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Becoming a Healthy Church: Endurance – Refuse to Quit

Endurance: Refuse to Quit

Revelation 3:7-13


Traverse City is a tough place to do ministry. It’s a tough place to be the church. Over the summer you heard me say that according to the Barna Research Group, the Traverse City/Cadillac corridor is the 14th most “dechurched” city in the United States. To be “dechurched” means you once attended church and for whatever reason, you no longer do. Like at all. You no longer consider yourself a part of a church at all, although you once did. And in percentage of people who are “dechurched,” Traverse City and Cadillac together are right up there with major cities like San Francisco and Portland.


That makes our area a mission field. But it’s a really, really tough mission field. You see, almost half of the people who live in and around Traverse City and Cadillac, 40% to be exact, are dechurched. The body of Christ was once a significant part of their lives, but they’ve made a conscious decision to part ways with the church. Many still consider themselves Christian in some sense, but they no longer want anything to do with the church, which is the body of Christ. We live in a world open to and embracing of spirituality, including Christian spirituality, but increasingly skeptical of institutional religion.


Some have left because they were hurt in the church. Maybe through a painful and divisive conflict. Maybe because they disagreed with someone about something they were really passionate about. Maybe they were treated poorly. Others have left because they were hurt BY the church. A pastor or another church leader did something that was hurtful, abused their authority. For others the church, the BODY OF CHRIST, has simply become irrelevant, insignificant to the lives they are living today. Church has become boring and irrelevant. Still others no longer participate because everyone is just so darn busy that they just don’t have time. And for many, the sexual abuse scandals in both Catholic and Protestant churches have rocked our culture in recent years, creating suspicion and rejection of the church not just in those who are directly impacted by the unconscionable abuse, but by those not directly impacted who read and see the stories in the news. What all of that means is that we live and minister for Christ in an area in which a large percentage of the people have made a conscious decision to reject the body of Christ, some for good reason.


Now, there are some churches that are growing, and some that are actually reaching new people, or some of the dechurched, for Christ. But in large part in this area churches grow at one another’s expense. So one church gets the hot hand for a while and Christians kind of flock to that church. The hot church. The “in” church. And then another church gets the hot hand and more move to that church … for a while.


So let me show you how this works. I need four volunteers to come up here. I’m going to give each of you a handful of M&Ms. You can eat them in a minute, but not yet. So each one of you is a church, and the M&Ms in your hand are the people who make up that particular church. Because a church is always people, never a building or set of ministries. The church is people. Or in our case here, M&Ms. So don’t eat the Christians. Now, you each have a different number of M&Ms, but you’re each doing your thing. But let’s assume that church 1 hires a hot new pastor. Really dynamic and energetic. So a few people from each of the other churches heads over to that church, and that’s their church now. So everyone in this church feels really good about things. They’re growing. They’re making an impact. They have to add on to and renovate their building to make room for it all. But these churches over here have lost people. But now let’s assume that church 3 over here hires an all-star worship pastor. He has the goatee and the little hair flip thing. He really wants to be a professional musician but he isn’t quite good enough for that. He’s really good, but not that good. So the church snatched him up and now lots of people are going to that church to hear him sing every week. So now a few people from each of these churches heads that way, including a few from church 1, which is still doing well overall. But look at these other two churches. They have almost no one left. People look at them and laugh. Their worship isn’t a slick as church 3. They don’t have the momentum of church 1. So the few remaining people begin to wonder, what’s the point?


So let me ask you, has the church in the region grown at all? The few unchurched reached for Christ probably barely cancel out the newly dechurched who are just done with it all, and the rest are just shifting around. So no, the church, the body of Christ in the region isn’t growing, even though some churches may be growing. This doesn’t mean some new people are never reached. It just means that a large percentage of the growth individual churches experience isn’t from people coming to Christ, it’s from American consumer Christians shopping for new churches. Thanks, you folks can be seated. And throw those M&Ms away. They’ve been in lots of people’s hands. Here’s a fresh bag for each of you.


Now, let me be clear. I am NOT saying that all of the bigger churches are just stealing from other churches. I’m not criticizing at all. Nor am I saying that it’s wrong to leave one church for another. What I AM saying is that you have to look a little more closely at growth and where it’s coming from to really determine how a church is doing, and momentum plays a huge role in church growth in our culture. What it all means is that this area can be a tough, frustrating, disheartening place to be the church, especially if we are constantly comparing ourselves to others.


