State of the Church
January 2nd, 1977 @ 8:15 AM
STATE OF THE CHURCH MESSAGE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-2-77 8:15 a.m.
On radio of the city of Dallas and on radio KCBI, you are sharing with us in the First Baptist Church the first service of the new year. And this is the pastor bringing the message; it is a State Of The Church Message. Almost always on the first Sunday of the new year, I prepare an address concerning the work of our congregation. And this is that message for the year of 1977. In 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 ye 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-, 11-14]
Then another of a like vein, after the city was destroyed and the temple a shambles, in the one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm, “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” [Psalm 137:5-6]. Just to read those passages is to feel in our own souls the love of the Jew for the Holy City.
Because in the city of Jerusalem was the sanctuary and temple of Jehovah God, built on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham had offered up Isaac [Genesis22:1-12], and built on the same Mt. Moriah where Araunah’s threshing floor was bought by David, there to erect an altar to expiate the sin of the people [2 Samuel 24:17-25]. And that place is forever dear to every Jew in the earth. That is why the Western Wall is the most sacred shrine in Judaism: the Western Wall is the closest place to the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, in the temple of God.
Our Jerusalem is the city of Dallas. Dr. Truett would often say, proudly coming from Dallas, “I am a citizen of no mean city” [Acts 21:39]. And in the city of Dallas is our sanctuary and our holy shrine. In the heart of this city is our church, the First Baptist Church in Dallas.
And the church has to be tremendous. It has to be mammoth. It has to be impressive. It has to be big or else it will devolve into a mission associated by the association of churches and supported by their gifts. It is one or the other. A downtown church either is a tremendous congregation and a tremendous lighthouse, a mammoth church or else it evolves into a small mission congregation. That is the absolute economics and dynamics of a downtown church.
It is our proposal that the church not evolve and devolve, and sink into a small mission supported by the Dallas Baptist Association. But it is our commitment that it continue to be the mammoth, tremendous, impressive church that we have, under God, built it in days passed, and now are just on the threshold of making it the most effective instrument in God’s hands in the earth.
Our proposal is not that we be barely alive, that we hang on by the skin of our teeth, but that it be a triumphant, and victorious, and impressive, and growing congregation, that it win every victory placed upon our hearts by the Lord. Like a boxing match between the Texas Kid on this side, and Cassius Clay, alias Mohammed Ali, on this side. And when they come out in the middle of the ring, the Texas Kid knocks Mohammed Ali down one time. Then in the second round he knocks him down two times. Then in the third round he knocks him down three times. Then in the fourth round he knocks him down four times, and then in the eleventh round, the Texas Kid knocks Cassius Clay, alias Mohammed Ali, through the ropes and out of the window.
When the judges turn in their decision, it is not a split decision. It isn’t forty-three points for the Texas Kid and forty-two points for Mohammed Ali, but it’s all the points for the Texas Kid. It’s the same kind of a thing as if Baylor University were playing in the Cotton Bowl, and they were playing the Buckeyes of Ohio, and the Cougars of Houston, and the Panthers of Pittsburg, and the Trojans of Southern California, all at the same time. And when the Cotton Bowl game was over, Baylor had won it 45 to nothing. Now that’s the kind of a thing that is needed in the church. Not just barely out-pointing an opponent, not just barely out running the defense, not just barely clinging with our teeth, not just barely existing; but existing triumphantly, winning gloriously; the most impressive church of God in this earth.
Well, how do you do a thing like that? How do you achieve a purpose like that? How do you build a congregation like that? First: it is not done by accepting the status quo. However the thing is that’s the way it is. No! I spent a night talking to the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast, Ireland. Two hundred years ago there were five thousand Baptists in Ireland. Today, after two hundred years, there are still five thousand Baptists in Ireland.
So I was the guest of a man who had a beautiful mansion on the edge of Belfast, and as I was staying in his home, he asked me if I would like to meet the pastor of the First Baptist Church. I said, “I would love to. I’d love to talk to that man, who is also the president of the Irish Baptist Union.” So, he came for dinner, beautifully dressed, with his spats, his rattlesnake britches, his long-tailed coat, beautifully groomed.
And after dinner, why, the host said, “I know you two men would like to talk, so I’ll take you to the library.” So he put the pastor and me in the library and closed the door for me to visit with him. So I said to the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Belfast and the president of the Irish Baptist Union, I said, “With the passing of time there is no growth among the people; there’s no additions to the church. It stays just the same, actually it is going down. The Baptist people in the British Isles are gradually becoming extinct. Every year they lose a little more than they had the year before.
