The State of the Church
January 3rd, 1971 @ 8:15 AM
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-3-71 8:15 a.m.
This is the first Sunday of the new year. And the pastor is bringing a message concerning us and the days that lie ahead. If I were to give a title to the sermon, I would call it The State of the Church message. When the new Congress convenes, it has been a tradition in American life that the president delivers to the Congress a state of the union message, in which he reviews how America is faring. Something like that I would like to do here in our First Baptist Church in Dallas.
A state of the church message: somewhat of a look toward the past but mostly a look to the future. As your read in the Holy Scriptures, "Forgetting those things which are behind. . .I press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:14-15], So we shall just briefly refer to things in the past and look forward to what we believe God would assign us to achieve in the future.
In the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, verse 12, the Lord said:
Therefore, a certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.
And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. . .
And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, that he called those servants unto him.
And they gave the lord a review of what they had done and then received new assignments from the mouth of the great king [Luke 19:16-19].
We are going to do that today. First: a looking at the days of the old year; as I went through my desk, some of the things that had piled up on one side of it, and clearing the desk off for the new year, I came across two things that I had kept, not with any idea of preparation for this message or any other, just two things that especially blessed my heart that I had kept.
Somebody had sent me a sermon by Dr. W.R. Estep, Jr., professor of church history at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth. In this sermon that I hold in my hand entitled "Life with Martin," he describes the seven years of the life of his little boy who at the end of seven years was taken to be with the Lord. He died of a terminal, incurable disease.
And after he goes through the things that blessed them in the life of the boy, he comes to the conclusion of his sermon, the last paragraph on the last page. And on this last page he describes a dramatic moment in the life of the family when they had as guests a missionary family from across the seas. And the little boy stood up and said, "I have an announcement to make. I am a Christian now."
And the father, who had been away on Sunday, was astonished at the little fellow and his announcement. And when he asked what had happened to the little boy, the little fellow had watched a television service from the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And at the conclusion of that message, said, "I want to give my heart to Christ. I want to accept Him as my Savior," and a little while after that, the little boy slipped away to be with Jesus. This is the climax of the life of the lad and of the sermons preached by his father; just a preciousness that we don’t realize. I had no idea of it.
All right, a second thing that was on my desk of the old year – this is the last page of a letter, not written to me at all but written to somebody else and they mailed it to me, gave it to me. Writing to a kinsman, the writer says, "I meant to share with you an event directly related to the encounter crusade," this is the one that I held in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "A couple was having marital problems and about to divorce. They finally separated, and it occurred during the crusade week. The man decided to attend the crusade; it was out in a big ballpark. The Lord spoke to him that night and made a tremendous change in his life. The father returned to his home and the mother, unaware that he had returned, heard a noise in the child’s bedroom. She looked in and there was the father, kneeling by the child’s bed in prayer. The family was reunited. It just shows that God never ceases to perform His marvelous acts of grace."
That letter is not addressed to me. Well, we could be here hours and hours. All of us could share God’s immeasurable, illimitable, incomparable, unfathomable grace and mercy in our lives and in the lives of so many others we have seen around us – the goodness of God in the old year.
Now, as we turn our faces toward the days that lie ahead; word was said a moment ago about a new departure in our Lord’s Supper. I do not know whether the blessing of God will be upon it or not. I do not know of the response of our people to it. But as I wrote in my "Pastor’s Pen," for the years of my whole ministry, I have never been at quiet in my heart about the way we observe the Lord’s Supper.
I have always felt, and though other people say "Now pastor, that is not true. It’s just you that feel that way." But after forty-four years of feeling that way and never getting away from it, I thought we might try to see if there is some other way by which we can exalt and magnify our love and praise for Jesus for dying for our sins and saving us from death and damnation.
So, for awhile, for several months, at least through the high sun of the summertime, on the first Sunday of each month we shall have a Lord’s Supper service at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. We shall gather here in this sanctuary. We shall have a service of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done for us: dying for our sins, raised for our justification, ascending into heaven to be our intercessor and mediator and advocate. We are going to thank Him, and praise Him, and break bread together.
