What Draws People to Church?

What draws people to a store?

This is a basic question in marketing. Sometimes it is gimmicks. Other times it is sales. I ordered a hamburger at a fast food store, and the clerk gave me two hamburgers. I told her that I only ordered one burger, and she replied, “Buy one and you get one free.” Quite a deal. No wonder the restaurant was really packed that day. People like a bargain.

What attracts people to the church? That question is asked continually in a progressive church. Our text gives us the answer.

Jesus healed a crippled woman. When the synagogue ruler witnessed the miracle, he was angry. Repeatedly he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days to be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But Jesus had an answer for the rabbi, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When He said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The crowd was happy! This is an important verse. It tells us what draws people to the Church. Pounding people with the Law of God, giving them a good scolding each Sunday, or promoting a good cause does not attract people, but try the Gospel and see what happens. Tell them about the Lord Jesus. Let the crowds hear of His grace and mercy, and they will come. Jesus said it, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”

The worshipers at the synagogue were delighted that this woman was healed. She was set free. That is what the Gospel does. People often come to the worship service tired and discouraged. They come out of a busy week where there have been many tough moments. Not all went well at work, there are financial problems, not all is well in the family, but it is Sunday and they need to attend worship. If in the service this person can hear the Good News that Jesus understands, and words of contentment are spoken to him or her, there is help. His problems are not all solved, but he knows that Christ walks with him. He catches the message, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” If he is reminded of his sins with no assurance that they can be forgiven, he goes home with an extra heavy heart. One more problem has been added to his list of discouragements. There is little to bring him back the next Sunday.

Though Jesus gives us the answer to drawing people to Him, how easy it is to say, “Yes, that is right, but other answers seem to get a priority place in attracting people to the service.” Here are a few of these answers familiar to most of us who have been around the church for a while pondering the question, “What can we do to improve our church attendance?”

Good fellowship and friendliness. How true. We humans like to be recognized, and to not be treated kindly is offensive.

Informality in dress. This is relatively new. Some remember when we talked about having a suit we wore to church. I remember well when a woman wore a beautiful pantsuit to church. This was a first. Now it is “come as you are.” This is appealing to some potential worshipers.

The coffee pot. How nice to have a cup of coffee before going to, or after, the worship service. It helps to break the silence between strangers and helps create a friendly atmosphere. Who could vote against the coffee pot?

Listen to these four suggestions, which come from a large department store and are passed on to the church as helpful in attracting people to the services: excess parking, something in the program for everyone, serving people, and advertising.

I believe that all of the above are important, and without a doubt, do attract people to attend worship services, but it takes more than these practical suggestions. Only Jesus Christ is the One who will draw people to His house.

I will never forget an evening that I spent with Dr. M. J. Nelson, the academic dean at the University of Northern Iowa. We were invited to their house for dinner, and while my wife and Mrs. Nelson were in another room, I shared with the Dean that sometimes it made me a bit nervous to preach to highly educated people like him. He had a PhD degree and was a student of the classics. I was a young pastor with little experience.

Dr. Nelson listened as I expressed myself, and then he quietly, and rather dramatically, walked across the room and put his hand on my shoulder. “Pastor,” he said, “when I come to church, I come to be fed with God’s Word. Never be concerned about my academic degrees. I am a babe in Christ.”

What draws people to the church? Dr. Nelson would say, “Preaching Christ.”

The critics of the Reformation were concerned that if salvation was by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and humans contributed nothing to their salvation, they would live ungodly lives. It was their conviction that keeping not only the Law of God, but also the law of the Church, was necessary if one was to be saved. It was not faith alone, but faith plus works. Therefore, it was necessary to preach a lot of Law to control people’s behavior. They could not believe that a love for Christ would motivate the believer to live according to God’s will. This is something like the rabbi in our text who was insistent on keeping the Law, even it if meant letting a person suffer.

There is no question that the Law of God is important. It convicts us of our sins and leads us to Christ, who alone can take away our sins. It reveals God’s will for our lives. But it is Christ alone who forgives, makes us new people, and creates a personal relationship with God. Tell the story of Jesus every Sunday, and the hungry souls will come back to be fed on the Bread of Life.

