My wife and I recently had the opportunity to spend a week at one of our National Parks. We reveled in being outdoors, surrounded by majestic landscapes. The scenery was breathtaking. Rugged peaks, sheer cliffs, alpine meadows, blue lakes, white glaciers and misting waterfalls met our delighted gaze on every hand. There seemed no end to multi-colored rocks, crystal-clear streams, delicate flowers, a wide variety of trees, berries and other plants. Then there was the fauna: multiple species of butterflies, buzzing insects, chipmunks, ground squirrels, woodpeckers, ptarmigans, deer and moose, not to mention grizzly bears. Added to the wonder were crisp breezes and clouds of fantastic shapes. And how does one describe the sound of vast watersheds? We were constantly threatened with sensory overload.
I normally don’t mention current events or politics on this blog. It’s my intention to foster contemplation about the church and other spiritual concerns, not partisan or party ideologies. However, I’m going to make an exception this time. The events transpiring in Afghanistan have hit me hard. You see, I lived there for six months during my teens. I traveled over much of the country as a young man. I’ve been through the Khyber pass more times than I can remember. Missionaries there were personal acquaintances and friends. I went to school with their children. I was involved in humanitarian relief efforts during the Soviet invasion and occupation of the 1980’s. I personally knew one of the members of the underground church who was tortured to death for his faith by one of the war-lords of that era. Our family helped sponsor Afghan refugees. So the Afghan people have been dear to my heart.
Just as there are many ways in which churches come into being, they can also die for different reasons. Here are the tales of two churches which died.
Case Study One
An older gentleman whom my father led to the Lord many years ago greeted me at a missions conference. “Have you heard about Rehmat?” he asked. Rehmat being the son of a village elder, now deceased. As I hadn’t heard any news about the village, let alone Rehmat, for a long time I was all ears.
“Rehmat left the Lord and converted.”
“That’s sad,” I murmured.
“No one visits the village any more,” the gent continued. “The believers don’t meet for worship and the roof of the church building has fallen in.”
Over the years there have been plenty of times when people challenged the things I’ve taught. Sometimes it’s due to a genuine difference in understanding of the Scriptures. Those discussions can be both fun and rewarding. I often learn from others who have a slightly different take on things than I do.
Less fun to deal with are the challenges from someone with an idealogical agenda. For example, a church leader once accused me of being legalistic because I dared to say on the basis of Hebrews 8, verse 5, that if God was adamant that Moses follow the pattern for the tabernacle he was shown on the mountain, we should be even more concerned about following the organization of the early church. I believe the Spirit had the Apostles set things up the way they did for a reason. The other leader, however, already had his mind made up to do something else. Since he couldn’t refute my argument, he lit into my character.
All of us who follow Christ realize that there are certain foundational, irreducible facts one must accept in order to be counted “in the faith” or not (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). To cite an obvious instance the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that, “...without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV) To put it another way, belief that God exists is not an option, it’s a requirement.
The Case of the Reluctant Leader
A friend once told me why he declined when asked to become an Elder in the church. He said it was because he lacked the first requirement. He didn’t desire to become one. He was referring, of course, to Paul’s statement in 1st Timothy 3:1, “...If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” (NIV) Other translations say, “...If anyone aspires to the office...” (ESV) or “...If a man desires the position...” (NKJ). Since my friend didn’t aspire to or desire to or have his heart set on becoming an Elder, he figured that put him out of the running.
In another of these ramblings I opined that telling a compelling story will often more than compensate for any “sins” of presentation. That is, if our story is good enough, people are willing to overlook “poor” writing, suspect grammar and stilted wording. I went on to suggest that we could improve our expository speaking and teaching by using elements of story in it. In my opinion, doing so would certainly make it a lot more interesting.
About the time I wrote that my wife and I had dinner with some long-time friends. During our conversation they mentioned that they missed hearing expository sermons. At the church they attend expository speaking is unknown – everything is topical.
I’ve recently come across three different congregations which are facing the same problem. All of them are located in small-town, rural America. All of them are relatively small. All of them have members who are quite affluent. All three have recently lost their preachers. The question is what to do about it.
In the case of church 1, the preacher died. He was very up-front about his preexisting disease when the church brought him on. If I heard correctly, he lived longer than the doctors expected but was only able to serve for a few years. In spite of his brief ministry, he was able to unite the church and restore its reputation in the community. Outreach he began is still being carried forward. He is deeply missed and remembered with fondness.
I stared in amazed consternation at the contents of the Communion tray. It contained those commercial Communion wafers – the kind that look like, have the consistency of and taste like recycled Styrofoam.
After the service I asked the missionaries who were hosting me about it. The wife explained: “The preacher asks us to bring them in from the States for him.”
“But why?! Why not use local ingredients? Communion bread is easy enough to make.”
“Well, the preacher insists on preparing Communion himself each week. There’s no way he could make the bread.”
“It seems to me,” I said, “that preparing Communion would be something to delegate. It would be an excellent way to get others involved in ministry.”
“Oh, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to do it. The problem is the preacher won’t give anyone a key to the building.”
We often don't realized just how blest we are until we remember the "Good Old Days!" I wrote the following tale back in 1992. As you shall see, communication was not as simple back then as it is now.
THE MYTH OF THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
I'LL SELL YOU A HOMOGENIZED MODEM
(If I like your face!)
I try hard not to be cynical. I really do. But every time I read an article that claims that a computer user can now exchange data with everyone else in the world, I tend to wonder which cloud the author's head is in. Perhaps their definition of the world is different than what "the rest of us" have to deal with. To be fair, maybe you can communicate to anyplace in the world if you are a Fortune Five Hundred company or you have mega-bucks to fling at the problem. However, the outfit I work for doesn't qualify on either count - and herein lies a tale of what trying to communicate with the rest of the world is really like.