Sunday, July 15, 2018

My Church is on Life Support

Two verses about possible futures:

“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’ ”

Right. Now let me describe for you an increasingly familiar scenario.

An Increasingly Familiar Scenario

It’s Sunday morning, 11 a.m. The coffee is piping hot in its urn, a few handfuls of plain Dare cookies are laid out in a basket with napkins, and the would-be worshipers are chatting in twos and threes in the chapel basement. I count ten. Number eleven is the speaker.

“Hey, it’s summer, y’know. People travel, go to the cottage, entertain family. Churches everywhere expect lower numbers in July and August.”

Er ... no. Not this low. They’re rattling around in a building erected in the late 1940s or early ’50s that could seat a couple hundred if it had to. The air conditioning still works and the bills are (apparently) still getting paid, but it’s barely maintained, and the bulletin boards have things stuck to them that look like they went up there in the 1980s. Two of the congregants are well over ninety, and the remainder have few of the convictions about Bible truth that were in evidence in this fellowship of believers in the middle of last century. The only way it could be more obvious this particular gathering of Christians is on the verge of giving up the ghost is if they passed out “My church is on life support” T-shirts and everyone wore plastic tubes in their noses.

Family Christian Stores didn’t sell those, of course. Maybe they should have.

Two Approaches

King Hezekiah made no bones about it: he too was not thinking much past his own generation. Having just escaped a literal death sentence, it seems to have moved him very little to hear the news that absolutely everything in Solomon’s temple and the city of Jerusalem was doomed to be carted off to Babylon by the decree of God, including some of his own royal descendants. “Well,” he thought, “at least it isn’t happening on MY watch.” The inevitable subtext: What happens later on is somebody else’s problem. You can’t fight City Hall and you definitely can’t fight the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Or something like that.

Contrast that with the apostle Paul, who unfolded to Timothy the gospel in the richness of all its theological implications and practical applications, and commanded him to do the same for others, so they too could do the same for others. The word of God must be transmitted faithfully and continuously throughout the coming generations. Had Timothy failed to follow Paul’s instructions, Christendom might today look very different indeed.

We are understandably reluctant to admit that a local church — once a going concern, a center of worship, a locus of solid Bible teaching, a hive of activity, a happy family of maturing saints, and a blazing testimony in its neighborhood — has had its day. We consider it a bit shameful, and sometimes maybe it is. Nobody wants to be accused of having the modern equivalent of a “Hezekiah mindset”: of taking little thought for the continuation of apostolic testimony and of being concerned only with how things are going today. If that is the way we think about the church of God, well, we ought to be ashamed. Most Christians don’t think that way, which is good.

But many Christians also don’t know when to quit. That’s less good.

Knowing When to Quit

What Paul told Timothy to pass on was not the name by which any particular group of Christians were addressed. There was no special magic in being part of the “church of God that is in Corinth” or the “church of the Thessalonians” or even in being one of the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae”. There may well be Christian churches today in those geographic locations (or perhaps not), but even if there are, we can be sure they do not trace any kind of linear descent back to apostolic days. That’s just not how the world works. You don’t get to say, “My local church is the fifth-oldest in the world” and have it mean anything good. The most venerable churches and denominations are often the most fatally compromised, if we’re very honest in our assessment. Names and geographic locations and especially the number of years the doors have been open are of very little concern to the Head of the Church, I suspect.

What matters is the men and the message. (By “men”, I also mean “women”, an interpretation the Greek anthropoi reasonably allows.) The important thing was that the people of God be faithful in character and make it their mission to pass on apostolic doctrine and practice wherever and whenever they had opportunity. True, that might be in Galatia or Corinth or Colossae. Equally, it might not. Those servants of Christ might be driven east, west, north or south. They might move on from their local fellowships for family or business reasons, but the thing they would be sure to do, if they were faithful, was to take that message with them wherever they went.

Passing It On

You know what? They did — or at least some of them anyway. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this today. Somehow that same message Timothy heard from Paul meandered its way to England where it bore fruit back in the 1800s. My grandfather heard it and bought in. He passed that same message on to his sons and daughter, and my own father did the same. On the other side of the Atlantic, to the best of my ability, I try to pass that very same message on to my own children. A whole bunch of local churches came and went in the course of that process, some more biblical and more faithful than others, but the Word itself just kept right on going.

To be fair to Hezekiah, there’s no real indication he saw the coming Babylonian captivity as the end of everything for his people. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Either way, it wasn’t. God preserved a remnant for himself, as he always does. These prospered in Babylon and later in Persia while many around them compromised, and later their children returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the ruins. The message continued despite the complete loss of every visible, outward sign of the worship of Jehovah. We know that, because the Gospels tell us of men and women waiting faithfully four centuries later for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. Through these, the Holy Spirit was still working in ways not dissimilar to those Paul recommended to Timothy.

Faithful to the Message

It is the Word that matters. We must be faithful to the message. That’s the best way to express our faithfulness and love to its Author. We should not confuse the visible means by which the gospel is communicated (which is all that our institutions, even at their best, can really aspire to be) with the content of our message, which is of infinitely greater importance and, if we look around the world, seems to be in no danger of losing its power or relevance.

Is your church on life support today? Well, hang on a moment, I’m not suggesting we slip a pillow over its face. That might be premature, not to mention presumptuous and downright dangerous. It’s not really “our” church after all; it belongs to its Head.

What we don’t need to be doing, though, is making excuses for attrition, or pretending what’s happening isn’t that dire or potentially final. What we don’t need to be doing is propping up a small but increasingly ineffective gathering simply because we find it comfortable, because we have a sentimental attachment to it, because we can’t face the unpleasantness of frankly discussing how to most usefully wind it up, or, God forbid, because we’re personally afraid of the spiritual challenges that might come with a move to a different local church. Some people prefer to be big fishes in small ponds even when the pond is drying up around them.

The message, as always, goes on, and if it is no longer going out on this corner or that, be sure it is being heard wherever faithful men and women are currently gathering.

Faithful to the message, that is, not just faithful to their favorite local good news agent.

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