If I were the devil and wanted to damage the cause of Jesus Christ on earth, I would set myself to dividing Christians–separating believers from their congregations and erecting barriers between churches. Make them all independent. Convince them they don’t need others, that they are able to go it alone. Sow seeds of mistrust, play on their fears that they lose something when they cooperate.
If I were the devil and wanted to separate believers, I could chalk it up as ‘done’ and go on home. We are separate already. But the devil did not do it; we did this to ourselves.
We prize our independence. We prefer the solitary life. No one tells me what to do. I am in control. I don’t like the give and take of working with others. This way there’s no yielding, no submission, no humbling before others because there are no others in our little world. Each of us becomes a cosmos unto ourselves.
I am immensely burdened for weak Christians and weak churches I see all around.
The problem, in many cases, is they do not know they are weak, because they’ve always been this way and everyone they know is in the same boat. They limp along rendering a little service to the Lord Jesus Christ and content themselves that misery is to be expected if one would live for God in this world, that not reaching the lost is the norm, that shallow sermons and boring lessons meet the standard, that running behind the budget is universal, that worship is a drudge, fellowship a waste of time, and service a pain.
My Oklahoma friend Alan Day describes such sorry Christianity this way:
There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played;
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.
And when he one day passed away
His insurance was denied;
For since he never really lived
They claim he never died.
Alan heard a veteran preacher describe the typical church as mild-mannered members listening to mild-mannered preachers delivering mild-mannered sermons on how to be more mild-mannered.
There may be a hundred facets to this kind of pathetic Christianity, but my diagnosis is that at the bottom, the problem is separateness. Isolation. Christians living apart from the congregation of believers, and churches existing in their own little cocoon without any real contact with other congregations. We struggle along, content in our discontent, wishing there were a better way, but just as certain there isn’t one.
The smallest association of Baptist churches in Louisiana resides in Plaquemines Parish, that skinny stretch of land along both sides of the Mississippi River as it drops toward the Gulf of Mexico. Strung out along seventy miles of land, we have only five Baptist churches–none of them large, all working hard to have viable ministries in a difficult culture, each one ten or fifteen miles apart.
“Our young people are not here tonight,” said Pastor Lee Hughart of City Price Baptist Church in the tiny community of Diamond. “Once a month, the youth of all our churches get together. They’ve formed themselves into a choir. They practice and fellowship and sing around the area.” He paused and said, “There must be 30 or 40 in their group now.” That’s a good youth choir anywhere.
We were attending the annual Fall meeting of the Plaquemines Baptist Association. As Director of Missions for the Baptists of metro New Orleans, part of my assignment is that association. I drive anywhere from 60 to 100 miles to their meetings. Thirty or forty people had gathered this Sunday night at City Price Church.
Earlier that evening, a committee had met to plan their involvement in the Orange Festival which will be held December 4-5 down the road at Fort Jackson, a parish-owned Civil War site where Pastor Hughart works as assistant curator. People from up and down the river will converge on the festival that weekend, with our people working to establish a visible presence and a ministry. They will erect our association’s tent and serve gumbo, singing groups will entertain, I’ll be there with my sketch pad to draw people, and we hope the leaders will allow us to hold a worship service. Each year, a priest comes in for a Catholic mass, but so far, to my knowledge, no Protestant group has been allowed the same privilege.
The Baptists there are outnumbered, and have little pull with the parish officials, but they stick together and they persevere. I want to use them as a model for the Baptists of New Orleans.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
I made a discovery one day while chatting with my longtime pastor neighbor, the late Buford Easley. We had had an unusually fruitful service the previous Sunday, with a great crowd, a number of new members, and a large offering. As we chatted, Buford said, “Boy, we’ve been having some wonderful services lately. We’re bringing in extra chairs, people are joining the church, and the offerings have been great.”
Suddenly I remembered a similar conversation I had had with another local minister a year earlier. My church was hurting financially, we were discussing where to cut expenses, and some of our leaders were looking around for someone to blame. Out of the blue the other pastor said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with us. We’re way behind in our giving and having to cut expenses and my people are complaining.”
Our churches were having identical experiences. When one was up, the others were. When one was down, the others were down. But since we did not know we were part of a trend that was affecting all of us, we tended to take everything personally. Good attendance and great contributions meant we were doing well and the people were faithful, God was blessing. Sagging attendance and poor offerings could only mean our members were unhappy with their leadership and people were unfaithful.
It turned out we were wrong on both counts. Other forces were at work affecting attendance and the offerings and other aspects of church life.
We did not know this because we never talked to each other. We assumed every other church was doing great and we were the only one suffering. Or that we were outdoing the others.
The Christian who cuts himself off from his church will soon lose the standard. He will award himself A’s on the various aspects of his life because the norm no longer exists in his world. Therefore, he contents himself he’s doing well. When he gets blindsided by disease or death or other disasters, he has no strength and no resources and lapses into despair.
The church that isolates itself from others soon turns inward. It cares about nothing so much as meeting its own members’ needs and keeping them satisfied. The cries of the outsiders are heard no longer, and the churches down the street or across town lose their status as beloved brothers or sisters and become competitors to be shunned.
The big church toils to fill its members’ lives with activities seven days a week in order to keep them so busy they won’t have time to ask whether it means anything. If they do their work well, they bleed off members from the little churches and salve their conscience that, “Well, they weren’t doing anything down there anyway.” But who’s to say? And who’s to say what they are doing now in Megachurch is more significant than the work they rendered in the small congregation?
At this point I’m not sure how to tear down the walls between churches. I just know we have to do it. Preachers need to get together, not for bragging purposes, but to hear each other, to share their joys and their heartaches, to encourage and exhort each other. The youth of the churches need to come together, as do the seniors and the finance committees and the women.
We must see we are not alone, that the family of the Lord is bigger than we ever imagined.
I tell our pastors that God will never send a great Holy Spirit revival to New Orleans until His people get together. And if we cannot even get the Baptists to work together, you can forget about us reaching across denominational lines.
In Illinois, Pastor Mike Keppler of the Springfield Southern Baptist Church tells me their association is discovering ways to “cluster” churches. Three or four churches come together for leadership training, perhaps to sponsor a new congregation, and mentoring. “We’re still learning how it’s done at the moment,” he says, “so don’t use us as your example just yet.”
I’m pointing to them as an example of some people who’ve started to work on the problem. And that, in my book, puts them light years ahead of most of us.
If we ever get our churches and our people together, three things are going to have to occur:
1) The pastors are going to have to give the churches back to Jesus. It’s His church and He wants it back!
2) Pastors are going to have to give their ministries back to Jesus. Quit keeping your own records, promoting your own career, and let Him handle it.
3) Churches are going to have to give their fears back to the Jesus. If you come together and a few members of your congregation decide to join the church down the road, so what. It’s the Lord’s business, not yours. Let the Lord rule over the church; it’s His body, put Him in charge.
A revolutionary thought, isn’t it.
That’s the starting place. I’m still looking for where we go from here.
Any ideas? I’d love to hear yours.