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Brand New Church

Dr. Jon Morrissette - 6/9/2019

This morning we conclude our “Brand New You” series with one last topic. When we get into a relationship with Christ, we become New Creations. The old passes away and the new comes. There isn’t a single aspect of our life left untouched. Christ transforms our heart, mind, body, and soul. Christ transforms our families, our enemies. This morning I want to talk about how Christ also makes his Church Brand New!

Speaking of “new,” before my senior year of Bible College, I started scouring the list of available church ministries. I was about to get married, and needed a J-O-B, something close to Lincoln where I could work on my Master of Divinity. But I wondered. . . was there a church out there desperate enough to tolerate my lack of experience, to suffer my immaturity, to take a chance on me! By God’s grace, after several months, a church finally returned my call. I think my father-in-law lit a fire under them, he didn’t want his daughter being homeless, they certainly weren’t in a hurry!

The only church that called was Berlin Christian Church. The Illinois State Historical society lists BSS as the oldest church in Sangamon County, and one of the oldest in our entire state. The church was founded in 1824! Think about it. A few years from now, BCC will have had 200 years of continuous operation! They’d had over 50 preachers in their history.

Everything you would expect about an “old dying church” was true of Berlin. One time, I sat down and tried to capture what it was like to begin preaching at one of the oldest churches in our state. I’ve only shared this with a few people…

“For hours I would sit in the musty sanctuary, staring out the window, feeling defeated. Hundreds of cars drove past our worn-down building every day, yet the phone rarely rang. Even worse, nobody ever stopped by, not even to say hello. I felt isolated and alone. The only signs of life were the cooing pigeons in the bell tower, the pitter patter of mice skippering through the attic, and the occasional spider rappelling from the rain-damaged ceiling tiles.”

“The building was showing signs of neglect. Weeds had overtaken the gravel lot and foundation. The yellowish letters in the never-changing marquee were terminally dry-rotting. The rusty baptistery, proudly built from the steel of a salvaged combine, hadn't been filled in years. Chunks of plaster, resembling crumbled communion wafers, salted the faded red carpet in the sanctuary.”

“Across the street stood a turn-of-the-century log cabin, complete with a dirt floor and an outhouse. The previous summer, the reclusive old man who had lived there committed suicide. Rumors suggested he had struggled his whole life with alcoholism and depression. I wondered how a person who lived across the street from a church his whole life had failed to find hope. His sad story reverberated throughout the town.”

“Where was God? Why had he brought me to this obscure place, only to hide his face? Why was this church and the cause of Christ in this community struggling so gravely? And why were the city churches just miles away flourishing while this church was floundering?”

“A church building isn't just a building. It can be a reflection of a congregation's priorities and spiritual vitality. In this case the building was an uncomfortable reflection of a declining church who had lost her identity as a beacon of hope for her community.”

“In the sanctuary, an ominous, golden-framed, hologram portrait of a sedated-looking Jesus hung above the wooden pulpit. Apparently, hologram Jesus had been presiding over decades of congregational decline. Sometimes his light would burn out during worship, throwing the people into a panic.”

“One Sunday, a couple of high school boys visited the church. Hungry for any kind of win, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. That Sunday I preached with heightened zeal. But unfortunately, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The boys had worn ball caps to church and sat in the wrong pew. Strike 1. Strike 2. Even worse, they didn't have a taste for our laboriously sung hymns. Strike 3. Before the end of the first stanza the boys' knowing glances devolved into giggles and audible laughter. The disapproving whispers of older members made it clear they weren't welcome.”

“My doubt and cynicism only grew. Was this really happening? Was I serving in some kind of alternate church universe? Was there any hope for this church, this community, or a ministry there? Was this one of those churches that was just supposed to die? Should I bide my time and hope for a better opportunity to become available later?”

“One afternoon, I was startled by the ring of the phone. With eagerness, I raced into the office to grab the unexpected call. A woman introduced herself as a "concerned neighbor" and "member of another church" in a nearby city. She had been praying for me and described the decades of painful conflict that had divided the church and ruined countless pastors for ministry. She lovingly warned me against changing the status quo. Sadly, the same sentiment was expressed by several professors in the halls of a nearby Seminary. Like this woman, they were concerned that I would become another casualty of this ministry.”

