by: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.
Unfortunately, far too many “Christian” locations of worship, also known as “churches,” have fallen victim to what I am labeling as “marginalized faith.” What I mean by marginalized faith concerns compartmentalizing certain areas of personal comfort in areas of Christianity where little, if any, growth or even struggle is required. An example of this would be someone who enjoys a rousing sermon yet shows no practical evidence in their daily life of employing its content. Another example might be a local congregation that publicly proclaims, “all are welcome” yet when anyone actually shows up at any function of church-life there are no tangible expression “being welcomed” by the vast majority of those in attendance.
One would hope many of the individuals who inhabit these gatherings are completely and profoundly connected to God’s loving embrace through a distinct and transformational understanding of, and relationship with, Jesus. Given this rather tenuous hypothesis, one could also speculate more than a few individuals have heard more than a few times concerning the knowledge of God’s mission of practically demonstrating The Divine’s loving empowerment through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus both in their own lives and some aspects of their congregation’s existence. And yet….outwardly the location that is supposedly identified with Christ is all but empty and void of any sustainable growth. The question begs to be asked, WHY?
Carefully read the following scriptural sequence found in Mark 9:17-24 (ERV). It will offer a clearer understanding of how the above dilemma can be answered.
17 A man answered, “Teacher, I brought my son to you. He is controlled by an evil spirit that keeps him from talking. 18 The spirit attacks him and throws him on the ground. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes very stiff. I asked your followers to force the evil spirit out, but they could not.”
19 Jesus answered, “You people today don’t believe! How long must I stay with you? How long must I be patient with you? Bring the boy to me!”
20 So the followers brought the boy to Jesus. When the evil spirit saw Jesus, it attacked the boy. The boy fell down and rolled on the ground. He was foaming at the mouth.
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
The father answered, “Since he was very young. 22 The spirit often throws him into a fire or into water to kill him. If you can do anything, please have pity on us and help us.”
23 Jesus said to the father, “Why did you say ‘if you can’? All things are possible for the one who believes.”
24 Immediately the father shouted, “I do believe. Help me to believe more!”
Recently, I asked an existing church leadership team, who had experienced a significant loss in missional relevancy over the last couple of decades, the following question.
If I could show you a way to gain 100 new members within 12 months would you find this valuable to not only your local congregation but also to the building up of God’s kingdom on earth?
Their initial answer was “of course, we would!” A couple of their long-term members even went so far as to say, “who wouldn’t want to do that?” After sharing with them a few highlights concerning the kind of “re-training” it would take to prepare for this growth, they still seemed outwardly interested in “doing what was necessary” to help their local congregation become not only relevant but actively thriving.
With that as the context, let me share that the first couple of group training sessions went well. People were genuinely engaged while reading, digesting, and actively participating in the discussions as well as the practical exercise of each lesson’s foundational principle. By several standards of evaluation is was positive. Then came the third session where it was explained as a part of their “re-training” they would be required to accept two new fundamental realities;
- Anything remotely associated with “hindering” a visitor’s desire to return to their location, anything providing a “negative association” with their exposure to the local church’s physical environment, or a loving expression of God HAD TO GO!
- There had to be an immediate shift toward a shared sense of leadership and overall teamwork. They could no longer hold potential leadership at a distance. They were going to have to accept and welcome several NEW LEADERS into their existing group. These new leaders, just like themselves, were going to be required to go through the exact same training.
After these two points of emphasis were shared, taught, worked through and prayerfully discussed I sent them home to prepare for the next week’s “transformational gathering.” I let them know that next week they were going to walk through the physical plant while trying to see the existing campus with a FRESH SET OF EYES.
In addition to walking through the property with their set of newly re-trained eyes, they were going to be joined by a few new people who had never set foot in the local church. These “new people” we’re being brought into the process to enhance the effectiveness of accurate initial impressions.
The experience was “eye opening” to say the least. After the walk-through was completed we thanked our guests. We shared a few minutes of “fellowship” with them and said good-bye as they left our presence.
After I brought the existing leaders back into a classroom I had a BIG SURPRISE for them. I had taken a video of their interaction with our guest evaluators. What they witnessed on the video was a group who systematically separated themselves from potential members. Throughout the video they could be seen huddling away from their visitors into smaller groups. Literally everyone who eventually interacted with the guests would smile while they were with our visitors but immediately looked disengaged or dissatisfied as they left. It was quite revealing.
