The Church Is Hopeless

TheChurchIsHopeless-Smushed

It’s no secret that many churches have dwindled in size. Prominent churches and pastors are embroiled in controversy. Not a week goes by that I don’t have someone tell me that they’ve left organized religion or that they’ve walked away from Christianity altogether. There’s so much pain, so much dysfunction, so many issues.

As I was talking to another pastor about this, we started wondering aloud what would need to happen for churches to turn around. “Sometimes I think the church is hopeless,” he told me. “Have you ever thought that the only way things can be made right again is to plant new, healthy churches?”

Sometimes it does seem hopeless, doesn’t it? Sometimes it seems like the church (at least in the western world) is in crisis mode, and it’s hard to know what – if anything – can be done about it.

Sometimes we’re hopeless because money seems to be running the show. Sometimes we’re hopeless that a church will ever recognize and include the gifts of all their people and not just half. Sometimes we’re so wary of the power plays, the in-fighting, the self-focus, the struggle that we want to give up. We may even think we have no choice but to give up.

But even still, I pushed back against the suggestion that the only way for there to be health and vitality in the church is to start over. I said that while I think starting new churches using healthy church plant models is an important part of the equation, I still have hope that existing congregations can change where they need to change. I don’t think these places are hopeless places.

I don’t think any place is a hopeless place.

I don’t think any place is an impossible place.

No matter how broken or difficult a place may be, I don’t believe that any place is beyond the reach of God’s transformation.

I’ve been told I’m an idealist or a dreamer. I’ve been told that if I wait a few years the cynicism and jadedness of ministry will overtake me. Perhaps I haven’t been burned often enough. Maybe I haven’t suffered enough. I haven’t worked and worked with little to show for it for enough years to make me weary and hopeless. At least that’s what I’ve been told. But, I don’t think it’s that at all.

Whether the struggle du jour is women in church leadership, what kind of community presence and ministry to have, what kind of songs to sing, how welcoming we should hope to be as a church, I don’t believe there is any such place as a hopeless place.

Even from the depths, the psalms still resound with words of hope and assurance:

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!

…O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast
love, and with him is great power to redeem.” [1]

Even the wickedness of Nineveh wasn’t too much for God to overcome – and with a half-hearted prophet as God’s spokesperson at that. [2]

In the valley of dry bones, Ezekiel was asked if the bones could ever live again. Even then, even in the driest and most desolate place, Ezekiel knew that God could bring about transformation. He responded, “O Lord, God, you know.” [3]

No place is too far gone to be restored. No place is too broken to be healed and redeemed. The church isn’t hopeless, and God will not leave us or forsake us. The real question is not whether the church is too far gone to be redeemed, but whether God is calling us to remain for the duration. I think there is real and redemptive value in sticking it out. Far too often our culture promotes getting out of the boat rather than rocking it. And I get it. It’s hard to stay. It’s painful to stay.

Sometimes we need to stay. Sometimes we need to be voices for change. But, we also have to be discerning. Our lives and our ministries have seasons. Sometimes it is a season of staying and working for change. Other times it is a season of bursting out of the difficult, dysfunctional, broken places and seeking places of restoration and renewal. But, even when God calls us to move on to a healthier place, we have to remember that God can still work for transformation in the places we are leaving behind.

All places can be changed. Sometimes dysfunctional and unhealthy churches close to make room for new and vibrant ones. Sometimes a place has to be stripped down to the basics and be rebuilt. No place is completely hopeless. The winds of the Holy Spirit can always ignite the hearts of those gathered. No place is hopeless, even if we are not always the ones called to stay and work for change.

——————

[1]  Psalm 130:1-2a, 7
[2] Jonah 3:3-5
[3] Ezekiel 37:3

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14 thoughts on “The Church Is Hopeless

  1. Pingback: The Church Is Hopeless - Guest Post - At the Table with April Fiet

  2. Yesterday I preached Ephesians 2:17-22 and I included this quote from Bryan Chapell from his thoughts on verse 21, “When we rest on the foundation of God’s Word and build on the cornerstone that is Christ, then we too are fulfilling a holy purpose, even when we may not seem to be achieving much of any purpose at all in the eyes of the world.” The occasion, as you know, was our congregation’s centennial, and something I brought out in the sermon was that in many respects it may look as if the Gospel has had little noticeable effect in our community. Still, we are called to bear faithful witness, on the foundation of God’s Word and the cornerstone of our Risen Savior, in a world that often ranges from indifferent to oppositional to what we call Good News. Stated otherwise, and without my pastor/theologian voice, we are called to faithfulness and we can trust God to bring forth the fruit.

  3. April, you have already done brilliant Biblical stuff, and others will reflect theologically. I’m going to pull out a bit of RCA history to affirm your thinking.

    In 1812, Queens College was out of business, just an empty corporate shell with a tenant. Ask Rutgers University how that turned out.

    Just after the Civil War, theological training at Hope College was likewise, but Tim Brown now has a job.

    One year in the 1880s (which I forget at the moment), New Brunswick Seminary began its fall term with only two students registered and not enough money to pay the faculty at the end of the week. It is still here.

    In the late 1980s, Bushkill Reformed Church was on the verge of being closed, and Greenpoint Reformed Church was also near death. Look at them now.

    Again and again and again, the RCA has places which are so small that they seem as if they will be snuffed out (thank you, Belgic Confession). Again and again and again, God does amazing things. And the RCA is not the only place where such things happen.

    And April Fiet is pretty darn insightful.

    • James – thank you so much for your kind words. And – WOW! What amazing examples of how God can work in those seemingly hopeless places and situations. Thanks be to God!

  4. Hi April! Thanks for the post. It’s encouraging. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been struggling with the same should I stay or should I go now thoughts myself lately.

    I encounter so many people who are not indifferent or hostile toward Christ or the the church, rather they are just fed up with what passes as the visible church’s hostility towards them and towards the world in general. I’ve been blogging through my struggle with these thoughts here and here.

    At the end of most days I know that to which I am called and I am pretty sure I am here to fight the good fight for the long haul. But I have to daily count on God’s grace to sustain me new each day. All & all maybe it is a better place to be when I was so sure of every thing I thought I knew about myself, God and the world.

  5. Any institution that depends on hospitality and interdependence is going to suffer in today’s American culture. The self-esteem movement has taught us to optimize for individual happiness at the expense of collective happiness. Parts of the church that thrive are the parts that cater to privileged demographics like married people and those with cars.

    The internet hasn’t helped either.

    • I always think your thoughts on hospitality and interdependence are so important. It’s so true, and so right on.

      • If people were simply leaving the churches for cerebral reasons, upon becoming atheist and agnostic they would form similar cohesive groups. I don’t see this happening. So I really think a lot of it is hyperindividualism.

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