MY IDEAL CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-5-75 10:50 a.m.
We welcome you who have joined our service in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, who are listening on radio and who are watching on television. The title of the pastor’s sermon today is My Ideal Church. There are two verses as a background, not by way of exposition or exegesis, but just in background.
Acts 20:28, the word of the apostle Paul 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, shepherd—”to shepherd, to care for, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” And the other and beautiful text in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.”
The title is carefully chosen, My Ideal Church. Not the perfect church. As long as we are not the church triumphant but are yet the church militant, it will be made up of people with all the weaknesses and foibles that characterize human nature. Not a perfect church, but my ideal church. Perfection for us in this world is impossible—never shall we attain it or achieve it.
I heard of a fellow one time criticizing the church who said, “It’s a aggregate of hypocrites. It is just a collection of intolerant bigots.” Then he added, “If I could ever find a perfect church, I would join it.” And the man to whom he was talking said, “My friend, if you ever find a perfect church, don’t you join it. It won’t be perfect any longer.” My ideal church, and the message is taken from the churches I have pastored in these forty-eight years, and the characteristics I have seen in them, that, to me, are ideal.
First, the country church, the wide-open area around a country church where the farmer plows a row up to the front door of the meetinghouse. It is the church of dependence upon God. For country people are people of the earth; they are of the soil and they daily live under the aegis of the blessing and help of heaven. They pray for rain, they ask God to bless the crops that they sow in seed, and they thank God for the harvest. They live in daily dependence upon the Lord.
You see, life in the city becomes inevitably artificial. We’re taken away from the earth that nourishes us and feeds us, and our life is removed from the fountain sources of our very being. We live an artificial life in the city. And we look to government, and to politics, and to the legislature, and to the council, and to the courts, but we don’t look to God. Our life is artificial, it’s not actually real, not like their life.
I heard of a boy, a little fellow from New York City, who for the first time was taken out in the country, and to his amazement and astonishment, he watched a farmer milk a cow; milk out of a cow, and the little fellow, looking upon that in amazement, said, “How, how, how strange; we get our milk out of a bottle.” Artificial, the life of a city, but not the country; they live in dependence upon the blessing of God.
For the first eight years of my pastoral ministry, I was not married. I was a single man, and I stayed among the people. I lived with the people. I knew them so well, and entered into every joy and every sorrow of their hearts. I remember one of those godly country deacons, upon the hill his house, and the undulating field before him. It was harvest time, and the wheat was bending over, heavy-headed. And he would talk about what they would do when they harvested the wheat. There would be a part of it for God, for the church, there would be a part of it for the mortgage, there would be a part of it for a new dress for his wife, and maybe if the price per bushel were affluent, they might have, instead of that old worn-out car, a new one.
As happens sometimes in a swath, a heavy hailstorm passed by and beat his crop into the ground, destroyed it hopelessly. You know, he sat down by the side of the field and looked at its utter destruction. He bowed his head between his hands, and cried like a little child would cry, that big, strong farmer, and said to me, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21].
My ideal church, one that depends on God, that looks to God, that prays to God, that is conscious that the providences of life that overwhelm us sometimes and the blessings of life that cheer and gladden our hearts, all of them come from His loving, gracious, nail-pierced hands.
My ideal church, the village church; this is the church of sympathy, and understanding, and forgiveness, and compassion. For you see, in a village you have a group of people who have lived together for sometimes generations. Their fathers and their grandfathers lived there, and they live there, and they’re rearing their children there, and they marry each other there, the village church. And knowing each other so intimately, so conversant in contact and communion, and being people, having all of the weaknesses of humanity, yet they live together in forbearance and in forgiveness. The village church has so much in it of that, they know each other well, have known each other for generations, yet, still live together in love, in forgiveness, in compassion, in peace.
My ideal church; one of sympathy and understanding and kindness and compassion—I could not tell you the number of times I have seen neighbors sit up all night long with other neighbors. Didn’t have any nurse, didn’t have any hospitals, didn’t have any doctor, but help each other in a day of illness. I could not tell you the number of times I have seen men go out in the field and plant a crop for a neighbor who’s sick, and in the harvest time, if he’s still sick, harvest it and bring it in to the barns; kindness and sympathy and understanding, my ideal church. You know, there is not anything that cements humankind, and nature, and individuals, and peoples, and families together like kindness, sympathy, graciousness, compassion, love, remembrance that it matters.