This is a powerful word from Jesus to His Church. Remember the crowd’s reaction when they saw the woman healed, “They were rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.” It is Christ who draws us to Him and His Church. People rejoice when lives are changed and spirits are lifted. That is just as true today as it was when Jesus ministered in the synagogue.

Have you heard this Gospel today? Do you believe it is true? Then tell someone about Christ this week. He makes all things new.

A New World

Pete was a high school student who entertained the question, “What am I going to do in life?” When he left for college, Pete’s grandmother asked him what his plans were for the future. “Grandma, I don’t know for sure what kind of work I will do. Ask me in a couple of years and perhaps I will be able to tell you.”

Soon Pete came to a decision Ð he wanted to be a rich man. He looked around and saw what money could buy him, and he liked what he saw Ð beautiful houses, expensive cars and boats, travel, and the list grew. Having a good mind and a pleasing personality, the young man was on his way to becoming a financial success. At the age of 40, he had a net worth of more than one million dollars with every intention of acquiring more wealth.

He worked hard. There wasn’t much time for his family. His mind was so preoccupied with the next business deal that his personality began to change. Dollars were worth more than friends. Eventually people began to avoid him. He wasn’t the same old friend anymore. Some could even point to business transactions where Pete’s ethics could be questioned. When a friend questioned him about his materialism, Pete became angry!

While all of this was going on, Pete still was faithful in attending church on Sunday morning. His mind would drift during the sermon as he planned the next week. He knew the teachings of the Christian faith well, and always made sure he and his family received communion once a month. His stewardship was not good, but the few thousand dollars that went to the church treasury yearly were well accepted, and some labeled him a generous contributor.

But one day Pete’s life changed. As the pastor proclaimed the Gospel telling what Christ has done for us, he got Pete’s attention. The Holy Spirit was at work. The questions in the sermon created some guilt in his soul. “What is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you know Him personally? Do you spend some time with Him every day? When did you last pour out your heart to Him in prayer? You are providing financially for your children, but have they heard you talk about your relationship with the Savior?”

When the service ended, Pete took his family to Sunday brunch at the country club. Several of the women stopped to talk with his wife, but the most he got from any of the men was a cold, “Hi, Pete.” Though these fellows had been his friends at one time, through the years they had grown apart.

Pete wanted to talk, but he was too proud to discuss his spiritual life with his wife, to say nothing about the pastor or some of the laity in the church who could have helped him. He did take his Bible to the office and began to spend an hour in study each day. Finally, one day he fell to his knees and confessed his sins to Christ. He prayed that the Lord would receive him again. The story of the Prodigal Son, which he read in Luke 15, had truths in it that applied to him. He was far away from God. Would the Father receive him back into the family of God? Right then he experienced the meaning of Christ’s coming to this world. He was forgiven by grace through faith in Christ. The Father had never left him. He had left the Father.

That night Pete shared the experience with his wife. Soon the children began to sense a difference in their dad’s life. As time passed, his business associates asked Pete what was going on in his life, and he told them of his experience with the Lord. But now, what about his life? What about his time and his net worth of $10 million? In Pete’s daily visit with the Lord, he sensed God was directing him. Pete entered a whole new world where some of his challenges were, “How can I share my faith with my children, my friends, and even my grandma who needs to learn the real joy of being a Christian?” What satisfaction he received in using his wealth that others might know of God’s love in Christ!

You may ask if this a true story. Yes, it is. I have simply described a first-century Christian living in our twenty-first-century culture. Jesus is still spending the day with anyone who will let Him into his or her heart and mind. Through His visits, people’s lives are being changed as they turn them over to Jesus.

You can read about the first century Pete in Luke 19. Since then, there have been millions of people who have had a new world open to them as they hear Jesus say, “You, too, are a part of my kingdom, because I came to seek and to save the lost; and you were one of the lost until I made you a new person.” Isn’t life thrilling and challenging when you see it through the eyes of Jesus!

Who’s the Judge?

Who’s the judge?

From the cradle to the grave we live under judgment.

