MY IDEAL CHURCH
Dr. W.A. Criswell
10-5-75 8:15 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled My Ideal Church. It is a message prepared for the thirty-first anniversary of my undershepherdship here in this glorious congregation. Just as a background I read two passages in the Bible. One is in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, verse 28, Paul’s admonition to the pastors at Ephesus: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed”—a verbal form of poimēn, which is the word for shepherd, to shepherd, to feed, to care for—”the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” [Acts 20:28]. And the other passage is the beautiful one in Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.”
Now, the title of the message is carefully chosen: the ideal church, My Ideal Church. Not the perfect church, and there is a great deal of difference between. The perfect church? No. Someday we shall be the church triumphant, but here in this earth we are the church militant, and as such, have all of the foibles and weaknesses of the human people who comprise it. A perfect church I don’t think we would find ever; certainly not in the New Testament, nor in the pages of Christian history since.
I one time heard of a fellow, and he was criticizing the church, saying all kinds of things such as you usually hear; “It is full of hypocrites, and it is full of intolerant bigots,” and then he added, “If I could ever find a perfect church, I would join it.” And the man to whom he was speaking said, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it; you’ll ruin it.”
No, not a perfect church, but my ideal church, and it is taken from the churches that I have pastored in the forty-eight years I have been an undershepherd, characteristics that I have found in them that to me make up an ideal congregation of the Lord.
First: the country church, the church of dependence upon God. The country church was the first of my congregations and made the most indelible impression upon my life. I mean the church where they plowed the furrow up to the front door; the church away from a highway or a store, an open country church. A church of dependence upon God; that is, the people, children of the soil and of the earth looked to heaven for every blessing. When they planted their crops, they prayed for rain. When the seed germinated, they prayed God for the growth of the field. And when harvest time came, they looked to heaven for an increase.
City life is removed from the soil and the earth. We live an artificial life in the city. We do not realize that as a baby nurses from the breasts of its mother, so we also live in strength and in life from the bosom of the earth, and that dependence upon God and that anchoring of the life in the soil does something to the character, and heart, and spiritual life of a people.
City life, I say, is so artificial. I one time heard of a little fellow who, living in New York City, was taken out to the country for the first time, and he watched a man milk a cow. It was an astonishing thing to that boy to see milk coming from a cow, and as he watched the farmer milk the cow, he said, “That is so strange. We get our milk out of a bottle.” We have removed ourselves from the earth and the soil and the life that sustains us. But not country people, they depend upon God for every blessing. And that spirit of dependence enters into their church life and their spiritual life.
For the first eight years of my pastorate, I was single—I was not married—and I lived among the people. I knew them so well. And there, sometimes, consecration in the face of what sometimes God does is a memory that blesses my heart forever. I remember one of the godly, godly deacons in that open country church where I was pastor. He had a wheat field right in front of the house, the house here, and a great sweeping field that undulated just below the porch. How many times did he say what would be the blessing that would come when the harvest was ripe and the wheat was gathered, what he was going to do: pay off part of the mortgage, buy his wife a new dress, and if it were of a good price, maybe they would have enough that they could buy another new car.
Upon a day, one of the saddest days that you could think for, a hailstorm destroyed the field completely, beat all of the wheat down into the soil, and that godly deacon sat down on the side of the field and looked at its complete destruction. He was a big strong man, but he bowed his head between his hands and cried like a child—the hopes that he had, and all of it destroyed—and then said to me, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21].
The spirit of looking to heaven for life, and for food, and for rain, and for harvest entered into the spirit of the country church, my ideal; the church of dependence upon God, that looks to God, that prays to God, that asks the help of the Lord.
Second: the church of compassionate forbearance and Christian fellowship; the little village church. What you find in a little village is a people who have lived in constant communion and contact all the days of their lives. Their children doubtless have grown up together, have intermarried. They are a little congregation who intimately know each other, have been together maybe for several generations. Now, being people with all of the witnesses and weaknesses of people, they have every cause to be distrustful of each other, or dislike each other, or sometimes downright hate each other. But the village church, with all of the years of living together and intimately knowing each other, the village church is one of forgiveness, and forbearance, and sympathy, and compassion, overlooking each other’s faults and foibles.
I could not tell you the number of times that I have been in a home of illness and the neighbors come and sit up all night long, for the friend was sick, and there were no nurses and no hospitals, and they would sit up all night long ministering in the home of illness. Nor could I tell you the number of times that I have seen friends and neighbors plant the crop for a man who was ill—in the fall time, harvest his crop—for the man who was ill.
Nor could I tell you the number of times I have seen wives and mothers in a village home take the children of a friend who was sick, and care for the children until the mother was nursed back to health again. That spirit of sympathy and compassion and overlooking forgiveness was found in the heart of the church. There is not anything that cements souls and lives together like caring, sympathy, remembrance, helpfulness, or just standing by in love.
