Why a sermon series on the doctrine of assurance?

Luther as Professor, 1529 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553)

1527, Martin Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.” 

If you know your Reformation history, you know that 1527 is 10 years after Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door. This is about a decade after Luther’s glorious discovery of justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

In other words, Luther’s despair came after he was an established Christian. In that dark season, Luther’s battle was for assurance. Questions about his standing with God haunted his weary conscience. Am I an imposter? Am I really reconciled to God? Is my faith enough?

The questions he wrestled with (or the questions that wrestled him) are questions everyone asks at some point. They are eternal questions with eternal consequences. They are questions one must not answer wrongly. When a person thinks they’re right with God when they’re not it’s an eternal disaster. When a person thinks they’re not right with God, when they are, they miss out on God’s blessed gospel gift of assurance.

The doctrine of assurance is critical for the church. Here are three reasons why we need to spend time thinking about this:

First, false assurance runs rampant.

This is in part because of the reality that we in American swim in an ocean of cultural Christianity. I’ve spoken to many people who associate Christianity will good character, high moral values, and conservative politics. 

These are people who are convinced they are Christians, convinced they will be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment, and that because of something they’ve done, they will be welcomed into heaven when they die.

Ligonier Ministries does a “State of Theology” survey every two years, surveying masses of professing Christians to see what they believe about crucial doctrines. It’s a good way to take the pulse of the modern evangelical church. I looked through the survey mainly looking to see what it revealed about how much these people understand the gospel. Here’s what I found:

As related to God, 51% of evangelicals believe “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judiasm, and Islam.” Right off the bat we see more than half do not believe in a holy God who determines who can come to him and how. The exclusivity of Christ is discarded and the Holy God we encounter in Scripture is replaced with something more palatable for modern sensibilities .

As related to Christ, 78% of evangelicals think, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Almost 80% of professing Christians have embraced some form of the ancient Arian heresy, and have more in common with modern Jehovah’s Witnesses than actual orthodox Christianity. They don’t think Jesus is divine and therefore adopt a human Christ who cannot save.

52% of evangelicals believe that people are naturally good, even though they may sin a little, representing a radical departure of the Bible’s teaching about man’s sinful condition. 

So we see the majority of professing believers have a God that’s not holy, a Christ that’s not divine, and a humanity that’s not sinful. It’s no wonder so many people are falsely assured of salvation. Salvation is meaningless without a right understanding of God, of sin, and of Christ. 

In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus speaks of people who are being cast out from his presence into judgement who claimed to know him as Lord, to speak on his behalf, to cast out demons in his name, and to do many mighty works for him. Their awakening in hell will be the most surprising moment of their lives. 

I write this in deep sadness. It grieves me to think of the multitudes who are happily embracing a false gospel that cannot save them. But it strengthens my resolve to do all I can to clarify the gospel in my church. 

Second, doubt is an issue for true believers.

It’s crucial to say this out loud: real believers sometimes have doubt. We find doubt in the Psalms and doubt in the gospels, even among people who trust God. It is not God’s desire to keep his children doubting his love for them, but because of our weakness and sin, we are prone to fall into doubt. 

Many of us are like the father of the demon-possessed child in Mark 9, if we’re honest. When Jesus said, “All things are possible for one who believes,” the man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

This is why studying assurance is so practical. Who among us hasn’t said or felt the inner tension of that statement: “I believe; help my unbelief!” As not-yet-glorified Christians, we find ourselves to be wavering between belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, assurance and uncertainty. And much of our disobedience and despair comes from the lack of assurance of God’s love for us. 

The doctrine of assurance is an intersection between abstract theological ideas and street-level, everyday application. It’s intensely practical, because there’s nothing more practical than knowing for sure your status before God. If you have certainty there, it changes everything. You cannot know the height and depth and breadth and width of God’s love for you without it affecting your prayer life, your obedience, your attitude in suffering, your desire for his Word, your zeal in evangelism, your eagerness to serve — and the list goes on. Behind so many of our problems is the poisonous belief that God doesn’t really love us that much.

