David Jeremiah - When the Church Would Be Irrelevant
The 37 years of Vincent Van Gogh's life were tormented years. As many of you know, he was the Dutch painter who lived between 1853 and 1890. He was known mostly for failure and rejection during his lifetime and in all matters of the heart, romance and painting and faith. Whatever he did seemed to be unrewarded. From a human perspective, it's not difficult to understand why, at the age of 37, he took his own life in despair. Before making a serious commitment to art, Van Gogh had aspired to be a Christian minister. His father was a Dutch Reformed pastor and his grandfather was a trained theologian. So he grew up in his life with a sensitivity toward God and a concern for people.
At one point, he actually joined himself to a Methodist minister for a period and tried to study to take exams for his theological degree, but he failed those exams and subsequently failed another 3-month course at a Dutch school of theology where he was trying to become a missionary. So in 1879 he became a short-term missionary in a coal-mining village in Belgium. When he arrived on the scene, he tried to identify himself with the difficult lives of the people in that village, so he lived in a hovel and he slept on a bed of straw. And his ministry and his lifestyle so appalled the local officials that they fired him for undermining the dignity of the ministry. In despair, he turned away from the ministry and to painting. And he spent the rest of his life creating post-impressionistic art that was never recognized at all during his lifetime but, as you know, made his name famous in the world of art after his death.
In the very last year of Van Gogh's life on this earth he produced one of his best known paintings. The painting is called "The Church at Auvers". Author Leonard Sweet has called this painting, "The most haunting painting in the history of religious art". Let me tell you about what's on the screen. "The Church at Auvers" was familiar to Van Gogh. He had seen something similar to it in his travels and he tried to paint it in detail, using his post-impressionistic art. It dominates the entire center of the canvas. The foreground in front of the church consists of a patch of grass, wild flowers, and a roadway approaching the church. But if you'll look closely, you'll notice that there are two important features to the story of this church.
First of all, the church has no doors. And second, the road leading to the church splits into a "Y" right in front of the church and the two branches bypass the church on either side, supposedly rejoining on the other side of the church. A woman is walking toward the church on the left-hand branch and it tells us that the daily travels of the townspeople on the road took them by the church but never to the church. Because the church has no doors, people on the outside can't get in and people on the inside can't get out. Whatever the church has inside that might be of benefit, the people outside can't get access to it. And whatever the people outside might need from the church, the people inside can't get it to them. Sitting as it does in the middle of the road, the church appears as something to be bypassed as one is pursuing life's appointments and priorities. It is a dark obstructing presence, a lifeless relic that people bypass to avoid its cold inhibiting shadow.
Now, these are my interpretations of this painting, not Van Gogh's. He never did write any interpretation of the painting. But my interpretation is held by most others who have studied the painting. Given his failure to qualify to serve God through the Church because of its formidable entrance exams, it is not difficult to imagine Van Gogh viewing the Church as a dark place, impossible to enter, and an obstacle in the path of life. As I thought on this painting, I wondered, "If Van Gogh could paint the American Church, what would it look like? If he were to manipulate the sky and the foreground and the light and the shape and the position of the church so to reflect its inner reality, I wonder how much we would like the painting".
You see, the issue today with most people regarding the Church is that the Church has become irrelevant. That the Church has nothing to say to the world in which it exists. That the world cares nothing about the Church because they perceive that the Church cares nothing about the needs of the world. So if you ask people, and we're going to see a survey in a few moments, what they believe to be the importance of the Church, you will get many answers but one of the answers you will hear often is, "I don't know why the Church has any purpose at all".