I remember when my mother died. My father and mother had gone from the Panhandle of Texas, where I grew up, to Los Angeles, California because of my brother and other family members there. And when my mother died—could I ever forget it?—there came from this church a young deacon named Ralph Baker and his young son-in-law, Doug Atkins, and made the trip out there just to sit in the memorial service and to stand by the pastor when his mother was lowered into the grave. Anything they could do? No. Anyway they could help? No. Just standing there; there is a marvelous, wonderful, encouragement and helpfulness in the church of Christian forbearance and love, my ideal church.
I think of the church of the county seat: the church of influence and prestige. In the city, the church somehow is overshadowed by the great towering buildings of finance and merchandise. For example, I remember looking at a series of pictures of New York City in the long ago day, oh, a hundred years or more ago. I saw a picture of New York City, and towering above the skyline of Manhattan was Trinity Church. Many of you, most of you I am sure, have walked up Wall Street, and Wall Street runs into the front door of Trinity Church and the cemetery around it. It is an oasis in a great jungle of furious finance. The picture of New York City over a hundred years ago, that tremendous church with its high steeple pointing up to God simply dominated the skyline. When you looked at the picture, what you saw was that great towering Trinity Church.
Then I looked at the pictures as New York City, through the years, began to grow and to grow, and the buildings began to rise and to rise, and you could barely see the top of the tower of Trinity Church. Then the city continued to rise and to rise, and the church is so buried beneath those great skyscrapers—first to the Woolworth Building, then to the Manhattan Bank Tower, and finally of the World Trade Center—it looks like a pygmy. It looks like a doll’s house compared to the vast structures around it.
That is the church in the city, but not in the county seat town. In many, many of the county seat towns, the most imposing structure in it is the church. And certainly the most viable and impressive and influential of all of the institutions in the county seat is the church. The vast influence the church has in education, in politics, in merchandising, in the social and cultural life of the people—it is almost illimitable.
The pastor of the county seat church is, as the Bible calls him, a true episkopos, translated “bishop.” He is the most influential citizen in the county, and as he walks among the people, he has a great stewardship of influence. The church counts for so much, and its influence is so pervasive in the county seat town, and how much for good does the church of the county seat find itself able to achieve.
Oh, in my first pastorate out of the seminary, in a county seat town of about fifteen thousand people, in the midst of the Depression, and in western Oklahoma, poor, poor, poor; and it came to my heart as I looked at the poverty of the people, hungry, and cold, and without a place to work, jobless, penniless—this generation has never known a depression. I hope you never do. When a man cannot work, nor can he find a job, and his house falls into ruin, his children hungry and his wife in despair, that is a depression. So as I walked among the people and saw sections of the town that were hurt and in agony over the lack of food and support, it was then that I thought we could have a White Christmas Program, and encourage our people to gather food, staple groceries and clothing that was not vital and necessary to them. When I started that, the people brought the food and the clothing, and it touched the ceiling. It was a mountain of it! And then I organized a Good Shepherd Department, and for the rest of the cold of the winter, we fed hungry people and clothed naked bodies: a sweet and wonderful and precious ministry.
There was an old gentleman who attended one of those county seat churches, and this is what he said:
Well, wife, I’ve found the model church.
I worshiped there today;
It made me think of good old times,
Before my hair was gray;
The meetinghouse was fixed up
More than they were years ago,
But then I felt when I went in,
It wasn’t built for show.
The sexton didn’t seat me
Away back by the door;
He knew that I was old and deaf,
As well as old and poor;
He must have been a Christian,
For he led me through
The long aisle of that crowded church,
To find a pleasant pew.
I wish you’d heard that singing.
It had the old time ring;
The preacher said with trumpet voice,
Let all the people sing;
The tune was “Coronation,”
And the music upward rolled
Till I thought I heard the angels
All strike their harps of gold.
My deafness seemed to melt away;
My spirit caught the fire;
I joined my feeble trembling voice
With that melodious choir,
And sang as in my youthful days,
“Let angels prostrate fall.
Bring forth the royal diadem
And crown Him Lord of all.”
I tell you, wife, it did me good
To sing that hymn once more;
I felt like some wrecked mariner
Who gets a glimpse of shore;
I almost wanted to lay down
This weather-beaten form,
And anchor in the blessed port
Forever from the storm.
The preaching, well, I can’t just tell
All the preacher said.
I know it wasn’t written,
And I know it wasn’t read.
He hadn’t time to read it
For the lightning of his eye
Went flashing along from pew to pew,
Nor passed a sinner by.
I hope to meet that minister,
That congregation, too,
In that dear home beyond the stars
That shine from heavens blue.
I doubt not I’ll remember
Beyond life’s evening gray
That happy home of worship
In the model church today.
[Adapted from, The Model Church, John H. Yates, 1896]
My ideal church, the county seat church; the church of stewardship in influence, and prestige, and support of God’s needy people.
Last: the city church, the church of world responsibility. What a long way it has been from a little congregation of eighteen church members to the city church, this incomparable First Baptist Church in Dallas; my ideal church, the church of world responsibility. You see, practically all of the mission outreach of our faith and communion lies in the support of the city church. The small church is engrossed in its struggle for existence. It has barely enough to pay the pastor, to keep the church house in order, and to carry on its sustaining life.