The presence of doubt and despair is traceable back to a certain view of God, salvation, and Christian living. So speaking of assurance helps us deal with all these realities.

Third, God desires that you know for sure.

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian, said during the outbreak of the Reformation: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.” 

But listen to the Scriptures: 1 John 5:13I write these things to you who believe in the same of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Hebrews 10:22Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” 

Or think of Paul. Paul knew for sure: 2 Timothy 1:12But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed.”

This is God’s heart for his children. He wants them to be utterly certain of his care. Jesus went to great lengths to make this clear in John 10:

  • Verse 10-11: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 
  • Verse 14-15I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” 
  • Verse 27-28My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

This is God’s desire for them. That they might know his love and feel secure. We are not to be motivated by the uncertainty of fear, but by the security of love. We are not in a family where the father motivates his children by threatening to abandon them if they fail, but by saying he’ll love and care for them no matter what.

Have you ever been rappelling? You get strapped up, the harness fitting uncomfortably snug all over your body, and there’s that moment when you have to learn backwards off the edge of some sheer cliff. 

That’s the scariest part of rappelling — when you’re not sure if the rope will hold all of your weight. If you’re not confident it will hold you, you won’t lean back. I’ve seen people watch others rappel, get strapped in themselves, go up to the ledge, and absolutely refuse to lean back. They couldn’t trust the rope with all their weight. And so they didn’t move.

If you don’t trust your Savior, fully and completely, there are going to be limits to your obedience. Do you trust Jesus with the full weight of your eternity? Do you trust him with your life? If you do not, there will be certain risks you will not take. You will never lay down your life until you trust that Jesus will raise it up again on the last Day.

God wants you to be sure and his love for you and your perfect security, and then lay your life down in risk-taking, self-sacrificing obedience.

Christ, Our Hope

Luther discovered justification by faith in 1517, but 1527 was one of the darkest years of his life.  It was also the year Martin Luther composed the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” It was his anthem to ward off the devil and remember the greatness of his salvation. 

Think of the words in the 2nd verse: 

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, 

were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing: 

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he; 

Lord Sabaoth his name, from Age to Age the Same, 

And he must win the battle.

Luther saw that we are weak sinners, who cannot strive to save themselves, but that God has appointed a man — who is also God — to be the Savior of everyone who trusts in him. He is our Mighty Fortress. Here is a great statement to start a series on assurance: at the bottom of it all, the grounds of assurance is Jesus Christ. 


Thank you, Jordan

Eric and Jordan in 2010.

As I come to the end of my time serving Grace Church of Simi Valley, I am profoundly thankful for the grace of God that has been poured out on me, often through the people I’ve been placed around. Particularly, I am grateful for the life and ministry of our pastor, Jordan Bakker. Paul wrote in Galatians that “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Maybe it’s an under-applied passage in Scripture, but it’s certainly a valuable one. This blog is my way of publicly thanking Jordan him for his faithfulness as well as reminding the church of the blessing of being under his leadership.