Shortly after the time of Christ, the ancient city of Philadelphia, located in Asia Minor as a part of the Roman Empire, not Pennsylvania, was a frustrating, difficult place to do ministry too. Turn with me to Christ’s brief letter to that church, recorded by St. John in Revelation 3:7-13.


Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities to whose churches the seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were sent, but it was no less significant. Situated on a popular trade route into the heart of the Roman Empire from the outer territories, the people there flourished. But the church there struggled. To this church Jesus said, “I know that you have but little power.” This unlike the church in Sardis, which looked like a powerhouse but was really dead, asleep, accomplishing nothing in the Kingdom of God, the church in Philadelphia was small and insignificant. She felt like she had little impact on her culture, like her ministry didn’t matter all that much. It seemed she was just too small, too weak to do anything of significance. No enough people. Not enough money. Not enough ministries. So no significant impact, right?


Not so fast, said Jesus. In general these letters from Jesus to seven churches in Asia Minor contained both praise and criticism. But two of the letters are different. The letters to the church in Smyrna and the church in Philadelphia contain no criticism at all, only praise and encouragement. You see, the church in Philadelphia, like the church in Smyrna, had come under persecution, and the persecuted churches are the only two to receive no criticism. Far from harming the church, persecution has only ever strengthened the church. Look at V. 8. Even though she was small and seemingly insignificant, she hadn’t given in to pressure to deny the name of Christ, to recant her faith and worship the emperor and the false gods of the trade guilds. She hadn’t given in to the temptation to live a “Christ and …” kind of life. You know, worship Christ AND the emperor and the other false gods. The Romans were find with whatever religion you wanted, so long as you didn’t claim that yours was the only way. But when Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6), they took his message to heart. They knew that God was calling them to live a “Christ alone” kind of life, not a Christ and” kind of life, and so together they lived Christ alone lives at great cost to themselves.


To human eyes, this church was no powerhouse. She was small, weak, and insignificant. But she had kept the word of God and hadn’t caved to the pressure to deny Christ. I mean look at how Christ revealed himself to this church. Look at V. 7. “The one who is holy and true.” To be holy is to be set apart from all the others. And they worshipped Christ as one set apart, not one of many but the one and only way, truth, and life, the only way to enter into God’s presence. To be true has two possible meanings, and both come into play here. One is to be genuine, the real deal. Christ, the one this insignificant little church was holding onto for all they were worth amid great pressure to turn away from Christ really was THE way, and THE truth, and THE life. The people of Philadelphia were fine with them saying he is A way. They weren’t okay with them saying he was THE way. But Christ’s followers in Philadelphia simply refused to cave in, even though their lives would get much easier and prosperous if they did.


The second meaning of true is faithful. To be true is to be faithful, to follow through on your promises, on your word. Jesus is the holy one, set apart as THE way, truth, and life, and he is the true one, authentic and faithful, and he would hold on to them, just as they were holding on to him. Look at vv. 9-10. Not only was the culture pressuring believers in Philadelphia to deny Christ, the Jewish synagogue had kicked the Jewish followers of Christ in Philadelphia out as well. The pressure to conform, to deny Christ, was coming from everywhere, and it wasn’t peer pressure. It was lethal pressure with the threat of poverty at best and deadly force at worst behind it.


But look! Look at the holy and true one’s promise to them. I. Will. Keep. You. In my notes I wrote those words in this way, with each word capitalized. I. Period. Will. Period. Keep. Period. You. Period. In modern text communication, that’s one way we emphasize the trustworthiness of the words we text to someone. If we want them to understand the words as absolute validity of whatever it is we’re texting, we’ll put a period after each word, kind of like underlining in written text, but I think the period after each word is in ways more powerful. There’s a finality to a period used in this way. It says, “Don’t even think of questioning what I’m saying here. Don’t argue with me.” Remember, Christ has already told them that he is both holy and true, authentic and absolutely, unequivocally faithful. And then he says to them, “Don’t worry, I will keep you. I’ve got you.” Powerful words to a congregation that looked around and saw herself as insignificant in the face of the opposition she was facing. “How can we ever make a difference here?” But Jesus says, “I’ve got you.” I have kept you until now. I am keeping you right now. I will keep you tomorrow and in all of your tomorrows.


