Witnessing at Church

May 13th, 2018

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I walked out to the Chapel garden on Tuesday. Tyler Morse and Dan Leuthy were there tilling the soil and planting some vegetables. Tyler turned to me said, “Mission accomplished.” I must have had an inquisitive look on my face, because it looked like they were still in the middle of it. So, he continued: “Phase 3. All done. We just finished planting the fennel.”

Funnel! Not fennel. Funnel. It is so hard to get a message across around here. We’re building a funnel! If you weren’t here last Sunday, listen to the sermon… it’s a funnel. We are seeking to change this straw of random invitation, into a funnel that meets people where they are, out there, in that vapid wasteland of virtual infinitude…where we meet them,, and welcome them to this place, to this community, to these relationships, to face-to-face, authentic, real world, old school, neighborhood church…which has a garden that grows fennel.

That is what the world is longing for (not organic fennel, but) authentic, life long, deep seeded, cross demographic, 100% inclusive, God centered, community cared for, old school, neighborhood church. In this increasingly crowded, increasingly isolated, increasingly cell-phone centric culture, the neighborhood church is the hope of the world…it is what we have to offer; it is what we witness to.

I remember my last semester of Seminary. I had been released by my Bishop, which is like being a rookie free-agent in the church. With one job offer in my pocket, I decided to accept the invitation to interview at All Saints’ Beverley Hills. I had no intention of taking a job there, but I flew to LA anyway, and of course attended Sunday services. I wore something to blend in–no collar, no black shirt, not even a tie; just an Oxford button down and khakis.

I went to the 9 AM service, and was struck by the intentional, beautiful, graceful worship. There was coffee on the patio between services. so, I wandered out there, and was welcomed by a guy. He asked if I was visiting (it must have been the Oxford and khakis). I said, “Yes.” He asked what I experienced in the service. Great question. It was a question that met me where I was….and I was curious about how this conventional, old school Episcopal church, was so full of the Holy Spirit.

So, I asked him, “What’s going on here?” And that is when he began to witness to me. He told me his church story. He talked about his small group, and the classes he attended, and taught. He spoke of music and manner by which it touched his soul. He talked about what it means to go to this church and how it influences how he lives outside the church.

It was all good stuff. It opened my mind. But what touched me, what made me call Kristin later that day and say, “I know we have no intention of moving to Beverly Hills, but if they call me, we gotta come,” what made me say that was the power of this man’s joy; it was the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. It was the way he talked about the love of God. His soul was on fire, and it ignited mine.

I was already a Christian. I was already in the church, heck I was making a bid to lead in the church. But that conversation, with that man named Mark Denton, on that day, on that church patio, his witness changed my life.

So I took the job, and we moved to Beverly Hills. And over the years got to know Mark better. He was a mature Christian. He prayed. He studied. He served. He taught. I remember one time he said to me: “You know, where I am on my spiritual journey doesn’t really require I attend church as much as I use to. But I always go,” he continued, “to be helpful and to witness (not sure he used that word, but it is what he did, so I’ll use it here) to witness to the power of God.”

We have been talking about witnessing the past few weeks. What I’d like you to think about today is the possibility of witnessing right here at church. Witnessing is a part of welcoming. Witnessing is meeting people where they are on their spiritual journey and sharing our church story if asked. It doesn’t mean pulling someone to the altar and converting them. It doesn’t mean trying to convince them to come to this church. It means being present so as to be helpful to them along the way.

Last Sunday I introduced Epiphany Phase 3. It has two components: INVITATION and WELCOME. INVITATION is the funnel we are building into the virtual realm to meet people where they are. And WELCOME is what we offer them when they arrive at this old school neighborhood church.

You and I might not be part of the team that builds our internet Invitation platform, but we all can be the Mark Dentons of this church. We can all be part of the Welcome team, willing to ask someone: “What did you experience in worship today?” and then share our story if asked. Who knows, you may change someone’s life.

A few weeks ago, you’ll recall, I spoke about witnessing outside the church using the Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip as our teachers. Today I’m going to give you a different pattern of witnessing to use inside the church. It has four parts: meet, greet, remember, and repeat.