  1. Thank you for seeing potential in a young, idealist, college-age student who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. You zeroed in on me, encouraged me, and gave me a taste for ministry that has fueled much of my life. I still have the email you wrote me in 2007 where you asked if I’d be interested in doing a summer internship. Rereading it reminded me of the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing then, and I particularly remember the joy of thinking, “Hey, he thinks that I might have something to offer!” Even though I had a lot of growing up to do, you focused on my strengths and challenged me to keep it up.
  2. Thank you for giving me John Piper’s book Desiring God. During a time in my life that I was asking big questions, Piper not only satisfied my intellectual appetite but provided a biblical framework that has shaped the way I think about life and ministry.
  3. Thank you for frequently pointing your airsoft gun at me during my summer internship, thus initiating negotiations, and teaching me that sometimes the best way to get you to stop is to not even react.
  4. Thank you for making fun of preachers who used words like “betwixt” and “hitherto,” attempting to sound like a Puritan. I could have become one of those guys.
  5. Thank you for thinking of me when you considered who would be a good fit to serve in the student ministries department at Grace Brethren Church in 2011.
  6. Thank you for demonstrating that a strong leader is never caught off guard, never surprised, and that the ability for such resilience is rooted in a robust belief in the sovereignty of God.
  7. Thank you for repeatedly seeing opportunities in challenges, and communicating them to the people around you. Many obstacles that could have discouraged us were presented as positive opportunities for us to learn, stretch, and grow.
  8. Thank you for checking in on me without micromanaging me.
  9. Thank you for being a shepherd, not a hireling. You can’t turn off being a pastor.
  10. Thank you for loving Erin and your girls well. You are an example to me.
  11. Thank you for making ministry a delight, and teaching me that the best work environments are those where there’s time to laugh and have fun together.
  12. Thank you for showing me that often the best way to shepherd people is to ask good questions and listen well.
  13. Thank you for reminding me never to take myself too seriously.
  14. Thank you for emphasizing the need for good, strategic, communication. I think I’ve known how important what we say is. You taught me the importance of when and how we say it.
  15. Thank you for emphasizing the need for faith-filled mobility while not giving up the need for slow, plodding maturity.
  16. Thank you for showing that discipleship is mostly just intentional friendship, and that the aim of our charge is love. Love can’t be programmed.
  17. Thank you for saying again and again, especially in my early years, that love is inefficient, that ministry is messy, and that people matter more than programs.
  18. Thank you for resisting any program or initiative that potentially undercuts genuine spiritual growth in the lives of your flock.
  19. Thank you for never giving away truth at the expense of love, nor love at the expense of truth.
  20. Thank you for the jokes that pop-up unplanned in your sermons, even the ones that made me cringe. They remind me that preaching ought to be an extension of the personality, and that your style in the pulpit wasn’t much different than your lifestyle outside it.
  21. Thank you for giving a young man like me opportunities to preach, and encouraging me in it.
  22. Thank you for making bets on your favorite sports teams.

    I bet Jordan that the Lakers would win a championship before the Warriors would. I lost.
  23. Thank you for always having your office door unlocked, and telling me in the early days that you made it a point to always welcome whoever might come into your office because you never knew what good you might be able to do for them.
  24. Thank you for how you gently handled some of the mentally handicapped who have come into our church community. The way you have treated them with dignity and honor is exemplary.
  25. Thank you for laughing hard at things, so we know where you are at all times.
  26. Thank you for saying frequently that your greatest fear for the church is that nothing happens, that we would just happily exist without taking any risks.
  27. Thank you for grabbing hold of the church-revitalization idea and running with it, leading in it, and praying for it. You have been its greatest champion, which is a mark of good leadership and God-trusting humility.
  28. Thank you for all the times you’ve asked about my wife and kids.
  29. Thank you for giving me a good example of how to lead men who are my father’s age.
  30. Thank you for inviting me, and others, into your life, including your struggles and difficulties. This is the foundation of all the other things I’ve learned from you. You have embodied Paul’s heart in 2 Timothy 3:10, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness.”

As I step into a new role as a lead pastor in a different church, I am sure that I will find more to be thankful for, like a kid who isn’t thankful for his parents until he becomes one. God, in his wise and gracious providence, used you in my life to place me on a path of service to Jesus Christ. From an earthly perspective, I can confidently say that apart from your influence I would not be in ministry. I thank God for you, and want to encourage you to continue onward and upward, being faithful to our Lord and Savior, waiting for his blessed appearing, eager to spend your life for the advance of the gospel and the glory of God.

The right time to raise your voice

What do you raise your voice for?

