Someone emailed me yesterday and, at the end of their email, wrote “can’t wait to hear the first message of 2019!” which reminded me of two things: first, this is the first Sunday of the new year. It’s hard to believe that it’s the first week of January with it being 50 degrees outside, by the way. Yesterday I joined with many other Michiganders in wearing our state outfit for balmy wintery days: shorts and a winter coat. I know it looks strange, but it totally makes sense if you live where we live. This outfit is a two-peninsula combination of denial and acceptance. We accept that it’s winter with our winter coat, but we deny winter with our shorts and sandals. I don’t know why this works but it does. So yeah, this is the first Sunday of the new year, and we’re going to be running our air conditioning on the car ride home. That Saturday email reminded me that tomorrow would be Sunday. With the kids home from school for the past two weeks, we’ve been kinda disoriented on the day, the time, the season, etc. As a parent, I can’t wait for school to start. As a pastor in a church with more than a few school teachers, I say to you that I’m so, so sorry. But yeah, it’s Sunday, and it’s a new year, and here we are, ready or not.
The end of the year is always busy for me. But even with everything else that’s been going on for the last few weeks, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about this particular Sunday with great intensity. My family life has been more than a handful lately, the Christmas season at Renovation was chock full, our year-end stuff in the office was intense… but through it all I’ve had a little piece of my mind settled on Sunday, January 6th. I sensed God calling us to something in 2019 — something unique — a theme for the entire year. 2019 will be a very important year for Renovation church.
Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happened in the past year at Renovation. Our church has gone through much change. We changed our building, our seating, our staff, and even our name. 2018 had a theme: that theme was “change”. We didn’t plan it that way, we certainly didn’t brand it that way, but that’s kinda how it fell into place. I’d like to hope, with humility and thanksgiving, that the changes were healthy and good, and I trust that it will increase our ability to achieve our mission to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus. And I pray that, as God led, we made changes that were necessary — sometimes difficult, but always exciting. And with that physical change with our building, our name, etc. came personal change. People’s lives were changed. I’ve changed. You’ve changed. Hopefully, both of us for the better, by which I mean, more like Jesus. 2018 — it truly was a year of change. It kinda happened by accident. No, let’s say it better: it happened, I believe, by God’s perfect timing.
So let’s talk about how God might be leading us in 2019. Just as He led us through a year of change, and 55 years before that of faithfulness as His church, so I believe He will continue to lead us forward into the year ahead.
I’m learning that sometimes God speaks to us through our dissatisfaction and discomfort. As a leader, I’ve had a growing discomfort with how we’ve been doing as a church. We still don’t have it quite together yet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining, I’m not unhappy, and I’m certainly not thankless. By God’s grace, Renovation Church is a strong church. We are generous, having raised more than double our goal for One Less Gift 2018, and that on top of that you gave for Project 2018, early proceeds to Project 2019, the operating budget, Snack Packs, benevolence, mission trips, and more. I praise God for His generosity through you. We are a praying church. We saw some bold, renovating prayers lifted up and answered in 2018. We are a worshipping church. We lift up our voices and sing out, hands and hearts raised. We are a serving church — as we serve the community around us at places like Colonial Acres, with Jesus Loves Kalamazoo, in Haiti, and right here at Renovation in all the ministries that happen every week. We are a Christ-Centered church, meaning that we lift up and follow the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ. We value and listen to the scripture, we show strong hospitality and kindness toward others, and are unique — not looking to be hip but rather simple and down to earth. We exist to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus. We are a church on a mission. Just last month you shared over 100 names of people you were praying about inviting to a Christmas Eve service. We saw almost 500 people here between three services — over 100 more than last year.
We’re blessed to have a solid Kids Ministry under the leadership of Pastor Tiffany Cronin. We see God regularly moving in our kids — from the deep questions they ask to the prayers they pray and the fun they have. They’re drawn to this place, and that’s a gift. We have a talented and committed ministry team working with our kids in each service, and, in Tiffany, a pastor who demonstrates servant leadership and excellent ministry.
We have an amazing Student Ministry under the leadership of Pastor Scott Osborne. Our Middle School and High School students show regular signs of spiritual formation in how they take their faith seriously, follow God passionately, and invite friends to join each Wednesday. Our adult leaders who work with small groups of students make a major impact, and Pastor Scott leads and serves that ministry so well.
