As you probably know, there are two ways to read the Bible. One way is to read it for information and inspiration, to take what it says and use the information to live a better life. The other way is to make up our minds what we want it to say, then go looking for scriptures that will back up our point.
The first way, reading for information and inspiration, is the proper use of scripture. It is one of the ways God speaks to us. The second way, reading to make a point, is the wrong way to read the Bible.
Unfortunately, most preachers are guilty of the second method, that is, deciding what they want to say and searching the scriptures to back it up. It is the wrong way to read scripture because while we are looking for scripture that makes our case, we are ignoring those verses that make the opposite point.
For example, I have read essays by our church founders that prove without a doubt that baptism must be accomplished by total immersion. They use real scripture verses to make their point. We are buried with Christ in baptism, thus sharing in His death. In this corner, we will ignore that the body of Christ was never buried, but rather was placed in a cave.
I have also read essays by preachers and theologians that make the opposite point. Those essays are equally convincing that baptism involves pouring – as when the spirit is poured out upon us – or sprinkling – as when we are cleansed by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.
You’ll find similar arguments throughout church history about communion — some churches are convinced that it must be celebrated at every service, and just as many are convinced that it deserves special occasion treatment. Some churches say it is for all believers, while others reserve it for those with just the right membership, age, or spiritual status.
It goes on and on. Is Christ so strong that once saved, we can never escape salvation, or are we so free that we can walk away at any time? Is the blood of Christ so pure that it can forgive every sin – past, present and future – or is God so holy that we must live pure lives, free of sin and filled with good works? Is every word of scripture an historical fact, or is it a divine alegory that can only be understood by the Holy Spirit? Do all people have equal access to the Holy Spirit, or has God uniquely gifted certain individuals to lead His church? Does the church need restoration to its original New Testament state, or does it need to change with the times to draw more people into faith? Did God’s inspired protection end with the King James editors, or did it also fall on the committee that brought us the New International Version?
These are the very reasons that we have so many denominations. Within the church of God, these debates cause some groups to consider themselves the one true church and all others heretics. We can get very serious about our theology. After all, we don’t want to offend our Lord, do we? I mean, we all want to be the very best Christians we can be. But while we debate the details of our faith, all the outside world sees is a fight.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “If you love one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” It looks like the church has spent the last 2000 years looking for excuses to separate. That is why Tropical Sands Church looks for ways to break down the walls between churches. At our Saturday Night Log Cabin worship and our monthly Sunday Night Coffee House, we set aside our differences and encourage worshippers from all denominations.
In our own history, our founders split from the Presbyterians, then joined and split from the Baptists, then split itself into three churches : The Churches of Christ, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ and the Christian Churches. The Churches of Christ then split into a capella and instrumental branches. So a church founded 200 years on the concept that there are no denominations is now no less than five denominations.
Christ told the early church to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That church was concentrated in Jerusalem, until persecution sent them running in all directions. The persecution that was meant to destroy the church instead served God’s purpose of spreading the Gospel.
In one missionary journey, the apostle Paul split with Barnabas over whether Mark should be with them. In doing so, the gospel spread in two directions instead of one. Again, something bad, in this case, an argument between friends, served God’s purpose, to spread the Gospel to all the world.
I think our church splits have served much the same purpose throughout history, and will continue to do so. If you are looking for a church that follows Jesus Christ, you can have as much or as little ceremony as you like, just by choosing one church or another. You can find a church with screaming electric guitars, or one that has no musical instruments whatsoever. You can worship in silence, or you can shout amen with every breath, just by choosing one church or another.
The church may have divided for all the wrong reasons, but those divisions might still serve God’s purpose, today as in the book of Acts. We have not only preached the gospel to all nations, but to every mindset, age group and cultural divide. The fractured church does something that one denomination alone could never accomplish. The fractured church takes the message of one God and one Lord to all corners of our fractured society.
Our scripture from Hebrews tells us to continue meeting together, in order to encourage one another in love and good works. We do not attend church only to be fed, but also to feed one another. We sometimes feel like we are here to be encouraged by the preacher and inspired by the choir. But our scripture says we are here to encourage one another.
Peter said that scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. My ideas about what the Bible says are one perspective, but your ideas are also valid. When we share these ideas, even if we disagree on the details, we both have a broader perspective on God’s word. How many times has someone made a point about prayer, or worship, or witnessing, and we say, “Well, I never thought about it that way.” That is how we grow in understanding. That growth cannot occur in a vacuum. We need one another.
This church thing is not supposed to be a purchase, but an investment. As a purchase, we deliver long speeches, entertainment and newsletters, and you buy those things by dropping money in the collection plate. In an investment, you give your time and talent, and yes, some of your money, to make the church stronger. And, since you are a part of the church, making it stronger makes you stronger, too.
I know people who say they are Christians, but they do not go to church. It is true that going to church does not make us Christians. But it is also true that Christ wants us to join with other Christians to work for His kingdom.
People say, “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.” To that I say, “But if you go to church and take your friends, it will be filled with people like you.” People say, “I don’t go to church because I don’t agree with the preacher.” To that I say, “Then you better get in there and set him straight.” People say, “I don’t go to church because the people are so judgmental.” To that I say, “You should go to church and set a better example.”
In the Kairos prison ministry, people often shout, “Who is the church?” To that, all the inmates respond, “We are the church!” The church is people, not a building. A church can meet in a home, a sanctuary, a tent or an open field. But this much is certain, a church is not a church if it does not meet. A church is not a church if it is not people working and worshipping together. One person is a part of the body of Christ, but no one alone is Christ Himself.
The church needs you. We need you at worship, and in the men’s group, and in the women’s group, and in Sunday school. We need your perspective, but we don’t have it if you don’t show up.
A person does not have to come to this church, but every Christian needs a church. If you have more than one church, that’s ok if you are really part of several churches. And if you cannot go to church, if you are truly too tired or too sick to attend, the church can come to you. But to that, I have to ask: Who is the Church? [We are the church!]
So, every sermon should include a call to action. Mine has three parts. One, come to church. Be a part of the church. I used to wonder what I would do or say when visiting the sick or those in mourning. Jim Burton taught me that ours is a ministry of presence; the important thing is to show up, and God will do the rest. Part of your ministry to God’s church is a ministry of presence. The church is not whole when you don’t attend.
Two, encourage others to attend church. You have this church to offer, but if that does not work for them, encourage them to attend some other church. There is no such thing as a lone wolf Christian. Every Christian needs to be a part of a church.
Third, BE the church. Who is the church? [WE are the church!] You are our missionaries to the world. You are our outreach to those who cannot attend. If the job of “being church” falls on the pastor, the pastor gets stretched pretty thin.
We can’t run the race if we don’t make it to the starting line. We can’t run the race if we aren’t on the track. Church is a fundamental need of every Christian, and every Christian is a vital element of the church. Please don’t let our differences hide our common goal, to serve God under the lordship of His Son, Jesus Christ. The church needs us, and we need the church.
Part of your ministry is a ministry of presence. You must be present to win.
Tropical Sands Christian Church – August 17, 2003