Now, we have some responsibility in that regard and I agree with my friend, Chuck Swindoll, who wrote a book called "The Church Awakening". And in this book, he kind of vented his spleen about some of the things that have happened in the Church in recent years. One of the paragraphs in his book, he says, "We live in a time with a lot of technology and media. We can create things virtually that look real. We have high-tech gadgets that were not available to previous generations. And we have learned that if we can attract a lot of people to church if we use these things, it'll work. I began to see that happening about 20 years ago," said Swindoll. "It troubled me then, and it's enormously troubling to me now because the result of an entertainment mentality leads to biblical ignorance. Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn't want to be hated, so they focused just on attracting more and more people. But if we're here to offer something the world can't provide, why would we copy the world to do it"?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it this way, "When the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message". So if the Church is being ignored and considered irrelevant because we preach the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, so be it. But if we are deemed irrelevant because we aren't playing the world's game nearly as well as the world does, then that's a tragedy. If we're gonna be attacked or ignored by the world, let it be for turning the world upside down like the early apostles did, not because we're just trying to be like the world around us. Somebody has said, "There's so much Church in the world and so much world in the Church you can't tell the difference between the two anymore".
So we're here today to talk about why we have Church. And I wanna start by talking and discussing the reality of the Church because I wanna make sure we're all on the same page. What is the Church? Often, people confuse the Church, big letter "C," with the church, little letter "c". Big letter "C" represents the universal Church; little letter "c" represents the church building or the local assembly of the Church. Now, let me explain what I mean. The Bible says that when we become Christians, as soon as we accept Christ as our Savior, we become immediately part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It's called the universal Church because it is not bound by the boundaries of nations or continents.
Everywhere in the entire world where people have accepted Christ as their Savior, they immediately become a part of the body of Christ, which is big letter "C," the universal Church. We used to call the universal Church the invisible Church but then people thought we were talking about Wednesday night and so we don't do that anymore. One of the clearest pictures that you will ever see that will distinguish between the universal Church and the local church is found in a place called Palmyra, New York. Population 7,762. I've been there on a number of occasions. Founded in 1782, this little town is a place where, at least in the 19th century, the Church and the churches were anything but irrelevant.
Palmyra is one of a handful of towns in the world that have four churches built on four corners of a main intersection. Can you imagine? In Palmyra you will find the following churches at one intersection: on one corner, the Presbyterian church, built in 1832. Across from it, the Episcopal church, built in 1873. And the Methodist church, built in 1867, and the Baptist church, built in 1870. All four are beautiful, traditional churches with tall steeples that pierce the sky. Every Sunday morning in Palmyra, Christians fill the four different churches to worship God, probably in much the same way as they have done for more than a century in that historic town.
What happens when these Christians worship in these buildings is that the Church, big letter "C," is filling the churches, little letter "c". In the New Testament, the word for Church is a word which refers to the assembly of people. Actually, it's a word made up of two Greek words: ek, which is "out of" and kaleo, which is "to call". So the word Church means to call out of, in other words, ekklesia, to call together. The Church is a calling together of God's people. And the New Testament writers use the term Church 114 times. It is interesting, it always refers to people. Not 1 time, not 1 of the 114 times, does it refer to a building.
You see, when we talk about church today, we talk about a building. When somebody said to you, "What are you going to do today"? And you said, "I am going to church". That's true, you came to the church building, little letter "c". Unfortunately, what happens is sometimes our buildings and our facilities and our equipment becomes to us the Church when it is only meant to house the church. And when everybody has vacated this building, this building isn't a church anymore. This is just a building. Oh, you call it the church building because it's the building where the Church congregates, but the building itself is not a church. The building itself is just the place where the local assembly of the big "C" gets together for fellowship and worship.
One of the best ways to see this and to picture it is a story that I read years ago in a book by Charles Colson, a book on the Church called, "Being the Body". In this book, he tells about one of his pictures of the Church. He writes:
One of our favorite pictures of the Church comes from the late Richard Halverson. Richard Halverson was the chaplain of the United States Senate and, before that, he was the pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., one of the largest churches in the community. He had been leading that church for years when suddenly, one day, he saw his church clearly for the very first time. You see, he was flying into Washington one day at dusk, and at that time, the approach into Washington, D.C. was to Reagan National Airport and it happened to go right across the top of the Fourth Presbyterian Church. You could look right down and see the church. But on this particular day, Dick Halverson was pressing his face against the window so he could catch a glimpse of the building in which he ministered. But everything on the ground was shrouded in the shadows falling over the city as the sun set and he couldn't find his church. He leaned back in his seat, gazing at the Washington skyline, always an inspiring sight when you fly into Washington. And as his eyes followed the Potomac River, he could see the skyscrapers of Rosslyn just across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, and then, in the distance and to the left, the White House and the lights of the Labor Department and the distant glow of the Capitol Dome. As he stared out the window, he began mentally ticking off the names of the members of his congregation who worked in those office buildings and government bureaus, and suddenly it hit him, and he said out loud, 'Of course,' and he startled the passenger who was sitting next to him. 'Of course, there it is! The Fourth Presbyterian Church!' The Church wasn't marked by a sanctuary or a steeple. The Church was spread throughout Washington, in the homes and neighborhoods and offices below him, thousands of points of light illuminating the darkness.
