Annual State of the Church Message
January 4th, 1981 @ 10:50 AM
A MESSAGE ON THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 1:5-8
1-4-81 10:50 a.m.
It is a gladness unspeakable for us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas to welcome the multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor bringing the first message of the new year. It is entitled A Message on the State of the Church. Every new year on the first Sunday such a message is prepared. And this will be the thirty-seventh one that I have delivered to this dear congregation. As a background text, not to be exegeted, but just as a background text, 1 Thessalonians, the first letter that Paul wrote, 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; as ye know what manner of men we were among you.
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy in the Holy Spirit.
[1 Thessalonians 1:5-6]
I can’t help but turn aside there. How many of the people of the world think that what it is to be a Christian is to be free from all trial and delivered from all troubles and we never have any afflictions any longer? Actually what God says is that there is a joy abounding and indescribably dear even though you are persecuted and tried and burned at the stake.
Now isn’t that a marvelous, anomalous situation to develop in one’s life? The martyrs so I read – I’ve never seen a man burned at the stake, but I read of them through the years and the centuries – while the flames are leaping upward and their very anatomical members, maybe hands or feet or arms are burning off, they are singing songs and hymns of praise to God. Now can you imagine that? That’s what it is to be a Christian.
And that’s what he’s referring to here: "to receive the Word of God in much affliction, with joy in the Holy Spirit." I don’t want to come and see you when everything’s going your way and you’re on top of the world and you’re praising God. I want to come and see you when everything’s going the wrong direction, and you’re sick, and the children are all down, and maybe your wife’s left you, and you are so discouraged, and broke, and bankrupt you don’t know what to do. Then let me see you sing praises to God then, unless you’re happy you’re wife is gone.
"With much affliction and joy in the Holy Spirit: So that" he says "you became examples to all that believe in Macedonia" – that’s that Roman province up there in the north part of Greece – "and in Achaia" [1 Thessalonians 5:7], that’s a province in the south part of modern Greece.
For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia up there in the north and Achaia down here in the south, but in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not say anything about it, we need not speak any thing.
[1 Thessalonians 1:8]
Everybody knows it. That’s what I think about this dear church. It’s just like that; a church of tremendous faith and commitment and dedicated service to the Lord, so that I don’t need to say anything; the whole world knows about it.
Now there are several definitive ways by which you can describe a church. A church can be defined as a chapel, a sanctuary. It’s a mausoleum. It’s a sepulcher. It’s either in a cemetery or it is a cemetery. Beautiful and appealing; I have no word but one of deepest reverential awe as I stand in the presence of those little chapels and sanctuaries and mausoleums.
All the churches of England are like that. The Anglican Church which is supported by the government of England is either in the country, in the village, in a cemetery, or else in the great city and cathedral, it is itself a burying place, a cemetery. If you’ve been in England – and I’d say practically all of you have – every village church and every country church in the Anglican communion is in a cemetery.
Thomas Gray in 1771 was buried in the little cemetery in which is located the church of Stoke Poges. And the most famous elegy in literature was written by Thomas Gray in that country churchyard. And when I now read the introductory lines of that elegy, you’ll sense and you’ll feel the away-ness of the sanctuary, the other-worldliness, the disassociation from this life of the sanctuary. Do you remember the words?
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
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 little sanctuary –
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
The feeling of it, beside the actual words, the feeling of it is alone, reverentially in awe in the cemetery surrounded by the dead, by darkness, by stillness, by silence, and even the owl in the belfry tower complains of one’s presence. Now that is one definition, one delineation of a church. Beautiful, I would not criticize.
Also in England the church can be a burying place. It can be a cemetery. Most of you I’m sure have been in Westminster Abbey. The whole tremendous church, one of the most effective in human genius, the whole church is dedicated to the burying place of the great in English literature, English music. When you go there you’ll see a magnificent sculptured likeness of Handel with the angels and with the score of – guess what score it is – the score of "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" beautiful. I would have no criticism of it at all. St. Paul, the cathedral at Worcester York, everywhere, the church is a burying place; it’s a cemetery.
There is another way to define a church. It can be defined as a meeting house. It is a preaching place. When you go to Russia, by law and under the surveillance of the police, by law the church is just that. It is a meeting place. It is an auditorium and nothing more.
