Happy anniversary, everyone! Dusted off the old suit. Once or twice a year, I pretend to be a real pastor. And then you quickly realize I’m a fraud … Get back to the jeans. So good to have those who are worshiping online with us on this special day!
So, this past Tuesday in team lead meeting Gregg asked us, handed out these little cards and asked us, to write out what we think is … some of the first things that we’re thankful for when we think of North Hills. So, I’m going to share what I wrote.
First of all, I’m looking at a bunch of these in this meeting, when I wrote this out: “humble, loving servant leaders.” What gifts God has given us! So many men and women who have been transformed by the grace of Christ and simply want to spread the joy! So, that was what I wrote first.
Second, I started to think of you all and wrote “patient, sacrificial people.” And I wrote two things under that, the “patient, sacrificial people.” I was thinking of the way you put up with our weaknesses as leaders. We blow it a lot, and you are so patient! I’m really frankly amazed that we’re not still meeting in a mobile home, that you come and put up with us. So, praise God for that! And then the second, you love the most vulnerable. I just had so many pictures, and I’m looking at some of you right now, who day to day, week after week, are pouring themselves out for the most vulnerable. And we thank God for you!
And the last one makes all the other ones possible, and that is the love of Jesus. Obviously, we are all swimming in an ocean of affection because of Jesus. There would be nothing without him. So, we wrote these out, and then we had a time of prayer just to give thanks. But it got me thinking. I was already thinking about this question, but in a more intense way: How do we not take this for granted? Over year after year, decade after decade, how do we keep from losing our first love, falling into a “big rut”? You know, as human beings, that’s what we tend to do in all our relationships. How can we continue to mature in Christ-likeness and not just go through the motions?
Earlier this year, I read a book called Predictable Success, subtitled Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track and Keeping It There. Les McKeown has been starting businesses, coaching leaders for decades. And he traces his own search for what he calls “predictable success.” Why do some organizations fail so quickly, actually, most? Why do others die a slow death, and others enjoy long term, sustainable success? And he observes seven stages of growth and decline. Every organization will go through these stages in various times and ways, and we’ve talked in the past about similar life cycles. But let’s look real quickly at the words he uses.
Starting at the bottom left, “early struggle.” This is when we’re trying to keep our organization alive. McKeown says that over two-thirds of organizations will die in early struggle, won’t even get beyond that. And I vividly remember a couple of times, early on in our church, where it felt like we were hanging by a thread, and there were a lot of people with scissors. We could be gone before we even were.
If you survive that, you enter second stage, “fun.” This is the stage of rapid first-stage growth. In the early years, there’s a ton of energy, lots of excitement, new challenges, new people, new ministries every week.
The next stage is “whitewater.” So, in this stage, the “fun” devolves into complexity and inadequacy. We begin to question whether we’re in way over our heads, which is still the way I feel, but it’s quite pronounced in that stage. Think of Acts 6 — early church exploded with growth, thousands of people coming to Christ, all of a sudden widows are being neglected, people feel lost in the crowd. “I don’t even know the Apostles. I can’t even get an appointment with them.” You know, all the frustrations of growth. This is “whitewater,” and the blessings of changed lives and numerical growth result in chaos, people feeling lost in the crowd, even shafted. And so at this point, what was natural in the early days has to become intentional. And you’ll notice that in the book of Acts. What just happened — all of a sudden we need deacons, we need elders. We need some structure, some organization so that we can care for the people God has entrusted into our care.
And then if you move through that stage, McKeown calls this “predictable success.” We wouldn’t call it that. But this stage is contrasted to the “fun” stage. In the “fun” stage, you’re achieving your goals, but you don’t know why. In the “predictable success,” you’re achieving your goals, and you have a little more understanding as to what actually brings those about.
So, if you keep going, though, the very organization that brought about success is the organization that will stifle and lead you downward in what is called “treadmill.” Here, processes and policies become more important than creativity and people. This stage is often called “bureaucracy” because the organization becomes over structuralized. Form begins to stifle function.
And if this doesn’t change, you will descend into the “big rut,” where the organization will lose its self-awareness, and staff will simply prop up policies and procedures. Courage will be replaced by compliance. And in this stage, vision turns downward and inward. The goal is keeping the organization going, not expanding and moving out. This stage is the mirror opposite of the “fun” stage. In the “big rut” you have over-structuralized systems, overdeveloped systems. In the “fun” stage, you had underdeveloped systems. So, it’s the mirror opposite.
And if the trend continues, you will hear a “death rattle,” and the organization will die. Let me be clear: we’re not a business. We’re not selling anything. We define success completely differently. We don’t measure success as a church by budgets or bodies or buildings. All of these can deceive us into thinking there’s spiritual life, and there not be, or vice versa.
