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The Church AwakeningAn Urgent Call for Renewal
By Swindoll, Charles R.
FaithWordsCopyright © 2010 Swindoll, Charles R.
All right reserved.
The Church: Let’s Start Here
The world is waiting to hear an authentic voice, a voice from God—not an echo of what others are doing and saying, but an authentic voice.
—A. W. Tozer
My fondest memories as a boy go back to the summer vacations and family reunions at my maternal grandfather’s cottage in south Texas. The small, four-room cabin named Bide-a-wee overlooked Carancahua Bay, near Palacios, Texas, on the edge of Matagorda Bay, leading into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a sleepy little spot where the air smelled like salt and shrimp 24/7.
The cottage sat back about a hundred yards from a small cliff that dropped off toward the muddy bay waters. My grandfather had carved out a narrow path that wormed its way down to a boathouse where he kept a small motorboat. I am confident he had no idea how much his towheaded grandson named Charles loved to drive the ten-horsepower Johnson all over Carancahua Bay. We would swim in the bay, seine for shrimp early in the morning, go out fishing for speckled trout and redfish during the day, and wade the shoreline in old sneakers floundering at night. Wonderful memories, all!
I remember one day when I was about ten years old. My grandfather took me outside and said, “Every year this cliff drops off a little and wears away; I want to show you.” He used a big word I had never heard before: erosion. We walked some distance from the edge, and he measured the space from that point to where the cliff dropped off down to the water. He drove a stake into the ground to mark the spot. “You’re going to be here next summer,” he told me, “and we’ll measure this again then.”
When I came back the next summer, there had been two powerful Gulf Coast hurricanes, several superhigh tides, and rough waters the previous year. I ran to the cliff and measured back to our stake. Eight inches were gone. All that dirt and grass had disappeared! I would never have noticed it if we had not secured a stake in the ground and measured it. The next year he wrote to me and said, “Twelve more inches eroded this year.” I would love to go back and see the old place today. It’s possible that by now the cottage itself has washed away.
Webster defines erode in simple terms: “To diminish or destroy by degrees.… To eat into or away by slow destruction of substance.… To cause to deteriorate or disappear.” Over the years, I have discovered three simple truths about erosion, all of which parallel Webster’s description. Rather than occurring rapidly, erosion is always slow. Instead of drawing attention to itself, erosion is always silent. And in place of being obvious, erosion is always subtle.
The slow, silent, and subtle effects of erosion are not only a concern to us physically, they are an even greater concern spiritually. F. B. Meyer, British pastor of yesteryear, put it this way: “No man suddenly becomes base.” Spiritual erosion occurs, instead, “by degrees… by slow destruction.” It can happen in individuals… and it can certainly happen in a church.
A close friend recently visited a local church that stemmed from a denomination with deep, centuries-old roots in conservative theology. Those who originated the denomination loved the Scriptures, proclaimed the Word of God, and aligned their lives with its truths. In fact, their peers laughed at them for being so “narrow-minded.” These individuals never planned to start a denomination, and yet their lives sparked a movement that swept the land of England and eventually made its way across the Atlantic into America. However, as my friend and his wife sat in the church that morning with several hundred other people, they noticed that only the two of them and one other person had brought a Bible. Erosion was taking its toll. The denomination’s drift from its sturdy theological roots did not occur in two months, or two years, or even two decades. Instead, it was on a slow, silent, and subtle slide. Given enough time, the denomination will hardly resemble or even remember its original convictions.
C. S. Lewis, in his cleverly written work The Screwtape Letters, wrote, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Two words from Lewis’s pen stand out: without milestones. For the church to awaken from its long drift, we need milestones. A milestone reveals one of two things: it can reveal how far we’ve come in accomplishment—and give cause for celebration—or it can expose how far we’ve drifted—and urge us to turn around. Like that stake my grandfather drove into the ground, a milestone represents a point where we take an objective measurement. We stop, look back, and recall why we began the journey in the first place. We need to remember and restate our original objectives, then ask, “Are those goals still ours? Are we on target?”
We need places in our journey where we force ourselves to pause and evaluate whether or not a drift is taking place. Why? Because a church without milestones will drift. And like erosion, we will not see it occurring if we don’t look for it.
