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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Church More Alive

7 Marks of a Vital Congregation, a 9-week sermon series on the PCUSA “7 Marks of a Vital Congregation”, preached Sunday June 18, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


Context


Prayer for Illumination


Scripture 1 Corinthians 1:1-10

1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together, with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus (the) Christ, (who is) both their Lord[a] and ours:

3 Grace to you all and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


4 I give thanks to (our) God always for you, because of the grace of God that has been given (to) you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you all have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the evidence of Christ has been reinforced among you— 7 so that y’all are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the (full) revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 (who) will also strengthen you all (the way) to the end, so that y’all may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 (See,) God is faithful, (and) by (God) you were called into the partnership of God’s (own) Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


10 Therefore, I appeal to you all, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you all but that you all be knit together into the same mind and the same purpose.


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


Sermon A Congregation of Christ

Our congregation is older today than the Corinthian church was when Paul wrote this letter. This congregation will celebrate our 39th anniversary this September. If Jesus died in the early to mid 30s, and Paul wrote most of his letters in the 50s, the congregation in Corinth was only 20 or so years old when Paul wrote this to them. And even though this letter was written to one young congregation a long time ago, this letter became Scripture, meaning those who came before us found something of God in this letter, something every church forever needs to read and hear, over and over again. And what is that?


Well, Paul, after greeting the congregation and reminding them who and whose they are, after encouraging them to continue being who they are called to be, and cheerleading them for all the good they’ve done with Christ, because of Christ, Paul turns and begs them, be “in agreement and (let) there be no divisions among you (all), but … be interwoven together into the same mind and for the same purposes.”


The earliest congregations, like Corinth, came together for good reasons. They experienced the love of God in beautiful impossible unbelievable new ways, in Christ Jesus, and they didn’t hoard it to themselves, but radically included others into it, and riskily shared that love with others. How, why did it take just a generation, a decade or two, to forget, to begin slipping and struggling away from what made them a vital congregation?


We read less than a page of Paul cheering them, then, from that invitation to be of one mind and purpose, Paul will spend 15 pages or so addressing the divisions among them. What divided the congregation in Corinth?


Leadership - some prefer former leaders, the way they led or taught, while others prefer current leaders. Some liked Paul, some Peter, some Apollos. Paul reminds them, Christ is the leader of us all.


Backgrounds - Some came from a Jewish background and still follow some of those traditions. Others came from a Gentile background and brought with them some of those rituals. At first, they struggled but accepted the diversity, learned and grew from one another. Later, they’ve sorted themselves into cliques, started ignoring, or judging and excluding each other. Paul reminds them, we are one in Christ Jesus.


Relationships - There were families, and neighborhoods, and communities that loved and supported one another, and because of Christ, there was a radical inclusion of the stranger, the outsider, even the enemy into the intimacy of those deep relationships. But, some took advantage of their inclusion and did harm. Others decided to close down, and exclude outsiders from getting in any deeper. Paul reminds them taking advantage when included is wrong, and excluding others is wrong.


Marriage - They argue about who should and shouldn’t marry or get divorced.


Gender - They argue about men’s and women’s roles in the home, in church, and the world.


Fellowship - They argue about what or how much is acceptable to bring to a church potluck, and how long to wait for each other.


Worship - They argue about what is acceptable or not in worship, and what is idolatrous or too secular.


Paul insists anything done for God’s glory is good, and begs them to share worship and table and leadership with one another, as Christ showed them. Apparently, for as long as church has existed, congregations have struggled to embrace the fullness, the vitality of community that Jesus lived and died for.


It’s still happening today. Modern denominations, congregations, sometimes, are divided over similar issues… leadership style, faith background, fellowship traditions, definition of marriage, gender roles, worship preferences.


Since 2001, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, has gathered sociologists, theologians, and educators and has been helping thousands of congregations assess their strengths and weaknesses, ways they reflect and embody, or deny and obscure God’s way of community on earth as it is in the heavens.


This is no simple task. Every congregation has strengths and weaknesses, but not every congregation is effective at applying our strengths, or willing to risk following Jesus despite our weaknesses, being of the same mind and purpose. For example, some might be strong at serving the community, but congregations are more than social service agencies. Some might be weak at providing a sense of belonging where people are friendly and care for one another, but congregations are more than social clubs. A congregation of Christ embodies the wholeness of life that Jesus taught and showed us. A vital congregation follows him in living a full life ourselves, and as a congregation, and then sharing that full life with everyone.


