(NOTE: This is a sermon I preached on Thursday, July 27, 2017 for Empowerment Church during their Summer Revival Series. It is a sermon to the Church in the United States).
In her book, The Great Emergence (2008), religion expert Phyllis Tickle writes, “About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” In other words, every 500 years or so, the Church goes through a time of significant change and reinvents herself. Ms. Tickle argues that we are “living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.” Approximately 500 years ago (the 1500s) the Church went through The Great Reformation. Five-hundred years before that (1000 years ago), the Church went through The Great Schism. Five-hundred years before that (1,500 years ago, the 6th century) was the Fall of the Roman Empire and The Dark Ages. Go back another 500 years, and you are in the time of Christ and the birth of the Church.
Here argument is compelling, but I do not share her optimism! Ms. Tickle believed that out of the dizzying upheaval, we are presently in, would emerge a stronger, and healthier, Church. I hope she is right. I have my doubts. But the verdict is still out. However, I do find comfort in Jesus’ words to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
Why bring this up? Because I am concerned about the Church. I fear what is going on in the Church (at least in the United States) is more than a rummage sale—out with the old, in with the new. I believe the Church (capital “C”), in the United States, is in the middle of an identity crisis! It’s not that we are not doing what we need to be doing. Rather, it is we have forgotten who we are! The issue is not disobedience, but unawareness. We have forgotten who we are, and we are unaware of our unawareness.
The modern day “Church Growth Movement” in the United States began in the 1950s with the release of Donald McGavran’s seminal book, The Bridges of God. Since the 1950s, the Church in the United States has developed strategy after strategy after strategy to “grow the church.” The result has been the birth of the mega-church, but overall, church growth since the 1950s has not kept up with population growth. In other words, numerically, the Church in the United States is dying. Even though it seems she is healthy and striving.
Since the 1950s, we (the Church in the United States) have tried to be relevant. But the Church always functions best when it is counter-cultural instead of culturally relevant. We have tried to be political. But kingdom values are usually contrary to political values. We have operated like big business. But in the process, have sold our birthright for a cup of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). We have tried to be a social club, or a sports club. But we are neither social, nor athletic. We have tried, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to be “all things to all men so that by all possible means (we) might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). But as a result, we have become entertained by celebrities in the pulpit, and have lost more than we have gained.
I am afraid that, in the United States, the Church has become irrelevant, weak, bloated, and orphaned. We have forgotten who we are and have worn ourselves out trying to be what we were never meant to be. In other words, we have an identity crisis.
Several years ago, while sitting in my church office in Russellville, AR, I went through an existential crisis that lasted for several weeks and resulted in a “come to Jesus” meeting. At the time, I had been in pastoral ministry for over 15 years. The church I was leading was large, and most people would agree that I was enjoying a successful ministry. But something was missing inside. Deep down I knew there had to be more to church then programs and budgets and numbers and buildings. If Christianity were true, and Jesus was real, there needed to be reconciliation and transformation of individual lives and communities. In a moment of brutal honesty, I said to God, “God, I don’t see it. I have been a pastor for more than 15 years and I don’t think I have every truly seen transformational life change in anyone. The people I serve, and have served, are good people. But they were good people before I came and they will be good people when I leave. They would even be good people if they quit coming to church! Lord, I want to see life change! I want to see miracles! I want to see the drug addict and the alcoholic and the prostitute have an encounter with You. But I don’t see it. You said if we have faith in You, we would do ‘even greater things’ then You (John 14:12). But God, I don’t see it, and so either Your Word is not true, or I am not doing something right. Lord, show me what I am missing.”
That prayer set me down a path to places I would have never dreamed and introduced me to people I had no business knowing. But the road, that I continue to travel, has been exciting, transformative, redemptive, and miraculous. Now, I do see it, and I see it almost everyday. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do know my journey started with admitting I had no idea what it means to be the Church, and committing myself to finding out.
So, if are like me, and have no idea who we are as a Church, but have a longing desire to know, the best way to find out is to check our DNA. God’s Word tells us who we are as the Church.
D – The Church has been DECLARED the Bride of Christ.
The most familiar passage in the Bible about the relationship between husbands and wives is Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-33. In it, Paul talks about submission and love and sacrifice. Yet, near the end of this passage, Paul admits that he is not really talking about husbands and wives. Yes, the principles and applications he makes are valid to marriage, but in verse 32 he states, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” In a different letter to the church in Corinth, Paul while admonishing the church to stay away from false teachers, says, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Brothers and sisters, as the Church, we have been declared (we have been identified) as the Bride of Christ. Why, then, do we prostitute ourselves out to the values of this world?
In ancient cultures, and even today in some cultures, before a groom could marry his bride he was to give the bride’s family a dowry; a payment of some kind to compensate for the loss of her help as a daughter. The more a groom loved his bride, the higher the dowry could become. In a sense, the groom redeemed the bride with a price.
To be the bride of Christ means that Jesus loves us. In fact, He loves us so much that He purchased us with His own blood. His dowry, His price for our redemption, was His life! His love for us means that we are valuable. We are His “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9). Because we are His chosen bride, and because He loves us and values us so much, unfaithfulness to Jesus is spiritual adultery, and speaking bad about His bride will incur His wrath. It is a beautiful, wonderful, humbling, and holy thing to be called the Bride of Christ. But that is who we are and it is time we starting acting like a loved bride instead of a scorned harlot.