“They were right to be concerned. At times I could boil with anger and frustration. I didn't know how to respond to the bullies and critics who relentlessly sabotaged the church's morale. Other times, I struggled with envy. I kept thinking about my pastor friends who seemed to be thriving in ministry. They enjoyed fast starts, healthy team relationships, quality mentoring, and early successes in ministry. Meanwhile, I was failing miserably, as if starring in my very own reality television show, "Church Nightmares."

“Sometimes it takes a miracle for a church of 40 to become a church of 80, or even 120. But with God all things are possible right?”

Now let me just pause there for a moment. My wife asked me a while back what I get excited about. Besides the obvious… like fishing, woodcarving, etc. Lara wants me to be excited about Nascar, Duke Basketball, and Hallmark movies. Hey, Duke Basketball is growing on me, but Hallmark should be banned from the airwaves along w/country music! Second to nothing, I get excited about God making his church Brand New!

In your bulletin there is an envelope labeled IGNITE. My pastor, mentor growing up was Lance Hurley. Lance is planting brand new Illinois Churches. Right now, Ignite is planting a church in Highland Illinois. They are planting churches around Chicago. After last week’s message, the Lord knows we need more churches! If you have extra cash, or can write a check, you can help birth a new Illinois church this morning. But sometimes its’ not a “brand new” church plant that’s needed. Church births happen all the time! Sometimes it’s a resurrection? Resurrections are far more rare. The issue I faced was can God revitalize a dying church. Can God resurrect a dead church?

I believe Christians have largely lost faith in God’s ability to revitalize/resurrect dying churches. How do we know? Because churchgoers are the first people to run from one church to the next at the first hint of struggle. If the sermon is a little dull, if the music is a little stale, if the children’s program is understaffed, if the building has fallen into disrepair, if Euodia/Syntyche are at each other’s throats, if the church people don’t feel very dynamic or look so happy, if the finances are down, if someone taps on our shoulder to serve, if few squeaky wheels start squawking, if some big fish (or shark) starts cruising the pond . . . we’re running to the next church.

How often does it cross your mind that maybe in addition to making YOU brand new, God wants to make his CHURCH (that you’re already attending) brand new? There isn’t anything lacking in God’s power/presence/willingness to resurrect something dying. What is greatly lacking however, is our power/presence/willingness. We so easily grow weary. We so quickly abandon and check out. We so stubbornly resist sacrificing the time, energy, service, money that’s needed. *The most alarming trend that exists in the American Church is how readily we abandon what’s small and struggling to consolidate into what big and shiny. What if God has something harder in mind?

I believe God resurrects Churches through three core commitments. First and foremost is a commitment to Christ-Centered Worship. It’s so elementary, I’ve beat this drum to death, but help me out. What does 2 Corinthians 5:17 say? “If anyone is in… who?” Say it! Shout it! “If anyone is IN CHRIST, he is a new creation.” A church dies because we get into just about everything else and stop getting so much into Christ. We get into the church programs. We get into the music. We get into the cult of celebrity/cool/hip pastors. We get into the cult of our traditions. We get into the cult of our heritage, denomination, tribe, brotherhood… our cliques, family, history, our past.

Anything that becomes a bigger deal than Jesus is an idol—and God never blesses nor revitalizes an idolatrous church. I heard that the American Idol is coming to Springfield. There long had another reality show called the Church Idol. The Simon Cowell of Church Idol is the consumer Christian. We’re looking at the church judging whether it has the “IT” Factor. Does it check all my boxes? The most important thing is does the Church love Jesus? Is Jesus the Head, is He Lord, is He Center?

One time a seasoned pastor told me about John 12:32. Jesus promises, “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” When I began preaching, I may have been young, immature, and inexperienced. But make no mistake—at least I started with the right assumption. If I raise up Jesus, he’ll do the drawing. If he becomes greater, his church will become greater. If I become greater, his church will be less.

