by: Rev. Ed Schneider
‘Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ – Isaiah 41:2
A few years ago I had the privilege of being the pastor of a church having to go through a complete physical restoration of its main facility due to asbestos contamination. Quite literally, one day everything was apparently fine. There were happy and vibrant people moving about the church with nothing more than serving the greater needs of others on their collective minds. Then, the next day, like an unexpected cold wind, a chill came across just about everyone in the church. Asbestos was found everywhere. One day everything seemed great and the next day there were padlocks on the doors and red warning stickers on all of the entrance doors. Within a matter of four days and five phone calls the church had no other choice but to transform itself from a feeling of comfort to the sudden shock of survival. They had to quickly accept that whatever was before was gone.
The place was essentially gutted from floor to ceiling, plus some of the windows had to be broken out to accommodate the huge vacuums that had to be placed in the building for safety reasons. You can imagine what it was like for that church family to stand on the sidewalk and know everything that they held dear about the physical structure would never be able to be experienced in the same way again.
Then an amazing thing happened. A little old lady who was thoroughly wrapped up in the arms of God’s grace, who had survived the loss of her husband and two of her adult children, and who had to move to a residential assisted living facility, said to all of us, “Time to begin again. It’s time to remember what it took to build this place when we first opened it.” She turned to those who were amazed by her vibrant demeanor and told them in no uncertain terms, “Get to work! We’ve got a church to build.”
As I was reflecting on this time in my ministerial life, I remember feeling a great responsibility to lead and care for this congregation at that particular time in their history. I wondered what it must have been like for others long ago who were faced with similar circumstances of building a church and caring for souls under severe trials. I wondered about the early Christians who were called to witness to their faith while building the largest single movement that the world has ever known.
The courage that this local band of followers demonstrated was an inspiration. There were, of course, others who couldn’t force themselves to stay the course while faithfully praising and serving “their” church. That was at times disheartening. However, when any of us even thought about getting tired or giving up, we merely had to remember our own little lady’s cry to “Get to work! We have a church to build.” She had laid the foundation of courage and faith. She had shown that the truth of God’s grace was still alive and kicking.
As I stood on the sidewalk in front of the church, I remembered the remarkable fact that after the days of the original apostles no names of great missionaries or church builders are mentioned in written form until the opening of the Middle Ages. Why the silent treatment by historians? What in the world happened to the zeal of the earlier Christian souls during this time in history? What happened to the passion, commitment, enthusiasm and a loving urgency to call people into action?
God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. – Ps. 46:1
Unlike today, early Christian communities seemed to have no formalized missionary societies, home mission institutions, church growth consulting agencies or even one recorded organized outreach effort of Christian increase. Yet in less than 300 years from the death of the beloved disciple John, practically the whole population of the Roman Empire, which then represented the civilized world, was, arguably, “Christianized.”
To comprehend this undeniable historical fact, we must remember that the foundation of Christendom was laid upon the immensely strong shoulders of the original apostles, followed by the first generation of the disciples themselves. Their passionate display of commitment and trust in God’s amazing grace and power, fueled by their own martyred blood, eventually sprouted a bountiful harvest of faithful and energized Christian souls. Our Bible tells us, “One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap where you have not labored; others have labored, and you are entered into their labor.” (John 4:38).
Our ancestors had to survive great trials and tribulations to stay alive, both physically and spiritually. They found then, as we ought to find now, that Christianity, once firmly and authentically established, was its own best missionary. Christianity, when it’s experienced with passion and self-sacrificial love, seemingly grows both naturally and exponentially from within. Then, as now, Christianity – when it’s real and vibrant – attracts people by its very presence. It was, and still is, a light shining through the eventual journey of darkness that life provides.
So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. – 2 Peter 1:19
As we began to rebuild this shell of a church, important lessons began to emerge. Lessons revolving around shared trials and shared joy were experienced. We also discovered that every congregation was a missionary society unto itself, and every band of believers was their own church growth experts. Lessons that were gathered concerning the love and urgency that existed back then can still provide a flame of hope to the humanity that surrounds us each and every day. We even learned a lesson about false comfort and how it can be a huge snare all by itself.
Our congregation figured out that we should never stop trying to find new ways of sharing the goodness of God’s love. We learned valuable lessons over the 17 months we didn’t have a physical church home. I suppose the most important lesson we learned was that the building doesn’t make the church. Those who have been transformed by God’s gracious gift of Christ make the real church.
That’s something that none of us who claim to have a church home should ever take for granted. Peace