I want to be clear at this point. These “existing leaders” are great people. They are kind and considerate while professing their commitment to the “cause of Christ.” Yet, their innate tendency to SEPARATE themselves from others was obvious and was going to have to be dealt with honestly.
Our scripture above spoke about being “attacked by evil.” It spoke about being “thrown to the ground” and being defined as “stiff.”
Beloved, one of the reasons why churches all across the American landscape are slowly declining in numeric growth and missional effectiveness is because they are attacked daily by a tangible “evil.” This attack begins with the premise of being “satisfied.” This “spirit of evil” wants them to be satisfied with wherever they find themselves at any given moment. This subtle, yet deadly, “evil” can be compared to a small boat trying to make its way through a blustery storm. The force of their situation eventually throws them off course. As these “spiritual storm clouds” continue to become an accepted reality it eventually sinks any hope of their sense of evangelistic direction, discipleship mandates, and Divine promise.
Later in Mark 9:21-23, the parable shares the father brings the boy to Jesus. Jesus then asks several “qualifying questions” concerning the history and context of the boy’s “evil affliction.” The father asks Jesus to fix the problem but qualifies his request by saying, “If you can.” Jesus basically exclaims….WHAT DO YOU MEAN….“If I can?” This is exactly where the problem of trying to transform an existing “congregation” of Christian souls back into a life of vibrant hope and practical enthusiasm comes to a screeching halt.
So many Christians have lost their foundational BELIEF in a God that can do ANYTHING. They have been “thrown to the ground” so often they have presumed their current reality is the only option available to them. This is another standard weapon of the “evil” the above parable speaks about.
Beloved, the opposite of God is “disbelief.” The opposite of God is “hopelessness.” The opposite of God is the lie that leads you to believe ….whatever your current context is….is the limit of what God has in store for you.
PUTTING HUMAN LIMITS ON GOD IS A REFLECTION OF OUR OWN FAITH; OR LACK THEREOF!
Here are a couple of biblical passages that should prayerfully lead you to a completely different conclusion.
They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people. God showed them his glory. He made agreements with them and gave them his Law. The temple is theirs and so are the promises that God made to them. (Romans 9:4)
Christ says “Yes” to all of God’s promises. That’s why we have Christ to say “Amen” for us to the glory of God. (2 Cor. 1:20)
Even when you think there is “no way out” of whatever you or your local congregation has found itself….God, through Christ, says to not only BELIEVE in me, He says, BELIEVE MORE!
Even when your congregation has had zero growth for years, God, THROUGH CHRIST, says to not only BELIEVE in me, He says, BELIEVE MORE!
Even when money is short and the laborers are few, God says, through Christ, stop trying to figure it out on your own and TRUST ME….MORE. WALK WITH ME….MORE. Pray with me more. God says, Believe in me, even when it seems foolish. Why? Because when you get to a point in your faith-journey where it seems all but impossible to believe any more than you already have….ask God, THROUGH CHRIST to believe MORE!
The Bible is profoundly clear in its foundational proclamation that TRUE CHRISTIAN FAITH only begins when all else has failed; when all human strategies and best practices seem to have fallen short over and over again. The Bible and millions of faithful followers of Christ remind us when there is no other option BUT TO BELIEVE….When there is no other way BUT TO TRUST….When there is no other choice left but FAITH IN THE PROMISES OF GOD….then that is exactly where you should have begun in the first place.
Never allow the “evil” lies of complacency and mediocrity…even failure…to overwhelm your current circumstance. Why? Because GOD IS ABLE!
I am telling you by all that is holy and true, He is able. He is able to move circumstances. He is able to transform trouble. He is able to heal the broken hearted. YES, Lord! He is able to reignite the embers of fallen faith. He is able to revive a reckless demeanor….He is able to cure a wayward lust….or a selfish spirit….or an angry attitude or even a jealous heart. Oh YES! God is able. God is able when no one else can. He is able when no one else will. God is able when no one else cares. GOD…..IS……ABLE!
Oh God, I pray you will bind up your wounded church; bind up the monument of assumed mediocrity. Do what is necessary to bring darkness to light and apathy to divine victory. Lord, place a hedge of protection around your children….especially those who have forgotten how truly good and powerful you are.