Keep this in mind as the movie Heaven Is For Real is released this week.
Hopefully by now we’ve all recovered from all of the eating we’ve done over the past few weeks between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Usually a few days after eating “holiday food” during Thanksgiving and Christmas I am just ready to go and get some fast food from somewhere. Give me a cheeseburger! This time of the year is unique in that we eat certain foods and amounts of certain foods only at this time of the year. But after a while, we get tired of it and just want a sense of normalcy. We want to just eat the kinds and amounts of food we are used to eating. We want the living room back to how it usually is decorated and all the furniture in the right place. And if we’re honest, we want it just to be our family again. We have people overload and just want it quiet and calm and normal.
Likewise, from a ministry perspective this time of year gives a local church unique once in a year opportunities to reach out to our community with the Good News of the Gospel. Both the kinds of outreaches we do and the “amount” of outreaches we do intensify during this season of the year.
However, there’s a difference in the feasting on ministry and outreach that we do that is unique to this time of year as opposed to the feasting we do on food and other unique aspects of the Holiday Season. The Thanksgiving and Christmas food along with the decorations, presents, as well as the family and friends we spend time with are all not the norm. We only do this once a year. And then we return to normalcy. And when it comes to the ministry opportunities we engage in over these months, there is sometimes a sense when January 1st rolls around of, “Glad that’s behind us, now things can get back to normal.” But what if that is the “normal” for the local church and Christians. Is it possible that what’s abnormal are the other eleven months of the year where we don’t put in the same intentional effort in prayer, giving, sharing, planning, sacrificing to reach our community and the world with the Gospel?
Maybe as we approach a new year and make new resolutions that one of the ones we need to make, maybe the most important one as a local church, is a commitment to a “new normal” when it comes to ministry and outreach to lost people. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” Christmas is about Jesus coming to save sinners, but He didn’t just come to save sinners for the month of December. Therefore, throughout the entire year, every month and every day of our lives, let us live and love, give and go like Jesus came to save sinners and intentionally pray and work to join Jesus in pursuing sinners in need of a Savior.
Thom Rainer, President and CEO of LifeWay Christian resources has recently written a series of helpful posts on how to identify whether or not a local church is sick (here)and then what it will take to see her become healthy once again (here).
Thom estimates that about 40% of churches in America are in the very sick stage, which is one stage away from dying.
The following are the indicators to tell if a church is very sick:
- Significant numerical decline over the past ten to twenty years. Most of the time we measure worship attendance for this metric.
- Prolonged times of apathy. Occasional times of intense conflict. The church seems more apathetic than anything else, but conflict can arise with surprising intensity.
- The church is not known in the community. Ask a clerk at a store in the community. You may be surprised how few even know the church exists.
- New members are rare. The exodus clearly exceeds the inflow.
- Revolving door of pastors. Frustration and conflict limit the years of pastoral tenure.
- The “good old days” are typically twenty or more years in the past. There has been a long season since anyone felt really good about the church.
- The church must admit and confess its dire need. Most churches move toward death because they refuse to acknowledge their condition. Sometimes a single leader will be used of God to move the church in this positive direction.
- The church must pray for wisdom and strength to do whatever is necessary. The change will not be easy. Many will resist it.
- The church must be willing to change radically. Frankly, this point is usually the point of greatest resistance. The church has to change decades of cumulative problem behaviors in a very short time.
- That change must lead to action and an outward focus. When a church begins to act positively with this radical change, it has essentially become a new church. It is not the church of old that refused to change and move forward.
We are currently holding a series of meetings entitled, “Revival & Revitalization: Whatever You Ask.” Our focus is to seek the Lord for revival in our lives individually and revitalization as a church collectively, to be willing to do whatever the Lord asks of us related to both of these areas. What is “Church Revitalization?” Church revitalization is simply being used of the Lord to take a dying, struggling or plateaued church and see it infused with new life and new effectiveness in reaching its community and world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In thinking recently about Church Revitalization and what it takes to turn a church around and see new life breathed into it, I was reminded of a very personal story that I think sheds light on two specific essential components to any attempt at Church Revitalization. I want to share that personal story and then point out these two necessary components from that story that relate to Church Revitalization.
I have Crohn’s Disease. If you don’t have any idea what that is, then you can find out here. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was in middle school. I’m approaching 40 so I can’t remember the exact age. I fought off and on battles with the disease throughout middle school with many different medication treatments etc., with not so nice side effects. In High School I was fairly fortunate because the disease went into remission and I was able to enjoy most of my High School years free from any major flare ups.
