My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” —Ps. 42:3
Most adults today have witnessed the spectacle of churches divided and defeated by confusion and sin. Or perhaps they have seen a group shriveled, struggling, almost lifeless, and yet clinging to a schedule of activities. But I wish to focus briefly on the “strong” and “vibrant” churches. One of this type I once led in what turned out to be a most silent meeting.
That period of shocked quiet came about when I asked how many individuals the entire congregation had brought to Christ. About one hundred persons were present at the prayer service where this took place. Not one reply could I get from them.
Finally, I called to the deacon seated in the front row. “Would you say that together the members perhaps have led five to Christ?” (I had already made it clear that I was not referring to decisions made as a result of the church services or programs within the walls of the buildings; rather, I was referring to their ineffective witness to the outside community.)
“If you want to be generous, then let’s say five,” he finally responded, shaking his head, eyes cast downward in a display of shame. Then I invited him to step to the blackboard at the front. Addressing the assembly, I asked how many had been believers from between 40 and 50 years. Four hands were raised. This number had held to faith in Christ on an average of 45 years each, I figured, so I instructed the good deacon to multiply 4 × 45 and write the total number of years on the board.
Next I asked all those who had lived in the faith from between 30 and 40 years to raise their hands. A larger group responded. Then the deacon multiplied that number of persons times the average of 35 years and put the total on the board.
An even larger number indicated they had believed in Christ from between 20 and 30 years. Their total years also was listed. This procedure was continued until we had also included the several who were converted during the past year.
All were counted and the grand total written at the bottom of the list. It added to 1,013 years (a number I shall never forget!), and I made a poignant, though admittedly rather biting, observation: “In a little more than 1,000 years of combined effort, we have reached five souls. If our Lord does not return first and we are able to invest another millennium of effort, we shall have ten. What a revival!” That is when the silence came. No one moved or spoke for a long while. You could hear yourself breathe.
Another church, counted as highly successful, takes in more new members in a single year than make up their entire Wednesday night prayer service attendance. Something is wrong there. Not growing and maybe dying is their condition.
For some years I have been asking pastors, active church leaders, and students what conception they have of their church. They are asked to make an outline of the church program. Usually the papers come in with a list of familiar institutions something like this:
- Public services
- Sunday School
- Small groups
This view of the church may be common, but it is inadequate, if not fatal. What the Bible does not mention as essential is given the main emphasis. Perhaps a diagram will help.
Let me explain the above illustration. We must subordinate our traditional institutions to those ministries clearly defined in Scripture. Thus, when God says in the Bible that believers ought to build up one another and to extend the church through evangelism, then those ministries (discipling and evangelism) are to be our main objectives. Any program raised up should be aimed at carrying out the biblically assigned objectives.
For example, the Sunday School is a fine institution—especially when there is serious Bible teaching and effort to deal with the hearts of people. However, it is a mistake to conceive of teaching and evangelizing as only a means of building up the Sunday School. It must be the other way around. Our Sunday Schools, if they are to exist, must do so in order to carry out God’s mandates of edification and evangelism.
The trouble is, we have made our services, activities, and organizations the grand end. And the sacred ministries that God makes essential are now viewed simply as the means to build up and sustain our institutions.
Many of our organizations and activities today are not so much as named in the Bible. That fact, however, does not make them bad—not if they can be used to carry on the God-ordained ministries assigned to us in Scripture.
Our individual lives and the total programs and life of the church must be subordinated to what God makes essential. Those programs that forward the great ministries of the Spirit are good. Others may be a hindrance. None must occupy positions as grand goals for church life. Our traditions and institutions, if they are to be blessed of God, must prove themselves as legitimate, effective means toward divine ends. And we know from Scripture what the ends are to be.
Youth ministry, Sunday School, or missionary programs are not the urgent causes for which the church exists. Rather, these ministries and programs are the means of accomplishing God’s assigned tasks. Once viewed wrongly as a “great cause” for which we are to give our life and funds, the program is institutionalized and tends to elevate itself as a special end. Ultimately the church will be viewed as subordinate to the claims of its institutions.
Perhaps large questions loom before the mind at this point. How does one get from where we are now to where we should be? What can a pastor do against a tide of faulty tradition? Or still more daunting, what if I am not a top leader in my church—what can I do?
There is something you can do. But you must have the basic principles of church life fixed definitely in your mind. And you will need a plan of fostering that kind of life from your own vantage point.
Soon, we will focus on moving toward a vital church fellowship. This may require some change in structure so as to make the local church more biblical and also strong enough to affect and stir today’s society.
Beyond all this, we will see how to make church meetings truly alive and edifying. Then we will see how to get daily teaching out into the home, and finally how to spread the life of the church throughout the community and into other nations. Underlying all of this will be a specific plan for stimulating individual edification among members of the local church.
(Taken from my book, “Healing for the Church,” available for order here.)