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On Being the Church: Praying Together

April 25, 2010
Sermon:  On Being the Church:  Praying Together
Text:  John 15:1-8, 16


It has been an absolutely beautiful spring.  The first tree to bloom in my backyard was the weeping cherry.  Then a sassafras tree bloomed beautifully, but most people do not even notice because the blooms are green.  For a guy who is colorblind, it is absolutely stunning to see these green blossoms.  Then the redbud trees and the dogwoods put on such a show.  Now, it is time for the vines to bloom.  A Lady Banks rose that covers a little outbuilding has had beautiful golden blossoms for about a week and a half.  The Zephirine Drouhin roses are blooming, as are the tangerine vines and a red honeysuckle vine.  We are not focusing on the flowering vines, not even on the grape vine.  Today, we are talking about the vines of the church.

Last week, we started the series On Being the Church and talked about the fact that the church must be rooted and grounded in Christ.  He is our cornerstone, our foundation of the church.  We are like living stones built into the church he calls us to be.  Today, we move to a very important facet on being the church: prayer.  John 15 reminds us that prayer is the very life-blood of the church.  In the same way that a branch has to be grafted into the vine to draw its strength and source of energy, so, too, the church must remain grafted into Christ, who is the true vine.  Every single one of us is a branch.

I want to point out some very important concepts here in John 15, paying special attention to John 15:5, a passage that should be written on the tablet of your heart.  I want everyone in the congregation – young and old alike – to memorize this verse in any translation you wish.  Sunday school classes, you might want to promote the memorization of this verse, which is our watchword for the month of May.  Listen to these words:  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” 

This passage of Scripture reminds us that prayer is so important in our personal lives.  Prayer is more than just an individual exercise.  Prayer is a part of our corporate life together as a church body.  The only way that a church advances is on its knees.  The very fact that we must be a church of prayer is the emphasis I want to give this message today. 

Many surveys have been conducted about what makes healthy churches.  Almost every study reveals this single primary conclusion:  a healthy church is a praying church.  Prayer should occur before the beginning of any class meeting, committee meeting, or organization meeting in the life of a healthy church.  The meeting should begin with prayer and close with prayer.  I know that prayer can become rote.  It can become perfunctory.  Please do not allow that to happen.  We must take care to make our prayers vibrant and vital, to allow our prayers to really connect us to God, who is the source of life.  We must be a church that prays together because we know it is the only way we can possibly accomplish God’s will.

Sometimes I ponder the issue of prayer.  I know that we have the idea that we are going to change God’s mind through prayer.  I am not going to say that God never changes His mind.  We see evidence in the Scriptures that He does change His mind, but our purpose in prayer is not to get God to change His mind.  Our mind needs to be changed, not God’s.  Prayer becomes a spiritual front-end alignment in which we align our will with the will of God.  As a church family, it is so important for us to come back by this message.  You have heard me make these statements before, but we need to be reminded that prayer is an important function of the church.  We must pray, not just once, but with regularity, to ensure that we pleasing to God.  That is the purpose in our abiding in him and His abiding in us.

If we do not abide in Him, we become frustrated.  Jesus put it very bluntly.  He said, “…apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Talk about frustrating!  When you feel that your efforts are wasted, when you feel that you are unable to accomplish anything, you become frustrated.  It is in this abiding, this being united in Christ, that we are able to accomplish God’s will.

A praying church knows that God is always full of surprises and that when we unite together in the life of prayer, God is going to respond.  He may not always respond in the way we wish or in the way we expect.  God has done far more in the life of this church than I could have ever imagined when I first came here as your pastor.  He will continue, but we must be a praying church. We cannot make any decisions or proceed to the next step without, first of all, being people of prayer. 

Prayer is not just for the church.  It is not something we do only in the walls of this Sanctuary.  Individuals need to be in prayer, too.  We remind people to pray even when they do not feel like it, even when they have trouble concentrating, and even when they are not so sure what to say.  That is why the Scriptures become so important to us.  I want everyone to memorize today’s passage, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me, I will abide in you, and you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”  You can memorize that verse regardless of your age and your ability to remember.  I want the little children and the youth of the church to learn it.  I want their parents to learn it.  I want the senior adults to learn this verse.  I want all of us to learn John 15:5.  

Clare’s technique to memorize Scripture includes writing the passage on several different index cards.  She puts one card in her purse, one in the kitchen window, and one on the bathroom mirror.  As she keeps the verse in front of her, it becomes part of her daily life.  You might want to try that method.  It does not matter to me which translation you use; just commit this verse to heart.  It is going to be our watchword as a congregation for the month of May.

