Some time ago, Lavone and I were driving somewhere, not on the interstate, but on a two-lane highway through the countryside. We came up over a bluff and immediately before us we saw the most lovely country church. It struck us as a perfect model for those idyllic country church paintings you see from time to time. As we drew nearer, however, we were stunned to find it was not a church at all, though It had been once. Now the sign outside read, “Antiques!” From a distance it looked picture perfect. Up close it turned out to be a place to browse and buy old stuff (some would say, “junk”).
Once I was in Houston for a church leaders conference, and had an opportunity to interact with a number of colleagues and friends. We stayed at a nice hotel downtown, plush lobby, forty or fifty floors, and glass elevators to lift us to our rooms. After one session a friend and I walked to the elevator to return to our rooms. As we entered the elevator and the doors closed, we were having a stimulating conversation, sharing our concerns and joys. Our fellowship deepened and continued. Indeed, only after several minutes of animated dialogue, did we realized neither of us had pushed a button. There we were in the glass elevator, closed to all but us, having a delightful time together in the full view of Houston, but going absolutely nowhere. We were like too many churches: small, warm, exclusive clubs not moving in any direction in the full view of the world.
Here’s a third picture of “church.” I have never seen it literally but have experienced a comparable reality with painful regularity. Picture a “state of the art” surgical suite, thoroughly equipped with the latest technologies, machines, instruments, and with world renown surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and staff, kept in a state of preparedness 24/7. This is a picture of exactly what you hope to have should you ever need a serious surgical procedure. Now, however, consider this surreal discover: Over an extended length of time no patients in need of surgery enter the suite. Seriously, the only action comes occasionally when someone already in the suite discovers a hangnail or rash. Though neither condition requires surgery, plenty of “help” is at hand for them. The dedicated personnel of the surgical suite, with unparalleled expertise, maintains the scrubbed, sterile, amply equipped “healing” environment, but is never bothered by a patient.
Three pictures of the church we hope never to be, but which sometimes we are—churches with celebrated pasts but now functionally extinct; churches organized to meet the needs of its own with warm connection and such engaging insider-dynamics that no one notices the lack of direction and movement; and churches prepared and poised to bless their world with desperately needed expertise, resources, and experience but never doing so for whatever the reason.
To whatever extent our churches resemble these images, we must confess we have lost our way and stand in the most profound need of God’s mercy and grace. Having lost our bearings, we do not know which way is up or down, north or south. Further, even if we should learn our directions, we have no power to go anywhere or do anything. Compared to the stories of Acts, the great awakenings in history, and our own origins as a church, we are at best a dim shadow.
But here’s the good news: When God’s grace is sought and received, things change and people change. We change! Not change for the sake of change, but change into the likeness of Jesus, corporately as well as individually, so that the work of Jesus can be done in and around the buildings we sometimes wrongly call “church.” For we—not our buildings—are the church, destined to be the living, growing, expanding and multiplying People of God!
Every church can move to a place of deepened and awe-filled awareness of what God intends for his people, and for them. Then, all willing hearts can learn how to cooperate with God in love and power as God works among them and in their communities.
As I said, we should seriously consider changing churches!
More to follow, stay tuned.