The Richmond Times-Dispatch announced last Sunday that the congregation of Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Springs made the difficult decision to close their doors. Founded in 1918, the membership role had declined in recent decades to 18 people.
Reading the article saddened me. Churches rarely get positive media coverage. More often than not, if a church is in the news, it’s because the place is either closing, embroiled in denominational conflict, or battling some sort of clerical scandal. It did get me thinking though.
What’s it going to take for Kingsway to remain a vibrant, healthy congregation in Midlothian 100 years from now?
I won’t be around by then and neither will any of you. So do we just throw up our hands, trust God, and let the chips fall where they may? Or are there things we can do today to position Kingsway for success tomorrow? The Bible answers that question with a resounding yes! Here are seven of the most important things we can do now to ensure the long-term health of the church we love. Note: this is part one in a seven part series.
1) We need to regularly remind one another that only Jesus builds the church
A sinister temptation lurks in my heart as a pastor. Jesus did his part to save God’s people. Now it’s my turn. Now it’s your turn. Now it’s our turn to get our disciple-making, leadership training, and fundraising act together and finish the job.
The competition is fierce. Larger church with more money lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce on disillusioned members. Non-Christians have to be perfectly welcomed, sensitively counseled, and thoroughly integrated into community or else they’ll run right back to the golf course. If your graphics don’t rival the Apple website, or at least keep up with the congregation next door, don’t expect to grow anytime soon. And don’t forget, growth is really a numbers game. CEOs grow profit margins. Pastors grow Sunday attendees. Get it done or else you too will wind up on the ash heap of church history.
That’s an obvious lie. But it is oh so tempting to believe. Why? Because the pride in my heart wants to watch our church grow and say, “I made it happen.” Are biblically faithful sermons important? Yes. Does generous giving make a difference? Absolutely. But podcast subscribers and 15 million dollar budgets don’t build churches. Jesus does.
“I will build my church.” (Matt 16:18)
“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor 3:7)
If we are faithfully sharing the gospel with people in our community who are not following Jesus, we should expect our membership to grow (Act 2:47). If we are faithfully preaching God’s Word on Sunday mornings we should expect hungry Christians to want to stay (Acts 5:14). But when membership Sunday rolls around later this month and you see a line of people standing at the front of the auditorium, eager to be joined to our church body, don’t think we did that, or the pastors did that, or the members in general did that. Human beings don’t build the church. Human beings don’t grow the church. Jesus does. If Kingsway is around 100 years from now, it will be for the simple reason that God graciously chose to keep building our church for the glory of his name.
We also need to remember that when Jesus promised to build his church, he wasn’t talking about a specific, local congregation. He was talking about the universal company of the redeemed. Church history is full of faithful congregations who opened their doors and closed their doors, having fulfilled God’s purpose in their generation. We shouldn’t think that if a church closes their doors it must mean they did something wrong.
At the same time, there is strong, Biblical precedent for expecting faithful, local churches to last more than one generation. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we’re committed to partnering with parents in our community to help them disciple their kids. Faithful, gospel ministry is almost always multi-generational ministry.
“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” (Ps 78:5-7)
What exactly a local church needs to do in order to last more than one generation is the subject of this blog series. But let’s begin by reminding one another that even if we faithfully do all that God has commanded us, we can never take credit for building the church. Only Jesus does that. And wonder of all wonders, he’s doing it through redeemed sinners like you and me.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure , being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph 2:19-22).