However, that all ended shortly after I graduated from High School. The disease began slowly coming out of remission and before long I was in a full blown flare up and things began to escalate rather quickly and severely. To make a very long story short I began living in very intense pain most days. I got to the point where eating was no longer just not fun, but in some cases just not worth it. I began losing weight at a quick rate, to the tune of between 60-70 pounds over a six to eight month period. I was malnourished and in pain most of the time.
Things were not good and getting worse. And my mother knew it better than anyone. She’s the one who took care of me. And you can imagine what that would be like as a mother to be watching your only son wasting away from a disease that was attempting to take his life. The doctor that I had at that time was not a very aggressive doctor when it came to treating Crohn’s Disease. He was fairly adamant about sticking to a philosophy of treatment that centered around medication. The only problem was that I had tried about every medication there was and nothing was working. As a matter of fact my health got to the point that unbeknownst to me my mother went out and purchased a burial plot for me in the event she lost the battle of fighting for my life.
But even though things were horrible and getting worse, thankfully I had a mother who would not give up on her son. She took me back to the doctor who had originally diagnosed me with Crohn’s Disease some six or seven years prior. He examined me. My mom explained to him how things had progressed and the frustration we had with our current doctor. And she explained to him that she couldn’t just watch her son die. There had to be something else that could be done.
Thankfully there was. The doctor explained to her that it was possible that we could go in and remove all of my large intestine along with anything else that was contaminated with the disease (and there were other things). My way of living would be altered for the rest of my life due to having to remove multiple digestive organs. But, he felt like if we did this then I could start anew and have a real chance to survive and live. And so that’s what we did. In October of 1996, seventeen years ago (Praise the Lord!) I went into a 8+ hour surgery that did in fact alter my life permanently but spared my life. Now, I’ve had surgeries since then and probably will have surgeries at some point in the future. But the point is that I’ve lived for seventeen years. And in that seventeen years, God has saved me through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve gotten married to the most amazing woman in the world. God has given me three beautiful children. God has allowed me to be a pastor for the past twelve years and make such amazing friends in so many places and see lives changed. And my mom has been able to watch and enjoy all of it and never used that burial plot she purchased for me seventeen years ago.
There’s one point of the story I left out, which I’ll share now and then I’ll point out the two necessary components of Church Revitalization that are connected with this personal story. What I left out was that when we had that conversation with the doctor who originally diagnosed me with Crohns and he told us of the one option that was available to us, my mom asked him this question, “Why didn’t you tell us about this before?” And I don’t remember the exact words of his answer (remember, I’m close to 40), but it went something along these lines, “Because Philip and you had to be ready for something so drastic. The more dire the circumstance, the more open Philip would be to do what was needed to live and that would make the entire process easier and successful.” You see in my story in order for me to live there were two things that were needed. First, I had to have a mom who would not give up on me and who refused to sit around and watch me die. And thank the Lord, I did. Secondly, I had to come to the point where the pain of change was actually less than the pain associated with staying the same, which in my case was dying.
What does this have to do with Church Revitalization? Statistics tell us that as many as 80% of churches in North America are plateaued or declining, which is just a nice word for dying. What will it take for those churches to live and not die? It will not happen unless, by God’s grace, there are those two same needed components. First, there must be leadership that refuses to sit around and watch the church die. And that leadership starts, I believe, with your pastors and staff. They must resist the temptation to just throw up their hands and say, “There’s no hope” and watch the church shut its doors. Secondly, the church must come to the realization that the pain of change and what it will cost to see revitalization take place is actually much less painful than the pain associated with watching and experiencing the slow death of the church body. Ed Stetzer, local church pastor and President of LifeWay Research says it this way, “People never change until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.” And it’s the same with churches. Churches never change until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.
And so if you are a pastor of a church that needs revitalization, don’t quit. Keep fighting for the life of Christ’s church because He is. And if you are a member of a church that needs revitalization, which pain is better? The pain of staying the same or the pain of change?
I know that’s not very creative. If it sounds familiar it should. I’ve borrowed it from John Piper’s little booklet, Don’t Waste Your Cancer which he wrote during his battle with prostate cancer. It’s a great little booklet that looks at ways you will waste your battle with cancer if you don’t look at it through the lens of Scripture. Well, I don’t think I could improve upon that title so forgive me for borrowing it for my purposes here.
