Do you want to be well?

On the surface, it was an odd question for Jesus to be asking. Here was a man who had been sitting at the well for 35 years, waiting for healing from the crippling disease. Answering Jesus’ question, that man in John 5 tried to make excuses for himself: “I’ve been here all this time,” he complained, “but every time the angel troubles the water, someone else jumps ahead of me and steals the blessing. So I go back to waiting.”
   But that wasn’t the question Jesus asked. Jesus asked if the man truly wanted to be well, or whether he was content to rest on excuses. Sounds like a man I met who has been homeless for 15 years. He showed up at our church one cold morning, right after the Sunday morning service complaining of being hungry. He said he, his wife and the three kids living with him in an old Mercury had spent the night in the Wal-Mart parking lot, since they didn’t have anywhere to live. We scrambled and found a warm bed for his wife and kids in one place, a bed for him in another, and meals all around. But it wasn’t to his liking. As the story came out, he had lived this way for 15 years, working day jobs when he could get them, then spending the nights in motel rooms – at $35 a night.Thirty days at $35 a night is enough for security deposit & first month’s rent at one of the area’s low-income apartments, but that’s not what he wanted. I don’t think he wanted to be well, to have a steady job, an apartment of his own, food on his own table. He wanted handouts. He even brought the kids back to church in the evening, had them walk around the parking lot in t-shirts, shorts, and no shoes on their bare feet in the cool night air, just as we were leaving evening service. He wouldn’t come inside the church. He just wanted us to feel bad and give him something
   And still Jesus asks, “Do you want to be well?” Do you want to be free from the things that hold you back? I hear the same from churches. They say, “We can’t grow because we can’t do the programs that the big churches do.” They complain about the lack of staff and money and people to do programs with. They think their small size financial constraints are the reason they struggle.
Size is not the problem. Jesus isn’t asking why your church isn’t healthy. And He doesn’t want your excuses. He wants to know if your ‘want to’ still wants what your words say you want. Jesus offers a new thing. Just as Jesus wasn’t offering to help the man cut in line, he is not offering to let you keep failing. He wants you to be well in a new way
   In Ezekiel chapter 37, the prophet tells of when the Lord took him to a desert filled with bones of people long dead, bones dried in the sun and wind. God asks the rhetorical question, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely answers, “Only you know, Lord.” So God told him to prophesy over the bones. To prophesy is to speak the words of God, to create an effect. The prophesy held the power of God in it, and the bones gathered themselves together, grew flesh and skin and became whole. But still there was no life in them. Again Ezekiel prophesied, and the Spirit breathed life into a mighty army.
   Jack was a good pastor. When I met him, he was a pastoral missions volunteer to New England, where less than 10% of the population attended ANY church on a given Sunday. And after traveling the region for a couple of years strengthening the fledgling churches there and encouraging their pastors, we offered him our pastorate, a parsonage and a salary. We were a congregation of 45, mostly southerners transplanted into Massachusetts, struggling to pay the church’s bills. He taught us to think outside ourselves. We learned first-hand the scripture “you have not because you do not ask.” So we asked. Other churches sent people and money to help rehabilitate our dilapidated buildings. They came by the busload to help us hold summer camps. With their help, we offered 5-day a week half-day camps for the town, teaching basketball, drama, music, and Vacation Bible School. We had almost as many kids the first summer as members in the church – 35 in all. The second summer, parents started calling to book a spot in February, and 85 came. By the third summer, we had to limit enrollment because of classroom size. Some of those kids came on Sunday, and brought their parents, who brought their friends. The church is now a missions-sending congregation of about 200, with more than 15 years’ of annual “Super Summers.”

I took those ideas with me when I spent a year helping a small church in Virginia that was slowly dying. The verse that drove me that year was Ephesians 3:20, “to Him who is able to do more than you can think or imagine, be all glory in the church.” The problem, I told them, was that we weren’t thinking big enough. They were whining about why they couldn’t flourish under the old rules, and I kept asking if they really wanted to be well. Together, we found a federally-funded program run by the city that passes out nutritious meals to school aged children, and volunteered to be a host site for the distribution. We got 75 neighborhood kids in the building five days a week, for nine weeks. Some of those kids began to hang around all day, playing ping-pong, or volleyball, or on the playground at the city park next door. We got to know them and they got to know us. They brought their friends and their siblings. The church youth group grew from 3 to 20, and the elementary attendance went from 8 to 18. Helpers from outside the church volunteered their time, and a work team cleaned up the building for us. Long-time members were amazed at what was happening. It was truly “more than they could imagine.”