When Michael Zhidkov, the pastor of the church in Moscow, and when Alexei Bychkov, the secretary of the all Baptist Union of the Soviet Socialistic Republics; when those two men were here about a year and a half ago, Zhidkov the pastor especially was sensitive to our tremendous Sunday school, and our elementary school, and our Bible school. And seated there by my side in this sanctuary and talking to me about the church, he burst into an almost unconscious exclamation saying, "Oh, would to God, would to God we could do that in our churches in Russia!"
Interdicted from having a Sunday school or an academy as we have or a Bible school as we have, they can’t teach, they can’t train, they can’t assemble their young people together. They can’t have evangelistic services as we’re going to have tonight at seven o’clock. The definition of a church by law in the Soviet Union is a meeting house, and that’s all.
In this immediate past generation in America, the definition of the church was that also. It was a meeting place; it was a preaching house. In the days of the building of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston you had to get a ticket in order to get inside to listen to the world famous orator Cortland Myers as he preached the gospel as only he could do it, in the Tremont Temple pulpit.
I’ve been there. I’ve preached there many times. The last time I was there especially did I notice when the pastor let me out at the door, he was going somewhere, some down the place to park his car. He doesn’t even have a place to park his car. It’s just a meeting house with the Parker House Hotel against it on that side and a big office building pushed against it on that side. And that’s all it is; just a meeting house.
If you go to the tremendous Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, it has inside more than four thousand individual seats. There’s nothing else, just the auditorium. It’s a preaching place, that’s all. That’s one way to define a church.
Another way to define it is the way I think it ought to be. It’s the way that we have sought, and tried, and prayed, and asked God to help us to build this church here. A church can also be defined as the breathing, living, viable body of Christ. It can be defined as the living center of all of our lives.
Now to build a church like that first we must build it upon a tremendous foundation. The Lord closed the tremendous Sermon on the Mount with the parable of two men. "One man," He said, "built his house on the rock; and the rains descended, the floods rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it stood; for it was founded upon a rock." Then He said, "The second man built his house on the sand, and the rains descended, and the floods rose, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it fell; and great was the fall thereof" [Matthew 7:24-27], He said.
For the first time in fifty years they have built a house on Swiss Avenue where we live. Up above us they built a house. It was an epoch. It was an event in our lives. They’re building a house right there right by us. So I watched them build it.
Oh, every day was the delight for me the way they built that house! They took augers and dug down into the solid rock, and they poured piers all around for the foundation of that house. Then when they poured those piers on the solid rock, they poured those rows of foundation, two of them all the way around that house. Then they raised the superstructure. You could have put a ten-story building on that foundation. Oh, I like that!
Now the other day they started another house on Swiss Avenue. Can you believe it? The second one in fifty years; they started another house down there. So I’ve been watching that with astute interest. And this is the way they’re building that house. A fellow came out there with a concrete mixer, and he poured a slab on top of the ground. And they’re building a two-story house on top of that slab.
Now if you know anything about this dried burned up windswept black prairie land, you know it moves just according to its humor. It moves. It just moves anywhere. And whoever lives in that house one day is going to find himself looking in that direction, and then the next day he’s going to find himself looking it that direction.
Ah, I like that foundation! And I love to think we are building this church on a threefold foundation! Number one, we’re building it spiritually on Christ. Corinthians chapter 3, "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 3:11]. We’re building it upon a tremendous spiritual foundation.
We’re building it upon a tremendous scriptural foundation; on the infallible, and inerrant, and inspired Word of God, on the Book. And third we are building this church on a tremendously solid financial foundation. We are laboring I know, and we are praying I know, and we are striving I know, but God is with us and victory is ours; God moves and God lives!
You know I literally believe when people try, the Lord crooks His finger and He says to Gabriel, "Gabriel come here. See them down there a-strivin’, and a-prayin’, and a-workin’? Gabriel go down there and push them. Help them Gabriel." And Gabriel does it. That may sound far-fetched to you; I believe that. I believe God sends His ministering angels to help us in the work of the Lord. We’re building our church on a solid financial foundation.
Now in defining that church as a ministry to the whole life, I speak of the superstructure. See all these buildings? They cover six blocks; a tremendous thing. There are places in this structure that I haven’t been myself. I was meandering around over this church the other day and found a whole quarter of a block of this church that I didn’t even know existed. It’s right over there.
