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I Believe In The Church

I Believe In Belonging

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 7, 2001

Selected highlights from this sermon

What is God’s vision for the church? Some people like to attend and never become members. But when we sign on wholeheartedly, our identity and unity as the body of Christ is affirmed and we enjoy numerous benefits and opportunities. 

As God’s church in the world, we are to be salt and light. If the world around us is crumbling, we must avoid negligence and share the transformative work of Christ to all.  

I want you to know that I believe in the Church. And I believe in the Church because Jesus said that the Church belongs to Him. It is His Church. I believe in the Church because Jesus said that He would build His Church. I believe in the Church because Jesus said that it was invincible. The gates of Hades would not prevail against it. And because of that, I also believe in this church, which is a part of the larger Body of Jesus Christ. I believe in the vision and the ministry of The Moody Church, founded in 1864.

When we speak of the Church we are not speaking of a building. I know that we use that terminology, don’t we? We say that I am going to the church, but actually the Church is not a building. The Church is the Body of Jesus Christ. The Church is people. The Church is the people whom God has called out of the world, saved, and now sent back into the world to represent Him in the midst of this generation. You are the Church. That’s why, as I’ve mentioned before, when a plane is coming into O’Hare Field and we’re coming over Lake Michigan, and I look down upon the city of Chicago, I often try to find The Moody Church building. Sometimes I can see it, and sometimes I can’t, but I say to myself, “That’s not the Church anyway. The Church is the people who are in factories and in hospitals and homes – that’s you and me – representing Christ wherever He has planted us.

Now, of course, you know that here at The Moody Church we want a vision that honors God. We want a vision that is not limited by our past. We thank God for our past. It’s wonderful to belong to a church that is so well known within this city, and really in evangelical circles at least throughout the United States and throughout the world. My wife and I have been to China where we met people in a church there who knew of the ministry of D. L. Moody and knew of Moody Church.

But I want you to know today that we do not want to look to our past and to have people think in terms of what has happened here in the past. We want to have a vision that makes people think of what God is doing at The Moody Church in the present – not just the past. We want to be able to look at the past as a rudder, but not as an anchor. We want to be able to look at the past (What shall we say?) as a guidepost, but not a hitching post where we think that we are great because of our past. That’s not the point. God forbid that it should be. So we want a church that is much larger and not tied to our past in that sense.

We also would like to ask God to give us a vision that is not limited by human opinions. Now don’t misunderstand. I know that God leads through human opinions, through the opinions of the leadership of the church. I understand that, but I am saying that we certainly don’t want to be hindered by the opinions of a few people. And I can say that because as I speak here today I’m not aware of any instance in which we are being hindered because of the opinions of a few. But it sometimes does happen.

We should not be hindered because of our traditions in the sense that our tradition always has to be revised and come under biblical scrutiny, and there are things that we can learn from churches in America as well as churches around the world. So we want to be open to God.

We do not want to have a vision that can simply be a human vision in that sense about what we can visualize, but rather what God desires to do in and through us. So we don’t want to have the vision limited by such things as our history or human opinion. Nor do we want here at the church a vision that is limited by such things as being misdirected. I believe that a misdirected vision is one that is an internal vision that sees only what it is that we want to do, rather than being able to look outside of our walls and see the great need.

Maybe I can put it more clearly. A misdirected vision is a vision where people are concerned about the survival of the church. Can we survive? I want you to know today that our mindset is not the question of whether or not we can survive, but the question of whether or not we can thrive under the good hand of God. We are interested in seeing people come to know Christ as Savior. It isn’t simply a matter of having our bills paid, though thank God, we know that that is our responsibility and it is happening, but that’s not the beginning and the end. It’s not keeping the doors open simply because the doors happen to be open. It is rather us reaching out, incarnating Christ to our community and seeing His good hand of blessing and benediction upon us.

Ten years ago we adopted a vision statement. It is ten years ago I believe. And the vision statement deliberately was written in such a way that it would not be ingrown. It would not turn in upon itself. It was a vision statement that wasn’t merely us thinking of what God is going to do in us, but the way in which we are perceived and the impact that we have in our community. We wanted to make sure that it was a vision statement that was something much larger than simply these facilities. And so, many of you will remember it, and some of you have memorized it or maybe you keep it on your fridge. If you’ve seen those cards that we produced you will remember that our vision for The Moody Church is “to be known in Chicago.”

Let me stop there and say that we are quite well known in Chicago, but sometimes we’re not known for the right things. There are so many misconceptions that exist outside there. I had one person say, “I used to go past The Moody Church.” There are people who have gone past this place holding their noses because they thought that we were some stereotype that they had in mind. And then they’ve come here and they’ve enjoyed the worship, and the fellowship and the love, and they’ve discovered that they were entirely wrong in their conceptions.

