Toward a more balanced view of what God is doing
By Nathan Brown
We seem to like having a miracle church or district happening within a reasonable distance of our own church. It seems somehow to alleviate our frustrations in relation to the apparent stagnation of our own congregation, giving us a little hope for ourselves.
However, this is probably not the only effect. It’s very likely that such reports might also raise some questions. Questions like: “Why does so very little seem to happen where I am—where I go to church?” “And what can we do about it?”
Not so long ago, I found myself in a “miracle church”—a church widely reported as a place where “things are happening.” Depending on which reports one read, the church attendance had risen between 50 percent and 150 percent the previous year. Coupled with a new building and an ongoing outreach program, this was the place to get involved.
But it turned out to be a disappointment. Put simply, the numbers did not add up. Moreover, it was a church that seemed to have more internal problems than most, and the focus on outreach appeared to border on the statistically obsessed—outreach at the expense of real caring. Frankly, the reality did not match the reporting.
This disappointment leads to further questions: “If even our apparent bright spots are dull (though I am sure not all are), what hope is there for any of our other churches?”
As I continued to consider this, I remembered the many Sabbath mornings I’ve spent in a variety of churches. In each case, one can look around with amazement at the others in attendance and what is happening.
C. S. Lewis experienced a similar feeling in his early days as a Christian and wrote, as follows:
3. What attitude(s) should we bring to the worship service? And how does our concept of God relate to the way we experience this event?“When I first became a Christian … I thought that I could do it on my own by retiring to my room and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches…. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with both devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-sided boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”1
The truth is that every church is a miracle church.One has only to look around at the strange assortment of worshippers to appreciate the miracle that brings together all these different personalities and histories. As a younger person, I am often amazed and humbled in observing older members who have spent lifetimes in their commitment to their faith and their church.
The Miracle Continues
The story of the New Testament after Jesus’ ascension is the story of the development of the Christian church. And the many letters that constitute the remainder of the New Testament are addressed to individual churches. By way of example, the letters to the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation present these distinct church groups at the time of writing, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. All of these first-century churches and Christians have a special place as a part of the burgeoning kingdom of God. They were all vital parts of the vast miracle unfolding in the first-century world.
The miracle continues. And by the grace of God, we are a part of it. Our individual experiences in a church—any church—will involve the amazing and the disappointing. However, our involvement in the church—as a part of the body of Christ—will always be a miracle. If we were to focus more on the miracle of our own belonging, our respective church experience would have to seem more of a miracle than a disappointment.
In relation to worship in church, Lewis once wrote: “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”2
An invisible church would not necessarily be a good thing, but if we were able to pay less attention to trying to create another “miracle church,” we might direct more attention to the real purpose of the church as part of the kingdom of God in our respective corners of the world.
All churches are miracle churches. Let’s work in our own churches, and with God’s love and power the miracle will continue to grow.
1 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 61, 62.
2 Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, 2003), p. 2.
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Division’s Record and Signs of the Times magazines, and writes from Warburton, Victoria, Australia.