This week, I looked through my favorite book on the life of prayer outside of the New Testament: Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, by Richard Foster.  I paid special attention to what Foster says about the church praying together, about corporate prayer.  He says that when the members of the church pray together, God moves among them in ways they can never anticipate. 

Foster tells specifically about one church in South Korea that has three prayer meetings every single day, seven days a week, beginning at 5:00 A.M., 6:00 A.M. and 7:00 A.M.  The door to the church closes promptly at 5:00 A.M., and people who arrive a little late must wait outside until the next prayer service beginning at 6:00 A.M.  Every single day, 12,000 people attend these three prayer meetings.  Can you imagine what God is doing in that church?  Can you imagine the people they are reaching for Christ?

We are not going to plan to have a 5:00 A.M. prayer service here at Morningside.  Most people are not ready to get up that early and pray.  Many of you have your quiet time with your head on a pillow and your eyes closed.  Though we do not plan to have a time of prayer as a church at 5:00 A.M., I am calling everyone in this congregation to intense prayer during the month of May.  I want everyone to be involved.  If we all concentrate on intense prayer, we will be much more effective as a church body.  We will find that we are united.  We will also find that God will do things in our midst that we could not have planned or imagined.  We often find verification that God is working among us. 

Remember that prayer is not a monologue.  It is not just our talking to God.  It is a conversation, but it is also a relationship.  You will find that He will speak through the Scriptures.  He will speak through other Christians.  He will speak through the events that happen in your life.  He will also speak, perhaps, in that still small voice that comes when we are unguarded, when we have cleared our mind and centered down to be in communion with God.  Oftentimes, we must fall silent in order to hear what God has to say to us.  I want us to practice praying with our eyes open and our ears open.

What does God want to do through this church in the life of prayer?  What are our next steps as a congregation?  I am asking you to embark on this journey with me.  About a year ago, we adopted a plan called The Extreme Makeover.  We have completed Phase 1 of the plan.  The partitions have been put in place in our Fellowship Hall.  The church has paid for the completion of that work.  Phase II involves an extensive renovation of our very inefficient cooling and heating system, located immediately behind the choir and extending throughout the length of this building.  The ductwork, installed when the church was first built, is made of duct board, which is like glorified cardboard.  Four pieces are taped together with duct tape to make one section.  Over time, the tape gets brittle, breaks, and collapses.  About three weeks ago, that ductwork collapsed, causing all of the cool air to dump into the choir loft.  The members of the choir were freezing.  Today, however, the choir has no cool air. 

When we started looking at needed improvements to these buildings, the engineers said this system really needs to be addressed.  Redoing all of that duct work, which also requires redoing the electrical work, will cost about $800,000. 

It is very hard to get people to give financially to something they cannot see.  If this work were done today, you would see no difference in the appearance of the building because the equipment is in the ceiling out of sight.  If you only show up one hour a week, the need is pretty much out of mind.  You just are not aware of the problem.  Making necessary updates will create a more efficient heating and cooling system and greatly reduce our energy bills. 

The architects, Neil Prince and Associates, also suggested better utilizing the space we instead of constructing a new building.  In order to do that, we need to re-appropriate some of the places we have in order to expand the space.  The architects have devised a way to accommodate the increase in numbers, but the plan will require effort on the part of all of us.  We will need to shift offices and classrooms and have a massive turn-over-the-fruit basket, a process that will require patience and flexibility on the part of everyone.

The greatest bottleneck in the church occurs in the preschool and children’s areas.  You might sit in a pew and think, I don’t really see the children.  Many of them are in the Sunday school classrooms for the Extended Session.  Having many children and young families worshipping at Morningside is a tremendous problem, a problem many churches would give their eye teeth to have.  The children’s ministry in this church has grown.  Carole Johnson did a remarkable job laying the foundation for a strong children’s ministry.  You know that we went through a long search process, one that was at time very frustrating, before we found Carole’s successor, Carrie Veal.  Not only did we find Carrie, but she also found us.  I can see now in retrospect that God was working on both ends of that situation to bring Carrie here.  She has so many plans and so much energy.  We need to continue with this Extreme Makeover so that we can provide adequate space.  We have a good plan in place.

The total cost of this renovation, including the work in the electrical and heating systems, is about $1.6 million. 

