When the church exists for itself

How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? (Romans 10:14).

I live in a gated community of 25 homes.

This little neighborhood is surrounded by a high fence and entered through a gate which requires either a remote sensor or a code.  Homeowners pay a monthly fee to cover upkeep on the grounds and streets and a few services.  We rarely see anyone in this little ghetto other than residents and service people.

Therein lies the metaphor.

At Christmastime, as Bertha and I were placing decorations on the outside of the home, I mentioned that since we live in a cove–a tiny cul-de-sac among five other homes–almost no one will see the wreaths and lights and greenery. “We will see it,” she said. And I agreed. That, I expect, is why most people erect a Christmas tree in the first place. For themselves.

Churches do this, to their shame. They do programs and ministries which no one will ever partake of except themselves.  They plan elaborate pageants and oratorios and cantatas and wild game suppers and marriage retreats, and then fail to tell anyone other than the immediate family.

Then they wonder why so many pews went unfilled and the response to their evangelistic invitations was so tiny.

How will they respond to something they don’t know about?

We justify and excuse this in a hundred ways: Our job is to provide the program; let others handle the publicity.  We bought an ad in the local paper.  The television station did a feature on this (last year, or was it the year before?).  People know we’re here.  We put it on the sign in front of the church.  If they want it, they’ll come.

None of this washes, of course.  They are all flimsy excuses for not doing the most basic of all our assignments; ‘Tell the people.”

Our Lord said to the man previously known as the Gadarene demoniac, “Go home and tell your people what great things the Lord has done for you and how He had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Bertha Smith once wrote a book on the great Shantung revival of China which she titled, “Go Home and Tell,” the title taken from that text. The book was and is a classic.

Churches justify the huge disproportion of the budget spent on themselves by saying “it’s important to keep the home base strong.”  We answer, “For what?  If we’re not going to send out missionaries, if we’re not going to go out and reach our community and bring in the unchurched, why do we need the home base to be strong?”

The Lord is not pleased, and has been known to take matters into His own hands.

I suspect the Jerusalem church was in danger of existing just for itself. They certainly showed no evidence of “going into all the world to preach the gospel,” as each of the four gospels and Acts 1 record our Lord commanding.

So, the Lord decided to scatter them.  “On that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1).

Then we read, “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.  But there were some… who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also…” (Acts 11:19-20).

The persecution scattered believers.  The believers shared the gospel wherever they went. And thus the Gentiles received the good news also.  Out of that church in Antioch, the Lord soon called Barnabas and Saul as the first missionaries (Acts 13:1ff).

In Heaven, those who paid the ultimate price in the persecution will be amply rewarded, a promise we may take to the bank.  “They will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14), said our Lord.

Throughout the history of the church, persecution sometimes turned out to be a wonderful way of scattering believers and motivating them to share the gospel.  It’s painful of course, and no one would dare pray for such.  But it has happened, and from eternity’s viewpoint, the pain was worth the product.

Back to the gated community…

A couple of weeks after we married, Bertha and I sent out invitations to the neighbors in this complex inviting them to an open house.  We want to meet our neighbors, we said.  They came, we’re glad to report.  And we had a wonderful afternoon, followed by a dinner at a local restaurant with two of the couples.

We have good scriptural precedent for our open house, if one should be needed.  When Matthew, also called Levi, met Jesus, that same evening he brought his friends and colleagues in the tax collection business together for a dinner with the Lord (Matthew 9:9ff).

Whatever it takes, and whatever form the invitations take, let us tell others about our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ.  And let us start with family and friends.

And lest anyone should wonder…

It is important that the church minister to its members. Throughout the gospels and the epistles, God’s people are commanded to minister to “one another.”  Dan Crawford and Al Meredith wrote a book called “One Anothering,” in which they pulled out 31 such statements from the New Testament in which believers are instructed to care for one another.  These commands include…

…praying for one another, washing the feet of each other, loving one another, and being members of one another.  Also devotion, honor, not judging, being of the same mind, and receiving one another.  Admonish, greet, wait, care, serve, not bite or devour, not provoke, not envy, bear burdens and bear with one another.

So, it’s not either/or but both/and.

The church has been so out of balance on this for generations that we are now paying the piper in terms of declining numbers and waning influence of the church near and far.

Time to open the gate and get outside.






2 thoughts on “When the church exists for itself

  1. I totally agree with you about many churches focusing on themselves. Outreach efforts seem token, at best.
    (A lawn sign announcing a praxis class is just going to be flooded by unchurched people – not!)
    (A website designed to inform the congregation instead of providing info to “google-rs.”)
    However, I do have one question:
    How does buying a house in a gated community (especially such a small community) help to put you and your family in a position to be available and open to the world and thus have an impact in expanding the Kingdom?
    Yes, what about opening that gate?

      1. Friend, I hope you see this. How does my buying a house put me in a position to be available to ministering to people? First, my wife and I turn 77 this year, and this is the first time in our lives we’ve done such a thing. She and her husband of 52+ years were missionaries to Malawi and Brazil, which “put them in a position to be available to minister to the world.” I pastored 6 churches over 42 years and led the SBC churches of New Orleans in their Katrina rebuilding, so I think I can safely say we have not shut ourselves off from anything. And now, we are traveling–over a thousand miles in the last week to preach–and we are reaching out to the neighbors in this gated community. — Have a good day.

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