This week's sermon by Pastor Dylan Parson revolves around the enduring principle of "form follows function," a concept originally articulated by architect Louis Sullivan and echoed through personal anecdotes and philosophical reflections. The speaker shares memories of influential figures in their life, such as their father and an elementary school teacher, who instilled in them the importance of this principle. Through exploring its application beyond architecture, into personal development and communal worship, the sermon illustrates how this principle has guided the speaker's understanding and actions. The core message emphasizes the necessity of allowing one's purpose or function to shape their actions and structures, whether in personal growth, architectural design, or communal and spiritual settings.
The sermon delves into the practical and spiritual implications of "form follows function" within the Christian faith, drawing parallels between architectural innovation and spiritual practice. By referencing historical changes in church architecture to align with evolving worship practices, it underscores the adaptability required to fulfill one's spiritual function effectively. The narrative extends this concept to the mission of the church, challenging the congregation to reconsider how they embody their faith in a way that meets the world's needs today. Through the lens of Apostle Paul's teachings and the challenges faced by the early church in Corinth, the sermon calls for a flexible, outward-looking approach to faith that prioritizes the church's core mission over adherence to traditional forms. This message culminates in a call to action for individuals and the church collectively to adapt their forms to fulfill their function of spreading the Gospel and transforming the world in the spirit of Christ's Great Commission.
You ever know somebody who was so attached to saying particular phrases that they are just etched into your brain for life? My dad does this. I could probably rattle off like a dozen little proverbs that my dad has just said every day since I was born. And they've all proven to be pretty much accurate over time. But there's just phrases that just would pop up any time.
That would be his advice. But another person in my life who did this was a favorite elementary school teacher of mine. She's long since retired. I think she's in Colorado now.
It's been years since I've talked to her. And honestly, I don't even remember what the context usually was of what she said, which I guess isn't even really a problem since the whole point of a proverb or an axiom is that it's supposed to be broadly applicable. It's supposed to apply across your life. That's why it's that short, sweet, sort of repeated phrase.
But she would always remind me on whatever project I was working on, she would say, Form follows function. She would always say that over and over and over again, all the time. And I'll tell you what. I had not a single clue what she was talking about.
She would say it, she would say it, she would say it, and my developing little brain could not process the phrase. But form follows function, that same sort of little proverb, has been rattling around in my now developed brain for the past week or two. And so I decided to look it up, see where it comes from, what it was originally talking about. I mean, I get it now, basically.
I mean, you decide what you want to happen, what problem you want to solve, and then you plan what you're going to do to do it, rather than the other way around. You don't come up with a solution and then find a problem. That doesn't work very well. You start with your desired outcome, and then you craft a plan to get there.
You make the key to turn the lock. You don't build the lock around the key. But I wanted to look it up, you know, see who first said that. It turns out form follows function comes from the famous architect Louis Sullivan.
He was Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor. He was the guy that pretty much invented the skyscraper. And the skyscraper is actually a really good example. So what function was the skyscraper designed to perform? What problem was it designed to solve? And that is, you know, whenever it was developed in Chicago in the 1800s, the idea was to fit a lot of people, a lot of office space or apartments into a small footprint.
You got lots of people but not enough land. What do you do? You go up. Buildings at the time couldn't do that. Brick or wood can only safely get you up like six stories, I think, something like that.
So Sullivan had to develop a new form for the new function. And that was to use steel or originally cast iron to enable lighter, higher, stronger buildings. And really everywhere we go in life, the same principle applies. Church buildings, same thing.
Form follows function. This room is shaped like this, with the pews here, with me here, with the choir up here, because of how modern Protestants worship. Before the Reformation, this is not what worship looked like. And so our churches didn't look like this either.
Worship was much more focused on the sacrament and less on the sermon. So you'd have the table would be much more central and a lot of churches are going back in that direction. You didn't really have a pulpit that was nearly as grand. Sanctuaries weren't shaped like auditoriums because the sermon wasn't important, right? So sanctuaries were shaped instead like a cross.
Some big cathedrals, Duke Chapel was this way. You had a long row like this, kind of like this still, but you also had these rows on the side. There were no pews in the early days. People would just walk around and then when it was time for the sacrament, they might come up, they might not.
Participation in the mass wasn't even particularly important. But in modern Protestantism, the sermon is central. So I got my mic, I got my big stand, my pulpit to stand behind, and you guys are all lined up looking at me. We have the piano because music is central.
Form follows function. This whole room is built around how we worship. And things don't work when the form and the function are misaligned. We could not do a service like this one very effectively in a Costco or an Olive Garden.
Even if you set up chairs and rows, you give me a microphone, it's not going to work. The other way around, whenever people try to repurpose closed churches, it usually just doesn't work well without heavy renovation, unless you're using it as a theater, as a concert venue, because that's pretty close to what we're doing. Years ago, I remember seeing pictures of, I think it was the former Stanton Heights United Methodist Church over by the zoo, whenever it was for sale. It's a big building.
