Annual State of the Church Message
January 4th, 1981 @ 8:15 AM
ANNUAL STATE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 1:5
1-4-81 8:15 a.m.
And welcome the multitudes of you who are listening to this hour on the radio stations that bear it. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message on the first Sunday morning of the new year. Always it will be a State of the Church message, and it is thus again even now. As a background text, not for exegetical purposes but just as a background text, 1 Thessalonians chapter 1, beginning at verse 5:
For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance,
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the Word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit [1 Thessalonians 1:5-6].
Now wouldn’t that amaze you? "Affliction and joy," that is a strange thing about the Christian faith. People sometimes think, "Now I am a Christian. I have no problems. I have no afflictions, no trials and troubles." Then a concomitant and corollary immediately follows, "If I have a trial or if I have affliction, then where is God?"
It is not that way. It is like it is here in the apostolic writing, "In the afflictions and the joy of the Holy Spirit." It is like a martyr being burned at the stake, "Well, where is God?" God’s in the heart of that martyr as he sings songs of triumph and glory and blessing while he is being burned at the stake. Now that is what it is to be a Christian. Anyway that is just an aside.
"So ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia" – those are two provinces in Greece that belonged to the Roman Empire – "but in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad" [1 Thessalonians 1:7-8], and we don’t even need to say it, everybody knows it. That’s the kind of a church this church is. Its faith and its commitment are spread abroad, and we don’t even need to say it. Everybody knows it.
So the State of the Church message. A church can be defined as a chapel or as a sanctuary, a cemetery, a mausoleum, a sepulcher. And I do not deny that it is appealing and it is beautiful in its delineation. The churches of the Anglican Communion sponsored and supported by the British government are like that.
If you’ve ever been in England, you couldn’t escape having visited in a country churchyard. The chapels, the churches are in the middle of a cemetery. Or the cemetery grows around the churches. Or the churches themselves are cemeteries where the people are buried.
You get the feel of that in the most famous elegy ever written: Thomas Gray, who died in 1771, one of the great and famous poems of the English language is his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." And he’s buried there at Stoke Poges, a very typical English church. There it is a chapel, a sanctuary, a mausoleum in the middle of a cemetery. Now you’ll feel this when I read from the beginning lines of his elegy:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
There at the church.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Now that is the church. The loneliness of it, the separateness of it, the darkness of it, the funereal atmosphere of it is felt in the very language of the poem.
Not only can the church be defined as being in a cemetery, as all of those Anglican churches are, but it sometimes is a cemetery itself. Typical would be Westminster Abbey. That’s a church. Or St. Paul’s, that’s a church. Or Worcester Cathedral, that’s a church. Or any other tremendous cathedral, they are cemeteries. When you walk through the church, all that you see from side to side in every place are these monuments, tombstones, and inscriptions. The church is a cemetery.
And I say it’s beautiful and it is appealing. It does something to my heart to visit a little English church in the middle of a cemetery. Last time I was there, I wanted to go see Studdert Kennedy’s son. And they took me way out away from the beaten path, away from the highway, and in a winding road suddenly there it is, a little church in the middle of a cemetery, and the manse, the parsonage hard by. That is one definition of a church.
A church can also be defined as a meeting house, a preaching place, an auditorium. You will find that by law in Russia. By law all the registered churches of Russia, the churches that are apparent that you see, by law they are constricted and interdicted in and to one square meeting house.
They can’t have a Sunday school. They can’t have any kind of a teaching program. They can’t have a seminary. They can’t have a training ministry. They can have just that. And the police see to it that it remains just that.
When Michael Zhidkov, the pastor of the Baptist church in Moscow, and Alexei Bychkov, who is the head of the Baptist Union of all Siberia and Russia, when they were here at our church about a year or so ago, Zhidkov, the pastor of the church at Moscow, was seated by me right there and was thinking about the activities of our church, particularly our Sunday school and our academy.
And as he sat there and was talking to me about it, he said, "Oh, would to God, would to God that we could have such a school and a teaching ministry in Russia!" Well, I know how he felt and how his soul was moved by what he saw here. The open door we have of teaching, not only on the Lord’s Day in a Sunday school or a Training Union, but also in the seven days of the week to have a school, an elementary school, a middle school, a high school is a gift from heaven. And we ought to praise God for it every day. I do. Down on my knees I thank God for it.
A church, as I say, can be defined as just a meeting house such as you have in Russia and such as you have in practically all of the churches of the previous generation. The Tremont Temple Baptist Church, for example, in Boston is one of the famous churches of America. When Cortland Myers was pastor of that church, you had to have a ticket in order to get inside to hear the world famed orator deliver the message of God; just a meeting house.
