Can These Bones Live?

Since I work in a church, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn I love church buildings. I especially love old church sanctuaries, and honestly, the older the better. My wife is always surprised (although she’s growing used to it) when we go on vacation, and I want to walk through any churches we might be passing by. There is something about the craftsmanship in the old wood and the fire bright beauty of the sun coming through the stained glass windows that fills me with awe and worship.

So, again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I get really emotional when I see a church building with a “For Sale” sign in front of it. Now, I understand, all kinds of things happen. The growth patterns of cities change. Traffic patterns are rerouted and communities go through transition. I get it. I also understand that churches move. They sell one piece of property and relocate to another space. Brentwood Baptist did that back in 2002.

I understand life happens, but more and more in our nation, churches are just closing. They are going out of business. On any given day, it’s not unusual to see an article about how a developer has bought an old church building with plans to turn the once sacred facility into condos or a restaurant. Too many times, a small and struggling group of church members decides, for whatever reason, they can’t make a go of it, and they vote to close the doors of the church and sell the building.

Now, let me get this straight…the building is being sold by a group of people who are sure no one will come to their building, and it’s being bought by a group of people who are sure a lot of people will come to the building if there’s something new in the building.

Why can’t the church be that something new in the building?

There’s a reason Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream. Not everyone likes the same flavor. In the same way, not everyone likes the same style of worship, the same emphasis of service and mission, or the same process of discipleship. There are a lot of different kinds of people, and there needs to be a lot of different churches to meet the different needs of these people. One size doesn’t fit all. It never has.

Now, this may mean there’s a Caucasian church that’s now surrounded by a Hispanic community. An African-American church that finds itself in the middle of a Kurdish community—the variations and challenges are endless. If a church can be given the support and assistance to reevaluate its mission in light of its changing community, a lot of good things can happen. You may not be able to put new wine into old wineskins, but you can put a new church in an old building.

There are several advantages to this approach:

  1. The members of the original church can see their church thriving and effective. It’s a different future than they had once imagined, but it’s still a great future to be part of.
  2. The old building can be refurbished and remodeled for pennies on the dollar when compared to the cost of new construction.
  3. Most of the time, the new church can avoid politically charged issues with the surrounding communities, codes, and city hall.
  4. The neighborhood is genuinely interested to see something new going on in the church.

In the famous Bible story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37), God asked the prophet Ezekiel if the dry bones could live. Of course, Ezekiel soon found out the bones could indeed live. It’s the story I think about every time I see a church building for sale. Can these bones live? I answer the same way Ezekiel did, “Yes, they can!”

An Alternative Theory on the Dones, Part 2

Last week, I wrote a blog suggesting an alternative theory to the Dones. Dones are those individuals who are no longer engaged in church life. They are different from the Nones because they still consider themselves faithful to Christ but no longer committed or connected to a local church. They are “done.” They’ve found a lot of things to do on the weekend, but church involvement isn’t one of them.

I suggested one of the reasons Dones leave the church is that we never call on them to do anything significant with their lives. We ask them to serve on committees, teach preschoolers, and give to the budget, but we never call them to an adventure of faith that challenges their capacities. They’ll stay involved as long as their children do, but generally, when the children leave home, the Dones leave church. That’s an over simplification, but I use this example to make my point. For some reason, or maybe for many reasons, the Dones decide their church involvement is no longer worth their time.

My point was this: our members do a lot of incredible things during the week, but they’re never asked to engage in an all-consuming way in church. I think a lot of people are bored. We never give them a chance to save the world.

My friend, Scot McKnight, reminded me that according to research found in works like Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope’s book, Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, the Dones were once the most active people in their churches.

True, they faithfully attended every committee meeting and chaperoned youth trips, but they were capable of so much more.

In Ephesians 4, Paul writes: “And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11–12)

Churches are going to have to rethink their relationship with their members. Members are no longer consumers to be served. They are ministers to be trained. They are missionaries to be deployed. The role of the clergy isn’t to DO the ministry but to serve as the training faculty for those who do serve. There are some things Jesus will teach you only in obedience. There are miracles you see only as you engage.

As people serve, they see God at work. This drives them to worship. As they are challenged to follow deeper, they are driven to discipleship.

People come to church to be trained and sent out to serve. They return for healing, rest, more training, and then they’re sent out again.

The first Reformation gave the Word back to the people. The second Reformation is giving ministry back to them. When the Dones hear this, they’ll realize they aren’t done yet.

What My Granddaughter is Teaching Me about Evangelism

My friends warned me. “Once you hold that little girl,” they said, “your whole world will change.” I guess I believed them…sort of. In reality, I had no idea what would happen to me the first moments I held my granddaughter.

My whole world changed. From that moment on, everything became about Mackenzie. How is she? What’s she doing? Send me a picture! Got a video? I have videos of Mackenzie eating, waving her arms, sitting in a chair, laughing, crying, dancing, and singing. I even have videos of Mackenzie doing nothing at all. I am simply fascinated by all things Mackenzie!

Here’s something else I’ve discovered. No matter where the conversation begins—world peace, terrorism, the economy, politics—I can bring the dialogue around to a place where showing you a picture of Mackenzie is the next natural thing to do. I can turn any conversation into a conversation about my granddaughter. It’s the most natural thing to do.

Which made me start thinking about evangelism. Now, hang on for just a moment. I know saying the “E word” sends everyone running for the hills—believers and non-believers alike. Believers run because they don’t want to be part of a time-consuming, guilt-based, ineffective outreach to their friends. Unbelievers run because every time a church has an evangelistic emphasis, they feel like they have targets on their backs.

What happened to evangelism? Well, this is where my granddaughter comes in. Though she’s only a one-year-old, Mackenzie has become the fascination of my life. I love sitting on the floor with her watching her figure things out. I love watching her crawl up the stairs all by herself and the careful attention she gives each one of her stuffed animals. The more I’m around her, the easier it is to tell other people about her.

There…did you see it? The more I’m around Mackenzie, the easier it is to talk about her.

This why I think evangelism is so hard for most people. They aren’t around Jesus enough to have anything to say about Him. Sure, Christians believe in prayer, but it’s been years since most Christians have had a conversation with Jesus. It’s been longer than that since most of us were studying the Word—really studying—not just reading slowly. No wonder we can’t think of anything to say about Jesus. It’s been so long since we’ve talked to Him.

The most common mistake we make about evangelism is we believe it’s outwardly focused. Evangelism means going OUT and finding people who don’t know about Jesus. We’ll do this for a few days, and then we’ll wear out because we’re trying to go out in our own strength.

Evangelism’s first move is inward; it’s deeper. The more we get to know Christ, the more we learn of Him, and the more we grow to love Him, the easier it is to find things to say about Him.

Evangelism isn’t the outward movement of Christians, but the outward flowing of Christ in us and through us to the world around us. The more we’re around Jesus, the easier it is to talk about Him.

The first move of evangelism is not out, but in. Not away, but closer. Evangelism is the natural overflow of the Spirit’s work within us. The closer you get to Christ, the more people you’ll reach.

It’s simple. The more you’re around Jesus, the easier it will be to talk about Him. Mackenzie taught me that.