The 20+ year study has revealed 7 marks of a vital congregation, habits and practices that resist divisions, and lean us closer to Christ, to one another, and to our communities, closer to being of the same mind and purpose. Today, I want to introduce all 7 Marks to you. Then, this summer, we’ll give one Sunday to each of the 7 marks. At the end, we will summarize what we learned, and reflect on this congregation’s vitality.


You all have an insert that lays out the 7 Marks and the Sundays ahead of us.


The first mark - Lifelong Spiritual Growth

Vital congregations remember we are all forever students, disciples of Christ. We stay humble and curious. Everyone has more to learn about God, self, and each other. We do not become complacent or confuse faith with simple piety or morals. We study and seek Christ’s wisdom together, and let it change every aspect of our lives, from our careers to our marriages, from our politics to our budgets. A vital congregation practices lifelong spiritual growth.


The second mark - Intentional, Authentic Loving

Vital congregations practice kindness and generosity and grace to others beyond the church, and it’s not shallow or temporary. It isn’t bait and switch Christian hypocrisy, that at first loves the sinner but later hates the sin. Its real authentic love, and not because we are special, but because Jesus is, and we tell them so. It doesn’t mean we are Jesus freaks, selling Jesus, or trying to save souls. It means each of us has personal language about how and why Jesus is our hope and our strength, and therefore, why we love so graciously, without condition. A vital congregation exhibits intentional, authentic loving beyond itself to others.


The third mark - Active, Outward Focus

Vital congregations, beyond ourselves, do not expect others to come to us, assimilate, become like us, think like us, believe like us, so our church can grow. We go meet our neighbors, especially the lowly and least, the stranger and the suffering, the marginalized and minorities. We don’t expect anyone to come grow our church. We expect our church to carry God’s love and grow God’s kingdom beyond the congregation. A vital congregation has an active, outward focus.


The fourth mark - Shared Gifts and Power

Vital congregations identify, nurture, and support the gifts of all people. There are no cliques of power, or cults of personality, nor do we assume getting the right leader would fix our problems and finally bring more young families. Everyone has a role, a purpose in being God’s church. It becomes noticeable if anyone is silent or silenced, is absent or missing, and all are reinvited and reincluded. A vital congregation includes everyone’s gifts and shares power across everyone.


The fifth mark - Spirit-Inspired Worship

Vital congregations worship God. Worship is not entertainment, and is not meant to feed our addiction to stale rituals that have lost their meaning. We do not worship out of habit or obligation. We do not worship to get from it what we want. Worship is for God and with one another, an encounter of the wonder, fear, and awe of God. Worship is blunt honesty, communal vulnerability, and radical hospitality before God. Worship challenges and comforts, teaches and transforms, consoles and convicts us to live changed lives. A vital congregation embraces spirit-inspired worship.


The sixth mark - Genuine, Caring Relationships

Vital congregations, inside themselves, are meant to be more than social clubs. Here, we do not pretend. There are no façades, no hypocrisies. Our care for one another isn’t half-hearted, lukewarm, or pretend. All people find less judgment and more freedom to share and ask for help. Welcome and hospitality are not left to a committee but permeate the entire culture and everyone in it. When there is conflict among us, we confront it, hold on to one another, and seek reconciliation. Inside a vital congregation, we practice authentic, genuine, caring relationships.


The seventh mark - Healthy Accountability

In vital congregations, we hold each other accountable. We come to a shared understanding of why we church, and how to church. There is passion to imagine, joy in risking, and grace when we fail. Our budget reflects our purposes and priorities and is fiscally responsible. Everyone gives something, and we are transparent in our sources and use of funds. Discernment is prayerful, discussion is open, debate is respectful, and decisions are seldom unanimous but supported by all, win or lose. Our buildings are busy. Dysfunction and toxicity are quelched. Burnout is resisted, and rest is encouraged. A vital congregation practices healthy accountability of members, leaders, and staff.


Well, that’s the seven. This summer, we will dive deeper into each of those seven. I hope you will keep the insert maybe in your Bible or save it in the pew racks where you often sit. The insert will come in handy all summer.


Paul wrote to the congregation in Corinth and pleaded with them to be of the same mind and same purposes. These “Seven Marks” of a vital congregation align with what Paul knew and taught us about being fully alive as a congregation of Christ. These seven may not be what people think they want from church. They are what God wants church to be, and they activate God's gifts into faithful works that sends ripples of God’s love into every person, every family, all through the church, and beyond into the world.


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


Charge


Benediction

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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