On the Sunday before Labor Day, I asked my wife a question. There was no evening service because of the holiday weekend, so we drove up to Franklin that afternoon to see my wife’s family. We were somewhere on Highway 67 and our conversation had lulled into a companionable silence. And then out of the blue I quietly asked my wife this: “Do you have any sense that God is preparing to move us somewhere else?” I looked over at her, and she was slowly shaking her head “no”. I said, “Neither do I.” She just confirmed what I had been thinking, too.
Three times over the past 22 years we have prayed about whether to leave the church or not. Once was during a very difficult time. Once it was when it looked like another church closer to our aging parents might open up. And this last time it was after our daughter and her family moved away from Linton. After having them two blocks away from us for ten years, it was very hard when they left.
But we’ve also learned the hard way not to run ahead of God, and
to make sure that we really have heard from Him before making decisions like
this. We long to be near our family, but we also know that that by itself isn’t
a good enough reason to leave someplace God sent you to.
So each time we asked a God to give us clarity, sought wise counsel from those we respect and trust, and waited on God. And each time we sensed silence from God. Not a stern, angry silence, but a gentle, loving silence…as if God was smiling and slowly shaking His head “no”.
My question as to whether I should leave the church or not was an honest one, and one I have really wrestled with. We all know the story of our church over these past two decades. I’ve just done my 180th funeral since I’ve been here. About two-thirds of those were for three-times-a-week, tithing church members. We’ve baptized over 80 people during that time, and we’ve had many others join the church in other ways. But most of those haven’t stayed. Or if they haven’t “left”, their attendance is so sporadic that it doesn’t really strengthen the church.
Our church has gone through a tough couple of years, and we had some folks leave in very hurtful ways. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “Do I need to step aside and let a younger pastor with a lot of kids come here? Wouldn’t that attract younger families? And if that pastor had several children, that would at least give the church some kids, and wouldn’t they attract more children?”
I’ve actually asked these questions to people in ministry outside of our church, but they haven’t had any definitive answers for me.
Then about a month ago I went to a one-day seminar on church revitalization in New Albany. Another pastor went with me. He’s young, has a godly young wife and some beautiful young children. He’s also facing difficult circumstances in a church that is declining.
The main speaker at the seminar was Richard Blackaby, son of Henry Blackaby. Among other things, he spoke passionately about how we are over-dependent on human wisdom and things like polls, surveys and demographic studies. Then he said, “Everybody thinks that what their church needs is a younger pastor with lots of kids, in order to attract young families.”
He told us about how God led him to a church in Canada that was on the verge of closing. He said, “I didn’t have any of the qualifications that the latest church growth wisdom said I should have.” Then He told us how God brought a young British family to their little church. This family ended up choosing to join their little church instead of the megachurch with huge children’s programs down the road, because, they said, “We get such a sense of God here.”
So there it was. I’d spent the day with a young pastor who had small children, who’s church was not growing. And Richard Blackaby spoke directly to my concerns, using almost word-for-word the same phrases I’d used: no, a younger pastor with young children does not necessarily guarantee that a church will grow. Blackaby said, “God knows what your church needs, and if you seek Him, He will direct you and provide for you.”
There’s another aspect of all this: early last year we paid off our house, and after my Dad died, we were able to get completely out of debt with the bequest he left us. Let me tell you, I have REALLY enjoyed our debt-free status. And I thought, “If ever there’s a time to leave, it’s now, since we are debt-free.” Because, if we stay, we really need to do some serious things to our house, starting with getting a new roof.
I went to talk to our banker about the advisability of all this remodeling, and I mentioned to him that I didn’t want to make the mistake of staying too long at the church. To my astonishment he looked at me and said, “I don’t think your run is through yet.”
God led Israel through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud. The cloud signified God’s presence. When they camped, the cloud rested on the Tabernacle. Whenever the cloud lifted and started to move off, they would know it was time to pack up and leave. But if they got up in the morning and the cloud was still resting on the Tabernacle, they knew they weren’t going anywhere. And the one was just as much God’s leading as the other.
As far as Rae Anne and I can tell, the cloud is still on the Tabernacle.
So let me answer the question the way we believe God has answered it, and the way I saw my wife answer it: Are we going to leave the church? I’m just going to slowly shake my head “no”. We don’t have any sense that God wants us to do anything but stay right here.
So, we’re looking for good contractors who can put a new roof on our house, and do some other remodeling, too. We would ask for prayers for wisdom as we do this, because we could easily get as much in debt again in remodeling as we did in buying the house. We don’t want to do that, if we can help it. And if you’ve got any good recommendations about contractors, we’d be grateful if you’d pass ‘em on.
There are people who have told us that our church is dying with no hope of turning around. I CATEGORICALLY REJECT THAT ASSESSMENT.
God has done some wonderful things for our church in the last year. He has made us aware of the impact of our church on the men at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. He has helped us retire our roof debt with a special Christmas offering that went $20,000 over the amount needed. And He has brought us several wonderful new couples and families that have blessed our church greatly.
GOD ISN’T THROUGH WITH OUR CHURCH YET. We need to seek Him, because He isn’t going anywhere.
And neither are Rae Anne and I.
May God give us the desire to seek Him, ears to hear Him, and a heart to do His will.
Solo Deo Gloria!