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Archive for June, 2021

How Churches Die

In the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, Christ addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor. His words to the church at Sardis were these: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!” (Revelation 3:1). What if someone said this about the church you attend? I cannot imagine any criticism that would be more devastating.

Christ’s message to the church at Sardis is a warning to all churches that are living on past glory. Dr. Vance Havner several years ago reminded us that spiritual ministries go through four stages: a man, a movement, a machine, and a monument. The church at Sardis had reached the monument stage. Even so, there was still hope for it because Christ was Head of the church and He was able to bring it to life.

No church’s man-made programs will ever be able to bring life, any more than a circus can resurrect a corpse. The church was initially born when the Spirit of God descended on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and to this day the life of a church comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, when is a church dead?

First, it is dead when it worships the past. Memories are comforting and reassuring, but they are not always stimulating. We can look back with thanksgiving for all that was accomplished for God’s glory in the past. The church in Sardis was resting on its reputation. The same thing is true of many churches today.

Second, a church is dead when it loves success more than Christ. It is easy to think of a church with a large membership as being more successful than a church with only a few members. Size of membership is not what determines the success of a church. The body of Christ is to be light, salt, and leaven in the world. To be successful it must be and do what God wants it to be and do, not what agrees with and serves the culture around it. The church at Sardis tolerated Sardis; it did not transform it.

Third, a church is dead when its members are spiritually dead. A church comes alive when its members are filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they study, share, and serve. A dead church can be raised to new life in Christ only when its members yield themselves to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus challenged the church at Sardis to wake up. He also challenges any church today that has the reputation of being dead to wake up. No lethargic church is acceptable to Him. Spreading the gospel throughout the world requires a consistent commitment. Christ wanted faithfulness from the church at Sardis. No church can accomplish the mission that Christ has assigned for it to accomplish unless its members live out a style of life motivated by Christ, lived in freedom, expressed in service, and communicated with joy.

Fourth, a church is dead when it has forgotten that its primary mission is to introduce others to Christ. Today all across America there are churches that are growing smaller and smaller because they have forgotten the importance of “the Great Commission” (see Matthew 28:19-20). The surest way to know that a church is alive is to see that its members are introducing others to Jesus Christ.

Fishing for souls in many of our churches today is like fishing for fish in a bathtub. They are not there. To catch souls, we must do what Jesus did – go where they are.

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At the beginning of time, God placed history’s first couple, Adam and Eve, in the purity of that primal paradise called the Garden of Eden. After giving the bride away, God Himself performed their marriage and pronounced His blessing. Woman is God’s gift to man. Man is God’s gift to woman.

Every marriage is in reality the dawning of a new day. It is ushered in with joy and anticipation and perhaps some anxiety. Will marriage be all that you hoped for? Will love remain as large as it was at the altar? Will your loved one always be as beautiful as at the beginning? Will life together be as wonderful as you thought it would be? These and other questions hover over the beginning of every new home.

The wedding day is every couple’s special day. You anticipate it. You plan for it. Family members and friends wish you well. Following the wedding your life together begins. Like magic and in the matter of minutes everything changes. You now live together in the intimacies of an entirely new and different relationship.

Everything prior to your wedding day in some ways may have seemed artificial. You met under favorable circumstances. Following your wedding day you realize that life now cannot be artificial, for you live so close together. You will be together always – when circumstances are favorable and unfavorable; when you are prepared and when you are unprepared; when you are rested and when you are fatigued; in sunshine and in struggle. Yours is a shared life now that your wedding day is in your rearview mirror.

Marriage is a multiplier. It has an infinite capacity to multiply problems, sorrow, heartache, and suffering if lovers become lax in their efforts to make each other happy. Sharing the deepest levels of life with joy does not happen automatically. It takes planning, purpose, and constant watchfulness. Thus a married partner should not hesitate to always give his or her best. An unknown author expressed it this way: 

“Now life calls you to a quest;
To laugh, to love, to work, to play,
To serve, to sacrifice, to pray.
Life calls – give it your best.”

For all of this you will need humility, honesty, and mutual helpfulness. You will be sustained by the shared strength and comfort of one another and of God. Each wedding is a reminder that the loving hand of our heavenly Father withholds no good thing from you. He opens for each partner a paradise of possibilities.

Following every wedding the bride and groom set sail on what has often been called an uncharted sea. Yet it is not uncharted. There are maps. Stars still shine. Heaven and earth are interested in helping you. And God promises to give you guidance along the way. John Keble expressed it this way:

“The voice that breathed o’er Eden,
The earliest wedding day,
The primal marriage blessing,
It hath not passed away.”

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Every person, sooner or later, will face adversity; some more often than others. The difficulties we face have the power to develop our character, our strength, and our minds. Or they can totally defeat us.

A gemologist uses a grinding stone to make a diamond shine with radiance, but that same stone can reduce a solid rock to dust. In that same way the adversity we face can either grind us down or polish us, depending upon the material out of which we are made. Out of what kind of material are you made?

