When a Church Closes Its Doors

Last week our family had the opportunity to go to a play in Dubois, PA. We had a wonderful time watching “Anne of Green Gables” and the gal who played Anne was simply superb. As you might have guessed from the above picture, the play was in an old church which was converted into a theatre in the early 90’s. For over 100 years, this structure had served as the meeting place of a Baptist Church, but unfortunately the church had to close its doors.

 

This same tale has been told thousands of times in thousands of communities all over the place. These church buildings typically are either abandoned, bought by another church, or like the Baptist church in Dubois, bought by a business or community organization to be used for something else. As we sat waiting for the play to begin, I thought about all the preachers who had served this local church over its century-long existence. I also thought about all the people who attended and served this church through the years. As I processed this, I couldn’t help but lament over the closing of this church and the many others that have suffered the same fate.

 

My point is not to be overly sentimental and nostalgic about this sad reality, but to make the point that American and Canadian churches are closing like never before. I don’t have any national statistics for you, but I do know that in my own district (the Western PA district of the Christian and Missionary Alliance), we have suffered the loss of at least a dozen churches in recent years. Surely, there are a number of reasons for this, but the fact is, it is happening. While there is tremendous growth in other parts of the world (something we can praise God for), the North American Church is at best stagnant and more likely, in decline.

 

This is probably nothing thing new for most of you. You don’t have go very far in communities both big and small to see what I have just described. For years, we have been told that the church in North American is declining in the same way the church in Europe has been for last half century. The secularization of the culture is now being reflected in several different ways, including church attendance. I guess the big question is……how are we to respond to this? Let me suggest three things.

 

It’s Not All Bad

 

It would be easy to think that any church closure is a bad thing, but that’s simply not the case. In some cases, it is a reason to rejoice. Sadly, there are a lot of churches today that are preaching a false gospel, holding to unorthodox theology, using unbiblical practices, and serving as really bad witnesses for Christ in their communities. That may sound harsh, but it is the unfortunate reality for many churches. These so called “churches” are bound to die and the sooner the better.

 

On the flip side, there are a lot of good, solid churches that are healthy and thriving. We can praise God for this and pray that these churches would continue to grow and multiply and be faithful to the teaching of Scripture for years to come.

 

Join a Good Church

 

You have heard the saying, “the best defense is a good offense.” Like most sayings, there is some truth in it. Perhaps the best way to prevent future church closures is by having strong, healthy, biblical churches in the present. If you are not already, attach yourself to a good, bible believing, gospel preaching church. It always surprises me the number of professing Christians who are not part of a local church. Many of them have been hurt in the past by negative experiences and I don’t want to in any way minimize those experiences. However, the church is the Body of Christ here on earth. The church is where and how God has chosen to display Christ and His glory to the watching world. Joining a local church allows you to worship, to grow, and to serve in a corporate body of believers. In Hebrews we read things like, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is a remarkable passage and it reminds us that when the people of God come together, it has a way of strengthening and encouraging us. On the other hand, when we start to view church as optional, our churches are weakened. If you get enough people with that same mindset, inevitably you start to see churches closing their doors.

 

If you are not already, my advice is to get plugged into a church. Your participation and involvement really matters! See to it that you are regularly fed by God’s Word and available to serve in any way you can. Churches are always looking for volunteers and there are dozens of different ways you can serve and use your gifts to the furtherance of Christ’s church.

 

Pray……for Churches, Pastors, and New Church Plants

 

As I said earlier, while there are a lot of bad churches, there are also a lot of good churches and we need to be in prayer for these churches that are being true to God’s word. No doubt you will pray the most for your own local church (that’s natural and healthy), but also be in prayer the churches in your area. I know for a fact that pastors and church leaders of neighboring churches would greatly appreciate your prayers. Each week in our church bulletin we list a local church and pastor to pray for. This is a reminder that we are all on the same team. The apostle Paul keeps it short and sweet when appealing to the Thessalonian believers: “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25).

 

Lastly, we need to pray for new church plants in our area and around the world. As I said earlier, it is sad to see churches close their doors, but often just around the corner, God is birthing something new and exciting. There has been a revival of church planting in recent years, but that doesn’t mean church planting is easy. I learned a long time ago that I was not cut out to be a church planter, but God does call some to this critically important ministry and we need to pray for these church plants as much as we can. 