The Church of Jesus Christ isn't a building. The Church of Jesus Christ is the people of God who are part of the congregation which is worldwide and we just happen to be the local chapter of the big "C". We come together as God's people and thank him for these buildings. I've been a pastor for 40 years. I've pastored two churches and I've built seven church buildings so I believe in buildings. You've gotta have a building. Aren't you glad we're not meeting outdoors today? And I love the facility that God has given us. It's been a tremendous tool that he's used.
You know, church buildings are sort of like houses for families. Houses bring solidarity to a family, gives them security and a sense of a place. Church buildings are places where God's people meet to be encouraged and equipped and to be ready to go out and serve him, but the real Church is not here. The real Church is out there. And thank you for being salt and light in this community and being the Church of Jesus Christ, discussing the reality of the Church. Remember, the Church, big "C," is the universal Church, little "c" is the local assembly, often referred to in the building. Discussing the reality of the Church is followed by determining the relevancy of the Church.
So let me ask this question again, "Who needs the Church"? People today are doubting the importance of the Church. Why go to Church? I have a whole spate of books in my office that have titles that ask that question. Here's one, "Quitting the Church," "Life After Church," "So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore"? "They Liked Jesus But Not the Church," and "The American Church in Crisis".
The irrelevance of the Church has become a very relevant topic among Christians and non-Christians alike. Back in 2010, George Barna and his organization, which is a polling group, compiled a survey of opinions about the Church from a cross-section of Americans, and the results were not encouraging. Twenty percent of those who responded cited violence or hatred in the name of Christ, thirteen percent cited opposition to gay marriage, twelve percent cited involvement in politics, and another twelve percent: recent abuses involving Catholic priests.
Now, of course, when you survey a secular culture, you should expect that they are not gonna say good things about Christians who hold to a narrow view of morality. We shouldn't worry about the criticisms with that. If we're doing the right thing and doing what God has called us to do, we're not gonna be popular with everybody. But some of the things on that list we do need to take seriously if we're going to be the Church that God wants us to be. Now, when I read from history how the Christian Church was described in the early years and this is not a "good old days" story, this is just going back to the early days of the Church, it's evident that they were having an impact in their culture that somehow we have gotten away from.
Rodney Stark is a modern scholar who has written about the early and modern Christian Church and he says this about the Church in its early years. Listen carefully. "Christianity revitalized life in the Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships that were able to cope with many urgent problems". Listen. "To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity, and to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. For what they brought," said this author, "was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture that was capable of making life in the Greco-Roman cities far more tolerable for those who lived there".
In other words, Christianity in the beginning was a salt and light ministry that created a huge difference of transformation wherever it was located. If you went into a city and there was some semblance of civilization there, and there was a semblance of goodwill there, if you looked around, normally you would end up finding a Church, a group of Christians. Recently, we had one of our missionaries telling us the story of a place where they went where there was no language, where there was no Bible, and where the culture was primitive.
In fact, had recently finished being so primitive that they were eating one another. They were cannibals. This couple went there and they created a language for these people. They had no written language. They had nothing to memorialize the sounds. And they listened and they got 'em and they found a way to write it. They created the whole alphabet for the language. They created the whole language itself. And then, taking the new language, they translated portions of the New Testament. First of all, some of the key stories from the New Testament and, ultimately, the entire New Testament.
