Part 2 – “Age”
“So, just exactly what do you mean by ‘a dying church’?” I asked the woman sitting across from me in my office a few weeks ago. She had scheduled an appointment to visit with me about the church after attending a couple of services. She really seemed to like what she had experienced with us in worship, but she needed to know more about what we believed before going any further. It was only after I had given her some “wrong” answers to several of her doctrinal questions that the conversation took a turn. It was when it was clear that we were not going to become her next church home that she asked me if I knew what people said about us? “You’re a dying church,” she told me. Now, she didn’t tell me who the people were who were saying this. I suspect that they were like minded believers. Intrigued by the observation, I asked her to tell me just exactly what a dying church is, and she specifically named three things: the lack of a sense of “excitement,” the general “age” of the congregation, and “numerical growth.” Our conversation has had me brooding ever since.
In my last blog I told you about my initial internal reaction to the declaration that Northway is a dying church. As I wrote last time, I could make a case Biblically that every church is a dying church, or at least ought to be. But I knew that this is not what that woman meant. She clearly did not intend her observation as a compliment. As Gene Veith, the very solid Lutheran theologian writes –
A pejorative term directed against some congregations is that they are “a dying church.” Either because most of their members are elderly, or because they don’t get a lot of new members or because they don’t seem exciting enough. I have always thought that this is a rather wicked thing to say, since we have no idea about the true spiritual life that may be pulsing inside of these Christians, however elderly or not-growing or unexciting they may be. http://www.geneveith.com
And so in my blog last week I tried to address the charge that we are an “unexciting” church, and that this is proof positive that we are dying. In one of the responses to Gene’s blog posting about dying churches, someone wrote –
I invited a Pentecostal friend to my Lutheran church. After the service, she commented that while the pastor said some good things in his sermon, she didn’t think the congregation “got it” – they seemed “spiritually dead” to her. Which started me thinking. If God hides Himself under common things like water, bread, and wine (and He does), then maybe “Christ living in us” and “the Spirit dwelling in us” are hidden under ordinary people. And only those who actually know these people as individuals know the difference Christ has made in their lives. (No one can guess the difference they, in turn, have made in many other lives.)
Bearing “false witness” is a sin; in fact it’s one of the big ten. And lest we try to excuse ourselves by thinking, “Well, that’s just the Old Testament,” we would do well to remember what Jesus said in Matthew 12:36 – “But I say unto you, that every idle word that people speak will have to be accounted for in the day of judgment.” That goes for all of the untrue and ungenerous things that we say about other churches, and for all of the untrue and ungenerous things they say about us. We could all learn from Paul in Philippians, who when told of the rival preachers who were filling the void created by his imprisonment: “Whether or not their motives are pure, the fact remains that the message about Christ is being preached, so I rejoice” (1:18).
This week what I want to try to address is the second charge that the “age” of our congregation is “proof” that we are a “dying” church. In an article he wrote for Christianity Today some 30 years ago, Peter Gillquist observed –
There is a curious difference between modern and ancient views of the Christian life. Today we emphasize the beginnings of the journey of faith; the ancients emphasized being faithful to the end… The heroes in modern evangelicalism are… born again athletes and politicians who are in the limelight with stirring testimonies of dramatic conversions. But in days gone by, it was those who had finished the course… who were counted as the heroes of the faith. (22).
“A Marathon We Are Meant to Win” was the name of that article that Peter Gillquist wrote for Christianity Today back in October of 1981, and he began it with an account of his own exploits as a competitive runner in his younger days. Nobody started better than Peter in any race in which he ever competed. He was always the fastest runner out of the blocks by far. But he never won a race, not a single one, because Peter confessed to being a lousy finisher. Then shifting his attention away from his record as a competitive runner to the New Testament’s imagery of the Christian Life as a race, Peter pointed out that “in any race there are three basic and essential components: the start, the race itself, and the finish,” and that of the three, that it’s the finish is the most critical. As he put it, “you can have the fastest time out of the starting blocks known to man… (and) you can be unbeatable on the open track, but if you drop out 50 yards short of the goal, the rest of the effort is for nothing…. When we are set apart to the Lord, his word to us is’ finish’” (23).
Take a moment to read through the seven letters at the very beginning of the book of Revelation, you’ll find them in chapters 2 and 3. And as you read, underline or circle every reference to “enduring,” “persevering,” “holding fast” and “overcoming” that you find. The book of Revelation is the very last word that the New Testament speaks to us, and the word it speaks to us is a word about hanging on and seeing our commitment to Jesus Christ through to the very end no matter what.
