State of the Church
January 2nd, 1977 @ 10:50 AM
STATE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Psalm 48:1-2, 11-14
1-2-77 10:50 a.m.
On the first Sunday of the new year I almost always prepare an address on the State of the Church, like the president of the United States will deliver an address to the Congress assembled on the state of the Union. So this sermon is prepared introducing the days of the new year. And as a background text, I read from the forty-eighth chapter, the forty-eighth Psalm:
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness.
Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King . . .
Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of Thy judgments.
Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof.
Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following.
For this God is our God for ever and ever: He will be our guide even unto death
[Psalm 48:1-2, 11-14]
And as the psalmist sings of the beautiful city and of its holy tabernacles, in the land this one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm is their remembrance when they were carried away into captivity:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy
Just to read these verses from the psalms that Judah sang is to feel the love of the Jew for Jerusalem. Inside of that holy city was the sanctuary of Jehovah God, the temple of the Lord, built as it was upon Mt. Moriah—where Abraham offered up Isaac [Genesis 22:1-13]—built upon the threshing floor of Araunah, where David raised an altar to the Lord to make expiation for the sins of the people [2 Samuel 24:21-25]. It is the most sacred site to the Jew in the earth. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a shrine dear to the heart of every Jew that lives because it is nearest to the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. Thus, dear to the Jew is Jerusalem; there was the house of God where the name of the Lord was praised.
Our Jerusalem is the city of Dallas. My far-famed and distinguished predecessor, George W. Truett, would often say, “I am a citizen of no mean city.” And in the heart of Dallas is our sanctuary of the Lord, the congregation of the First Baptist Church. And as the Jew loved the holy temple, so to us who belong to this congregation the First Baptist Church is dear and precious beyond what word could depict. But the church to live must be mighty; it must be mammoth, it must be massive, it must be tremendous, it must be large.
There is a strange turn to the dynamics and economics of a downtown church. It is always one of two things: a downtown church is either a tremendous church with a vast membership and a massive program, or else it inevitably and inexorably dwindles down and erodes down into a tiny mission supported by associational funds. There is no exception to that. A downtown city church is either a massive and tremendous congregation doing a work for the Lord that is mammoth and gargantuan, or else the church is a little, tiny, struggling mission kept alive by funds from associationally related churches.
It is our proposal under God and in the presence of the Lord to build in the heart of the city of Dallas the most marvelous lighthouse for Christ in this earth. We are on the way; we have already largely done it. But the victories of the past are but harbingers and promises of the greater construction, and greater building, and greater witness, and greater outreach in the future. This is just to say that we are not proposing to exist by the skin of our teeth, just barely be alive, but we are proposing to build the church triumphantly, gloriously, victoriously; that it have a marvelous trophy to lay at the feet of our Lord; that the church live decisively, vigorously, quickened by the presence and power of the Lord God Himself. That there be no question about its life, and its future, and its destiny, and its victory, but that it be decisive in glory, in service, in witnessing.
Just like a World Series: the Texas Rangers on one side, and the New York Yankees on the other side. And the first game, the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees fifteen to nothing. And the second game, the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees twenty-five to nothing. And the third game, the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees forty to nothing. And the last game, the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees sixty to nothing. There would be no doubt who won that World Series, it would be most decisive! Or Baylor University: in the Southwest Conference they beat Arkansas thirty-five to nothing; next game, they beat Texas sixty to nothing, and they win the whole conference! Then they come out here to the Cotton Bowl and Baylor University, the Golden Bears. play the Buckeyes of Columbus, Ohio, and the Panthers of the University of Pittsburgh, and the Cougars of Houston, and the Trojans of Southern California. Beat them all together, thirty-five to nothing in a Cotton Bowl game. There would be no doubt about it; it would be decisive.
That is what I’m talking about in the building of this church. It is not just barely alive, it is just not a gesture toward living, it is not clinging to the thing by the skin of our teeth, but it is building the church decisively, triumphantly, victoriously; no doubt about it! Just come and behold its glory and its grandeur in the Lord. Now how would you do that? How would you build a witness for Christ like that in the heart of a great and growing metropolitan area? How would you do that? It will certainly not be done and it is not being done by accepting the status quo, things just as they are; but it is done by struggling, by vigorously reaching out, by attempting and trying, by asking God to bless the labor and toil and work of our hands.
Upon a time, I was the guest of a fine family in Belfast, Ireland. He had a beautiful home called “Twin Brooks” on the edge of the city.