We see the effective and passionate leadership of Lynda Haskins in our Go ministry, the wisdom and pastoral care and community leadership of Pastor Craig Glass with our adults, the effects of a well-run church in Christa Hauke, our Director of Operations, and the depth and passion for worship in the leadership of Hank Bunting. I’m so grateful for God’s blessing of Renovation Church, and in how He works and blesses through our lead staff, and I know you’re thankful for our lead staff, too.
But there’s one place in our church — at major part — where I feel some discomfort. And, like I said, sometimes speaks through our dissatisfaction and discomfort, especially as we lead. The area I’m talking about is community. In our church, community is designed to happen in groups. We have some lifegroups that meet and have met for years. It’s not that we’re bad, it’s just that we need to focus more energy and resource into groups, especially as we transition to a multisite church. In every church I’ve been part of, small groups took the most effort and offered the greatest challenge. Small groups are tough! But we need community, and we’re going to find community, not in a big group like this, but in smaller groups of 8 to 10 people.
Community is a big word that has multiple meanings. Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. That’s how you describe a neighborhood, a city, a region. We are Southwest Michigan — we reside in a specific locality, share a government, bump into each other at stores and games, call soda “pop”, wear shorts with our winter coats, etc. That’s level 1, basic community, but it doesn’t describe the church. There’s a second definition that goes deeper: community: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists. This is more of a community within a community. Common interest, distinct from the larger society. This would be like the Rotary or maybe a disc golf team or people who like to hunt or build robots or something. Quite honestly, some view the church this way — it’s like a club, we have a common interest, and we’re different from the outside world. But that doesn’t quite cut it. This definition doesn’t describe the community of a church, either. It’s not enough because it’s not what Christ died to give us. Right? Did Christ die to give us a common interest? No! He died so that we could live. That’s way more important than a chess club or a golf tournament.
Here’s a definition I cobbled together for community that might get us closer to what we’re going for: a group of diverse people who share a common connection with Jesus Christ. Called by God to be the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commanded to love each other and impact the world. This might be closer to what community in the church is supposed to be. It acknowledges that we live in a communal region, but there’s more. It acknowledges that we’re set apart from the bigger community, but it goes deeper. Much deeper. We’re different, diverse, not the same as each other. Yet we have a common connection through Christ, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, with Christ as the hub. We are called by God — chosen and sent on a mission to be the church. We rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit, not our own, which reminds us, too, of the fact that we’re called to be holy. And we love each other, not because it’s a good idea but because Christ commanded us to (we’ll see that in a minute). Not only do we love each other, we love the world that God loves and try to make an impact with the gospel.
For community to work, we need a bunch of different people gathered around Jesus. We need to see ourselves as a community of people called out, which means we abandon our will and follow the will of God. We need to operate by the power of the Holy Spirit, leaving our own powers behind. And we’ve got to love each other. Only then will we impact the world.
Can I ask a question: how can we truly love each other if we don’t really know each other?
(Let that hang for a minute)
Maybe you’re asking me a question: what do you mean by “love” each other? You say “I love my spouse. I love my kids. I love my extended family. I love tacos. Whatever.” What is love? Haddaway asked that question with a song from 1993. eHarmony offers a handful of definitions of love, most of them pushing you to upgrade to their platinum dating service (from what I briefly researched). Psychology Today talks about what love is and isn’t. The Greeks had words, multiple words and definitions for love — different variations. Eros is the kind of love between husband and wife. Phileo is the kind of love between brothers. Agape is the gracious love that God has for us — an unconditional, divine love. We are made to experience and know different kinds of love. So when we ask this question (how can we truly love each other if we don’t know each other) — what kind of love are we talking about?
Well, what does Jesus say? We’re the church, right? And we exist to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says this:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13:34 — Love one another. The Greek there is agapao allelon. Agape love is divine, unconditional love. Allelon is “one another.” That’s the love that Jesus has for us: he says “as I have loved you unconditionally with a divine love, so you must love each other unconditionally with a divine love.” That’s the kind of love that people in the church are supposed to have for each other. How can we have that if we don’t know each other? If we don’t have community?