And so we want to be known in this city, but it’s not just that we want to be known for what we are against. We also want to be known for what we are for, to share the love and the compassion of Jesus Christ with a city that so desperately needs it.

You’ll notice also that the vision statement goes on “to be a caring, culturally diverse community.” There’s a lot of talk today about diversity. A lot of it has to do with lifestyle diversity. That’s not what we mean. We’re talking about ethnically diverse, culturally diverse and racially diverse. I think one of the strengths of Moody Church is that as you look around you, you know that there are some people whose skin color is different from yours, and it’s wonderful to serve in a community and in a church in which we have sort of like a mini United Nations with people from different backgrounds and different countries. We have, and I won’t mention them all, African Americans. We have Asian Americans. We have Hispanic Americans. And then, bless God, we also have some Caucasian Americans as well. And if you were going into an ice cream shop they would be the ones that would be plain vanilla. We’ve got some of those too.
And so God has given us this sense of diversity, this sense of saying that we need to reach out beyond ourselves.

The rest of the vision statement says, “To be known as a diverse community that seeks to transform lives,” because it is the Gospel that we are really interested in, living out the Gospel, living out the social implications of the Gospel, but living out a life of love and commitment and sacrifice wherever it is that God has us.

And so I want to tell you today that when you think of The Moody Church, Sandburg Village is our mission field. The Gold Coast is our mission field. The Cabrini Green Housing Project is our mission field. In fact, God is doing some wonderful things there in our children’s ministry. There are things that we haven’t even shared with you yet that are in the developmental stage. And that’s why we keep talking about our family life center, and why its need is so urgent because God is giving us leaders, and giving us vision to be able to reach this city through its children. So all that is our mission field.

And North Africa is our mission field as we send one who has become a member of our staff to represent us there and to live there in North Africa, and what a wonderful story that is. But also Cuba is our mission field, as we’ve learned. And as we think of the more than 70 missionaries around the world that we support, all these become our mission field. I’m not saying, of course, that we can do it all. By no means! We thank God for the hundreds of churches and dozens or organizations that are involved, but we pray that we will be able to have a part in what it is that God is doing because we still want to see His hand for evangelism for the edification of His people. We want Moody Church to be a place where you could not only belong, but where you can become the person that God wants you to be, touching your community, touching lives, building bridges and showing the world that Jesus Christ cares and that He loves them.

So I have a question for you today that I need to ask. Are you willing to embark with us on this journey? Is this also your vision? Do you have within yourself a commitment that says, “Yes, we want to go where you are going? We want to see the impact that we can make, and we are willing to sacrifice, to give and to go and to pray and to be so that our vision can be fulfilled, a vision that we believe is from God?” As we’ve said before, “A vision that reaches toward tomorrow, helping change a city that could change the world.” And I’m asking you today, between you and me (though you must answer in your heart because unfortunately you can’t answer out loud because it would sound a little bit confusing), are you with us in the vision that God has entrusted to us?

Now there are some people who are members of the church who perhaps are not involved in the church. We have members who become members and then they drift off somewhere else. And that’s a little troubling, but there may be reasons for it. We’re not being judgmental at that point, but there are also some of you here today who are not members. And there are some people who don’t become members of a church for a couple of different reasons. First of all, some want to keep their options open. They say, “Well you know, we attend there but sometimes the preaching isn’t good and we want the option of going somewhere else.” There are those who say, “We want to be there and we can support and we can be involved but we don’t want to really buy into it because we just want to make sure that we don’t get tied down to anything.”

You know, it used to be years ago that loyalty was a very, very prized virtue, and many people had it. Today that’s not the case. Years ago a person would keep his money in a bank because that’s where his father kept his money, and you just were loyal. You knew the people in the bank, and that’s where you did your business and that’s where you had your commitment. Today’s generation is not into that kind of loyalty. If they can find one-eighth of an interest point more on their money, they will forget loyalty and they’ll simply say, “I’m going to go where I am going to get the most.” And that’s the way it is sometimes with churches. “I will attend. I will be there if you bless me, if you preach to me and if I like the music, but I want to make sure that my option is open so that I can go somewhere else at a moment’s notice.” I hope you’re not thinking that, but some people do. So I am asking you today, in case you are missing it (but I don’t think you are), are you willing to commit to what God is doing among us and to the vision that He has given to us as the leadership of the church, a vision that ultimately turns out to be as big as the world?