While I was there he asked me, “Would you like to visit with the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast, Ireland?”
I said, “I’d love to.”
He said, “Tomorrow we shall invite him for dinner.”
So the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast, who also was the president of the Irish Baptist Union, came to eat dinner with us. He was beautifully groomed with his spats, and his rattlesnake britches, and his cut-away coat, and his winged collar. I loved seeing him—distinguished man of the cloth. After dinner, the host said, “Now, I know you two would like to talk together.” So he took us to the library and closed the door, and I sat down with the pastor. I started off talking to him about the Baptist work in Ireland and the Baptist work in all the British Isles. Two hundred years ago there were about five thousand Baptists in Ireland. Two hundred years later—today—there are about five thousand Baptists in Ireland. The graph of our Baptist witness and community in all the British Isles is gradually eroding. Year, after year, after year, after many years it gradually erodes. There are fewer Baptists now than there ever were in the British Isles.
So I was talking to that pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast—and the president of the Irish Baptist Union—about building up his own church and using it as an example for the building up of the work of God in Ireland and the British Isles. So I said to him, “One of the things that they do in Great Britain is they confine the church largely to just a square meeting house. There is no tremendous outreach, it is just contained within those few walls. For example,” I said to him, “you go out and look at a British church, and this is the sign that you will read:
Such and such Baptist Church
Morning worship, 11:00
Evening worship, 7:30 o’clock
Sunday school, 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon, “(for children only)””
I said to the pastor, “That is as though we do not need to grow in the Word of God, we do not need to study the Bible. We are taught some of it as small children, but when we become teenagers, and young people, and adults there is no longer any thrust in the Word of God. And there is no attempt to gather the people that they might be instructed in the judgments of the Lord.” I said to him, and I was then president of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, I said, “Sir, I will send you truckloads, tons of literature. I will send you a freight car load of literature in which every area of ministering, teaching, is depicted. And beside that, I will pay for a man to come and spend a year with you in your church and in the Irish Baptist Union, to lead your people in a great outreach program that seeks to reach families for God, to win them and to teach them the Word of the Lord.”
His reply was, “It is just not being done.”
I said, “I know it is not being done in the British Isles. But that does not mean it cannot be done. This thing God will bless!”
And I pled with him and always that same answer, “It is not being done.”
And at three o’clock in the morning, I gave it up. I said, “Let us have a prayer.”
And we prayed, and I bid him goodbye with the words lingering in my ears: “It is not being done.”
It will never be done as long as we have the spirit of accommodation to a status quo, “Just leave the thing as it is.” Why bother your heart, or why attack it with some kind of a program? Why seek anything better than we now have? Why worry about the lost, why be prayerful over their condition? Why try to reach these families for Christ? Why be missionary or evangelical? “It is not being done.”
There’s hardly anything that in God’s will we cannot do. If the Lord wills it, the same Lord God that put this thing together is the same Lord God that, through His people, can bring it to pass. I love to use an illustration of a bumblebee. By all, by all of the laws of aerodynamics, a bumblebee cannot fly. Its body is too heavy and its wings are too little. But the bumblebee does not know it, so he just flies. That’s the way it ought to be with God’s people. We don’t know defeat, and we don’t know discouragement, and we don’t know despair, and we don’t know failure, for it is God’s work, and we are instruments in His hands to achieve it.
Well, how would you build a tremendous church, a massive witness for Christ in the heart of a great, growing city? How would you do it? The answer is very simple and very plain. It is done by doing God’s will, doing God’s work. And if we do God’s will and God’s work, we have the right to expect the blessing of God upon us. We have His power, and we have His presence—He promised it, and God could not lie. Do you remember the Great Commission? “All authority—exousia—all authority, inward power, in heaven and in earth is given unto Me” [Matthew 28:18]. It is in the person—exousia—it is in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not out there somewhere nor lodged over there somewhere. It is in the Lord Himself:
All authority is given unto Me in heaven and in eart.h
Go ye therefore and, mathetēuō, make disciples—
of all the people, baptizing them in the name of the triune God:
Teaching them to observe the things I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway—
there is no time He is not with us—
and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age.
If we do God’s work in the earth, we have the right to expect the power and presence of the Lord working with us. And that is the way it is done. That means, therefore, that our tremendous emphasis in building the church is always in one place, in one area, in one thing, and that is people; reaching people for God, teaching people the Word of the Lord, ministering to the needs of people.