And I said one of the reasons is, there is no programming in the church to reach people. I said look at your Sunday school, for example. On the outside of practically every church in the British Isles, there’ll be a sign like this: “Morning Worship Service—11:00; Evening Worship Service–7:30; Sunday school–2:00 in the afternoon, parenthesis, for children only.”
I said to him, what you need to do is to take your people and build with them a tremendous outreach program. It isn’t just children that need to be taught the Word of God. All of us need to be taught the Word of the Lord, and we never grow in our lives and age where we don’t need to be taught, and to learn the Word of the Lord. You need an adult Sunday school. You need a young people’s Sunday school. You need everybody in the Bible school.
The pastor and the president of the union replied to me, “But it is just not being done.”
I said, “I know it’s not being done. That’s why I’m talking to you.” Then I’d go over it again. The outreach of the program––at that time I was the president of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention––I said to him, “Sir, I will give you, I will send you tons of literature, a freight car full of literature, explaining every step of the way; and literature you can hand out to your people. And not only that, I will pay for a man to come over here and spend a year with you. It will cost you nothing. And he’ll show you how to build these churches, and how to organize for this outreach, and how to use your people.”
He replied, “It is not being done.”
I said, “I know it’s not being done, that’s why I’m talking to you.” Then I’d start again.
At three o’clock in the morning, he finally said the same despairing word, “It is not being done.”
And I said, “Let’s have us a prayer, and God bless you.”
It’s that kind of a spirit that makes it impossible to do anything for God. It is amazing what is possible to a people who have the spirit to try! My favorite illustration is a bumblebee. By all of the laws of aerodynamics, a bumblebee cannot fly. His body is far too heavy and his wings are too little. But he doesn’t know it, so he just flies. It is a remarkable thing what people can do who don’t know the word of defeat or despair!
Well, how do you propose to build here not only what it is now, the most magnificent church ministering in this world, but to make it greater and more impressive a lighthouse for Christ? How do you intend to do that? The answer is in a very simple way; by doing God’s work.
We have the assurance of God’s presence with us, His power, His working with us when we are doing God’s will in the earth. He said, “You make disciples, win these people to Christ. You baptize them in the name of the triune God. You teach them to do all the things that I have commanded you, and I will be with you to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:19-20]. We have the right to expect the power and presence of Christ with us when we are doing His work in the earth.
What is doing God’s work in the earth? It is ministering to people. In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Lord said to Simon Peter, the chief apostle, the one that He had chosen to be the instrument through whom the Holy Spirit would be brought into the world, unlocking the kingdom of God; and Simon Peter did that for the Jew at Pentecost [Acts 2:14-42], he did it for the Samaritan in Samaria [Acts 8:14-25], and he did it for the Gentile in Caesarea [Acts 10:34-48]. God chose Simon Peter to do it [Matthew 16:15-19]. And the Lord said to Simon Peter, “Simon, lovest thou Me?” And he said, “You know I do.” And the Lord said to Simon Peter, “Then feed My lambs.” And the second time, “Lovest thou Me?” And the second time the Lord said, “Feed My sheep.” And then the third time, “Lovest thou Me?” and the Lord said, “Simon, feed My sheep. Take care of My lambs, guard My little ones” [John 21:15-17].
This is the great assignment of God to us. And if we do it, we have the right to expect that the power of Christ will be working with us [Matthew 28:20]. It is the tremendous assignment of ministering to people, God’s people in this city.
Walking through the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a friend said, “May I introduce you to David Ben-Gurion?” So he took me over there and introduced me to David Ben-Gurion. I was delighted to meet him, a farmer from Beersheba, elected the first prime minister of the Jewish state. He had married a Brooklyn girl. She was delighted to see me being from America and loved visiting with me about how things were in America. And when I was introduced to David Ben-Gurion as the pastor of the largest church in America, he was intrigued. And he also began to talk to me with deep interest.
So he said to me in the conversation, we just talking, just chitchatting there at the table, he said, “You know, you have a great work to do in America.” I said, “That’s the Lord’s truth.” He said, “There are more than seventy-five million people in America that don’t belong to anybody’s church.” I was amazed at how intimately conversant he was with the Christian situation in America.
