An old story imaginatively retold in a modern setting.
I remember having lunch with my brother, Henry, a few years back, and he was telling me about our old church in New York City as he’d just returned from visiting there.
“Neil,” he told me, “It’s gotten really low in numbers. Maybe they have 50 people; pretty sad for a church that used to have 500 people and was thriving. They don’t even have a pastor, just a few speakers from nearby churches. The saddest part is those faithful people who have been there through thick and thin. They are so worn out and tired, and discouraged… very discouraged.”
“You wouldn’t know the place,” he went on, “It’s really gotten old, the paint on the doors is peeling, the steps are crumbling, the roof is leaking, the neighborhood has grown more dangerous, and there is very little to protect the building from theft or fire or whatever. And you know what? It really smells musty and is just so old-fashioned looking. Man, now-a-days it would be hard for me to go to a church like that.”
My heart was broken after that conversation. I had such fond memories of that church. It was where I had become a believer, where I saw God working in mighty ways amongst the people. God, what has happened there? I remember my later years there before my job took me away. Yeah, there were definitely problems, people got pretty nasty with each other. I heard after that many people split off and went to other churches. Others got caught up in the things of the world and faded away from the church. Even though Pastor Harvey preached against it, they were pretty hardened in their ways. It’s no wonder he left during that time.
I was so moved by the sad situation of that church, I could hardly sleep or eat, so I took time off from work and I prayed. I covered that church in prayer. And as I prayed I felt God saying, “Why don’t you do something about it?” And as I prayed more, ideas popped into my mind. I could raise some money. I could use my connections to get some deals for repairing the place. And I know most of those people, I am sure I could rally them to help fix it up. Imagine what a difference a successful church building program would make. But I realized it would mean leaving my job in California. “OK, Lord, if you are in this, let my boss be open to an indefinite leave of absence.”
I received an answer about three weeks later, when my boss came into my office and happened to ask how I was doing. I shared with him my burden for the church. And then I got my nerve up and asked for a leave of absence. He understood the situation and agreed to let me go for a while. He even agreed to provide some funding and resources he knew. That’s my green light from the Lord.
I made a few quick calls to dear friends in NYC and before I knew it I was flying there to help out the church.
When I walked into the church my first Sunday there, they were overjoyed to see me as it had been years since I had been there, and most of them remembered me fondly. They were also excited that I was going to be around for a few weeks though I didn’t tell them why. I went to the few activities, that were still going, and met with people from the church just to catch up. I even borrowed a key and checked the building out. Yeah, it was not in great shape!
After I felt like I had a good read on the total situation, I contacted the elder board chair and asked if I could come to the next meeting as I had some ideas to run past them. He was very welcoming saying, “We could use all the help we could get.” I quickly called my resource people and lined them all up, and then went to the board meeting with a full proposal written up, ready to hand out.
There I laid out the plan for all the repairs to the church, and how exactly it would be paid for and who could help out doing what. Then I stopped and I waited for the response. At first there was total silence.
George, who knew me as a boy, broke the silence first, “Sounds good,” he started thoughtfully, “but do you really think we could do all that?”
Another who was new to me said doubtfully, “Looks good on paper, but in reality…”
Sally, who I had gone to school with, jumped in with “You have to understand we’ve been through a lot since you left. We’ve tried a lot of things, but nothing turned things around. I guess we are a little discouraged, that’s all.”
The two others chimed in with similar sentiments.
“Well, I understand it’s hard,” I sympathized. “However the roof and the alarm systems should be fixed no matter what. And how about we just try one or two other minor things?” They were agreeable on that level.
So we got the different contractors in and in a relatively short time they had the repairs completed. Having made such good progress, the board was encouraged to do the whole project. They were willing to accept the financial help from my company and others. One offered, “We have some untouched funds that we could use for some of the other things on your list.” Another piped up, “I could start a Go Fund Me page for some of the other things.” Soon the place was buzzing with all kinds of repair people.
But the youth gang in the area did not like the new activity around the church. They stood on the street corners watching. A number of our workers felt very threatened. So we made sure no one was ever alone and some church members even took off of work just to be there for the workers.
It took a while; a lot of hard work and extra hours for the congregation, but in six months the work was completed. Not only were all the repairs and improvements made but with the help of an interior designer, the church had a fresh, modern, warm, inviting interior.
The evening of the Board Meeting where it was announced that everything was finished was such a joy. I went home on Cloud Nine. But that night as I settled into bed praising the Lord, I heard an inner voice say, “Neil, you’ve only just begun rebuilding the church.” What? “Now it’s time to work on the people.”
The people, Lord? Why? With a newly renovated building the people are now encouraged. Now they are at a good place to invite others in. It’s safe, new and attractive; we could even install some high tech in there to really improve things. What more do the people need? They are the faithful ones, who have stayed with the church all these years.
Once again I got alone for some extra time in prayer. And I remembered what my brother originally told me. In addition to the building, I remembered the part about how discouraged the people were after all they had gone through as a congregation, the sinful lifestyles and the splits. But, Lord, why revisit the past? The answer took a few days to discern. Oh, I see, they contributed to the past, it was their sins as well as those who left. And their past affects who they are in the present, especially in their relationship with You. Again the Lord gave me some ideas.
I was the chair of the board by that point, so I presented a whole other plan to them: a plan to radically revitalize the people of the church. I am not sure they fully understood, but they went along with it anyway.
I invited Pastor Harvey to come back for a week of meetings and preach like he used to. He was in retirement but was glad to join us for the week. He preached against those sins of the past and ones similar to them today. And as well he spoke about repentance and the longstanding love of God for them. It had been awhile since they had someone preach like that right from the Word of God. Now they saw the past from a different perspective. They knew exactly where those sins would lead because they were living it out. Many were deeply saddened by their part, how they contributed to the splits, how they didn’t address the sins in their midst and how they still wrestled with many of those sins. It was sad how those sins affected others especially the children, who grew up and left the church.
The last night was Saturday, and at my encouragement Harvey spoke of the joy of confession and repentance, and he had a time in pairs or at most groups of four, where each could confess before the others. It was a wonderful time. The sense of heaviness left and there was joy all around. On Sunday morning, we had a dedication service, for the building, but even more for the people. I passed out to each a written document containing words of promise to the Lord. In it they recommitted themselves to the Lord. And flowing from that they promised to no longer engage in those sins, and to work and give wholeheartedly to the church. I spoke about the need to keep on giving up those sins and how the church needed their help to be what God had called them to be. They then indicated their commitment by signing the bottom and handing the sheets in. It was a great service, seeing each make a renewed commitment to the Lord.
Now, Lord, is it time to go back to my job in California?
No, I never did return to my old job, but got a new one in the mayor’s office helping the city out. And I continued leading that church, and I saw the results of that week of the Word, confession and commitment. It was not a huge overnight change, but over the next few years as people began sharing their faith more, we saw a few people actually come in and join the church. It took some time, but we got a new pastor, who preached the Word like Pastor Harvey. Problems and sins did continue to arise, but with the foundation we had laid, we were able to deal with them in helpful ways and make some reforms in the way we did things. And guess what? The church turned around and we are thriving once again.
What would have happened if I had stopped before working to revitalize the people? Oh, things would have been good for a while with everything bright, shiny and new, but the ways of the past would have arisen once more to drag them down. Dealing with the past helped them get a brand new start without unrepentant sin weighing them down. Then the Lord could bless! Yes, rebuilding the church means more than just the building!
Does this story sound familiar? Where is it from? If you think you know, let me know in the comments.