I walked in there, and I said, "What in the earth is this and where’d this come from?" Well, there’s a whole area over there a quarter of a block big where all the carpenters, and the plumbers, and the steam fitters, and the maintenance men, the Lord only knows what they work day and night. I didn’t even know it was here. It’s a tremendous plant. It’s a glorious, glorious complex of buildings.
Now why do you need that? Why would you have such a thing as that? It’s like this, exactly like this. What the trowel is to the mason as he builds the wall; what the hammer and the saw are to the carpenter as he nails the boards in place; and what the arms are to the soldier as he marches to war; or what land is to the ranchman as he raises his cattle, these buildings are to us. They’re the places for our babies; got two or three floors of it back there for a nursery. And then for our little children, then for our young people, and for our young marrieds, and young adults, and for us who are experienced and mature we love to think of in the faith – not old just mature; just know more than they do that’s all the difference – just a marvelous, marvelous thing.
I came down here yesterday afternoon, and I went up into the Wicker gymnasium and there were boys, boys, boys down here at the church. They were doing all kinds of things; most of them playing basketball. And as I looked at it, I thought, "Isn’t that great? Not out there somewhere, over yonder somewhere, or way over there, they’re here at the church." On any ordinary day during these days of ministering, there’ll be as many as two thousand people every day down here at this church. It’s just wonderful. It’s just glorious. That’s the way I think the church ought to be. It ought to be the center of our lives, and, of course, not only a tremendous foundation upon which it rests, and a marvelous superstructure, buildings that we use for the glory of God, but then, of course, the great ministries we offer to Christ.
These statistics broke my heart. In these days past I had a dear friend named Dr. Roland Leavell who was president of our seminary in New Orleans. He wrote a book entitled The Romance of Evangelism, and here are some observations he avows in that book. Of our church people, he says, twenty percent never pray. Can you imagine that? Twenty-five percent never read their Bibles? Can you conceive of that? Thirty percent never attend church. Can you imagine that? Forty percent never give. Forty percent never go to Sunday school. Sixty percent never attend the evening services. Seventy percent never give to missions. Dr. Rebecca Naylor, can you believe that? Seventy percent of our people 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 Jesus.
Those things would break any pastor’s heart. And that’s why we are praying and asking God to bear His arm in strength to help us. "Lord, Lord that we be a praying people, and a giving people, and a witnessing people, and that God will bless His work under His hands and ours."
Now the last part of this state of the church message; we face an incomparable opportunity, a wide open door. And it is just as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 16, verses 8 and 9. He’s in Ephesus in one of the tremendous ministries in the history of Christendom. And he’s writing to the church in Corinth, the church in Corinth he founded on his second missionary journey.
He’s now in the midst of his third missionary journey, which is consumed by that tremendous effort that God so blessed in Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia. So he writes to the brethren at Corinth from Ephesus across the Aegean Sea. He writes: "But I will tarry at Ephesus,For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries."
Now I want you to look at that adversative, disjunctive conjunction but. A great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries"; then his use of the disjunctive, adversative conjunction "But! I will stay here in Ephesus." Now that is the apostolic order. "A great door and effectual is opened unto me," that’s number one. Second, "The adversaries and obstacles are terrific and innumerable"; that’s number two. Number three, "But!" the disjunctive conjunction, "I’m staying with it, I’m carrying on." What do you think about that?
Now you and I use that same disruptive, disjunction, adversative conjunction, only we put it in a different place. We use it as often as Paul does, except we don’t use it in the same place. Here’s the way we use it. "A great door and effectual is opened unto me; but there are many adversaries and discouragements, so I’m pulling out, I’m quitting." That’s the way we do it. Isn’t that a remarkable thing how Paul uses that word but? That disruptive conjunction but. Paul runs it up like a flag calling to battle, and it marches and waves before him. Whereas we run it up white and use it as a sign of rout and surrender. That’s just marvelous!
And now may I make a deduction from it according to the Word of the Lord? When you look at all of this life as it is portrayed for us who love Jesus, the great dedication of life literally is to place that conjunction but in the right place. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what it is. The great decisive decisions and dedications of life is to put that word but in the right place.
Now you’re going to see the apostle Paul as he parades it before us in 2 Corinthians 4:8 and 9. The Greek word for but is alla. So here’s what he writes: "We are troubled on every side, alla not distressed; we are perplexed, alla, but not in despair; persecuted, alla, but not forsaken; cast down, alla not destroyed."