Did you notice that Jesus calls this a command? It’s not a suggestion, or a strategy, or an option. It’s a command. Jesus commands us to do stuff because, if we had the option, we probably wouldn’t do it, even if it’s good for us. Kinda like going to the gym. New year’s resolution, anyone? Has anyone made themselves — commanded themselves — to go to the gym?
It may not sound very loving for Jesus to command us to love — but it is. Just like we tell our kids when they’re young to obey us, not for their displeasure but for their safety and success in life. Jesus has the same motivation. You will love one another. You won’t feel like it, it won’t come naturally, and you’ll tend to avoid it with plenty of good, maybe even spiritual sounding excuses. Just do it. Jesus is our Lord, our boss, our leader, and He commands us to love one another. Not for our displeasure but for our safety and success.
This is a good command with a positive effect for everybody involved. When we love each other, everybody wins. When you love me, I find a spiritual and relational safety that I need, that can’t be satisfied anywhere else. I know that I can come to this community, brokenness and messiness apparent, and you’ll love me. When I love you, even when you may not seem to “deserve” it, it reminds me of how gracious God is to love me even though I certainly don’t deserve it. He commands it because we need it. You need to be loved, and you need to love. I’m not talking about romance, and I’m not talking about just family — I’m talking about the church. This is important enough for Jesus to command it of us.
Did you notice, too, that this command to love each other, when it’s carried out, has an impact on the world? He says “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” There’s a “side effect” to community that shares the love of Christ: people notice. And they’ll find it peculiar and odd and maybe even think it’s kinda cult-y, yet they’ll be drawn to it because they need agape love. I’m here to tell you that the world is longing for the kind of community that the church — Renovation Church — is supposed to be. We have something here that people are dying to discover.
Here’s irony: we live in a hyperconnected world where you and I can be reached via telephone, email, text, snapchat, fax, telegram, facebook, instagram, and through Siri and Amazon Echo, yet our culture has never been more lonely. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic — a health crisis. Experts say that loneliness is just as much of a health risk as being obese. A recent study by the American Psychological Association shows that lonely people are at greater risk for premature death. Roughly 53% of americans polled reported that they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions with friends or family, which means that almost half of us have no meaningful daily interactions with friends or family. Adults age 18-22, deeply entrenched in technology and interconnectivity, proclaim boldly that they are the loneliest generation.
There’s a difference between connection and community. In connection: we can communicate, one self to another, as needed. In community, together we share something beyond ourselves. Connection is what happens when you’re standing in line at Little Caesars and talk about the sunshine with the person behind you while you’re waiting for your pizza. It’s nice to converse, but there’s not a lasting bond. Community is where bonds are made over a shared experience, a constant commonality, a shared love and purpose. Jesus provides this: we have the shared experience of spiritual formation. We have the constancy of His presence in every second of our lives. We know the love of God and share that love with each other. And we have a shared purpose: our lives are not our own, we were bought with a price.
Think about the loneliness epidemic. What does the scripture say to our isolation? What does it say to people who are hyperconnected but lack community? Where does God speak to this issue?
Consider just a few of the one another passages in scripture:
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 15:7
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Encourage one another and build each other up.. 1 Thessalonians 5
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other… James
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds… Hebrews 10
The church, if when it works right, is the answer to the loneliness epidemic. Actually, we should say that Christ is the answer, and that the church is trying her best to keep up. That’s why we’re having this conversation today, right? Jesus said “love one another… that way, people will know you are my disciples.” It didn’t come easy for the first disciples. The early church had to work on this constantly. Something in us resists one-another-ness.
If they had to work on loving one another in community, so will we. But it will be so worth it.
The divine, unconditional agape love of Christ has a certain shape, a certain vibe to it: focused on others, self-sacrificial, encouraging, accepting, and even confessing sins to each other. That’s risky. But this is what we ultimately need: not connection but community. And not just any community, but a community centered on Jesus: the one who is the source and example of unconditional, divine, self-giving love. He says “see how much I love you? Now you love each other like that.”
Impossible? Yes. But only for one reason. The only thing that makes this kind of community impossible is if we don’t seek out this kind of community. In other words, it’s there if we want it.