Milestones: Looking at a Church… and Remembering
In marriage, anniversaries are great occasions for reflection and evaluation. They are like cyclical milestones that give a husband and wife an opportunity to look back where they’ve been, to look within to see where they are, and then to look ahead to determine where they’re going—all examined and evaluated against the vows stated at the altar. The passing of time neither changes nor erases the vows. The years bring challenges and introduce struggles, but those vows stand firm. They are like marital milestones.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church milestones lately. The church where I currently serve as senior pastor, Stonebriar Community Church, celebrated its tenth anniversary in October 2008. As churches go, we’re not an old church. If you tell someone in Europe that your church is ten years old, you’ll see a smile. Why? Most of the European churches are so old they’re celebrating their two-hundredth anniversaries. In fact, some date back to the Middle Ages! Our church is young, but you can’t tell by looking. In the last ten years we have had tremendous growth… and that’s great! All of us are grateful for the rapid growth, where people of all ages and stages in life have joined ranks with us. But something else has occurred in the last decade: erosion. Let me explain.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Lord clearly guided me to Dallas Theological Seminary to be a part of its leadership team. I had never led a seminary, and I had difficulty seeing myself as a president. I simply came as what I was—a leader, a pastor, and a shepherd. (I had been with sheep so long I even smelled like sheep!) And so, naturally, I planned to return to pastor a church at some future date. The chairman of the board asked me, “Would you be willing to give us your full attention at least these first two or three years, without starting a church?” I promised them I would—in fact, I served in that role seven full years. But during those years I continued to have a burning desire to be preaching and teaching the Word of God as a local pastor. I just didn’t know where or how the Lord would bring it about.
Let me assure you, as God began to open that door, I didn’t hear a voice from heaven. I didn’t see skywriting or have night visions, nor did I see Jesus’ face in a taco. I just sensed deep within that God was leading me to begin preaching on a regular basis… and to trust Him to lead. So one day I said to my wife, Cynthia, “Let’s start a Bible class—just a small gathering of people. I really have a passion to be preaching again.” She said, “That’s great. I’m for it!”
Word got out regarding this class through our radio ministry, Insight for Living, and at the first meeting we held at a local country club, to my shock, three hundred people showed up! The next week we doubled in size and had to open all the accordion doors to the room where we met.
I remember asking one guy, “Do we know what we’re doing?”
He said, “I have no idea, but you’re here, so let’s go!” (What he didn’t realize was I didn’t know either!)
After the third week, the country club told us we could not keep meeting there if we kept expanding. I’m told that ours was the fastest-growing church in America. I didn’t know that at the time, and if I had known it, I wouldn’t have believed it. This idea was already growing faster and going far beyond what I expected. We didn’t have a church start-up in mind to begin with, just a Bible class. But God had different plans. Big surprise, huh? God had a plan that outstretched anything I would have ever dreamed possible. What else is new?
During this time our radio ministry was still located in Southern California. Cynthia and I would commute back and forth to Dallas, where I led the seminary during the week, including several significant changes and accomplishing a major fund-raising campaign. I also preached on Sundays at our growing body of believers, which by then had officially become a church. By now the congregation was meeting at a community college and numbered a little over a thousand people. I also continued my writing ministry. I mention all of this to help you get the picture. While my heart was full, and while I loved all I was doing, my plate was also full. Very full. Too full. And all the while, our “little church” kept growing… and growing… and growing!
Let me illustrate what it felt like as our church approached its tenth anniversary. It was like a young couple who have been married for ten years, but they have fifteen children! How could that be possible? A year after marriage they have a set of twins, and two years later, triplets. The following year, out of compassion, they adopt four children from other countries. That totals nine kids. Two weeks later she discovers she’s pregnant again—with triplets! So she locks him out of the bedroom, telling him not to come back in until he gets a vasectomy. He gets the surgery, but it fails, and she’s now expecting triplets once again. If I figure correctly, that totals fifteen. I should also mention she’s homeschooling the kids, and they are still living in the same house as when they first got married. That was Stonebriar Community Church!
Let me take this illustration a step further. As would be true of any couple in that situation, there wouldn’t be time to effectively meet each child’s need. There wouldn’t have been adequate attention or training provided. In a brief, ten-year period, some things would erode. Of course, neither parent would want the family to erode; it just would happen as a result of unexpected, rapid growth and not enough time to be available and meet needs and give some essential direction in critical decisions.