N – The Church is the NEW Jerusalem.
The Bible clearly teaches that “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:8). In his vision, one of the seven angels said to John the Elder, “‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:9-10). To say we are the new Jerusalem is to say that our citizenship is in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is both now and not yet. It is both here in the present as well as fully realized in the future. The kingdom of God has come and is coming. After His baptism, Jesus announced, “The time has come…The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). God’s kingdom becomes a reality the moment we place our faith in Jesus. God’s kingdom will come to fruition the moment Jesus returns for His Bride. It is precisely because we are the New Jerusalem that the local church is the hope of the world.
A – The Church is ACTUALLY the Body of Christ.
After describing spiritual gifts, and how those gifts are to be used in ministry, Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Right now, the phase of life and ministry I am in, makes be believe this is the most important part of our identity. The Bride of Christ and the New Jerusalem describes who we are. But actually being the Body of Christ defines what we are to be doing.
We are disciples of Jesus. To be a disciple means we are apprentices of Jesus, learning about Him, while we continue doing what He did. Following Jesus requires on the job training. Discipleship is not another Bible study or small group meeting. Discipleship is being trained to continue the ministry of Jesus! It is getting out of the walls of the church, and into the mess of real life, transforming individuals, communities, and cities, by proclaiming, “The time has come…The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). To be the body of Christ means we are the incarnation of Christ in the world today. We are more than the hands and feet of Jesus. We are His body, His physical presence, on earth. And our prayer should be, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The now and the not yet of the kingdom of God.
The question is, If we are the body of Christ, and if we are to be doing what Jesus did, what is it that He did? Let me share two passages of Scripture with you that have become very dear to me in recent years. These two passages describe, in detail, the ministry and mission of Jesus. Thus, they describe what it is we are to be doing as His Church. As I read, listen to what we should be doing, and compare it with what we are doing.
The first passage is Luke 4:18-19. These are the words of Jesus to His hometown synagogue, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, describing what the Messiah would do when He came to earth: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The second passage is longer. It is Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).
We are the Body of Christ! It is time we started acting like it and sacrificially give ourselves away in service to our neighbors.
Football season is almost here. Soon, the long, hot summer will be over. In the South, football is a religion. A football coach will often tell you, “The best offense is a good defense.” However, if a coach ever says this, you can rest assured he was never an offensive coordinator. The best offense is not a good defense. The best offense is an overwhelming offense that no one can stop.
When Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18), He was not telling us to play defense. He was telling us, the Church, to be on the offensive, and to attack the very gates of hell, because nothing, and no one, can defeat us! Instead of guarding our doors, keeping people from getting in, we are to be attacking the doors of the enemy, knocking them off their hinges.
Charles Thomas Studd, a British missionary who, in the early 1900s, opened up new works for the gospel in China, India, and Africa, testified, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.” That, my friends, is what it means to play offense with the gospel.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13). Few verses have been misinterpreted more than that verse. Most of the time, when people talk about being salt, they talk about how we are to be preserving and purify agents in the world. But that’s playing defense! In Jesus’ day, salt was an offensive weapon used by the military on their enemies. In fact, salt was such a high commodity, and useful weapon, that often salt was used to pay Roman soldiers. Thus, the etymology of our word “salary.” Armies would spread rock like salt (a natural resource, not a chemical compound) on the fields of their enemies, destroying all crops and contaminating the soil so more crops could not be planted. Salt, could deal a death blow to the enemy! But if the salt lost its saltiness, it’s only use was as gravel for roads and paths.
When Jesus tells us we are the “salt of the earth,” He is telling us that when the Church moves in to a community and a city, as they be and do who they are, the gospel is spread on the enemy’s fields, killing all the enemy’s fruit, destroying all the enemy’s crops. In other words, when the Church is being the Church, poverty can no longer destroy people’s lives in that community. When the Church is being the Church, addicts are set free and drug dealers are put out of business. When the Church is being the Church, prostitutes are made whole and mass incarceration comes to a halt. When the Church is being the Church, justice rules in places of power, people are healed, the oppressed our delivered, the hungry are fed, the naked our clothed, the homeless are housed, the uninsured are cared for, and the immigrant is welcomed with opened arms. When the Church is being the Church, the crops of the enemy are destroyed, and in its place grows the fruits of the Spirit.
Folks, this is who are! It is in our DNA!
We have been declared the Bride of Christ, loved and valued by the Almighty.
We are the New Jerusalem, citizens of the kingdom of God.
We are the body of Christ, the presence of Jesus in the world today.
And nothing, not even the gates of hell, can stop us.
 Phyllis Tickle was the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, and a renowned writer and lecturer on spirituality and religion issues. She died in 2015, at the age of 81.
 Phyllis Tickle (2008), The Great Emergence, p. 16. Ms. Tickle actually attributes the idea of a 500-year rummage sale to The Right Reverence Mark Dyer, and Anglican bishop.
 Phyllis Tickle, p. 16.
 Parenthesis added for emphasis.