A preacher named Cleophus LaRue once observed that we worship in the church we remember. He said that his idea of what makes for a good church is based on the one he grew up in, where the songs were sung from a hymnbook, not a projection on the wall, and where the saints of his youth like sister Naomi and Deacon Brown shaped his formation in the faith. We worship in the church we remember, which I think is one of the keys to the success of so many modern mega churches. They don’t have to account so much for memories.
Congregations like Saddleback Church in Southern California are often held up as a counterpoint to the established main line churches like ours. Saddleback Church started in the early 1980s with a congregation that could fit into a living room, and today they have over 20,000 in worship every week. They’re doing a lot of things right that we need to learn about, but one thing Rick Warren had going for him when he started the church is that he didn’t have to deal with so many memories. When he graduated from seminary, he did what a business would call market research and found an area of the country that was underserved by churches. He moved there and went door to door asking people what they were looking for in their spiritual lives. He drew a profile of the typical residents of the area. He identified his target population whom he called unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary. Then he grew the church around their expectations and needs. It was brilliant, and a huge contribution to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But like so many successful new church development projects, he didn’t have to deal with institutional memories. They created their own traditions and expectations as they went along.
Eastminster Church has a lot of memories. Generations have been reared here, and each one has passed on to the next its wealth of knowledge and experience – and expectations of what church should be. The church has welcomed new members over the years, and they have all brought with them their own memories of worship and expectations for church. You’ve been able to incorporate new people and new memories into an ongoing stream. It hasn’t always been easy. There have been crises and divisions and setbacks. Each generation faces the question: How do we use what we’ve been given as means to accomplish what we’re here for, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s where churches like ours that have been around a while are going to have something to teach the newer churches as they move into their second and third generations. How do we honor those memories and traditions that have shaped us without making them the purpose that drives us?
That was the challenge facing the church in Corinth. Each person in the church remembered the one who introduced him or her to Christ, and that memory was the standard of what the church should be. Some had come to the church through the preaching of Apollos, an urbane, sophisticated speaker who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand with his skillful oratory. Some had come to the faith through the work of Cephas, also known as Peter, the rough-hewn fisherman whose hands were calloused from hard physical labor and had what we might call today a blue-collar work ethic. Some were introduced to Jesus by Paul, the intellectual who could quote the Greek philosophers and make a tight argument by citing the Law of Moses chapter and verse. And there were others who didn’t claim any theological lineage and said they got their faith straight from Jesus without it being filtered through anybody.
I can imagine if the people in Corinth were alive today. Those who were drawn to the sophisticated Apollos would become Episcopalians. The followers of independent-minded Peter would be Baptists. The ones who gravitated to Paul would be drawn to the tradition of that great lawyer and thinker John Calvin and become Presbyterians. And those who said they weren’t influenced by anyone but Jesus would start a new nondenominational church. But in Corinth in the first century, they didn’t have that luxury of splitting off and each going their own way. There wasn’t a critical mass of Christians that was big enough for them to survive if each group went off on its own. That’s why Paul pleaded with them to stop focusing on the things that set them apart and focus instead on what held them together – Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross.
Now, most sociologists say that one reason America has the highest rate of church attendance in the developed world is because we have such a wide variety of ways to practice our faith. The diversity of churches creates a market dynamic, where free choice and competition compel congregations to innovate and adapt if they’re going to survive. Most of us have changed churches in the course of our lives. Ministers do. I’ve been the installed pastor in four different congregations. As strongly as I felt God’s call to each one, eventually it was time for me to leave. I’d done my work and in order for the church, and for me, to keep growing in our faith and service to God, we parted ways, grateful for the time God had given us together. Many of you came to Eastminster from another congregation. Some are here because you moved into the area, tried out different churches, and felt that this is the place for you. Some belonged to another church in the area, but because of changes in that congregation, or because of changes in you, you felt the need to make a change.
But the freedom we have to move among faith communities makes us susceptible to the same tendency for which Paul chastised the Corinthians. We can get so focused on what works for us that we forget who we’re working for. We get so caught up in making the church what we think it should be that we act as if it’s our church, and it’s not. It belongs to Jesus. Paul compared what he had contributed to the church to the work of a skilled builder who works alongside others to build on the foundation that has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus. The church can tolerate a lot of diversity because it is built on the sure foundation of Jesus.
A building’s foundation determines what you can build on it. One church that I served as interim pastor was planning to build a new building for its growing ministry with youth. The biggest point of discussion was what kind of foundation the new building was going to have. The original plans called for the building to be built on a concrete slab, but lots of folks were asking if maybe they shouldn’t spend a little more and go ahead and include an unfinished basement that could be finished later, depending on future needs. That was a decision that couldn’t be put off. It had to be made before construction began, because the kind of foundation the building has determines what is built on top.
Eastminster was certainly built on a good foundation. The friendships and love that you share rest on that foundation, and they provide the framework for what God is building now. As our society grows more polarized, as social media sorts us into competing camps, the church is one place where people with many different points of view can come together under the Lordship of Jesus. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we believe, what our politics are or how we feel about hot button issues. But the promise of the church is that we all belong to Jesus, who sees all the things that make our blood pressure rise from the perspective of eternity. And it’s love and respect that endure. That foundation that Eastminster is built on, that promise of a community that exists to serve others, that is what we build upon.
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, says half jokingly that he’s formulating a theology of grits. He tells about a friend of his, a Catholic priest, who made his first trip south of the Mason Dixon line. On his first morning in a southern city he went to hotel restaurant for breakfast. After studying the menu, he called his waitress over to his table and asked, “Miss, what’s a grit?” She replied, “Honey, there’s no such thing as a grit. They don’t come by themselves.”
And that caused Mouw to think about what happens when you go to Waffle House down South for breakfast. You may order bacon and eggs, but they come with grits, whether you order them or not.
That’s what the Christian life is like. It doesn’t come by itself. It comes with a lot of stuff we didn’t order. We can’t really fashion it to our own design. The church of our memories is a blessing, but God has more in store.
I’ll bet those who signed the church’s charter back in 1957 couldn’t imagine the world Eastminster would be ministering to in 2020. But this church has grown and prospered for so long because it has built on the good things that have gone before without letting those things weigh you down. No matter how well suited we are for the church as it exists now, we know that God always has more in store, and it’s only the best. “All belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Let’s not settle for less.