A recent article published on one of the church growth websites I frequent focused on some of the reason churches close. The report stated that some 300 churches, of various denominations, close each year and about the same number are on life support and will close their doors in the next three to five years. The article cited example after example of churches that, only a few years before, were thriving ministry centers and reaching out to the needs of their communities. All of the example churches cited had one thing in common; they turned their attention inward and stopped looking outward. They started to care more about meeting the needs of their present membership and less about the needs of those around them. They began to focus more on what it takes to keep the institution going, money, and less about what was needed just outside the doors of the church, love, compassion, and yes, a little Jesus.
Any organization be it church or business that loses its focus will not last long, and churches especially have to be ever vigilant in their duty to serve humanity rather than their own needs. This is challenging in the 21st-century world that is continuously changing. The church, any church, has never been good at change. Some churches have “we’ve always done it that way” emblazoned in their stained-glass windows, I’m joking of course but if not in their windows it is at least in their minds, their vision, and they thoughts.
Being an outward-looking church is not easy. Caring for others and their needs are not easy, especially when those needs continuously change, but that is what we, as the church, are called to do. If we do not open our doors and lookout and go out, no one will ever come in.
But with that said, we cannot focus on ministry, I mean, who is going to pay for it? I am a realist, and as much as I would like to think we can do everything we feel called to unless we have someone to pay for it, it’s not going to happen. The 21st-century world is expensive and if we hope to be one of the churches that survive we need to strike a balance between the sacred and the secular or what is called in church work the holy and the profane.
We see a glimpse of this in the Gospel we heard read tonight. The story of Mary and Martha is more than just a tale of two sisters; it is the story of the church and how we are to find balance in everything we do. We need the Mary’s, and we need the Martha’s!
We have tonight, the story of Martha and Mary. We have seen them before, and perhaps you remember that they are the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus would rise from the dead. I believe this to be their first introduction to Jesus, and the friendship builds from here. I also find it interesting that there is no mention of Lazarus, I guess Luke and the others were saving him for a much more significant role later in the story.
Jesus always found rest and refreshment in Bethany. He would often go there after a particularly tricky ministry period. He would stay there for a while to just rest, be with friends, and regain his strength for the mission ahead of him. On this trip, he is staying with Mary and Martha, and we find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in all that he has to say. She is hanging on every word, soaking it all in. Then, Martha enters the room. She has been slaving over the visitors the entire time, by herself and she has reached her limit to what she can take.
Martha comes in and challenges Jesus and tells him to tell Mary to get off her duff and get back to work. But Jesus cautions Martha and tells her not to worry about so many things for she is being distracted from ministry. What Jesus is not saying, although it certainly sounds like he is, that what Mary is doing is more important than what Martha is doing. What he is saying is we cannot always be worried about the worldly things, yes, we need to be concerned about them, but our focus needs to be on the spiritual as well.
The fear is that churches will be run without any sense of the Holy. In our constant desire for money and other such things, we lose God in it all when God should be first in everything and the prime mover of everything that we do. We should not start or stop anything in the church, without the guidance of God.
When the church is led to position itself at the feet of Christ, reading scripture, asking after its meaning, listening to fabulous sermons, and wrestling like Jacob for God’s blessing even those nitty-gritty details will take care of themselves. The setting for this story is home as a reminder that every pastoral call is potentially an occasion to listen for God’s word or to participate in the drawing near of God’s kingdom.
Some of the more profound moments in ministry begin when we join a dinner party where an off the cuff question provides the opening for a conversation about life’s meaning and purpose. The same can happen when we enter a hospital room or another setting where ministry can take place.
But there is also a necessity for work to take place. We would not have that dinner on the table if we did not have Martha’s in the kitchen. We would not have this beautiful spot to be tonight if we did not have Martha’s who clean, paint, move furniture and all the like. So important was the ministry of serving that the early church, as noted in Acts, appointed seven to serve at the table to free up the Apostles for ministry.
The result of the article I mentioned earlier was the healthy churches find balance in all things ministry related. Just like we need to find balance in our lives between the physical, the mental, and the spiritual, the church also needs to find that balance, and it is up to the leadership to continually strive to find that balance.