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Monday, June 17, 2019

Growing Young/Best Neighbors

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

            Religion is about rules.  Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.  What an absurd statement!  When you look at the census form, where it says “religion,” Christianity is right there as one of the choices.  Doesn’t Christianity have rules?
What does Jesus say about this?
When asked what commandment (a/k/a “rule’) was the greatest, Jesus went straight to the rule book – the Law of Moses found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Bible. 
            A Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment is greatest” (22:36)?  Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This was not originally from Jesus.  He got this from Moses.  He doesn’t say anything about relationship.  This is a rule.  According to Jesus it is the rule, and if we want to follow him we are commanded to obey it. 
            Then, he adds a second rule which he says is like the first.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Again, this is not a Jesus original.  He’s quoting the Law of Moses here, Leviticus 19:18.  God says there, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  That’s the rule.  Why?  God is Lord, Master, and God says so.  That’s all the reason we get. 
A lot Christians kind of ignore much of Leviticus because the instruction is a set of guidelines for sacrificing animals in worship.  We don’t do that.  Because Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, we don’t kill animals and sacrifice them to show our devotion to God.  So, Leviticus is disregarded only to be read by the zealous Christians doing one of those read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans, and they read it quickly so they get to more interesting stories in Joshua and Judges.  When Jesus was asked what matters most, he quoted Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He gave rules, rules that were already in place: love God and love neighbor.
So is Christianity a religion of rule, specifically these two rules?  So many Christians base their faith on their relationship with Jesus.  Is it a relationship?  Is it both?
The final core commitment of the Growing Young approach to church ministry is where we will find resolution to this tension.  Our church is committed to the Growing Young idea.  We’ve spent the last month looking at the core commitments of churches that are growing young. 
1.    Shared Leadership
2.    Empathy
3.    Take Jesus Seriously
4.    A Community of Warm Relationships
5.    Prioritize Young People Everywhere
6.    Be Good Neighbors

