This past week we had the privilege of having the staff from Capitol Hill Church of God with us here at Britton Christian Church. I had received a phone call two weeks ago from Rev. Davis who said that she had been told that they had to come and visit us – that it would be an encouragement to them. We set an appointment and this week it took place.
Pastor Ross Craig described their situation to me. Capitol Hill Church of God was once a thriving congregation many years ago. Today, the long-time white church is sitting in a neighborhood that is largely Hispanic, but with a smaller number of black and white folks. The church has lost touch. They want to reach out, but some of the members don’t want to lose their identity or have their church changed.
Pastor Craig and Rev. Davis, a black woman from Brooklyn, New York who has what she described as a heart for the city, know that God is leading them to move out into the community and make an impact for the Kingdom. They are struggling just to keep Rev. Davis on a meager, part-time salary for her full-time work.
I showed them the video that highlights our many ministries and they were bug-eyed. They heard the story of how we once were a church near death, struggling just to survive. With desperation in their voices they asked Ray and I to pray for them and they said, “We must have you come and speak to our people. Would you please come?”
I will be going to Capitol Hill Church of God in the near future to share with them and try to encourage them to be a lighthouse of hope in their community. I will share with them the same message that I have shared with many struggling churches all over the country – God can and will do extraordinary things through ordinary people who trust in their extraordinary God!
There is a very disturbing trend that has captured my heart for some time now. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear news of another church closing or receive a phone call from a pastor who is struggling to keep the doors open. In the eight years that I have been here there are some key
indicators that the Lord has clearly defined for me as I have visited with struggling churches.
The vast majority of the struggling churches that I have spoken with are older churches that are located in urban settings. They are churches that have a long history of ministry and they are still trying minister like they did in the “old days.”
They are historically white congregations who are now in ethnically and racially mixed neighborhoods.
They lack young, dynamic, visionary leadership. Young, dynamic leaders like the men and women of the Leadership Training Center who have a passion for God. Young, visionary leaders like these are being offered larger salaries by suburban congregations. Because of limited funds, urban churches can’t compete for their leadership skills.
They are churches that have decided that they must turn inward to preserve their history and future. They are afraid of losing their identity and particular style of ministry and worship. In response to their fear these churches turn inward, concerned only for their members, and forgetting the call of Jesus to be a servant and win the lost to Christ.
These are four distinguishing marks of churches in decline that I have seen over and over again throughout the last eight years. I’m sure some of you are thinking to yourself, “But we aren’t dying, so what’s the big deal?” Others are thinking, “I’m just glad that’s not us.”
That just won’t cut it folks. It is not enough for us to sit back and enjoy the fruits of God’s blessing in our church and community while our brothers and sisters in other urban settings are gasping for life. Furthermore, not only are our sister churches gasping for life, but because of their decline our neighborhoods are declining. The two are so interwoven that they cannot be separated. The life of the community is dependent upon the life of the church.
There is no debate that there is something wrong with America today. We hear so much about the problems that are plaguing us, but it seems like most of the solutions being offered are tied to government intervention instead of soul transformation. The remedy for our ills is not, and never will be, the government. The prescription for what ails us is the Gospel and the crucible of the Gospel is the Church – the people of God. When the Church is hurting, lacking vision, and gasping for air, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the community will suffer the same ailments.
Jesus established His Church to make an impact on the world – one life at a time, one neighborhood at a time. Let me share with you the faith Jesus had in the Church that He would establish. Take a look at Matthew 16:13-19 so that we can get the full flavor of Jesus’ comments.
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14″Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15Then he asked them, “Who do you say I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. 18Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” 9And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you lock on earth will be locked in heaven, and whatever you open on earth will be opened in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19)
There were those in society who misunderstood Jesus – Who He was, His purpose, and His mission. Peter understood clearly – You are the Messiah, the Hope of the world, the Salvation of God! What difference did it make? What difference does it make today if we are a little cloudy about Jesus,His mission, His purpose, and His call upon each of our lives? I say it makes all of the difference in the world, or maybe I should say “for the world.”
If we do not understand what Peter understood then we will never experience the fullness of purpose and passion of heart that Jesus intends for us as His followers. Furthermore, the world will lose out. The world without you, each and every one of you who are disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, is lost with no hope of ever coming to know Jesus. We have been drafted to join the ranks of those who selflessly give of themselves to carry the message that Jesus is the salvation of God sent to deliver lostpeople from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God!
When Peter spoke with clarity about who Jesus was, Jesus said, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. 18Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” “Upon this rock I will build My Church and
the gates of hell will not prevail!” The gates of hell will not prevail! I would suggest to you today that there are visible and numerable signs that the gates of hell are prevailing all around us. The problems that thesociologists continually remind us of are indicators that the gates of hell are prevailing. Divorce, suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse, rape, murder – all of these are signs that the gates of hell are prevailing. Every time you hear the church doors slam for the last time – the gates of hell are prevailing. Every time we run into a follower of Jesus that is unclear about who Jesus is and what His mission is in our day – you ought to be reminded that the gates of hell are prevailing.
