The State of the Church
January 5th, 1986 @ 8:15 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-5-86 8:15 a.m.
It is a privilege for us here in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Dallas to welcome the multitudes of you who share the hour on radio. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The State of the Church. On the first Sunday of each new year I prepare a sermon on the work of our Lord through the congregation of His people. This is the forty-second year that I have prepared and now delivered such a message.
The text is always the same: it is Acts 14:27. After the first missionary journey, the Bible says, “And when they,” Paul and Barnabas, “were come, and had gathered the church at Antioch together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.” The great and resulting work of the apostles was the founding of churches, the organizing of congregations of the Lord, the building up of a congregation of the Lord. So in this first missionary journey, in Pisidian Antioch, and in Iconium, and in Lystra, and in Derbe they establish churches of the Lord, all of them located in the middle part of the southern shores of Asia Minor.
The apostles’ love for the church and our love for our church reflects Christ’s love for His church. There is a beautiful text in Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.” It is His body, always and repeated in the New Testament. The church is described as the body of our Lord Jesus.
- First Corinthians 12:27: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”
- Ephesians 1:22-23: “God gave Christ to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all.”
- Ephesians 5:30: “For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” [Ephesians 5:32].
- In Colossians 1:15: “Christ is the image of the invisible God…and He is the head of the body, the church; that in all things He might have the preeminence” [Colossians 1:18].
- And in Colossians 2:17: “The body is Christ.”
These are just a few of the many Scriptures that describe the church as the fullness of the body of our Lord.
There is one other beautiful image under which the church is described in the New Testament: it is His bride. Revelation 19, verses 7 and 9: “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to Him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready. And to her was given that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white . . . [Revelation 19:7, 9]. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Revelation 21:9: “And there came unto me one of the seven angels . . . and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” And in the last invitation in the Bible, Revelation 22:17: “The Spirit and the bride say, Come.” What the Holy Spirit avows is reaffirmed and repeated by the bride, the church.
This is also our sacred commitment: Christ loved the church, the apostles loved the church, we love our church; and to the viability, and vitality, and vibrancy, and vigor of our church, we do commit our lives. We pray it shall continue to be a growing congregation. Do you remember the verse that closes the Pentecostal chapter, the second chapter in the Book of Acts? “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” [Acts 2:47]. And we want to keep it a great lighthouse for our Lord.
In keeping with the growing expectancy of the Holy Spirit, that our church will continue to be a great instrument in God’s hands to bring the lost and to encourage those who are saved, we are bringing to our congregation an executive administrator, a man to look over all of the efforts of our people. He is coming to begin his work the second Sunday in February. He will join the church with his family the first Sunday in February. In Acts 11:25-26, when Barnabas was sent by the apostles in Jerusalem to look at the work of the Holy Spirit in Antioch, that was the first time the gospel was preached to the Gentiles. Then the eleventh chapter says, “Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” [Acts 11:25-26]. This young man—he’s young to me, he’s thirty-three years old—he will come here, as I said, in February, to begin his work, and his assignment is to direct the ministries and the programs of the church. We’re to set goals for our Sunday school and strive to reach them. We’re to set goals in baptism and seek to win that many to the Lord. We’re to set goals in stewardship, teaching our people to honor the Lord with the firstfruits of their substance. And he’s to guide us in our building and expanding programs. He is to be an assistant shepherd and an assistant pastor before the congregation.
He asked us to wait until after the middle of January to announce his name, because he wanted to work out in the church where he now serves as minister of music his resignation there and his coming here. I could expatiate at great length on the need for such a man, a critical and vital need, but just to say it is its own explanation. Someone needs to be down here all day long, every day, guiding the work of the church, to whom everybody and everyone can make appeal. I would love to do that. It would be a happy assignment for me, but I am chained to that study desk every morning. I cannot continue to preach without being at that study desk, to pray, to read God’s Word, to prepare the messages that are brought Sunday by Sunday. When I come to the church, I am buried beneath an avalanche of mail and the administrative assignments that are attendant to the congregation. I would love to do this, but I cannot. There has to be a man brought here who is like a general in the army: he goes up and down the lines, watching all of the forces that are carrying through the commandments of our nation. We have to have a man like that here at the church, who presides over the many-faceted ministries of our congregation. And we have a wonderful young man, whom you will love, and he is the kind of a man that I personally would love to see you follow; and you will love him too.
Now I speak of the future of our church, the days and the years that lie before us. To me, the number one and all pervading appeal to God is to pray for the continuity, and the sequence, and the continuance, and the un-interruption of the work of our church. Let me state it negatively: that there be no hiatus, no aperture, no lacuna, no fissure, no gap, no separation, no interruption, no empty space, no lessening in the many ministries of our church; that it continue on. Dr. Truett was here forty-seven years. This is the forty-second year of my pastoral work. For eighty-nine years, the church has had two pastors; and we are praying and beseeching God that it continue on in increasing grace and power, and in the love and presence of the Lord.
May I speak briefly of tremendous churches that I have seen, many of them, several of them in whose pulpit I have preached, that I have looked at. And the churches are failing, and have failed, because there was no continuing ministry. I think of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s church in London, England. When Spurgeon preached there, the congregation was seated six thousand of them: think of a great host of the Lord, six thousand. There was no worthy successor who was found; and the most I have ever seen in the church when I have attended it—and I’ve counted them—is a hundred twenty-five. From six thousand every time Spurgeon stood up to preach, now the most I’ve ever seen is a hundred twenty-five.
