Vision Sunday 2021

Pastor Jeff Struecker

Today is what we would call Vision Sunday. Maybe you feel the same way that I do: “Goodbye 2020!” Am I right? For some of you, 2020 has been a great year. Maybe you got married. Maybe you started a family. But for most of us, 2020 has been the worst year ever. Maybe you lost a job, a family member, or a friend because of the virus. Maybe life just got turned upside down.

I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who cannot say, “2020 threw some surprises at me that I didn’t expect.” And what we’re going to do (God willing) each year as a church is, we’re going to cast a vision for what the future holds the first Sunday of the year. It’s our way of describing where we’ve been as a church and where we’re headed.

It’s our way of looking at what the steps are to get there, and probably most important to you, it’s also our way of looking at what your role is in the future. 2020 for most people has been challenging; it has been difficult. 

To set this whole thing up, I’d like to talk to you about when our family lived in Kentucky. We lived in Kentucky for about three and a half years. I worked in Louisville, and when friends or family came to visit us, they would often want to go see a little bit of the sites.

If you’re a baseball fan, the city of Louisville, Kentucky is famous for the Hillerich & Bradsby Factory. Baseball fans, true fans, would know what that is. It’s the factory that makes Louisville Slugger baseball bats. If you’re not a baseball fan, then Kentucky is pretty much famous for about four things: It’s famous for Kentucky bluegrass. It’s famous for bourbon. It’s famous for betting on horses, and it’s also famous for tobacco. Now, if you live in that part of the country, you just call it bacco. So, all four of them start with the letter B.

And if you’re not into any of things like bluegrass, music, bourbon, betting on horses or bacco, the only other thing to do there was to go a little bit south, almost to the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, and visit Mammoth Cave. It’s the world’s largest cave system. Our family went more than once to Mammoth Cave. And in the course of the tour, through the cave, the tour guide will warn you that in just a second, they’re about to turn off all of the lights.

Now, they have to warn you about this because the darkness that you’re going to experience in Mammoth Cave is unlike anything that you’ll find anywhere else. Few people have ever experienced the total darkness that you’ll experience in Mammoth Cave. So they turn all the lights off, and you’re in absolute darkness. -the kind of darkness where you can’t see this right in front of your face, and you can hear the whispers of the people around you because the fear starts to get great as they turn the lights down.

After a very brief pause, the tour guide turns his flashlight on himself, and immediately every eye in the cavern looks at the tour guide, and he starts to explain what life is like in a cave for those cave-dwelling organisms. Then they turn the rest of the lights on, and you can almost feel a sense of relief when the rest of the lights come on and you can continue the tour through the cave by just enough light to be able to see what’s right in front of your face.

I remember the anxious fear and the whispers around me when the tour guide turned that light off. And when he flicked his flashlight on, every eye, whether you wanted to or not, every eye went straight to that flashlight. And I want to use this moment in the pitch black of Mammoth Cave to explain to you where we’re going to go with this sermon, really to explain to you what 2021 holds for the future of our church. And I’ll say it to you this way: No amount of darkness can overpower one small light.

No amount of darkness can overpower one small light.

When that tour guide flipped his light on, everybody stopped whispering, and every eye went to that light. And when the lights in the cave came back on, everybody felt this enormous sense of relief. 

Just a couple of days ago, we celebrated Christmas, and the Christmas story is God penetrating spiritual darkness, God sending forth his son, born of a virgin, so that he could impact the darkness, so that he could be the light of the world. And then God named him Jesus so that he could be the bright light that would rescue his people from their sins.

Today, what I’d like to do is look at just a couple of verses from the beginning of the Gospel of John as it describes the kind of light that Jesus was. John 1:4-5 say this:

John 1:4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it

Your Bible translation may say, “Could not overpower it.”Jesus’ mission on earth was to shine into the darkness and to be the light that would draw all manner of mankind, draw their attention, draw their eyes to them. We live in a spiritually dark world. I don’t want to argue about how technology is getting brighter, how medicine is getting better, how the economy around the world is getting stronger. That’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about real spiritual darkness, evil on our planet.