I said, “That’s true. And we’re at it. We’re trying to do our assignment in God’s part of our vineyard.” Then as we continued to talk, I said, “You have a great assignment here in Israel, building this country. The people have such few resources with which to build; no great steel mills, no vast coal mines, no great oil deposits.” I said, “You have to have tremendous support.” I said, “I tell you, there are many wealthy Jews in America, and in the city of Dallas we have many wealthy Jews. David Ben-Gurion, you ought to come over to Dallas and make appeal for money to help build this state of Israel.”
And immediately he said, he said, “We don’t need their money. What we need is their children. Building a state, and building a nation, and building a national home for the Jew,” he says, “our emphasis is not money but our emphasis is people. We need their children.”
What do you think about that philosophy? Do you think the building of this church is, “Let us get for it vast financial support and it’ll be done?” I don’t think any part of it would be done just by a tremendous financial support of it. It’s people. It’s people. It’s reaching people. It is people who build a nation. It is people who build a state. It is people who build a church.
I can illustrate that poignantly in an incident that happened in my life. I have a kinsman, a half brother, who had three luxury motels in California, a most well-to-do young fellow. On an elevator in Athens, I met a leader of a Baptist denomination that ministers in California. And I was delighted to meet him. And I told him about my brother, and how he might be able to help in the work.
I was with this denominational leader just for a moment, so he said to me, “When I return to California, I’ll get in touch with him, and I’ll see if I can get some money from him.” He never asked me, “Is your brother a Christian?” He never asked me, “Is your brother in the church?” He never asked me, “Is your brother enlisted?” He never asked me, “Does he have any children?” He never asked me, “What kind of a home does he live in?”
All he said was, “When I return to California, I’ll see if I can get some money from him.” You will never ever build a great church for God as long as it is posited upon money. We need for it great financial support, therefore we need money. I’m not denying that we need vast financial support. But the financial support is incidental. The tremendous thing and the big thing, if we are to build the church here that we envisage for God, is that we minister to the people; that we try to win people.
That’s why these facilities, they are not built in themselves, and they have no particular meaning in themselves. However we may baptize them in prayer, they are still brick, and mortar, and beams, and timbers, and floors, and ceilings. They are still materialities. The only reason for having a facility is that it helps us to reach people.
What weapons are to a soldier, what a trowel is to a mason, what a hammer and a saw are to a carpenter, what an instrument is to a musician, so facilities are to us. They are just instruments by which we try to minister to people, to reach people. These are the instruments by which we teach the Word of God. These buildings house our schools, our Sunday school, our Academy, our Institute, our Training Unions, our mission organization.
This sanctuary is where we gather together for the listening to the Word and the will of God. These are just instruments in our hands to do God’s work in the earth. They have no other significance, and they have no other meaning. But oh, what an incomparable opportunity and open door has God given to us, in here teaching the Word of the Lord, in building up our schools, in gathering together in our services of evangelism and outreach.
We had two Russians here, as you know, a few months ago, few weeks ago. Alexei Bichkov heads the Baptist work in all of Russia, and Michael Zidkov is the pastor of the church, the Baptist church in Moscow. From one side of this nation to the other did I receive telephone calls, and personal confrontations, and letters galore denouncing us for having those two Russians. They said, “They are spies. They are members of the secret police, and you have them there in your pulpit.”
I said, “I grant that they have to cooperate with the government in order to exist. They have to be licensed by the government. The government owns everything in a communist country. The government owns the church house. The government says how much the preacher can be paid. It’s communism. The people own nothing. Everything is owned by the state.”
But I also said, “I have worked with those men in the Baptist World Alliance for six years now. And I know their heart, and I know their spirit.”
Those two men said to me, seated right there in this pulpit, having looked at our Sunday school, and having looked at our church, and having known about our schools, they said to me, “As you know, in our country we cannot have a Sunday school. We cannot conduct an evangelistic crusade. We cannot print any literature. We beg for Bibles and hymnbooks. And we certainly cannot have an institute or an academy. In our country we’re prohibited from these things.” Then they said to me, “But oh, would to God that we had the freedom to have schools like that, and to preach the gospel like that. Would to God we had that freedom.”
I have visited them in Russia. I have attended their services. I have looked at their work. And my heart goes out to them. That’s why I invited them here to this pulpit. They need our prayers and our encouragement. And at the same time that I pray for them, I thank God with words that cannot bear the weight of the meaning for the open door that we have.
We can have our own school. We can have our own ministers gathering in these classes, taught the Word of the Lord. We can have an open meeting anywhere that we choose, evangelizing the people. It is incomparably precious what God has given to us. And for us not to take advantage of it would be of all things unthinkable and unforgivable.