You might think, Can we complete this Extreme Makover?  I have looked at this in ways that people in the congregation have recommended.  Right now, prime interest rates are at 3.25%.  Construction costs are probably as low as they have ever been.  Inflation is almost flat.  Could we borrow the money?  I am sure we could get the loan, get a contract, and get the work done.  When we presented this plan, though, we said that we were not going into debt.

Have we learned any lessons from the recession?  One lesson is that people who went into the recession with debt are the ones who have had the hardest time.  Businesses with debt have had the hardest time.  Churches that carried debt into the recession have had a hard time. 

Why has Morningside been able to endure the last year?  First, we have cut costs quite dramatically, sometimes after making very difficult decisions.  Second, people have given generously.  Third, we had no debt.  We do not need to go into debt with the Extreme Makover.

Can we accomplish this project without going into debt?  My answer is no.  We cannot do it, but God can.  Listen.  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Can God do this?  Yes.  Can He do it through us?  Yes.  The place to begin is in prayer.  We must pray about this project. 

Why should we pray about it when it seems so right?    I want to encourage you all to pray and pray specifically about this issue.  Everybody has to be on board.  Does God want us to provide Sunday School space for little children?  Does He want us to invite young families to be a part of this fellowship, to bring their children here for Christian education?  Can you see that about eight or ten years down the road, all of those children will be in the youth department?  Can you see that in eight or ten years beyond that, all of those young people will have grown up and had children of their own?  This makeover is preparing for the future of Morningside.  If we are going to be a church that honors God, we have to honor God through prayer.  Prayer will let us know as we go along whether we are doing what is right.

How are we going to finance this project?  Are we going out and seeking large gifts?  If people want to give large gifts, that is wonderful.  If you have some money that you are dying to get rid of, we will be glad for you to give it to Morningside.  My contention is that the money is here; it is just in the wrong checking accounts. 

Are we also going out and seeking small gifts?  Let me tell you how this has to work.  I want every child to contribute to this project.  Every child can save money in a piggy bank or an Orville Redenbacher popcorn jar.  Every person in the youth department must have a part.  The youth could sponsor a carwash with all the proceeds going to the building fund.  Two of my cars needed to be washed this week.  They were green with pollen.  Single people, the unmarried, need to be a part of this project.  You may say, “I don’t have any children, and it really is not my concern.”  If you are a part of this church family, every child in this congregation is a family member.  We all have a responsibility to see that they are welcomed in the house of the Lord.  We all have a responsibility to see that they receive Christian education that will sustain them through the years.  Young families need to be involved in this.  They must make this a matter of prayer around their table and decide together what they can give.  Senior adults might think, “My time has come and gone.  I don’t need to be involved.”  Yes, you do.  This makeover is the legacy you will leave to the future of this church.

I was talking with one man who said, “I have been saving some money to buy a riding lawnmower.  It’s better for my health to walk behind the lawnmower I already have.  I think I’ll just give the money I was going to buy a mower with to this project.”

The completion of this makeover is going to take that attitude from everyone.  It is going to take some sacrificial giving. 

One of the best illustrations of sacrificial giving I know comes from Korea.  An American tourist was traveling through the country with his guide, a missionary.  Riding along a back road, the tourist saw a very odd site.  A couple was working the field.  The wife was behind the plow, and her husband was in the harness, pulling the plow. 

The tourist asked his guide, “What in the world?  Why are they doing that?”

The missionary explained, “This couple is from our church.  We asked people to give sacrificially to our building fund.  They sold their ox and gave the money to the church.  Now they plow together.  He pulls the plow, and she walks behind it.”

Can we also give sacrificially to accomplish this work?  We cannot just give a tip.  We have to sell the ox. We can accomplish this work if every single member of the congregation makes a sacrifice and if we understand the truth of this Scripture:  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me, I will abide in you and you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”  We can accomplish this work only with God’s help.  I am excited about the possibilities. 

I am calling the church to prayer, especially during the month of May.  I want the Prayer Warriors to make this a matter of prayer.  I want the One Hundred to make it a matter of prayer.  I want our classes, all of our organizations, to make this issue a matter of prayer.  I have asked Jack Dodds to create a sign-up sheet that you will find in the Welcome Center.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I want someone to pray at least one hour.  Some of you may sign up for more than one hour.  Some of you need to sign up for daytime hours.  Others need to sign up for the middle of the night.  Those nights that you decide to let your insomnia rule and not Ambien, get up and pray.  That might actually be the best cure for your insomnia as anything else.  I simply invite the church congregation to join me in making this an around-the-clock concert of prayer without ceasing. 

 Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010

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