I could wear you out today with statistics. I really could, but I’m not going to. I’ll just list a couple of them for you, and I’ll start big and go small from there. The world’s rate of religious restrictions was greater last year than ever in our history. In some countries, it was just rules against practicing your faith. In other places around the world, it was just straight up persecution, more last year than ever before in human history. 

In the United States last year, according to the Pew Research Group, more atheists understood the basics of the Christian faith than Christians themselves did. Christians became less aware of what they believe. And in our city (this may be true of you wherever you live), in the city of Columbus, Georgia in 2020, we set a record. -not a good record, not the kind of record that you want to be known for. Last year, there were more murders in our city than ever in our history since this city was founded in 1828. There were more murders last year than ever before.

You cannot argue, no matter where you live around the world, that the spiritual darkness is closing in. And you also must believe from the Bible that no amount of darkness, not even Mammoth Cave darkness, can overpower one small light. Like a candle shining in the darkness, every eye goes to that light. Today, what I want to do is lay out for you a battle plan for this spiritual warfare that we call fighting the darkness or pushing back the darkness.

Back to reality

I want to lay out for you this three-prong approach of how we at 2 Cities Church are going to shine a light in a dark world. And here’s the first step along the way: What we’re going to do as a church is, we are going to unashamedly push back the darkness by pushing for change in our community. 2 Cities Church is actively engaged in our community, actively engaged in pushing back darkness. Some of you may be aware that I just returned from South Africa.

I had a very quick trip there, but I had a chance to meet with and minister to and be ministered to by some of the people who are connecting with our church from South Africa. It was amazing. At about midnight, almost one o’clock in the morning, with some of us gathered around and just honestly talking about what’s happening to Jesus’ church universally, we had this real, raw, honest conversation with each other.

We started saying, if you were to measure what the church is doing (and I’m talking global church) how the global church is doing right now on almost every measurement that you would use, you’d have to say we’re in trouble, and things are not getting better. The church is getting worse. And I really believe that part of the problem when we were having this raw, honest conversation at almost one o’clock in the morning is that the church is not being active enough, not being serious enough in trying to make an impact in their community.

2 Cities Church, the very name itself, means that we are a church that is all about the grace of God and doing good for other people. We want people to experience the life-changing gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But we also want to just meet them right where we are. We’re a church that believes our first priority is to heaven. And when we meet with people and when we minister to people, we want to make an eternal difference in their lives.

That’s the first city that “2 Cities Church” refers to. But we’re also the kind of people who want to make a practical difference right here in the way that people live. If we do gospel work only and don’t do any good in somebody’s life, we’ve really left them in the same situation just longing for heaven. If we do good in their lives but don’t introduce them to the Lord Jesus Christ, in the long run, we haven’t helped them at all, eternally speaking.

We were meeting together at about one o’clock in the morning just being raw and honest with each other. And this isn’t the language in the room, but after that conversation was over with, I was kind of broken about the spiritual condition of Jesus’ church globally, because what’s really happened in Jesus’ church is that we have started to become judgmental people that will tell everybody what they’re doing wrong, but not give them any hope or any idea  of how things can get better. 

Can I use some COVID analogy with you for just a second? The church globally has become the kind of people who are quickly, easily diagnosing the spiritual condition of people around us like a COVID tests and telling them whether or not they’re positive. But that’s just not Jesus’ purpose for his church. We’re not supposed to be the COVID test. We’re supposed to be the COVID vaccine, and people don’t want to know that they’ve got the virus if you don’t have any hope for how to handle the virus, what to do with the virus. “This spiritual darkness that’s in my life, I don’t need you to tell me about it. I’m fully aware of it. I need you to tell me what to do with it and how to handle it.”

