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. 

6 Lessons From 6 Years of Pastoral Ministry

Hard to believe, but I have been in pastoral ministry for 6 years now. This has been a deeply gratifying and rewarding experience and I am grateful to God for His call upon my life. While in some ways I am still just a beginner and pray for many decades of fruitful ministry, there have been many lessons learned during my short tenure. Let me share just 6 with you.

 

1. The centrality of prayer.

Ministry makes huge demands upon the pastor and his family. There is always something more to do, and because of all the busyness, often the ministry of prayer gets skipped over. This is unfortunate and can be quite damaging to the success of the ministry. Therefore, the pastor must ensure that prayer is built into the daily rhythms of his life. It is also important to have organized times of corporate prayer, such as a weekly prayer meeting. Along with this, I am thankful for a church that I know holds my family up in prayer and other friends and family member that do the same. I have learned (and continue to learn) that ministry is war and if you are not covered in prayer, the enemy will walk all over you.

 

2. People grow through the Word of God.

Let me give you a little formula – growth happens in the Body of Christ as the Word of God is applied to the people of God through the agency of the Spirit of God. Let me say it again – people grow through the Word of God! It took me a while to realize this, but it is so critical to understand this. I see pastors all the time relying on gimmicks and programs and more gimmicks – things that promise to “pump out” disciples that in the end only disappoint. Shepherds must ensure that their flock is well nourished so that they will be healthy, strong, and effective in their walk with the Lord.

 

3. The need for patience and perseverance.

I grew up on a farm and I know the importance of patience when it comes to sowing and reaping. The farmer plants his crop in the spring, but has to wait several months until the fall to harvest it. If people grow through the Word of God (and they do) then it will require patience over the long haul. Most pastors are aware of all the massive church growth stories but we have to remember that they are not the norm. Pastors must commit themselves to diligently and faithfully teaching the Word of God year after year after year. In time, there will be an abundant harvest, but it takes patience and perseverance. In between the sowing and reaping, there will be times of trial, disappointment, setbacks, and who knows what else, but be faithful, be diligent, and persevere in the strength that only Christ can provide. And remember the words of Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

 

4.The importance of one-to-one discipling relationships.

I love the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. If you are not familiar with this story, I would encourage you to study it on your own, but essentially, when Philip found the eunuch reading Isaiah 53, he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’ ….Then beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:30-31, 35). Although this was more of an evangelistic encounter, there is no question the church needs a lot more of this today. And it all starts with pastors. The pastor must set the tone when it comes to mentoring and discipling relationships in the church. This sets in motion what could be called the multiplication process where disciples make more disciples. Paul wrote to Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). The pastor can’t disciple everyone, but he can train a few who will train a few, etc. etc.

5.The Church needs to be the Church.

What is a healthy church? I suppose there are a few ways of answering this question, but one indispensable quality of a healthy church is love among the brethren (Galatians 6:9-10 and John 13:34-35). Plain and simple, within a healthy church, people care for one another, serve one another, love one another, etc. etc. and this is all done because we love Jesus. When we begin to understand the love of God in Christ that has been showered upon us, we can’t help but love one another. This is one of the reasons I love the church. Seeing love in action is a beautiful thing and I can’t imagine ever not being part of a local body of believers.

 

6.What a valuable asset my wife is.

Steph is my most trusted friend and counselor and has been an immense help to me in ministry. Pastors (and husbands in general) thank God for your wife and treasurer her, for she is an incalculable blessing.

 

As you can tell, there is nothing revolutionary about this list. Some of these were not so much “lessons” as they were prior beliefs that have now become strong convictions based on my experience and study of the Word.

The Difference Between Disciples and Apostles

“We read in the New Testament about disciples and apostles, and we tend to think that the two words are synonymous. They are not. A disciple is a learner, a student. An apostle is one who is commissioned by his master with the master’s own authority, then sent out in the master’s name. That distinction is critically important for us because the New Testament tells us that the prophets and the Apostles are the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). That means the apostles had what we call “apostolic authority” over the church of all ages, which authority they were given by the One who sent them.