Last September we found out that I had an enlarged aortic root or an aortic root aneurysm. My cardiologist referred me to a cardiothoracic surgeon for what I thought was just to jump through some hoops for life insurance companies and I left the appointment having just heard that more than likely I would have to have open heart surgery sometime in the near or distant future. I was floored and I don’t get floored easily. I had not brought Holly along with me because I thought the appointment was just a formality. I was wrong. That day was a day of numbness to the news. That night was a night of panic. No literally, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I laid my head down that night to fall asleep and it literally felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I’m sure it was mostly psychosomatic, but still it wasn’t a fun night. The next morning was one of fear and tears. I finally “lost it” while taking a shower. I composed my tears by the time I made my way into the kitchen to fix my breakfast, but once I sat down, the fear and emotions began to well up once again. Holly noticed and asked me what was wrong. And I said something to her that I’ve maybe said once or twice to her before in our twelve years of marriage—or maybe never. I said, “I’m scared.” I wasn’t scared of the possibility of surgery. I’ve been through multiple major surgeries before. Though as I learned more about what all was involved in open heart surgery, I became a little fearful at that as well. No, that morning my fear was not for me. My fear was for my family. What would happen to them if I fell in the 5% category of people where something goes wrong during or after the surgery? I was terrified for them and thought of leaving my wife and three children without a husband and father. I hope I am no longer “fearful” of that because we are not supposed to be afraid. One of the most common refrains from God is, “Fear not.” However, while it may not be “fear” any longer, it will never be less than shear brokenness at the thought of my family—wife, children, mom, etc., having to deal with that kind of loss.
In a month we would do a repeat CT scan to see how much the aneurysm had grown over the past year. (Random thought: six months ago I would have mistyped “aneurysm” nine times out of ten, but now it’s as memorized as “Philip”) The scan showed that it had grown from 4.3/4.4cm to 4.6/4.7cm. Five centimeters is the cutoff mark for surgery—the point at which the risks of letting it stay there are greater than the risk associated with surgery. The plan of action was to wait six months and repeat the scan, see how much it had grown and go from there.
The next six months got easier—especially the first five. We went on with our lives though never a day would go by that I didn’t think about it. Still doesn’t. But it got easier to deal with and “put on the back burner.” Then March rolled around and the anxiety and curiosity and all sorts of other emotions crept back in. We waited for what seemed like forever for a “date”—the next CT Scan date. Finally, April 10th was the day. My mom and her husband, as well as my grandmother came into town to be with us for whatever news we received. Our church family now and those from every other church family we have ever been a part of waited anxiously, as well as our biological families. On April 10th we would have the CT scan and then immediately go over to the doctor’s office to get the results and go from there. The day before the surgeon’s office called and said that my surgeon would be in surgery that morning and so he would have to call us with the results. I know that’s a small thing, but it seemed like just one more thing that was making us wait.
Finally around 9:50am on April 10th I had the CT scan. CT scans are a breeze, minus the fact that you feel like you are peeing on yourself. Thankfully, you are not. We left and headed back home and waited. And waited. I called the surgeon’s office around 12:30 to see if he had read the results and thankfully, he had. Now, here’s how we had been praying. “Lord, our first choice is that you will just take this aneurysm away. Let the CT scan show that it’s gone, vanished. That would be really nice. Lord, our second choice is that you would stop it from growing, forever. And lastly, Lord if it’s your will that it has progressed to the point of needing surgery, may the surgery go well, during and after, and give us grace to sustain us whatever may happen.” We were trusting in His power to heal me, but resting in His wisdom should He choose not to do so.
Back to the results. The surgeon said that there had been no change in the size of the aneurysm. As a matter of fact the scan actually read that it might be a little smaller, though he didn’t believe it was getting smaller. It definitely wasn’t any larger and so we would wait a full year, repeat the scan and go from there. Now, I like to believe that the Lord made it smaller. Maybe He didn’t, but He could have. Another explanation for the potential “decrease” is that there is some human error involved in this in terms of reading the scans and one radiologist may look at it one way and another one a different way and get a slightly different measurement.
I had taken this phone call in the bedroom and so I went into the living room where my mom, step-dad, grandmother, and Holly were waiting. I told them the good news and we were all very relieved and thankful. However, there was another emotion I felt, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. The next morning I figured it out. And I hope you won’t think I’m crazy when you read what I’m going to share next. I came to realize that for some reason the other emotion that I felt was disappointment. WHAT? Now I wasn’t disappointed in the fact that my chest would not have to be cracked open, at least for another year. No, it wasn’t that. But what was it? I definitely wouldn’t want to think that the disappointment was due to the loss of attention and concern from others over my condition. That can happen. I made sure that wasn’t it and it wasn’t’.