I was in Jerusalem and in the King David Hotel. And walking through the hotel, one of the men said, “David Ben-Gurion and his wife are seated over there in the dining room. I would like to introduce you to them.” I said, “I would be delighted.” He was then prime minister of Israel, the first prime minister of the Jewish state. When I went over there—his wife was from Brooklyn, he had married a Brooklyn girl—she was delighted to see me, to talk to me about America. And I was introduced to him as the pastor of the largest Baptist church in America, and that intrigued the prime minister. So he invited me to sit down with them at the table and we conversed; just talked back and forth, small talk. I was surprised at how intimately acquainted he was with our country.
He said to me, he said, “There are more than seventy-five million people in America who do not belong to any church. What are you doing about it?”
Well, I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, where I am, we are trying to reach them for God.” Then, as we spoke, I said to him, “Your country is struggling. And it has so few resources, deposits of steel, deposits of coal, deposits of oil, all of those things for the building of a nation. You are poor.”
And as I talked to him I said, “In America, as you know, are many wealthy Jewish people. And even in the city of Dallas there are many wealthy Jews.” I said, “Mr. Ben-Gurion, why don’t you come to Dallas and make an appeal to the wealthy Jewish community for money for Israel?”
And immediately he replied to me, he said, “What we need is not their money, we need their children!”
In the building of a state, and in the building of a nation, and a building of a national home for the Jewish diaspora, it is not money, it is people! “Not their money, but their children do we need.”
And the incisive insight of that prime minister of Israel is the same insight that you will find in the Word of God. What builds a great church is not money, it is people! What we need is not a vast financial support. What we need is a ministry that reaches people! I was so poignantly made aware of that one time in going down an elevator in Athens, Greece. I met a man who was a Baptist denominational leader in California. And for just the few minutes that I visited with him, I spoke to him about my brother who is in California. And I said to him, “My brother is well to do.” At that time he owned three luxury motels among other things. So the man said, “When I go to California, I will seek out your brother and I will ask him for some money.” Then he walked away. And I had a feeling in my heart that when I tell you this story, [this] comes back to me again. That denominational Baptist leader did not say, “Is your brother a Christian?” He did not ask, “Does he belong to any church?” He did not ask, “Does he have a family and children?” He did not ask, “Is he enlisted in the love and the ministry and the work of the Lord?” All that he asked was, “When I get to California, I will ask him for some money.” That is in itself a repercussion of a heart that is dry, and sterile, and dreary, and unblessed. The thing that makes a church great is not—and then call the roll of all the outsides; its spacious buildings, its high towers, its marvelous facilities or anything else material—what makes the church great is its heart and its spirit; its outreach, it’s ministering to people.
We have here in our First Baptist Church in Dallas a vast facility. It includes practically almost five city blocks in downtown Dallas; there are buildings. The man, the deacon who heads our committee on taking care of these properties, visited me last week. And he said, “I added up all of the things that we care for.” And he says, “They cover, if you had them all spread out they cover more than seventeen and one half acres.” A vast facility, but they have no meaning in themselves, nor do they mean anything to anybody else, really. In themselves they are still just brick, and mortar, and ceiling, and floor, and timbers, and beams, and windows; they are in themselves nothing. What makes the church is the heart and the spirit of the people that are in it. And these are just facilities that we use to do God’s work in the earth. What weapons and arms are to a soldier, what a trowel is to a mason, what a hammer and saw are to a carpenter, what these musical instruments are to these who play them, thus are the facilities of the church to our people! They are just instruments to be used to minister to human need, to get others to Christ, to win them to the Lord, to save their souls, to instruct them in the Word of God, to present them someday in heaven a redeemed and blood bought community [1 Peter 1:18-19]. And that we have the privilege of doing that, of using these facilities for that purpose, is a boon and a blessing beyond anything that we in America could realize.
A few weeks ago we had here two Russian preachers; they conducted our morning service. One is Alexei Bichkov, who is the general secretary of the all Baptist Union of Russia. The other is Michael Zhidkov, who is the pastor of the Baptist church in Moscow. Because we had those two Russians here in our pulpit, I received telephone calls and was personally confronted. And I received mail from all over this American land, just castigating me and us for having what they called those two Russian communists, and those two Russian spies, and those two Russian secret police in our pulpit—bitter words, and bitter letters, and bitter calls, and bitter denunciations.