Admittedly, like a mother with too many kids, I was a pastor with too many people. I could not keep up with the details of our expansion, so I delegated too many of the responsibilities to others. They were good individuals, but I discovered some of them did not share my heart or vision for ministry. I realized I had delegated without mentoring, training, or shaping the thinking of those leaders. Staff had been hired who never should have been hired. Some elders were appointed who, frankly, weren’t qualified (according to biblical standards). And when I finally realized all of this, the erosion was well under way. I should also mention that we had just begun another aggressive building campaign! I’ll be honest: that’s a tough place to find yourself. I felt like the lookout atop the Titanic the moment he saw that massive iceberg in the distance. I prayed fervently that we could turn our large ship in time to save it.
It was not easy. In fact, those were the most difficult months of my five decades in ministry. Very challenging. Very stressful. Very painful. Stopping the erosion and getting back on target meant moving in a direction we had not been going. It meant certain staff did not remain. It meant some elders could not stay. There were difficult times that included tears, hurt feelings, tough decisions, sleepless nights, hard moments, and misunderstandings. I’m grateful that we never lost our financial integrity. We never had fistfights in the back room. There were no lawsuits or ugly public temper flare-ups. I simply realized how far we had drifted from God’s plan for us, and I resolved to stop the erosion wherever it was, regardless of the cost, and in spite of others’ reactions. I determined to pay no attention to harsh letters or lengthy e-mail messages or the wagging tongues of some who participated in gossip. Thankfully, God was merciful.
Why do I share all of this with you? Because erosion can happen to anyone and in any church; it happened in our church… and it can occur in yours. Maybe it already has. I also share it to assure you it can be stopped. But it won’t be easy!
Our church’s tenth anniversary was a good time for evaluation and course correction. The events of those difficult months have convinced me how essential it is for every church to have cyclical milestones—deliberate times to look back at the church’s initial vision, to look within and evaluate the current situation, and then to look ahead to determine where the Scriptures say the church should be going. All the while there must be a strong commitment to doing what the Bible says, not doing what people want, not doing what other churches do.
I can say from experience, when that process is carried out correctly, the result is a church awakening.
Looking into the Scriptures… and Discovering Church
Let’s enter an imaginary time tunnel and journey back about twenty centuries. As we do, remember that in the place we find ourselves there is no United States of America. The modern civilizations of Europe, Australia, and Canada—as well as other contemporary cultures—do not exist. Even the nation of Israel looks completely different. In the first century, there are no Christian traditions, and we certainly find no denominations or churches. Where we’re imagining ourselves standing, no one has even heard the word church before. And the Jewish culture of the day exists in the context of a pagan Roman government that dominates the land of Israel. On top of all that, the official religious leaders of the day are proud, self-serving, and corrupt. It was in such an environment that “the church” began.
Whenever we want to understand a topic or term, such as church, we should begin at the passage of primary reference. It helps to ask, where did the word first appear, and in what context was it used? Surprisingly, the first mention in the New Testament of the word church wasn’t from the pen of the apostle Paul. Peter didn’t coin the term, nor did any of the other apostles. It was Jesus.
Matthew describes the scene for us. He writes of the time Jesus took His disciples up north into the Gentile area of Caesarea Philippi. While there, the Lord asks His men what the public is saying about His identity:
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13–16)
The culture around Jesus viewed Him as nothing more than a great man. But Peter voiced a different opinion. Speaking for the disciples as a whole, Peter was never more accurate: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One… the Son of the living God.” Peter nailed it! At that point in the discussion, Jesus changed the dialogue to a monologue and commended Peter for his statement:
Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:17–18)
In commending Simon Peter for his spiritual insight about who Jesus was, the Lord unveiled even more truth about what He would do. In essence, Jesus told Peter, “Your words about Me are true. In fact, they are a foundational statement—like a rock. And on this rocklike declaration I will build My church.” He also promised that the gates of Hades would not erode it or erase it. The church would have staying power. Against all odds, it would prevail. Not even the adversary would overpower it. I will build My church. Let’s examine the implications of those five monosyllabic words in this primary reference.
First, I—Jesus made it clear from the beginning that the church as God intended it would have Christ as its Architect. Make no mistake about it—He is the Originator of the church. It was His idea. He protects it. He leads it. He alone is its Head.
Second, the word will looks to the future. Jesus didn’t say, “I have built,” or even “I am building,” but “I will build.” The church had yet to begin when Jesus made this statement; it was a promise for the future—for the very near future. But at the time He spoke these words, Peter and the other disciples had no clue what church meant.