When my father and mother left the Panhandle of Texas where I grew up as a boy, and because my brother and other members of the family were in California, retired in Los Angeles, my mother died. After my father was buried, my mother died, both of them buried in Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. Could I ever forget? Could I? Out there, there came one of my young deacons, Ralph Baker, and he brought with him his young, just married son-in-law, Doug Adkins. And they sat there in the little chapel of the memorial service, and they stood there, when mother was laid beneath the earth. Did they do anything? There was nothing to do. Help in any way? There was no thing to help in. Just there, that’s all. What a wonderful thing, what a heavenly thing—people who are sympathetic and encouraging, full of loving remembrance. My ideal church; the village church that has learned to live together for the years and the years.
My ideal church; the county seat church. The county seat church is the church of prestige and influence. There is no institution so viable, so influential as a church in the county seat. It enters into the political complexion of the county, into its educational program, into its judiciary, into every part of its social and cultural life. The county seat church, sometimes the most imposing building in the county seat, will be that of the house of the Lord.
One time I looked at a long series of pictures of New York City. In the years and the years ago, over a hundred years ago, when you looked at the skyline of our greatest city, the towering building, superimposing itself on the whole Manhattan Island was Trinity Church. If you’ve ever walked down Wall Street, it stops at the door of Trinity Church, with its little cemetery around it. And that first picture of New York City was dominated by the towering steeple, pointing up to God: Trinity Church.
Then the pictures that followed after: the buildings begin to rise, and finally you can see just a tiny speck of that steeple. Then the city continued to rise and to soar, and finally, beneath the heights of the Woolworth Building, the tallest in the world for years and years, then the Manhattan Tower, and today the two World Trade Centers; Trinity Church looks like a pygmy, it looks like a toy. It is buried beneath the towering shadows of those mighty skyscrapers dedicated to finance, and insurance, and merchandising, and trade, covering the face of the earth. That’s the city, but not the county. In the county, that church still towers and is a mighty influence in the life of the people.
My ideal church, the church of a stewardship of tithe and influence and ministry among the people. In the Bible, a pastor is also called an episkopos; that is an overseer; that is a bishop. He’s the bishop of the church. The Bible five times calls him the ruler of the church, and he’s never so much so as he is when he is the shepherd of the county seat church. He walks tall among the people. He’s the most influential man in the county. He’s their leader, moral, spiritual, educational, ecclesiastical, spiritual, in every way. The county seat church—and, oh, how blessed and precious, using the influence of the house and people of God for the blessing of those who need our remembrance and our help.
My first church beyond the seminary was in a county seat town of about fifteen thousand souls, and it was in the heart, in the very midst of the lowest part of the Depression. This young generation has never seen or known a depression—I pray you do not—when men can’t find work and their houses deteriorate; there’s no money for plumbing or fixtures, and there’s no money to buy clothes and no money to buy food; and the very structure by which a man can be proud of himself begins to deteriorate when he sees he’s unable to provide for his own family: the Depression. Walking through the city and trying to minister to the people in their need, there were pockets of abject and indescribable poverty in this town in western Oklahoma. So, I conceived the idea of a White Christmas program, to which people would bring staple groceries and clothing they didn’t need. We started it all, and literally they brought gifts that touched the height of the ceiling in that church. Then I organized the Good Shepherd department, and for the rest of the cold of the winter, we gave out food, and gave out clothing, and gave out the word of hope in Christ; ah, the tremendous blessing of God upon the influential county seat church that receives, as from God’s hand, a ministry in the name of the Lord!
I read a poem about a man who went to one of those county seat churches, and when he came home to his wife, 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 meeting house was fixed up more than they were years ago,
But then when I went in, I felt it wasn’t built for show.
[from “The Model Church,” John H. Yates, 1877]
And I love this old beat up auditorium. We’re worshiping in the same house, in the same auditorium that our forefathers worshiped here in 1890. This house in which you worship is eighty-five years old. It’s like an old shoe; it fits. The balcony crosses the stained-glass windows, and it’s been rearranged three different times; but I love this place. And one thing that I’m glad for; when the time comes and they tear it down, I don’t want to be here, I want to be in heaven. The day will come inevitably, because the building is made out of wood, the floor is wood, the window sillls are wood, all of that great joists and rafters, they’re all wood up there. The top is wood. It will fail someday. But as long as I have life, I hope it stays this old church where Dr. Truett preached for forty and seven years and where I’ve been preaching for thirty-six. There’s nothing showy about it. It’s just a place where we meet to worship God.
The usher didn’t seat me away back by the doo;.