If what you are doing meets with no resistance, it is very likely not worth doing. Consider these facts: without the resistance of water, ships could not float. Without the resistance of air, planes could not fly. Without the resistance of gravity, humans would float out into space.

The difficulties we face in life have the power to either make us or break us – our attitude determines which it will be. Attitude overcomes adversity. Eddie Gilbert, a member of Temple Baptist Church in Wilmington where I worship every Sunday, is an outstanding example of this. In spite of the fact that he has been confined to a wheelchair for several decades, he is one of the most radiant Christians I know.

He experiences the debilitating effects of physical handicaps every single day that would grind the vast majority of all adults down to a nub. Everyone who meets him is immediately impressed by his contagious smile. He has been given the responsibility each Sunday of ringing the chimes to signal the beginning of morning worship. It is one thing he can do, and he does it with enthusiasm and joy.

Eddie lives on the block behind our church. A few years ago when he was a member of the church choir his battery-powered wheelchair could be seen coming across the street every Wednesday night on the way to choir practice. His dedication is proof that a pound of example is worth a ton of advice.

On a Wednesday night more than a decade ago, a driver did not see Eddie entering the street in time and bumped his wheelchair over, knocking him out of the chair and onto the street. Those who saw what had happened were alarmed and immediately wanted to call an ambulance to carry him to the hospital emergency room. He would not listen to the suggestion. “I can’t do that,” he said, “I’ve got to go to choir practice.” He pushed the lever forward on his wheelchair and headed toward the church.

Eddie is an inspiration to everybody who knows him. Some people grumble and complain and whine because they have a hangnail or a minor toothache, and I have known lots of people like this. They could learn a lot about dealing with adversity from Eddie’s dedication and grit.

Adversity is never pleasant to face, but it has the power to teach us valuable lessons that we cannot learn in any other way. While it makes some people better, it makes other people bitter. That is why those who face it with the wrong attitude are left ground down and defeated.

Consider these elementary facts: (1) A rubber band is effective only when it is stretched; (2) A turtle gets nowhere until it sticks its neck out; (3) A kite rises against the wind, not with the wind; (4) Sweet herbs give off their finest fragrance only when pressed; (5) Music would have no melody without the minor keys.

You do not have to let adversity defeat you. If you trust God, He will teach you how to “Do all things (even face adversity) without complaining” (Philippians 2:14).

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Physicians tell us that we are what we eat. This is true not only of our physical body, but also of our soul. Our physical bodies depend upon food and water in order to live. Our spiritual nature also has appetites that must be satisfied or we become sickly and weak. This is why Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Jesus Christ is the bread of life, and He alone can satisfy. He said, “I am the bread of life: he who comes to me shall never hunger; and he who believes on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). It is tragic when people hunger and thirst for the wrong things. The prodigal son yearned for excitement and popularity, and he found them in the far country. But they did not last, and he became hungry again.

What are the hungers in your life? What are the longings that you yearn to have satisfied? Jesus tells us that the only way to be genuinely satisfied (“filled”) is to hunger and thirst after righteousness. Only a hunger for holiness fills the soul and satisfies the appetite of the inner person. But what is holiness?

To the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, holiness was conformity to rules – an external thing that completely overlooked the needs of the inner person. A mere external piety, born of pride and nurtured by the praise of others, is not holiness. If the beatitudes teach us anything, it is that holiness begins in the heart. The words whole and holy belong in the same family. Sin divides and destroys, but holiness unites and builds. Holiness is the basic attribute of God. When you hunger for holiness you hunger for God. To have God in your life is to experience wholeness.

To be righteous means to be right – right with God, right with self, and right with others. When you hunger and thirst for God, you begin to function in the way that God created you to function. Instead of running from one substitute to another, seeking, you become increasingly dissatisfied with sin. You move in the direction of God who provides wholeness.

The word blessed in the beatitudes describes joy – the kind of joy that has its secret within itself, that is serene and untouchable and self-contained, that is completely independent of the chances and changes of life. Human happiness is generally thought to be dependent on the chances and changes of life. We say, “I will be happy if certain things happen.” The happiness that God provides is possessed by those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. “Your joy, said Jesus, “no man can take from you” (John 16:22).

It must have come as a surprise to His listeners when Jesus equated holiness with happiness. They had seen the Pharisees practice an inadequate brand of holiness, and they did not seem very happy. They had the wrong idea of holiness. They thought of happiness in terms of negatives. In other words, they were better known for what they were against than what they were for. Unfortunately, this is also true of a lot of Christians today. Their Christian experience is a painful bondage instead of a glorious liberty.

Christians often think they can satisfy their hunger and thirst for righteousness by being involved in multiplied church activities. Actually it is not through multiplied activities but in the simplifying of life that we experience the deepest satisfaction in Christ. The Apostle Paul said, “This one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13), not “These 15 or 20 things I do.” There is no shortcut to happiness or holiness. All you have to do is to hunger – to hunger to be more like Christ.

Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? If so, Jesus said, “You shall be filled.”

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