Third, the term build suggests not only a beginning, but also an ongoing process. If you read music, think of a crescendo mark over Jesus’ statement. Try to imagine the excitement and energy in the Master’s voice as He communicated the future to these disciples. The church would begin at a certain point (we’ll look at that next), and then it would grow and grow… and keep on growing. Why? Because Christ will construct it. He will enlarge it and shape it as He pleases.
Fourth, the word My affirms ownership and authority. Not only is Christ the Originator of the church and the Builder of it, as I mentioned, He is also its Head (see Col. 1:15–18). It’s essential to keep asking ourselves, as I try to do, Is Christ the Head of our local church? Does He have first place in our ministry? Is what we do all about Jesus, or have we drifted from that singular focus? To guard against erosion, we must keep Jesus as the Head of the church. It is His church. Never forget that.
When Matthew recorded Jesus’ word for “church”—the first mention of that term in the Bible—he chose the Greek word ekklesia. It’s a compound word, from ek, meaning “out, from,” and kaleo, meaning “to call.” It refers to those who have been “called out” from among others. The term more accurately reflects an assembly of people defined by a distinct purpose. The word was in use hundreds of years before Jesus was born, but by adding the word My to the term, Jesus revealed that He would build His own ekklesia—a people defined by faith in the truth that Peter had just revealed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We now call this unique assembly over which Jesus serves as Head “the church.” How valuable it is to return to the origin of this term and make a serious examination of its purpose!
Why study the origin of church? Because it’s there we see God’s intention. Our understanding and application of what church should be will erode if we don’t examine and keep in mind its Founder and its foundation.
The church is a body of people called out from among the world for the distinct and unique purpose of glorifying their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Jesus was referring to the universal church, not to the church on the corner. He was not referring to a building on real estate but to a body of individuals who love Christ supremely. This body is without political roots or cultural boundaries; it is devoid of linguistic or racial barriers. It has no denominational or political ties. The church of Jesus Christ is not a corporation—I urge you to remember that! A local church, therefore, is not a business establishment with a cross stuck on top. Rather, the church Jesus promised to build was a spiritual entity, and He alone would be the Head. So what did the church look like when Christ began to build it?
Looking in on the Early Church… and Learning
Journey forward in our time tunnel to about a year later. We’re no longer up north in Caesarea Philippi, but we are now farther south in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The religious leaders of Israel and the civil leaders of Rome have condemned Christ to death on a cross. But, just as He promised His disciples, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day! Though His enemies did their best to explain away the empty tomb, there He stood, and His presence rejuvenated His followers. Days later, just before the Lord ascended and returned to heaven, He told His followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:4–5). On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and transformed that small group of followers—a group of about 120 women and men—and they began to do what Jesus said they would do when the Spirit of God came upon them. Boldly and courageously, they became His witnesses in Jerusalem (see Acts 1:8, 15; 2:5–11). Their witness spread quickly. Soon followers of Jesus emerged hundreds of miles beyond Jerusalem. What was happening? Just as He had promised in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had begun to build His church!
The apostle Peter stood up and delivered a powerful message to the multitudes of Jerusalem, introducing them to the Messiah Jesus. I love it that the Lord used Peter to share the message. Peter was the one who first called Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God”; he was the one to whom Jesus spoke when He first promised to build His church; and remember, it was Peter who had denied Christ just a couple of months before. What grace! Jesus used Peter’s message to reach those first converts in Jerusalem on the day the church began. And what a response!
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)
Notice that when the people heard the good news about Jesus, they “received” Peter’s message. The original term means they recognized the truth for what it was and believed it. That’s how a person becomes a Christian. That’s how the church is “built.” You hear of Christ’s death for your sins, and you believe in Him—you receive Him by faith. Those who believed Peter’s message were baptized that day. We read that they numbered about three thousand people. Remarkable! John R. W. Stott observed, “The body of Christ in Jerusalem multiplied twenty-six times, from 120 to 3,120.” Suddenly, there are three thousand brand-new sheep in God’s flock. And to think I felt uneasy with our church’s rapid growth! Can you imagine Peter? I’ve sometimes called that baptism the first sheep dip in the history of the church.
