A group of guys walked into a cave. Their mindset was pretty chilled and relaxed. This was about having fun and exploring. It was a massive cave. They felt excited. They pushed in for kilometers along the sandy-floored tunnel for hours into the darkness. The cave’s name? It’s famous now: Tham Luang, North Thailand. It was June. The rainy season had not come yet. They didn’t think twice about the possibility of floods.
The leader was not who you think it was. It was not a soccer coach. It was me, with a couple of other men, and a group of youth from our Chiang Rai church. It was 2006. We did not have any high tech equipment—I told you we were chilled out—candles, phone lights, some shared torches. Tham Luang is a spectacularly huge cave and I’ve got to say, we loved every bit of it!
Of course, in June last year a very similar group of youth went further than us into the same cave. And you know the story It took nine days to locate the ‘Wild Boars’ soccer team, and a further eight days to get them all out. It was a rescue that captivated the world. Their plight really haunted me because that could have been us! It was the same cave and the same time of year. I’ve got to say I was pretty traumatized. Their experience changed me. If I were to re-enter Tham Luang, I’d do it will a very different mindset now. I would be definitely less chilled and more vigilant and serious.
I want us to think now about how to walk into not a cave, but church, so that maybe we’d be a little less chilled and more vigilant and serious about something so important.
It may not seem like the most obvious topic for a sermon. After all, we seemed to all walk into church pretty successfully today! But like entering Tham Luang, your mindset makes all the difference. You need to know what you’re entering and how to approach it. I want us today to see what church is, and I want us to grow in our love for each other on a Sunday.
Let me say first congratulations on walking into church today! For some of you that meant a wrestle with yourself. It is your day off. It would have been so good to bludge around at home. For some of you that meant a wrestle with others who wanted you at a family gathering, a day out, or at work. For some it involved a wrestle with kids, to somehow get them dressed and out the door without WWIII erupting. For some it was a wrestle with nerves: you don’t know much about God yet, or don’t have friends here yet. Or you struggle with anxiety in a crowded place. But you did make it! Well done! Let’s think about how to make the most of it! How should we walk into church?
How to walk into church? Well, you need to get this right first: that we are gathered around God. The passage from Hebrews 10 says to “draw near to God”. That right there is no small thing. Our Creator, holy, perfect in righteousness, invites us to his place. This is like the Queen inviting you to hang out with her at Buckingham Palace, but a billion times a bigger deal. We are invited to approach God, and amazingly, to come with confidence, Hebrews 10 verses 19-20:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body … (NIV)
This is not about coming to church: we’ll get to that. This is about coming to God. Do you see that we can be confident to come to God, not because we’re holy in ourselves, but because of Jesus! Think back to all you heard about Jesus over Easter. Jesus has opened this new and living way to God!
Before Jesus came, God taught his people that drawing near to him was a good thing, but not to be taken lightly. He put his people through spiritual kindergarten, if you like. Kindergarten for them was their temple and animal sacrifices. The temple was God’s way of teaching them that he wanted to be among his people. The priests and sacrifices showed the people that approaching God was no small thing, that sin was so serious that blood must be shed. But really the whole thing was just a big lesson. It was a toy temple, next to God’s heavenly temple.
But God’s people graduated from kindergarten on the first Easter. There would be no more toying around. Jesus’ death provided the blood to atone for sin once and for all. Jesus became our High Priest who entered God’s presence in heaven, pleading his blood for us. Jesus is our new and living way into God’s very presence.
And if God has gone to that much effort to open a way, we should trust him. We should draw near to him through faith, verses 21-22:
And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (NIV)
But the thing is that when you do this and come to God to be washed and cleansed, you’re so excited, because it’s you and God now. It’s hard to notice anything else! But if you look besides you, you will remember that you are not alone. Others have drawn near also. God is gathering not just you to himself but us. We’re a people now. It is not just you and God but us and God.
You accepted the invite to dine with royalty. But when you get there you find that there are so many other guests. We all enjoy this together!
So church is certainly not about a building. It is about a people, about us and God. Church is certainly not about us doing religion to make ourselves fit for God’s presence: no, kindergarten is over. It is about God gathering us to himself through his son.
MBM is no social club. It is no RSL. It is an outpost of heaven on earth where we meet with the God of the universe together and hear his voice through the Bible. So before we say anything about how to walk into church today, we need the right mindset. Church matters! It matters a lot! This is an outpost of heaven on earth where we meet God. And if you know you’re on the outer here, that you haven’t yet drawn near to God, then come! Jesus is the living way for you. The price has been paid. Come and be washed, and cleansed of guilt. Come by faith and then look around and see that you are part of something big: God’s church. And make the best of it!