Now, watch this. They're writing the New Testament out of a language that did not exist before they went there. They taught them the New Testament and the natives began to understand the gospel and become Christians. Where there had been no culture, where there had been no civility, where there had been no language, all of a sudden, churches began to pop up all around, and now, if you go back there, it's like walking into an old-time village with concern and care and medicine and hope and help and godliness. The Church of Jesus Christ made a difference.
That story has been told in church over and over again in Albania, in Russia, in other places where the gospel has made a difference. And friends, I wanna tell you, the gospel is supposed to make a difference wherever it goes. James Russell Lowell was a Harvard-trained lawyer who established his place in American history as a social critic and one day he was at a banquet where they were ripping Christianity to shreds, just criticizing Christianity, and especially its missionary endeavor like I have just described. James Russell Lowell stood up and said these words, "I challenge any skeptic to find a 10 square mile spot on this planet where they can live lives in peace and safety and decency, where womanhood is honored, where infancy and old age are revered, where they can educate their children, where the gospel of Jesus Christ has not gone first to prepare the way".
Ladies and gentlemen, the gospel doesn't just change our hearts imperceptibly, it changes our hearts, it changes our lives, and it begins to change our families and then it changes our culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful, transformational agent there is in the world. And the Church is the purveyor of the gospel. And when we do the gospel the way the Word of God tells us to do so, we make a difference in our community. Unfortunately, biblical Christianity is not preached from every pulpit in our land anymore. As a result, America is losing her spiritual way, and it is due in no small part to the fact that the Church has lost her way. I firmly believe that as goes the churches, so go the nation.
Well, I've discussed the reality of the Church and I've determined the relevancy of the Church. I wanna finish up by defining the role of the Church. And I'm gonna do it quickly and do it in a summary fashion because I think there's value in seeing all of this in a very short span of time and being reminded that while the Church is a very complex organization, its values and core purposes, its DNA, is very, very simple. Perhaps we stumble over its simplicity. Let's begin by asking this question, "What is the purpose of the Church"? The purpose of the Church is to glorify God. The purpose of the Church is to glorify God. Say that with me. The purpose of the Church is to glorify God. That may come as a surprise because you very rarely hear that. But we're here primarily, first and foremost, to bring glory to Almighty God.
Now, no one really knows for sure when a builder or architect decided to put a steeple on a church. What we do know is the practice goes back at least 1,400 years. A steeple manufacturer whose company manufactured the world's tallest steeple, which is 229 feet, and it's atop the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, which is right next door to the hospital where I had my knees replaced. There's a little sign in the church that talks about the importance of the steeple and here's what it says, "A steeple points people to heaven. Through city streets, across the valleys and the lakes, through the countryside far and wide, the steeple declares Jesus Christ". And the picture is that here in this town, the tallest spire in the structures of the town is the church with its finger pointing straight to heaven and saying, "It's about him. It's about him".
In fact, there's another thing about a steeple that you should know. A steeple gets smaller as it gets closer to heaven, which is what happens to all of us when we really get to know the Lord, isn't it? The closer we get to him, the more we realize what a wonderful thing it is that he should care for such a one as I. So every time you see a steeple, you should remember that the lesson of the steeple is that the church's purpose is to what? To glorify God. I have always loved steeples. I wasn't sure why but now I know why. They point toward the heavens and they direct the eye upward to our risen Savior.
Listen to me, friends, preachers come and go, songs become popular and then they fade into forgetfulness. Trends and methods change over the years. Personalities dominate the pulpit and then they bury them in the church cemetery. Even church architecture changes in fad and in fashion. But through all these changes, church steeples have remained a constant tradition. Their styles and materials may change but I am thankful that those aspiring spires still point toward the heaven because they are fitting reminders to us that, number one, the purpose of the Church is to bring glory to God. Listen to the Book of Revelation, "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created".