So, what was the cause of this disappointment? Now we get back to the title of this already way too long post, “Don’t Waste Your Aneurysm.” What the Lord had done over the past six months was given me this aneurysm to make me utterly dependent on Him. At the time I was writing a sermon from Genesis on the passage of Jacob wrestling with God. It’s better to label that passage, “God Wrestles with Jacob” because it’s God who picks the fight with Jacob, not the other way around. And in picking that fight with Jacob, God was beating something out of Jacob—Jacob’s independence and self-sufficiency and lack of faith in God and too much faith in himself. With this aneurysm, God was/is doing a thousand different things in my life and the lives of others. I don’t think anything we go through in life that passes from the hand of God or through the hand of God is ever given to us just to accomplish one thing. But one of the things was definitely using the aneurysm to beat self-sufficiency and independence out of me. Unfortunately it’s not the first time God’s picked this fight with me. Evidently I’m a slow learner. I hope that is changing.
But that was definitely the product of these past six months. Utter helplessness, and complete dependency on God to help us either by healing me or sustaining us through the worst possible outcomes. And a part of that dependency on Him was expressed through dependency upon His people, the Church. We did not share everything right away with everyone. However, around February we decided it was time to let everyone else know—church family, other church families, extended families, Facebook friends, everyone. Why? It was getting closer to the next scan and people deserved to know. But personally, selfishly, I was tired of bearing the burden without the full support and prayers of God’s people. And so we shared it far and wide because we wanted people to pray with and for us. And they/you did. And it was a very tangible expression of the dependency upon God that God was gifting us with over the past six months.
And that kind of dependency is a sweet, sweet thing. I probably would have said early on that this aneurysm was a bitter providence of the Lord. And in many ways it still is. But I can also say now that it is a sweet providence of the Lord because of the dependency it was instilling in me and the self-sufficiency it was beating out of me. And that’s just what God brings afflictions in our lives to accomplish. I hate the phrase, “God never puts on us more than we can carry.” Why do I hate it? Because it’s a lie! It’s taken from a misunderstanding of a passage from 1 Corinthians about temptation to sin, not suffering. Here is what is a much more biblical thing to say: God delights in giving us more than we can bear. Why? Listen to how Paul in 2 Corinthians 1 answers that question:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ESV)
Paul says they were burdened beyond their strength. They had more on them than they could carry. And what was the purpose of that: to make them rely not on themselves but on God who raises the dead. Satan doesn’t want us to rely less on ourselves and more on the God who raises the dead. That’s a desire that God has for us. And so the afflictions that Paul refers to here were afflictions given to him from the hand of God in order to beat self-reliance out of Paul and instill in Him a more sure God-dependency.
Charles Spurgeon who dealt with much physical and emotional affliction said this,
“I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister's library.”
Why? Because sickness ,or any other kind of affliction, teaches us to be less independent and more God-dependent. And that’s just what the Lord had been doing with me for the past six months. And as much as I didn’t want my chest to be opened up and go through the physical pain of the surgery along with the recovery, still I knew that as difficult as it might be it would mean more of God’s purpose in this aneurysm of teaching me to rely less on myself and more on the Lord.
That was the reason of the disappointment that I felt. I was happy that I was not going to go through surgery. But I was disappointed because it felt like this bitterly sweet providence of God was being removed. And if open heart surgery is what it takes to make me more dependent on God and less on myself, then open heart surgery is a blessing not a curse. I know that sounds crazy, but I hope it doesn’t. Because I don’t feel crazy.
And so now we wait another year and do this all over again, with all the accompanying emotions. And life will go on and we will think less about it but never a day will go by that I don’t think about it. I will know every day that I am never more than 3/10ths of a centimeter from having open heart surgery. So, in a sense it is still a bitterly sweet providence of God that I hope will continue to beat the self-sufficiency out of me and instill greater trust in my Savior, my Lord, and my God. And when April 2014 rolls around, we will still be praying the same thing: God we trust in your power to heal me but we rest in your wisdom should you choose otherwise. And if He chooses otherwise, I pray that I will welcome the painful journey of open heart surgery as a welcomed friend and blessing from the Lord. For in fact, as Paul says, “On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.” Whether that’s in this life or the next is not up to us.
And so I want to close with two thoughts. First, from Paul in that same passage in 2 Corinthians 1: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many." (2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV)
Secondly, Don’t waste YOUR aneurysm.
This was originally posted five years ago, shortly after my Granddaddy's death. Today is the 5th anniversary of his going home to be with the Lord and I miss him, but I still adore the goodness of God even in the midst of the sorrow.
