‘Till Death Do Us Part

This year’s GCBC Victorious Living Bible Study will use the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church (2014) by Thom S. Rainer as a source. Praises to God for who He is. Thank you to Bishop S. Lands, II for the encouragement, direction and care.

May I start with a pet peeve of mine? I cringe when a person says “I have been in church all of my life” or “I grew up in the church”. I am not sure if it is the humblebragging that gets to me or having to swallow the question “Oh yeah?” which is soon followed by a conviction for being judgmental. My mental finger pointing also has three fingers pointing right back at me. What are my church/ministry relationships? What is my service? How are my expectations, preferences and limit placements affecting the program and members of the past, present and future?

My aunt Momma Genetta does not want to miss any of her family in heaven. When you are born or married into the Cunningham/Anglin clan, you will know who Jesus is. And on your death bed, she will have a phone put to your ear if she is unable to get by your side to lead you through steps to salvation. Everyone – no matter your age and no matter your church roles or activities or for how long you are in a church ministry, she never presumes the response.  I was with her when she asked her father with gentle urgency while he was in the hospital. Dave seemed aggravated but confirmed he was already saved and Momma Genetta should have known that. Agitated, he asked for cigarettes. This is when I opened my mouth and fussed. This was familiar bantering between the two of us – Dave’s disgusting habit and my mission to help him quit. Besides, I had a new baby daughter that he had not met yet and he needed to get well and return home so she, too, could be spoiled by Dave. He never made it back home. No matter how sweet, sentimental and loving my focus that day, Momma Genetta clearly had her heart (spirit/character), head (soul/mind) and hand (body/action) aligned with God. Her heart is as tender as they come. She still talks about how much she misses Dave and she has some of the best stories to share about him; but when it came to the right priority at the right time, being familiar and comfortable had to wait. Momma Genetta asked her own mother when she was in hospice care. Meme was Sunday School teacher extraordinaire. If there was a pageant for Sunday School leaders, Meme would win champion year after year. Meme was the Mission ministry queen. She was faithful, active and sought after for support and service.  In her eighties, she declared herself retired from her church roles and responsibilities.  She still personally studied the Bible, prayed and meditated on the Word daily during her ‘retirement’. There was no coming out of retirement no matter who asked or begged. She would have none of it when her students planned to gather her home to continue having her as the teacher. She found that rebellious and counter ministry. She recognized and acknowledged that she could not be replenished and it isn’t about her. It is the church aligned to God that is replenished with relevancy and resources to carry out ministry to save, educate and liberate.

Death is permanent. Often we try to change behaviors and habits to improve the quality of and to give more time to our physical lives. Can we change our perspective and preferences to improve the quality of and give more time to the lives of our relationships and ministries? What entitlements and expectations and protocol are nonnegotiable? The first chapter of the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church tells that a church can die too. It is not necessarily a church that is empty or without saints or broke or without vision. Matthew  16:18 says “And so I tell you, Peter: you are a  rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able  to overcome it.” So when a church does die, how can that be? The book breaks down in subsequent chapters that decline comes with the decline of the following: “vibrant ministries, prayer lives of the members, outward focus of the church, connection with the community and the hopes and dreams of the members left” in the dying church (Rainer 13). It is not sudden.  There is a continual decay and collective choices that do not respond to addressing the principle relationships.

Haggai 1: 2-15

The Lord Almighty said to Haggai, “These people say that this is not the right time to rebuild the Temple.”The Lord then gave this message to the people through the prophet Haggai: “My people, why should you be living in well-built houses while my Temple lies in ruins? Don’t you see what is happening to you? You have planted much grain, but have harvested very little. You have food to eat, but not enough to make you full. You have wine to drink, but not enough to get drunk on! You have clothing, but not enough to keep you warm. And workers cannot earn enough to live on. Can’t you see why this has happened? Now go up into the hills, get lumber, and rebuild the Temple; then I will be pleased and will be worshiped as I should be.

“You hoped for large harvests, but they turned out to be small. And when you brought the harvest home, I blew it away.[a] Why did I do that? Because my Temple lies in ruins while every one of you is busy working on your own house. 10 That is why there is no rain and nothing can grow. 11 I have brought drought on the land—on its hills, grainfields, vineyards, and olive orchards—on every crop the ground produces, on people and animals, on everything you try to grow.”

12 Then Zerubbabel and Joshua and all the people who had returned from the exile[b] in Babylonia, did what the Lord their God told them to do. They were afraid and obeyed the prophet Haggai, the Lord’s messenger.13 Then Haggai gave the Lord’s message to the people: “I will be with you—that is my promise.” 14 The Lord inspired everyone to work on the Temple: Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah; Joshua, the High Priest, and all the people who had returned from the exile.[c] They began working on the Temple of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month of the second year that Darius was emperor.

QUESTIONS (Rainer 15):

  • What was your church like when you first joined versus today? Do you see any signs of gradual erosion?
  • How is the neglect of building the temple described in Haggai 1 like gradual erosion today?
  • What do you think God meant in Haggai 1:9 by the phrase “while each of you is busy working on your own house”?

Change is inevitable. Time, in and of itself, brings change. It can be both exciting and scary. We use expectations, history, control, comfort, convenience, planning, personality, and fantasy – whatever we can use to help us manage and make sense of changes. In chapter two, Rainer notes that it isn’t a lack of Biblical teaching and preaching and believing occurring during the gradual church death. It was in house fighting for the past. Resistance was to keep things the way it used to be like the good ol’ days; keeping things the way as they wanted.  But though we revere and respect the past, we cannot live in the past. (Rainer, 18 and 21)

Hebrews 11 provides name after name of men and women who because of their faith obeyed God and are thus Champions. Preferences and styles did not take precedent. They did not act only when it was convenient and comfortable.

Hebrews 11:13-16 (GNT) 13 It was in faith that all these persons died. They did not receive the things God had promised, but from a long way off they saw them and welcomed them, and admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees on earth. 14 Those who say such things make it clear that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 They did not keep thinking the country they had left; if they had, they would have had the chance to return. 16 Instead, it was a better country they longed for, the heavenly country. And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them.

QUESTIONS (Rainer 24):

  • Are there any areas in your church where you are resisting change simply because of your own preferences?
  • What is the common theme among the heroes of Hebrew 11?
  • Discuss Hebrews 11:13-16 in light of churches that die holding onto the past.
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