The first Apostle in the New Testament, the Apostle par excellence, was Jesus. He said, “I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent ME gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12:49). Our Lord Himself is the supreme Apostle of the Father, for He carries in His ministry nothing less than the authority of the Father. The twelve, however, were Jesus’ Apostles, having been chosen from the much larger group of disciples who followed Jesus (see Luke 6:13). Thus, Jesus gave to them His own authority.”

Copied from pages 122-123 of R.C. Sproul’s commentary, Mark: He Taught Them As One Who Had Authority.

Some Parallels Between Discipleship and Nursing

A few months ago, my wife Stephane came up with some parallels between discipleship and nursing. I thought they were insightful and decided to pass them along to you.
1. Both must take place often.
Mothers know that every few hours, her baby must be fed. The baby only has a small stomach and therefore needs regular feedings to continue growing and maturing. The same could be said of the disciple. Ideally, the growing Christian will meet regularly with a spiritual mother or father who will guide them in understanding God’s Word and following Jesus. The Bible tells us, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3).
2. Both require the right kind of nutrition.
Stephane quickly learned during her time of nursing that it is important to eat the right kinds of food. For example, oatmeal increases the milk supply, while cabbage decreases milk supply. The most obvious parallel to discipleship would be reading the right kinds of literature. For example, the Bible = oatmeal while a Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer book = cabbage. I can almost assure you that a steady diet of God’s Word will result in a growing Christian. In contrast, a steady diet of your token pop-Christian book will result in a stagnant Christian at best.
3. In both, the relationship will eventually change.
Eventually, the mother will take steps to get her child off of the breast and onto solid food. We would be a little alarmed in a child was still nursing at 4 or 5 years of age. Unfortunately, many professing believers don’t grow up to Christian maturity (check out Hebrews 5:12-14). Many people who populate our churches today don’t want to leave behind their comfortable Christianity to take up their cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24-26).
4. In both, the ultimate result is multiplication.
Years later, every parent has the hope that their child will eventually “be fruitful and multiply” and make them grandparents. In the same way, Christian parents want their children to grow up to be disciple-making-disciples. This is where the snowball effect kicks into play – disciples of Jesus Christ are being multiplied left and right as God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6) and that’s exciting!
What about you?
Are you involved in an intentional, one-to-one discipling relationship? If you are not, let me encourage you in that direction.

In Essentials Unity, in Non-Essentials Liberty, in All Things Charity

I live in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York – Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day goes by in which I don’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and with most of my family still living there, at least once or twice a year, passport in hand, I journey back to my homeland. Border crossing is nothing new for me – it’s just a regular part of life.

 

This got me to thinking about a famous quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Originally, I thought this quote came from the Puritan Richard Baxter, but I was wrong. It is actually from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Having set the record straight, lets talk about its significance and how it connects with my opening illustration.

 

As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Southern Baptist friends and have learned much from them, we hail from two different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said about other denominations too.

 

I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. When it comes to my theological training, I have attended three non-denominational schools – Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and currently Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. I thank God for these experiences, which I believe have broadened by perspective.

 

As I said earlier, there are always going to be things that separate us. Take, for example, the first church I pastored. Even as an independent, non-denominational church, we still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most churches and church leaders understand this and try not to let it hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches. We realize that even though we have distinctives and unique emphases, there is a place and a need to come together for the furtherance of the gospel.

 

With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it ok to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation – In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?

 

Recently, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” These essentials, along with a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine for centuries. And where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation and there must be separation. I would also add that these are the doctrinal issues we must unite around as Christians. If there is anything we should be rallying around, it is these foundational biblical truths.

 

What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or Churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the last things) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) just to name a couple, are matters that would fit into this category. It would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother in Christ just because he doesn’t share your particular view on the millennium, for example. As a footnote, I would also add differences in ministry methodology to this list of non-essentials.