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 singin’, 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,
‘Til 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;
I 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 tell just all the preacher said;
If you ask me what I preached three Sundays ago—don’t do it!
. . .
The preaching, well, I can’t just tell all the preacher said;
I know it wasn’t written; I know it wasn’t read;
He hadn’t time to read it, for the lightnin’ of his eye
Went flashing along from pew to pew, nor passed the sinner by.
. . .
I hope to meet that minister—that congregation, too—
In that dear home beyond the stars that shine from heaven’s blue.
I doubt not I’ll remember, beyond life’s evening gray,
That happy home of worship in that model church today.
[adapted from “The Model Church,” John H. Yates, 1877]
My ideal church; the county seat church; in its stewardship of influence, of time, of talent, of tithe, of dedication to the Lord.
My ideal church, the city church—this is the church of world responsibility. It is the church of missions. You see, practically all of the support of our denomination and its world-wide ministries, both in the foreign field, in its institutions, almost all of it comes from the city church. For the smaller church struggles to exist and has to take what little it has to support its own work and ministry. In this church, the first one outside of the seminary, I was never able, though I tried so valiantly and hard; I was never able to raise the giving of the people beyond two-hundred fifty dollars a Sunday. That was the best, the utmost. I was never able to succeed beyond it! And what little it amounted to; two-hundred fifty dollars a week, was consumed in keeping the church alive. The city church—oh, how able it is! And how mighty it is!
In our own wonderful church, we have a vast city mission with seven chapels, seven of them. They’re having services this minute; all seven of those chapels. They reach, oh how many families for God! And through our cooperative program and our mission gifts, we support our association and our state and our Southern Baptist Convention and literally join hands with our sister churches to embrace and include the whole earth.
A few months ago somebody make a Xerox copy of the early minutes of the San Antonio Baptist Association. They were in an altercation back there, oh, about a hundred thirty years ago, and a vicious one! And they divided the association right down the middle; they split it wide open, and the confrontation was over missions. Half of them were Hardshell and non-progressive and Primitive and predestinarian ultra in their doctrine, and didn’t believe in missions, and half of them did. So after just staying with it, and confronting each other, they finally divided. Well, why the man sent the Xeroxed copies to me was, my great grandfather came from Mississippi to that country where is now San Antonio. And he was a Baptist preacher, and he took a vocal and furious part in the debate. Guess whose side he was on? He was on the side of the missionary! Ah, when I read that, I said, “Thank God for my great-great-grand pappy! God bless him in what he was doing then, and bless his great-great-grandson today as he seeks to build a missionary church.”
I heard Dr. Truett one time say, at a convention—I never knew Dr. Truett personally, I would just see him at a Southern Baptist convention, or at a Texas state convention, or when he’d come down to Baylor, I’d just see him—I heard Dr. Truett at the Southern Baptist convention one time say, he would say, “Any man, who is not missionary in his heart, will feel, very much, not at home in the First Baptist Church in Dallas.” Oh, that’s so true. Our hearts are open to the need and the evangelization of the whole world.
I wish I had time to speak of so many other things in that ideal church, this church—the First Baptist Church in Dallas, the church of dependence upon God, looking to heaven for an answer, for His blessing, for His presence. A church of compassion, and sympathy, and forbearance, and forgiveness; a church of towering influence in the city in which God has placed our life, and lot, and a church that has the whole world on its heart.
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 ban
Let me have my church on Ervay,
And San Jacinto and Patterson and St. Paul’s streets,
And be a friend to man.
[adapted from “The House by the Side of the Road,” Sam Walter Foss, 1899]
“O Lord, grant it with us! If there is something we can do, Lord, to win the lost, may the seeking note ever be found in us. If there is support for a great kingdom work, Lord, may You find us dedicated to it. And somehow, Lord, even in the impersonal relationship of a growing city, may we never lose that feeling of remembrance, and compassion, and sympathy when others fall into illness, or age, or despair, or trouble. Lord, Thy blessing upon Thy people here.
And this is our invitation, in a moment when we stand to sing our appeal, somebody you, to give your heart in trust to the Lord Jesus, a family you to come into the fellowship of the church, just a couple you, take your wife by the hand, “Sweetheart, let’s go, this is the God’s place for us.” As the Spirit of God shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now, do it now. And in a moment when we stand to sing, stand walking down one of these stairways, walking down one of these aisles, “Here I am, pastor, here I come, I do it now.” May angels attend you in the way as you respond with your life, while we stand and while we sing.