And so, how do we know, if after thirty years, we are in a healthy, maturing place or we’re just on the “treadmill” or in a “big rut”? How do we know if we’re growing up or just holding it down? And I’ve wrestled with this question personally, because the fact that you’re in the same place a long time doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing. It could mean you’re just dead. So, these kinds of questions I feel like are important questions. I have no interest in just spending my time propping up what was, but in seeing God use us for his purpose. This is not a job. It’s a calling.
So, let’s look back to where we started. Thirty years ago God put it on our hearts to start with the book of Ephesians. And part of the reason I believe he took us there, as we were trying to figure out who are we and why are we here, we’re going to see with the little passage we look at this morning. And let’s see if we see some signs of healthy maturity, how we know whether we’re growing up or just going through the motions.
So first, let’s back up and get a little context. The book of Ephesians can be broken into three parts. The first one could be called Provision, the provision or the promises in chapter 1-3:13. Paul describes this flood of grace that has come to us in Jesus. [Ephesians] 1:3,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.”
And that begins a Niagara Falls of promises that Paul describes over the next few chapters as he describes the outpouring of God’s love through Jesus in the Spirit in Chapters 1-3:13.
But then he stops in 3:14, and Paul prays a prayer for power. That’s the second section, the Power, 3:14-21. [Ephesians] 3:14, for example:
“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father … that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being … so that you will know the love of Christ that passes knowledge.”
Look at the way he ends this prayer: [Ephesians] 3:20,
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
This is where our sustainable energy source is. It doesn’t come from us. It comes from him. And Paul is praying, because you can know all these promises, but if you don’t have the power of the Spirit working in your midst, then everything he’s about to call them to is for naught.
And so in chapter 4, he moves from the Provision, the prayer for Power, to the Practice, or you could call this just the map of living out all that God has done through Christ in us. [Ephesians] 4:1,
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
And in chapter 4, he starts with three big things: unity of the Spirit. Jesus has created it. You be eager to maintain it. Notice the way he says that he didn’t say, create it. You can’t create it. Jesus created it. Keep it, maintain it.
Secondly, diversity of gifts. [Ephesians] 7-12, Jesus descended in the incarnation and ascended to win gifts. And part of the gifts he goes on to describe are the spiritual leaders he calls, as broken as they are, to use these diverse gifts for the equipping of the body so that the body might be equipped for ministry. The diversity of the gifts.
And then finally, the part we want to focus on: maturity, the maturity of the body. So that we may grow up, verse 13,
“to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
That’s our definition of success. Do you see it? It’s not size; it’s not activities. You can have a circus and get a lot of people. It’s Christ-likeness. It’s God, through his Word by his Spirit, transforming us into his Son’s image. Are we growing together in Christ-likeness? You say, “That’s way too high for me. Can you bring it down?” Paul does. He gives us three signs of this in the next few verses.
First of all, verse 14: stability in the face of every wind. Verse 14,
“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
Now we are blessed this morning to have a lot of kids here, and I hate to tell you, kids, the Bible often uses you as a good example of humility — that’s a good thing — but here he uses you as an example of instability. And what he’s getting at is, kids often have a hard time imagining another time besides the time you’re in.
For example, you could test this with your four-year-old. Tell them you have a five-year plan to go to Disney World. You’re saving money, you’re going to get a reliable vehicle that will make it to Florida, and cheer up, kids, we’re going to go … in five years. This is torture. Your kid is going to … “Why aren’t we in the … Why are we still listening to this guy? Why aren’t we in the car? Why aren’t we going right now?” Because kids have a gift to being in the moment. We as adults struggle with that sometimes.
But what Paul is getting at, there’s a danger to this as well: when we think that the moment we’re in is the only moment there is. When we think, as Paul is getting at, immature Christians tend to think that trends are truth. Because our culture feels strongly about something right now, that means that that is real, that is true, and that is going to be forever.
Alister McGrath has earned two PhDs from Oxford, one in molecular biophysics and the other in theology. He has taught in schools like Oxford and Cambridge. Listen to what he writes about the winds and waves of fashionable thinking:
“The wisdom of our age is often seen as an embarrassment by the next generation. When I was an atheist back in the late 1960s, everything seemed so simple. Religion was dying out. A bright new dawn lay just around the corner. Religion would be relegated to the past, a grim and dusty relic of a bygone age. God was just a cozy illusion for losers, ideal for very inadequate and sad people. It was all over. Just a matter of waiting for nature to take its course …. But it just hasn’t worked out like that. These ideas may have been fashionable. They were certainly influential. But they were equally certainly misguided.”