Everyone is built with a release valve for the pressures of life. What’s inside must come out. We express– we cry, we laugh, we mumble, we shout. We get perplexed. We get elated. Our inward life is revealed in our expressions: our eyes, our mouths, our voices convey the thoughts and convictions of the heart.

And we raise our voices. What goes on inside you that turns up the volume of your voice?

Is it when you’re angry? Is it when you’ve had enough? Is it during a crucial moment in the game? Is it at your spouse or kids? Is it at a screen? Is it at coworkers or bosses or subordinates?

Most times we should resist a raised voice, especially when it flows from anger or discontentment. But there’s a time for everything, including a time to raise your voice.

Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding…then you will understand the fear of the Lord.” Proverbs 2:3, 5

This passage is about how one gains wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. It’s nicely arranged: three conditional ifs and a then. If you do these three things, you’ll get this result. I love when Scripture makes it so simple and clear.

One of the conditions is that we must learn to raise our voice. The previous statement offers a parallel verb: “Call out.” Urgent. Loud. Eager. Expecting to be heard. Not willing to be ignored. Persistent and audacious. Vying for the attention of the hearer. If we would seek wisdom, there’s some aggression in the seeking.

This is God’s invitation for us to ask for wisdom. Set aside bashfulness. Be humbled by God’s holiness, but be emboldened by his offer. Pray like God really hears you. Pray like God wants to give you want you need. Let your prayers reflect the conviction that God is not only infinitely rich but also indescribably generous. He is able and willing. Go to him and with raised voice and high expectations. Bold, believing prayer is a key to unlock the door of wisdom.

The man whom humanity needs most is a shepherd

A few things are certain. We live in a universe created by a Shepherd God. The Lord is our Shepherd. Our world is redeemed by a Shepherd Savior. Our Elder Brother is a Shepherd. The man whom humanity needs most is a shepherd. Every messenger of Christ is sent to do a shepherd’s work. We are to stand at last before a Shepherd Judge. God is going to separate the good shepherds from the shepherds who are bad. The questions which every pastor must meet and answer are three: ‘Did you feed My lambs? Did you tend My sheep? Did you feed My sheep?’

Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd, pg 31

Faithful Christians say goodbye a lot

Faithful Christians will always be saying good-bye. They are the ones who spend time investing in people, cultivating transparency and honesty, sharing in laughter and tears, serving together for the advance of their great cause. And sometimes they see their friends sense a call to a new place, and though their time together was sweet, they say goodbye in hope knowing they’ll meet again in the kingdom, and that the parting will be eternally worth it.

Or, after years of being loved and cared for, shepherded and trained, challenged and comforted, discipled and debriefed, they themselves will sense the inward call to go. The gospel is too sweet and Jesus is too glorious and the lost are too many for them to stay around. They hope that perhaps God might use them more in a new place. And so they go, trusting the everlasting arms to uphold them.

This goodbye discomfort is good and healthy for the church. When we start resisting the goodbyes, fearing them, or organizing our lives so as to avoid them, we’re no longer walking by faith. We’re either too settled, never open to what God may have for us, or too insulated, not investing in the people who God is calling to go.

So faithful Christians will say goodbye a lot. Because they will always be the ones invested in the sent, or invested in the going. They wear the shoes of “readiness given by the gospel of peace.” Having peace with God, they are ready for anything, including the risks of having to say goodbye.

Jesus knows that his disciples will often experience goodbye pains. That’s why he wanted to encourage them with goodbye promises:

Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Mark 10:29-30

Jesus sees our goodbyes. And he reminds us that in Christ, goodbyes are investments, not sacrifices. What we give up we get back one hundredfold. One fine morning, a billion years from now, when I wake up in the new heavens and the new earth, the idea that I thought some temporary discomforts in this vapor- life were a sacrifice will seem laughable.

What I said at the beginning of this reflection is not actually true. I said, “Faithful Christians will always be saying goodbye.” But they won’t. There will come a day they will never say goodbye again, when they will all be home, forever, with their Lord and with their friends. We can say goodbye now because we know that soon, we’ll never have to do it again.