I’ve got you. It means first of all that those who said their faith wasn’t really anything and that they weren’t effective, in this case the Jewish synagogue in Philadelphia, was wrong. Back up in V. 7, in addition to telling them that he is holy and true, Jesus tells them that he has the key of David, and that doors he shuts no one can open and doors he opens no one can shut. In other words, he holds the keys to the Kingdom of God. The Jews in Philadelphia were telling the Jewish Christians in Philadelphia that they were no longer a part of the Kingdom of God. Couple that with pressure from the culture at large to conform or risk poverty, imprisonment, or death, and you can see why they were in danger of discouragement. Not so fast, Christ said. I hold the keys to the kingdom of God, not them. It is for ME to say who is and who is not a part of the Kingdom of God, not any human being. So you just keep holding on to me. I’ve got you.


And secondly it means that in the midst of some less than spectacular circumstances, God would continue to hold on to them. So they could continue to patiently endure under pressure. Patient endurance. That’s what Christ called them to. Just keep going. Discouragement comes easy sometimes, doesn’t it. I know that those who coordinate the community meal here at Christ Church face discouragement sometimes, especially when people won’t sign up to help serve the meal. And those who serve get discouraged, doing it month after month after month. It’s easy to say, “We’re just a small, insignificant church. Who are we to think that we can keep operating this meal? And the food pantry? Three days a week? Really? Are we nuts. Some larger churches open their pantry one day a week or even one or two days a month. And others don’t even have a food pantry. There are churches ten times our size who donate food to us every once in a while. But why don’t they set aside some time and space to run a pantry and let us collect food for them? Christ’s answer is simply this: “They’re doing what I have called them to do. You do what I have called you to do. Keep opening up your doors and feeding the hungry and the homeless. THAT is a task I have given to you. So Margianne, Lenda, Christ Church, patiently endure. Keep serving meals. Keep opening up. And the Goodwin family will be there on the 2nd Saturday of every month as captains. Why? Because we’re in this together. We’re Christ Church together. We’re all in this together and this is our ministry right now. And Jesus has us. Look at V. 11. Hold on to him, as he holds on to us.


And then look at Vv. 12-13. Look at the promise God has for those who overcome. The church that knows no security is actually secure, a pillar in the temple of God. And God writes his own name and the name of his kingdom on us. In other words, he claims us. He puts his brand on us. Just as we haven’t quit, haven’t denied him, so he won’t deny us. I will keep you, so patiently endure. Hold fast.


There’s a crazy race in the mountains of eastern Tennessee every year. It’s called the Barkley Marathons and it’s 100 miles through the mountains with nothing but a map and a compass to find your way. Runners don’t flock to this race. In fact, none of the 40 runners who attempted to finish the 100-mile race completed it. “The mountains won,” said Gary Cantrell, who created the event in 1986. “I was pleased with the outcome. It’s a competition between the humans and the mountains.”


In 30 years, 14 out of about 1,100 runners have completed the race. With a finisher rate of about one percent, the Barkley has been labeled by many as the world’s hardest race. Along with a handout that includes race directions, participants are only allowed to use a map and compass to find their way. There are no medical aid stations on the course, which covers more than twice the elevation gain of Mount Everest over the full 100 miles (or five 20-mile treks around the course).


Nicki Rehn, a 40-year-old Australian who is an assistant professor of education in Canada, completed 1½ out of the five 20-mile laps this year before succumbing. “You don’t come here to be victorious, you come here to be humiliated,” she said. “It’s lonely out there. It’s eerie. You have to be comfortable being inside your own head. Everyone comes back pretty broken.”[i]


Yes, we are surrounded by mountains. And we minister in a uniquely difficult place to minister. We are surrounded by “dechurched” people who no longer want anything to do with the church, who have very negative views of the church. So what does Christ say to us? I’ve got you. I will keep you, so patiently endure. Hold fast to what you have. You belong to me. Let us pray.

[i] Michael Buteau, “All 40 Runners Fail to Complete 100-Mile Tennessee Mountain Race,” Bloomberg Business (3-30-15)