This morning over my third cup of coffee, I was thinking about some churches I know that are experiencing diminishing congregations, a mass exodus of Gen X and Gen Y attendees, and a lost focus outside their own church box. The phrase that popped in my mind was “Ichabod,” the Glory of the Lord has departed.
But then immediately in my gut, I felt that was wrong. Completely wrong. As long as people are there, the Spirit of God will be there. That’s a given. God loves human beings, it’s just not in his nature to abandon us, so wherever we are, especially if our hearts are inclined toward him in anyway, the Spirit of God will be there.
I remembered a few years ago when I was driving home from work, the car radio tuned to a Christian talk show where listeners called in and asked questions about the bible. At one point, they were debating “the End Times” and when and how the Holy Spirit will be removed from the planet, and then Evil would be given free rein. And as I listened, I knew instinctively that they were wrong. They assumed some event would occur in history that would cause God to depart from this planet and turn his back on humanity. Of course before that occurred, all the saints would have been gathered up in a great rapture and pulled into his heavenly bosom. The poor wretches left on earth would suffer through some arbitrary number of years of incredible and unimaginable misery before God would return and reimpose his reign physically on the cosmos.
And in my gut I knew that was dead wrong. We can be so glib sometimes when we say that “God is love” and then go on to attribute horrific and spiteful acts to him. What I sensed at that moment was that as long as human beings existed on this planet, the Spirit of God would be there living among them. Tribulation or no tribulation, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Even in the darkest moments of our history, God was — and will continue to be — close to those who reach out for him. To deny that is to deny the very character of God.
So when I was thinking about these poor churches, having lost their vision, lost their way, floundering in a sea of mediocrity and irrelevance, making no impact whatsoever in the world around them, acting only as a weekend social club for the same familiar faces week after week, it was very tempting for me to fall into that same trap and think that God would abandon them. But the truth is, as long as there is a living, breathing soul in that congregation who is seeking God with even an ounce of their strength, I do not believe the Spirit will abandon them. That church ain’t dead. It may be on critical life support, just waiting for someone to pull the plug, but it’s never too late.
My job, then, as a member of the faithful community is not to wish them ill, or to pray for their speedy and merciful demise, or even to sit back with my bowl of popcorn and watch the slow, painful, inevitable conclusion unfold. As cliché as it sounds, my job is — should be — to pray for them. I may not feel inclined to dedicate my life’s energy into trying to revive them — most dying churches are dying for a reason. They are usually resistant to change. They are often locked within the trap of their own limited vision, usually anchored in some romanticized moment in the past, and usually focused inward, too preoccupied with self-survival, and too out of touch with the world around them. They often have become “of no earthly good.” But I can still pray that God will at least stir one or two of them with the hunger for more. I can pray that their leaders’ eyes will be opened to see clearly what is happening, and that they will reach out to God in a real way, beyond a perfunctory routine of simply walking through a Sunday liturgy. I can pray like the Apostle Paul that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened and that they will know the great hope to which they are called. I can pray that even if there is just a corner of their hearts that has not yet turned to stone, that they will look outward and see the people around them, and be moved with genuine love and compassion to do something other than turning on the lights Sunday morning for an hour and then going home. I can pray that the Spirit, who is still there — even if constrained by their lost interest and their restricted time table — will be unleashed to work among them. The church is dead only when everyone in the church is dead.
I learned this morning not to so quickly write off churches that seem to be failing — at least from my viewpoint. As that old prophet Ezekiel discovered, even a valley full of dry bones is no match for the breath of God. As long as people are still there, the Spirit is still there, lurking, waiting to breathe new life.
Even where the pulse is weak, those churches aren’t dead. There’s still hope — just like there is for the old guy needing that third cup of coffee in the morning.
photo credit: Ally on Flickr, cc
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.