Sunday, September 20, 2015

Outreach Sunday: The Sending Church

Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
Genesis 12:1-3; Luke 10:1-11
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2015

It’s not about the church meeting your needs; it’s about joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs.
--Brian D. McLaren

In the landscape of American Christianity, there are all kinds of churches. There are large churches and small churches. There are city churches, suburban churches, and country churches. There are high-church “smells-and-bells” churches, and there are low-church “meet-and-greet” churches. My friend and former boss at Furman University, Dr. A.V. Huff, Jr., a historian by trade and a Methodist minister by calling, tells the story of a Furman student who came to him for counsel. The student felt called to the ministry, but he couldn’t decide whether he should become a Methodist minister or an Episcopal priest. When the young man finished his monologue on the relative merits of Methodism and Episcopalianism, he asked A.V., “How do I decide?” To which the venerable Dr. Huff replied, “It’s very simple, actually. You need to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your life going to pot-luck suppers . . . or cocktail parties.” There are pot-luck-supper churches and there are cocktail-party churches. (I’m not even going to ask which one this church is.)

On this Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—“Outreach Sunday” in this congregation, I want to call your attention to five kinds of churches, and I’m going to highlight the fifth one. The first kind of church is the “middle-name” church. “Middle-name churches” define themselves primarily by their denominational brand. Myers Park Baptist Church. Myers Park United Methodist Church. Myers Park Presbyterian Church. The most important thing to middle-name churches is to represent the brand. Middle-name churches have fallen on hard times lately. Brand dilution and a decrease in brand loyalty among American church-goers has significantly reduced the number of middle-name churches, even among churches that still use middle names. You may have noticed that many churches have sworn off middle names entirely.

A second kind of church is the member church. The primary purpose of a “member church” is the care and feeding of the people who have signed up to be members. You can tell a member church by the way the people in it introduce themselves. “Hi, I’m Harry. I’ve been a member here for 42 years.” People in member churches don’t identify themselves primarily by the ministries and the missions in which they engage through their church. The most important thing in a member church is how long it has been since you signed up for its care and feeding.

A third kind of church was introduced to the landscape of American Christianity about 40 years ago. It’s called a “seeker church.” The seeker church was developed in the 1970s as an evangelistic tool to reach people whom observers of American religious life call “seekers,” people who are seeking spiritual fulfillment but who haven’t found it in middle-name churches and member churches. Seeker churches were originally designed as an “entry-level” Christianity for non-believers. They are the developmental equivalent of Kindergarten in which the curriculum is designed for those who need to learn their ABCs and their 123s before they can move on to the more advanced content of the Christian faith and worship and living. That’s the seeker church as it was originally designed to be.

A fourth kind of church is the “disciple church.” Disciple churches are designed primarily to teach and equip believers to understand and to live out a Christian faith that they have already professed. Disciple churches specialize in programs intended to turn believers into followers who understand and live by what they say they believe. That’s the disciple church.

There is a fifth type of church in the American landscape that I call the “sending church.” The biblical mandate for the “sending church” is found, among many other places, in the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke. In the first three verses of Luke 10, there are four verbs of sending and going. Verse 1 tells us that Jesus “sent them,” apesteilen in Greek. Our English word “apostle” comes from the same root word as the Greek verb apesteilen. Jesus sent them on a mission. In verse 2, Jesus says to the ones whom he is sending, “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers,” “send out,” ekbalē in Greek; ekbalē means to “throw,” “to cast,” to sling ’em out there. Then in verse 3, Jesus says, “Go!” hypagete in Greek:“ Go on!” “Get out there!” Then Jesus says, “I am sending you,” apostellō. It’s the “apostle” word again, someone who is sent on a mission. Four times in three verses: “send,” “throw,” “go,” “send.” The sending Jesus; the sending church.

You can tell what is really important to a church by what it measures. Children like to measure their height because growing up is important to them. Many of us grow up to measure inches around instead of up because our weight has become more important to us than our height. Middle-name churches and member churches and seeker churches and discipleship churches measure how many people they are drawing in because drawing in is what is really important to them. But sending churches reverse the metrics. Sending churches measure how many people are going out.

In Luke 10, the mandate of Jesus was not to draw a crowd but to send a crowd.  And so we celebrate Outreach Sunday because reaching out is the mandate of Jesus in Luke 10. That mandate has three essential elements. The first essential element is a universal vision. The oldest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel say in Luke 10:1 that Jesus sent out 70 disciples. So why is it 70 instead of 72 as in later manuscripts of the gospel of Luke or why not 64 or 36 or 40 or 120? Why 70? Over the centuries of Christian interpretation of this passage, there have been many explanations. Here’s the best one, in my humble opinion. Genesis 10 says that after the great flood the descendants of Noah spread abroad “in their lands, with their own language, by their families, in their nations” (Genesis 10:5,20,31). Guess how many families are named Genesis 10. Seventy. The number 70 in Luke 10:1 points back to all the families of the earth who “spread abroad” in Genesis 10. The biblical mandate for the sending church is not to an elect few but to all. The biblical mandate for the sending church is not to a chosen race or a chosen nation or a chosen orientation but to all the families of the earth: All of them. In whatever culture by whatever definition in whatever configuration in whatever circumstance.

The call of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3 reflects this universal vision when God says to them, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . . . In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice, first, that Abraham and Sarah are sent to “all the families of the earth.” All of them. And notice, second, that Abraham and Sarah are sent to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. So the second essential element of the mandate is the blessing of God.

Look at what Jesus tells the 70 to do. In Luke 10:5, Jesus says, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’” Your first word to a stranger, says Jesus, is peace: “The peace of God be with you.” Before you know anything about the household or the family—good, bad, or indifferent, Jesus says pronounce a blessing on it. Those whom Jesus sends are to be a vehicle of God’s blessing to everyone whom they encounter: “The peace of God be with you.” A universal vision of the blessing of God.

Now for the third essential element of the mandate. In Luke 10:9, Jesus instructs the 70 to do two things: “cure the sick who are there,” and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Jesus instructs his followers to address both physical needs—as in cure the sick—and spiritual needs—proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Both of them. Not just one of them. Both of them. That’s the holistic blessing of God.

What we see in Luke 10 is a universal vision of the holistic blessing of God. The sending church reaches out by proclaiming the gospel and by addressing physical and psychological and social and economic needs of persons to whom we are sent. Genesis 12 and Luke 10 remind us that when we gather here to worship God our reason for being is to be sent out from this place to live out a universal vision of the holistic blessing of God.

Jesus said, “I am sending you.” “Go!” “Go on!” “Get out there!” That’s the sending church. Be it. Do it. 

Copyrighted © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Rogers. It may be copied or disseminated for non-commercial use, provided this notice is included. The author can be contacted at