Thom Rainer in his thought provoking book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them [Zondervan, 2001] tells the following true story [pp.17-19]. “Donna was happy with her life. She met Brian at college and afterward they got married. Brian landed a great job and together they built their dream home in a Detroit suburb before they turned thirty. She felt even more blessed that they could afford for her to quit her job to stay home after the birth of two daughters. Donna and Brian’s religious background could be described easily: nonexistent. Their parents did not attend church not did they encourage their children in any religious direction. Brian had some religious influence from his grandparents, but it was minimal. After their second child was born, Donna suggested to Brian that the children might benefit from some kind of religious training at their young ages. Brian did not object, but soccer, sleep, and apathy usually had priority over any attempts at church attendance. In the past year the family had attended church twice.”
“Nevertheless, Donna was happy with a great family, neighborhood, and job for her husband until the bomb dropped. Brian arrived at home after 9pm one Tuesday. His work hours had become longer, which concerned Donna. She tried not to complain, because she knew Brian was working hard to provide an upscale standard of living. But she was worried that Brian was becoming more and more distant from her and the girls. And she was right. The divorce was quick. Brian agreed to give Donna most of the couple’s assets—mainly furniture and household items. They had little savings. Neither of them could keep the house because it was fully mortgaged. Donna kept the girls and moved into her mom’s house. While living with her parents, Donna learned that her mother had begun attending a Bible study with a group of ladies from a church about ten miles away. Donna’s mother soon became a Christian and joined the church. So much of Donna’s happiness had been connected to things that were now gone: her husband, her home, and her upper middle-class lifestyle. What could fill the void? She decided to give church a try. The natural choice was her mother’s church. The friendliness of the church members impressed Donna. The worship service seemed joyous and relaxed. The style was a bit more contemporary than the churches she had visited with Brian. One major factor attracted Donna back to the church: the pastor and his preaching that helped her understand the Bible and made her want to study it even more.”
“Donna’s difficulties had a happy ending. She became a Christian and joined the church. Nine months later, she met Ted in a single-again class and they recently announced their engagement.” But there are many more people like Donna out there without the happy ending. Some were raised with parents who went to church, but increasingly today, many like Donna were raised with little to no spiritual input in their lives at all. They have not been in church, except sporadically once or twice a year, for at least ten years. They are known as the unchurched. And according to Dave Olson and his reputable research at www.theamericanchurch.org, this segment of America is rapidly growing. So much so that on any given weekend, Olson says there are only 17.1% of Americans that will be in any Christian church. In Ohio, it’s a little better. 18.3% of people go to church. And in Toledo, it’s a little better at 19.8%. But the rest, nearly 80% of people in our own backyard, have checked out of the church they grew up in or increasingly like Donna, have never gone in the first place—except for once or twice a year.
But as Donna’s true story of the unchurched illustrates, they might, if the grace based church invited them. Turn in your Bible to the last three verses of Philippians 4 to see what I mean. Philippians 4:21-23 says, “21Give my greetings to each of God's holy people—all who belong to Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send you their greetings.22And all the rest of God's people send you greetings, too, especially those in Caesar's household. 23May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. The word for God’s holy people in verse 21 is translated “saints” in other English versions. It’s a common term in the New Testament to describe Christians [cf. Acts 9:32,41; Acts 26:10; Ephesians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2,11; Philippians 1:1]. But interestingly, it does not mean the people called saints are sinless or perfect in holiness. As we’ve seen throughout our study of the book of Philippians, starting in chapter one verse one, it’s a term referring to praying [Philippians 1:3], Christocentric [Philippians 1:12], struggling[Phillipians 1:23], humble [Philippians 2:3], rejoicing [Philippians 2:17], commending [Philippians 2:25] Christians wary of perfectionists [Philippians 3:9; 12] because they know they’re not. Instead, they believe they’re perfectly loved and in response, sincerely try [Philippians 4:9] to practice God’s ways rejoicing again and again for God’s grace in their lives [Philippians 4:11-12,19] and in the lives of the unchurched they’re trying to reach [Philippians 4:21-24].
Did you catch all 11 characteristics of the saints in the grace based church we’ve learned lately? This morning we’re focusing on the last characteristic. Point number one: The grace based church reaches the unchurched. Paul says in verse one, “Give my greetings to each of God's holy people—all who belong to Christ Jesus.” At first read, this doesn’t sound like the rapidly growing segment of the population we’ve been talking about that go to church, if they go to church, about once or twice a year for at least 10 years or longer. Because saints in this book are people who practice God’s ways and are faithful in supporting church ministries. They are as Paul clarifies in Philemon and Colossians, people already with him. Written during his same imprisonment in Rome, these letters mention men like Mark [Barnabas’ cousin], Demas, Justus, and Luke as his fellow co-workers [cf. Philemon 23-24; Colossians 4:10-15]. But in the book we’re studying, Paul adds one strange qualifier regarding this band of brothers with him. If you back up with me to Philippians 2:20, you’ll see it. Listen to what Paul says about this group. “I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ.” Ouch! Can you be a saint and not care for what matters to Jesus Christ? If you can’t, why does Paul call these men “brothers” if they don’t genuinely care for anyone but themselves? The rest of verse 21 says, “The brothers who are with me send you their greetings.” It’s a mind bender.
