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Churches on the brink have an interesting decision to make. They can sit on the precipice of irrelevance, close their eyes and pretending things will get better if they do what they have always done, choosing to believe that eventually what used to work will work again. They can choose to quit, just walk away from the community and the calling that started it all, or they can make a decision to change, to take a long hard look at who they were, who they are, and who they want to become. This third one is what the church we pastor has chosen. There is a constant struggle at our church to move forward; some still think the way it was is how it will be again if we do things like we used to, others don’t mind if some things change, but others just can’t be touched. It’s a catch 22 at times, but it’s also a wake up call for all church leaders.
My experience has been that most churches live backwards, but they don’t call it living backwards. There are all sorts of neat Christian terms that can be used to describe the insular world that churches seem to inhabit, and it’s foolish to think that the only sign of a backward living church is small numbers, old music, and old traditions. Large churches can be in just as much trouble.
Studying this week in Revelation, it says this about the Church in Ephesus, one of the seven churches of Asia:
“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lamp stand from its place among the churches.” – Revelation 2:4-5 (NLT, Second Edition)
This verse struck me, and I started to dig deeper. I realized that in the beginning of the letter. it starts out with all sorts of things they were doing right. They were vigilant, they were sure about how to do things, knew what to look for in a leader or speaker. They recognized when things were off spiritually, willingly called out false teaching, they had the mechanics of their faith down, they had developed the habit of Christianity, the habit of church, but somewhere they forgot that there was more to a life of faith than the mechanics.
This is where we find ourselves at my church, and I think a lot of churches, if they looked objectively at their ministry, might be at the same point. It’s hard to look objectively – it requires not just looking at things we do as a church with a critical eye but also with fingers on the delete key. Then as if that isn’t enough, you have to have a clear idea of what, if anything, replaces what you have removed. A clear idea of why we are placed in a community is important, but it’s more than that – how do churches today live out the message of Jesus? How do we move from habit to being habitable? To a living breathing community of believers, out in the world, being Jesus with skin, a place where people can come and live a life of faith that grows, evolves, impacts? The answer is actually fairly simple, it’s the implementation that is hard.
“I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” – Matthew 25:35-36 (NLT, Second Edition)
This is what first love looks like, at least as far as I can tell. If our churches could get back to this form of Christianity, this form of doing church, our communities would look different, our gatherings would be more diverse, our faith would grow beyond what we could imagine, and our lives would become a sweet smelling savor in the halls of heaven.
How do you make sure your church is habitable? Share with us in the comments!
Pastor Aaron has been in ministry for 20 plus years. After graduating from Southeastern University with a degree in church ministry, he worked as a youth pastor, young adult pastor, and was involved in leadership in the North West District of the Christian Churches of North America as assistant district youth director. He has also worked in the non-profit sector doing job development and training, and private contract work as an IT professional.