First of all, you can’t be a Christian and be a communist. By the time you accept Christ as your Savior, you are automatically read out of the party. There is no such thing as a Christian communist in Russia. They are two different things. Again, I have worked with those men in the Baptist World Alliance for over six years, and my heart goes out to them. They live under awesome oppression, and they work under vast and illimitable handicaps. The two men—as they sat here in the pulpit with tears, moved by the services of this church—the men said to me, “Would God we had the freedoms in Russia that you enjoy in America.” He said, Zhidkov did, “As you know,” and I do know, “We can have no Sunday school; it is prohibited by law. We can have no evangelistic services; they are prohibited by law. We cannot baptize any convert until they are at least eighteen years of age, and it used to be thirty years of age. We can have no literature printed, and we need Bibles and hymn books. We can have no schools. We can have no institutes or seminaries. We can have no colleges. Oh,” he said, “would God we had in Russia the freedoms that you enjoy in America.”
Having been to Russia and having worshiped with those men in their services, I can so well understand the cry of the soul of those men for the privilege of having a Sunday school, the privilege of having an academy. Think of that! We can have our own school here in the church for the privilege of having our institute and teaching young ministers the depth of the riches of the Word of God in Christ Jesus; oh, what an open door God has set before us.
And now may the Lord forbid that we should sin against the Lord by failing to rise to heaven and say, “Lord God, thank Thee for that Sunday school!” And pour our lives into building it. Thank Thee for these schools that are used under Thy hands and ours to teach the deep and wonderful things of the Holy Word of God. Thank Thee, Lord, for the open door of assembly, and preaching, and evangelizing; holding meetings, knocking at doors, winning to Christ; asking men and women and families to come to Jesus. O Lord, what an open door. What freedoms, what blessings has God multiplied to us in America! So when we look around, “Lord, Lord, use every brick, and every light, and every window, and every stone, and every door. Use it all, Lord, for the proclamation of the blessed gospel of the saving grace of the Son of God.”
And that is why—in week after next, the third week in this month, on Sunday, January 16—that is why we shall dedicate our new Mary C. Building. There is a place there for the choir to grow and to grow; singing the praises of the Lord as the Levites did in the sanctuary in Jerusalem [2 Chronicles 5:11-13], a spacious place for the choir. There are spacious departments for our children; beautifully appointed apartments for our little boys and girls. And then there is a family center where all of us can gather together, and by families rejoice in a good time, in the loving favor of God upon us.
O Lord, what a heavenly privilege just to have the opportunity to share in it. This coming Tuesday, day after tomorrow, there will be mailed out from our church a letter from the pastor. And on the inside of the letter there will be this card. On the back side of the card is a message from the pastor. On the front side of the card is an opportunity for us to join with Mrs. Crowley in dedicating that new, beautiful building debt free. We have three years in which to pay the pledge. We are to include in it everything of an unpaid building pledge. And for every dollar we write down, Mrs. Crowley will match it with another dollar. O I pray, dear God in heaven, make that third Sunday in January—the sixteenth of this month—make it one of the great, high, holy Sabbaths of our lives. I have entitled it “The Great High Day of Dedication,” and when you receive the letter, pray; and then respond the best you can. And let God pour out upon us those windows of blessings that He speaks of when He looks upon us from heaven. Lord, may You find in us cause to work with us, and to sanctify, and to hallow—as only God could make it successful—the work and the toil of our hands.
Now, my time is almost gone. I have one other thing to lay upon our hearts. As I drive through the city with you—Dallas, larger, larger, larger; the suburbs extending the boundaries of this metroplex out, and out, and out—and as I drive through those seemingly endless lanes, and highways, and city streets, I think, O God, how can we put our arms around this great city, this vast area? There are so many thousands of people in it; and so many, as David Ben-Gurion himself was so poignantly aware, there are so many unreached and unchurched. Lord, how can we do it?
There are several things that we are entering into. For one thing, we are beginning a shepherd’s ministry. We are going to divide up the city, and in those divisions we are going to divide up our membership. And over our families place a shepherd, and that shepherd is not only responsible for the families—a dozen of them under his care—but with the families, trying to reach all of the other families who live in that circumscribed area. We are going to try to reach every soul, every home, every child, every family in the city. We are going to try. And as I said, having tried, if it is God’s will and God’s work we are doing, we have the right to ask God’s blessing upon it. Then each one of us, like a great army, we have our part in the line. Or, like Nehemiah’s wall, each man built the wall behind his own house and finally the whole was complete [Nehemiah 3:23-24].