The Strangest Marriage Proposal…..Ever

This past month marked 10 years since Steph and I were engaged. It has been an amazing journey for the two of us, and I am thrilled that the Lord has blessed me with such a wonderful wife. With it being 10 years since our engagement, I got to thinking about how it all went down.

 

Steph and I started our long distance relationship back in April of 2007 (how we met is another story altogether…..I will save that for another time). I was in seminary in Vancouver, BC while Steph was in Ohio just starting off her counselling career. With there being 2500 miles that separated us, we had a lot of really long phone conversations, a lot of emails, and I took three trips out to Ohio. Then in early November of 2007, Steph was finally able to make the journey out to Vancouver to visit me and see where I was studying in preparation for pastoral ministry.

 

For a few weeks prior, I had been planning my proposal. Steph and I had talked a lot about marriage and we were already starting to plan for our wedding, but I had led her to believe that I wouldn’t propose until February. Everything was planned out perfectly……I thought. After picking Steph up at the airport, I would propose in my borrowed Dodge Caravan. I attached the ring to a string and tied the string to the sun visor on the passenger side. I knew it was going to be a great engagement proposal and a great surprise for Steph!

 

As I drove down to the airport in Bellingham, Washington, I was excited. I had no idea what the Lord had in store for us, but I knew Steph was the woman for me. I arrived safely and in plenty of time, and now all I had to do was wait for my future bride. Steph had managed to find a $10 direct flight from Columbus, Ohio (seriously….. a $10 flight – look up “Skybus” if you don’t believe me). When she arrived, we hugged and kissed and made our way back to the van. Here is where things started to get interesting.

 

When we got in the van, the first thing I told Steph was that she had something on her face. I told her she should look in the mirror so she could get it off. Of course, she didn’t really, but this was a way to get her to pull down the sun visor and look in the mirror. In retrospect, telling your girlfriend and future wife that she has something on her face right after a 5 hour flight is not the nicest thing, nor is it the best plan to start off a proposal. Not surprisingly, Steph was embarrassed, but she went ahead and pulled down the visor to look in the mirror. As she pulled down the visor, the ring on the string came down and landed pretty much where I wanted it to land……right in front of her face. Remarkably, Steph didn’t notice it. As I watched this play out, I was almost in shock. My perfect proposal plan wasn’t working out as planned. The only thing I could think of to say was, “Steph you still got something on your face.” Even more embarrassed, Steph looked back toward the mirror and this time she saw the ring! Presumably, this should have been where I started in with my perfectly worded proposal, but I was so tongue tied that I said nothing at all. Steph, on the other hand, simply said, “really?” We hugged and kissed and laughed and I put the engagement ring on her finger. Whew! Soon were on our way up to Vancouver.

 

So it was that through these unpredictable happenings, that we were engaged on November 8, 2007. And while it’s probably not the strangest engagement proposal ever, it is rather comical that I never actually asked Stephane to marry me and she never actually said “yes” or “no.” I guess Steph’s “really?” was all we needed. I got the outcome I was looking for and that’s all that mattered. The next 8 months would be a long wait for us, but on July 26, 2008, we were married and we have enjoyed a very happy marriage. I praise God for giving me Stephane as a wife.

 

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:14

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord. Proverbs 18:22

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27

10 Facts About Jesus From John 1:1-18

As we move into the Christmas season, it is critically important to remember what Christmas is all about. Many people would acknowledge that this season is about celebrating the birth of Christ, but how many of those same people truly know the Christ of Christmas? The prologue to John’s gospel is an excellent place to start when it comes to understanding who Jesus is and what He came to do. What follows is an outline of a message I preached at a local community event this past Sunday.

