Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.
And God said to John the Seer, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In this simple statement at the beginning of John’s Revelation, God reaffirms that He is the beginning and the end. And as we enter this season of Easter and prepare for Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, we must ask ourselves the very simple question, “Is this the beginning or the end?”
Is this time the beginning or renewal of the church? Will the joy and hope stated on Easter Sunday be carried forth into the world? Or will this be the end of the church, both as we know it and as it should be?
Now, the church that I speak of is on several levels. There is the local church, the denomination, and the church in general. It is possible that there are some local churches for which this season is a very painful reminder that they are dying.
Such churches are losing members and live in a part of the country where the population is moving away. This is the case with many rural areas of our country. The people are moving away because there is no future in small towns with limited resources and equally limited opportunities. Churches in this area are getting “older” and everyone involved with such churches know that, when the last member dies or moves away to be closer to the family that left the area many years before, the church will close and a long history of community involvement and the preaching of the Gospel will simply be a matter for local historians.
And the denomination will say that it is a waste of time to put a pastor into such a community because there is essentially no community to support the pastor. I think this is wrong; I think this is one area where denominations need to think of how the early church developed and adopt similar techniques. What is to say that you can pick one or two pastors and locate them in central parts of this rural areas? Then give each of these pastors a motor home and let them drive to the areas where the people are and preach the Gospel. In other words, bring back the circuit rider. Use the motor home as a base so that the pastor can stay in one area for an extended period of time (say Thursday of one week to Tuesday of the next week with Wednesday used as a travel day). This way, people have the pastoral care they need and people will know that they have not been forgotten.
There are also some local churches that are dying but are in areas of population growth. These are churches that have to look at who they are and what they are saying to the community around them. A dying church in an area of growth is one filled with internal sickness, often caused by personality clashes and disagreements between members. These are the churches that we need to focus on, for if we do not, then any efforts to build new churches are going to fail as well.
Denominations must put resources into those churches that are losing members while the area around them is growing. This is often contrary to normal practices; churches that are dying should just be left to die and the resources that could be used to save them better spent on more worthwhile projects. But the people are there where that church is and the church must be where the people are, it is that simple. The problem is typically compounded because denominations often send in beginning pastors, pastors without experience and then leave them to their own resources. If they survive, they are rewarded with a more stable church. But if they are not successful, then there is a strong possibility that they will leave the ministry, haunted by the failure to turn around a dying church.
I think that we need to reward pastors for the good work that they do in building a church. But I also think that we need to identify such pastors and have them help those churches that are dying. To do this is going to take some serious reconsideration as to how pastors are assigned and who pays their salaries. The smaller churches get the younger, inexperienced pastors because that is all they can afford. But it is the experience pastors that are desperately needed in such churches. Since these churches cannot pay the salaries these pastors will require, the various denominations must work out a different type of compensation plan whereby salaries are paid in part by the central organization and in part by the local church. If we continue sending young or inexperience pastors into churches with problems, we are likely to see more and more problems. The solution is there if we are willing to see it.
On the denominational level, we are faced with similar problems. My denomination, the United Methodist Church, is showing a continuing decline in church membership. And I fear that the solutions that are being considered will do more harm than good.
Thomas told his fellow disciples and friends that he would only believe in the Resurrection when he was able to see and touch Christ. And when he does see and touch Christ, he is chided for his lack of faith. As Jesus says, “others will come to believe without touching or seeing.”
How are the others to do that? It will be because of what we say, what we do, and how we act in this world. The mission of the church as described in Acts is one where people of faith told others what they had seen and done. The book that describes the early church is called the Acts of the Apostles because it is a description of what the Apostles did, not just what they said.
And when the world looks at the denominations of the church today, what is it that it sees? It sees a body of people squabbling over matters that are not in the Bible while ignoring the very core issues of the Bible. It sees preachers in expensive suits and with extravagant life styles preaching a false gospel. The world today sees a church, both at the denominational level and the general church level, as hypocritical, bigoted, and exclusive. It reads in the Bible of a man who walked among the people and turned no one away, who challenged religious and political authorities to do the right thing, and who gave His life so that others could live.
This very well can be the end of the church, at all levels, if we are not willing to change. But if we are willing to change; if we are willing to lead the life that was the life of the early church, then this time has the chance to be the beginning of the greatest revival mankind has known since that first gathering some two thousand years ago.
Jesus spoke of each of us when He told Thomas that others will come to believe even though they had not seen the risen Christ.
They will come to know and believe because we are here to tell them of the miracles that Jesus has done in our own lives.
This can be the end but it also has the great opportunity to be the beginning. It will be up to us.