It isn’t just a paid staff—I pray and I am sure it is true—each one of our paid staff is a God-called servant of Christ. They are doing the work because they feel God has called them to do it. But it is not just the staff that is called to witness and to work, we all are called. All of us are sanctified, hallowed [1 Peter 3:15], and set aside for that holy work of witnessing, of inviting, of telling the people about the Lord, of saying a good word for Jesus, of encouraging them to the house of God, all of us sharing in it together [1 Peter 3:15]. And when the Lord sees all of us sharing it together, God does something from heaven, He just does.
Now I want to show you how vast and poignant that need is for a personal witness and for us to be in our hearts open, interested, and prayerful with the lost and the unchurched and the unenlisted. In a city in America I got into a taxicab. And as I rode along with the taxi driver I asked him, “Where are you from?”
And he said, “I’m from Georgia.”
Well, I said, “I am delighted to know you are from the South. You are from Georgia, are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” he said, “I gave my heart to the Lord when I was a boy.”
I said, “Do you go to church?”
“No, I don’t go.”
I said, “Do you have a family?”
“Do they go to church?”
“No, not any one of us goes.”
Well, I said, “Can you not find a church to attend?”
“Oh,” he said, “as a cab driver, I know an abounding number of churches in the city.”
But, he said, “When I go, I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know where I would be assigned.”
He said, “Nobody speaks to me, nobody says anything to me, and so I don’t go.”
“Well,” I said, “You went back in Georgia, didn’t you?”
He said, “Yes, sir. I grew up in a little church in Georgia.” And he said, “I went to church; met my wife there.” And he said, “The people all spoke to me and I spoke to them. And I knew where to go, and I knew what to do, and I knew what to say. But,” he said, “here I don’t have anybody to show me, and I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know what to do, and nobody speaks to me.”
Well, I can understand it is his fault, that’s right. It is just hard to go up to a fellow and say, “Hey, speak to me and shake my hand, or welcome me, I am a stranger. I have come to this big city from a little town, and my family and I are just lost in it.”
What is the matter with the church? You don’t have to study or to go far to see why the church dies in the city, it perishes in the city. It has lost its neighborly care; it has lost its sympathizing interest [Hebrews 13:2]. It has lost its burden for the lost, and it lives impersonally and indifferently without compassion, and tears, and prayers, and intercession. So the church dies. You can see why it would die. It died first in its heart and in its soul, then it died on the outside. Sweet people, I know that I know, that I know that if our church is filled with the compassion and love of God—Jesus filled with compassion is ever His enduring name [Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34]—if there is in us that openheartedness of love and welcome, if there is in us the spirit to reach out, to knock at the door, to say a good word about Jesus, to witness to the Lord, there will be from God an answer from heaven, and He will give us the people.
My time’s gone; I still want to say something. Let me say it. Like you, I have read reams, and mountains, and volumes of criticism, and objection, and complaint about government spending. And I feel it in my own heart, and I hear it with my ears; and I am in sympathy with these who object and complain. The vast deficits of the government and the waste of their spending—I read it by the mountains, and I hear it world without end, and I am in sympathy with those who complain. But let me ask you something. In those federal budgets there are millions of dollars that are allocated for the building of a lighthouse and for its upkeep through the years. Tell me, did you ever hear anybody, anywhere, either by pen or by voice, complaining and objecting to the budget of the government that goes to build a lighthouse or to keep the flame shining over the sea? Did you ever hear it? Did you ever? I never did. I never expect to. To build that lighthouse on a shoal or on a reef to guide a ship into port is money that when we see it in the budget, we say, “That’s right, that’s good! God will bless that.”
It is the same way about a church: if the church is doing the work of its God-called assignment and mission—if it is winning souls, if it is reaching families, if it is teaching children, if it is praising God and preaching the Word of the Lord—the people automatically will feel in their hearts, “I want to give, I want to help, and I rejoice in the privilege of the tithe and the offering that supports so preciously blessed a ministry.”
If our heart is right, if our emphasis is right, if our outreach is in the will and mandate of God, the church will grow and grow and be blessed as only heaven can bless it. This is our first Sunday of the new year, may it be the first step in doing that greater work more preciously blessed for our Savior. God grant it in His dear name, amen.
We are going to stand in a moment and sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just you to give your heart to the Lord; to come into the fellowship of the church, make it now, do it now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. If you are in the balcony there is time and to spare. On this lower floor, down one of these aisles, make the decision now in your heart, “Today, I accept Jesus as my Savior” [Ephesians 2:8]. Or, “Today, I am placing my life in the fellowship of this great church.” Come, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.