A Growing Community

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 14, 2014)

NFC-lettering_wallpaper“A growing community.”

What does that look like? Why is this an important part of our vision for our church?

It’s impossible for me to underestimate how important community and friendships and relationships have meant in my life. Others have shaped me, and shaped how I see the world, in profound ways. What I also notice as I look back is that the shaping community has been more than just friendships: it has been community that is intentionally formed around Jesus Christ that has truly made the difference.

In the fall of my sophomore year in high school, a friend invited me to her church. My family hadn’t gone to church consistently since we moved to Oregon three years before. On the outside, the trauma of that move looked like it had faded away by that point. I had friends, I looked like I was content and well adjusted. But on the inside, scars were still there.

The difficulty of making new friendships after the move had built some bad habits and taught me some wrong lessons. I had internalized that being yourself, being vulnerable and honest, was the way to rejection and ridicule. I had mastered the art of appearing as others wanted me to be, afraid to show who I really was.

So people liked the image I portrayed to the world, but that really didn’t help on the inside. This voice in my head, even when I was laughing in a group, would whisper that if they really knew who I was, I wouldn’t be accepted. It made for a horrible catch 22: when I felt lonely, I pretended harder so others would like me. When I felt connected to a group, it felt like it was all based on a lie.

In many ways, the youth group at this new church I began attending was like any other youth group.

We went on fun activities, we did crazy things, we learned about the bible. But there were some transformative things that I had never experienced anywhere else. Jon Strutz was the youth pastor who would invite me out for a coke and ask questions and want to get to know the real me. The seniors, the cool people, who weren’t afraid to let down their guard, were able to be honest about their fears and failures.

They said they were able to do that because they had become convinced that God loved them as they were, no conditions, no strings.

Over time, this mix of genuine caring and acceptance, along with honesty and vulnerability set me on a new path…one with more integrity and wholeness, one with less angst and anxiety, one with less pretending and role playing. I loved that community!

Since then, I keep seeking out this kind of community. I keep trying to do my part to facilitate honest, caring relationships.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know how people get through without community…or without a church like this…or without friends.” As pastor, I’ve also walked with some people through horrible crisis when they don’t have that network, that stability of community, and it is truly heart-wrenching.

Our phrase “a growing community”, then, says so much. It reminds us that just like any growth, it takes time and effort and work for community to become richer and deeper and be able to withstand the storms of life. It reminds us that there are people around us who don’t have this kind of God-centered community. Many people do not.

As wonderful as Newberg Friends is, we can’t let ourselves get comfortable with having what we have for ourselves. There are people in the Newberg area who need this kind of community. God’s desire is for all people to be drawn into the community being built around Jesus, and our task as Christ followers is to intentionally bring acceptance and love to others, to make room in our community.

It’s Christ who makes this all work! It’s Christ who brings this all together, who holds all community together through love. Turn with me to Colossians 1:15. I’ll read verses 15-20.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created:things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (TNIV)

Verses 17 and 18 capture something essential about our vision for a growing community.

It is and always will be a community centered around and given life by the love of Jesus Christ. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ’s love and power are the glue that draw all things together. We believe as Quakers that even for those who don’t intentionally follow Jesus, it is Christ’s love that works through them. For us, we DO want to be intentional and vocal about it! We exist because of Jesus and for Jesus.

“He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Our community exists because Christ leads us. He led us by his perfect example in life. He leads us as the first of the ones resurrected from the dead in God’s power. He leads us on as a community with a purpose, to join God in love and power and community and worship forever, through what God accomplished in Christ in his death and resurrection.

God is, it says in verse 20, reconciling all things to God’s self, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

This is the heart and the purpose of our community! It’s made to have room for others. It’s made to grow into deeper and richer and more honest and unconditional love for each other.

One of the things I’m so grateful for are the ways I see this lived out here!

When Patty Findley gives Jim Carter a ride home after church. When Bob Hampton deals with sewer muck just to help someone out. When I hear young adult after young adult tell me of their amazing conversation with Rachelle Staley, and how much love and wisdom they’ve received from her.

Did you know when I talk to other pastors in town, they tell me that what we are known for is the depth of our community? I just met this week with Nathalie Hardy, who has been attending for a few months. When I asked what made her want to come here and try our church, she said she’s had her eyes open. She looks for people who treat others like she would like to be treated, who parent their children like she wants to parent hers. When she realized so many of those people in town she respected came here, that’s why she tried our church.

Community makes a difference! And I am really proud of this community. I’m proud of our staff. Michelle Akins needs to find a lot of people to be with all the children who are a part of our church…but she is never someone who just wants to fill slots. She so desperately wants people who will love children each week unconditionally, because she knows it’s that love and acceptance that are going to make a difference in the long run as these children grow up.

I remember interviewing Eric Muhr before we hired him as our youth pastor. He was so articulate and clear about his philosophy of youth ministry. He said, “I want every student in every program to be noticed. It doesn’t have to be by me, but my job is to create a staff and environment where no one slips through the cracks and everyone is noticed.” And in the years since, I have watched Eric live that out.

In so many ways, we live this out.

I’m glad for that. And yet I’ve also noticed there are still some who struggle to find a place to belong, a place to connect here in our church. I think one of the issues is that many of us have what I’ve called “full relationship plates.” In other words, many of us have a lot of relationships that help us experience growing community, but we don’t necessarily have a lot of room for welcoming new people into the web of our lives.

A couple of months ago, I said that one of the things I’ve heard over the years is that we are a very friendly church…for the first 6 months. At that point, some people have found their connection points and feel a part of our community. But others still feel stuck, and are unsure how to break in and find their place.