The parent judges the baby. “He was such a contented baby and seldom fussed. He slept through the night when he was just a couple months old. But then his sister was born. She had her days and nights mixed up, and we got little sleep until she was several months.”

The teacher judges the student. She tells the parent at their conference, “Bob’s a good student, but it is evident that he does not have the talent that his older sister has. You can’t expect as much from him.”

Teenagers are often under the judging eye of their peers. Pete is weird. Joe is a great guy. The only trouble is that he knows it. Mary walks at a fast pace. My mother doesn’t like her. Barbara is a beautiful personality.

Fortunate is the person who learns early in life how to handle the judgments of others. St. Paul helps us with this lesson, so I chose this verse early in life: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (I Cor. 4:3-4).

In these verses we see judgment coming from three sources: others, ourselves, and God.

In one sense of the word, we need to have some concern about the judgment of others. Our livelihood depends to some degree on how we are judged by our superiors. Employers expect us to be faithful and competent in our work. The Christian’s behavior is important if they are going to be successful in sharing the Gospel of Christ with others. But the judgment of others can get out of hand and tie us up in knots if we place too high a priority on what others think or say about us.

Let me share such an experience. One of the first members of the congregation I met when we came to Nazareth Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa was the academic dean of the University of Northern Iowa. The first haunting thought that came to my mind was, Am I going to preach to such an educated person every Sunday? Wow! I am not up to that.

Each Sunday I would check to see if Dean Nelson was in his seat. If he were not, I was much more relaxed than on those Sundays when he was there.

One evening I sat in the living room of the Nelson, just the two of us, and I told him about my feeling s if inadequacy to preach to such a highly intelligent person. After listening to me for a bit, he got up from his chair, walked across the room, put his hand on my shoulder, and said words to this effect, Young man, when I come to church, I come to be fed with God’s Word. Have no fear of me or anyone else. We all need to hear this message.”

He helped me quite a bit in dealing with the judgments of others. It is a small thing that we are judged by humans.

Second, Paul writes, “I don’t even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.”

Some judge themselves too harshly. They live with defeated complexes. They make comparisons between themselves and others. When they feel inferior, they drop out of sight and make little contributions in a world that needs to hear form them. I can’t preach like Billy Graham. Does that mean I should quite preaching? A veteran says, “I came back from the war and did not have the purple heart, but two of my friends received this high award. Does that mean I did not have an important place in the war?

I taught first grade all my life. My friend, who is much more intelligent than I became a consultant on elementary education. She wrote books and lectured all around the country. But if you were a good first grade teacher and helped the children get a good start in readying, isn’t that a tremendous contribution to the world of education?

One of my friends tells about all the people he led to Christ. I wonder if I have introduced any person to the Savior with the exception of my children. Stop judging yourself. Think of what you have done. Your children point to you and say, “I came to know the Lord Jesus through Christian parents.”

Then Paul gets to the judgment that is all important Ð the judgment of God. This judgment often gets the least consideration of all in the lives of many people.

The Bible says, “He will bring to light what is hidden in the darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (I Cor. 4:5). When the Holy Spirit has worked through the Law of God, I join with David and say, “I have sinned against the Lord” (I Samuel 12:13).

It is then that we hear the realistic words of Scripture, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word has no place in our lives” (I John 1:8 & 10). All of our thoughts, word, and actions are exposed for what they are. There is no hiding from God. Only he knows our hearts. He cannot be fooled. Our excuses for not living according to His Word are not accepted by God.

God will not condone one of our sins, but He will forgive all of them. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us form all unrighteousness. If we walk in the light as he is in the light, w e have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (I John 1:7, 9).

That’s the Gospel, which frees us from our sins to live for our Savior. Therefore, it is God’s judgment of our faithfulness to Him that is of most concern to us who trust Jesus as our Savior.

Put this thought into your list of recall truths. It’s a small thing that I am judged by people I don’t even judge myself, but I am very concerned that I be found faithful to the Lord Jesus who has freed me from all of my sins and made me His forever.

A Call to Faithfulness

What does God want from His children?

The answer is given in our text, and it can be summarized in one word – faithfulness. That same word summarizes the Christian life.