Now, one of our members said to me, "Now, pastor, remember we have a television program with the Cowboy football game this afternoon, and don’t you be discouraged this time if nobody is present." Well, I will not look for all of our Cowboy fans, but some of you are bound to remember that there might be other things at the same time, and would respond. In any event, we are going to try it.
I want the service to be unique and separate and apart, linked with nothing else. We are going to do this. I am going to dress in a solid white suit, pure and clean and white, emblematic of our "white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb" [Revelation 7:14]. We are going to do a few things that will dramatize, just like the Book says, "For as oft as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do" dramatize, set forth, exhibit, "present to view the Lord’s death" achris hou elthē, "till He come" [1 Corinthians 11:26] – at 5;00 o’clock this Sunday afternoon, this afternoon.
Then there is the matter, of course, of our giving program. Our people give more than they ever have. There has never been a year but that the response of our congregation, you, to the world call of the mission need of Christ here in Dallas, in the state, in the nation, around the globe; our people give more and more and more every year. That is one of the finest indications of the real and genuine commitment of our church to the work of Christ. It’s a barometer. It is a magnificent indication.
In it there is for us a colossal weakness, and concerning it I am praying that God will give us wisdom to know how to do and how to approach its solution. The problem is this: as our people give more and more and more to the work of the Lord, we designate more and more and more to separate interests and items and institutions, with the consequence that our church is less and less able to carry on its work until finally, as of today, our church is about one half million dollars behind in its local program, paying the bills: light bills, janitor bills, maintenance bills, the salaries of our people.
That, of course, cannot continue. What it would mean is that ultimately we would just go out of business. There has to be someway, and we are asking God for wisdom to know how to approach it. I do not want to discourage our people in their designations. I have always felt that people who bring tithes and offerings to the church ought to have the opportunity to designate.
If, for example, you are especially introduced to a need on the mission field and you’d like to do something for them, to designate a gift for that missionary or that work ought to be a privilege of the people who belong to the church; same way about an institution such as our Dallas Baptist College. If you’d like to do something for the school, that ought to be a high, holy privilege; same way about anything in the mission work. Take one of our missions over there in West Dallas. If God laid a special burden upon your heart concerning that mission, to have the privilege to designate something special for it would be wonderful, I think. Same way about any part of the work. Yet if we do it too much, we come to this present, almost unbelievable and sad situation in our own church; the wheels of the church itself finally grind to a halt.
As we face the new year therefore, waiting on God for wisdom to know how to do, let us in our own lives, each one of us – let us remember that if I designate too much, my church will finally cease to exist It can’t meet its budget; it can’t meet its program; it can’t pay its bills. What I am praying for is that we will keep on doing both. This is the first year we have ever had the problem. I am praying we will be able to do both – that because of the abounding response, that we will be able to do all that God puts in our hearts for these special interests. And then, that we have enough undesignated that our church can continue in its glorious work for Jesus.
Now, our building program: we ought, I think, to place our building program and the entire outreach of our church in five year units. The reason I say five years is because of the age of the pastor. Five years from now, I will be through my sixty-five years. I shall have been pastor of the church thirty-one years. And I do not think that our church ought, say, to go into so vast a debt that, at the end of five years, we might be facing an overwhelming interest payment and capital payment.
I think we ought to make our program in five-year units. Let’s take this present five years. Then at the end of that five years, if God has blessed the pastor with unusual strength and health, why, then we will take another five-year unit. But I do not believe that we ought to plunge the church into such an enormous debt that it would stagger the congregation if they had to go through that experience. And it’s always traumatic of picking up a mantle laid down by another and previous pastor.
Well, what have we been doing? We don’t see any evidence around at all. The building fund, the building program: we have been looking at these same facilities for years and years and they are still just as we’ve always looked at them. Apparently nothing has been done. Well that is only apparent; for in these days past our church has acquired more than three million dollars worth of property, which would be an astonishing, staggering achievement by an ordinary church, yet we have done that and hardly mentioned it. We have acquired, bought more than three million dollars worth of properties: the Harlan property between the Veal building and Federal Street; the Rader Property between the Burt Building facing Ervay Street and the Salvation Army, that entire block, except the Salvation Army; the Spurgeon Harris building, half a block immediately across the street and cater-cornered from the church; the Riley building on the corner here at St. Paul; and the Cummings property, the old Kansas City Life Building, down here next to the Mayfair hotel. All of those properties have been bought in these last some odd months and days – over three million dollars.
