October 22: The Welcoming Church Reaches Out

The Welcoming Church Reaches Out

Acts 8: 26-39 (Common English Bible) October 22, 2023

          Back in August I preached a message series entitled: The Welcoming Church. We are a welcoming church, but how can we improve?

          Today, we’re taking a closer look at how we reach out as a welcoming church. We’ll focus on the answer to two questions: Why should we reach out and invite people to our church? And How do we reach out and invite people to our church?

          We’ll start with why. As I’m sharing my thoughts about this, ponder how you would answer that question: Why should we reach out and invite people to our church? I’ll give you an opportunity to share your answers to that question in just a bit.

          Let me start by sharing answers that I don’t think are very good. These are poor reasons to be doing outreach.

          First, is the one shared by many of our evangelical sisters and brothers: We should reach out and invite people to our church so that people can get saved, avoid hell and go to heaven. I no longer believe in a hell after this life is over so I don’t believe in the underlying theology of this reason.

          The second poor reason to reach out and invite people to our church is so we can get more money to pay our pastor and keep up this beautiful building. I know we are a business and have bills to pay, but it doesn’t seem right for a church to seek more people just to improve our bottom line.

          The third not as good reason to reach out and invite people to our church is so our church doesn’t die. This church is important to all of us, but Jesus talked about focusing our love and attention on God and those around us instead of being selfish. We are invited to share and give our life away, rather than focus on saving our life or even our church.

          This leads me to thinking about those good reasons to reach out and invite people to our church.

          First, God calls us to love our neighbors. We love them by letting them know about the good things we have experienced in our church.

          Second, God wants to bring God’s kindom to earth. I believe the church is a taste of God’s kindom. Inviting people to church is inviting people closer to God’s kindom.

          Third, people need a loving and safe community. We know that over the years many places where people can experience loving, safe community have disappeared. People live farther from family and no longer feel connected to their small towns. We all need a safe place, a loving place, a place where people know your name and care about you as an individual.

As a pastor, I’ve always been deeply involved in a local church. But there was a year when we weren’t. Here’s the story.

Lori and I decided to stop working at age 58 and do some travelling. We both took early retirement in the middle of 2016. We travelled to Prince Edward Island in Canada. We took the train to Seattle, Washington and then flew to Alaska. We spent five weeks together in Italy. That January, we drove down to Florida for three weeks. The following month we flew to St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

But then we got some bad news. Lori was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. We were scared and devastated. We also felt alone. We no longer had a church family. We needed a loving community to help us through this hard journey.

So, we visited a few churches together. The one church that felt like it could best help us in our difficult time was the Phoenix Community Church in Kalamazoo. They are a LGBTQ majority church that has about fifteen people for worship on Sunday nights. Even though most of the people are gay, they warmly accepted us straight people and wrapped their loving arms around us. Most of all, they prayed for us and with us. We’ve been a part of that Sunday evening church ever since.

Like I said, people need a loving and safe community, especially when they are going through hard times.

Next Sunday we’ll celebrate this church’s 170th anniversary. Back in 1853, this was a new lumber town. At first, it was called Shingle Diggins, then, Dickerville, then Watervliet. The new settlers yearned to gather together for community and to worship God. They came from many different Protestant church backgrounds.

They started meeting in June of 1853 in a log school house with Rev. Osborn as their pastor. The following year they purchased the present site for fifty dollars and began to build on this land right underneath us today. It took them four years to build because they said, ‘religion was in a low state’ back then. Pews were made on slabs with no soft upholstery or backs on them. It started out being known as the Union Church. Soon it became the First Congregational Church which met in the morning while the Methodists met here in the afternoon.

They started the church and others have continued the church for 170 years because they found a loving, safe community here which worshipped God.

 I’ve shared some of my reasons why we should reach out and invite people to our church. What would you say? Why do you think we should reach out and invite people? Why do you think this church could be helpful to someone?

          Let’s look at the second question. How? How do we reach out and invite people?

          We’ll start with our Scripture story today. Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Those cities are still around 2000 years later, aren’t they? God, help the people of those two cities today: Jerusalem and Gaza.

We find Philip, an early follower of Jesus, and this wealthy Jewish man from Ethiopia on the road between the two cities. Watch how Philip reaches out.

          First, Philip listens to the Ethiopian man’s upset and questions. Listening is always an important first step.

          Second, Philip names their common values and empathizes with the Ethiopian. The things they held in common were they had both recently been in Jerusalem. They both had seen the oppression of the Roman occupation and the corruption of the Jewish temple leadership.

          Third, Philip shares his own spiritual journey in an honest and open way. He shares about Jesus Christ and the church he has come to know. He tells about the good news he’s experienced.

          Fourth, Philip extends an invitation for this man to be a part of the Christian faith by being baptized.

          This leads us to describe how a welcoming church and its members reach out today.

          It starts with listening and empathizing with the people around us. We listen to them share about their challenges and their spiritual needs. We walk alongside them.

          Then it moves to sharing with them how the church has made a difference in our lives.

That should be easy for you. I know this church is important to you. Let’s just pause and share aloud again some of those ways that you have found this church helpful to you. How has the First Congregational UCC of Coloma made a difference in your life?

          After listening to them and sharing with them our church story, we invite them. We invite them to join us for worship on Sunday morning. We invite them to help us with a work project or Soup Supper or special activity. We invite them to join us on the Mission Trip next Fall.

          Of course, right now we can make the following invitation: Would you like to join me at our special 170th Anniversary Celebration next Sunday starting at 10:00 and including dinner to follow?

          Who can we invite? It could be a family member like a son or daughter or grandchild or sibling. It could be a neighbor or someone you know around the area who is in the same group as you. It could be a good friend. It could be that person who used to attend years ago and remembers Kevin McLemore. But it also could be someone who you’d never think would darken the door of a church. You never know who might be open to an invitation today.

          Maybe you’ve asked them before and they said, “No.” But now is a different time in their life. Maybe they are ready now. Like I told you, there was a unique time in our life when we really needed a church family.

          I’m thankful for the invitations that the people of this church have made over the past 170 years to their neighbors and friends and family. It’s made a difference in the lives of thousands of people. It’s brought them love and community and a taste of God’s kindom on earth. Thank God for the First Congregational UCC of Coloma.  

          As the choir sings, be thinking about who you will be inviting this week.

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