As I mentioned in my last two blogs, I had the great joy of attending this conference last week. One of my favorite speakers was Bill Hybels, Founder of The Global Leadership Summit, and Founder/Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois (an enormous, growing, influential, suburban-Chicago church with 7 campuses). He spoke a few times throughout the conference, and his recurring theme was, "the local church is the hope of the world." Hope is an essential aspect to life. Without it, what do you have? I thought about this for a while and came up with quite a lengthy list: suicide, self-destructive behaviors, addictions, discord, low productivity, anxiety, disorders, civil unrest, uprisings, depression, broken relationships (i.e. divorce), and the list could go on forever. Hope drives all good things. It feeds joy, peace, and love. It is the main ingredient to faith. It is immensely valuable.
Pastor Hybels' theme that, "the local church is the hope of the world," was actually more of an epiphany, given to him by God on a plane ride, that changed his perspective and life. Thus, it has since become a sort of "battle cry" for him. He shared how on this particular plane ride he was contemplating how stagnant the church seems to be at times, and how it can feel like it is perhaps even dying. He was pondering all sorts of negative thoughts regarding the church (as many weary, hardworking pastors/leaders do at times)--things like, "it'd be better to keep nonbelievers from coming into this dead church so they aren't poisoned by the apathy." But God refreshed him and revealed truth to him while he sat on that plane asking God for wisdom with his ministry. God showed him clearly that without the local church, there is no hope for the world. He arrived at this deduction when God reminded him that Jesus is our only real hope--He is our only hope for living an abundant life here on earth, He is our only hope for deriving at any truth, He is our only hope for salvation, and He is our only hope for eternal life. So if Jesus is our only real hope, (as God's Word states repeatedly in verses like, John 14:6, John 8:12, & John 9:5), and the church is the steward and vehicle for the truth of that hope [in Christ], then we can logically deduce that, "the local church is the hope of the world." Pretty great epiphany for a pastor to ascertain.
Pastor Hybels went on to say, "It's one thing to see a vision. It's another to be seized by one." He shared how this clear vision, given to Him by God, not only gave him a renewed, corrected perspective on the church, but how it completely revolutionized his feeling and attitude regarding his own ministry. He reminded us how in Proverbs 29:18a, it says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." This struck me, because just a few months ago, I myself quoted that verse to a girlfriend, who I had confided in that I was still praying and hoping that God would answer my prayers with regard to some personal struggles I was facing and with my singing ministry desires. I told her I was not giving up--ever. Music is my passion and I know this is what I am called to do. I don't fully understand why God tests our patience to the level that He does at times, but obviously we must need it (He operates this way often in the lives of His children)! But I know if God gave us exactly what we thought we wanted or needed in just the timing we asked, it would be much more difficult for us to have real gratitude or give Him the full glory for it (we'd think it was due to OUR abilities/gifts, or even pridefully declare our great "trust and faith" in Him as the reason it came so easily for us). I know I need to glean much from trusting Him and learning to wait for His perfect will and timing in my life--even when I think I have found just the right thing or that now is the best time for it. Sometimes what we think is best for us is actually our eminent death. Praise God He sees all and knows best, and carries us in our blindness through those instances, sparing us from things we cannot even see or understand fully with our limited perspective and scope. Having faith, hope, and perseverance beyond our visions and while working towards our visions is important--especially while waiting on God. Visions are powerful--they give hope and purpose. But many times we have to work hard, endure, and wait with much hope for God to move beyond that vision. I thought more about how visions and hope are so closely intertwined--you really don't have one without the other. As it states, without vision, people perish. Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that the same is true with hope--where it is void, death is present (or eminent). Pastor Hybels' vision made him go from thinking, "I think the church is dying," to "I think there's hope for the church." Vision and hope change things. I praise God for the vision and hope He has given me for my life, and I am trusting and leaning on Him daily to bring it to pass in whatever form He sees fit.
It sounds overly generalized to say that the main way people come to know Christ is through the local church. I mean, you can come to Christ in the privacy of your own bathroom, if the moment grabs you (and God seizes you). But in actuality, saying, "the local church is the hope of the world," is giving credit where credit is due--to Christ. Pastor Hybels shared how Christ set up the church to function this way--as the catalyst for His Truth and love. Christ devoted His entire life's mission, cause, and purpose to training up leaders (His disciples) to go forth and spread the Gospel of the Good News of His sufferings on the cross so that every person would know Him, believe in Him, and entrust their life to Him. He was building His body of believers right up until His death, and He didn't spend His time doing that just to quit or "let it die." Christ is STILL building and sustaining His church, and He always will. Pastor Hybels shared how we know this is true from Matthew 16:18, when Jesus declares that He is building His church upon "this rock," (meaning, Peter, one of His disciples, whose name means, "rock"). Jesus goes onto say that, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." So we can feel assured even when the church feels "dead," when it is constantly under attack, or when it appears to not be growing and thriving, that Christ, Who is in control of His Church, is working in and for the Church to maintain and protect it. Pastor Hybels added, "God has a critical role for us in this hope, the church. We should feel privileged to be working in the one area of social reform that will never come to ruin, and that is the hope of the world." What an inspirational, life-changing thought.