Look at that great, grand, glorious march of disjunctive conjunctions before us as Paul writes it. "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." Isn’t that simply glorious?
That’s the apostolic order. That’s the apostolic logic. That’s the apostolic dictum, and it always goes like this. First, there is a great door and effectual opened unto us. That’s first. Second, there are obstacles and discouragements innumerable, that’s second. Third, "Let’s go! Let’s march!" That’s the apostolic triad.
And it isn’t just uniquely here when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 16. "A great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries; but I am staying in Ephesus" [1 Corinthians 16:9]. It isn’t just there. The whole apostolic picture of the preaching of the gospel of Christ, and the building up of the kingdom of God, and the establishment of the churches; all of it follows that same triad, that same dictum, that same logic. A great opportunity and tremendous and terrific obstacles, but let’s go; let’s go!
Listen to it. In the Book of Romans, "If God be for us, who can be against us? [Romans 8:31]. For we know that in all things God works together for good to them who love the Lord, to them who are the called according to His purpose" [Romans 8:28]. That’s Romans. The next book is 1 Corinthians, "For He must reign, until He hath placed all enemies under His feet. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" [1 Corinthians 15:25, 58]. That’s 1 Corinthians.
The next book is 2 Corinthians. He writes, "Therefore I take pleasure in reproaches, and necessities, and tribulations, and disappointments: for when I am weak then am I strong" [2 Corinthians 12:10]. The next book is Galatians. "God forbid that I should glory, save 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 book is Ephesians. "For this cause I bow my knees before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for through Him and to Him be glory in the church throughout all ages world without end. Amen" [Ephesians 3:14, 21]. And the next book is Philippians. "Be anxious for nothing; but with thanksgiving let your supplications be made known unto God. And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus" [Philippians 4:6, 19]. The next book is Colossians. "For in Him is the perfect revelation and precise image of God. And in Him all things consist, hold together" [Colossians 1:15-17].
So on through those books to the Book of Hebrews. "Wherefore seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith" [Hebrews 12:1-2]. And finally the incomparable Apocalypse,
Worthy is the Lamb.
For in the days of the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the mystery of God shall be finished [Revelation 10:7].
And the seventh angel sounded; and I heard a great heraldic announcement from heaven saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever and ever. Amen [Revelation 11:15].
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will let him take the water of life freely [Revelation 22:17].
He which testifeth these things saith, Surely, surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus [Revelation 22:20].
When You do, You will find us working, laboring, praying, striving, serving in some corner that God hath assigned for us in the vineyard of the Lord.
It’s glory on top of glory; glory for glory; blessing on top of blessing; blessing for blessing; victory on top of victory; victory for victory; triumph for triumph; it’s heaven. It’s everything that only God can mean to us.
What is the dictum? A great door and effectual is opened unto us. Number two, and the obstacles and the adversaries are terrific and innumerable. Number three, let’s go. Let’s rise. Let’s march. God is with us. Now may we stand together?
Our wonderful, wonderful Lord whose very name is Wonderful, unto Thee Lord we give the issue of our lives. Our souls and hearts flow out to Thee. The praise of our lips, the desires of our hearts, the labor of our hands, the energy and capabilities of our days, Lord, all of it is dedicated to Thee. And now Master, in Thy turn and in heaven’s remembrance, pour out upon us such blessings that our hearts cannot contain them. May we see people saved. May God add to His church. May there be triumph written at the bottom line of every thing we seek to do. May the Lord bless the effort under Thy hands and ours. And when this year of ’81 is done and completed, may we look back upon it and say, "We never saw God bless a people as He blessed us this year." It would be vanity and emptiness for us if we worked, and prayed, and visited, and preached – nobody saved.
Somebody you give himself to Jesus this first Sunday of the new year; a family you to come into the fellowship of our dear church; a couple you, "Here we are pastor. We’ve decided for God." As the Lord shall whisper the appeal to your heart, make the decision now in the quietness of this moment. And when we sing, down one of those stairways, down one of these aisles, "Here we are pastor." There will be deacons and ministers to receive you and the angels of God to be glad. So Lord, sanctify and hallow the appeal and honor it with a harvest. In Thy wonderful and saving name, amen.
While we wait, while we pray, while our choir sings, down that stairway, down this aisle, "Here I am, pastor, here I come."