“Geneva, Let’s Choose To Live” by Pastor Jesse Alexander
Every year, we report statistics like these: Membership – 204, Average Attendance — 134, New Members – 20, Confirmands – 12, Infant Baptisms – 2, Adult Baptisms – 0, Funerals – 5
Back in 1908, the annual report to the General Assembly included some of that stuff, but it also included questions about evangelism, the gospel ministry, and this one.
“Has there been any special manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power in your church, either by conversions or by increased activity in church work?”
What would you say to that? Maybe you’d cite our church work. Look at this list [Slide] Gatherings, Classes, Groups, Mission work… Good stuff. Maybe you’d mention this sort of evidence: answered prayers, joyful worship and fellowship, people answering the call to serve and lead.
I might refer back to what I learned doing home visits last fall. I met with 65 people and at each visit, I tried to ask six questions good questions and then I would listen.
First question was “what do you celebrate about Geneva?” The answer: The People. That it’s small. And that we do a lot for a little church. Good stuff. But then I’d also ask, “what are your concerns about Geneva?” To talk about that I want to share with you a bit about Clifford Allen. Yesterday, I met with Clifford Allen in the hospital. A lot of you know Clifford’s story, but some of you don’t – so with his permission I am going to share his story as a metaphor for our church.
On Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16, Clifford did a lot of sleeping. On Sunday, February 17, Clifford and Roberta were planning to come to church, but Clifford couldn’t hold onto a cup of coffee. He fixed himself a cup and dropped it. He fixed another and dropped it, too. After he dropped his fourth cup, Roberta said, “we’re going to the hospital.” I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I went up to the hospital that afternoon and got the E.R. as they were finishing up “intubating” Clifford. In other words, they were putting him on an artificial ventilator – life support – because he was not able to breathe for himself and his kidneys were failing. Turns out he was nearly in a coma. Later, I found out that the hospital staff did not really expect him to make it.
You know, there was a whole of prayer going on. Family, friends, and this congregation gave a lot of support and did a lot of prayer. They deeply appreciated the prayer quilt, and were blown away by how many signatures were on it.
It took a few days, and a lot of challenges, but the medical team up at Baptist South figured out that Clifford had a lung infection. That infection was affecting his respiration. CO2 was building up in his system. When that happens – as a lot of divers know – you can go to sleep and not wake up. It was very serious. That infection had overrun his kidneys. When they were able to get the lung infection under control, the kidneys responded, his breathing returned. They were finally able to take Clifford off the ventilator on Friday, March 1. He spent eleven days on life support. It was such a blessing to hear his voice and speak with him face to face on Friday.
You know, I went to see him yesterday and what struck me was the look of gratitude on his face. He is so grateful to be alive. He knows he could have died and life is precious. He also knows that if he wants to live he has to change some habits. He has to make some lifestyle changes. It’s probably diet and exercise – you know, the “if-it-tastes-good-spit-it-out” diet. He’s tough. He can do that. But the big one, as you many of you know, is this: Clifford has to stop smoking. Smoking almost killed him. If he starts smoking again, it just might. But you know what? He knew he was supposed to quit smoking long before this health crisis. Smoking was killing him, but he wouldn’t quit. But today, he’s grateful to be alive. Today, he loves life so much that he feels motivated to make lifestyle changes because he wants to live.
So I asked Clifford, though, if I could use his story as a metaphor for our church. Like Clifford, we know the problems: In those house visits, these are the problems that you identified. 1) Finances. 2) People leaving. And 3) Interpersonal conflicts. 1) Our finances are well managed – but have an income problem. 2) People leaving the church. It is so painful. We just lost another family last week – the Bradens left and I gotta tell you, I feel like I lost a brother in Tom. I love that guy. It hurts when people leave. 3) The interpersonal conflicts. Tom Braden, in his departure, wrote us a letter explained it to the session. He cited the divisions in our church that have been with us for the last decade. I’ve been here five and a half of those years – I can testify to them, too. The tensions and divisions in the church even predated Tom. Best I can tell, they go back twenty years, maybe twenty-five. But would you believe me if I told you those were all just symptoms.
Symptoms of a heart problem. In Mark 7:21-22 Jesus said it’s what comes out of us that causes the problems. “It is the thought-life that defiles you, for from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts…”
If we want to live, we have to address our heart problem, our thought problem. And I know we want to live. These are the hopes you mentioned: What are your hopes for Geneva? 1) The finances will improve. 2) That we will move to one one morning service. 3) that more people will come. We want to live.