When I was there the last time – I’ve preached there many times – when I was there the last time, the pastor had no place even to park. There’s nothing there but that meeting house jammed against the Parker Hotel on one side and an office building on the other. That’s all there is.
If you visit the great and famous Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, has over four thousand individual seats in it, there’s nothing there but just the auditorium. That is all. The church can be delineated and defined as a meeting place, an auditorium, a preaching place. There’s not even a nursery with it. There’s not anything for children in it. There’s not anything for young people in it. There’s not anything for anybody in it. It’s just meeting together as an auditing, auditory audience.
Now the church can also be delineated in another way. It can be defined as the breathing body of Christ and the center of our living and our life; that our whole existence centers around the church and the Lord God who heads it. That can be a definition of a church. It is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. "There is none other foundation," Paul writes, "that can be laid than is laid, which is Jesus our Lord" [1 Corinthians 3:11].
And the Lord closed the marvelous sermon called the Sermon on the Mount, the Message on the Mount, with speaking of that foundation. "There is a man," He says, "who builds his house on the rock; and the rains descend, and the floods rise, and the winds beat, and it stands because it is built on a rock." Then He says, "There is a man who builds his house on the sand; and the rains fall, and the floods rise, and the winds beat; and it falls" [Matthew 7:24-27]; the foundation upon which the church is built.
Out there where I live there, has not been a house built on Swiss Avenue in fifty years. But two houses have gone up, one completed and the other going up right now, one above and one below where the parsonage is located. So being proud of the fact that for the first time in fifty years they built a house on Swiss Avenue, why, I watch it. Every day I look at it.
Walking up and down the street I watch them build the house. Well, the house above me is built as I never saw any house built in my life. They bored down to the solid rock to build the piers, to sink piers down; poured piers clear down to the solid rock. Then they built two tremendous foundations, parallel foundations, all the way around the house, on which they erected the upper structure. You could put a ten story building on that foundation. I never saw the like in my life!
Now the house just below us, it’s going up right now. I watched them build that house. First of all, they poured a slab on this black soil. They poured a slab. And then they’re building the two-story house on top of the slab. What I’d like to know is what are they going to do with that house when that black soil moves, because it moves? It’s built not on a foundation but on a slab.
The church is like that. It can be built superficially. We’re going to save money. Or we’re going to save time. Or we’re going to save effort. But the church that magnifies the Lord and is ministering to the people is the church built like that house above us. It has tremendous foundations, and the superstructure rests upon those immovable piers on the solid rock.
I haven’t time to speak of the foundations that I’d like for our church to stand on, but they are three. We are on a spiritual foundation which is in the very heart and life of Jesus Himself; and on a scriptural foundation, the inerrant and infallible Word of God, this is the blueprint for all of our efforts and all of our lives; and then a financial foundation, and we’re building this church I can assure you on the finest financial foundation of any church in America.
Sometimes we have an assignment that is heavy, sometimes a task that is somewhat difficult but thank God that He matched our souls against it. Never prayed more in my life than I prayed in these last few weeks; never striven more than I strove, than I have striven in the last few weeks, but it’s been great. It’s even got my grammar all in confusion, but my prayers are right.
That’s the way the church ought to be built, those three tremendous foundations. Spiritually, we love the Lord. We’re striving to serve the Lord. Scripturally, we are building it upon the Word of God, teaching the unchanging message of Christ. And financially, it is sound, sounder than any institution you know – bank, corporation, insurance company – a sound foundation.
Then on that foundation, building the superstructure, this ministry before the Lord, I don’t look on these buildings as anything in themselves. When you look at it, there’s a brick, and it’s just a brick. There’s mortar and it’s just mortar. There’s a beam and it’s just a beam. There are stones and they’re just stones. But bricks, and mortars, and stone, and glass even though it’s stained, don’t make a church. These things are just instruments in God’s hands and our hands to do His work in the earth.
I sometimes think of it like this. What the trowel is to a mason building a brick wall, or what a hammer and a saw are to a carpenter, or what arms are to a soldier that’s marching for his country, or what land is to a rancher; these buildings are to us. They are instruments by which we mediate the mind of God in Christ Jesus. We’re teaching children, and guiding young people, and helping our young marrieds, and calling together our adults.
And the life of the family we seek to be increasingly centered in the church. Not out here in a bar, or in a dive, or a joint to make your friends, not seeking these drifters on the streets who push drugs or invite to a bawdy house but to make friends in the house of God, to find the rich goodness of the Lord in His presence here, and to build our home here, fall in love here, to marry here, to raise a family here, to make the church the center of our lives.
