Some time ago, my wife, Lavone, and I were driving somewhere, not on the interstate but on a two-lane highway through the countryside. We came up over a bluff, and, immediately before us, we saw an absolutely lovely country church. It struck us as a perfect model for those idyllic country church paintings you see from time to time. As we drew nearer, however, we were stunned to find it was not a church at all, though it had been once. Now the sign outside read, “Antiques!” From a distance, it looked picture-perfect. Up close, it turned out to be a place to browse and buy old stuff (some would say, “junk”).
Once I was in Houston for a church leaders conference and had an opportunity to interact with a number of colleagues and friends. We stayed at a nice hotel downtown with a plush lobby and glass elevators to lift us to our rooms. After one session, a friend and I walked to the elevator to return to our rooms. As we entered the elevator and the doors closed, we were having a stimulating conversation, sharing our concerns and joys. Our fellowship deepened and continued. Indeed, only after several minutes of animated dialogue, did we realize neither of us had pushed a button. There we were in the glass elevator, closed to all but us, having a delightful time together in the full view of Houston but going absolutely nowhere. We were like too many churches are: small, warm, exclusive clubs not moving in any direction in the full view of the world.
Here’s a third picture of “church.” I have never seen it literally, but have experienced it in part with painful regularity. Picture a state-of-the-art surgical suite, thoroughly equipped with machines, instruments and world-renowned surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and staff, kept in a state of preparedness 24/7. This is a picture of exactly what you hope to have should you ever need a serious surgical procedure. Now, however, consider this surreal discover: Over an extended length of time we see no patients in need of surgery enter the suite. Seriously, the only action comes occasionally when someone already in the suite discovers a hangnail or rash. Though neither condition requires surgery, plenty of “help” is at hand for them. The dedicated personnel of the surgical suite — with unparalleled expertise — maintain the scrubbed, sterile, amply equipped “healing” environment, but they are never bothered by a patient.
These are three pictures of the church we hope never to be, but which sometimes we are — churches with celebrated pasts but now functionally extinct; churches organized to meet the needs of their own with warm connection and such engaging insider-dynamics that no one notices the lack of direction and movement; and churches prepared and poised to bless their world with desperately needed expertise, resources and experience but never doing so for whatever the reason.
To whatever extent our churches resemble these images, we must confess we have lost our way and stand in the most profound need of God’s mercy and grace. Having lost our bearings, we do not know which way is up or down, north or south, and, even if we should learn our directions, we have no power to go anywhere or do anything. Compared to the stories of Acts, the great awakenings in history, and our own origins as a church, we are at best a dim shadow.
But here’s the good news: When God’s grace is sought and received, things change and people change. We change — not change for the sake of change, but change into the likeness of Jesus, corporately as well as individually, so that the work of Jesus can be done in and around the buildings we sometimes wrongly call “church.” We — not our buildings — are the church, destined to be the living, growing, expanding and multiplying people of God!
Your church can move to a place of deepened and awe-filled awareness of what God intends for His people. Then all with willing hearts can learn how to cooperate with God in love and power as God works in their community.
In this season of the Free Methodist Church, we are inviting churches everywhere to think, pray, plan, and double-down on what it means to be “church” and what, therefore, we must do specifically so that God will make it so. In other words, let’s recalibrate!
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus.”3