Renovation Church, welcome to 2019, and welcome to a Year of Community. This is so important for us to figure out as best we can. It’s important enough that we’re dedicating the year to this overarching goal of deepening our community with each other, with the people you see around you and the people who aren’t yet here. Community will be the underlying theme, evident in all we’re doing.
Throughout all of 2019, we’re going to be working at deepening this kind of community at Renovation Church. We’re launching something this Tuesday — the Life Group Experience — that we hope you’ll consider being part of. Our kids connect in Renovation Kids on Sunday mornings; our students connect on Wednesday nights… for the next 6 weeks we want to experiment with a way to connect adults in an instant life group. We’re calling it the LifeGroup Experience.
What is the LifeGroup Experience? It’s a bunch of people who connect with each other in medium and small groups to build community and become more like Jesus. It’s interactive. It’s accessible. It’s encouraging. It’s challenging. And it’s an experiment. We’re going to try it: 6 weeks, 90 minutes long, childcare and food provided. But it’s so much more than that.
You know, it might be easier to describe the LifeGroup Experience by what it’s not:
The LifeGroup Experience is not…
Just a bible study – of course we will study passages of scripture, digging deeper and applying wider, but bible mastery is not the ultimate goal.
Just a social gathering – obviously we will connect with each other, learn names, play a ridiculous icebreaker game or two, and get to know people, but a casual nametag party is not the ultimate goal.
Just a class lecture – sure, there’s going to be somebody talking for little bit and maybe even a few notes jotted at an “aha” moment, but information dump is not the ultimate goal.
Just a checkbox on the list – churched people expect to be nudged into a small group, and rightly so, but being in a group so you can put a checkmark [DONE] in your small group box is not the ultimate goal.
So… what is the ultimate goal of the LifeGroup Experience? Spiritual formation in community. That’s it. The ultimate goal of our LifeGroup Experience is spiritual formation, which is the ongoing process of becoming like Jesus.
“But,” you ask, “can’t I become more like Jesus on my own?”
No. Spiritual formation is something we do individually and together. Our individual times with Jesus build into our together times with Jesus, and our together times with Jesus feed into our individual times with Jesus. In other words, spiritual formation is incomplete without a meaningful connection in Christ-centered community. This, by the way, is what the church is meant to be: a Christ-centered community.
Have you ever wanted to actually see Jesus? I’ve never seen Him face to face, but I “see” Him in community — when someone looks me in the eye and reminds me that God is with me, when a person serves another with selflessness and joy, when I see how we carry each other’s burdens in prayer. Without community, I miss these opportunities to see Jesus, which leaves a gaping hole in my spiritual formation. When I experience the presence of Christ in community, I find a spiritual strength that cannot be replicated in isolation. Left to our own devices, we isolate ourselves and become remarkably lonely and spiritually empty. It’s our fallen human nature. God our Father calls us to community, gathered around His Son Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s not that I am the church — it’s that we are the church and Christ is the head.
Sometimes people hear the word “LifeGroup” or “Small Group” and a list of experiences and expectations subconsciously pop up. Or, if you’ve had no experience in a Small Group, you find yourself thinking about how bizarre and/or scary this might be.
If you’ve never been in a small group:
You might be afraid you’ll be singled out or put on the spot as a newbie. Have no fear. We expect that we will be meeting a bunch of people for the first time. When I started my last year of Middle School we moved, so I ended up changing from one school district to another. That was scary, since everyone in my grade knew everyone else, knew how to get around, where to get in line for lunch. For me, it was nerve racking. If you’re thinking about coming to the LifeGroup Experience, don’t worry. No one has ever done this before. Ever. We’re all gonna be newbies.
You might feel like you don’t know enough about the bible, church, or God, and there’ll be a graded test where everyone gets an A and you get an F, and you’re in your underwear because it’s one of those school dream/nightmares. This is not a classroom or a lecture, and no one is looking for people to have the right answers. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you’re in the right place. And you take your next step in finding, following, and becoming like Jesus. There is no entrance exam.
You might imagine a weird ceremony with candles and Latin and initiation rites. Nothing like that happens here. We will use traditional bulbs for our light source, speak in a regional dialect, and the only initiation rite will be when you write your name on a nametag. Just between us, you don’t even have to put your real name.