Growing young churches involve young people in leadership.  They empathize with the struggles young people face.  They prioritize the teachings of Jesus, about Jesus, and the relationship we have with God in Jesus.  They foster an environment in which people can develop deep, true relationships both with peers and intergenerationally.  They prioritize ministries to young people in all areas of church life.  And finally, today’s core commitment: Growing Young Church are good neighbors to the community.  This means we strive to help people in our community thrive.  We hope many unchurched people will come to our church.  We hope many unbelievers will encounter our ministry and through that encounter decide to put their trust in Jesus.  Whether they do or not, we want to be a force for God’s good in our community and in the world.
In many ways we are already doing this.  Earlier this year, we built a ramp for a family living about a mile from here.  We do ramp projects like that almost every year.  The middle school a block from here uses our parking lot when they need overflow parking, like this past Thursday when they had 8th grade promotion.  We are also the school designated site in the event that an emergency would cause them to evacuate students.  Numerous churches in our community use our facility for funerals and banquets.  We do charge for some, not all but some, of these building uses, but those who pay are glad to do so.  They say our fees are among the most reasonable in Chapel Hill and they love using our space.  Our helping hand ministry is there for people in financial emergencies. 
These are just a few of the ways we try to be good neighbors.   Young people and unchurched people pay attention to the words we speak about Jesus when they see us doing good in the world.  Helping kids in Ethiopia get an education and job skills; sending backpacks loaded with needed school supplies and gifts to extremely poor families in Appalachia; hosting big events like Vacation Bible School and the Chinese New Year celebration and inviting the community; inviting the community to our Christmas Eve and Easter services; hosting the mobile dental clinic so low income families can get free dental care: in all these ways we strive to obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. 
We can improve the way we do many of the things I’ve mentioned.  We might add ministries, but even if we just did a better job of maximizing what we already do, it would magnify our effectiveness in showing our town what God’s love is like.  All these good works are examples of us trying to obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
When love happens in a way that makes peoples’ lives easier, relationships start to happen.  So there it is.  Obeying the command is following the rule, but it leads to relationship and in the first place we try to be obedient because of the relationship we have with Jesus.  So, Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.  Right?
It doesn’t really matter to me how it’s defined.  I categorize our faith as the Christian religion.  I participate in this religion through ritual like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, a holy book (the Bible), and regular worship.  I try to show religious devotion to God. 
In this religion, which I believe is the path to God, I have found that because my sins are forgiven, I have been adopted as a child of God.  God is my Heavenly father, therefor I have relationship with Him. My relationship with God is more important than any other relationship or loyalty in my life.  I am my best self as a husband, dad, brother, son, friend, and pastor because of who I am in Christ. 
Because of who Jesus is, I want to follow Him.  I want to understand and obey when he says, these commands are the most important.  The words he speaks in Matthew 22 come in a series of confrontations that Jesus had with religious leaders in Jerusalem in the week between Palm Sunday and his crucifixion on Good Friday.
Different powerbrokers in the government and in the temple felt threatened by Jesus.  They tried to control people’s lives and to an extent they succeeded.  Then Jesus came along and severely criticized them.  Sadducees, Herodians, and Pharisees were kind of like political parties vying for the soul of the nation.  They exercised influence through control of the temple and synagogues and through their knowledge of the Law of Moses.  Jesus knew the law better than they did.  He saw these leaders manipulating people with guilt and threats of expulsion from houses of worship and he wouldn’t have it.
Jesus helped people find their way to God. Through healing, driving our demons, and teaching about the law in new ways, he drew his listeners close to God whereas the leaders who contended against him came between people and God.  If we are to be good neighbors, if we as the body of Christ are to help people come to know Jesus, we have to love our community as Jesus loved those who came to him. 
When he quoted the Deuteronomy command to love God, he wasn’t talking about a feeling.  This was not love as an emotion or impulse.  He meant love as a decision.  To love God meant – and still means – to give oneself to God with one’s entire person. 
Do we do that?  How much of you does God get?  How much of me does God get?  Loving God in this way – the way commanded by Jesus – is a lifelong pursuit.  It’s difficult to give oneself entirely to anything: a profession, a romantic relationship, a pastime.  He’s passionate about golf.  Maybe.  To be “passionate” about something is to love so much it hurts.  Does he love golf so much it hurts?  Do we love God so much it hurts?  Are we giving absolutely all of ourselves to God?  That’s what Jesus says is the most important of commandments.  There’s no option to follow him and have Christianity be a small part of our lives.  Loving God the way Jesus says we must is all-consuming.
It is also directly tied to the second great command: love others.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Again, the verb Jesus used to describe love indicates love is a responsibility.  When we follow Jesus, we have to give ourselves fully to the care of our neighbors.  We do this as a community and as individuals.  Jesus illustrated the point with his Good Samaritan parable.  Anyone you or I come across is our neighbor, one we are commanded by God to love.  Loving in this way gets us to “the essence of the way God created humans to live.”  We give ourselves to God and others to fulfill God’s purpose for us as the crown of creation.[i]   We were made to be in relationships of self-giving love with God and with people.  It’s why we exist.
When we come together as a group of Jesus-followers and together commit to love our community in this way, we will show our neighbors Jesus.  Seeing Him, some will see their own need for Him and turn to Him in faith.  We’ll be a “Growing Young Church.”  More importantly, we will be a faithful church and each one of us will meet Jesus in this gathering.  We will see Him in this place. 
Pray for our church.  Ask God to help us grow young and help us increase our love for each other, for him, and for the world right outside our doors. 