There are other people who don’t become members because they say, “You know I don’t find it anywhere in the Bible; it isn’t scriptural.” And they have the whole idea that membership is something that’s manmade. Now there’s a zinger for you. It’s manmade. Well I want to give you some reasons today why I think that belonging to a church and becoming a part and committing to the church is not just your name on a roll, but why that commitment and that sacrifice is thoroughly biblical. Let me give you some reasons.

First of all, I think that church membership affirms your identity where you belong. Take your Bibles and turn to Acts 5 and we shall be looking at a few passages in the book of Acts. But very briefly, Ananias and Sapphira have just died. You will remember that they lied, and in order to make the point that God hates lying and He wanted to get the Church off to a good start, He had them drop dead because of misrepresentation. And it wasn’t even a flat-out lie. It was kind of like a white lie. Let’s suppose they sold the land for $1,000, and then they told the Church they sold it for $500, and then they gave the $500, and that was perfectly fine, but they pretended that they gave all of the money. And God said, “You’ve lied to the Holy Spirit and you are dead.” I had one pastor say to me, “You know if God worked that way today in the Church, we’d have to have a morgue in the basement.”

Alright! Now that’s the context, but I want you to pick it up in verse 13. After that happened it says, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” Boy that sounds pretty close to church membership to me.

You see, what was happening is, the people of the world knew exactly who belonged and who didn’t belong, and the line was much clearer than it is today. And today the lines are blurred, but in those days if you belonged to the Lord, you belonged to this company. And if you didn’t belong to that company, everybody knew that too. I want you to know today that your commitment to Moody Church, your decision to become a member and a part of what we are doing, can tremendously help you in your witness because you can tell people that you are a member of The Moody Church. And you say, “Oh, but they have so many misconceptions. The minute you mention the word Moody they are thinking about all kinds of weird things.” My dear friend, that’s why God put you there to help them clarify those misconceptions, and you can do that by telling them the story of D. L. Moody.

Also, a few years ago I wrote a pamphlet about what Moody Church was, and all that you would have to do is to give that out. It talks about who we are, where we stand in the tradition of evangelicalism, and it helps us pinpoint it because there are so many people with those misconceptions. I can’t tell you the number of people who think that we somehow belong to the Moonies. Now my dear friend, God has called you to evangelize, but he’s also called you to help people correct their misconceptions that they might have that have been developed throughout the years. There’s a sense of belonging that says, “I belong there.” And I hope that everyone of you who is a member and will be a member can say, “I belong to Moody Church,” and can say that without embarrassment but in the proper sense with a sense of pride in saying, “I know where I stand and it’s okay if you know that too.”

It’s a sense of identity. It’s identity for us to know who you are. It’s identity for the world to know also who you are. “They joined the company,” the Bible says.

Let me give you a second reason. It affirms our unity. We can look at chapter 2 for a moment. It says in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Verse 43 says, “And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the Apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They said, “We belong to one another.”

Oh, my dear friend, I can tell you this. Belonging somewhere and belonging to one another is a great strength in the Church. It’s a strength for you and it’s a strength for us because we all profit by our strength. You know that old line that says, “If we don’t hang together we will hang separately.” And the unity of the Church and the strength that is derived allows us to do things together that we could never possibly do individually, as we’ve already seen today by having this vision for missions and being able to touch the world in some sense with the Gospel and with the love of Jesus Christ. And we are unified in the doctrines of the Apostles, as it mentions.

You know people today say, “Oh every church should be unified. Just take all of Christendom and unify it.” No, no, no! The purpose of doctrine is to unite, but it is also to divide people and to say, “Here is the dividing line. We believe this, and you believe that, and because of the conviction of our belief we respect you and we love you but we’re not into fellowship with you.” That’s important. I’m going to preach, God willing, a whole series of messages on the business of understanding how to properly judge these kinds of things in today’s world. But we affirm our unity. We speak well of one another, and if somebody speaks ill of a believer, that person is then taken to the believer about whom he is speaking ill, and he resolves it because we will not tolerate disunity.

My wife and I had about half a dozen pastors and their wives over to our place last night for dinner. It’s a group of pastors that has been meeting for years and we meet together a few times a year and we swap stories and we talk, and we pray together and have some fun sometimes also. One of the pastors shared that there was somebody in his church who was part of an expansion committee. They were purchasing some land and he agreed that this was a good deal. But after the deal was signed, he turned against the pastor. He said that this was a terrible decision even though he had been a part of it, and he began to accuse the pastor of dishonesty and other things, and accused the whole staff. And when they asked him for evidence (This is classic now; listen to this.) he said, “I do not need any evidence because the Holy Spirit showed all these things to me.” And I say to you, “Beware of people who don’t need any evidence because the Holy Spirit shows them these things.” It’s more from the other side of the spirit world. So eventually he left and he went to another church, and he’s already ingrained in another church, and he’s going to do the same thing. I can tell you that right now because we know those kinds of personalities.

