Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.
In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were the principal leaders of something called the Great Awakening. The Holy Spirit moved with might and power in the American colonies with thousands coming to an assurance of their salvation and many more finding their faith strengthened and renewed. In the early 20th century there was another great revival in Wales. And there are many more we could name. These mighty works occur when the Church of Jesus Christ has fallen into a spiritual stagnation, a time when we go through the motions but we don’t live the faith. Friends, the Body of Christ in this country is now in just such a state.
Many people share my view of the situation, some are even trying to do something about it. But few are doing the things that have led to widespread revivals in the past. Too many believe that marketing techniques and entertainment oriented worship services will make the Church grow, and if it grows it will necessarily be revived. But revival is not about crowds. Revival is not about how we make people feel for an hour on Sunday morning. Revival is not about any of things the people who are focused on church growth are doing. Revival is about changing lives.
God used Jonathan Edwards, a thorough going 5 point Calvinist, to lead the Great Awakening in New England by preaching both Law and Gospel in their purity. It wasn’t through gimmicks and meeting the “felt needs” of the public that there was such a mighty movement of the Spirit there. No, friends, it was the proper preaching of the full counsel of God.
I told my confirmation class last week that if they ever hear someone get into a pulpit and preach, but omit the proclamation of the Gospel, they may have heard a good talk, but they did not hear a proper sermon. The job of a preacher in the pulpit is not to tell people how to make their marriages better or raise their kids better or any number of other good things that might be said. Such things belong in a Bible study, not a sermon. The sermon is the public proclamation of the Good News that sinners like us don’t have to go to hell because Christ Himself bore the punishment for their sins on the Cross at Calvary.
When people hear the pure Gospel and the Holy Spirit changes their hearts, that’s when lives are changed. That’s when renewal appears in a spiritually sluggish church. We don’t need gimmicks, we need the Gospel.
It’s time for a sleeping church to wake up. It’s time for pastors to return to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. It’s time, friends, time to rise and shine.
The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. Now there is some wisdom in that statement. An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future. And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future. God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.
Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced. As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s been true in my life also. I was raised in the church and taught its importance. But then I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell. But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway. Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.
The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday. There have been times of success and times of failure. Times of growth and times of decline. There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving. The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely. A lot of things can happen in 191 years.
I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons. My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century. We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery. Looking back will teach us something. It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.
In my reading this past week I came across a rather long quotation from the 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I won’t give it to you in its entirety, but I think it’s worth pondering, especially for those of us who are called to preach the Word in God’s Church.
Spurgeon noted that even in the 1880’s people were writing books and articles defending the Gospel against those who would bring it into disrepute. He allowed as how that was probably a good and needed thing, but he also noted that when the Gospel needed defending it was because the Gospel was not being preached as it should.
Then he drew this analogy–it would be as if you had a lion in a cage and you were worried about the fate of the lion against its enemies so you were calling in soldiers to defend the lion. Spurgeon noted that it was likely that the best way to defend the lion was to allow it to defend itself. In other words, let the lion out of its cage. And so he said the best way to defend the Gospel is to let the lion out.
In far too many churches the lion is kept in a cage with a sign above it that says “Assumed”. Too many preachers believe that the people in front of them know and believe the Gospel so they spend their time in the pulpit talking about things like how to have a good marriage, or how to avoid sin, or how to raise faithful children. They preach about everything except Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. They ignore the fact that St. Paul, after his relative failure in Athens where he proclaimed Christ in a rather philosophical way, came to Corinth determined, he says, to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
No one should ever assume that people know the Gospel and believe it, nor should we assume that they don’t long to hear it proclaimed every time someone is in the pulpit.
Just let the lion out–He’ll take care of Himself.
I have a granddaughter. Her name is Katelyn and she is my only grandchild, so I dote on her quite a bit. It’s my responsibility, don’t you know. Parents discipline and instruct, grandparent’s dote. It’s the way of things.
Now I’m going to brag just a bit about Katelyn–she got straight A’s at school during the first marking period of her freshman year in high school. So I’m really proud of her. On the other hand, if she had received a bunch of D’s I would have still been proud of her–not because of what she had done, but because of who she is. You see I don’t love my granddaughter because she is the best high school freshman–I love her because she is my granddaughter.