We just observed our annual Service of Remembrance as a congregation. This is the Sunday when we remember our faithful departed, our family members and friends who have loved God and served others in this life, and who have now taken their leave of us to enter the nearer presence of God. This is always one of the most powerful services of the church year for me because it is the memory of those who have finished the race and who have remained faithful to the very end, those who have received the crown of righteousness and heard the “well done thou good and faithful servant” (2 Timothy 4:7-8) who inspire and challenge me to greater and greater faithfulness myself. It is Christians at the end of their journeys of faith who are “exciting” by Biblical standards and not those just starting out. This is the whole point of our faith’s “hall of fame” that is Hebrews chapter 11. And yet, a congregation full of saints who are closer to the end than to the beginning of their races is dismissed and disrespected as “dying.” There’s something spiritually skewed in this perspective.
Stanley Mooneyham back when he was the President of World Vision International in the 1970’s wrote a memorable editorial for that organization’s monthly periodical in which he urged the church to let baby Christians have their babyhood! He said that there are few things more exciting than the birth of a baby in a family, and who would disagree? But only a fool would turn the family’s banking responsibilities or yard care over to that newborn! Babies cry, babies mess themselves, and babies sleep. That is what babies do. And that’s what spiritual babies do too. Friends of mine who serve churches full of young Christians tell me that they are exciting places to be, exciting and terrifying because they’re all spiritual babies. That’s not meant as criticism, as Stanley Moneyman explained, what’s cruel is expecting more from new Christians than they can possibly deliver. What they need are some old Christians, some faithful men and women who probably won’t bowl you over with their liveliness, but who will humble you with their wisdom and perseverance. This is why Paul was so clear in his instructions to Timothy about how the church in Ephesus was to be run in his absence. “An elder must not be a new Christian” (I Timothy 3:6) Paul told Timothy, “do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (I Timothy 5:22).
One of the really exciting young Christian leaders of the church in our day is Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church up in Seattle. This is a church of new Christians drawn from the grunge culture of the Pacific Northwest and not one that is built by the dissatisfaction of existing church members who are looking for a more “exciting” and “happening” place to worship. Mark pastors a rough crowd, and is a little rough around the edges himself (see “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” @ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine – but only if you aren’t easily offended!) He is given to saying and doing some outrageous things — I suspect that it’s that “baby” thing again. But at least Mark understands this about himself, and so he went out looking for someone to mentor him – someone closer to the end of the race than to its beginning who could help season him, and who he found was Dave Kraft. By his own description, Dave Kraft is a spiritual leader who “lasts.” In fact, that’s the name of his book on spiritual leadership: Leaders who Last (Crossway 2010). Mark Driscoll wrote the forward to this book, and in it he said –
Dave Kraft (a minister who is over 70 years old) has helped me lead better and last longer. A few years back I was basically burned out in every way. The combination of the fast growth of our church, my lack of experience, and the immaturity of our organizational structures left me completely overextended. I was working out of my area of gifting, and it was literally breaking me, though I was only in my mid-thirties. My adrenal glands were fatigued. I could not sleep. I was seriously discouraged, exhausted and frustrated. At that time God brought into my life a handful of ministry and business leaders who were older, wiser and humble enough to serve me. (and) Pastor Dave Kraft was one of those men. …A few years later, I can easily say that I am in the best season of my life. The weight of ministry has not changed, but by God’s grace, I keep changing. …Sadly, too few Christian leaders finish well, and the value of a combination of grace and wisdom cannot be overvalued. …And this is the investment that Pastor Dave Kraft made in me.
Instead of dismissing an older believer as “dying,” Mark Driscoll consciously turned to one in Dave Kraft for the wisdom and grace that he himself was lacking. Mark didn’t need Dave to be just an older version of himself. What Mark needed was for Dave to be precisely who he was, and then from that rich storehouse of experience and insight, to share some of those gifts with him. It was together – the young and the old – the explosive and the experienced – the experimental and the traditional – the just getting started and the almost finished – that Mark discovered that not only were they better together, but that this is exactly how God intended His church to work and grow.
Northway isn’t “dying” because we are an older, more established community of believers. There can be no living church without believers like us in it. No, if Northway is “dying,” then there are other reasons. And that’s what I want to explore with you in my next posting.