below budget and several of our ministries are on life-support.

There, I said it. The roof didn’t come crashing it and people aren’t heading for the door – well, not yet at least. But the truth is there will be some people who are mentally heading for the door, because they don’t want church to be a place where there is unpleasantness and disagreement. They just want everybody to be happy…. But they don’t want to have to work at it. It’s funny how when you ignore things and leave them unattended how they never go from worse to better, but just get worse and worse.

What happens when you don’t weed your garden? What happens when you don’t put away your tools and clean up after your last project? What happens when you don’t change the oil in your car and have it maintained properly?

That’s the same problem with church. It’s not always true “if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” You can’t just keep doing the same old things and expect to keep getting the same results. What might have been new and innovative and captured the imagination and involvement of the congregation at one time, becomes worn out and ineffective. In the church, you’re either growing or you’re dying. Just because you keep unlocking the doors on the building every Sunday doesn’t mean that the same people will keep coming through them just because you’re open for business.

It’s funny how we think problems get fixed in the church. The first line of defense is – preach a sermon about it, that’ll fix it – if it’s a big problem, preach a series of sermons at it. The second line is to have the elders make a decision about it. The third is, let’s get a program to fix it. And all of those might be a part of coming to a solution. But they all have one thing in common – they are all top down solutions. You leaders fix it for us. Give us the solution and we’ll decide whether the solution satisfies us enough to keep us here. But that’s a consumer church. Give me choices, give me options and I’ll take what I like, leave what I don’t and move on when I see a better offer down the road. That’s not church, that’s competing department stores.

The solution to what we’re facing is both top down and bottom up. We need strong leadership, we need vision and goals and programs to get us there. But we also need members who are in it for the long haul – whose commitment to the Glenwood church transcends ups and downs and bumps and bruises and fluctuations that come with long term relationships.

Diana and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary in May. Many of you have been married even longer – some have celebrated 40 and even 50 and some even closing in on 60 years together. You don’t reach 32 years without having gone through your share of ups and downs and changes and transitions. We’ve been through a lot together, but the key word is “together.” We’ve never once considered divorce (murder maybe, but not divorce). When we said “I do” we didn’t have any idea what all we would go through or what storms we would have to weather, but we knew that we would – we committed ourselves for better or worse.

It’s a lot like that in the church – for better or worse – because there will be some of both. When you sign up, you are accepting, not just the possibility, but the certainty that the church you are now a part of will go through its share of transitions and difficulties. Every church does. Every church does.

It will strain your commitment. It will make you think about those wedding vows… and about your church membership. But what it should make you think, is not – is it time to get a divorce? – or – is it time to find another church? – but yes, I signed on for better or worse, and we’re going through a little bit of that worse right now. But I love this congregation, and I’m committed to it for the long haul.

This is a great congregation – we are fundamentally healthy and strong. We have a great eldership… some great servants … ministries and programs that address the needs of our members and the community.

Even though we are below budget for 2011, we are still hanging in there and keeping the bills paid. This is still a wonderfully generous congregation. And we are doing something some great things in God’s kingdom – we are taking care of our brothers and sisters, we are housing the homeless, we are sending missionaries into the world.
Yes, there are some weaknesses. We’re not where we want to be, but we have also seen some great blessings as God has led us through the process of growing up and growing together in Christ.

The variable in all this is you.

There’s a question I remember hearing phrased a unique way back in Texas – “Is you is or is you ain’t?” They were asking, are you in or out? Make a decision. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples when everybody else had left when the going got rough – “You do not want to leave too, do you?” I suspect even Jesus held his breath as he waited for the answer. But he didn’t want just a crowd of spectators – people whose commitment was half-hearted and fragile. Back in Luke 14, he laid down a list of demands for discipleship and said, “Anyone who doesn’t love me more than even his own life… anyone who doesn’t take up his cross and follow me… anyone who doesn’t give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Is you is or is you ain’t?

Jesus didn’t hesitate to demand commitment from people. I think people want to be involved in something that’s bigger than they are – something they can invest themselves in that will fill them with purpose and meaning. How dare we settle for any less than Jesus and the kingdom of God.

There was another old saying that folks would offer up when you were standing around looking useless – “fish or cut bait.” I used to think that was the same as “is you is or is you ain’t” but it wasn’t. It went deeper – it assumed you were in the boat, you just needed some encouragement to get busy. “Fish or cut bait” There’s lot of things that need to be done, so fish or cut bait, or row, or clean the fish, or repair the boat or…. You get the idea – there is too much to be done for any of us to stand around watching the others work.

So, if you’re in, “fish or cut bait.” Paul said it this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Solomon said it this way: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Eccl 9:10).

I’m not doing you any favors by excusing your inactivity and pacifying you by saying, “Show up when you want, don’t worry about getting involved, nobody expects anything of you.” What kind of church membership would that be? Well, actually a pretty popular one. But we can’t afford to have people sitting on the sidelines in their padded pews. God has given every one of us gifts to be used in service to the body, and if you aren’t using yours, then the body isn’t all it can be. Listen again to Paul, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). If the body isn’t working, the first question we ought to ask ourselves is, am I doing my part?

My final reflection is that, while the variable is you, it isn’t about you. Nor is it about me, or about the elders, or about our ministry leaders. This is about God. And when we lose sight of that, then we are always going to be stubbing our toes on issues like – I don’t like this, I don’t agree with that, and my needs aren’t being met. If you come to church with a list of expectations that are designed around you, you’re here for the wrong reason. We’re here to worship God and serve in his kingdom – everything else is secondary. How polished the singing, how inspiring the preaching, how organized the classes, how weedless the flowerbeds – they are secondary to your outpouring of praise to God. And when you forget that, you’re always going to struggle with how you’re feeling about church.

In the next few weeks the elders are going to be asking a number of you to step up in leading and serving in several of our ministries. They have carefully thought about your gifts and your servant spirit and have prayed about asking you to invest yourself in this congregation in a greater way. Please be willing to serve, please be willing to invest yourself in this congregation. In fact, I’d like you to pre-empt their request – go to one of the elders and say, “I’d like to be more involved than I am and I’m willing to do anything you need me to do for this congregation.”

It’s that attitude – whatever it takes – that is going to change this congregation. People who aren’t asking “what’s in it for me,” but “how can I serve others.” And if that’s you, I want you to respond this morning.