Sometimes when I've been in church services, I've sensed in my spirit that something wasn't right, something didn't feel right. I wasn't sure then what it was, but as I look back over my shoulder now and review some of those moments, I think at least some of them were the sense that in my own heart what was happening wasn't bringing glory to God. My friends, we ought to look at everything we do through that lens, shouldn't we? Does this bring glory to the God that I love and that I serve? Does this honor the Creator who gave me life and the Savior who gave me salvation? Does it honor God? For the purpose of the Church is to bring honor to the Lord.
When you read the Book of Acts, and the discussion of the early Church, it's always in the narrative that they brought glory to God. Secondly, what's the priority of the Church? The priority of the Church is the Great Commission. And what is the Great Commission? The Great Commission is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. God left us here with a message and that message is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news concerning Christ is not a stepping stone to something greater. It is the greatest. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is what this lost world desperately needs in this decadent age. And where is it to come from? It's supposed to come from the Church, not little letter "c" but big letter "C".
We're to be out into the culture as salt and light and we're to constantly be telling people that Jesus Christ has come to pay the penalty for their sin, that God loves them, that Christ died for them, and there's a way to heaven that is through him. And it is only through the gospel that we see God's love and his justice. It is the gospel which is the strangest thing that people hear, what you can't get out of the culture of the world, which in many ways is counter-intuitive. It is that gospel that the world needs and, as we've already illustrated, when the gospel is set free in a culture, no matter where that culture is or what that culture is, the gospel of Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world.
If we're to be a relevant Church in this culture, we must first of all remember that we're here to glorify God but, secondly, we must not forget that our purpose is to be a vehicle by which men and women come to know this Savior that has come to mean so much to us. So we need to always be about evangelism. We need to always be about outreach. We need to always be about reaching into a community with the message of Jesus Christ and, yes, use every creative method that we can. But make sure it's the gospel. One of the confrontative things about all of this is we're talking about big "C". You see, big "C" is people, big "C" is you and me, big "C" is the Church scattered.
And so I'm gonna be a little uncomfortable. This is one of those moments where you're gonna say, "I wish you'd have left me alone". But let me just tell you something. Churches gathered don't share the gospel. Individual Christians share the gospel and individual Christians make up the Church. And sometimes we say, "Well, I go to the church and they preach the gospel and they share the gospel and people come to Christ," and that's true. But people usually come to Christ primarily because somebody has talked to them personally about their need of God. So here's the question that makes all of us uncomfortable. How long has it been since you shared your faith? And how long has it been since you tried?
You see, we cannot be the Church, a cutting edge, relevant Church, without the priority of the Great Commission. But that priority is resident in every single person who comes here. When we become men and women on fire with the gospel on our lips, we become the Church God created us to be. Then there's one last thing. I told you there were three. The glory of God, the message of the gospel, and the Great Commandment. Did you know there's a Great Commission and there's a Great Commandment? The Great Commandment is found in Matthew 22 where we read that we're to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. And the second part of it is and we're to love our neighbor as ourself. The Bible tells us that we're to be men and women of compassion for people all around us.
Let me set you straight on this. Not just Christian people, but people. People of any kind and sort God created and we are to be the message of God's love to this community. Did you know that when we are criticized by the people who criticize the Church, they can often criticize us for our incorrectness, they can criticize us for the fact that we aren't always as consistent as we ought to be. But when we are doing acts of kindness and compassion to those around us, it shuts the mouths of the critic. They don't know what to do with that.
Listen to these words from 1 Peter chapter 2, "Having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they behold, glorify God". That's what God has called us to do. Not only to bring glory to God and to share the message of the gospel, but to love the people in our community in his name because the old adage is true, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care". And the preliminary opportunity for the gospel of Jesus Christ is the opportunity we have to reach out with acts of compassion and kindness to those who are around us. David Ferguson has written a book called "The Great Commandment Principle". It's all about Matthew chapter 22, verses 37 to 40.
