For the Sake of the Gospel

“The Church is always one generation away from extinction.”

This frequent quote has always seemed a little self-important to me, as if the growth and vitality of a church is entirely in our hands. In fact it is God’s Spirit who first breathed life into the gathered congregation and still generates its power, presence, and purpose all these millennia later. Congregations may close their doors forever; denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA) may pass away, but the Church–the true and authentic representation of the Body of Christ on earth–is animated by something other than human effort.

And yet, outreach lies in the very DNA of the church. Jesus commissioned his disciples to tell the good news of God’s love throughout the world.  He called them to follow his example of radical welcome, unconditional love, and special care for society’s most vulnerable ones. The Church’s history of outreach through the ages is very much a mixed bag:  a generous and life-changing word that built hospitals and schools and beloved communities throughout the world as well as perpetrating violence and terrible injustices carried out in the name of Jesus.

The Presbyterian Church long ago repudiated an understanding of coercive and judgmental outreach demanded by a god who will banish you to Hell if you don’t believe just so. Instead we have tried to proclaim and demonstrate the love of God that produces abundant life, here and now and in the great beyond. It presumes humans are equally part of God’s good creation and face the same mortality. We are vulnerable in the vast universe, and lonely for deep connection with Divine and human companions. Our outreach is intended to be “evangelism”–literally, sharing good news with one another.

Our morning text is from the original evangelist: the apostle Paul, whose first-century journeys by ship and by land took him throughout the Mediterranean world. He established house churches wherever he went, and much of the New Testament comprises his letters of instruction and encouragement to those growing congregations. In this one to Christians in the bustling metropolis of Corinth, Paul reveals the secret sauce that seems to make his message crackle and compel. It’s a text for us as we consider ways and means to reach out to our neighbors. Maybe it invites us to see the new thing God is doing right under our noses, or should I say right over the internet, on our smart phones and lap tops?!

A reading from the first letter to the Corinthian churches, in the ninth chapter, verses nineteen through twenty-three.   Listen for God’s Word to the church then and now.

[I Corinthians 9:19-23]

In this remarkable text, the apostle-turned-evangelist cites his human-centered approach.  Essentially, he figured out who his “audience” was and presented his message in terms that spoke meaningfully to them.

…Which is the same approach we used also in the development of a new logo, branding platform, and website.

With the experienced eye of marketing professionals (thanks, Derek and Stefanie Jones!), over forty Central members, elders, and friends from three generations participated in focus groups that discussed our congregation’s identity and mission. A marketing firm recommended by the Joneses listened and translated what they heard into an image that reflected those themes. They heard people describe Central’s priority on service and mission. They heard people describe Central’s open-door welcome of people from all walks of life and different places on their spiritual journey. They heard people describe the experience of love and acceptance they feel within this church.

Take another look at the finished logo on your bulletin cover. Lines from four directions converge and connect at the center. Central is a dynamic center that draws diverse people into beloved community. You can be exactly who you are and find a home here. And the lines go both ways! Here we are enhanced by each one’s unique story and strengthen each other to put love into action in countless ways within our walls, in our downtown neighborhood, and in the wider world.

As it turns out, this new expression grew out of an old one. The logo is a cross, symbolic of the faith that centers Jesus as the best expression of God’s love. And it’s not just any cross. Our new logo was designed from the very cross that is the centerpiece of our sanctuary. Earlier this week I spoke with our 97-year-old member Edna Sheldon whose family commissioned this piece as a memorial to their son Jerry who died in the early 1990s. She remembers feeling surprised at the artist’s choice of a non-traditional, equal-sided cross, representing east, west, north and south, and mirroring the cross displayed high on the sanctuary steeple.

“It was a very modern design,” she said, “but we loved it, and gave it to our church with gratitude for the love we’ve experienced here in both good and difficult times.”

Friends, our new logo was born from the mix of history, heartbreak and hope that is part of the human condition in every generation.

We reshape and re-imagine all things so that some people we have never met may find a center for their own lives. Here, at Central, where paths come together and people experience love. We do this for the sake of the good news, that more of us may share in its abundant blessings.

And “more of us” find Central through an internet search than ever before. Before we sample the website, I want to point out several defining features. When it came to redeveloping our website, we wanted this invaluable communication tool to reflect Central as a dynamic center to an outside audience, to folks who may not be “insider” Presbyterians; and people who may have no knowledge of “the Reformed Tradition” or “salvation by grace;” or who may not know precisely what to do when the worship leader invites us to “pass the peace.” Our team gave real thought to the language and images for our website, to engage people who have never heard of Central or may never have been a member of any church.

Our building is a spiritual home for Central members. And it is also home to four strong non-profits that have become our partners in serving others. The website features them prominently as a way of showing who we are AND to generate additional support for them. New Genesis, our first partner that started as a simple over-night shelter for street people and has grown into a sober living residence for men experiencing homelessness to offer them a path to a life of independence and dignity free from substance use disorders.   Central Visitation Program, another early partner founded by a Central attorney with compassion for children trapped by family dysfunction. Central Visitation provides supervised visits between children and non-custodial parents, as well as parenting classes and parental support. The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is an outstanding regional orchestra with a mission of making classical music more accessible to broader (and younger) audiences. In the years before the pandemic, their concert series drew over 10,000 people–many of whom knew nothing of Central before they walked through our doors to attend a concert. Our newest partner has just signed a seven-year lease for space to operate a social enterprise coffee shop–a retail business that hires and trains young adults who are at risk for a derailed life of homelessness and despair. Purple Door Coffee is the employment mission of Dry Bones Denver, a faith-based, successful non-profit serving young people on the margins. The new website introduces these partners immediately, increasing the “doors of entry” into Central.

So let’s take a look.

Thanks to Chris Gibson for the new photo of our iconic building taken by drone. Note the strong color scheme and authentic images of our life together alongside partners. No stock photos here! Viewers can easily check out the schedule of upcoming music concerts. They can dip a toe in the worship waters by reading “frequently asked questions” about a visit to Central, and what they might expect the very first time they venture inside. They can be introduced to staff and get a flavor for our faith perspectives by reading a sermon. They’ll have the ability to sign up as a volunteer with any of our partners and any of our current service projects, and sign up to receive our weekly e-newsletter.

Though the website can be a way for Central members to engage, its focus is on helping us open the door more widely and flexibly for people who aren’t members. . . . Yet.

I’m so grateful to our versatile techie, Seth Rosenow, who essentially serves as marketing coordinator for our social media presence and website. Thanks, Seth, for helping the smooth roll out today! The website will go live later today. Following the service, Derek Jones and Bruce Heagstedt will have their laptops open in the narthex lobby for anyone to check out the website in more detail. I’m grateful for them and for the entire marketing team that will continue to help Central become, as the apostle put it, “all things to all people.”

…Or at least a good thing to more people.  It’s about extending the blessings of God and beloved community more broadly, widely, deeply.

Because finally, friends, this work belongs to every one of us. Not just the professionals, not just the tech gurus, not just the cool kids. All of us are called by God to witness to life-changing good news and to serve with compassion. The website can be a tremendous tool by introducing people to Central. But unless their lived experience at a concert, having a cup of coffee, or attending worship matches the warmth and dynamism of the virtual experience online, it will dissipate like a flash in the pan.

But with Love at the center, we can become an anchor for those who feel adrift; a beacon for those who are struggling to find their way; we can become bread for those who are hungry; we can become a launching pad for those seeking meaningful ways to repair, restore, and reconcile human community; we can become a road home, and the people God created us to be. A living, growing church, bound not for extinction, but for glory.