The first step toward raising up leaders

As we head out to our new church in Rancho Cucamonga (you can read a bit about it here), one of my primary concerns for the church is that we have a plurality of qualified leaders. Where the leaders go, the church will follow, and for a congregation to attain a level of health there must be healthy leaders.

How do we find and develop such leaders? I’m sure there are libraries of literature on the topic, both secular and Christian. I’m not sure I can say here what hasn’t been said a hundred times over in other places. But I can say something simple and biblical that we always need to remember: prayer is the primary, first work toward raising up leaders.

The first offensive tactic for raising up leaders is to ask Jesus for them, and patiently wait for him to give them. God said, “Behold, all souls are mine” (Ezek. 18:4). Jesus told his disciples “All authority has been given to me” (Mat. 28:18). He tells us to ask for workers (Mat. 9:38). Jesus holds the heart of a king in his hand, and has the power to turn it heart wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1). As a rich and generous Lord, Jesus loves to give these people to the church (Eph. 4:11).

All potential leaders are Christ’s. He has authority over them. He tells us to ask him for them. He’s generous in providing them. Do we believe this?

If we’re short on solders as we head into battle, we need not be ashamed nor bashful to come boldly into his barracks and ask for more manpower. When we pray this way, we are assuming Jesus is powerful enough and generous enough to provide, and it glorifies him.

Yes let’s have leadership pipelines and training centers. Let’s do men’s Bible studies and workshops. But most of all, and in everything, let’s pray for leaders.

There may be many reasons we don’t have leaders among us. But let it be not because we’ve never asked for them.

Look at the birds

Jesus tells us to “Look at the birds.” There are several imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount, but this is one probably doesn’t get the air-time it deserves. How fascinating that Jesus, to combat anxiety, prescribes bird-watching. Our busy lives often preclude times for prolonged, thoughtful observation of the created world. We’re up early, getting the kids fed and dressed and out the door, blazing off to work, tumbling in the front door afterwards, eating and reviewing the day before getting kids to bed. Our evenings often consist of screens and half-hearted, distracted conversations. The next morning starts it all again, and over time the frenzied activity oozes into our weekends, our Sundays, our family dinners, and we’re reaching a fever pitch we know is unhealthy but cannot break. Anxiety sets in, and the speed of life becomes almost unbearable. Now, we’re not only busy but worried and frenetic. Our anxiety propels us into more busyness, more activity, more unreflective routine-following.

And Jesus tells worriers: “Look at the birds.” Jesus will teach his disciples that healthy, well-fed birds are evidence of God’s fatherly care for his creation. They are taken care of by God, and shouldn’t we trust him to take care of us too? This should calm our hearts: God’s loving, providential care over the lives of his beloved children is the antidote to anxiety.

But let’s also consider that Jesus gave his disciples a very practical imperative: “Look at the birds” and then a bit later “Consider the lilies.” I wonder, is that command even doable for many Christians today? Is there room in the schedule for uninterrupted meditation on God’s created world? Do we still have the capacity to stare at something, grapple with it until it yields a lesson? In a world of beeps and buzzes and lights and sounds and likes and shares and clicks, can we meditate?

To fight worry, one must find a pace of life that makes “Look at the birds” a conceivable option. I fear too many Christians live in such a way that render Jesus’ commands to look at the birds and consider the lilies un-obeyable. These are thought activities you can’t do on the go. Nobody bird-watches in a hurry. Considering the lilies of the field can’t happen in an unsettled, frenzied life.

Our worries grow in the soils of busyness and activity, so Jesus gives us a command that forces us to stop. Slow down. Look. Ponder. Learn, and regain perspective. “Look at the birds.” 

Have you taken time lately to look at the birds? To consider the lilies? To pause, think, and remember who you are, who God is, and how he cares for you?

