1 Cor 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
My wife and I had the marvelous privilege of traveling to Vermont with our family last month. Amongst all of the wonderful sight seeing was the realization that there are a huge number of wonderfully constructed church buildings some of which are several hundred years old. This would have been energizing for me as a movement leader of churches in WI and the Up of Michigan. However, what struck me over and over was that these churches were now either “relics” of a time gone by, or they had been “re-purposed” to something other than a place of worship.
An old church building makes for a great museum—especially if a former president attended there. An old church building makes for a great nick nack store selling coffee, trinkets, and local art work—the woodwork was awesome. An old church building can be re-purposed to any number of things but what is clear is that the gospel was no longer the focal point of the site. What a tragedy for the Northeast.
In a day when many churches are plateaued or declining, I wonder what will become of their buildings in 25, 50 or 100 years from now. Will they become relics, antiquey coffee and trinket shops, or wonderful structures to behold from the outside? What must happen in order for the local church to NOT be one and the same as its building? What must happen so that the proper safety gaps can be put in place to prevent the demise of a once rich spiritual movement? All of this is a candid reminder that the local church is only a generation or two away from extinction.
First, a pastor and the church leadership must relentlessly remind people that the church is the people gathering at a location. It is NOT the location itself. This drift to associate the 2 as one in the same is so natural it requires relentless sustained persevering effort to define. The church IS the people and NOT the building.
When I was a pastor, my favorite closing admonition was to send my people out of the gathering by saying “now, go BE the church.” We instituted an annual community service project day where 100’s of people were challenged to go out immediately after worship service and go serve the needy in some 20 plus predetermined locations. This was an annual challenge to the entire congregation no matter your age or involvement. We wanted everyone to go “be the church.” We called it “TCHLTB” for short. “The Church Has Left The Building.”
What are you doing to institute the central truth that the local gathering of God’s people IS the church no matter where it gathers? Do your people understand that the local church must survive apart from any location as the early church was so aptly able to do? Good pastoral leadership will find ways to continuously remind its congregation that the church is more than, and separate from, the building.
Second, a pastor leading his congregation must never tire of preaching the gospel as central to the life giving force of why we gather. There must be a rhythm to this process so that the gospel of God’s love put on display through Jesus crucified and resurrected never gets lost in the internal workings of church ministry. The gospel is the life giving fuel for the local congregation. The gospel must first be relentlessly preached to ourselves before it is offered to anyone outside of the church. The gospel is the reminder that we all need grace. The gospel is a reminder that we all are desperate for God’s transforming power released through the Spirit applying God’s word to our lives. Preaching the gospel gives spiritual life and sustains spiritual life.
I wonder when those Vermont “churches” drifted away from the gospel. I wondered what had them get more involved in maintenance or social concerns or infighting and divisiveness. The local church is only ever a couple of generations away from becoming a farce instead of a force. When applied, the gospel keeps the heart broken, humble, and teachable. It keeps a congregation alive and focused and impactful. The gospel is the jet fuel for the passion for worship.
I pray that the Converge Great Lakes movement of churches will never drift from these 2 tenets and that the movement begun some 200 plus years ago by the Swedish immigrants will burn fresh and anew in current leadership. We are a movement focused on starting and strengthening churches worldwide.