But in spite of the numbers and all the demands of a group that large, there was still simplicity. There was no tradition, there were no church constitution and bylaws, no programs, no senior pastor, no “board of elders,” no marketing plan, no splinter groups, no corruption—and no erosion… not yet. Instead, we see 3,120 people living their lives with the Spirit of God now living within them and directing their steps. So what did that look like? We’re told precisely what those early believers did when they met together. Look closely:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
In this one verse we have the lowest common denominator of a church. This is ground zero. It would help greatly if God’s people reminded themselves of this single verse of Scripture every day. When the first body of believers gathered together, they devoted themselves to four essentials. Did you notice them? Here are the four essentials: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. This verse is not only descriptive of what the early church did; it is also prescriptive of what all churches must do.
For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be teaching, which, of course, includes preaching. Teaching is not the same as mere talking, or reading poetry, or motivational speaking, or delivering a positive-thinking-type devotional. We are told here what type of teaching it means: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Today the church has the apostles’ teaching represented in the complete Word of God—the Bible. A church must continually be devoted to the teaching of the sacred Scriptures. Teaching God’s truth gives a church deep roots that provide nourishment and stability. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in the chapters that follow.
For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there has to be fellowship as well. If we had teaching without fellowship, the church would be a school—a place that simply dispenses information. The original term for fellowship is koinonia, which referred to close, mutual relationships where people share things in common and remain involved with one another. That doesn’t mean potluck suppers, dinners on the grounds, and Christmas concerts. Koinonia represents close relationships that involve sharing life with one another—the bad times as well as the good. Those in fellowship with one another cultivate an intimate harmony with others. In church, the Word of God is not only learned through teaching… it is lived through fellowship.
The breaking of bread is included along with teaching and fellowship. That refers to the Lord’s Table, which was observed when the church gathered. Because baptism was mentioned just before this verse, we understand that the early church devoted themselves to the two ordinances commanded by Jesus: baptism and the Lord’s Table. The first represents our conversion to Christ, and the second, our lifelong communion with Him. An acceptable, all-inclusive term would be worship. For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be worship.
Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer. They spent time as a body of believers adoring their Lord, confessing their sins, interceding for others, petitioning God to provide, and thanking Him for His blessings—just as Jesus taught them to pray. For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be prayer.
You can’t have a church if you take away any of the four essentials recorded in Acts 2:42. You can have more than these four, but you cannot have less and still be a church. And if you have more—and most churches do—those things added must never contradict or obscure the importance of the essentials. When they do, count on it, erosion occurs.
Remarkably, the simple setting of the original church provided room for the Spirit of God to work and guide. Don’t misunderstand; a simple setting does not suggest perfect people. These new believers were far from flawless. But by the empowerment of the Spirit of God as He worked and controlled their lives, there was integrity, trust, joy, confidence, unity, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, harmony, stability, and, of course, grace (to name only a few). It must have been magnificent! Was it working? Just look at the verses that follow:
Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46–47)
Read that again, and this time, observe the vertical as well as the horizontal. Also notice that, as a result of the believers’ devoting themselves to the essentials, the church continued to expand and grow. Truth be told, the growth was off-the-chart remarkable—even in an era of persecution. Look at how the church continued to enlarge as the months and years unfolded:
But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)
And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (Acts 5:14)
The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase. (Acts 9:31)
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:21–24)
In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. (Acts 14:1)
So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily. (Acts 16:5)
Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. (Acts 17:12)
Again, the growth was remarkable! In spite of intense opposition and persecution—and sometimes because of it—Christ continued to build His church. Theologian and historian F. F. Bruce calls this phenomenon “the spreading flame.” The growth continued to crescendo, just as Jesus promised. And the adversary, as hard as he may have tried, could not stop it, hinder it, or overpower it!
Looking Around… and Realizing Some Timeless Truths
Let’s step out of that imaginary time tunnel and return to today. In light of what we have discovered, let me suggest three principles and three imperatives I believe all churches should examine and apply.
The first principle: clear, biblical thinking must override secular planning and a corporate mentality. And the imperative? Think spiritually! However well organized our churches become, we must give priority to biblical, rather than secular, thinking. I’ve taken the time to write about what was present in the early church, but let me also mention some of what wasn’t there. There were no secular organizational structures or church politics. There was no guru of authority or “chairman” of anything. There were no power grabs from control freaks. There were no personal maneuverings, infightings, financial squabbles, or turf protection. Instead, we see a place where a spiritual emphasis took precedence over the world’s way of doing things.