Why, in my first church out of the seminary, try as hard as I could, pray as earnestly as I might, I could never get the offering above $250 a Sunday. It was in the days of the Depression, I know, but the remembrance of my struggle and struggle and struggle to raise the offering of the church that it might support God’s cause in the earth, and the abject defeat I met in that attempt—oh, what a sadness, never more than $250 a Sunday. And, of course, it took practically all that we were able to raise to sustain the church itself.
But the city church has it in that ableness to support a worldwide mission endeavor. We have a tremendous mission program in our Jerusalem, in the city of Dallas, with our seven chapels. We have a great sustaining program with our sister churches in the association and in the state. And finally, joining hands with our Southern Baptist churches across the land, we have a gigantic missionary educational program dedicated to the winning of the world to our Lord. The city church is the church of a world sensitivity, and fellowship, and communion, and support.
Somebody sent me, about two or three months ago, the minutes of the Baptist Association in San Antonio. They had a tremendous division in the association. It was over missions, it was over missions, and the association divided; some of them Hardshell, non-missionary, and some of them sensitive to the Great Commission of Christ [Matthew 28:19-20]. Well, the reason the minutes were xeroxed and sent to me was my great grandfather came from Mississippi to that area which is now San Antonio, and he was a Baptist minister. He took a vital part in that debate, and when I read what he said, I thanked God he was on the side of the missionary.
The city church is the church of world responsibility. The city church is a church of music, and praise to God. Ah, we sang the best we could with some kind of a sorry piano and somebody that maybe could play or couldn’t play. We sang the best we could. But ah, the praise of God that is possible in the city church is absolutely heavenly. It is celestial. The city church has no limit, absolutely no limit to its Levitical worship.
I have thought ten thousand times of how it would be to have attended the worship of Jehovah God in the temple. There were fifteen steps leading up from the Court of the Gentiles, up to the Court of Israel. And those fifteen Songs of Degrees they are called, the hymns Psalms 120 through 134, doubtless they were called Songs of Degrees, that is, “songs of the steps,” because the Levitical singers would stand on the first step and sing. Do you remember their first one? “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord” [Psalm 121:1-2].
Then the next step as the singers would sing. “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go up to the house of the Lord” [Psalm 122:1]. Then the next step and the next song, “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about them that fear Him” [Psalm 125:2]. Then the next step and the song, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” [Psalm 126:5]. Then the next step; “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” [Psalm 133:1]. And then the next step, “The Lord who made heaven and earth bless thee and keep thee” [Psalm 134:3].
O Lord, what it must have been like, those thousands of Levitical singers standing there praising God in degrees from step to step to step, from glory to glory. I cannot deny that I love to encourage the music program of our church. I just rejoice in every song that they sing; its orchestra, its instruments, its glorious and increasing choir, my ideal church, the city church.
I haven’t time to speak of its program of evangelism, of outreach. Just one sentence; in all that we do there ought to be the seeking note, a pleading note, an evangelistic note, in the Sunday school, in our visitation, in our church services.
Let me have my church on a downtown street
Where the race of men go by–
The men who are good, the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Or hurl the cynic’s ban–
Let me have my church on Ervay Street
And be a friend to man.
[Adapted from “House by the Side of the Road,” Sam Walter Foss, 1897]
I know that in the church, made up of people, there are all kinds of weaknesses and faults and foibles. But my ideal church is the First Baptist Church in Dallas. It has in it the spirit of dependence upon God, something I learned in the country. It has in it the spirit of sympathy and compassion and forgiveness; the church I knew in the village. It has in it a stewardship of influence and of ministry; the church I knew in the county seat. And it has in it the spirit of a world intercession, to lift the burden of the whole earth before God; my ideal church.
Our time is much spent. In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, somebody you, giving heart in trust and faith to the Lord Jesus, a family you, coming into the fellowship of the church, as God shall speak the word, shall open the door, shall lead in the way, on the first note of the first stanza, come. May angels attend you in the way, from the balcony round, from the press of people on either side, down either one of these aisles: “Here I am, pastor. I make it this morning. I’m coming now.” Do it, while we stand and while we sing.
A. Not the “perfect”
church – made up of imperfect people
B. The best characteristics
I have seen along the way
II. The country church
A. Their daily
dependence upon God
B. City life artificial
C. Look to God for
1. For eight
years of my ministry I was unmarried, and lived among them
2. Godly deacon
standing by destroyed crops, blessing the Lord
III. The village church
A. Full of sympathy, understanding,
together in close community for a lifetime
B. Helping those in
1. Ralph Baker,
Doug Atkins coming to be at my mother’s funeral
IV. The county seat church
of influence for good and for God
The prominence of the county seat church
a tower in the community
first pastorate after seminary – White Christmas program, Good Shepherd
V. The city church
A. Standing at the crossroads
B. Missions program
largely supported by the city church
C. Music(Psalm 120 – 134)
D. Teaching (2 Timothy 2:2, 15)
E. Evangelism – the
seeking note in it all