Then there is another thing that we have gone through: we have tried to see if we could buy properties – buildings that are already constructed – just across the street from us, and to see if we could use them for our purposes. And after months and now several years of probing and praying and architecturally, engineeringly finding a reasonable answer, we have come to the definite and final and firm conclusion; there are no buildings close to us that we can convert into facilities that meet our needs; it cannot be done.
I don’t have time to go into the hours and hours and hours of probing that led to that final conclusion. I might point one out: one of the things that you face when you buy a building right across the street from us is the city comes in and says, "If you use this for educational purposes according to the density of the people that occupy the building, you have to have so many feet of stairway." And one of these buildings that we sought to acquire, by the time you got to the top of it, according to that city code, the entire building would be stairway; nothing else, just stairway.
I can’t go into a thousand other things that have entered into these final decisions, but now we are faced with a building program, and I want to say what I would like for us to do. One: I would like for us, on that lot between the Veal parking building right here and Federal Street – the size of that lot is exactly the size of our Veal building, parking building, it’s a quarter of a block – I would like for us to go over there and build a parking building. Make it a solid block from Patterson to Federal Street facing St. Paul, all of that a parking building; and go up in the Veal building and down in the new building. That’s what I want to do.
Ah, but you say – that is the men that look at that; they say, "Pastor, that is commercially unfeasible, it is not financially lucrative." Well, I’ve considered that for the years they’ve been telling me that same sentence. Neither is our kitchen financially feasible, but we use it to promote the program of the church. That’s all we want of it.
Say anything about our library – that is not financially feasible, but we use it for God. Same way about our recreational program: that is not financially feasible, but we use it for God. I want us to look on our parking building in the same way. I’d like to get away from its commercial aspects all together. I’d like to get away from leasing it out to any parking company; I’d like for us to build that parking building and use it for God and that alone, for the program of the church. Then you could come down here any hour, day or night, any day of the week, drive into the building, go up on this side and down on the other side and out. That’s one thing I’d like to do.
Second: I would like for us to go over here in that property that faces Ervay Street, between the Burt Building and the Salvation Army building. I’d like for us to go over there and build an educational facility. I’d like for us, if it is possible, to go down two stories, walk in on the ground floor and then up two stories. That would be a five-story building. And the reason for that is to get away from the jamming of these elevators; to move thousands of people up and down all at one time is a colossal assignment – and those elevators cost one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars apiece! I’d like to get away from it. I’d like for us to build a building. You go in on this street level, you walk in, then there are two floors up and two floors down: and practically all of our people can walk the two floors down, the two floors up. You don’t need a bank of those expensive elevators, one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. I’d like for us to do that. And in that way, not being overly big, I believe we can in a five-year program see our way through to put our arms around it.
Now, about our teaching ministry: as you know, by law the public school system cannot teach religion. They cannot teach the Scriptures. If they did it would be only as a piece of literature. And I am in favor of that interdiction. I don’t want an infidel teaching our children the Bible. And I don’t want any of those extreme cultists teaching our children the Word of God. To me, it is a fine assignment and a responsibility that we are happy to accept. We shall be happy for the public school system to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, and we shall be happy to accept the responsibility of teaching the Word of God – glad to do it!
Now, when we accept that responsibility, we ought to do it two ways. One, we ought to do it excellently, excellently. There ought not to be any such thing as a child going to the public school and taught geometry or physics or history in a wonderful way by a gifted teacher, then he comes to Sunday school and the other teaching activities of the church, and there he is taught sloppily and slovenly and sorry. The work ought to be done excellently; we ought to be as well equipped and able to teach the Word of God, as the public school system is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. And that’s one reason for the founding and the launching of our Bible Institute.
Tuesday night – not of this week but of next week – Tuesday night of next week, the January twelfth evening, on that Tuesday night our program opens; we begin our Bible Institute. We already have more than two hundred paid admissions for that program of teaching. Why, I can point to you an institution that after the years and the years they have one hundred fifty students. We are going to start off with more than two hundred. This is one of the finest new departures our church has ever assumed, attempted, tried. It’s going to be blessed of God. And with the finest dedicated teachers in this land, we are going to teach our teachers and our superintendents and our leaders these things that pertain to the Word of God! And please heaven, we will offer until the Lord as fine an academic program of teaching God’s Book as you will find in any secular subject in the earth. O God, grant that, grant that.