Now listen. He did a lot of damage in the church because you always find somebody who is going to believe somebody no matter how disconnected he or she is from reality. And God says, “I hate the disunity.” God says He wants unity in the Church, and when you become a member, what you are saying is, “I believe where you are going. I believe in your vision. I believe in your doctrine. I believe in your passion, and I want to sign up and go with you.” And I have to say today very honestly and openly we need you to come with us where we are going. We can’t do this alone. So it affirms our unity.

It affirms our accountability. Not these people, bless them! For example, it talks about how they broke bread together and they were unified, and they were under the authority of the Apostles. When you become a member of Moody Church, what you are doing is you are giving us permission to pick you up when you fall because what you are saying is, “I believe that I need some accountability. I believe that I have to be under authority, and as a result of that I want to be able to be accountable so that I’m not just an independent Christian on my own, but rather I am a part of that body.” The whole business of Church discipline all has to do with membership, because we can’t discipline those who never have bought into our agenda, those who have never said that they are a part of us in that sense. So it affirms our accountability.

It affirms our opportunity. “Every day,” the text says (this is verse 46 of chapter 2.), “they continued to meet together, they broke bread in their homes,” and what’s going on there is, you see, they knew the people who were believers. And you wouldn’t just break bread in anyone’s home but those who were a part of the fellowship. Now here at The Moody Church there are many things that you can do and not be a member, but there are some things that you can’t do unless you are a member. You can’t teach a Sunday school class. You can’t become an elder. You can’t become a deacon. You can’t become a deaconess. Why? It’s because we want people who say, “We believe like you do. We think in this sense along with you. We share your vision. We share your passion.” And so it’s a means of opportunity. It opens the doors for other means of service.

It also affirms your generosity. Now of course you can give and not be a member, and many of you are doing that, and we thank God for that, but I want you to know that there is something about buying into a vision in the Church. Listen, if this is where God has called you, this is then your primary place where you generously support God’s work.

My wife and I receive many, many different opportunities to give, as you do. And we accept some of them because they are good organizations. But primarily this is where we are committed. This is the work. We know that when we give here we’re not just giving to something local. We are strengthening the local ministry, but it is because of our desire for a global impact. We are having a part in what God is doing. And in stewardship enrichment, you know God has just blessed us because 10% of all that we give to our expansion program goes to missions. And that’s why we can do some of the things that you’ve been hearing about, and so it’s an opportunity to give and to be generous.

Now the early Church sold everything. The Scripture says, “Selling their possessions (verse 45) and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need.” We don’t do that today. JPUSA (Jesus People U.S.A.) just a couple miles north of here does. Some of you have perhaps visited them. I was there a few years ago and their people sell everything and nobody owns anything, and it’s all distributed according to the leadership. It’s a very, very interesting way.

Now this was not reproduced later. We don’t have any evidence in the epistles that the Apostle Paul asked other churches to do this, but this was their means of generosity. Spontaneously, joyfully they sold everything and they gave it to the Apostles and they said, “Distribute it however you might have need.” You know, when God saves people, He always also saves their bank account. It also becomes converted and comes under His authority. And if it doesn’t, we have to wonder about whether or not you got the real thing.

Flip Wilson, in one of his lines, has a section or a shtick as it is sometimes said, that we could simply call “Rev.” Rev is preaching and Rev says, “Folks, God not only wants this church to crawl. He wants it to stand,” and everybody shouts, “Let it stand, Rev. Let it stand.” And then he says, “God not only wants this church to stand. He wants this church to walk.” And everybody says, “Let it walk, Rev. Let it walk.” And then he says, “God not only wants this church to walk. He wants this church to run.” And they said, “Let it run, Rev. Let it run.” He said, “God not only wants this church to run. He wants this church to fly.” They said, “Let it fly, Rev. Let it fly.” And he said, “Okay now, if this church is going to fly you have to sacrificially give your tithes and offerings,” and somebody in the balcony shouted, “Let it crawl, Rev. Let it crawl.”

God does want this church to fly. What I’m asking you for today is your commitment, because we can’t do it alone. We need your help. Listen, I’m not just talking to those of you who are just checking us out. If you are new in the area and you are checking out various churches, fine. Check all of them out. Just come back to us afterwards. (Laughter) I’m just kidding. I’m talking about those of you who know that this is where God has planted you, and yet there is something within you that is withholding that final commitment that says, “This is the place of sacrifice, of learning, of becoming, of being because I’m buying their vision.” I’m talking to you today and I’m telling you that we need you.