What we are seeing in our day is not what was on the heart of Jesus when He looked into Peter’s eyes and, with passion in His voice said, “I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”
The question that is before us is this, “How do we push back the forces of darkness and send the gates of hell running with its tail between its legs?” The answer is not difficult my friends. We don’t need a social scientist to address us this morning. We don’t need a government official to offer us new programs to help us push back the darkness. We simply need to get back to where we were called in the beginning. We must recapture the heart of our Savior and allow Him to work through us to do His will, rather than our wishes.
Jesus came to save the world, not the steeple. Jesus offered His life for the lost, not those who believe that they know the way. Jesus came for the broken, the afflicted, the downtrodden, the outcast, the marginalized, the hurting, the sick, the despairing, the despised – to give them, to give us, hope and a future.
The gates of hell are prevailing today because we have lost that vision. We have lost the desire to look out of our churches to those who are crying, those who are dying apart from Jesus. We’ve lost the yearning to come alongside of those who are stooped over with sin, those who believe they can’t begin again. We’ve turned in and huddled up with one another seeking to keep “them” out. We spend all of our money on blessing us instead of reaching them. We plan our meetings based upon what we want to do instead of what they need to bring an end to their search for the Savior. We love us and we neglect them.
This past week I was reacquainted with an old friend whose music has touched my life in a deep way. Keith Green died almost twenty years ago, but his music lives on as fresh and challenging as it was the day he sang it. Keith had his thumb on the pulse of the Church and he wrote a song that hits at the heart of what I am speaking about his morning. The song is called, “Asleep In The Light.” Let me share it with you.
Do you see, do you see
All the people sinking down
Don’t you care, don’t you care
Are you gonna let them drown
How can you be do numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done
“Oh bless me lore, bless me Lord”
You know it’s all I ever hear
No one aches, no one hurts
No one even sheds one tear
But He cries, He weeps, He bleeds
And He cares for you needs
And you just lay back
And keep soaking it in
Oh can’t you see it’s such a sin
‘Cause He brings people to you door
And you turn them away
As you smile and say
“God bless you, be at peace”
And all heaven just weeps
‘Cause Jesus came to you door
You’ve left him out on the streets
Open up open up
And give yourself away
You see the need, you hear the cries
So how can you delay
God’s calling and you’re the one
But like Jonah you run
He’s told you to speak
But you keep holding it in
Of can’t you see it’s such a sin
The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can’t fight
‘Cause it’s asleep in the light
How can you be so dead
When you’ve been so well fed
Jesus rose from the grave
And you, you can’t even get out of bed
Oh, Jesus rose from the dead
Come on get out of your bed
How can you be so numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done
Don’t close your eyes
Don’t pretend the jobs done
“Come away, come away, come away with me my love
Come away, come away, come away with me my love”
Keith Green called the Church to accountability, to faithfulness, to the heart of Jesus whose heart is broken by the lost, the weary, and the broken. Instead of spending so much time listening to hymns we need to spend more time listening to the cries of those Jesus died for who are struggling to survive! We need to follow in the footsteps of our Savior who became a servant so that He might win the world for the Kingdom of God. As long as we cater to self we can never selflessly serve the people of our community who need Jesus.
What does it mean to be a servant? Good question. “Servant” in our English New Testament usually represents the Greek “doulos” (bondslave). Sometimes it means “diakonos” (deacon or minister); “Doulos” and “diakonos” are synonyms. Both words describe a person who is not free to do what they want, but they are their master’s purchased property. A servant serves his master’s needs, to be at his beck and call every moment, the slave’s sole business is to do as he is told. Christian service therefore means, first and foremost, living out a slave relationship to the Savior (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
If Jesus is our Master, then what work does He give to us? The way that weserve Him, He tells us, is by becoming the slaves of others – to be willing to do literally anything, however costly, in order to help them come to know Him. This is what love means, this is what being servant looks like. This is what Jesus showed us at the Last Supper when he played the slave’s part and washed the disciples’ feet.