[i] M. Wilkens (2004).  The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.726.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Growing Young - Take Young People Seriously

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

            I’ve titled this talk “Where God’s Promises Come True.”  My thought is the church is where God’s promises come true.  That’s rather audacious, and not exactly accurate.
            Whether you think of the church as a building or as a gathering of people, God should act there.  Within the church, among God’s people, God’s activity should be easy to spot.  But that’s not the only place God acts.
            Mark Gabriel, an Egyptian man, was a Muslim cleric.  He got his hands on a copy of the New Testament.  He read it through it in one evening and by the time he was done, he confessed his sins, received forgiveness, and gave his life to Jesus.  No church.  No pastor.  No guidance.  Just him in a room, secretly reading the New Testament; in that place God delivered to him the promise of salvation.
            God delivered the same promise to me in the summer of 1981.  I was 11.  I went to the Detroit Baptist Camp.  There were campfires, new friends, first crushes, swimming the lake, racing up the hill to the camp store to buy candy; in that fun, crazy environment, I realized my need for Jesus and God gave me the promise of salvation.
            God speaks everywhere. So any place can be where God’s promises come true.  The church is where we gather with other believers to understand God, worship him, and understand how his promises shape our lives.  When we gather as his people, united in Christ, we become one.  This oneness is essential for each individual living out the call of God in their lives.  As soon as Mark Gabriel escaped his Muslim father who wanted to kill him for accepting Jesus, he sought life in the church.  As soon as I got home from camp, I had to tell my church family about my decision to follow Jesus.  Church is where people who have received God’s promise gather.
            One important way we hear God is in listening to young people – 9 & 10-year-olds, teens, and young adults.  “Growing Young” is a way of thinking about church.  Today we look at the fifth of the 6 core commitments exemplified in Growing Young congregations.  Already we have discussed shared leadership, empathy, taking Jesus seriously, and warm relationships.  The fifth core commitment is “prioritizing young people everywhere.” 
            Prophecy is communication God gives special, select individuals. No one else can be like Isaiah or Elijah.  However, another strand of Biblical teaching shows that God speaks through many people in the faith community.  In the book of Numbers, Moses pines, “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on all of them” (11:29).  Moses hopes for it.
            Then the prophet Joel, whose words were read earlier, predicted it.  Speaking through his prophet, God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28).  Then in Acts, after Jesus had ascended, the Holy Spirit falls on the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the observance of Pentecost.  They all begin to prophesy (Acts 2:16ff.)  What Moses long for and Joel predicted is fulfilled at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which churches around the world celebrate today. 
            Pentecost was a beginning, not a one-time event.  Since then, the Holy Spirit has continued to speak through people, and especially through people in the church.  This is God’s message to us.  Are we listening? More to the point, are we listening to everyone who has heard the Spirit, or just some of the people? 
Through the prophet Joel God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”  Institutions venerate the wise elderly and we should.  But do we know the truth God wants our sons and daughters to speak?  Have we heard descriptions of the dreams God has given our young people?  We’ve got to prioritize young people so they know they can speak and will be heard. 
            It’s not just necessary for their maturation and spiritual development that we adults quiet ourselves and give the floor to the younger generation.  It is for our own good.  We listen to our youth so that God’s life-giving, chaos-ordering, exile-resisting, death-overcoming spirit will be loosed among us.[i]  We prioritize young people everywhere so we can hear God’s message and live in the blessings of God’s promise. 
            It’s not just about speaking.  It’s about trusting young people in vital areas of church life.  One of the emphasized points in the Growing Young is trust.  Don’t just give teens superficial things to do.  Trust them in load-bearing roles. 
            For instance, an important but unseen ministry in our church is the work of volunteers in the sound booth.  They make sure the words are on the screen for all the songs.  They make sure that the right microphones are turned on or off at the right times.  Last Sunday, the only volunteers up there were a couple of 16-year-olds, Kevin and Igor.  If this ministry is botched, it affects the entire worship service.  We didn’t entrust this to them because it was youth Sunday.  Last week was a normal Sunday and they were our tech team and they performed that work without a hitch. 
Of course you could say, “Well that’s nice, but those high schoolers weren’t prophesying.”  No, but they know they have a place of high importance in our church. When they have something to say, they know can.  In our church-wide LGBTQ dialogues several teens shared their thoughts knowing they are fully part of the community, not lesser members.  God speaks through them and we all need to listen.  We all need to hear what God has to say. 
With that in mind I emailed young people this week and asked them what church would look like if they could design it.  Here are their responses. 
1.    Williams Suehs – More technology in children’s and youth ministry – maybe individual PC’s for kids during SS or at least a slide show.
2.    Igor T – Put video games around the church, like a Pac Man machine.  When I wondered about the seriousness of this suggestion, the person making it reminded me we had seen this very set-up at a church we visited together earlier this year.
3.    Merone T – We need to keep going to Ethiopia each year, but we should also go on trips to other places.  We need more activities.  And 4th and 5th graders should be allowed to help out with toddlers.
4.    Jackson and William A – The church needs a pastor and a Sunday school.
5.    Christopher H – Age-groups are important; intergenerational is fine, but sometimes young people want to be with their peers, not with old people. 
6.    Tara S – Fun songs in worship; do at least one song kids would like.  Have more potlucks and times where we eat together; and maybe have music while we are eating.  Use different stories to learn about God and Jesus; sometimes it feels like we hear the same stories all the time.
7.    Have a suggestion box.
8.    Have a waterpark – chapel combo with maybe a waterslide leading into the baptism pool.