1) So, it’s not complicated. If we want to live, we have to start treating each other differently. Clifford has to start treating his body differently – we have to start treating the Body of Christ – one another – differently. Or we’ll die! The Bible puts it this way – “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) Last I checked, no one at Geneva had achieved perfection. None of us can walk on water. We are human. We sink. We sin. We hurt each other. Now, I can’t speak for you as well as I can speak for me. In 2012, we received the report from the Crisis Response Team, and it’s an open report. Many things that were said behind closed doors were written down in a report and made public. It’s clear that I hurt people. I’ve lost my temper. I’ve said things I shouldn’t have said. I broke trust. I failed to take people’s feelings into consideration. Please forgive me. It was also clear to me reading the report that many people had judged me or judged the session unfairly, had passed on things that simply weren’t true, and certainly weren’t fair. And some of the criticism was, frankly, cruel. Now, I have forgiven you. I’m your pastor. I gotta love you. And I have to serve you communion and have every month since that report came out – so I have to forgive you. All of us have to. We have to start living with mutual forbearance and forgiveness. There are people in our congregation who are withholding money. It is time to think about mutual forbearance and forgiveness. Holding onto your grievances is killing your church. We want to live.
2) We have to start speaking differently, like this: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) Use words to build one another up. Doing this is like getting good exercise. Tell people good things.
So no more bad words. Clifford has to give us smoking. We have to give up griping, complaining, and second-guessing. There’s no one exempt. No more Complaining about people or programs. No more sitting and solving all the problems of the church by talking about the unsatisfactory attitudes or jobs someone is doing. If you feel you must speak about someone, speak to them. That stuff is killing the church. No more complaining about one another, about the new people, the old people, or the founders, the uncommitted people, or the occasional people. No more complaining about the staff. No more complaining about the choir director. Choir, you are blessed to have a talented choir director and an organist. Don’t complain. And no more complaining about the pastor. Everyone who works at Geneva has made sacrifices to serve you. We are not hirelings. We answered a calling from Jesus Christ to serve you. And no more complaining about the elders or deacons or key volunteers. They also have answered a calling from Jesus. We punish our key volunteers when we complain about the work they do. Do you think Jesus is pleased when we hurt the people who’ve agreed to serve him here?
Let me be a bit graphic to make this point: If you feel you must complain about someone’s work and service in the church, please bite your tongue until it bleeds – and then take a vow of silence, because your words are killing this church. And if someone comes to you to complain – tell them that they are complaining and the Bible says not to do that and that it’s killing the church. And if they continue, walk away. When you hang out and listen to a complainer, you are feeding the disease. Stop it. It’s killing the church. It makes people leave. It makes people quit giving. It saps our energy for ministry. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. The life of this church is too precious. You are grieving the Holy Spirit and you are making Jesus sad.
3) Last thing: all of us must start thinking this way… thinking better. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
We have so much going for us. Were you here last week? Worship was incredible. At times it was inspiring. At times a little confusing, but we’re a small church. We show grace! The lunch was beautiful. There was so much to celebrate. Twenty-five years and God is not done with us yet! Our church is down, but God loves to be a part of fantastic turn-arounds. Our facility is great. Our resources are sufficient. Our people are so gifted. And God has put us in a growing area. People with kids are moving still moving in. They need a church because they need Jesus Christ. The potential for great ministry at Geneva is more pronounced today than it ever has been in our twenty-five year history. And we have something our community needs more than ever: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We have to start thinking about the best things, because life is too precious.
If you don’t believe me, you need to ask Clifford. And you know, there’s another lesson his story can teach us. He knew what he needed to do a long time ago, a long time before he ended up on life support. By the way, I have been to churches on life-support. I know churches around the presbytery that are on life-support. They often don’t get off life support. Clifford would encourage us to act now rather than to wait until we’re on life support. Because I have to tell you, with Clifford, it was nip and tuck. We almost lost him. Let’s not lose our church.
Back to that question:
“Has there been any special manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power in your church, either by conversions or by increased activity in church work?” What are we going to say next year? Will we say that we were able to bear with one another and forgive as the Lord forgave us. That there was no more complaining – but all of our words were used to build one another up instead. And our minds were transformed. We began to think and believe the best about one another. And we rediscovered the power of the Gospel to give life.
The life of our church depends on it.
Join me and let us pray for our church.
God, I know these were convicting words. But Lord, I ask that you will preserve Geneva for another 25 years. And that the next 25 will be even better. And that this will be the low point in our church’s history. By the power of your Spirit working among us, let it be said from this point that forgiveness set in, for the sake of Jesus, that mutual forbearance set in, that we became a church of encouragement and grace. That your Spirit moved and we found new life. God, we want to live! Breathe new life into us for the sake of your name. Through Christ Jesus we pray, Amen!