  1. Jesus is eternal

“In the beginning was the Word…He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)

  1. Jesus was (and is) the Creator

“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3, cf: John 1:9, Col. 1:16)

  1. Jesus was (and is) God

“and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 cf: John 10:30 and Titus 2:13)

  1. Jesus is the life giver

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4 cf: John 14:6)

  1. John the Baptist bore witness concerning Jesus

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” (John 1:6-7)

  1. Jesus was rejected by the Jews and by the world

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)

  1. You can become a child of God by believing in Jesus’ name

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

  1. Jesus became a man

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 cf: John 1:9)

  1. Jesus came into the world to give and to bear witness to the truth

“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17 cf: John 18:37)

10.  Jesus reveals the Father to us

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18 cf: John 10:30, 14:9, 17:26)

Like Father, Like Son: How God Uses Parenting to Teach Us

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Being a father has been a big learning experience for me. Seven years ago when the Lord blessed Steph and I with twin daughters, I never dreamed all that God would teach us. Indeed, children are a wonderful blessing in many ways, but one of the surprises was that I have learned much about God and our relationship with Him just through being a parent. Here are a couple lessons.

 

One of the things I often hear around our home are the words, “Daddy play with me!” It used to just be our older son John, but now that Jeremiah has started to talk, I hear it from both of them. Obviously, I enjoy playing with my kids, but at times is can be a tad overwhelming. For example, in the mornings when I am trying to get off to work and the boys want to play, I often feel torn. I want to play with them, but I know I have responsibilities to attend to. Not long ago, I was reflecting on this and I asked myself, “why do they want to play with me so much? Can’t they just play by themselves?” As I thought about this, it occurred to me that it is only natural for sons to want to be with and play with their father. Families that are healthy naturally want to spend time together – that’s just how it works (see Malachi 4:6). Parents are going to want to spend time with their kids, and kids are going to want to spend time with their parents.

 

The lesson that I learned from this (and continue to learn) is that it is only natural for Christians to desire to spend time with their heavenly Father. It is unfortunate that even as Christians we often we get distracted with other lesser things, and frankly, don’t desire to be with our Father. These distractions can be a huge hindrance to our growing closer to God. Another thing to keep in mind are the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In the same way that children are master imitators, so too should we strive to imitate God and His Son Jesus Christ.

 

Let me share with you another lesson. When you look at your kids, you can’t help but see lots of similarities. When I look at all four of our kids, I see things that mirror myself and Steph in them. Of course, there are differences, but there are resemblances and similarities that I marvel at. These include physical, emotional, and personality characteristics that indicate a definite family resemblance. I remember one time when we still lived in New York state and my parents were visiting for the first time. My Dad and I were attending our monthly men’s breakfast and as all the guys saw my Dad and I come in, their faces said it all. It was kind of like, “Wow, they really look alike!” I am sure you are not at all surprised by this. It has always been true that the closer parents and children look, the more similarities they are going to see.

 

In the very first chapter in the Bible, we are told that man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This astounding truth is often glossed over by readers, but think about it for a minute. The Creator God, the One who is Lord of Heaven and Earth…..has made us in His own image! Now, we need to keep in mind that after the Fall of man (Genesis 3), our status as image-bearers has been marred because of sin. That’s not to say it is gone for good, but the Fall had devastating, far-reaching consequences. The good news is that for those who are in Christ, the image of God is being restored and remade in us. Let me quote from Paul once again: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). Ask yourself, are you growing in grace? Are you growing in godliness? In other words, if you are a Christian, is there a clear family resemblance between you and your Heavenly Father? Scripture tells us that God is working to make his children “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4), and conform us more and more to the image of Christ. In this we rejoice.

 

I could share with you more lessons that I have learned or had reinforced just through being a parent. No doubt the lessons will continue. Even though child rearing is tough at times, children are a huge blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3) and God uses this relationship to teach us about Himself. May we be ever more attentive.

 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

 

A Review of “The Shepherd’s Treasure”

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Over the past few years, Stephane and I had heard about Elf on the Shelf, mostly through Facebook. It looked like a neat idea, but we chose not to participate. Then in November 2016, Stephane became aware of The Shepherd’s Treasure, which was being branded as an alternative to Elf on the Shelf. We thought, why not give it a try? The package arrived in the mail late in November and our first task was to name our Shepherd – we went with the name David. The kids also got to enjoy the book that came with the package. One highlight for the kids was that each page had a hidden verse on it – they loved trying to spot that hidden verse.