So let’s now focus on how to be a better church. Let us consider verses 24-25, which tells us to do just that—to stop and think:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)
Let us consider—stop and think—how to be a more loving and fruitful church. So that is what the rest of this talk is about. It is taking that phrase, “Let us consider” seriously. Let’s work out how to apply this, to think about how to walk into church, that we would walk out of church encouraged and ready for the Day of Christ’s return, and that we might genuinely spur one another on Sunday by Sunday and provoke each other to do better.
So how do you walk into church? First, prioritize. A good day at church can only happen if we make a decision to be here, even months or weeks beforehand. That change of mindset is to see that when we gather together for church we are approaching none other than the living God together. That means church takes priority in your schedule. We’ll need to say ‘no’ to other things on our calendar. We’ll need to “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”.
So, excluding sickness, mental health, and holidays etc, we’ll want to be here. If you want a model of this then look no further than Robert Cooke from the 8am service. He was here every Sunday for over two years and when he finally broke his run, it was to attend a baptism at another church!
If you’re always having beach days or catch ups with friends, plan them for Saturday, or well after church. If your kids are always invited to birthday parties on Sunday, bite the bullet and say ‘no’, or tell them you’ll have to arrive late. It will teach your kids good priorities, and be a strong witness to others that God comes first.
But half the time it is not that we have things on but it’s just hard to get moving. “I’m dog tired it’s warm in bed or in the sun. No-one will notice, and I went last week anyway. I think the Spirit is leading me to hit the snooze button, or stay in front of the TV.” That’s how we get in the habit of not meeting.
Part of the solution to that lethargy is to declutter your weekends. Don’t stay out late Saturday night. Don’t try to please everybody and be everywhere. Stay fresh for the main game. Get up with the alarm. Remember that the fruit of the Spirit includes “faithfulness” and “self-control”. So actually being disciplined is to be Spirit led! Get out of bed. Then pray. Pray for a right heart, for joy in heading to church. And watch the clock. Leave on time so you arrive here early and can be part of the singing at the start of the service! Prioritise.
Secondly, park with love. Ok, this might seem crazy, but when you arrive, park with consideration, with love for those less mobile than yourself, who need the closer car parking spots—the elderly, the new parents, and for our guests. Their first impression of MBM is well before they make it to the front door.
So if you are able-bodied and can walk in a hundred meters then deliberately park far away. Park up on Sherbrooke Street, down Westminster, or park in the school car park. That leaves the church car park for those who may need it more than you. To help with this we have some new flags out today. They mark out the whole inner car park. On your left as you come in is guest parking. On your right is the usual disabled parking, and we are working on increasing those spots. The rest of the inner car park is for seniors and those with newborns in prams.
A while back some older MBM’ers with mobility issues drove in to our car park. There was no spot available. They went round a few times but simply could not park. They had to drive back home again. I was devastated to hear that, and hope the new parking set up stops that from ever happening again.
Pray about where to sit. One of our sisters here wrote down what she does when she walks into this room: “How can I love and serve Jesus and not myself? One way is by asking God in prayer to show me! Almost every Sunday before I sit down I ask Him where I can be used by him to serve others. One Sunday after praying I felt God direct my head to the right towards a lady I’d never met before, so I introduced myself and sat down. She had been struggling with anxiety and said she really needed someone to talk to. We had an incredible conversation and prayer. Directed by God I’ve also been next to people who are worried their sin might prove they’re not Christian, and people who are lonely in such a big church. All have been such important conversations followed by prayer.”
Can you see that how you walk into church is not to be taken lightly? We want you to have the best experience you can, but also the best ministry you can. By the way, that is where our name tags come in, too. When people forget your name they are embarrassed to talk to you. Name tags kick-start conversations. Pick yours up.
Now my ushers asked me to make a special point about where to sit. Please sit well forward and close together. We saw the importance of that in our packed services over Easter. It also allows others to come in behind you, and not have to disturb the service by walking to the front, and it makes the singing better! Now in saying that, there are some exceptions. Our parents of babies need to stay at the back so they can slip out those side doors if bub get unsettled. Some of our elderly, disabled, or anxious people need to sit at the back. That is totally fine. But most of us can sit forward. Let me spur you on to that act of love.
And by the way, please don’t lift the black covers over the seats at the back. Let the ushers peel them back when and if we really need to. There are usually seats further forward.
Coming back to where we started, pray about where to sit. If God shows you someone by themselves, sit with them. You can catch up with your friends later. If you notice a new face, or new family, sit with them. Host them, like a guest in your home.