You might assume that we’ll sit at a table and talk on and on about uncomfortable things, and about 30 seconds in you’ll hope for some kind of natural disaster to give you reason to bolt. This is actually a fitting concern.
If you’ve never been part of a small group, rest assured that the LifeGroup experience is designed with you in mind.
Now… if you have been part of a small group or two (or 20) in the past, we should talk. I don’t think this will compare to your previous experiences in quite the same way. There will be similarities, though. Most people have a mixed bag of experiences in groups. We should first clear up some unrealistic expectations.
Unrealistic Expectations: Dreams vs. Reality in LifeGroups:
Dream: My ideal LifeGroup would be like the tv show Friends, where we have a Phoebe and a Joey and all the rest, and it would be funny but also have serious moments, and we’d hang out in a coffee house.
Reality: Most LifeGroups are at least a little awkward but always worth it because of a transformative experience, much of which comes as a result of being with people who may be very different from you.
Dream: If I join a LifeGroup, I will finally feel like I know everyone at Renovation Church and we can be like one big family again, holding potlucks and celebrating everyone’s birthday, etc.
Reality: While our typical Sunday has about 300 kids, students, and adults between both services, our church is actually much larger. If we counted everyone who calls Renovation Church “home”, we are more like 550 to 600 people. It’s extremely difficult to know 300 people. It’s impossible to know 600. At this scale we couldn’t possibly know every person. The key is for everyone at Renovation to know at least a few people pretty well. We can maintain a limited amount of relationships, and LifeGroups are designed to maximize opportunity for connection.
Dream: A perfect LifeGroup should be inspiring, deep, fun, snack-fueled and worth my time as an important and busy person, so this better be good.
Reality: LifeGroups are intended to bring about Spiritual Formation, not meet a consumer need. We live in a culture that teaches us to be miserable until we get what we want. We are constantly pushed to displeasure with our experience and our stuff, so we throw it away and buy something new, which is the fuel of consumerism. Unfortunately the church in the US has been infected with consumerism, too, with much of it supported, mostly unintentionally, by leaders. For this to work, it will require a different posture: one of submission to Jesus, giving and not necessarily getting, and as much openness as we are able when it comes to our unique journeys.
That’s the LIfeGroup Experience and it starts this Tuesday evening. Yes, childcare is available, and yes, there will be food. Now — for us to be able to watch your kids and for you to eat, you’ll need to let us know in advance that you’re coming. Sign up on your response card now. And if you’re thinking “oh, I’ll just grab some food on the way…” think again, because we plan on bringing in Chick-fil-a. Waffle fries. Amen.
The other thing we’re launching is another chapter of Rooted. Rooted is a 10-week interactive small group experience like no other. If you haven’t done Rooted, I highly encourage you to check it out. It’s our hope that everyone who calls Renovation Church “home” will do a chapter of Rooted. We see major spiritual formation and community in Rooted.
So, between these two: the LifeGroup Experience and Rooted, would you prayerfully consider making a commitment to a year of Community? If you’re already part of some kind of small group, where you have not just connection but community, where you are known, loved, encouraged, challenged, strengthened, please know that we’re not asking you to bail on that group. But, if you’re part of a large population here at Renovation, you probably don’t have any kind of community connection. Here’s your chance. We’ve done our best to remove the typical barriers (child care, food, accessibility, long time commitment) and now we leave it up to you. We know that Tuesday nights couldn’t possibly work for everyone, schedules are tight, etc. It’s our hope to get this off the ground and possibly launch other LifeGroupExperiences in different time slots. We need to get this one figured out first, though.
Look at 1 Peter 1:17-25. Peter was one of the disciples, by the way, who was standing there when Jesus gave the command to love (agapeo) one another. It’s this divine, unconditional love that builds a community — not just a connection but true community.
Focus in on verse 22 — Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.
By God’s grace, we can do this. We can be the church that Jesus is calling us to be. The next step is ours.
First question: are you a follower of Christ? If not, today’s the day to cross the line of faith. Be purified.
If you are — have you obeyed the truth? Are you remaining in obedience?
Do you commit to loving each other with the agape love of God, deeply — not at the surface but from the heart? It’s a commitment, a choice, an intentional next step.
Jesus said it clearly: a new command I give you — love one another.
By God’s grace, may 2019 be a year of Community at Renovation Church. Amen.