Moderator Cliff Lyda’s Sermon

Cliff Lyda, Moderator of the Presbytery of Chicago, was the preacher for the Worship Service at the December 14, 2010 Presbytery Assembly.

Rev. Cliff Lyda, Moderator, Presbytery of Chicago from Presbytery of Chicago on Vimeo.

Here is the text of his sermon:

Advent is the season of promise.  The Presbytery of Chicago has been holding on to a special promise this year, a promise made to Israel 2500 years ago.  This promise through the prophet Jeremiah was made to a group of people in far more dire circumstances than ours:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

This promise was extended to people whose lives were being forever changed by the harsh reality of exile.  Babylonian armies had surrounded and destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple, and taken the best and brightest of the inhabitants off to exile in Babylon.  Life as it had been known was over.  A new future, one of terrible uncertainty, awaited in a foreign land.

The promise to those exiles came with some instructions. They were told to settle into their exile, not fight against it.  They were told to build houses, plant gardens, marry and have families, to increase their numbers, and most of all, to seek the welfare of the pagan city to which they had been sent because in that city’s welfare would be their own welfare.  They were not to live in little enclaves of purity and holiness, longing in nostalgia for what had been lost.  They were to live among the pagans, and be there as faithful people.

In short, they were to be a missional people in their exile.

The Christian church in 21st century North America faces an exile of its own.  We are not the institution we once were.  We live in a time of discontinuous change.  The decline of the mainline Protestant churches is more than just numerical loss; as an institution, we now have very little place and no real voice in our culture.  It is an exile, and it is permanent.  What we had will not be restored in this lifetime.

Today I want to assert that in our position as cultural exiles we receive the same instructions that Jeremiah conveyed to those headed to Babylon.  Go into this culture, build houses and plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city where you live, because in its welfare is your welfare.  There is a future with hope for this old church very much in decline, but it is not as the institution we have known and loved.  It is as a missionary movement right here in our own communities.

What is the mission?  To follow the missional God, who is at work in the places where we live.  That work is to transform communities, correct social injustices, and to spread the Good News.

This is our work, but it cannot be done with the model of church to which most of us are accustomed.  We are an attractional model of church.  We center our activity in a building, in institutional processes, and in programs meant to attract people to come and join us.   Attractional churches tend to operate by consensus, basing much of their ministry on the preferences and tastes of their members.  The model no longer works in this culture.  What is called for now is the missional model of church, where the primary commitment is to the missionary calling of the people of God.  The attractional church says “they come to us.’ but the missional model says, “we go to them.’

Go out into culture, says Jeremiah.  Build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children–all metaphorical ways of saying transform your community, correct its injustices, and spread the Good News .  Seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent, for in its welfare is your welfare.

So what does that mean for the congregations of the Presbytery of Chicago? Many of our churches are aging, shrinking in membership, with diminishing resources.  Many are discouraged, feeling that their best days are behind them.  Some of our churches continue to do well in the present, but have a unease about the future.  They keep doing what they have always done, even as evidence accumulates that doing what we have always done won’t get us where we need to go.

All of us are stuck to some degree in the attractional model of church. The stark reality is that the extent to which we are operating as attractional churches is the extent to which we are at risk for extinction. The exile we are in is calling us to become missional congregations, missionary movements in our own culture.

Becoming a missional church is not a magical or mystical process.  Any church can become a missional church right now.  While the shift can be difficult and painful, it can happen anytime we choose.  It means deciding that the welfare of the city is where your welfare is found.  A simple decision with profound consequence.

I am going to make three simple suggestions this afternoon.  They are not brilliant, original, or creative.  They are things many of us are already doing.  Do these things and any of our churches will be on the way to seeking the welfare of the city, and finding our own welfare in the process.

First, use your building in mission seven days a week.

Our buildings are wonderful missional assets, but they are underutilized.  We tend to treat them very possessively, as if they were clubhouses.  As a result, they sit empty most of the time, a terrible stewardship.  It is time to release our facilities for transforming communities, correcting social injustice and spreading the Good News every day of the week.