The Scriptures teach, and experience teaches, that God is faithful to us. He is unchangeable. The writer of the book of Hebrews put it this way, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) This Word is being challenged today. One theological professor believes that God is changeable. Writing on the subject of the practice of homosexuality, which was condemned in Biblical times but is gaining acceptance in our day, he teaches that the human being is constantly changing. Consequently, God has to adjust His laws to keep up with these changing human beings. It kind of leaves us in no man’s land.

If God’s Word is forever changing, what shall we do with those promises that assure us of a god who loves us and will never forsake us? Well, thank God that the notions of people on the subject of God’s faithfulness will come and go, but His Word remains forever.

God is consistent. The creation testifies to this truth. All we have to do is look at the seasons. As I write this sermon, the temperature is 95 degrees. This is August in Iowa. But when I greeted a friend this morning saying, “It’s a hot one,” he replied, “Yes, but give us a few months and we will be saying, ‘It’s a cold one today.’” How does he know? Experience has told him that in Iowa, August is hot, and December is cold. This is the consistency of God revealed in His creation.

In the same manner, He will be just as faithful in His promises dealing with forgiveness, encouragement and strength for the day, and direction for our lives.

Turning now from God’s faithfulness to ours, the Lord calls His children to be faithful to Him. Jesus is talking about watchfulness. The message is simple, “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for these servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” The reference to the master’s return can be interpreted as the second coming of Christ or the Lord coming to receive us in death.

Who are these children? They are the people who have received Christ as their Savior and Lord and live in a personal relationship with Him. This is a relationship that is constant, not one turned on for one occasion and turned off for another. Let me illustrate: We sat at the golf course waiting for the rain to stop so we could begin our play. One of the men mentioned that he had been in church on Sunday. I assumed that in this congregation they sing hymns giving praise to God for His faithfulness. This was the world of the sacred. As the conversation progressed, the man began to curse, taking God’s name in vain. Now he was living in the secular world. How inconsistent! With the same tongue he both praised and profaned the name of God. This is not to be, if we are ready to meet Him whenever He calls us. The Bible calls for consistency in our Christian life. God wants faithfulness at all times from His people. There are no sacred and secular departments in our lives. We do not turn on our Christian faith to meet the satisfaction of one crowd and denounce the Savior by our speech or behavior to win the approval of another group.

Sadly, we all confess that we have our weaker moments where our behavior can be a poor witness for our Lord, but examine the life of one who walks with the Lord, and you see faithfulness to the Savior as a characteristic of his or her life. Faithfully, the Christians serve the Lord. Sunday morning finds the Christian in the church, praising God. Throughout the week the Christian seeks to be faithful to what the Lord says to him or her in the Word. When there is an opportunity to point people to the Lord Jesus as their Savior, the witness is clear. When there is a chance to reach down and help those who are in need, the Christian will be there to help out. They are the ones in the congregation who can be counted on to serve. It is not a law they are fulfilling. It is an experience they are living out. Living every day in the presence of a faithful God, they long to be faithful to Him.

This faithfulness to God is seen in our relationship to people. The husband and wife who are faithful to God are faithful to each other. There is no cheating on the other. The person who is faithful in his or her relationship with God is faithful in their relationship to their employer or employee. There is a strong work ethic. My employer is faithful in his relationship with me. I am paid a fair wage for my labor. In turn, I am faithful to him in giving my best to the work I am hired to do.

Jesus ends the parable by saying, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Was this to frighten people? No, it was to help us understand that our address on this earth is not permanent. One day we will die and stand in the presence of God. The one question of importance at that time will be, “What have you done with Jesus?” If we have received Him as our Savior, we are prepared to die. If we had good intentions to take care of our relationship with Him, but life had been so busy we just hadn’t gotten around to this matter, we are not prepared to die. There we stand in the presence of God without a Savior.