And the first owners, after it was a church, made it into a residential home. And they had kept the floor plan, from the pictures that I could tell, they'd kept the floor plan pretty similar to the way it was whenever it was an active church. The big sanctuary was pretty much just converted into an enormous studio apartment. Like this is a sanctuary significantly bigger than this one.
And it looked like the least pleasant space imaginable to live in. This big, weird, uncomfortable space. Imagine you take all the pews out, but you put a couch over there, and it was very uncomfortable looking. Bright and airy, but it just didn't look like it was meant to be lived in.
It is much, much harder to make the function follow the form. So let's take this a little bit further than buildings, right? What is your function? And you can find the answer to that in all the gospels, but since we're in Mark this season, here's how Mark gives Jesus' answer after his resurrection as he appears to the disciples. This is Mark 16, 15, which we know as the Great Commission. Go into the whole world, Jesus says, and proclaim the good news to every creature.
You've heard me say this a lot in the last year or two as well, but here's how the United Methodist Church synthesizes the Great Commission, all the gospel versions. The United Methodist Church says, Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is your function. That is my function.
To proclaim the gospel to the whole world, the good news, to make disciples of others and ourselves. Transforming the world through the coming of God's reign among us. And so, how does that shape your form? If that's your function, how does that shape your form? And of course, I don't mean literally, not your literal bodily shape, but the form your life takes so that that function that's been given to you by Jesus can be accomplished. And the answer to that cannot be that the shape of your life is the same as it was before you had that function.
Think about that old church that someone tried to convert into a house without totally renovating it, or the impossibility of having a traditional worship service at Walmart. Form follows function, or the function suffers if you can do it at all. The Apostle Paul understands this deeply. In our reading today from 1 Corinthians, he's trying to convey it to the church in Corinth in the first century, one of the earliest Christian churches.
This is a major seaport city in Greece, Corinth is. So we just finished 1 Corinthians in Bible study, so some of this will sound familiar to some of you, but here's some of the main issues in the church at Corinth that Paul is writing to. The main issue is that Corinth's witness, this church in Corinth, their witness to the wider world, the wider non-Christian world, is pretty abysmal. If the community around the Corinthian church was to look at them, they'd be like, Why would we want to be part of that? At the beginning of Paul's letter, we find that the church is extremely dysfunctional.
Beyond the kind of levels of dysfunction we're used to seeing in churches, it is beyond that. Its members are suing each other often enough that Paul has to mention they should probably stop doing that. And that's pretty wild whenever you consider that there were probably about 100 people in the church in Corinth. There were enough lawsuits flying back and forth in a church of 100 people that Paul said, You need to stop.
Meanwhile, the communal dinner table, they would worship mainly around a table around that time. That was where church really happened, was around dinner, they would sing, they would worship, they would share testimony. At the dinner table there in Corinth, there is inequality just as bad as in the rest of Corinth. The society was very unequal.
The rich church members have a feast before all the poor people get there, then the poor come and they get to eat among the scraps at this church dinner table. Apparently there's an issue with prostitution. The Jewish Christians and the Greek pagans, they don't get along at all. The rich and the poor don't get along.
There's just all these constant racial, ethnic, class divisions. And basically, the form of the Corinthian church looks exactly like the world around them. They just reproduced it in a smaller group that theoretically has Jesus involved. And so Paul steps in.
And perhaps the pinnacle of his letter is the part that we know best, and that's 1 Corinthians 13, the wedding part. The classic love is patient, love is kind passage that's almost always read at weddings. It declares what real, Christ-like, self-giving love looks like. But here in chapter 9, I would suggest to you that Paul is saying something quite similar.
So listen again. Not quite as beautiful, not quite as poetic as chapter 13, but Although I'm free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews so I can recruit Jews. I act like I'm under the law to those under the law so I can recruit those who are under the law, though I myself am not under the law.
I act like I'm outside the law to those who are outside the law so I can recruit those outside the law, though I'm not outside the law of God, but rather under the law of Christ. I act weak to the weak so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel so I can be a partner with it.
While the Corinthians would insist that as those who have been baptized into a new life in Christ, they are free from the law of Moses given in the Old Testament. They can live as they see fit. Paul's not having that. Not as they mean it anyway.
We see over and over again, Paul responding to the Corinthians. They're like, Well, we're not under the law anymore. We can do what we want to do. What we feel is right.
Paul says, Yeah, sure. You're free, but free to do what? Free for what? What should you do? A follower of Christ is not freed so that we can go on to live life on our own terms and still get into heaven. That's not really the point. And if that's what you're interested in, Paul says, you're really missing the point.
Your freedom is not for you to use for your own fun. We are freed into discipleship. We're freed into love. We're freed into giving ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us.
We're freed to shed everything about ourselves that inhibits that function. We're freed from all these things that hold us back from being what God has called us to be. And Paul tells us exactly what that looks like in his life specifically. Does he take advantage of his freedom as something through which to pursue his own preferences, his own comforts? No.