Our buildings can be used in mission in many ways.  Obviously we use them for worship and church life.  We can use them for sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and tending to the wounded.  But we can also use them to create proximity space for the neighborhood around us.  A place for people to gather for very mundane things.  Host a school.  Invite the soccer parents association.  Create an art gallery, a coffee and internet cafe, a music studio.  Find a way to touch the needs of your community through the use of your space.  Do it now, and do it every day.

There are risks.  It will cost you more in money and in hassle.  People are messy, and people with keys can be irresponsible.  It may put you in some tension with your neighbors. You may never gain any new members from all the strangers who use your building.  There are risks, but open your building anyway, seven days a week, and seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare is your welfare.

Second, release your pastors for apostolic witness in your communities.

Our clergy are even better missional assets, but they are underutilized.  Pastors have a calling to apostolic witness in the public square, but we tend to think of them as employees and keep them bottled up in church work.  It is possible for a pastor to be so busy with church things that he or she never gets to know any pagans, and fails to develop any kind of social life outside the congregation.

Yes, pastors have to preach sermons and lead worship, do weddings and funerals, visit the sick, raise the budget, and make sure the heat works–all very basic church functions.  But these things are not a full time calling, and a missional church will minimize the amount of time and energy clergy spend on them.  Their apostolic calling is in transforming communities, correcting social injustice, and spreading the Good News among the public.

Pastors, get your notebook computer, your IPad, and your 4G phone and get out into the city where you live.  Engage the public as widely as possible.   Read your books at Starbucks, write your sermons at Panera. Hold your meetings in public places.  Join the Rotary Club.  Find a civic organization and be active in leadership.  Volunteer at the fire department.  Get on the hospital board or the school board.  Run for mayor!  Find a way to put your hand on the need of your community, and do it now.

There are risks.  Not only are there the inevitable criticisms back at the church, but there is the challenge of facing a public that can be hostile, uncooperative, unsure of who you are, unconvinced of your message, and unimpressed with your title.  There are risks, but go into the public square anyway, and seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare is your welfare.

Third, stop training your people to be church members, and start training them to be missionaries to this culture.

Our church people are the best missional asset, but they are underutilized.  They are bottled up in church, too.  We continue to perpetuate the idea that lay people are not as critical to the work of the ministry as the seminary educated, ordained minister.  We have trained our people to be loyal to the church and to serve in it, but we have not taught them how to connect faith with their own work, spare time or regular activities.  We have taught them very little about their own calling to transform communities, correct social injustices, or spread the Good News through the lives they lead.

It is time to train them, empower them, and to get out of their way.  This is one of the reasons our presbytery has gotten involved in the Acts 16:5 Initiative.  It is time for us to celebrate the ways God calls ordinary people to ministry in business, education, science, sports, art, social service, health care, military service, and in recreation and social activity.  This celebration has to be a central focus of church life.  There is nowhere in culture that the missional God is not at work, and our people are already there.

There are risks.  People are shy about faith sharing, and you will find yourself challenged when you become a missionary where you live and work. You will experience your lack of Bible content and theological knowledge, and you will be hampered by your sense of unworthiness.  In some cases you will find greater satisfaction in your missional impact in your world than you do at your church.  There are risks, but go anyway, and seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent, for in its welfare is your welfare.

The call seek the welfare of the city is transformational to us, and it will change how we do our business.  We do not know where it will lead.  There are no road maps to becoming a missional church, just the willingness to follow the missional God in the work of transforming communities, correcting social injustices, and spreading the Good News. There will always be buildings, and Books of Order, and professional leadership, and programs designed to bring people to us. But we will be a sent church, and our defining value will be a life shaped in the context of the culture to which we are sent.

With that in mind, let us hear again the words of the prophet Jeremiah, words directed today at the Presbytery of Chicago and its congregations:

Go and live as the missional people of God in the city of Chicago and in the surrounding counties.  Live and work there, engage the culture there, seeking the welfare of the community where you are, for in its welfare is your welfare…For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. “

The words sound a little like the promise of Jesus, who in sending his disciples out to make disciples of all nations, told them that he would be present with them always, even to the end of the world.

A future with hope.  Can you think of a more succinct description of the promise of Advent?

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