Isaiah 43:18-19 tells us to “Cease to dwell on days gone by” and see God do “a new thing.” The first stage in any 12-step recovery program is recognition that you have a problem. To stop dwelling on past glory, recognize there is a problem and begin to look forward to a different future.

This is the situation that Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari wrote about in Jumping the Curve, saying that the normal “bell curve” of an industry is early growth to match an untapped market need, followed by a period of relative stability, finished out by decline and then widespread failure of the lesser players in that market segment. He says it is unlikely for such a business to ever regain its position as a leader in the marketplace. The “curve” also reflects the normal life cycle of the average church: rapid growth at the beginning, high activity in the middle, followed by gradual – and then rapid – decline. They will continue to do what they’ve always been doing, but the “market” has changed, and the old ideas no longer work.

Some would interpret this data to suggest that once a church ceases to grow and starts consistently losing members, its downward path isn’t likely to change, and it may be more useful to the kingdom of God to cease operations altogether, rather than let it suffer a lingering death. The facts match the research. Dean N Kelley says that “having once succumbed to debility, a church is unlikely to recover, not because measures leading to recovery could not be prescribed and instituted … but because the persons who now occupy positions of leadership and followership in the church will not find them congenial and will not want to institute them. They prefer a church which is not too strenuous or demanding – a church, in fact, which is dying. Sociologist Gary Farley has focused on small churches and rural churches. His research suggests that the normal life span of a church is less than 50 years, and it is unlikely for a church to survive much past the 40th anniversary unless it reinvents itself.

   I believe that the word “unless” is an important word. This is the “jump” that Imparato and Harari wrote about. There has to be a new thing done. There has to be restoration of the original enthusiasm, done in updated ways. In our Massachusetts church, the results of the series of “church family meetings” affirmed our heritage but changed our style. We “jumped the downward part of the curve” and – by the grace of God – began to do new things, creating a new period of growth, which stabilized at 4 times the size of the pre-restoration church.

The problem, of course, is that even though most pastors say they want to be well, to grow, to be effective congregations for the Kingdom of God.
   Many of these churches will actually spend more effort recreating the form of some other church’s successful idea without first doing the underlying work that enabled that other church to be successful. They are like the unproductive fig tree of Mark 11 that Jesus prophesied against, the one that withered from the roots up and died in a day.
  But I serve a God of second chances. Perhaps these don’t know they’re not well. When my mother had cataract surgery, she was astounded at the result. She had forgotten that the world wasn’t full of washed out colors. She didn’t know what it was to be well until after the healing. In the same way, when my son was young, after persistent infections in his ears, he had surgery to put tubes in them; he was at first scared of the toilet flushing, a sound this 1-year-old could not remember hearing. </span
In hundreds of churches, the membership doesn’t know why they aren’t successful as a church, why they can’t seem to get ahead, can’t grow. They don’t know that what they experience week to week isn’t normal. They think it’s because they don’t have a dynamic preacher, or an attractive location, or a modern facility. So they don’t believe it will ever be any different. For them to be well – to be a fully functioning community of maturing believers who are evangelical in their Gospel and nurturing in their fellowship – it means they will have to overcome the inertia of their past. Some are burdened with indebtedness or worn-out buildings, but even more carry the heavier load of old ways of thinking.
God, the loving creator of the universe, waits for the congregation to be ready to move beyond the current limits of their faith. Look at Jesus’ actions as recorded in the 6th chapter of Mark. Scripture says “he could do no miracle there except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”

Nothing? The all powerful Son of the Lord Most High, who had just raised a 12-year-old girl from the dead (Mark 5:41-42), was limited? Mark 6:6 gives the answer: “He wondered at their unbelief.”
And therein is the danger. Scripture warns us to not put new wine into old wineskins. You cannot put new ideas into your congregation until you have renewed and refreshed their spirits. We need to limber up those wineskins, to be healed like the withered arm in Luke 6:6-11, to stretch forth and be transformed by the renewing of our minds and hearts and spirits. When they “reset the tent pegs and loosen the cords, they will be transformed into a new kind of church, in which new wine will flow freely, for the glory of God.

__________________
Notes:

  1. Imparato, Nicholas, and Harari, Oren, Ph.D; Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994)
  2. Kelly, Dean N., Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972),page x
  3. Farley, Gary E, PhD “Some Twenty Observations about Non-metropolitan churches confronting change,” Appendix Two in Working Paper: The Churching of the Metro-Fringe, a case study of Southern Baptists in Kansas City/Raytown, 1945-1995. North American Mission Board, File 1029, Revised March 29, 2001
  4. Farley, ibid
  5. Isaiah 54:2

Copyright 2008 Harwin House Publishing, Hampton VA  All Rights Reserved

 

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