There are a ton of churches in my suburban town. The main route has a church on just about every corner. There is one from all the big denominations. They are grand old buildings. Great stone structures, as well as white clapboard, sided beauties that have hosted thousands of believers over the years. If you just walked down Main St and judged by the buildings it would look like the town is doing great in the Lord.
This is far from the truth though.
The majority of these lovely buildings are all but empty on a Sunday morning. Built in a different time for a much larger congregation, they are shells of their former selves. They may have a small handful of older folks who attend faithfully are all that is left of a once thriving community. They may be empty. It is worse in the major city nearby. There are great, empty church buildings crumbling into decay all over that city. There is no one there to even care about the structure much less attend the church. If they are lucky, the building gets sold and turned into a condo association.
A few churches that are still filled are perhaps in even worse shape. They have people but they are far, far away from what God called them to do. Where once they preached the Gospel boldly, they are now not much more than social clubs or political actions groups. They avoid all of the hard subjects like sin, death or sanctification. That would offend people and they need to keep up the buildings.
As I look around my town and see these churches slowly decline and fade away, it is so easy to get discouraged. What happened to these once Spirit filled congregations? There had to be something there once, right? Where did these churches go wrong?
Put simply, they stopped preaching Jesus and Him crucified as the center of their world.
They lost their mission in this world. They lost their passion for the Lord and replaced it with worldly concerns. They did the things that Paul warns the Galatians about 2000 years ago:
They replaced the Gospel of Jesus with many different gospels. It may have been the be a good person gospel, the fix the world gospel, the social justice gospel or the don’t offend anyone gospel – the main point is they replaced the Gospel with something else and suffered the results.
I ran across a really great illustration from Pastor David Guzik that highlights what took place:
Let every pulpit rightly say, “we preach Christ crucified!”
A strong church once inscribed these words on an archway leading to the churchyard. Over time, two things happened: the church lost its passion for Jesus and His gospel, and ivy began to grow on the archway.
The growth of the ivy, covering the message, showed the spiritual decline. Originally it said strongly, we preach Christ crucified. But as the ivy grew, one could only read we preach Christ, and the church also started preaching “Jesus the Great Man” and “Jesus the Moral Example” instead of Christ crucified.
The ivy kept growing, and one could soon only read, we preach. The church also had even lost Jesus in the message, preaching religious platitudes and social graces. Finally, one could only read we, and the church also just became another social gathering place, all about we and not about God.
We preach Christ crucified! It is a message so simple that even a child can understand it. It is a message so deep that we can spend a lifetime proclaiming it and still only scratch the surface.
It is the very power of God.
If it doesn’t believe the message, then no amount of sermonizing or fancy programs can help. It will wither away and decline. The world always has something more interesting to offer than dead powerless place holding religion.
If you explore my town a little further you will find a curious thing. Once you get past the great but sparsely attended churches that dot the main street you will find something interesting going on.
In schools, old catering halls, community centers and even old funeral homes you will find growing groups of believers who are on fire with the love of the Lord. They speak all different languages, can be rough around the edges and don’t have a huge national structure behind them. Their grand history goes back a year and they pay their rent month by month. There are no endowments involved but they worship the Lord with fervor. They love and believe on His Word. They preach His Gospel.
The Gospel may be in a simpler form than that given by the guy in the clerical robes with a Masters in Divinity, but they unapologetically believe it and proclaim with all their hearts. There is a big difference. It is the very power of God on display.
Benjamin Franklin used to love going to see the great evangelist George Whitfield preach. Franklin was a deist, someone who believed in a general idea of God, so him going to see a Christian preacher proclaiming Jesus was a curious thing to those around him. When asked, Franklin admitted that he did not believe what Whitfield was saying. He just loved watching him preach because it was obvious that Whitfield knew it was true. He believed it and it was wonderful to behold.
The real church is always these people. From George Whitfield to John who meets at the local Kiwanis Hall for church, they are Jesus’ sheep. They always hear His voice. They are growing even as some church buildings decay and fall.
The buildings never mattered anyway. Our Lord was born in a stable. I don’t think He cares much about the building.
So should I despair when the great churches of the past fall or are hollow imitations of what they once were? Sure, to some extent it is sad what has happened to once faithful churches. But the Church is always on the more than the building or a specific denomination.
The gates of hell have not come close to prevailing against God’s church and never will. God is not being defeated when old churches decline. He is just bringing in His harvest from a different area. The place where His power is on display is where His harvest will be.
It is all going according to God’s plan. Even when things look like they are falling apart they are just falling into place.
Do we trust Him?