Why The Broken Church?

Because we are broken individuals, the church today is broken as well. That’s why I call my blog the Broken Church. It’s not a put down; it’s a signpost of hope. The more we realize our brokeness and our sin, the more God’s grace can be at work in our midst. God likes to take that which is broken and fix it.

I love the church. It has been used in extremely powerful ways in my life over the years. At the same time, I have seen very sad things in the church. Scripture makes clear it is God’s main way to carry out his purposes on earth. Are we as the church up to the task? How can we be more effective? I write to remind and to challenge us to be all we can be.

One Church’s Radical Rebuilding Program

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.

Kicked Out for the Wrong Clothes!

Did you know in one of Jesus’ parables he makes his main point with a man being kicked out for not wearing the right clothes? That doesn’t sound very politically correct, especially in our days of casual church attire. Well, before you get too upset at Jesus, there’s more to it than that.

You may have noticed in my last two blogs, I referred to Count Nicholas Von Zinzindorf, who if you remember the last one, was key in the founding of the town of Lititz where we live. I have been preparing tours of Lititz for a little extra income and therefore doing some research on his sermons. It’s amazing what 250 years does to your perspective of the teaching of Jesus words.

I was particularly studying one of Zinzindorf’s Pennsylvania sermons, that he preached in a church in Germantown near Philadelphia in 1742. And I had to reread it a few times; it was so different from what we preach in the church today. He spoke of the doctrine of reprobation which means that God rejects some people for salvation. Normally it is applied to those who want nothing to do with Christ, namely unbelievers. But Zinzindorf applied it to people who want to be saved and believe they are.

The Reformed Church of Germantown later became Market Square Presbyterian Church seen here.

His text was Matthew 22:1-14. Now I am used to the Gospel of Luke’s version of this parable in 14:16-24, where a man had a great banquet and he sent out his servant to tell the invited guests that they can come, but they had all sorts of excuses for not coming. So the man then invited “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” and those not in the town but outside on the roads. Luke’s emphasizing the spread of the gospel to the ones who usually don’t get invited, those not a part of the “in” crowd.

In Matthew’s account he has basically the same story of the invitation rejected, and then given out to the others, but instead of just a man having a banquet, it’s a king having the wedding of his son. And then Matthew adds a part that I didn’t remember.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

There was a certain man of this later crowd who came in wearing the wrong clothes, and the king kicked him out! Matthew equates it to being thrown into the darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yikes, that doesn’t sound nice!

Zinzendorf in a painting of the time.

Zinzindorf explained that back in New Testament times when they had weddings, the host would provide the clothes for all those he invited, not even for just the bridesmaids and groomsmen! How nice for those who couldn’t afford nice stuff, so they could fit right in. Usually it was something they could put over their regular clothes.

But then there was the man who though offered the king’s nice clothes did not take them. He had a nice tux (or something equivalent) he was wearing, so he figured he didn’t need anything else, but it didn’t match everyone else’s. The servants at the door agreed that he looked nice and let him in. But the king saw him and was incensed by his lack of humility to take the clothes offered and has him shown to the door.

Zinzindorf equated the man not to the obviously unconverted one, who is godless and has no interest in the gospel, but to the one who “diligently tries to become saved and goes so far that in his own mind, according to the logic of his reason and theology, he necessarily must be saved.”1  But he is really, deep inside, self-righteous because he refuses to wear the blood-soaked robe of righteousness, that can only be gained through Christ’s death. Yet he comes to church faithfully, says all the right things, but will when he gets to heaven have quite a surprise, when he can’t get in the door. This was Zinzindorf’s doctrine of reprobation, the rejection of those who look, act and think like they are saved.

He “diligently tries to become saved and goes so far that in his own mind, according to the logic of his reason and theology, he necessarily must be saved.”

What a world of difference from today, where all the emphasis is on getting people in the door of the church, where we can preach the gospel to those who obviously need the Savior. Do we address the salvation of the people who have been in the church for years, who are members and faithfully contribute their tithes and serve the church week in and week out? They look good but are they really heaven bound. We tend not to address them in that way, because we don’t want to step on toes. But they need the truth as well. Now I am not saying we should kick them out of the church, just that we should not assume everyone is heaven-bound. We need to keep them in the church so we can bring this message for them as well.

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t take this further. This message needs to be applied to you and me as well; are we going to get in? It takes more than blending in and agreeing with everyone at church, more than just assenting to the church’s doctrinal statement when you become a member. It takes personally and prayerfully, totally depending on Christ’s death for salvation, something we do down deep in our hearts. Is your heart there? I hope so, I wouldn’t want to see you kicked out for the wrong clothes!

1 A Collection of Sermons from Zinzindorf’s Pennsylvania Journey, translated by Julie Tomberlin and edited by Craig D. Atwood, c/o 2001 by the Interprovincial Board of Communication of the Moravian Church in North America.