And in this book, he tells a number of stories, one of which I'd like to tell you as we close today. He tells a story about what it's like when the Great Commandment introduces the Great Commission and something wonderful happens. Here's his story:
It was a balmy November evening in Titusville, Florida. And the Friday night service was nearing conclusion. I was speaking to about a thousand pastors and lay leaders who had gathered for one of our regional ministry conferences. And my text that night was Romans 12:15, which says, 'Rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn'. During the first part of the service, we experienced the first part of that verse. We were rejoicing, we were praising God, we were worshiping the Lord. We were lifting up our hearts in praise. Then I wanted to emphasize the last part, which is to mourn with those who mourn. At the close of my message, I encouraged everyone to turn to somebody nearby, a spouse or a family member or a friend, and to share a memory of personal pain. It could be as small, as great, or as little as they wanted to share, something recent, something from the past. And each individual spoke his or her pain. The person to whom they spoke their pain was instructed to express godly comfort in return. It was a little awkward at first and a little slow getting started but, as people began to do this and they shared their hurts and comforted one another, many began to embrace. There were tears. Something happened in that room that night, that I had never seen before. And as all this was taking place, I slipped away from the platform and I circled behind the crowd near the main door, just standing there, watching, as God's people were comforting one another in the pain that they'd expressed in that few moments. While I was standing there, the door opened behind me, and a man walked in. He was about 30 years old, nice looking, casually dressed. I found out later that Ray, who was not a believer, lived in the neighborhood and he was out for an evening walk. When he walked by the church building, it was a Friday, and he could not believe there were all these cars in the parking lot on a Friday night so he couldn't help himself. Out of curiosity, he walked up and poked his head in the door and then walked in.
And can you imagine, if you walked into a church and the first thing you ever saw is what was going on that night? You would wonder, "What kind of a gathering is this"?
He walked over near to the pastor and he surveyed the sea of people, obviously very perplexed by what he saw, and he said, 'What are they doing?'. I answered, 'They're comforting one another'. He continued to watch the people share their hurts and tender embrace: married couples and single adults, and entire families. Tears formed in his eyes, and there was a longing in his voice when he turned to me and he said, 'That's what I need'. Sensing a divine appointment, the pastor said, 'Are there stressful or painful things going on right now in your life?' Ray nodded. He explained that his job at the nearby Kennedy Space Center was in jeopardy due to cutbacks. Furthermore, he had just gone through the pain of placing his mother in a nursing home. At about the same time, his fiancée had broken up with him. This young man was in a world of hurt! Others began to hear his story because he was speaking loudly and they gathered around Ray and they shared God's love for him by comforting him. The unexpected outpouring of love from total strangers lifted a great burden from Ray, and before the evening was over, he had committed his life to Jesus Christ.
What came first, folks? The Commandment or the Commission? The Commandment came first, didn't it? When people see the love that we have and you say, "Well, Pastor, some of the people around me are not very lovable". I get it, but you see, this can't be just our love. It's gotta be God's love through our hearts, doesn't it? It's gotta be God loving them through us and it's a genuine thing that God puts in our hearts. And when we express our love to them, we earn the right then to share with them why we have that love. It's because of the love of God that was given to us. The Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourself prepares the way for the Great Commission to preach the gospel to every creature.
You know, I grew up in a time when all we talked about was the Great Commission. I grew up in an age when that was all there was. In fact, the Great Commandment was suspected to be the social gospel. We've gotta get over that in this generation. If we're gonna be the Church in this world that is filled with hurt, God has to help us have compassion for those around us who need what we alone can't provide. So there it is: the three things that make the Church relevant today. They're not historically different than what we've learned in the past. It is the glory of God, the message of the gospel, and the compassion of the Great Commandment. I kind of like those motions. I know we're not a children's choir but do those with me, will you? The glory of God... the Great Commission... and the Great Commandment... to love one another.
My friends, here is the DNA of a relevant Church. It is simple but it is also profound. The Church of Jesus Christ runs on three tracks: the glory of God, the Great Commission, and the Great Commandment. When we do those things, this Church will never be irrelevant, no matter how long the Lord tarries or how long the Church is here. But we must always be on guard that these things do not slip to the perimeter of what we do, but they always stay at the center. We must not let the things of the world pour us into its mold so that the things we do to do Church become Church. The Church must always be about these priorities and that is my prayer, that God will help us to always be salt and light in the community to which he's placed us.