Anyone tempted to say those are silly ideas?   That’s not prophecy from the Lord.  How do we know?  If we ignore young people when they say silly things, when they act, you know, young, will they be willing to speak when God gives them a word?  We have to foster an environment in which everyone in the church knows he or she matters to God and to the church family. 
Prioritizing young people everywhere in the church leads us to prioritizing young people everywhere there are young people.  I was overwhelmed with this call from God as I walked the streets right around here.  I walked across the middle school campus and prayed for teachers, principals, students, janitors, cafeteria workers, and everyone else there.  And it dawned on me.  We love UNC students even as we recognize the transitory, seasonal nature of university life.  But the kids in the elementary, middle, and high schools are here year-round.  We are called to proclaim God’s love to young people who are around us all the time. 
The movement in the Bible is clear.  Joel is prophecy.  We understand his words to be fulfilled in Acts.  Joel’s vision of young people speaking divinely inspired words comes to life in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t just fall on all those people in gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. The Spirit sends them back to their own towns and nations to tell about the salvation we have in Jesus.  We are sent to announce to the world that all people can have freedom from sin, rescue from death, and new life in Jesus Christ.  Our first stop is the community right outside our doors.
When we listen and prioritize young people, we undergo a significant shift.  We move from top-down leadership to a community that listens to everyone.  We go from saying “My opinion is” when we are in discussion to “What I hear God saying is.” We become conduits through which the Spirit brings God’s message.  We go from being settled in quiet, insignificant lives to living in constant alert awareness that God is doing new things all the time and we are part of what God is doing. 
The untamed, unrestrained message of the prophet rings in the ears of God’s people.  The call is so poignant, so compelling that when we hear it life is never again thinkable or livable apart from relationship with the resurrected one.  Jesus is at the center of our life and life itself does not make any sense apart from Him.[ii] 
We prioritize young people everywhere so we can hear the full word of Spirit-inspired prophecy, and we can’t go back to unruffled, domesticated church life.  And we won’t want to.  Instead we face the biggest challenges of our time as Jesus-followers our confidence found in him. 
In elevating young people, we all rise.  We all see more of God.  We grow closer to Him.  We more fully walk in His joy.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Augsberg Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.648.
[ii] Bruggemann, p.649.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

