I’ve sat across the table and listened to the stories of discouraged pastors describe in great detail where the ministry took a wrong turn. Often it wasn’t from an evil decision or a judgment from God. People stopped coming. The recession happened and people stopped giving. The church plant didn’t work out like they thought. In all of these cases, the result was the same: We’re shutting the church down.
My heart breaks every time this happens. Sometimes there are good, godly men and women doing their best in whatever capacity the Lord has called them to serve the church and circumstances cause there not to be enough money. Sometimes other resources are the issue, like a lack of volunteers. Regardless, the point is that churches with true believers and well meaning hearts close down all the time. Current statistics estimate roughly 3,700 churches close their doors every year.
But there is good news! First, because of the Gospel of Jesus, no matter what capacity you served your church in the past, you are not a failure. God loved you regardless of the outcome of your work for Him. His death and resurrection means that the work that you carried on for Him was not in vain. Paul, after spending an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians on the subject of the resurrection says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless,” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But there’s even more good news: Just because the money and the volunteers and the resources dried up, doesn’t mean your church needs to close. It might mean the church needs to change. The fact of the matter is the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on money, so even though resources are tight, the ministry can continue. Just because the resources have disappeared doesn’t mean the relationships and family of an existing church need to end.
How does this happen? For a church that wants to continue on but doesn’t have enough money to pay for a building or staff or the have the resources to support such things, house churches are a viable option. The existing church would transition to a church or a network of related churches that meet in the homes of its members and continue the work of sharing the gospel, building up the church, and making disciples.
This would mean a lot of changes for a church that was used to meeting as a traditional church on Sunday morning. It will most likely mean the pastor would forsake a salary (if he or she hadn’t already), it will mean that the format of the meetings you’ve become accustomed will change, and the ministry of the church will have be taken up by whatever members of the church remain, not just the pastor. Also, not everyone will want to make this jump, so be prepared for some who would be okay in any other traditional context to not make this jump with you. For those who feel God isn’t done with the church yet, but don’t see a way forward, it’s a viable alternative.
If you’re facing this moment in the life of your church, feel free to contact me at PursuingGlory at gmail dot com or check out my resource page featuring the best books on house churches.
More than that, don’t give up hope in God, the gospel, or the family of God. God loves you. You and your church haven’t failed. He has a plan that continues regardless of the cash flow. God, who raises the dead, can take what seems like has died and transform it into something new.
It’s a tragedy that’s been around for thousands of years. But every once-in-awhile God lets you see old truth through new eyes.
In short, the story goes like this: David had sinned by dealing deceitfully with Uriah the Hittite and sleeping with his wife, Bathsheba. The judgment, according to Nathan the prophet, was a sword of violence being unleashed in David’s family. This prediction begins to come true when Ammon (David’s oldest son) is killed by Abasalom (David’s third oldest son). Abasalom is banished from Israel, then restored, and once restored he begins to quietly launch a revolution to take the kingdom from David.
When the revolution happens, David is banished from his own kingdom. He takes a remnant with him and begins a war with Absalom that culminates in a final battle. It’s during this final battle that David forces his commanders to swear that if they capture Absalom they will not kill him. All of the commanders take the oath, but Joab, one of David’s most trusted commanders finds Joab hung by his hair in a tree and kills Absalom anyways.
And it’s here that our story really begins–David does what any good father would do–he weeps for his son. We see David’s heart on full display as he cries out “How I wish I had died instead of you!” Now, Joab tries to be the sensible one in all of this. He reminds David that Absalom was his enemy and that many men fought (and died) in order to restore his rule, but that matters little to David. He eventually did pull himself together and honor his army, but we see his true heart on display in his lament.
This is where God began speaking to me. I was reading this story to my sons and my daughters and I could so identify with wanting to take their place even though one of them had tried to lead a rebellion against me. “No parent should have to bury their child,” says Theoden in the Two Towers and it’s this kind of love, however misguided it may seem to others, that fills parents when they think about the demise of their children, even ones who are their enemies. As parents, it’s only right to want to die, believing our children have a better future ahead. It’s what makes us parents.
As I read the story, I began again to see the heart of God–A father who loved his children so much, that even though they participated in a horrible rebellion to overthrow His Kingdom and replace it with their own, would rather die in the place of His children than see them perish. If we feel this way…if us natural human parents feel this way towards our children…if David feels this way towards his son who sought to overthrow him, then how much more must our heavenly Father feel towards us?
A short meditation for Good Friday:
For some, today looked like chaos. An angry, ugly mob finally turned on a man from Nazareth who had aspirations of something greater. Having brought Him to Pilate, this mob finally got their way. For those who were following this man, this was unthinkable. He had healed the sick, raised the dead Himself, and had been confirmed by so many signs that the idea of Him going to the cross was unthinkable. And He was crushed. And along with Him, their hopes.
God can take our chaos and crushed dreams and make something beautiful.
