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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

6 of 7, Genuine Caring Relationships

7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, a 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday July 30, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


This Summer, we are studying 7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, 7 lenses through which we can measure how alive we are as a congregation, and how much life we add to the community around us.

We introduced all 7 and have covered five.

1. Lifelong Spiritual Growth… forever being disciples, students of God.

2. Intentional Authentic Loving… engaging people who don’t believe or aren’t sure what they believe as already born of God’s spirit.

3. Active, Outward Focus… inside the church, we practice welcoming and including, then we actively take that way into the world.

4. Shared Gifts and Power… we help everyone share and participate, and no one holds too much power or holds power too long.

5. Spirit-Inspired Worship…

This week is number 6. Genuine Caring Relationships

Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture John 15:1-13

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, God prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been pruned[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, (but) apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 As you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)

Sermon Genuine Caring Relationships

Our denominational website teases us saying, Genuine “Caring relationships seem an easy mark of vitality. We all want a place to belong; people who care about us. (and) Many congregations would argue: “this is why we come together; we welcome and care for each other.” (close-quote) But genuine caring relationships are not easy. They require effort, and vulnerability.

Do you know what one of the most common traits churches use to describe themselves? “Friendly.” A friendly church has an up-to-date website, and good signage. A friendly church welcomes and greets people, and has authentic smiles and handshakes. A friendly church has snacks and drinks, a warm, open aura, and is clean and decluttered. Being a friendly church is very important and a great first step, and most churches think of themselves as a friendly church, even if they aren’t. But as church consultant and author Paul Borden said, “Any church can be friendly. The challenge is to be a church that makes friends,” meaning a congregation where people experience genuine caring relationships.

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about in John 15. Its not just about being friendly. It's about being and becoming our real selves with one another. Its about giving ourselves in love for each other, and for the guest, the visitor, and the stranger. Its nice for people to be friendly, but when some is grafted by God to Christ, the vine, the good fruit of a genuine caring relationship will grow.

At one church I served, we had a Memorial Rose Garden. Every bush was unique, a different color rose, and was given in memory of a member who had died. For years, one man, Maurice, insisted he take care of it all by himself. He’d pull weeds and spread straw and spray for bugs. I seldom saw that garden produce fruit… roses.

Maurice died, and three ladies adopted the garden. Within months, we saw blooms again. One would think it would be watering, fertilizer, weeding, and bug prevention to make roses grow. Those ladies, good gardeners, understood these things are important and how and when to do them well, but what really made those bushes finally bloom again is that roses have to be pruned.

The rose bushes without pruning had become a thicket of briars and thorns, each stem competing with one another for air and sun and nutrients, with no roses. A good gardener looks for intertwining, tangling branches and cuts them back so there’s a path for each branch to climb outward without binding or obstructing others. Branches that bind and obstruct, or that don’t grow good fruit, get cut way back. Branches that do grow good fruit get pruned so they can grow again.

And this is how Jesus describes our role in God’s garden, God’s beloved community. God is the gardener, the one who plants, waters, grafts, cuts, prunes, in the beginning and every day since; Jesus is the vine, the trunk, the roots, the source of all we need; God’s word is a tool that cuts away what doesn’t grow, and prunes what does; and we are branches grafted to the vine by the gardener, to be conduits of God’s good graces so they will grow and bloom through us for others. This is the analogy Jesus uses to describe how to grow the good fruit of Genuine Caring relationships.

The Congregational Vitality survey says this… “Genuine, Caring Relationships in Christ require true agape love; a sacrificial, self-emptying … love. Although we are imperfect, it is about striving to see all people the way Christ sees them; ... It is about helping walk with others, responding to their needs, desiring their well-being… in tragedy and … in their triumphs … Caring Relationships do not come through hospitality and welcoming committees, they come through a carefully cultivated environment that is genuine and sincere in being the household of God.”

In my younger life, I went to church with Jill and the boys fairly regularly. It was only when I started attending some of the book studies, Sunday school classes, and small groups that fellow churchgoers became friends. In those smaller spaces, we didn’t just face forward, like in worship. We faced one another. We didn’t just stick to small talk, but we talked about bigger important things, like parenting, marriage, aging parents, death, social issues, politics. We were exposed to what others think and feel, and we were invited, even encouraged to risk sharing what we thought or believed. We got to ask questions. We discovered places of agreement or disagreement with each other, or maybe with Jesus. That’s when friendly church took off the mask and shallowness and became a church of friends for me, and I’ve seen that to be true for others in my 18 years as a pastor.

If a congregation is going to have a culture of genuine, caring relationships, we need lots of groups and gathering where people have room to be very real. We need room to ask questions and share their stories, the good and the bad and the ugly, without having to hide, pretend, or hold back. A genuine caring congregation will love every imperfect part of everyone who dares to share, and will prove to the world there is no shunning or shaming here. In a congregation that wants genuine caring relationships, there will be conflict and we will not steer clear of it. When it happens, it will be confessed, and crucial conversations of mutual understanding, truth, and reconciliation are had.

A congregation that wants genuine caring relationships invites and includes everyone. We show up! Our faith isn’t just lukewarm. We wonder and study and share. We definitely don’t pretend or fake. We are honest and authentic. There are no closed groups or sharp judgments, but people are free to wonder and share, and even ask for help. That's the kind of congregation we have been, and I trust, we will continue getting better and better at growing genuine, caring relationships, even if that means we have to cut back or prune some things.

To God be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen?



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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