It’s not any secret than many established churches find themselves struggling and in decline. Facing different challenges, one wonders if there is hope for renewal or if these church must just hang on until than can no longer continue and then decide to close. While I’ve helped close a church and believe doing so is the right decision in some cases, I also believe that renewal is very much possible but it begins with seeing again. Allow me to explain…
Getting Older: A Brief Story… A Point
More than a few years back, my wife and I were driving during the wee hours of the night from Indiana to our home in Searcy, Arkansas. In the bootheel of Missouri US HWY 412 makes a left turn as it enters the town of Kennett and heads southwest for a few miles before turning and heading towards Paragould, AR.
It was at this left turn in Kennett where I accidently turned into the path of a semi-truck and nearly had a head-on collision, one that surely would have killed my wife and I. It was my fault too, as I had turned into this truck’s right-hand turning lane. Frightened and perplexed then as to how this happened, I began noticing that I was not able to read the street signs until I was just about to pass them. So I decided that it was time to visit an eye doctor and when I did, I learned that I was only able to read the top three lines of the eye-exam chart. The doctor told me the obvious, that my vision was bad and that I needed eye-glasses and/or contacts in order to see with 20/20 vision again.
As of today, I wear contact lenses and the difference is huge. It’s not that I’m blind without corrective lenses but that I cannot see well enough to engage in tasks that are necessary to living a healthy and productive life, such as driving or reading and writing. Of course, this is not some shocker to anyone. In fact, many people will resonate because they too wear glasses or contacts. Poor vision is a fact-of-life, a part of aging and getting older, and if we’re fortunate enough, we’ll make an appointment with an optometrist in hopes of restoring our vision to 20/20.
Eyes and Ears: But Do We See and Hear?
In my experience established churches begin suffering from poor vision as they age. This has to do with a kingdom vision, one of understanding what following Jesus involves as participants in the kingdom of God. Such was the problem the fist disciples of Jesus were suffering from and why Jesus asked if they had eyes and ears but failed to see and hear, if they still failed to understand (Mk. 8:17-18, 21).
This is exactly when we read the story of a blind man who Jesus had to touch twice in order to fully restore his vision. Here is the account in Mark 8:22-26:
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”
The point is that the disciples of Jesus see the kingdom, which is why they have followed him, but they have yet to see the kingdom clearly. The Jewish faith of these disciples has aged and in that process of aging, their 20/20 kingdom vision is impaired and they are the ones who need Jesus to touch them again that they might see the kingdom of God with clarity.
As a minister of the gospel, I believe this is the problem facing many established churches. That is, many local churches suffered from an impaired kingdom vision and because these local churches are made up of individual believers, the problem is both individual and communal. An impaired kingdom vision is something that every follower of Jesus, including me, can suffer with and for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples I have encountered…
- Our understanding of church (ecclesiology) is reduced to a worship gathering.
- Maintaining traditions are more important than embodying the gospel.
- Sharing our political views are more important than sharing the gospel.
- Doctrinal dogma obscures and openness to scripture and Christian Tradition.
- Safety and security, rather than faith, guides decision making.
- The wisdom of the cross is subtly replaced with conventional wisdom.
- Avoiding conflict and appeasing critics is more important than change.
- Anxiety and quick-fix solutions trump dealing with the underlying difficulties.
Like the disciples who needed to be touched by Jesus again in order to see the kingdom of God clearly, aging local churches also need Jesus to touch them again. How this happens is the work of the Spirit but I would like to suggest that it begins with prayer.
Can We Pray?
I want to end this post with a prayer historically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and suggest that when such a prayer becomes the cries of our hearts, Jesus will come touch our churches again.
Lord, make Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.