God-Sized Prayer for the Community

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The truth is I have repeatedly asked God to send more people to our church.  This year we have experienced more departures than the normal attrition our church cycles through.  In any given year, we see a dozen or more people move whether it is because of graduation or moving to a new town.  Or, people leave the church for other reasons.  As that happens, new people join us.  Families move to the area.  People already living here decide they want to give our church a try.  In over decade, we have not had significant numeric growth or decline – until this year. 
            This year, our new arrivals are not keeping pace with our departures.  As the lead pastor of the church, this has troubled me and I have prayed fervently for God to do something about it.  However, recently as I walked through the neighborhood near our church property, I experienced a paradigm-rattling thought.  I may have been praying the wrong prayer.
            Does God want people to attend HillSong?  Maybe.  But more than filling the seats in our building with bodies on Sunday mornings, God wants people turning to Him in faith.  God wants the hearts of people turned to him for salvation. 
            There’s a middle school a block from our church campus.  There are hundreds of homes within a one-mile radius of our location.  I walked across that campus praying for the kids who would be taking year-end testing.  I prayed for cafeteria workers, teachers’ classroom aides, the school nurse, the janitors, and the resource officer.  I prayed for office staff, the principal, and assistant principals.  And of course, I prayed for the teachers.  From the school, I walked up and down residential streets praying, asking God to send a wave of revival through this community. 
            Our church is not influencing or affecting this community in which God has placed us.  A few families are core members of our church family, but for the most part, the community is indifferent to the church.  I know.  I live in the community. I talk to my neighbors every day.  As I walked and pray, it hit like a thunderclap.  I need – we all need – to be praying for something much more important than increased attendance at our church.  We need to pray for a bigger impact in our community. 
            The second entry for “impact” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary reads that this is a noun which means “the force or impression of one thing on another.”  What Gospel force is our church exerting in this community?  What Godly impression are we making?
          People in our town don’t know how much they need Jesus.  They don’t realize they are lost without him.  I know.  I live here.  One of the nicest men I know decide Sunday morning was the perfect time an amusement park.  He’s a great dad and I love it when my kids play at his house because I know they’re safe, they’re having fun, and they don’t spend the time staring at screens. 
I love my neighbor.  But, it never occurred to him that Sunday morning is a time for the church to gather and worship God.  It just isn’t in his mind that his children need to be formed in the image of Christ and part of that formation is the teaching that comes in Sunday School, in extended session, and in worship services.  I hope my friendship with him is a witness.  He knows who I am and what I do.  But whatever effect our friendship has, in our half a dozen years of acquaintance, his family has been to our church exactly 1 time.  And they’re not missing our church to worship elsewhere.  In his life, Sunday morning is time for taking kids places or for working out.  He is but one example of the people around us – our church’s mission field.
We not called to encourage people to be nice.  We are called to help people become disciples of Jesus.  One of the most important and maybe one of the most overlooked passages to inform our calling is Luke 19:41-44.  Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and knows he will soon be arrested and executed.  He knows this is coming, but he also knows he will have a week where he is able to teach in the temple’s outer court.  It is his last chance to give his vision for life in God’s kingdom before he goes to the cross.
As he approaches the city from the outlying village where he spends his nights, Luke writes he weeps. He weeps for Jerusalem.  His tears do not fall because he desperately wants to see better temple attendance for Sabbath day worship services.  He’s crying because he says of the people of the city, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  Because now they are hidden from your eyes.  … You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Jesus was God-in-the-flesh and too many people in the city could not see it and totally missed it.  This broke God’s heart.  We are nearly 2000 years removed from Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, from the crucifixion and resurrection.  Today, we live in the age of the church.  The Holy Spirit has come (Acts 2) to empower the church to draw people to Jesus.  We are the witnesses to what God has done and is doing – saving men and women from sin and from an eternity apart from Him.  Our testimony is meant to convince people to render a verdict: they are guilty and their only hope of rescue from judgment is Jesus. 
Would I love it if our church got bigger (had more people)?  Most definitely!  That’s why I have continuously asked God to send more people to us.  God responded to that prayer by challenging me to pray something much bigger and more important.  God wants the hearts of the people in this community.  We as a church need to pray that we would have a God-sized influence and a resurrection-persuasion.  We need to impact this community for Christ. 
That’s why I am urging you to make salvation prayer a crucial part of your daily prayer life (and if you don’t prayer daily, then start.  Now!).  Pray for the salvation of the people in our community who don’t know Jesus.  Pray for our church to be an effective witness.  Have your heart burn for people like many of my neighbors.  These are wonderful, upstanding folks, but without a sense of how much they need Jesus.  Pray that God will work through our church to help people find their way to Jesus.  If it means many end up attending our church, that’s great.  But that’s not the prayer.  The prayer is that people’s hearts would turn to God through faith in Jesus Christ.  Let this burn in you.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Growing Faith and Increasing Love (2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12)