That is why, building this church, we had no place for the choir, we had no place for our little babies, and we had certainly no place for a family recreational center. So we built that Mary C Building there. And the choir will have ample opportunity to enlarge these numbers who praise the name of Jehovah. And there will be vast extended ministries among our little children. And there will be a beautiful place for our families to come together down to the church, ministering to the people.
And this coming Tuesday, day after tomorrow, you will receive a letter from the pastor. And in the letter will be a card like this. Read both sides of that card. On this side, a message from the pastor; and on the other side an appeal that we respond, matching dollar for dollar, a gift from Mrs. Crowley, that when we dedicate the new facility, the third Sunday of this month, that we dedicate it with its debt underwritten.
Ah, Lord, then take it and use it with all of the other things we’ve dedicated to Thee in this sacred place, for the reaching of people, for the doing of God’s work in the earth. It will surprise us, it will amaze us, how many people there are who will respond if there is in us a spirit of care, and seeking, and prayerful sympathy, and understanding—what you might sum up in the phrase, “Love for lost souls.”
Let me give you an illustration. I got in a taxi in a city here in America. And I began to talk to the taxi driver. He was from Georgia. I said, “Cabbie, do you go to church?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t go.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Yes,” he said. “Do they go to church?”
“No,” he said, “we don’t go.” Well, I said, “Do you know where there is a fine church in the city?” He said, “I know where there are lots of churches in this city.”
Well, I said, “Why don’t you go?” And he replied, “When I go I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know where I belong, and I don’t know what to do, and there’s nobody to tell me, nobody speaks to me.”
As I talked to him, he said, “I grew up in a little town in Georgia.” And he said, “When I went to church, I just felt so at home.” He said, “I’d talk to the people and they’d talk to me. And I loved to attend in that country church in Georgia. But in this city I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know where to go, and I don’t have anybody to show me or to talk to me.”
I thought, “Dear God, no wonder the churches die in the city.” How is God going to build up a church when the people in it are like that? “Nobody speaks to me. Nobody talks to me. Nobody tells me where I ought to go or where I belong.” That is impersonal city life; don’t even know the next door neighbor. And not only that, even less interested in him.
All of these things will come—people saved, people baptized, people added to the church, and the church grow and be a great lighthouse, if we show ourselves interested in them, doing God’s will and God’s work in this city. Let me show you something, and I have to close. Let me show you something in all of my reading and in all of my listening.
I doubtless could not pile up all of the criticism that I read of government spending. Nor could I have a lifetime to recount all that I have heard, government spending, the waste of government money, the deficits of the federal budget. And it continues like an avalanche through the years and the years.
But I’ll tell you one thing. I have never heard of, and I never read, I have never heard of anybody objecting to the money we spend for a lighthouse or for the upkeep of the lighthouse. Did you? Some of those lighthouses cost millions of dollars. They are built out in the ocean, guiding the ship from hitting the shoal or running aground. I never heard of anybody finding a fault with, complaining of, or objecting to the money we spend on a lighthouse.
Nor have I ever heard people object to supporting a church that did God’s work in the earth. When we are winning people to Christ, when we are teaching children the way of the Lord, when we are gathering families together in a Christian circle, when they see God’s Spirit working with us, automatically people respond to support it, to pray for it, to join in it, to bring a tithe and an offering to keep the lighthouse burning brightly. The secret lies in the building of the church, in its heart, in its spirit, in its emphasis, in its love, in its care, in its dedication to God’s work with God’s people.
And when we do that, the rest will be an unfolding like a flower touched by the warm summer sun, God makes it to bloom. And the Lord makes a church to flourish and to grow when it is doing His work and His will, following His great commandment [Matthew 28:19-20], humbly, prayerfully, doing the Lord’s assignment, God adds His blessing and His power and His presence.
So we begin our new year of 1977. My own heart is rededicated to it, and I believe that is your heart also. We all are dedicated to it.
We are going to stand and sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just one somebody you, giving your heart to the Lord [Romans 10:9-13], putting your life in the fellowship of the church, make the decision now. What a glorious time to come; the first service on the second day of the new year. If you are in the balcony, there is time and to spare; come. On this lower floor, down one of these aisles, come. “Here I am, pastor, I’m on the way.” Make the decision in your heart, and when we stand to sing this appeal, stand walking down that stairway, or coming down this aisle. May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.