People who have an easy time initiating and trying things out seem to be able to make connections. Those who don’t find that easy sometimes say they wish people would invite them to join something and find a place. As a staff, we try to do our part to be resource people; we try to get people connected to ministries or groups where they can find a connection and become part of our growing community. Of course we can’t do it all-we have too many people who consider this their church for us as staff to connect with every single one.

So we hope this vision of being a growing community is something that we can all pursue together, something we can all take initiative to increase. For those of us who have been here awhile, who have “our people” and love the chance to connect…can we also remember that there are always people here who are newer and aren’t yet having the same experience?

Simple things, like opening up the conversation circle during fellowship time, so that newer people don’t only see the backs of people, but are invited in. Like in a Sunday School class, welcoming a newcomer and getting them up to speed on what is going on. Like asking a parent if they need help finding their child’s classroom. There are lots of simple ways we can work together to be a more welcoming community.

We also need some people willing to do things which take more effort. 

I’m grateful for what Josh Reid is doing tonight. He had the idea for this Story Slam, and has spent time asking people to share stories and coordinating with us to make it all happen. We will gather tonight, and it will be a fun night…an easy way to get to know some new people, to laugh and have fun, and to learn something about the people who are sharing their stories. We need others who have ideas and interests and are willing to do some work to provide a space for others to connect in community like that.

On October 25, our trustees are planning an all church serve day, a chance for us to come together and experience community while working around the church and the cemetery. I remember Jeff Denton answering a question in worship one time, saying that what helped him feel connected was having a task to do alongside others. I’m grateful the trustees are giving us a chance to do that, and look forward to other people taking initiative to get others together for community through serving.

There are the more intentional ways of deepening community, small groups that meet together. I’ll be talking about some of those in a minute, groups you can be part of…but we also need other people who are willing to serve as leaders and facilitators of small groups. Steve Fawver has collected some great resources and is glad to walk alongside you if you’re willing to serve in this way.

Part of us living into our vision of a growing community is for those who’ve been here awhile to take steps to open up their lives to new people. It’s people being intentional about creating activities and service opportunities and groups so that others can experience being a part of deeper community life.

And of course it takes some effort on the other end, too.

Being part of a growing community takes some risk. You might need to step outside your comfort zone and try something new, or ask to be involved. In a perfect world, our community would always recognize people who are longing for connection and would reach out. But busyness and distraction get in the way, and that means that each person also needs to take the steps they can to find their place of connection in this church.

Maybe the first simple step is little. I’d like to ask you to look in front of you and find one of the community cards we have there every week. Maybe for some of you, the first simple step you can take is to offer us your name and contact information. I know there are many, particularly college students, who are here and we don’t have you in our directory or our database. That’s ok if you want to keep it that way! But I want to ask today if you’ve never given us your name and contact info, and you are wanting to be part of our community…would you fill out a card today? I know we’ve already taken the offering, but you can bring the cards after the service and either put them on the welcome center or up here on the podium.

I’d love to know who the college students are-there have been several asking about a college group that might meet this fall, and I’d love to see if we can get a critical mass of people to do that. Having your names would be a way to start!

I’m also going to name several of the ways any of you can be involved this fall. Perhaps one of them is going to grab your attention, and you can use the community card to let us know you’d like to be a part or would like more information. Finally, someone here might be feeling nudged to be one of those people to lead or start a group, or maybe you have an idea for something you’d like to see happen to build community. You can put that on a card, too.

I can’t promise that we as a staff will do absolutely every idea that gets written down. But I can say that we will carefully compile all the input, connect people to resources, and do everything we can to equip others to build our growing community!

So have one of those cards in hand, and as I share some of the ways to be involved this fall, you consider where your part might be.

For our senior adults, do you know about the JOY breakfasts?

They take place on the first Monday morning of each month. Cindy Johnson, our pastor to seniors, organizes these get-togethers at J’s restaurant here in town. It’s a great way to connect with other seniors.

Have you heard about 3M…which stands for monthly marriage maintenance? It’s a date night for married couples, complete with a meal and child care and some encouragement to discuss some things together. 3M meets on one Monday night of each month, and is something Michelle Akins and Steve Fawver work on together.

We’ve got a great opportunity this year for intergenerational connections. We’re calling them Wisdom cohorts. The participants are 18-25 year olds, and the leaders are from our church. They’ll meet once a month, looking at the bible and issues we all face, and share together how to develop wise choices and a character that is like Christ’s. It’s a collaboration with a Psy. D. student here at George Fox. We are still looking for a bunch of young adults to take part.

On Wednesday evenings this fall, we’ll have groups looking at a new book by Richard Foster’s son Nathan, a book looking at how to live out the disciplines of the Christian life. Richard Foster wrote the famous book “Celebration of Discipline” back in 1978 when he was pastor here; now his son is coming out with a new book, and we have a chance to be part of things again, with people from our church writing some exercises and activities that go along with the book. You can have the chance to experiment on Wednesday nights this fall.

Zach Baker is a college student who wants to get a group together to focus on prayer. That would be a great chance to build community.

I already mentioned tonight’s story slam and the All church serve day in October; each month the wood ministry team also meets to split and stack wood that we’ll give away all winter long to people in our community in need, so they can heat their homes. Those gatherings are a great chance to build community.

Or perhaps you’re feeling the nudge to connect with and love children-you can help some of our young ones feel they are noticed and welcomed and loved in our church.

So take that card.

If you’re feeling nudged, give us your name if we’ve never had it. For everyone, maybe there’s one of those ministries you’d like to be involved in or would like more information about. Or perhaps when I was talking earlier, you felt prompted that it’s time for you to initiate some group or activity that will help others feel connected to our community.

For any of those things…take some time right now to fill out a community card. We ARE a growing community here at Newberg Friends. And working together, we can keep growing and find ways to make more room for others who aren’t here yet.

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