Second – not only is our teaching program to be excellently done – second: it is to be truthfully and faithfully done just according to the Word of God. Maybe I can illustrate this better than belaboring the point by an hour; let’s take one of our pieces of literature. This is a young people’s quarterly. So in that young people’s quarterly, there is some knot on a log, some wart on a dill pickle, who thinks he has been to school and he knows more than God. So he writes in the young people’s lesson, he writes, "Now it says in the Bible that "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible" [1 Corinthians 15:52]. Now he writes, "There will be no trumpet sounding. This is nothing but vivid imagination. It is nothing but apocalyptic language. It is nothing but Oriental expression." That’s what he writes, and expects us to teach it to our young people!
Paul said by revelation of God, Paul said by the word of the Lord, "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible" [1 Corinthians 15:52]. He said, "That came to me by a revelation from God" [1 Corinthians 15:3]. Since when did this little peanut – who has been to school beyond his intellectual capacities to absorb – since when did he have a revelation from God saying Paul was mistaken? "There’s not going to be any trumpet to sound, that’s just Oriental imagery."
That ultimately leads to a denial of the whole Word of God. When Paul said, "By revelation and by the word of the Lord, the trumpet shall sound," until God gives us another revelation interdicting it, I think our people in the pulpit and our teachers in the classroom ought to open that Book and say, "And God says the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible." That’s what I mean when I say, "And we teach it faithfully, just like it says in the Book."
To give ourselves to that kind of a teaching ministry in the church, so that anybody, anywhere could invite any child or any teenager in the whole earth and say, "If you go to that First Baptist Church, there is one thing you can be assured of: you will be taught the Word of God just as it is, word for word, syllable for syllable, line upon line, precept upon precept" [Isaiah 28:9-10].
Our time is gone. Let me speak of one other as we face the new year; a ministry of outreach and of soulwinning. The Great Commission: we are to make disciples of all of the nations; all the people, and we are to baptize them in the name of the triune God, and we are to teach them all the things the Lord has commanded us [Matthew 28:19-20].
The outreach: that seeking note in everything that we do, the pull you feel in the services of the church – it’s something that you don’t define. It’s intangible. But you can feel it. It’s sort of like the Spirit of the Lord; I can’t touch Him or grasp Him, my physical eyes cannot see Him, but I feel the tug and the pull of His presence. It’s like that blind boy flying a kite, and a man came by and said, "Son, flying a kite blind? Why, you can’t even see it. How do you know it is up there in the sky?" And the lad replied, "Sir, I know it because of the pull on the string."
That in these services and all that we do, there is a seeking note in it. There is an outreach in it. There is a pull in it. I had a conversation with somebody concerning another church in this city. And when the man is done preaching, he gives no invitation. So I was talking to this member: I said, "I don’t understand. Why do you preach and why do you teach if you don’t give an appeal, an invitation?"
It’s like an insurance man and he tells all about the policy, but he never invites the man to sign on the dotted line. It would be like a legislator pleading for a cause before the Congress, but he never calls for a vote. It’s like a lawyer before a jury, but he never seeks a verdict. To me it is that, in the church. However embellished our program, however beautiful or spacious the sanctuary, and however the fine and excellent teaching, it never reaches toward the heart; it never appeals, it never pulls, it never seeks. It never wins.
Ah, to me, for our church to dedicate itself to that appeal, we are going to teach the Word of God for a purpose. We are going to preach for a reason. We are going to gather in these services for a high and holy verdict. We are going to win souls for God.
O Lord, as we enter the new year, grant it. In Thy sweetest, finest, most dear and precious of all answers to prayer, give it to us Lord, as we walk through the days that unfold before us.
Now we must sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, on the first note of that first stanza, giving your heart to the Lord, coming into the fellowship of the church, as the Spirit will press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now. And in a moment when you stand up, stand up coming. God bless you in the way as you walk down that aisle, as you come here to the front, "Here I am, pastor. I am making it today," while we stand and while we sing.