And the church has become easily, quickly the COVID test for spiritual darkness around them, but forgot that they have the COVID vaccine for spiritual darkness, the vaccine for sin. And unfortunately, they’ve held onto it and kept it to themselves. When I use the word push, I’m using active verb language, like we’re not going to sit back and just let spiritual darkness come after us. We’re not going to let our community descend into chaos.

No. We’re going to roll up our sleeves, and we’re going to penetrate the darkness. And as a church, we’re going to make a difference. The first level of attack is to say, “We’re not built as the people of God to just simply diagnose a problem and leave it there. No. Our real mission on earth is to give them the solution to the problem, to offer men life and the life is the light of Christ.” 

Back to reality

Step number two of this three-pronged approach is that we’re going to get people back to reality. Now, if you’re sitting there saying, “Jeff, that statement doesn’t make any sense to me,” let me explain the word reality for just a second. I’m talking about church people being raw and honest and vulnerable with each other. I’m talking about church people being real with other people. See, what we said in South Africa is that people all over the world are lonely and they’re looking for something.

We said that shallow doesn’t satisfy. People are lonely, and they’re looking for more. And when they show up at a church, what they’re asking is, can I be real with you, and would you be real with me? And what they’re asking is, would you accept me, my flaws and my mistakes and my vulnerabilities and all? Would you just be honest with me? 

Can I tell you how bad loneliness is in America? In January of last year, before we even knew there was a COVID virus, 61% of Americans, more than three out of every five, said, “I’m lonely right now.” -so lonely, in fact, that a major American drug manufacturer Cigna said, “We have to do something about this because it’s at an epidemic level, the loneliness in America.” And then COVID hit and the very few opportunities that you had to be in other people’s presence disappeared. And now loneliness (I can say this without any hesitation) is an all-time high all over the world.

People show up to a church, and what they long for is to genuinely be in a relationship with other people. Unfortunately, what they get is, they get people that are shallow and superficial. It’s like a bakery, right? You show up to a bakery and you’re there to buy bread. But instead of selling bread, this bakery has nothing but rubbish behind the counters. And they say, “What kind of rubbish do you want? We have this version of rubbish, or we have that version of rubbish, or we have this version of rubbish? What kind of rubbish would you like?”

We’re saying, “No, no, no. I’m hungry, and I went to a bakery to buy bread. Where’s the bread?” And instead of providing genuine, real, honest, vulnerable relationships, many churches, what many churches do is provide shallow, superficial relationships. People walk away and say, “I guess the church, not just this church, but I guess the church isn’t for me, because I need to be around the kind of people where I can look them in the eyes and say, ‘I hate it to tell you this, I’m ashamed to say it, but I’ve got to get this off my chest. I am sick and tired of my marriage, and I don’t think I want to be married to my husband anymore.'” 

There needs to be a place where a guy can say, “I have to get this off my shoulders. I’m struggling with pornography, and I don’t know where to go next.” 

-where somebody can say, “I’m wrestling with addiction and I need somebody who will come alongside me.” 

-where a guy can say, “I’m wrestling with PTSD, and I don’t want to just take a handful of drugs and numb the pain. I need to know that I can let my guard down and that you would be willing to hear what I have to say.”

That’s the kind of relationship that people who are living in spiritual darkness are looking for, and that’s the kind of relationship that we’re going to focus on in 2020. Those relationships are found in life groups. You see, what I found in my life group was genuine, raw, vulnerable people being real with one another. In fact, in the last few weeks alone, I’ve heard people from my life group say, “I’ve been burned by the church before, and I never thought that I could get this deep with church people again.”

I’ve heard people say, “I really got hurt in the past, and this is the first time that I have let my guard down like this in a long, long time.” I’m telling you, everyone on the planet is looking for that, and it doesn’t come easy. The way to get there is to go back to being real and raw and vulnerable with each other. That’s why I’m almost fanatical up here about our life groups, because you just can’t get that kind of raw honesty in a big group church setting.