April 11, 2008
Sarah Edwards was the wife of the great pastor/theologian Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination. Sarah wrote these words to their daughter shortly after the death of their husband/father:
“My very dear child! What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore His goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and He has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be. Your affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards.”
I adore the goodness of God in all the years that he gave my granddaddy to me and my family. I do hurt at his death. I hurt in a way I have never hurt before. It's a hurt that seems to cut both ways. In a sense, you want it to go away or ease up. But, in another way--just as fervent--you don't want it to leave because the depth of the hurt is an indication of the depth of the love and I never want that love to be minimized or forgotten.
However, even through the hurt I do, by God's grace adore the goodness of God that we had my granddaddy for so long. I adore his goodness in using my granddaddy to bring me to faith in Christ and for setting such a marvelous example of a loving grandfather and faithful pastor. Granddaddy wrote in one of his sermons, "As times got harder for Paul, Jesus got sweeter." And it was so with my granddaddy as well. The harder things got, the sweeter Jesus was. He did not articulate it maybe the same way I do, but he treasured Christ in and through all things. He loved his family. I adore the goodness of God in giving me and our family our Granddaddy for so long.
I adore the goodness of God this past week as well in the prayers and kind words of church members and family and friends. I adore the goodness of God in being able to be a small part of my Granddaddy's memorial service, which was spectacular. I adore the goodness of God of being able to weep with my family and to do so as a family. I realized or was reminded this week of just how much I love my family and how much I want to show that more from now on.
One of the most cherished graces of God to me this past week came the day of the funeral. The family time for visitation was from 10-2pm. I was in the church with some other family members: my mom, two uncles, grandma, and other family. I had purposefully tried to not see my granddaddy at the visitation the night before or at the funeral home on Saturday. I just didn't want to remember him that way. But it was inevitable that I would see him sometime in the week. I did several times. I found myself looking at all the flowers that had been sent and I began to weep and tried to hold it in and just let it out quietly. My uncle Larry noticed me and came to my side. He came to my side and put his arm around me and hugged me and let me weep on his shoulder. It may not have been special to him, but it was a priceless gift from God to me.
Our family has wept and we will weep. I don't know if I realized just how much I loved my Granddaddy. I do now--now that I know he will never call me again on a Sunday night to ask me how my day went or he will never say again to me on the phone, "Can I do something?" which meant he was about to pray with me. I'll never again here him say, "You tell Holly and the girls that some crazy guy said hello and that he loves them." He'll never ask again, "How's the boss?" which meant, "How's Shadow doing?"
But in and through all of those "never agains" God is good and kind and right in all that he does. One day, because of the work of Christ in the life of my granddaddy and in my life, we will see each other again and I know that when we see each other, he will give me a great big ol' bearhug just like he gave me as a little boy and we will adore the goodness of God in the face of Jesus Christ forever and ever.
I'm reading Russell Moore's Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ and I thought this was very timely for this week of remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Part of the curse Jesus would bear for us on Golgotha was the taunting and testing by God's enemies. And he drowned in his own blood, the spectators yelled the words quite similar to those of Satan in the desert: 'Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.' (Mark 15:32) But he didn't jump down. He didn't ascend to the skies. He just writhed there. And, after it all, the bloated corpse of Jesus hit the ground as he was pulled off the stake, spattering warm blood and water on the faces of the crowd.
That night the religious leaders probably read Deuteronomy 21 to their families, warning them about the curse of God on those who are 'hanged on a tree.' Fathers probably told their sons, 'Watch out that you don't ever wind up like him.' Those Roman soldiers probably went home and washed the blood of Jesus from under their fingernails and played with their children in front of the fire before dozing off. This was just one more insurrectionist they had pulled off a cross, one in a line of then dotting the roadside. And this one (what was his name? Joshua?) was just decaying meat now, no threat to the empire at all.
That corpse of Jesus just lay there in the silence of that cave. By all appearances it had been tested and tried, and found wanting. If you'd been there to pull open his bruised eyelids, matted together with mottled blood, you would have looked into blank holes. If you'd lifted his arm, you would have felt no resistance. You would have heard only the thud as it hit the table when you let it go. You might have walked away from that morbid scene muttering to yourself, 'The wages of sin is death.'
But sometime before dawn on a Sunday morning, a spike-torn hand twitched. A blood-crusted eyelid opened. The breath of God came blowing into that cave, and a new creation flashed into reality. God was not simply delivering Jesus--and with him all of us--from death, he was also vindicating him--and with him all of us. By resurrecting Jesus from the dead, God was reaffirming what he had said over the Jordan waters. He was declaring Jesus 'to be the Son of God in power' (Rom. 1:4)