And he goes on to point out the built-in assumptions of every culture. Our culture today has a built-in assumption that you cannot be certain about anything. Listen to what he says about this.
“The veneration of doubt and the excoriation of commitment within our culture do not mean that the gospel is wrong. It just means that our culture is going through a passing phase that brings it into conflict with the values of that gospel. And the culture will move on, even though it makes life uncomfortable for us now!”
Now, take that in. That’s what Paul is getting at. If we are immature in our faith, we think that because something is held up as “so” today that it will always be held up as “so.” McGrath is saying that is not necessarily the case. So, one of the signs of maturing Christ-likeness is that we do not modify our beliefs. Our joy and our confidence do not come and go with every wind and wave of popular opinion. As a matter of fact, as we learned in Mark, Jesus talks to winds and waves, and rules over them. Think about this past year and a half with all the winds and waves of rising and falling. If our joy and confidence rises and falls with pandemic levels or news cycles, or political elections, we are children, tossed to and fro. So, one of the signs of maturity is, there is a certain stability.
Secondly, Paul says in verse 15 to grow up in every way.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Have you ever planted a Christmas tree near the edge of the woods? And then as it grew, you watched. It became more and more one sided. Here’s an extreme version. The tree is desperately trying to find some sunlight. And so it grows up asymmetrical. This actually would be a good-looking tree for the kind that we pull out of our woods. But it is not symmetrical. And all of us have a tendency to look like that tree spiritually.
If we experience a church, for example, that is characterized by compromise, we can easily react to that and go to the other extreme and become very harsh and self-righteous and judgmental. Or if we grew up in a legalistic, very conservative context, we can easily run to the other extreme and become flimsy and convictionless. It’s a way in which, if we’re maturing reactively rather than formatively, we will end up lopsided.
Jesus is full of grace and full of truth. His kindness is never divorced from his holiness. He is stunningly proportioned. And so, when Paul says, “growing up in every way,” he’s talking about a symmetrical maturity or, as he says in verse 15 … he gives an example there … “speaking the truth in love.” The word “speaking” has been added because it’s implied to help us understand, but literally, the original says “truthing it in love.” We just don’t know what that means, so we add “speaking,” which is one of the ways we “truth it” in love. But he’s talking about a whole life that is not built on fakeness, but truth in love. Do you feel the symmetry there? It’s not just truth, and it’s not just love. It’s “truthing it in love.” We are to grow up in every way. Imagine a tree with deep roots of humility, and a high canopy of praise and adoration, and wide, balanced branches of truth and love. There’s a symmetry to that maturity, which is what he’s talking about.
What does that look like in a church? Well, that means we’re going to listen to Malachi as well as Mark. We’re going to study Judges, Lord willing, next year. You ready for Judges? Yeah! As well as John! We’re going to be willing to wrestle with books … Why is Leviticus in the Bible? Well, if we’re not going to be like that lopsided Christmas tree, we’re going to ask the question. That doesn’t mean there’s an easy answer, but there is an answer, and all of that shapes our understanding of God through Christ and matures us into symmetrical maturity.
This also has a lot to do with the way we think about adversity. I need adversity as much or more than I need prosperity. Do you believe that? Not just that I need that, but do you believe you need that? You’re like, “Yeah, you do!” Here’s another one: We need difficult people in our lives. Many of us really believe, if I could find a life group without any difficult people, I could find a real … If we could find a real church like that, I would be happy because …. You hear this all the time, “I love Jesus. I just can’t stand his church.” No, you don’t know what it means to love Jesus then, because part of growing symmetrically is that God is going to put people in your life to protect you from falling in a “big rut,” a rut of blindness, a rut of thinking everybody thinks just like you, a rut of thinking you deserve a life without any annoyance … as if you aren’t one.
And so notice all these calls to maturity are not just about “go off on a mountain, get alone, and you’ll grow,” but “get in a messy community and truth it in love.” And you’re going to hear hard things. People are going to say things to you that, all of it may not be true, but there’s a part of it you really need to hear. And in doing that, you’re not looking at that as a frustrating annoyance. You’re looking at that, “Wow, God, you are growing me to be a symmetrical Christmas tree, not lopsided, warped, protecting me from falling into a relational rut as I age and only want to be around people like me.” Symmetry.
Third, synergy. Synergy. Verse 16, “held together by every joint.” Look at verse 16.
“From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” So, synergy is when parts cooperate to produce a greater effect than the sum of their separate effects. So, when each part is working properly, the collective effect is far beyond the individual effects. So, long before synergy was a business buzz word, the Bible talks about synergy. “sunergeó” is the Greek word it comes from.