I get up on many Sundays at 4:30 AM to get ready to go to rehearsal and then lead worship all morning. It is hard to have a spring in your step at that time of day, but I will think more seriously about Who I am serving and the grand purpose of it all after hearing of Pastor Hybels' vision. It is so easy at times for us to fall prey to thinking that the work we do for God really isn't that important. But that is a lie from the pit of hell. Pastor Hybels' vision is wondrously effective in warding off those lies--if we truly believe the church is the hope of the world, we will approach our ministries very differently. Whether we are pouring coffee and passing out donuts on Sunday morning, or preaching a fire and brimstone sermon of immense worth, all of us in the body of believers are crucially important to the church and the cause of Christ. We are imperfect people doing God's perfect work with His help and for His glory. I am totally unworthy to be serving a God this perfect, and I should awaken every Sunday morning feeling honored and delighted to even be setting foot in His house, let alone leading His people in worship.
So say what you want about the church--it will never die. Let me be clear to which "church" I am referring. I am referring to any/all Evangelical Christian Churches, regardless of denomination, where the Holy Bible is viewed as the infallible Word of the One true God (2 Timothy 3:16), where the foundations of the Deity of Christ are preached, where the truth of the Trinity is firmly established, where the virgin birth is trusted and celebrated, where the resurrection is believed and revered, and where salvation by grace alone is taught in love. These are the key doctrinal beliefs of any true Christian church. The differences between the denominations beyond those foundational truths are probably moot points until the day Christ clears some stuff up for us (and until we, as believers, quit making legalistic, "mini religions" out of individual verses in His Word and stirring up dissension on "grey" topics we just won't fully understand until we see Christ and can ask Him personally). According to Christ, (Who was never caught lying), and His Word, (in which all prophecy has been fulfilled thus far), the Church is the entire, world-wide body of believers who are entrusting their very lives to Christ and what He did on the cross for the penalty of their sins. They aren't just "believers"--even Satan "believes" in Jesus, and he won't be going to heaven! They are those who have confessed/repented of their sins to Him, declared their acceptance of His death as payment for those sins, and declared their need of His salvation and help in their lives. This church of Christ Jesus will never come to ruin. Praise be to God for this! Matthew 16:18 is a promise, and we can stand on any promise from a God Who chose to leave the splendor and glory of heaven, to walk among people who would despise Him and the cross, and Who suffered immensely for those wicked people, just to save them. He faced our every sin, our every battle, our every struggle--and He did it with flare and perfection, showing us a glorious example of how to live. He conquered all that and death, having total victory over all evil and the consequences of it. He died in our place so that we could live and have victory over all that through Him, if we choose to believe and trust Him.
When I was a little girl in Sunday School, my teacher explained this so perfectly for us. She said we each had a price tag around our necks that said, "$Death." It is what we owed God for sinning in the garden--for our "sin nature" (the Bible says we all would have sinned in the garden--thus, we inherited Adam and Eve's sin, as Romans 5:12-23 states clearly). But Jesus ripped the price tag off our necks and hung it on Himself. He did that for people He (as God) regretted creating, according to Genesis 6:6. But His great love, mercy and grace trumped that regret. He is an awesome God who died for the sins of the very people He created to love Him and fellowship with Him. He wants us all to live eternally with Him in heaven. Romans 1 says no man is without excuse because God makes Himself known to everyone. If you don't know Him, ask Him to reveal Himself to you. He won't let you down. Seek Him with all your heart. He wants you to know Him. It isn't some mystical, magical trick, or a "get it all at once" theology. It also isn't some set list of rules you have to now abide by in order to gain His love and acceptance. If you confess your sins and accept what He did for you on the cross, you're accepted--you're saved. As 1 John 1:9 states, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." You can trust Him with the rest. All you have to do is come to Him as a child, just as He asks, (as stated in Matthew 18:3), trusting Him with childlike faith to forgive you and save you from your sins. It is really that perfectly simple. It is a recognition that we all need a reconciler, and Christ is the One. His story is the best story you will ever know, and if you believe and accept it, it can be your story.