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Sunday, June 2, 2019

            “Yahoo!  This is awesome!”  You yell as you leap off the rock outcropping into open space, falling, until you finally splash into the icy, clear mountain lake.
            The embrace is bone-crushing.  Love flows from him into you and from you into him, this friend you once called your best friend, but are now seeing again after many years of separation.
            The tears flow out of your eyes.  You have no control over this flood of emotion that has blindsided you.  You know exactly what it is about and yet have no words for it.
            Excitement and icy exhilaration.  A long-overdue reunion.  Cold cocked by grief.  Whether it is joy, love, sorrow, or something else, we have emotions that cannot be held in.  They must be released.  This is the sense in 2 Thessalonian 1:3. 
First century Jesus follower Paul is writing his second letter to a church he planted.  They are a faithful group, but have had to deal with tragedy that sparked confusion about Jesus’ hoped-for return.  Paul writes to answer questions, correct mistakes in thought and behavior, defend against false teaching that threatens the Thessalonian Christians, and re-establish right teaching about Jesus. 
However, before he gets to the meat of the letter, there’s something he has to say, a feeling he can’t keep to himself.  “We must always give thanks to God for you, [my Thessalonian] brothers and sisters,” he says.  That phrase “we must give thanks” has this sense.  Paul feels he owes it to the Thessalonians and owes it to God to thank God for the people of this wonderful, stressed out church.  Why?  His reason is the core of the message this morning. 
Again, verse three.  “We must always give thanks … because your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”  Because faith has grown and love increased among the Thessalonian Christians, they endured persecution from pagan Greeks.  Mocked, shut out of local commerce, even beaten, these Christians have kept the faith in the face of painful trials.  Confused by false teaching about the resurrection, these believers have kept their eyes on Jesus.
Paul is so thrilled by their endurance in spite of the threats, he tells them he has boasted about them to other churches.  “Hey you Philippians!  Hey you Corinthians!  You have got to see how committed the Thessalonians are!”  Their faith has grown to abundance, beyond measure.  Paul exaggerates a little, but he never hesitated to be critical in his other letters when critique is called for.  He is truly amazed at the growth of their faith and the increase of their love for each other.  The Greek verb gives the sense that the love in the Thessalonian church is constantly increasing.
            Faith growing to abundance and love increasing more and more produces in a church an environment of warm relationships.  The church becomes a family that’s committed to building each other up and supporting one another through thick and thin.  Our church has experienced some losses this year and you might even say we’re a little bit down.  But I see in us a commitment to grow in faith and increase in love. 
            We’ve been learning about the Growing Young approach to church.  A philosophy developed by the Fuller Theological Seminary Youth Institute, Growing Young encourage churches to invest in the discipleship of people aged 10-25, Generation Z and the Millennials.  We believe that if everyone in our church contributes to developing young people as Jesus’ disciples, we will all grow in our walk with Christ.  We will become a more welcoming, service-minded church.
            We’ve been studying the core commitments found in churches already successfully growing.  How are we currently doing with these commitments in our congregation?  What changes can we make to increase our ability to live out these commitments?  We’ve looked at shared leadership, also called keychain leadership; empathy; and, taking Jesus seriously.  Today, we’re on the fourth core commitment – warm relationships.  Churches that grow young create space for people to be in genuine relationship with one another.  In these churches, “brother” and “sister” mean something – something very good and much needed.
            In our Thursday night prayer meeting this past week, we prayed for one of the young people in our church who is facing some challenges.  She has grown up in our congregation and is now in her 20’s.  A retiree at the prayer meeting remembered taking this young person to basketball and football games numerous time over the years.  This retired person has been Growing Young long before we ever heard of the Fuller Youth Institute program.  Through her love of sports and her love of young people, she has been connecting with children, teens, and 20-somethings for years.  When she heard that one of “her” young people was struggling, she felt it.  She prayed for that young person from her heart.
