It looked like the church would die. The charts showed decades of decline. The roof was leaking, the congregation aging, and the former pastor had left in a scandal. The neighborhood was undesirable. There were a few bright spots, but you had to use your imagination to see them. The odds weren't good.
But they called a pastor. The pastor was an academic who had recently earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge. One of his references said that he probably didn't have what it would take to hold the pulpit. The pastor believed he should accept the charge, but he didn't expect that things would change very much. He thought he would stay a few years, pray and preach, and eventually leave to teach in a seminary.
One more wrinkle: in the middle of the seeker-sensitive and Willow Creek era of church, this pastor believed that the church should set the bar high for membership, and reach into the past. He cared more about biblical principles than business principles. He dug out the church covenant and statement of faith and hammered away at Baptist polity. Could a pastor like that swim against the tide and see the church move to health?
I attended that church this past weekend along with 160 or so church leaders. Over twenty years into the experiment, the church is teeming with young people. There's nothing fancy about the church: the pastor says that he aims for a mere church with few accouterments. The worship is simple, the songs old, the preaching long, and the expectations high.
Over a thousand now call themselves members of that church. Not just members, but active members. It’s also become a launching pad for church plants and church planters. They ignore virtually every principle of the church growth movement by holding Sunday School, Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday midweek meetings, and two-hour member meetings complete with church discipline. They do all of this in an urban setting far from the Bible Belt, and yet they continue to bear fruit.
One of their leaders calls it Jurassic Park. The church looks like a dinosaur, but it's alive. You'd think that such a church would have gone extinct. It's shocking to see it not only alive but thriving.
It's tempting to want to copy this church so that we can enjoy the same results, which would completely miss the point. For one thing, the church isn't perfect. They've made and continue to make mistakes. Besides, this church isn't chasing success and best practices, and if we copy their model we'll miss the heart of what drives this church.
Here's the heart of this church, and it is something we should emulate: they want to display God's glory by doing what a biblical church does. They believe that a church has to rediscover its ecclesiology and function like a biblical church. When a church does this, there are no guarantees of success, but the church is still faithful. And who knows? God may choose to bless such a faithful church.
I was moved to tears as I attended the church, which is a rare occurrence. I don't cry a lot. In part, I blame the singing. It was louder, weighted with more truth, and more moving than any congregational singing I've experienced recently. It lifted my eyes to heaven and it met me in some areas of need.
But mostly I was moved as I marveled at what God had done. As I sang with hundreds of people, I thought back some twenty years to when things didn't look or sound that good. Nobody could imagine that God would move so powerfully in that church through a commitment to biblical faithfulness. I looked around me and was filled with joy. I thought of the church I had pastored back at that time, and how I'd sometimes chased pragmatism more than biblical faithfulness.
As I looked around, I prayed: Do it again, Lord. May many more churches buck the trend and call pastors who ignore the trends, preach, pray, love, and lead their churches to pursue biblical faithfulness. Who knows? God may choose to bless these churches. But if not, they'll still have been faithful.
I'm still praying: Do it again.