I heard a man say one day, “I have purchased a million dollars worth of term life insurance. Now my family will be taken care of if I die.” He was a good provider, concerned about his family. Was he frightened into making this financial provision for his family? I don’t think so. It was love for that wife and children that motivated him to act. It is God’s love in Christ, reaching into our hearts and pleading with us to receive Him that we might be His for all eternity, that makes us His faithful children. He loves us, and He wants us to be His forever. This calls for faithfulness on God’s part and ours. God is faithful. All is ready for us to be His forever. He has been faithful. Are we? Amen

The Danger of Success

Success can sometimes be dangerous. It can inflate the ego or change a person’s sense of values. That’s what Jesus is talking about in our parable.

There is a part of this parable I like. This young man not only had great goals, but plans as to how these dreams could be fulfilled. He worked hard, and soon was rewarded for his labor. When he had such a bumper crop that he did not know where to store the grain, he was confronted with a greater challenge, just what he liked. “I know what I will do. I will tear down the old barns and build new ones. Then I will have enough storage for my crops and I will be in a position to retire.” Nothing wrong with that planning, is there?

Would Jesus have preferred this young man have lived one day at a time and never accomplished much? Of course not.

This parable reminds me of a family in our congregation. There were two brothers and a sister who never married. Forty years ago they had few possessions. They rented a farm and were thrifty in their spending. They did not buy the newest equipment. They worked very hard. They saved every dollar they could and soon were able to make a down payment on a beautiful piece of land. Many people felt this land was too costly for them, but they fooled them all. Not many years later, through good management and ambition, they owned their farm. It did not alter their lifestyle. They didn’t sit back and rent the farm to some other person to enjoy the leisure life. They enjoyed some traveling, a nice car, a comfortable home, and a lot of friends. One day the younger brother died of a heart attack. Now the older brother and his sister decided it was time to move into a condominium, and a bit later into an assisted living facility at a care center.

A few months ago, the last of the siblings died, leaving an estate that exceeded a million dollars. Their money was given to charitable groups. This family had a vision and a plan, which assured them their dream would become a reality. The plans made their life thrilling, and eternity sure, for Christ had become their Lord, and He governed their thinking.

The man in our parable had a plan for his future, and for that he should be commended, but had given no thought to what would happen when he died. As organized as he was to be a financial success, so disorganized he was in spiritual matters. Eternity was not a part of his thinking. His material success made him oblivious to God’s plan for his life.

Think of it! This parable, which Jesus told two thousand years ago, is an apt description of millions of people today. All energy is spent to become a financial and social success. What happens in this life is all-important. Some of these people would question if there is an eternity, and others would reason that, if there is a life after death, it will have to take care of itself. Jesus’ words, spoken so clearly, go unheeded. “You fool! This very night your soul will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be when anyone stores up things for himself, but is not rich toward God.”

How would the man in Jesus’ parable have been different had he walked with the Lord? Would he have given away everything? Would there have been some left for his own personal enjoyment? On the basis of another Bible story, I believe there would have been plenty for him. Do you remember the story of Zacchaeus recorded in Luke 19? When Zacchaeus, who was a rich man, was converted, his life was changed, and he announced to the Lord, “Half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have stolen from anyone, I will repay that person four times what I took from him.” Our Lord did not say, “No, Zacchaeus, half is not enough. Give it all.” Jesus is teaching there is more to life than material possessions.

There is a powerful word here for all of us. To the young, God’s Word reminds us that the question is not simply, “What do I want to do with my life?” Rather it is, “What does God want me to do with my life?” The big decision Ð whom will I marry Ð is not limited to such considerations as, is he the most handsome person around with a winsome personality and a strong financial statement? The words of Scripture are given first consideration, “Do not marry an unbeliever.” If you do not share Christ as Savior and Lord, this marriage will be lacking, though there will be everything money can buy in your home. Raising a family is more than providing the child with the material possessions of life. It is introducing him or her to the Lord Jesus as the source of all comfort and the God of all consolation.

As we grow older, the question still must be asked, “As a retiree, are my plans for life at 70 the same as God’s plans for me? What do you have in mind for me, Lord?”

In this parable, God has not spoken against success. He just warns us of its dangers, unless our plans fit into the plans He has for us. Success can inflate our ego to the point that we are obnoxious and no one will care to be around us. Or it can distort our sense of values so that we fail to hear Jesus saying, “Your salvation rests in knowing me personally as your Savior and Lord.”