In yesterday’s post I shared the reality that churches do die. That’s not a comforting thought to any church that finds itself in decline but it’s the truth. Having said that, I also believe in the resurrection of Jesus. That is to say that death does not get the last word, for after the death of Jesus came his resurrection and to a world marred by death comes the promise of resurrection in Jesus who is the resurrection.
So on that note I believe it is also necessary to speak about renewal and new life in churches because, as the title of this post says, I do believe God can breathe new life into Churches. Whatever stage of decline a church finds itself in (think of the bell curve), God can renew that church and even bring the church that is dead back to life.
One of the more fascinating passages that comes to mind is Ezekiel 37 in which the Lord tells the prophet to speak to an exiled Israel . . . a seemingly hopeless Israel. Israel is spoken of as dry bones which conjures up the image of death. Yet we read in v. 5-6:
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.
That’s a word of hope and promise. Yes, God can breathe new life into churches!
But will he?
Here I want to go back to an earlier passage in Ezekiel because we must remember that it was not an accident that landed Israel in exile. Israel had turned from God, ignored the prophetic calls to repentance, and eventually incurred the judgment and wrath of God. Is it possible that some churches are dying because God has judged them for tolerated sin, unhealthy conflict, placing traditions above the mission of God, compromising the gospel with legalism or secularism, etc…? I’m thinking out loud with this question but I honestly believe that will not bless churches with growth when for whatever reason, those churches have become bad soil to plant new seeds of the gospel in (cf. Mk 4:1-20).
So will God breathe new life into dead and dying churches? Yes, if we will repent! In Ezekiel 33:11 we read, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”
It is strange that any church would hope for God to breathe new life, bringing new growth and new fruitful ministries, when such dead and dying churches are unwilling to change (repent) from the ways that got them where they are now. Yet I know plenty of churches who hold out hope for such renewal without repentance. God can and will breathe new life into churches but the churches must be willing to change, to repent from their lifeless ways of tolerating sin, unhealthy conflict, placing traditions above the mission of God, compromising the gospel with legalism and secularism, etc…
And now let me say that we live in the twenty-first century, not the first-century. For many churches I am familiar with, repentance, I believe, begins by no longer baptizing the first-century church as the gold standard (which it never was). The church is to be Christ-ians not Church-ians. Churches must be faithful followers of Jesus for sure, but churches must also not allow their “churchy traditions” (which have nothing to do with the gospel) stand between gospel and culture. And if not, then don’t be surprised to hear the bells tolling.