This is not too much to ask. It is not beyond our capabilities, that is unless you seek to serve in your own power. To be a servant, bought and controlled by the Master, means that we allow the Spirit of God to work through us what we could never do ourselves. Let me give you and example. In 1878, when William Booth’s Salvation Army was beginning to make its mark, men and women from all over the world began to enlist. One man, who had once dreamed of becoming a bishop, crossed the Atlantic from America to England to enlist. Samuel Brengle left a fine pastorate to join the Salvation Army. But at first General Booth accepted his services reluctantly and grudgingly. Booth said to Brengle, “You’ve been your own boss too long.” And in order to instill humility in Brengle, he set him to work cleaning the boots of other trainees. Discouraged, Brengle said to himself, “Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?” And then, as in a vision, he saw Jesus bending over the feet of rough fishermen. “Lord,” he whispered, “you washed their feet; I will black their shoes.” (Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome, K Hughes, Tyndale, 1988, p. 45) Jesus describes His own ministry by tagging Himself as a servant. Jesus said, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The followers of Jesus were single-minded in their desire to follow in their Master’s steps. Paul said,
19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Paul said, “I know what I prefer, I know the songs I want to sing, the way I want to live and worship, the people I want to socialize with, but I am not my own – I am my Master’s slave. I will do whatever He asks me to do – I will become a slave to all people so that I might win someone for the sake of the Gospel!
I will promise you my friend that if we would but return to this mentality – if we would glory in being a slave to the Master, then things would change. The gates of hell would not prevail! The world would know that there is hope as long as there is a Savior!
The Church must repent of our ways. We must stop aiming to entertain and aim to serve. We must listen to the cries of those who are hurting and ask God what He wants to do. We must stop building holy clubs and open the hospital of hope where those who are sick and beaten down can find the Master Physician!
You say, “But that is risky. What if God calls me to serve someone that I don’t understand or don’t really care about? What if I don’t feel competent? What if While we are asking our questions Jesus weeps at our lack of faith in Him. I don’t want to deny that it is scary, that we are not competent, or that Jesus will most definitely call us to a mission that we don’t feel confident about, but He is faithful.
You know me after all of these years. You know that I love a challenge. You know that I am convinced that even though with people things are limited, with God all things are possible. With all of that said let me tell you that a few months ago the Lord laid before me a mission that I have never felt more anxiety ridden about. Let me tell you the story.
A wonderful woman of God in our congregation came to my office and said, “Mike, God has given me a vision that I want to share with you.” That’s exciting and I wanted to hear what God had been doing in her life. She said, “God gave me a vision of a hospice house for people dying with AIDS. We would start a ministry to share with them the love of Jesus as they face the end of their life.” Then she said something that saddens my heart today as I have had time to think about it. She said, “What do you think our people would think about that kind of ministry? Do you think they would go for it?” I told her, “I think you are asking the wrong question.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, I don’t think that should be the question that concerns us. What I want to know is – would Jesus be involved in that ministry?” Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh yes!” I said, “Then we should do what Jesus would do.” A short time later she came back and gave us her home to be used for this ministry. That is commitment folks. As we have been talking about beginning a ministry to those who are dying with AIDS I have been very up front about the fact that I know absolutely nothing about this kind of ministry. The more that I have thought about it there have not only been questions of my lack of knowledge, but the Enemy has whispered “what ifs” in my ear. You may not know, but the Church has done a much better job of condemning people with AIDS as people who have gotten what they deserve than we have at reaching out to them with the love and grace of Jesus. One Christian leader even said AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuals. The Enemy has used that to cause me to wonder what will the Church say about me? I want you to know that I am not in that spot today. I’m not wondering what other Christians will say about me, I’m looking forward to what those who move into the Barnabas House will say about Jesus after they’ve been loved, prayed for, and compassionately cared for by Christians who are love their Master enough to love them!
I had a meeting with a couple of folks from our church and a lady named Cookie this past week. Cookie is the most visible person in Oklahoma as far as AIDS is concerned. She was a Social Worker at University Hospital in the early ’80’s when the AIDS epidemic began. She said that she was given the task of dealing with those who came to the hospital who were dying of AIDS. The experience broke her heart and it has led to a life-time commitment to help those who are suffering from this fatal disease.
After sharing with Cookie what we felt called to do, she said, “Thank God. There is no place for these people to die in Oklahoma City. There is housing for those who have AIDS, but not a place for them to die.” What Cookie told us confirmed information that we had received that the Body of Christ was nowhere to be found when it came to those suffering with AIDS in Oklahoma City. We are ministering to all kinds of folks in all kinds of settings, but nobody dares to go to those who are dying with AIDS. What a great place for Jesus to lead us!
There needs to be God’s people, His ambassadors if you will, present with those who are facing death from AIDS. During the month of December, Cookie buried 7 of her people. Last Monday night 190 people with AIDS visited her food pantry that has been set up for people that are HIV positive. But where is the Church? Where are the people of God who can give them the hope that rests only in Jesus? Where is the Church? We are absent. We are busy doing Bible study and fellowshipping with one another while the world suffers and dies. God has raised up the Barnabas House as a lighthouse of hope for those who are most despised in our society that they might find encouragement and hope in Jesus as they face the end of their life. I can’t wait to see what God is going to do as we begin this new ministry. I can’t wait to see how many people are going to come to know the love of our precious Savior through ordinary folks who bring them meals, pray with them, fold their clothes, vacuum their floor, sing them songs of faith, and serve them as if they were Jesus Himself.