For one man, this day was the culmination of everything he deserved. He had spent his life stealing, swindling, and escaping the law. His life benefited no one, only took took from those who surrounded him. He deserved this day. He deserved to find himself on this cross. His sins brought him here. But next to him was a man he had never met before, gasping for the same air he was trying to swallow. Between the pain and not being able to breathe, somewhere he had a revelation that this man dying next to him was more than a man. He confronted the mocker on a third cross and called out to the One in the middle of them. He heard that One, that “more than a man” whisper to him “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
God can take the worst of us in horrible situations and change our lives.
Post the cross, first hundreds, then thousands, and then millions have accepted the reality of the cross and the man who rested on it. The meaning of this day, looked back on throughout history has become a point of both deep grief and deep relief. That Jesus lost his life on that cross was the beginning of God’s plan to liberate us from our sin and the enemy of our souls. But for the first believers and those that have followed in their steps, this day has not only become a day to celebrate but an example to follow. This became a day that not only defined our freedom from sin, but a freedom from the way this world would seek to control us.
God can take this day and not just forgive us, but define us.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
-Paul, Philippians 2:5-11
Making disciples who make disciples is part of the commission Jesus gave us as believers (Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Timothy 2:2). Jesus Himself told us to teach them to obey everything He commanded, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that a large part of making disciples involves all of us getting into the Bible and studying it together.
As I mentioned yesterday, our corporate discipline involves 2 or 3 people gathering together and reading large amounts of Scripture, somewhere between 20 & 30 chapters a week. Why are we so determined to study the Bible? Jesus said that His very words are Spirit and life (John 6:63). The message of the Kingdom contained within the Bible is like a seed in our hearts (Mark 4:13-14, 26-27). The more we can get that message of the Kingdom into our hearts and spirits, the more of the Kingdom we see take root in our life.
So, every time our groups of 2&3 gather, we pick a section of Scripture, usually 20 or 30 chapters in a row. This section is what everyone is reading this week. This week my 2&3 is reading the book of Mark, last week was the book of Revelation. Sometimes it’s multiple books like 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The point isn’t to finish the section every single week. Many weeks someone in my 2&3 doesn’t finish. When this happens, we start over, and read it again the following week. When everyone finishes the 20 or 30 chapters in the same week, that’s when it’s time to pick a new section of Scripture.
Why do we read the Bible together like this? The main reason is it’s good to be in the Bible hearing Jesus for ourselves. As Christians we believe the Bible is the only inspired message from God and because of that, it is fuel for us to grow up into the likeness of Jesus. But in addition to that, reading large portions of the Bible together keeps us from heresy. Mutual discipleship means there’s no authorized leader of a 2&3. If we read significant portions of the Bible together in context, each believer is able to say “Can you show me where you found that in the reading?” whenever a controversial statement is expressed. One final thought about reading together like this: It eats away at our carnal independence. Many people are content to read what they want, when they want. This process asks us to be formed as disciples together.
We want to be careful of a few things. The intent of this time is not turn our 2&3’s into a Bible study. Bible studies are good and have their place. But our goal instead is to figure out how Jesus encountered us in the Scriptures and is asking us to obey Him. This isn’t the chance for those gifted as teachers to break down whole chapters of the Bible for everyone else.
Also, we need to be careful of dead religion. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for reading the Bible but resisting the very One that the Scriptures pointed to (John 5:39). The goal is not to become an expert, the goal is meet the One who Scripture points to! But reading and immersing ourselves in truths within the Bible is the surest way to do that.
I think in the West, because the Bible is so available to us, it can become easy to grow cold to its ability to transform us. The words sound familiar and if we fail to take the words back to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to encounter us around those words, our hearts can grow dull to the Word. I believe the word of God has the power to change human hearts. Have you ever seen Chinese believers receive a Bible for the first time? It should humble us. We need to hunger for God’s word like these fiery believers who are being transformed by the Gospel.
What I’ve described here is a corporate discipline that we embrace to make disciples. But friends, the heart here is that we are soft towards God’s word and being transformed by it. We need not only to read it ourselves, but join with others and help each other find the divine truth God has hidden in its pages.
For the last few days I’ve written about how we invite existing believers into our house churches: we invite them into relationships, we invite them to lay their lives down, and we invite them into mutual discipleship. As I wrote, I found myself tip-toeing around the concept of consumerism in the church so I wanted to take a minute and explain the problem with consumerism.
Consumerism is a lifestyle built around the consumption of a product. It drives many economies, and in particular ours in the West. Car companies, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and countless other companies thrive, not because you need another car, phone, or computer, but because they’ve taught us to want the newest model. They’ve trained the masses to want the next best thing. Many people throughout the cultural West find their identity not in who they are, but based on what they have.
This is a problem by itself–We should find our identity in Jesus Christ and Him alone. With this shift in mindset, the church has increasingly adapted the methods of the world in order to “reach” society. I’ve known churches to offer iPads or similar electronic devices as a prize for the child who invites the most unchurched friends to Sunday School. All of this is in the name of the Gospel, but what it teaches us is to be motivated by stuff and not Jesus.