I was down here yesterday. I usually go to the Y, but they had a vandal over there that turned on the water on the third floor, and it cascaded down on the floors below. Why anybody would do that I’ve never understood. It just ruins so much of the Y, just put a water all over those floors. So this yesterday, I came to our gymnasium here, and I thought it’d be locked, and I’d find somebody that would open the door and I could exercise up here. I exercise every day to stay well. That’s a part of God, I think, is to take care of the house in which our souls abide. Well, to my amazement, there’s a whole bunch of boys down here in the gymnasium. They were doing different things; most of them playing basketball.
And as I looked at it, walking around and around and around that track up there, as I looked at it, I thought, "Now that’s just marvelous. That’s great. These boys, not out there or over yonder somewhere, but they’re down here at the church." I like that. I think it pleases God that the church be the center of our life, our homes, our families, our people, our youngsters, our children, our boys and girls.
Then that foundation of the church, the ministries of the church in Christ, our tremendous evangelistic, and teaching, and discipleship commitment; there in the days when I was growing up there was a wonderfully gifted Baptist leader by the name of Roland Q. Leavell. He was president of our seminary in New Orleans. He wrote a book entitled The Romance of Evangelism. And in that book he says of our church people, "Twenty percent never pray." can you imagine that?
Twenty percent never pray. Twenty-five percent never read their Bibles. Thirty percent never even go to church. Forty percent never give. Forty percent never go to Sunday school. Sixty percent never attend the evening services. Seventy percent never give to missions. Eighty percent never go to prayer meeting. Ninety percent never have family worship. And ninety-five percent never win a soul to Christ.
Ah, it hurts your heart! That’s one of the tremendous commitments that we have as fellow servants of God in the church; to encourage our people to grow in the faith, and in the work, and in the ministries of the Lord. And particularly are we emphasizing God’s blessing upon us as we seek to win this city for Christ. This is the definition of a church as I think of it; this glorious congregation which God has added your and our lives.
Now I conclude with the challenge that confronts us, the challenge that faces us. It is a marvelous word, a glorious word that you will read written by the apostle Paul from Ephesus to Corinth in the first Corinthian letter, the first letter to Corinth, the last chapter, chapter 16 and verses 8 and 9. Now he’s going to start it off with an adversative, disjunctive conjunction: "But I will tarry at Ephesus; but I am staying here in Ephesus. For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries."
That’s the apostolic dictum, and that is apostolic grammar. This disruptive, adversative conjunction, a disjunction, "But," and the apostolic grammar and the apostolic dictum goes like this, "A great door and effectual is opened unto me," that’s number one. Number two, "And there are terrific, innumerable adversaries." That’s number two, discouragements and difficulties; that’s number two. Number three, "But I am staying with it; not leaving. I’m not quitting, not running away, but I’m staying."
Now that’s the way the apostle Paul uses that disjunctive conjunction, that adversative "but." Now I want to read it as you and I read it. This is the way we do it. This is our dictum. Number one, "There is a great, open door open for us" That’s number one. Number two; this is where we put that but, "But there are many discouragements." Number three, "So I’m pulling out. I’m quitting. I’m laying down the cause."
How different the apostle Paul. To him that "but" was running up a fighting flag. It was a march. It was a call. It was an offense. It was a go signal. To us it’s the running up of a white flag. To him it was a mark, a word of victory, "But I’m staying." For us it’s the signal for a surrender and a rout.
So that leads me according to the apostle Paul, that leads me to make a comment upon the supreme dedication of our lives in the service of God. It’s a marvelous and wonderful and amazing thing how the turn of the service of God always follows. And you have it here in an apostolic sentence that is great and grand and glorious as these "buts," these alla, march before us in the commitment of the apostle Paul. Now I’m going to read it as he writes it. In 2 Corinthians chapter 4, verses 8 and 9:
We are troubled on every side, alla not distressed; we are persecuted, alla not in despair; we are perplexed, alla we are not cast down; we are forsaken, alla but not destroyed; we are troubled on every side, but not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; we are persecuted, but not forsaken; we are cast down, but not destroyed.
Always that conjunctive, disjunctive adversative "but" is always in the right place. First of all, we have a wide open door, amen! Number two, the obstacles and the discouragements are terrific, but number three, let’s go! That is the apostolic dictum. That’s apostolic grammar, and you’ll never find any exception to it.