Maybe today God wants to use you to bless someone brand new to church, or brand new to Jesus? Don’t go forcing yourself on them. If they don’t want to talk much, that’s cool. Some people just want to sit back and listen here, for even a whole year. That’s ok, but at least offer. And if you are fairly new yourself, you can be friendly too. We have lots of new people here, and the people sitting near you might actually be newer than you! Pray about where to sit.
And then participate. Once seated you can encourage those around you, spur them on, by simply participating in the service. Sing, laugh, say “Amen” to the prayers! You’ll lift the hearts of those around you and point them to Jesus. And make the best of chat time.
I received this email from a guest to church last year. They were hugely encouraging about the service, but said: “I think it would be useful for you guys to know that not one person came to us and introduced themselves. The welcomer said “welcome”, but that was it. This seemed strange considering the church advertises as being so welcoming and even had a segment during the service to say “hello” to those around you. Still, no one came to us.
That broke my heart! Some of us here were probably sitting near them that day. Our newcomers are trying to work out if they are wanted here, and those people felt they were not. At chat time, make sure you check around you. Your friends will forgive you if you skip saying hello to them. Lean past them to the row behind and shake the hands of that group you haven’t met. Introduce yourself. We’re not all extroverts but we can all express we’re happy to see someone. Those little things make a real spiritual impact!
Church is not like going to a movie where no-one talks with others and then when the credits roll, they leave their rubbish and bolt for the door. (Unless it is an avengers film where you have to wait till after the credits to see if there is a teaser about the next movie.) No! Church is being gathered together around God, and who says that finishes when the lights come back on? Stay and talk! How else can we encourage each other in our hope for Jesus’ return? We have amazing food and coffee provided. Stick around. Be our guest, and be deliberate about your conversation. How could you be more God focussed? Could you ask how they found the sermon? Or better still, you could be specific, and ask “What did you think of Mark suggesting we pray about where to sit in church? Have you ever done that?” You could also ask if they are a Christian yet and how they became one if they are. You could ask what God has been teaching them lately, or if there is something you could pray for them. Conversation like that really does extend church. It’s a ministry time. Again, don’t push into personal space be sensitive, but be ambitious too! Is there someone by themselves near you at morning tea? Check your peripheral vision. If you notice someone, include them in your group. Introduce them around.
And if you do find yourself with a newcomer to MBM, be a good host. God has entrusted you with their care today. Do the best you can. As the service ends, you could chat again to the family you met at chat time. Could you offer to lead them out to morning tea? Could you grab them their free coffee from the cart? Could you introduce them to the team and I at the ‘New Here’ flag?
Here is another email I got from a guest to MBM: “The few times we have visited we have been amazingly welcomed. On Sunday three different people approached us and had a chat. We are so positive about our experience and look forward to further opportunities to visit and take our friends to your ‘Explaining Christianity’ course. That’s more like it! Good work MBM!
Let me make a brief comment about ‘Belonging’: Because church is about people, we want everyone to belong. In a large church like ours it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Belonging is a smaller safer space to help prevent that. A large church in Melbourne wondered why people left their church. So they contacted and surveyed them. And they found that around 90% of those leaving their church had not been in any small group: no growth group, no serving team. For a while they enjoyed the great services, but then they simply got bored. They didn’t know anybody, so they drifted off. In a larger church a decision to just come Sundays is often a decision to leave: sure, not straight away, but eventually you’ll get sick of being anonymous. ‘Belonging’ is the way to fix that. You’ll connect. You’ll catch the vision. You’ll be offered some next steps, like a Growth Group or a team to join. The next ‘Belonging’ starts tomorrow night, 7–9pm, very relaxed and with a meal together here in the Garden Room. The next one is a couple of months away, so join us tomorrow. Come out to the ‘New Here’ flag and sign up.
In conclusion, do you realise what you walked into today? Imagine being a fireman or woman in Paris the day when Notre Dame burned, but you stayed at home because you felt tired that day. You had a slight headache, so you dozed the day away, only to wake up and hear the news. You missed the job of your life! You missed what you were trained for. You slumbered through all the action.
Church is where heaven kisses the earth. Let us not give up meeting together. Let’s be ready for action! Almost every week at MBM someone is saved. How we walk in to church either helps or hinders God’s work among us. For some of you it might be that God is nudging you to take that first step from walking into church ‘to get’ to walking in to church ‘to give’. For others, church is such a routine now that you always talk to the same people. God may be nudging you to check your peripheral vision and see who he has sat down near you. We all have a part to play. And there is a real enjoyment and purpose in that! Church is not a spectator sport. It’s a team sport. You’re place is on the field of play.
Let’s make that mindset change. Take church more seriously, a little less chill a little more vigilance. Let’s walk into church in a way that makes others walk out transformed.