 

Our official journey began on December 1st. We had already briefed the kids that when they woke up in the morning, they would be searching for the shepherd. Each day had a certain theme, and it was always based upon a bible verse. Here is how the website explains how it all works: “Your Shepherd travels in search of Jesus each night while your kids sleep. After bedtime, find creative and fun ways for your Shepherd to continue his journey….On Christmas morning, your Shepherd will find Baby Jesus! Place your Shepherd and Baby Jesus together somewhere extra special. Your children will find their Shepherd kneeling before the greatest Treasure of all time: Jesus!”

 

So…..25 days after it all started, the journey culminates on Christmas morning when the shepherd finds baby Jesus. One of the things we really liked about Shepherds Treasure is that you can make it your own. While the creators of Shepherds Treasure give you instructions and guidance, you put as much into it as you want. Steph and I chose to keep things fairly simple. We never felt like we had the time or energy to go all out, but even in keeping it simple, the kids really enjoyed it.

 

We only ever missed 2 days (sleeping in both times) but you won’t have that problem if you hide your shepherd the night before instead of doing in the morning, before the kids get up like we often did. The best part of Shepherd’s Treasure is that it is focused on Christ and is saturated with Scripture. We tried to use each day’s Scripture verse as an opportunity to talk about Christ. By all means, be creative and make it fun for your kids, but don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas. There is a great need for parents to explain the importance of the gospel and the incarnation of Christ. The Bible verses used in this activity are a good starting point, but they must be reinforced over and over again. Shepherds Treasure was not designed to replace daily times of family worship, but it is a fun activity that your kids will enjoy and it can serve as a supplement to your times of family worship.

 

I would recommend giving The Shepherd’s Treasure a try. If you are interested, it’s a good idea to purchase your kit sooner rather than later, as it seems to go in and out of stock pretty quickly.  

The Battle Against Envy in Ministry

You have probably heard the 10th commandment before. The short version reads: “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). We all know what this means – be content with what you have and don’t envy your neighbor for what God has given him. We know this but I think we would all admit it can be hard to follow through on. My wife and I have four youngsters and we see envy up close and personal every day. One child has a toy and the other child wants it so he steals the toy. This doesn’t surprise us when it comes from a child, but how often do we “mature” Christians struggle with this same sin? Even pastors, if we were honest, would admit that we too struggle with envy at times. As we encounter fellow pastors with larger churches, the sin of envy is always lurking nearby.

 

I sometimes remind our congregation to pray for myself and our elders. We are, after all, fallen sinful men right in the middle of our own sanctification. Just because God has appointed us to lead and shepherd does not mean we don’t still struggle with sin, including envy. As John Brown (1830-1922) said to one of his ministerial pupils who was newly ordained: “I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will be mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.” (Cited from Mark Dever’s “The Church”)

 

Small church pastors (like myself) can be prone to this, but I have learned that large church pastors also struggle with envy and covetousness. There is always someone with a bigger, more fruitful church that we can compare ourselves to. Brown’s words are particularly helpful because they remind us that we will all give an account before the Lord. The writer of Hebrews tells us “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). One day, every pastor-shepherd will stand before God and give an account as to how he led, fed, cared for, and protected the flock God entrusted to him. Whether your church is 50, or 500, or 5000, the responsibility is monumental. This is why the “numbers” measuring stick is not always the best (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

 

The business of soul-care has eternal ramifications. This is what makes pastoral ministry so challenging but at the same time so rewarding. Rather than focusing on how big our friend’s church is (and how small your church is), may we commit ourselves to pray for our fellow brethren in the ministry. Rejoice in how God is blessing and working in your friend’s church and remember that he desperately needs your prayers and support, just as you need his. Along with that, renew your commitment to care for the flock of God entrusted to you. This is a stewardship like no other stewardship, and only the deepest commitment to God and His people will do.

64 Years in Ministry and Counting….

I have been privileged to be a pastor for about 9 years. In the first church I served at, my tenure lasted about 4 years. The second tenure lasted about 3.5 years and now I am serving as pastor of a third local church. Surprisingly, my experience as a pastor is not unique. It does seem short, but statistics tell us that the average pastoral tenure lasts about 3.6 years. To state the obvious, that’s not very long and this illustrates the unfortunate state of pastoral longevity today.