So I tried to figure it out by reading the fantastic chapter on saints by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his famous book on following Jesus called The Cost of Discipleship. You familiar with this guy? One of the most important theologians of the 20th century, this 39 year old left the safety of America to return to his home in Germany and continue his public repudiation of the Nazis in 1943. What did he get for reaching out? He was hung in April 1945 for being linked to the group of conspirators who attempted but failed to assassinate Hitler. On page 281 this what he says about saints. “Christians are no longer called sinners...On the contrary, they were once sinners, ungodly, enemies but now through Christ they are holy. As saints they are reminded and exhorted to be what they are. But this is not an impossible ideal, it is not sinners who are required to become holy, or that would mean a return to justification by works and would be blasphemy against Christ. No, it is saints who are required to be holy, saints who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit” and they continue to be since Hebrews 10:14 adds,. “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.”
So you see, saints look like sinners because they’re being made holy. Which means they aren’t completely holy yet. They’re in the process. They’re under construction. He that began a great work in you will complete it in you but the work’s not done yet and won’t be till Jesus comes again! Paul said that earlier in Philippians 1:6. And because God is at work, Paul can look at these unchurched men around him, none of whom hold a candle in holiness or faithfulness to Timothy, and call them brothers and saints because of the way God looks at them—which is the way they really are. True, their interest in God was sporadic at best. And what it is now is nothing in comparison to Timothy’s devotion and faithfulness, but it’s much more than it used to be which was nonexistent! If you read Acts 15:38, you’ll remember that Mark was so previously uninterested in church things that he actually deserted Paul. He left the church so to speak! But apparently, through the friendship of Barnabas and the forgiveness of Paul, Mark came back! The Bible doesn’t say why or how. But what it does say, is that he was a brother and a saint flaws and all being made holy. And the grace based church reaches out to people like that and welcomes them home.
But point number two is true too. The grace based church reaches out at work as well. Paul says in verse 22, “And all the rest of God's people send you greetings, too, especially those in Caesar's household.” Now can you send greetings from Caesar’s household if you don’t know anyone in Caesar’s household? I think not. Which means that Paul knew the Romans employed by Caesar who was keeping him prisoner. Some commentators say “Caesar’s household” is a generic phrase meant to say Paul was writing from Rome where Caesar lived. But oikia in Greek is a specific word for household not a region. It signifies the domestic staff of the emperor. In the time of Nero, during whose rule Paul was imprisoned, the number of prison servants was doubtless very great and I think this verse proves that some of the soldiers, servants, slaves, or freedmen became Christian. Ellen White says it this way in Acts of the Apostles. “Not only were converts won to the truth in Caesar’s household, but after their conversion they remained in that household. They did not feel at liberty to abandon their post of duty because their surroundings were no longer congenial. The truth had found them there, and there they remained, by their changed life and character testifying to the transforming power of the new faith” [pp.466-567].
Paul didn’t reach out to Rome with much pomp and circumstance. He came in chains and stayed that way. He couldn’t work the way he used to work out in the public, so he worked the way he could. In prison. Among people who had never been raised in church whose employer, Nero, had killed his own wife and mother for even conspiring to pledge allegiance to another ruler much less actually doing so! Yet these folks in Caesar’s household chose Jesus as their ruler anyway! All because Paul reached out. Where he was. Like he said he would in Romans 1:14 says, “For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike.”
Paul was going to reach out to caesar and slaves. Educated and uneducated. Sinners and saints. Churched and unchurched. People in prosperity and people in crisis. Every day was an opportunity for him to live grace and invite people to come and see the difference Jesus makes in one’s life. Whether you have much or very little. He took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to bring the grace of God into people’s lives and this is point number three: The grace based church reaches the unchurched with God’s grace. Paul says in Philippians 4:23, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” But this isn’t just a great benediction repeated elsewhere in Galatians 6:18 and Ephesians 6:24 and Colossians 4:18 and 1 Thessalonians 5:28 and 2 Thessalonians 3:18 and 1 Timothy 6:1 and 2 Timothy 4:22 and Titus 3:15 and Philemon 25. This is not some ancient way of simply saying Aloha. This was Paul’s magnus opus, his main thing, his most important truth not be missed.
The grace based church reaches out with God’s grace. Rightly understood, the Sabbath, second coming, state of the dead, and standards we teach in Sabbath School and church schools are tools to promote the Gospel of God’s grace and help us know Jesus better, but they are not the Gospel. We’re going to study some of them in our next series What I Want My Kids to Know About so come back for those. But in the meantime, may I remind you that God’s grace is what people are missing? Even if they don’t know that yet! God’s grace is what still transforms people’s lives today. God’s grace is what the grace based church reaches out to share with every tool in their box. It’s not some post script. It’s the main attraction and grand finale.
After my folks moved to Berrien Springs, I fondly remember watching the July 4 fireworks there at the end of main street near the St.Joe River. The fireworks would begin after dark and by then a crowd of people would be huddled along the edge of the water oohing and ahhing over the explosions in the sky. But what made the Berrien Springs fireworks special, in my opinion, wasn’t their grandeur or length. It was the fact that some joker would launch some tiny fireworks from his back yard simultaneously with every group of large ones streaking through the sky so that even the grand finale had competition resulting in oohs and then aahs and then laughter after the little fireworks mocked the bigger ones.
But Paul would not want point number three to be mocked. Everywhere he went, he reminded the church to make God’s grace the main attraction and grand finale. Paul said it this way in Acts 20:32, “And now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself.” Are you willing to be that kind of church? One that reaches the unchurched at home and at work with God’s grace? If so, would you raise your hand and say amen? Would you turn to the person sitting beside you and say, “I’m willing.” So let it be.