It’s similar to the way God loves His chosen people. He doesn’t love us because we’re good or smart or because we achieve great things. He loves us because we are, because we exist, and He has chosen to love us, even though we’re not very lovable when you weigh us on the scales of righteousness or obedience.
St. John says that God is love. And that is true, even if we often misunderstand what John meant when he wrote those words. God created us so that He might love us. We exist to be the object of His divine affection. We are created so He can love us the way the Trinity has experienced love within Himself. The Father has always loved the Son who has always loved the Father who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Son who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Father. [I came by this understanding by reading Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor]. So God has chosen to share this love outside the Trinity and we receive it as a gift–an undeserved gift.
The next time you look at someone you love, just because you love them, I hope you’re reminded that the God of the universe loves you too–just because you are you.
I’m sitting here in my office right now waiting–waiting for a concert we’re going to have at church tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for a couple of months. It’s by a group called the Haining Family out of Branson, MO. We first heard them at our AFLC national conference this year. At the moment I’m praying for good attendance and spiritual benefits for the people who come tonight.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not real good with waiting. Once I’ve decided on something or once I’ve been told that something will happen, well, I want to get on with it. Patience is a virtue, but it is occasionally illusive for me. From a lifetime of watching people, I know that I’m not the only impatient person in the world–it’s a widely shared trait.
Lots of people are that way about waiting for the Jesus’ return too. If you’re one of those folks who would be really happy if He came tomorrow morning–well I’m with you. In the first years after the Lord’s Ascension there were evidently many people who believed His coming would happen any day. They looked for it every morning when they woke up. Some were so eager that they actually stopped working and just, as we say today, hung around, causing the Apostle Paul to say that if they didn’t want to work–well, they didn’t get to eat.
I can’t say I’ve seen that today, but we do get a lot of folks who seemed entranced with “signs” that portend the Lord’s immanent return. The latest one seems to be something about a “black moon” coming in about 20 years. (I had never heard of it either). But Jesus told us that it was not ours to know when the day of the time would be. We just have to live our lives as His faithful people and trust that when it is just the right time God will act. Lots of people awaited a Messiah for generations, looking here and there. But Jesus didn’t come until just the right time.
So the question becomes–do we trust God enough to just wait? Or will we waste our time with schedules and signs and calculations that confuse the faithful and embarrass the Church before the world?
I’m not real good with waiting–but I’m going to trust that God will do what He wants when the time is complete. In the meantime, we all have lives to live and work to do–after all the Gospel is always going to be Good News.
I am fond of bluegrass music. We are very lucky in this part of the country to have the premier bluegrass radio station, WAMU, just down the road in Washington DC. Now their signal is not strong enough to carry the 75-80 miles across 2 mountains to my home. So they have a system which are called boosters and repeaters. In other words, there are electronic that pick up the signal they send out of Washington, boost the signal and send it on to those of us who live in the country. Were it not for the boosters and repeaters we could not pick up that station.
Now I’m sure it’s not the best analogy I could come up with, but I think it fits–you and I are the boosters and repeaters for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago Christ did His work on this earth, He bore upon His holy shoulders the penalty for the sins we commit. His followers, the Apostles and their associates spread that news throughout the Mediterranean world. They told what they had seen and heard with their own senses. But all of them died and what we have left are their written witness.
Not everyone reads the written witness of these men on their own. In fact, St. Paul goes so far as to tell us that we come to believe because of what we hear. It is the living witness of living people to other living people that spread the Gospel throughout the world today. And we should do that, not by giving our opinions or our takes on things, but by repeating what the Apostles themselves told us .
As witnesses to the Good News of Christ’s sacrifice for us we have nothing new to tell anyone. What we have is the tried and true message that, as Jude says, was handed down once for all. So rather than trying to find new ways to pass on what we know, changing or omitting or adding things to make them “relevant” we would do much better to stick to the ways that we have inherited from the giants upon whose shoulders we now perch.