Let me give two final observations. First of all, the Church is to represent Christ in the world. That’s what we’re to do. A couple of weeks ago I read a story that really stuck in my heart. It was written by a young man who was one of these activists who wants to change the world – a Christian young man. And he was in a panel discussion on a television station in another city, with a number of people, including John Perkins who some of us know, a pioneer actually in racial reconciliation, and a marvelous man of God who has preached from this pulpit. He was in this panel discussion also, and the moderator was talking about the proliferation of pornography shops and strip joints and everything that was happening in this city, and the moderator asked this question: Who actually is responsible for all these things that are happening that we’re talking about? And this young man was about to open his mouth. He was ready for the answer. He was going to blame the mayor. He was going to blame liberal judges. He was going to blame the media. And John Perkins interrupted him before he could say anything, and said, “I am responsible.” He said, “I take the blame. I take all of it.” He said, “I’ve been a minister in this city. We hold Bible studies, and I am at fault because my ministry has not been used to so transform this community so that something like this could never happen. It’s my fault.” Boy, that stopped everyone on the panel.

I don’t know whether or not I can even get my mind around this because this is further than I intended to go, but I have to ask this question. When you think of the breakdown of the family, when you think of the city of Chicago with its crime, when you think of all of the things that happen (sometimes not too many miles from us), could it be that it’s our fault because we, in our little cloistered way, coming to church here have not touched the community? We have not been willing to build those bridges, and as a result, we are the ones, through negligence, who have created an atmosphere where those kinds of things can happen because Jesus said that you are salt and you are light.

Let me say also that it is God who causes the Church to grow. I’m still in chapter 2. You’ll notice that it says in verse 47, “They were praising God, enjoying the favor of all the people, and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Now, of course, let’s distinguish between the Church universal, which is the Body of Jesus Christ. God was adding to those people. People were being saved, which is the first thing that we must do, but having been saved, God was adding these people to their number. I think in the early Church that it was unthinkable that you were a Christian that simply drifted. If you were saved, you belonged, and my message today is, “I believe in belonging.” And I am urging you, sitting on the sidelines, to belong and to come and to help us make a difference in this community and in this city.

Of course I need to clarify something. We are not saved through church membership. If somewhere along the line in the last 20 minutes you picked up the idea that if you become a member of Moody Church you’re going to go to heaven, you know, of course, that that is wrong. And you know I sometimes joke, saying you don’t have to be a member of Moody Church to get to heaven, but why take a chance? Well that’s just a joke. I tell you that there are members of Moody Church who will not be in heaven because they slipped through as unsaved.

D. L. Moody, since he is our founder, gave this story, and I conclude with it. He said that he was in a meeting one time where a man stood up and said, “It took me 42 years to learn three things.” And Moody thought, “If it took him 42 years to learn it, maybe I can learn it in three minutes. That would speed up the process.” Listen, there are some of you now who have taken years and years and years to learn the three things that this man shared and they were all true things, but how long it takes for us to learn them.

The first thing the man learned was that he could do nothing toward his salvation. He would make no contribution. “Nothing in my hand I bring, but simply to Thy cross I cling.” That was number one that he learned.

Number two is that God didn’t expect him to add to his salvation or to save himself. God didn’t expect that. Isn’t that a relief to those of you who are trying to impress God with your good works, and you know right well that there is no reason in the world why He should be impressed? Isn’t it nice to know that He doesn’t expect you to be able to save yourself?

And the third thing that this man learned is that Christ did it all, and that His death on the cross was a sacrifice for sinners. And the first thing that we do is not become a member of a church – some local church with our name on the roll. But the first thing we do is we believe in Christ and are saved, and that is a free gift given to those who finally give up on their own good works and transfer their trust to Christ alone. After that, now you become a church member, and you say, “Yes, I want to become part of something that is greater than I am, and I want to buy into the vision.”

This comes today from my heart to your heart directly. Are you willing to say, “Yes, yes, by God’s grace we’ve been led here and called here? We’ll buy into it with sacrifice and joy.”

Join me as we pray.

And our Father, we want to thank You today for the early Church, for its vigor, for its joy and for its generosity. And we pray today, Father, that in Moody Church you might reproduce in us the blessed power of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of the Spirit, the strength of the Spirit and the purity of the Spirit. And make us, oh God, a change agent in this city that could indeed touch the world. Oh Lord God, that is our plea to You today. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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