He willingly chooses to be a slave or a servant of Jesus and also other people. Despite being free from the law through Christ, he lives whenever he's among Jews according to Jewish customs, Jewish wisdom, the Jewish law. He speaks in a register that Jews might understand so he can reach them for the gospel. When he's trying to reach Greeks or other pagans, he acts according to their customs.
He respects their way of life, their values. He speaks to their cultural and social language so they can hear the good news. It doesn't matter what Paul wants. What matters is that Jesus wants to reach all these people and Paul's going to do and be what he has to be to do it.
I have become all things to all people, he says, so that I could save some by all possible means. The function comes first. Sharing the good news, inviting the world into the love of Jesus, that comes first and all the other stuff is secondary. What Paul likes, what Paul wants to do, none of that.
And of course that's no easier for us than it is for the Corinthian church. I served, for example, for a short stint on the conference evangelism team and what I found on that committee is that many Christians preferred methods for reaching non-Christians with the gospel happens to be whatever method appeals to us. We spent so much time on that committee talking about the latest evangelistic materials coming out of the Billy Graham Association because that's what the largely clergy leaders of the group loved. That's what they grew up on.
They loved Billy Graham. A few districts were planning to have watch parties for Billy's or maybe Franklin's, I forget if Billy had died yet, his latest live broadcast special. They're going to host watch parties in the church to invite non-church people to come hear Billy Graham. But it was crystal clear for me that no one in Allentown or Carrick or Overbrook or Baldwin in the year 2022 who isn't already into that, into that brand of evangelism was going to be compelled by coming into a church to watch Billy Graham.
It might be comfortable to us. That might've been what worked for us, but not to the mission field. You have to figure out how to talk to the people you're not already talking to. To the outside world, that stuff just elicits an eye roll.
I think about whenever I was a kid, we had some neighbors who were fundamentalist Baptists. And they didn't give out candy at Halloween. They did open the door, which was nice. But instead of giving us candy, they would give us these little Bible tracts, these believe in Jesus or burn comics for kids.
And it didn't work. I mean, I found Jesus another way, but that wasn't what did it. And I don't mean to say that I have it right either, that I have some methodology that works to speak to other people in a way that those guys didn't. That's not what I mean.
If I could spend my entire career preaching my way in a setting like this with a solid choir, maybe a band, I'd love that. I would be thrilled. This is what I'm trained for. This is what I picked to grow up with.
This is what I'm comfortable with. But I'm not sure if I stuck to the way I like to do things that I'd really be living into the Great Commission. The hymnals, the pulpits, the pews, those are supposed to be tools for proclaiming the good news to the world. They are not the good news themselves.
And I think we're seeing that quite clearly in our time, that if we let our preexisting forms dictate our function, we are failing to live up to Paul's and Jesus' call to spread the gospel to new people by speaking their language, by doing what they like, by going to their places. The church has spent a long time hoping that the surrounding world will adapt to the forms that we cling to. That's been the church's major evangelism strategy in America for years. And it does work occasionally.
It does. It got me here. It probably got some of you here. And it's always worth inviting people in to what we already do.
But relying solely on that to make new Christians is a dead end. I saw a post yesterday by another pastor in Texas. He mentioned seeing a church closed and boarded up with an All are Welcome banner hanging above the front door. Welcome is great.
Welcome. We're required to welcome everybody. I'd say that being truly welcoming to all people is a minimum requirement for a Christian church. But it is the minimum.
It still allows us to retain the forms that we're comfortable with and to remain relatively untouched by the outside world. Paul was not untouched by the outside world. We've got to reclaim what it means to become all things to all people that by all means we might save some. John Wesley had a phrase for this.
He called it submitting to be more vile because of the way that the church talked about him going out to preach in cemeteries and fields and things. They called that vile. And he said, Sure, it's vile and that's where the people are. Today many theologians who study mission and evangelism say that barely anybody is interested in being persuaded by the gospel by words alone.
The way that the great tent evangelists, the way the stadium evangelists, people like Billy Graham were able to do. That worked before. But today, after all the scandals of the church, after so many millions of people have fallen away, you can't explain Jesus into people. Instead, we're in a moment now that's a fusion of Wesley's day and the world of the church in Corinth.
We've got to figure out how to be where the people are and then show them Jesus is real, not by explaining Jesus, but with the way that we live. People want to see. They believe in Jesus based on you and how you live and how you act and how you speak, not what you believe. They don't really care.
We have to offer something that's visibly different than the rest of the world in a place where people can encounter it. Something that shows that Jesus has the power to change our lives and maybe theirs too. Our function is very, very clear. It hasn't changed since Jesus rose and met the disciples before his ascension.
He sent them out to love and serve the world in his name. Our function is the same. So what now does our form need to be? As individuals, as disciples, as the church? In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.