My love affair with the church

As much as anyone you’ve ever met, I’m a product of the Church.

For some reason, the churches in my life revolve around the number three. I served six churches as pastor–three smaller ones and three larger ones–and in between, I logged three years as a staff member of a great church.

And, to carry out the theme, the churches that nurtured me from childhood through adolescence were three in number. Oddly, they were of different denominations, which may be one reason I’m more of a generic Christian than a denominational one.

The New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church of Nauvoo, Alabama has been our family’s church since the late 1800s. My grandparents joined that church in 1903, and my mother, in her 96th year now, is its senior member. Although “Oak Grove,” as we call it, sits 15 miles from any sizeable town, it will run a couple of hundred in attendance on Sundays and the buildings are all new and lovely. Mickey Crane has been its pastor for over 30 years. My mother thinks he’s one of her sons.

Remember how Paul remarked to Timothy that he had been nurtured in the faith by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (II Timothy 1:5)? My mother is Lois and my first Sunday School teacher was Eunice.

I have good underpinnings.

That church loved its children. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

As her mother before her had done with a houseful of children, Lois got her six young ones ready on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, we walked across the field and through the woods, a mile to the church. Among the blessings from that investment, God gave this good woman two sons for the ministry. Ron and I have logged nearly a hundred years of preaching between us.

The Methodist Church of the Affinity, West Virginia, mining camp.

Between my 7th and 11th years, we lived in a mining camp six miles out from Beckley, WV. There was one church, it was Methodist (before they added “United” to their name), and that’s where mom took us. (I wish I could say she was aided in this enterprise by our hardworking dad, Carl, but Mom did it alone.) We would get ready on Saturday nights and then on Sundays, we walked the half-mile off the mountaintop to the lovely white church in the valley.

That was a wonderful place for children, and the people were gracious. To this day, I recall singing number 100 in the old Methodist hymnal: “I love to tell the story.” I loved that hymn and have devoted my life to telling that story.

From age 11 through my high school years, we lived back in Alabama and attended Oak Grove.

West End Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

As a 19-year-old attending Birmingham-Southern College, I joined this wonderful (and large) Southern Baptist church a mile from the campus. The fellowship of its members became the gold standard by which I have measured all others since.

Even though the young people there had known each other all their lives, and those in college attended the Baptist school, Samford, and I was the only one from ‘Southern, a Methodist school, they received me as warmly and enthusiastically as though I had lived there all my life.

I blossomed in that church and grew spiritually as never before. In my three years there, I was baptized (I’d been saved at age 11 at Oak Grove, but never baptized), met my wife, was called to preach, married, and ordained.

Looking back across the years, I realize I caught that church at its crest. Never before and never again was it as wonderful and large, as united and focused, as it was in those years. This was, I dare to suggest, a God thing. Certainly for me it was.

I am a product of Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, that Methodist Church in West Virginia, and West End Baptist Church of Birmingham. Even though the latter two churches no longer exist, they continue their work in the world through me and quite a number of others who were reached and taught and sent forth by those churches.

Three scriptures taught me a great deal about churches and how they are to work.

Matthew 16:18.

“I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” –Jesus

Three things stand out here….

–It’s Jesus’ church. He is the Owner.

–Jesus will build the church. He is the Operator.

–Jesus promises the church will be victorious. He is the Overcomer.

Now, where the first two principles are observed and honored–Jesus is the Owner of the Church and as the Operator, He calls the shots–the last (Victory) is assured. However, when we take His place as Owner (“This is my church, preacher.”) and/or as Operator (“Don’t try telling us how to run our church, pastor.”), the victory is no longer assured.

Only when we do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way does He guarantee us victory.

Acts 20:28.

“Be on guard for yourselves,” Paul tells the elders/pastors of the Ephesus church, “and for all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Notice three things–

–He owns the church. He bought it with “His own blood.”

–He chooses the leaders. “The Holy Spirit makes the pastors the overseers” (episcopos = watching over).

I can just hear someone say, “I beg your pardon. We voted him in as pastor and we can vote him out.” That business of voting is based on a misconception. When, in response to a recommendation from the pastor search committee, you raise your hand to vote, it is not “do I want that man to be my pastor?” but rather, “What do I believe God has done here? Has God chosen this man as our leader?”

Dr. Bill Taylor, “Mr. Sunday School” for Southern Baptists, says we need the concept of “holy vacancies.” That means to leave an office or position vacant until the Lord raises up the person to fill it.

–The leaders are to “shepherd” the Lord’s church. I hear people say, “We are not to be keepers of the aquarium, but fishers of men.” That’s plenty cute, but dead wrong. We’re to be both. The Lord has no intention of leaving the flock to the mercy of the wolves, which is why the word “pastor” means “shepherd.”

Acts 9:4,5.

“You are persecuting me.” –Jesus to Saul of Tarsus in the confrontation of the ages.

Saul (who would later become the Apostle Paul) learned an important lesson that day, one which countless others to follow him seem to have misplaced: Whatever you do to the church, Jesus takes personally.

By hounding and arresting, by trying and executing, faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul was persecuting Jesus. That was an incredible revelation to him.

If you bless the church or any member of it, you bless the Lord. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you do it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Likewise, if you harass the church and put a stumblingblock in the way of any believer in Jesus, He pencils your name down in red on His appointment calendar. To the neglectful, Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did not do it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did not do it unto me” (Matthew 25:45).

Here, then are three great principles for the operation of the Lord’s church. These are foundational, bedrock, iron-clad, not up for a vote, and settled for all time.

1) Jesus Christ is the Owner and the Operator of the Church.

Therefore, we do well to take our hands off, to see our role as caretakers, as stewards, and when we come to do His work, to ask Him, “Lord, what do you want done with your church?”

2) Jesus Christ promises complete victory to the obedient and to no one else.

“The gates of hell shall not prevail against you” is not a blanket promise to anyone and everyone, but to those who honor Him in worship and obedience.

3) If we wish to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, we should honor His church. Whatever we do to the church, He takes personally.

The first discovery I made at the age of 11 after receiving Jesus into my heart was that I loved the church members. I recall floating out of church that night in love with everyone I saw.

Over the years, I’ve made the discovery on the reverse side of that coin too. When I am out of fellowship with the Lord, when I backslide, I no longer love the church but am critical of the people and negative toward its leaders.

My experience is the norm, I believe. After all, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love the brethren” (John 13:34-35).

My friend, it’s possible to love the church but not love Jesus.

However, it is impossible to love Jesus without loving His church.

An elderly lady had asked her son, a deacon in our church, to have me visit her. She had something to discuss with me. Since she was elderly and sickly, I thought perhaps she wanted to prepare to see the Lord.

I was right, but not the way I had expected.

“Pastor,” she said the next day as I visited in her home, “I know I’m saved. I have no question about that. But there’s something else bothering me.”

“Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

She told me how she’d gotten away from church as a young adult and never got started back. “I raised my son without the benefit of the church and really came to regret it.”

“And now, I’m old and sickly and can’t even go to church. But if you would let me, I’d like to put my membership in and pray for you all and send an offering from my little monthly check.”

I assured her we would be happy to receive her as a member, and the next Sunday we took her in in absentia, meaning she was unable to attend, but still a member.

At her funeral a couple of years later, I told that story. And I told how that on that day, as I drove back to the church office, I thought of what she had said–“I haven’t done right by the church”–and I asked myself, “Have I done right by the church?”

I’m asking you the same question today.

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