            For her the connection happens through sports.  For you it might be yardwork or dartball or construction or school tutoring or music.  The interest is the point of connection.  You can invest your life in a young person.  Warm, true relationship forms.  You will be a friend and mentor for someone who needs it.  When you pray for that person, you will find yourself connecting with God’s heart at a level deeper than maybe you even thought possible. 
            People of all ages crave a warm, welcoming environment where deep relationships grow.  Pause for a moment and gauge the relational temperature in our church from your perspective.  Is this a place where you connect with others?  Do you feel welcomed and loved?  Do you have true friends whom you can trust and call on in this church family?
            We want the church to be a warm community, but we shouldn’t pretend that it is.  Some find their best lifelong friends within this body of believers.  Others feel disconnected and have real trouble plugging in.  If that’s been your experience, don’t fear.  In looking at the Thessalonian church as our model for a warm, welcoming family, we don’t just consider that they had faith and that they loved each other.
            Their faith was growing and ours can too.  Ask God to expand your faith.  Whatever your relational experience at HillSong has been – warm or cold – pray for God to expand your faith.  This starts out as a work of the Holy Spirit in you.  We open ourselves to what God is doing in us.   Pray for the church.  Ask God to move in the coldest hearts among us, softening us, so that we welcome one another.  Paul was excited to see the Thessalonians’ faith grow.  Ours can too.
            He was just as happy to see them respond to God’s love revealed in Jesus, by increasing their love for one another.  Among us, love can continuously increase.  Fix in your mind’s eye the image of Jesus welcoming you into His embrace.  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love for you and in Him you have blessed life as a child of God.
            Now, let that love of God, expressed in Jesus, begin reforming your heart.  That reformation of the heart becomes real as you express the Christ-love growing in you to your friends here in the church family.  This takes risks.  So take them.  Speak to something this morning that’s in the church that you don’t know that well.  “Hi.  Good morning.  I’m Rob.  I just wanted to say I am happy to see you today.”  That’s a place to start and love increases from there.  We have to start somewhere.
            From there, like the church member I mentioned in the prayer meeting, your life interests can be the context in which you begin developing relationships.  If you have found our church relationally cold, or you feel distant, pray for growing faith and increasing love.  And find ways you can connect with people.  If you’re not sure where to start, give me a call this week and we can work on it together. 
            There is a misperception that young people are locked in with their phones and are completely happy tuning out the world, especially the adult world.  It seems their most important relationships are with people in social media, people they’ve never met in person.  The attractive thing about the phone is they can control it – just turn it off.  The truth is, like everyone else, young people crave human-to-human contact.  As one young person in the Growing Young study quipped, “The internet can’t help you move into your apartment.”[i]  Virtual relationship cannot surprise you with a needed smile or embrace.  They cannot have you over for dinner or go to a game with you. 
            Growing in faith and increasing in love embodies the mission our HillSong leaders discerned from God at our March leaders retreat. 

What do we do?  We follow Jesus.  He embodied love as he welcomed all people into his circle. 
What do we do?  We love others; the second of his two great commandments.  Love your neighbor as yourself.
What do we do?  We share hope.  Our abundant faith and ever increasing love – the Holy Spirit expressed in and through us – gives us hope and gives hope to all the people God leads to us. 

            God is calling HillSong to be a church of warm relationships.  Among us, Jesus is Lord.  People are loved.  And hope grows.  And we want you to feel yourself fully welcomed, fully a part of this circle of family relationships. 
            Paul concluded 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 saying, “We always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  We strive to respond to God’s grace so that our faith will grow, our love will increase, and the name of Jesus is glorified among us.

[i] Powell, K.  J. Mulder, and B. Griffin (2016), Growing Young, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.169.