 

What my experience has taught me is that we need to collaborate and work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely we are better together than apart. I don’t think anyone wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand against he enemy of our souls. And let’s do everything we can to unite and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ for the cause of the gospel.

Love and Unity – Two Keys to a Healthy Church

John 13:34-35:  “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Among the many “radical” teachings of Jesus, this verse would have to be put in that category. And what was true back then is still true today – only when a heart has been transformed by the power of the gospel can we truly love another person.  A life lived without Jesus is a life lived without love.  Sadly, this is the norm in our world.  In light of this truth, Jesus knew what a powerful witness it would be for a group of people to actually “love” one another.  When the world watched these crazy people who truly loved and cared for one another, they would know that something was different about them.  So love for one another within the Body of Christ is a key element in the health of a Church.

A second key element is unity. A healthy church will be united around the cause of Christ and His gospel. Just to clarify, I am using the word unity to describe a group of people who come together for a common purpose. In the Bible, one of the metaphors most commonly used is the Body of Christ. In speaking of our physical bodies, there are hundreds of different parts that come together to form our bodies, but they are all important and all serve a specific purpose, just as God intends. This is instructive because when all the parts come together, you have a healthy, functioning, body. The same is true with the Body of Christ on earth, the Church.  If half the parts are not functioning and not being used, you have a sick body that will never perform as it was intended. However, if all the parts are working and functioning together for a common mission, you will have a healthy body that will be used to accomplish the purposes of God. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:4-8: For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

There you have it – two keys to a healthy church. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but in any church where love and unity are missing, you can be sure that church is not a healthy functioning church.

Are You Growing in Your Walk With the Lord?

In a few weeks, our son John will turn 1. The pace of his growth has been breathtaking, but especially of late. It seems like every week, he reaches a new milestone. It has been fascinating (and fun) for my wife and I to watch this remarkable growth, along with the growth of our twin daughters Anna and Elizabeth, who are fast approaching their third birthday.

More than once I have wondered; is it realistic to expect Christians to mature at the same pace as a growing child? After pondering this, my conclusion is yes. It is certainly possible, but it is not the norm. I believe it is possible for a Christian to rapidly grow in their walk with the Lord and their sanctification. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we encouraged to reach a certain level of maturity (whatever that might be) and then park yourself there until you die or until Jesus returns.

2 Peter 1:5-8 puts it this way: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are your and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What the apostle Peter is saying is that Christians should strive to grow in their walk with the Lord. If we are serious about following Christ, then our faith will result in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. This is a sanctifying work that God performs in our lives through the Holy Spirit. It is an act of grace that continually takes our faith to the next level. But we must understand that we have a role to play in all this, which is why Peter said, “make every effort to supplement your faith.”

The apostle Paul was also serious about growth and sanctification. In fact, he rebuked the Corinthians for their lack of progress in the faith. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is still jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

When we see a 6-month-old baby being nursed by his mother, we don’t think much of it. However, we would rightly be disturbed if that same baby grew into a teenager and was still on the breast. We would think to ourselves, when is that child going to grow up?  Sadly, many churches are populated by adult infants. They have attended church for decades, but they never heeded the inspired words of Peter. They are still on milk when the solid food of the Word is available to nourish them.

Another lamentable reality is the fact that we often have a hard time encouraging fellow believers to pursue Christ with abandon. When we see a brother or sister in the Lord who is not growing or maturing, we have a hard time challenging them. Perhaps one reason for that is we know what the bible says about judging. Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) But we need to be careful that we don’t simply use this as an excuse not to challenge one another. God gave us brothers and sisters in the Lord that we might be responsible and accountable to one another. “And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). If we truly love our Christian brothers and sisters, we are going to do everything we can to point them in the right direction. The right direction always involves moving closer to Christ and growing in maturity.

Perhaps it would be beneficial to take this time to examine your own life (2 Corinthians 13:5). Are you growing closer to the Lord – every year, every month, every week, every day? If our son John stopped growing and maturing, you can bet my wife and I would be concerned. I hope and pray we will show the same concern for our own Christian maturity and sanctification.