But before I get into that I want to touch on a tension that can arise when a church begins to witness within its own walls. You see the fundamental premise of church is that we have something to share. It is the Good News; that God is here, near, closer to us than a proton is to an electron and that intimacy with God, no matter what is going on in our lives, feeds our souls a steady diet of joy.

That is the premise but sometimes we just want come to church to see our friends. And I get that. And I’m glad for that. And I don’t have a ready made answer that works every time, to remove the tension between being an outward focused WELCOMING church to the stranger and just coming to see our friends.

All I can do is cast a theological net for your consideration and make a suggestion. The theology first. The power of God given from on high we hear about in the Gospel today is a gift given to us by our outward facing God. Our God gives God’s self away for the sake of our joy and in the spirit of love. We have a Trinitarian God… that is a relational God, seeking first and always the best interest of the other. That is the nature of the God we worship, and we are made in the image and likeness of this God.

Jesus’ final charge to us is to go out and seek, and serve, and bear witness. And what we know, because we have experienced this, is that when we seek the best interest of the other we find our souls filled with joy. Isn’t that right? When we have done something charitable or magnanimous for someone else, we often come away saying: “Boy, I think I got more out of that than I gave.”

God designed witnessing to work the same way. When we seek to serve the stranger, when we ask the question: “What did you experience today?” we will find that we have been the ones blessed by the encounter. The Kingdom of God is designed that way; to expand our joy when we welcome the stranger.

That is the theology, but we also want to connect with our friends when we come to church. So here is a practical suggestion to balance the tension(it is a catchy phrase): land and expand

Land and expand? Here is how it works: say “Hi” to your friends, maybe even set a time to catch up, and then look around and find someone you don’t know. Maybe you’ve seen them before, maybe not. Say “Hello.” Introduce yourself or reintroduce yourself. Ask: “What did you experience in worship today?” Land with a friend then expand to meet someone new.

So, now back to the pattern of witnessing inside the church…meet, greet, remember, and repeat.

Epiphany is a welcoming place. I hear that all of the time. But to be honest, I’ve hardly ever run across a church that doesn’t think they are a welcoming church…just like all preachers think they are good preachers. To know how good a preacher is can only be known by knowing the process they use to develop their sermons. No process, no telling how good they are; probably hit or miss.

Same with welcoming. We might have an on Sunday or we might have an off Sunday. But without a process, we will actually be an idiosyncratically welcoming church. I have spoken to many people who say they were completely ignored when they came to visit Epiphany.

So, the first step in the process is: MEET. Introductions matters. Have some courage. Go and say, “Hi.” Maybe you’ll meet someone who has gone to church here for thirty-five years. It doesn’t matter. Meet someone on Sunday morning.

Then GREET them. After you have said: “Hello,” and introduced yourself, or reintroduced yourself, ask: “What did you experience in worship today?” Be curious about what they are looking for at Epiphany.

Then REMEMBER them. Write their name down. Carry a pen and piece of paper or have a place where you type their name into your phone…I know you’re carrying your phone.

Then next Sunday before service check the list. That is what I do. People say that I am good with names, but it is only because I have a process. I carry around a little book. I write newcomers’ names in it and then highlight them in yellow. I check them before church on Sunday in the event I see the person again. Remembering is a process we can all develop.

And then we REPEAT the process next Sunday making meet, greet, remember, and repeat a part of your Sunday morning routine. What you may find out is that you’re the one blessed by the encounter.

Epiphany Phase 3 is about INVITATION and WELCOME. We will build our Internet INVITATION platform, that funnel that reaches into the virtual world. But the WELCOME is the key ingredient that displays the real, authentic, transformative value of an old school neighborhood church.

Our God is an outward facing God, a God that gives God’s self away for the sake of our joy, and in the spirit of love. That is what we have to offer the world, and that is what I hope everyone encounters in the WELCOME they receive at Epiphany Parish.

Who knows? You may change someone’s life.