At a higher level, this infects churches and cripples ministry. The pursuit of many churches is growth. This means they have to continually move to the edges of a city where young families tend to live in order to attract new attenders with the money to sustain a ministry. Big buildings with crippling debt are the means to this end. And woe to the church or ministry who makes the wrong bet on a ministry direction and offends the wrong people. They are left with a building and debt that no one is around to pay for. This frequently hinders the proclamation of the gospel. I’ve literally seen churches (and by this I don’t just mean the building, I mean the ministry, the people, everything) sold to another minister. I refuse to listen to another church talk about their brand. I’ve watched viable churches closed because there wasn’t enough money. The list can go on and on.
Consumerism attempts to turn everything that we do into a transaction. It cheapens love. It never calls people sacrifice or to suffer. In everything, it encourages people to look for a reward in relationship to whatever they participate in, whether it’s physical reward or an ideological one (being part of the cool crowd/church/people). As you can probably see by this point, these attitudes are opposed to God’s Kingdom which is built on sacrificial love.
Don’t misunderstand me–there is a reward that we are offered in this age and the age to come for following Christ, but these are different than iPads or being part of the in-crowd. Our reward, first and foremost, is fellowship with the indwelling Christ. We get God! And then God gives us the reward of His Kingdom, spiritual family, and even possibly material gain for obedience. But these come from His hand and are attained through following Him in adverse circumstances (see Mark 10:29-30).
Friends, we serve Jesus. God the Father has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. He was raised from the dead and promised to raise us with Him. We have access to the authority and power of God’s Kingship. We don’t need to be motivated by the things of this world: success, fame, power, money. But it’s not enough that we ourselves aren’t motivated by these things. As a church, we have to repent of building systems that motivate individuals by anything other than faithfulness to Jesus. At the end of the day, at the end of the age, those are the things that will keep us faithful, not our stuff.
So would you join me, church, regardless of what type of church you are part of, from building God’s Kingdom with the straw of this world? Can we say “no” to motivating people in the flesh to follow God? Can we together disciple a coming generation to follow Christ because He is good?
It may mean a decrease in your crowd, but the disciples you’ll have left will change the world.
One of the realities I struggle with many days in my walk with God is “How far is too far?” I know that seems like a weird question to ask when I’m talking about God. But the question is never, “Have I gone after Jesus too hard in a way that makes me unrelatable to the rest of the world?” More often the question is, “I sure feel like I’ve gone a long ways, but maybe there’s more of God and I’ve settled for too little. Could I have not gone far enough?”
Maybe you can relate.
But the mystery of God is this: God is unknowable and yet He invites us to know Him.
God is unknowable: He’s God because He is bigger and more complex than you. He measures out the universe in span of His hand. We’re talking about the God who laid the foundations of the world and taught the stars how to shine. He created the star and created the atom and everything in between and holds it all together through the word of His power. He knows you and your ways far better than you know Him. If you could fully understand God, if you could get your tiny human mind around Him and His ways, if you could know Him fully, He would cease to be God. You want a God that’s bigger than you.
God wants to be known: We first see Him creating a world where He can relate to people. Then people break that special bond they have with Him and hide and He goes to find them. He spends thousands of years beckoning and whispering to people that He will come and break the curse that we’ve put on ourselves only to finally end up shouting in fragile form of His Son, Jesus Christ. And with the final act of laying down His life Jesus atones for our sins against Him and the veil that separated God from man is torn in two, signaling an end to us being shut out from His presence.
So, yes, God is unknowable. But He wants to be known.
Which is why Paul prays in Ephesians 3 this prayer:
I pray that…you have the power to understand…how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is….though it is too great to understand fully.
Friends, God knows He’s too big for us. He knows we will never fully comprehend Him and His love for us. He knows that He is an ocean of love and our small, frail hearts are the size of a thimble. We can never fully hold the vastness of who He is.
But this, I think is a secret to God’s heart, that if you understand, will help you grow in Him:
He invites us to try anyways.
Friends, I don’t think the issue is to get a certain amount of God. That would be impossible. I think the answer is to keep opening your heart to receive more of Him, knowing that you will never be able to comprehend it all. Be okay with the God who is bigger than you. Who has more love than you. And keep opening your heart knowing it will never be able to hold everything God has to give.
Today, I pray that you would have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep the love of Christ is, though it’s too big for you anyways.
“We ought to make the best possible use of God-given opportunities and should not waste our precious time by neglect or carelessness. Many people say: there is plenty of time to do this or that; don’t worry. But they do not realize that if they do not make good use of this short time, the habit formed now will be so ingrained that when more time is given to us, this habit will become our second nature and we shall waste that time also. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much’ (Luke 16:10).”
-Sadhu Sundar Singh