You will think you have had enough

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at His judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

–John Brown, in a letter of counsel written to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation, cited by Alexander Grossart in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, Vol. 1, Ed. Alexander Grossart (1862-1864; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 294.

Revitalization: How it Happened

Back in late February 2017 Jordan, Marshall and I had a meeting to evaluate the previous year and discuss plans for the future. I came in prepared for a review– we would look over the blessings and successes of 2016, talk about individuals who seem to be responding to the gospel, think strategically about how my time could best be invested in the next twelve months. We did none of those things. Instead, Jordan said something like this: “We know that in the next couple years you’re going to be heading out to lead another church. What can we do in the meantime to prepare you for that?”

I was caught off-guard. We talked about perhaps more opportunities to preach, more appearances at elders’ meetings. Then I was asked another question: what is your ideal situation? What are you hoping for in the next twenty-four months?

For this I was not caught off-guard. Ashley and I had begun thinking about this question months prior and I had developed in my mind something of an ideal situation. It went something like this:

“I’d like to prayerfully and strategically gather a group of committed members of our church who would be willing to transfer their membership to a nearby church in need of revitalization. By God’s grace, we would be able to serve that church and help bring it back to health.”

I wasn’t sure if our church was in a place to be able to do this, or what Jordan and Marshall would think. I was surprised that the immediate response was affirmation and excitement. Jordan said, “I’m going to start praying for this, and I want you to too.” So we did. We didn’t have any idea how this would play out. We didn’t have any church in mind to go to.

Jordan ramped everything up. What I meekly brought up as a suggestion he championed and pushed forward. He told our staff, “I want you to be praying about this every day.” He told the same thing to our church’s elders. He and I began meeting a half hour before our staff meetings to talk and pray. Specifically, we were asking mainly for clarity in three areas: 1) where will we go?, 2) who will come with?, and 3) how should we do this?

In some ways, the rest is history. We prayed this way through summer, and in early October we were told about a church in the Grace Brethren fellowship that had a pastor retiring at the end of the year. They had a massive property, and a small group of saints in need of help. And because we had initially thought we’d be heading west into Ventura County, we were a bit jolted when we heard that it was in Alta Loma, about 70 miles east of Simi, in San Bernardino County.

The title of this blog is “How We’re Doing This” but it is by no means a step-by-step process of our great strategic masterplan. The way God has worked so far, it may look like we had such a plan because it’s coming together so nicely. But we didn’t.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll talk about some of the convictions that have driven this project forward.

The above is part of a series. Catch up on the first posts here:

  1. “Revitalization: Our Moment”
  2. “Why Revitalization?”

Why Church Revitalization?

The following post is part 2 of 3 in a series. You can read part 1 , “Revitalization: Our Moment” here.

Trends. If you try to follow them too closely you’ll end up turned around, upside down and backwards, like the clothing on my three-year-old when she dresses herself. But if you don’t pay attention, you could miss out on some crucial opportunities. I mentioned in the last post that we’re in the middle of an upsurge of interest in sound doctrine. John Macarthur, doing a Question and Answer with R.C. Sproul a couple years ago, said, “We’re seeing the greatest explosion of reformed theology in the history of the world.” This explosion has led to the a huge increase in church plants, church planters, and church planting networks.

Running alongside this growth there seems to be another trend that’s gaining traction, and unlike some fads in the church, this one is positive: church revitalization.

We are praising God for the recent church planting trend. But church planters are in a difficult place. My father-in-law heads a network of churches that coordinates and supports church planting efforts. He tells me repeatedly that church planters are always wishing they had a building of their own, a property they could use. Doing “church-in-a-box,” where all your church gear – sound boards, chairs, mics, music stands, etc. – is set up and torn down every weekend, is exciting for about six months. And then it’s tiresome. Volunteers with growing families will only be able to do that for so long. Having a hub from which to do ministry, to call your own, is a blessing, it turns out. This is what church planters long for.