But I never want to lose the wonder of what it’s like every Sunday to come here and watch hundreds of you! Do you realize just in one Sunday, there are hundreds of you who will offer up your gifts, some in very simple ways, some in very sophisticated ways, to bless your brothers and sisters in hundreds of ways? And it’s beautiful! It is beautiful, and it’s not just on Sunday. Any day of the week, there are ministries happening here every day of the week. There are ministries happening all throughout this community, in schools, in businesses, in neighborhoods, as you are tutoring and teaching kids, learning the Bible together, helping marriages, encouraging singles, getting counseling for addictions, cooking meals for those in need, praying for healing and revival, building healthy businesses, protecting our communities! I could go on. And it’s easy to feel like the role you play is insignificant. But notice verse 16 again.
“When each part [each part] is working properly, makes the body grow.”
You are here for a reason. And look at the results at the end of verse 16.
“So that it builds itself up in love.”
So, a church family, characterized — let’s summarize — by convictional stability, developmental symmetry, or you could say relational symmetry, functional synergy … and notice the parallel with our church purpose: God is calling us to believe God’s word, connect with his family, and then work that out in the sharing, living out of his story. And when we’re doing that, very end of verse 16, that’s a purpose statement, verse 16, “so that it builds itself up in love.” You could say, so that it keeps you off the “treadmill,” out of the “big rut,” building itself up in love.
What does love do? Love expresses itself. Think of Mary, when she, in Mark 14, was so overwhelmed with the extravagant love of Jesus toward her, she had to “flask” Jesus. Or as Mark 14:3 says,
“She broke the flask and poured it over his head.”
Now, this can seem intimidating to some of us because we think, “Well, how do I maintain that love year after year, decade after decade?” If we’re going to keep growing up and not end in a “big rut,” well, here’s the encouraging part for me: I John 4:19,
“We love because he first loved us.”
Our calling is not to create a love that doesn’t exist or stir it up in our hearts. That’s part of it. But he pours that love into us, Romans 5, by the Holy Spirit, and it comes out.
And so, this morning, if you say, “Well, my heart is cold. I have lost my first love.” Or some of you may say, “I’ve never had that love. What do I do?” Well, if I fail to love, then I know I have forgotten how much I am loved by God through Christ. If there’s not much love in my heart right now, it’s not like I need to work harder to try to conjure up something that doesn’t exist. God, I need you to open my blind eyes to how much love you’ve poured out for me. That’s why Paul starts in Ephesians 1-3 describing the love of God through Christ so that 4-6 is empowered by the Spirit for us to live that out. We’re not inventing anything. We’re living out what he puts in.
So, in a moment, we’re going to have a very simple opportunity to do this through singing. Just imagine, as you’re singing, you’re offering up that love to him. Lord, open my eyes, unstop my ears, melt my heart, fill me with this love. We’re also going to have an opportunity … You’ll see some rather large baskets. We’re not doing our laundry up here … These are offering baskets. And so, if this is your first anniversary here at our church, it’s going to feel a little different than a normal Sunday. We’re going to sing about five songs. So, don’t feel rushed at all. But as we’re singing, if you want to pour out your love by presenting your offering, there will be people coming up and putting their offering here, praying individually or gathering in a clump to pray with one another.
And if you say, “Well, I don’t feel comfortable doing that, you know, giving in front of people.” Well then don’t. Give online. Give in the boxes in the back. But there … or there are cards every other seat back, little four by six cards; they’re plain. And if you want to write a praise, or if you want to give your life or something you’re struggling with over to the Lord, and you write that out, and you come up, and you just offer it, there’s something about physically offering up, like Mary did, as an expression of love. And as we look back over thirty years, we are overwhelmed with the love that Jesus has poured out on us. No pressure. Plenty of time.
And maybe you just want prayer. I’ll be up front, and I’d love to pray with you. If you’re struggling with “what does this mean to follow Jesus?” Or grab somebody near you and head out to the lobby. Let’s use this time to pour out our love on Jesus.
Father, thank you. I look around, and I’m just blown away with the love you have poured out on us, the way you have transformed lives, the way you have gifted your people in so many ways. Your love is vast, unmeasured, boundless, free, and it never gets old, never gets brittle. It never gets boring. So, today, if we’re bored, we’re blind. And we ask that you would open our eyes. We pray that you would soften our hearts. And we pray that you would receive this time of sacrifice, of praise, of pouring out of love as an offering to the glory of your name because nothing we’ve experienced we can take credit for. We give all the glory back to you. In Jesus name, amen.