As I read the Bible, I am amazed and overwhelmed by the sense of victory and triumph that is always in it! Fellow may be beat, put in the stocks and thrust into an inner dungeon, singing praises to God at midnight, think of it! You’ll find that when you read these Scriptures, no exception to it. Romans chapter 8, "If God be for us, who can be against us? [Romans 8:31]. For in all things God works together for good to them who love the Lord, to them who are called according to His purpose" [Romans 8:28].
The next book, 1 Corinthians: "For He must reign, till He hath put all enemies under His feet. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for you know that your work is not in vain in the Lord [1 Corinthians 15:25,58].
The next book, 2 Corinthians: "I take pleasure therefore in reproaches, and in necessities, and in trials, and in tribulations; for when I am weak, then am I strong!" [2 Corinthians 12:10]. Imagine that! The next book, Galatians: "God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" [Galatians 6:14]. The next one, Ephesians: "For this cause I bow my knees before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and unto Him be the glory in the church throughout all ages, world without end. Amen! Amen" [Ephesians 3:14, 21]; written in prison.
The next one, the Book of Philippians: "Be anxious for nothing; but in everything, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God [Philippians 4:6]. And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus" [Galatians 4:19]. The next letter that he wrote, Colossians: "He is the image of the invisible God, and in Him all things consist, hold together; He has it all in His hands" [Colossians 1:15-17]; so every one of the books.
The Hebrews, "Wherefore seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith" [Hebrews 12:1-2].
And finally the Revelation:
And in the days of the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the mystery of God shall be finished.
And when the seventh trumpet sounded, I heard a heraldic voice from heaven, saying, the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of His Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever, Amen!
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And let whosoever will come and take the water of life freely.
He which testifieth these things saith, Surely, surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
When You come, You will find us at our task. You will find us plowing the field. You will find us working in the vineyard of the Lord. Any day, any time, Lord Jesus, we’re ready.
Now that is apostolic.
Number one; a great door and effectual is opened unto us. Number two; there are always terrific obstacles and discouragements. Number three; let’s go; stand with it. And when He comes, He will find us at the task. Blessed Jesus, bless the church. Now may we stand together?
Our Lord, it seems sometimes that the kingdom of darkness is mightier than the kingdom of light, that Satan is stronger than Jesus, that Lucifer outshines the glory of God, but it’s never so. Victory is always with God’s people. The Word may be drowned in blood, and our testimony may be delivered in a river of tears, and our discouragements and trials may seem innumerable and immeasurable, but God is with us. And He purposes some mighty thing for us. O blessed people who love Thee, who work for Thee, and who find in Thee that encouragement and comfort and strength to do God’s elective purpose in the world.
In this moment that our people pray and stand before the Lord, and in this moment that we sing our hymn of appeal, a family you to put your life with us in this dear church, a couple you to come together, or just one somebody you accepting Jesus as Savior, following the Lord in baptism, as God shall whisper the invitation to your heart, make the decision now. And in a moment when we sing, down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, "Here I come, pastor, I’m on the way." Our deacons are here. Our ministers are here. The angels of God are here to welcome you. Make it now, this first Sunday of the new year. God bless you as you come, and thank Thee, Lord, for the sweet response, in Thy precious name, amen. While we sing, while we sing, while we sing.
STATE OF THE CHURCH MESSAGE
I. The church defined as a chapel
sanctuary, a mausoleum, a sepulcher
State churches of England, supported by the government
1. In a cemetery or a
2. Thomas Gray’s
3. Westminster Abbey
II. The church defined as a meeting house,
preaching place, an auditorium
licensed churches of Russia
1. No Sunday school,
Bible school, training program
2. Michael Zhidkov,
churches of the immediate past generation
1. Tremont Temple
2. Moody Memorial
III. The church defined as the body of
Christ, the living center of life
The foundation(Matthew 7:24-27)
1. Building our church
on a threefold foundation – Spiritual, scriptural, financial(1 Corinthians 3:11)
1. Used seven days a
week – not a dark mausoleum
1. Roland Leavell
IV. The tremendous challenge facing us
open door, innumerable adversaries, but staying with it(1 Corinthians 16:8-9)
so often use "but" in different place – wide open door, but too many adversaries,
dedication of life literally is to place "but" in the right place(2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
Apostolic logic, dedication(Romans 8:28-31, 1
Corinthians 15:25, 58, 2 Corinthians 12:10, Galatians 6:14, Ephesians 3:14, 21,
Philippians 4:6, 19, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 12:1-2, Revelation 10:7,
11:15, 22:17, 20)