Unfortunately, there are certain places in America where it’s extremely difficult to buy and purchase land. Urban centers, where millions of people live and work, are so overbuilt and expensive that no fledgling church is going to be able to own property. Who’s able to buy property in Southern California, or New York, or D.C.? We need new churches in these places, but it’s a long shot to get ahold of your own land. Property, especially in these kinds of places, is a precious asset.

Imagine a scenario: Would the churches who bought land in those locations in the last century or so please stand up?They stand. Thousands of these churches in strategic locations are close to dying. The buildings are empty and about to be sold, demolished and turned into tract homes or apartment buildings. Okay. Now, let’s have the young, energetic church plants stand up. Let’s shake hands. Something seems obvious. What do we do when we have lots of people with no building, and lots of buildings with few people? What do you do with a square peg and a square hole?

Granted, I understand that it’s not that simple. Different denominations with doctrinal distinctives won’t want to give their property to churches they don’t know or agree with. I also understand there are some advantages that church planting has over church revitalizing. For starters, church plants can move quickly, make decisions without fearing any baggage or history, and design what they want from the ground up without encountering resistance or fear of change. But there are some advantages to church revitalization. Consider these:

  1. Church revitalization is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God. Personally, this is the greatest motivation I have for getting involved in church revitalization. Every believer echoes Moses’ ancient request to God: “Please show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). I want to have front row seats as God demonstrates his power and glory, and what better place to experience this than a church where death gives way to live, the lost are found, the sick are healed, and the guilty forgiven? The glory of Christ shines forth in the lives of the redeemed, and I want to see this up close. I want the community to see it. We are asking that God uses this church revitalization project to demonstrate his power and glory. If at some point there is a healthy, thriving church there in Alta Loma, we will be able to say, “God did this- to him be the glory!”
  2. Church revitalization is an opportunity to establish a more accurate picture of Jesus. What does an empty church and a dwindling gathering of tired believers communicate to the world? It communicates the same thing a nominal Christian does– that Jesus is irrelevant. While I praise God for faithful small churches, and even recognize that healthy churches can have seasons of decline, I am concerned about dying churches. Dying churches littering the landscape are not neutral in what they represent. They communicate to unbelieving onlookers something untrue about God. Revitalization does not merely seek to establish a true and beautiful picture of Christ in a community, it seeks to eliminate a false one. It’s really a two-for-one deal.
  3. Church revitalization is an opportunity to utilize resources for the gospel. A building is not a church, but a church with a building has something precious to steward. God has given them land, a plot in the ground they can call their own. Every square inch in this universe belongs to Jesus, and at least on the grounds that a church owns, that great reality of the Lordship of Christ can be played out. For many dying churches, buildings and bank accounts are not being used much. Some precious saints put in money toward the advance of the gospel decades ago, and it’d be a shame to see it forfeited to the world on our watch. One of the ways we can honor the generations who went before us is to continue the work for which they bought the property in the first place: faithful proclamation of the Word of God and the clear presentation of the gospel.
  4. Church revitalization is an opportunity to shepherd older, precious saints. I recently sat down with a member of such a church and he told me how difficult it is to find someone who could minister to their congregation. Who would want to touch a church with a decrepit building, a tiny congregation, and uncertain financial situation? Keep in mind that many members of these churches are old and infirm, looking mortality in the face. It’s a travesty for a precious, aged saint to die without a church family to love and care for them in their final hours. A church revitalization is an opportunity to care for an often-marginalized segment of our youth-centered culture: the elderly.

I am praying that many older, dwindling churches will, with the Lordship of Christ and the Great Commission in view, hand over their property to like-minded, faithful, youthful church plants. Church revitalization is a strategy with a future. The broader body of Christ already possesses the land. We have the resurgence in the younger, growing movement of healthy, gospel-centered churches. Wouldn’t it be great if God would raise up thousands of church revitalizers who would go into old, dying churches and help bring them back to health?

And isn’t this great that God has allowed us seize such an opportunity?