Second is a commitment to Christ-Centered Community. In John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There are so many things that jump out at me about this verse, but I’ll mention two. First, is the word “IF.” If we don’t raise up Jesus, he isn’t going to draw anyone. But neither will God draw anyone if we don’t really love one another. Why is it that churches are becoming known for just about everything other than love? Their buildings. Their technology. Their programs. Their slick systems. Their politics.

I debated whether to watch the Elton John movie, the musical fantasy, Rocket Man. Do I really want to support an industry so set against everything that is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, good, excellent, and praiseworthy? Neither do I want to have my head completely in the sand! The same hunger that has driven Elton John’s entire life, drives most everyone else as well. It’s LOVE. If Christ’s Church would practice Christ’s kind of love—we wouldn’t be able to keep people away.

Why are there so many empty chairs in this room right now? It’s because our church has a lot of growing to do. A church grows through love. Love is attention. If Church is all about “you” getting attention, we die. If church becomes more about you giving attention (i.e. considering others more highly than self) the church blows up! Is our church experience more about giving or getting? Just as God doesn’t bless an idolatrous church, He never blesses a self-centered church. If we love more, Jesus becomes contagious to everyone. If we love less, Jesus becomes immaterial.

Third is a commitment to a Christ-Centered Calling. In John 3:37-38 Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” In Matthew 10:32-33 Jesus says, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” 1 John 2:1, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one.” In 1 John 4:15, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” 1 John 5:12, “The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” It’s not enough that we acknowledge Christ for ourselves. Do we believe Christ can be, and should be, an indispensable part of other people’s lives as well? If the answer is yes, we will accept Christ’s call. If no, we’ll neglect his call.

In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s so amazing to have TCM with us this morning. TCM stands for “Taking Christ to Millions.” When a church answers Christ’s call it’s no longer “Taking Christ Maybe…” Instead its Taking Christ to Millions. Why? Because “Everyone…” “Whoever…” and “If anyone… is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away and behold the new has come.”

One of the most important things I had to resolve as a pastor—beyond the obvious thing trusting Jesus—was whether I’d walk across the street for Jesus. Would I risk breaking the ice, risk conversation, brave Jesus’ mission? If I wouldn’t brave it, would anyone in my church brave it? So these three commitments are so powerful.

Now for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say!

Years later cars were hard braking in front of the church as drivers craned their necks to get a glimpse of what was happening. Dumpsters couldn't be delivered fast enough as an army of volunteers descended upon the sanctuary to sledgehammer the plaster walls, dismantle the old baptistery, and scoop layers of pigeon waste out of the bell tower. The impossible seemed to be happening.

The local coffee shop was abuzz with rumors of a revitalized church. Curious guests filled the sanctuary week after week. Families with kids of all ages began finding new life in Christ. Damaging patterns of sin that had persisted for decades were finally being confronted. Trust was being restored in God and Christ's church. Wounds were being healed. Baptisms were becoming a regular occurrence. Cynicism had given way to hope. The church was slowly coming alive!

Hologram Jesus had literally and figuratively been ejected from the building. The living, resurrected Jesus had assumed his rightful place as the Lord of this formerly dying church.

Today the church is healthy and vibrant. Through steadfast leadership, the church has magnified their impact on the community, raised up fresh leaders, cultivated healthy groups, encouraged other churches, and sent out teams on missions’ trips. The historic building that had housed the church for nearly two centuries was sold and a new building constructed for future generations.

If you drive into “Old” Berlin you will notice that the historic Berlin Christian Church building, over a century/half old, is now a Daycare Center. But on the edge of town you’ll notice that God has taken one of the oldest churches in Illinois and made it brand new. A building can be a reflection of a congregation's spiritual vitality. In this case the building is an inspiring reflection of a thriving church, who has embraced her identity as a beacon of hope for her community. Such is God’s desire and will for every church.

Scripture Verses

2 Corinthians 5:17; John 12:32, 13:35, 3:37-38; Matthew 28:18-20

Worship Playlist

  • Build Your Kingdom Here
  • Sons and Daughters
  • How Deep the Father's Love For Us 
  • This I Believe

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