 

It was not always this way. One of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), grew up during a time where long pastorates were the norm. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard pastored the same church for over 55 years. His father Timothy Edwards pastored the same church for over 60 years. And had he not been forced to resign from his church after (only) 23 years, it’s safe to assume Jonathan Edwards would have served till the time of his death, just like his father and grandfather and the majority of pastors in Puritan New England. The relationship between pastor and church was kind of like a marriage – “till death do us part” was the idea. That is not to say there was never conflict, but there was a long-term commitment that was virtually unbreakable. In the three centuries since, the pastoral landscape has changed dramatically.

 

Over the past few months I have gotten to know a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave is a kind and humble man who loves to golf and I am told is quite competitive. Dave is a fellow pastor and when we met one morning at a local MacDonald’s I asked Dave, “How long have you served at your church?” I knew he was an older gentleman but his answer still blew me away…. 64 years! Dave started serving at Bald Eagle Alliance Church in Osceola Mills, PA way back in 1953, not long after he had graduated from Bible College. While a lot has changed during that time, and countless pastors (including me) have transitioned to other churches, Dave has stayed put. From what I can tell, he doesn’t have any retirement plans, even though he is now 87 years old.

 

I was curious so I asked Dave what the secret of his longevity was. He answered, “the grace of God and the will of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It is not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. However, in the case of Dave, God ordained that he would have a lifetime ministry at one local church. Such a long ministry was only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

 

As we continued to talk, Dave spoke to the need of every pastor to read good books and even mentioned a few authors by name. “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and above all Tozer” he said. Dave talked about the early days of his ministry when he heard A.W. Tozer preach on several occasions. Ever since Tozer’s death in the 1960’s, he has drunk deeply of Tozer’s works and it was almost as if he knew Tozer like a close friend. Pastor Dave is a voracious reader of Christian classics and he encouraged me in that same direction.

 

There were a few other things that pastor Dave counseled me on that are worth mentioning. Prayer for him is the “power house” of the ministry. Of course, he was simply echoing what Charles Spurgeon and many others have said before him. Having a focus on prayer is absolutely vital when it comes to maintaining a long and fruitful ministry. He also spoke to the need of every pastor to immerse himself in Scripture. While there are plenty of good titles and good authors (such as the above mentioned), there is no substitute for the Word of God.

 

When I asked Dave to tell me about his church, he had nothing but good things to say about his people. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for,” he said. Even after all these years, there was still a love affair between the pastor and his people. I have been around long enough to know that this is unique and I found Dave’s words concerning his congregation to be refreshing and encouraging. Perhaps the thing that I found most remarkable about Pastor Dave is that there is still a fire in his belly that drives him. As he shared about what he was preaching and teaching on in the coming week, there was clearly a passion and excitement. It seemed as though he couldn’t wait to share the riches that he had discovered from his study of God’s word. Even after 64 years of preaching the Word and shepherding the flock, the fire has not dimmed.

 

If you tried to look up Dave on the internet, you would find that he does not have a web presence of any sort. His church doesn’t have a website, he does not have a blog, nor does he have a twitter following. Dave is what we would call “old school” but I believe he is a model worth following and one that is all but lost in our day and age. Pease understand I am not here to put Dave on a pedestal. When I asked him about doing a little write-up on him, he was very hesitant to agree, not just because he is a humble man, but because he is aware of his own sin and shortcomings. Dave doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Rather he would have us look to Christ (Isaiah 45:22) and His power to save. As the psalmist puts it, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).

 

Far too many pastors start off wanting to be the next John Piper or Tim Keller or some other famous pastor. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry but it is unhelpful and even detrimental to aim for ministry success from a worldly perspective. This is kingdom building of the wrong kind and it happens all the time. God is simply calling pastors to be faithful (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 4:2) and diligent (2 Timothy 1:11-12) and to serve with endurance (2 Timothy 4:6-8) knowing that one day the Lord of glory will reward them for their labors.

 

Few pastors will ever spend the entirety of their ministry at one church. Obviously, Dave Lewis is unique and I praise God for his life and ministry and the example that he has given us. Many others have served well over the years, and perhaps you have heard of them and are aware of their ministries, but it is a safe bet that most are unknown to the world, except for the people and communities they serve. We can praise God for these faithful men, however, if you are looking for the best model to follow, look no further that the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate “good shepherd” (John 10:11) who lays his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him and serve in the grace and wisdom that only He can give.

 

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