What does this look like when applied today? For starters, our teaching needs to be biblically based and spiritually inclined. Our Sunday school classes, adult fellowships, and small-group instruction gatherings need to center on the teaching of the Bible and spiritual lessons. Our songs and hymns should have spiritual content. Our counseling ministry needs to be derived from the Spirit’s revelation in the Scriptures. Our relationships with one another need to have spiritual priorities—intimate fellowship where people can trust one another. The church ought to be the one place where spiritual thinking overrides everything else—all those battles we fight within the marketplace. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. Remember, the church is a spiritual entity.
Second, studied, accurate decisions must originate from God’s Word, not human opinions. A true, spiritual mind-set comes from meditation on the Scriptures. So the imperative would be: stay biblical! The Word of God ought to be central to every worship service on Sunday. Furthermore, every elders’ meeting and every staff meeting should have the Scriptures as the basis of the decisions that are made. God’s Word is to be the church’s guide; it shapes our current thinking and future planning by giving us principles we can understand, believe, and apply.
If our churches are committed to these essential dimensions and distinctions, we’ll have the most contagious body of individuals in the community. I remember the words of one of my mentors, the late Ray Stedman: “If the church was doing what it is supposed to be doing, people couldn’t stay out.” Why? If nothing else, curiosity would bring them in! They would witness our love and our excitement and think, Why on earth are so many people flooding into that place? How in the world is there such a spirit of harmony and joy among that many people with such diverse opinions? What they don’t realize is our opinions don’t matter. What matters is God’s opinion.
I love the words of A. W. Tozer: “The world is waiting to hear an authentic voice, a voice from God—not an echo of what others are doing and saying, but an authentic voice.” As those in the church who follow Christ as our Head, our words must come from the living God, and not be an echo of human words or works, certainly not the words from our culture! As wise and intelligent as human opinions are, the church isn’t guided by the thinking of any fallen human being. (By the way, that includes the pastor!) Christ is the Head. Our thinking is shaped by a study of Scriptures—by God’s thinking. This is about building the church God’s way, and God’s way is found in God’s Word. Nowhere else can we find such an authentic voice.
A church that’s working is a church that’s growing. I believe that. But be careful of the order of that statement, because a church that is growing is not necessarily a church that is working. I found that out the hard way, which leads me to the final principle.
Third, wise, essential changes must occur to counteract any sign of erosion. Please notice I did not use the word easy. Change is not easy when erosion has occurred, but it is essential. The imperative? Be flexible! Be ready and willing to make some changes—essential changes—especially if you hope to arrest the slow, silent, subtle slide of erosion. And stand alone through those changes, if necessary. The poet and artist E. E. Cummings wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”
You may find yourself standing alone against erosion in your church. If so, I commend you. And believe me, that’s not an easy place to be. When I realized the erosion that had already begun to occur in our church… when I realized how far we had drifted from God’s original, simple plan, I prayed, “Oh, God Almighty, give us that original vision again. Give me the courage to lead this flock back to the essentials. Make it happen again! Please… give us a church awakening.” And He has begun to do so. It’s been marvelous!
But I repeat, it has not been easy.
Course correction requires changes. It demands a devotion to the four essentials of a church. Let’s review them again.
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
It isn’t enough simply to have the four essentials in our churches. We must continually devote ourselves to them. In the original language, that phrase translates a single Greek term that means “to continue to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of [doing so] despite difficulty.” Will there be difficulty? Absolutely! Open your New Testament and revisit the early church. Just look at any church! The adversary will stop at nothing to overcome the work of Christ. You can count on it. We’ll look at that more closely in the next chapter.
I often call to mind that day my grandfather drove a stake into the ground to measure the erosion beside his little bay cottage. In the same way, all who love (and especially all who lead) the church must regularly evaluate where we are against the eternal, immovable standard of the Word of God. We must periodically pause and honestly question whether or not any drifting is taking place. Knowing that erosion is always slow, always silent, and always subtle, we must remind ourselves that it is the primary means by which the church drifts from God’s original intent. The casual eye will never see erosion occurring. The corporate mind will not detect erosion. It takes a keen and disciplined mind-set to recognize it… and decisive, deliberate action to stop it.
In spite of the challenges the church faces today, erosion does not have to occur. Not if we wake up and devote ourselves to doing God’s work God’s way.
Excerpted from The Church Awakening by Swindoll, Charles R. Copyright © 2010 by Swindoll, Charles R.. Excerpted by permission.
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