It only happens when three to five people, maybe six or seven, gather together in a small group setting and they really get vulnerable with each other. We’re going to push for change in our culture. We’re not just going to let spiritual darkness happen. We’re going to actively make a difference, and we’re going to get back to reality. 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness”

The third and the final step that I want you to hear is a quote that comes directly from Dr. King. What we’re going to do is, we’re going to keep in mind that you can’t overpower darkness with darkness. Darkness cannot drive out of darkness. 

Here’s exactly what Dr. King said in one of his famous sermons when he was challenging the racial injustice of his day. He said: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only light can do that. And hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” What the church is called to do is to be light that penetrates darkness and love that moves in where there is hate and makes a real, tangible difference. That’s what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to do. 

When Jesus was leaving earth, he remembered his mission was to move in and to show light in dark environments. And when Jesus was on a mountainside getting ready to leave earth and go back to the father in heaven, he took the mission that God gave him, his reason for existing, and he gave it to his people. On the Mount of Olives, he handed them the Great Commission. He said, “I’m leaving, but I’m not leaving this earth to descend back into darkness. No, no, no. It’s now your job as my people to go penetrate the darkness and do the thing that I was doing.”

He even told his disciples earlier, “You’ll do greater things than I did, because there are many more of you that can go much further than I was able to go.” Jesus said, “My mission, God sent me here to be the light. -the life that would become the light of men. And now that I’m leaving, I’m leaving you, my people, to show the life that will become the light of men. I’m giving you my mission.” And that mission is for me, but by the way, that mission is for every person who claims the name of Jesus Christ.

Your mission on earth is to drive out darkness. Hate can’t drive out hate, and darkness cannot drive out darkness. No. God has left us on planet earth to be the light that would drive out the darkness. 

Now let’s just get real and practical about what this looks for you. This year, 2 Cities Church is going to ask something of you. This year what we’re going to ask you to do is that you would reach one person, just one person, who is living in spiritual darkness.

Spiritual darkness means far from the light, far from the life that leads to the light of men, far from Jesus. And some time during the course of 2021, would you reach one person, and would you ask them to join you in a life group? Now, what that means is that if you’re going to do this, you have to already be plugged into a life group, and we’re going to start those back up in a few weeks. Here’s the idea. I just want to paint a picture for you in your mind. My hope, my goal, my prayer and passion for 2021 is that the end of this year, our church looks like this: about 50% of the people that are plugged into our church, about 50% of the people that are currently in our life groups don’t know Jesus and don’t like the church, but they’re starting to like us and they’re starting to let their guard down. And if we reach that statistic, I will be over the moon about what we’re doing as a church.

You see, the goal is that maybe you start watching this broadcast from your house and maybe you invite two or three other people who are connected with our church to watch the broadcast from your house. And each one of you makes a decision to invite one person. Each one of us are going to invite one person that’s far from Jesus and living in darkness to come to our house and to watch this broadcast. You don’t have to watch it live on Sunday.

You can watch it at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday or at one o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday for all of you college students cramming for exams. And then after the service is over with, you gather around a table, you eat a meal together, and we provide some discussion questions. You just open up the mobile app and you start reading those discussion questions. 

The questions themselves are not important. Your answers are not really important. The discussion question are a springboard, a diving board to just get you to go deep in relationship with each other. And I promise you, if you’re in a group where there are six or eight people and half of them are far from Jesus and you get connected and open up and get vulnerable and break bread with one another, in 2021, I’m going to make a promise to you.

You will see the Holy Spirit of the living God do miracles in the lives of people around you, if you will just make a commitment that you will reach one person in 2021 and get them to come join you in this life group where you’re starting to live life and let down your guard with other people. 

That’s the thing that I’m going to ask of every single one of us, myself included, this year. And at the end of 2021, we will be able to say, “We went into the darkness and we penetrated the darkness. We pushed back the darkness, and we made a real difference for King Jesus.”