Twice on my vacations, I have preached in Tremont Temple in Boston, preach a month there; just love being in that historical city. And as I stood there in the pulpit, I thought of Cortland Myers. When Cortland Myers was pastor at Tremont Temple, you had to have a ticket to get in. If you didn’t have a ticket, you couldn’t get into the sanctuary. It was jammed and packed. It has two balconies. Now when you go to Tremont Temple in Boston, there’ll be somebody seated there, somebody there, somebody there, and the sanctuary is mostly empty.
One of the great churches of the world was the Temple Baptist Church of Philadelphia. Russell H. Conwell was the pastor. He was famous over the world for his marvelous lecture “Acres of Diamonds.” I was in that Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and I happened to run into the aged janitor. On the wall there where I stood was a large picture of that far-famed Baptist preacher, Russell H. Conwell. And I pointed to it, and I said to him, because the janitor was aged—Conwell died in 1925 at the age of eighty-three—I pointed to the picture, and I said to that old Negro janitor, “Did you know him? Did you know him?” And with deep, moving response, he said, “Yes, he was our pastor; and oh, what a wonderful, wonderful man of God. But,” he said, “we have no one to follow that great man.” And recently they tore down the church. Even the building is no longer there.
Forty years ago, I visited with the pastor of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. That is the church where John D. Rockefeller was a Sunday school superintendent. He was a liberal. And you know my heart’s response to a liberal minister, standing in the pulpit denying the Word of God [2 Timothy 3:16], denying the virgin birth [Matthew 1:18-25], denying the personal return of the Lord [Acts 1:11]—you know my response. Well, they have torn down the church; it no longer exists.
I think of our church, and in grace and in power and in unction from heaven that it continues on being a witness, a living, viable witness for our Lord. Our church is strategically located in the center of a vast metroplex. We have two thousand members who live in Tarrant County, and some of the most faithful members we have in this church drive here from Fort Worth.
A neighborhood church will grow to a certain ministry. Thereafter it doesn’t grow anymore, because the people who go to it go to it because it’s a neighborhood church. But when they saturate the attendance from the neighborhood, the people from another neighborhood will go to that neighborhood church. That’s why they go: they go because it’s the neighborhood church. A downtown church is not a neighborhood church: it is a ministry to the whole city, and we pray that our church will be that through the unending years, until Jesus comes again.
By staying downtown, you offer a ministry through the open door of the sanctuary to all of the people. Right here, right there, they are planning to build a residential development of ten thousand people, right there. What if you move this church out? What would you do in ministering to those ten thousand people right there? And not only that, but right there, right there they are planning a tremendous housing development. They’ve already built one right there. All around this city you’re going to find people with an increasing desire to move into its heart. You can’t escape that. Who wants forever to go out and out and out, and to spend his life driving back and forth, out and out and out? Finally it’ll take you an hour to drive into town and an hour to drive back out of town. The tendency of people will be to move into the heart of the city, and we ought to be here as its ministering congregation, right here in the heart of this vast growing metropolis.
I can point out to you a great First Baptist Church that moved from downtown to a fashionable neighborhood, but as the days and the years have gone by, the fashionable neighborhood is now deteriorating, and that great First Baptist Church is finding itself in a deteriorating neighborhood. This church can be here forever, ministering to the whole city, no matter where people live, and continue to shine as a beacon light for our Lord.
Now may I speak of my personal ministry? An old Puritan fell asleep over his Bible, and as he slept over his Bible, he dreamed, through the pages of the sacred Book, about Moses and Joshua: they were together for years; then Joshua carried on. Dreamed about David and Solomon, who were together for years; then Solomon carried on. Dreamed about Elijah and Elisha, who were together for years; then Elisha carried on. Dreamed about Paul and Timothy, who were together for years and then Timothy carried on. God buried Moses when he was a hundred twenty years of age; and no man to this day knows of his sepulcher [Deuteronomy 34:5-7]. God allowed David to die when he was seventy [2 Samuel 5:4], God raptured Elijah up to heaven [2 Kings 2:11]. And God allowed Paul to be beheaded on the Ostian Way in Rome. In each instance there was a charge to keep in the continuance of the ministry of these wonderful men of God.
Moses said to Joshua, in Deuteronomy 31:7-8:
And Moses called unto Joshua, and said unto him in the sight of all Israel, Be strong and of a good courage: for thou must go with this people unto the land which the Lord hath sworn unto their fathers to give them; and thou shalt cause them to inherit it.
And the Lord, He it is that doth go before thee; He will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.
And in Deuteronomy 34:9: “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened into him.” Joshua was ninety-plus when he led the people over Jordan [Joshua 3:1-17], and was a hundred ten when he died [Joshua 24:29].
In the charge of David to Solomon in 1 Chronicles 22: “And David said to Solomon, My son, the Lord be with thee; and prosper thee. The Lord give thee wisdom and understanding, and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the Lord thy God. Then shalt thou prosper . . . be strong, and of good courage; dread not, nor be dismayed” [1 Chronicles 22:11-13].
And Elijah to Elisha, in 2 Kings 2:9:
And it came to pass, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And Elijah said, If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be unto thee. And it came to pass, as they went, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them asunder; and Elijah went up . . . to heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he said, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof . . . And Elisha took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters of the Jordan, and they parted: and Elisha went over. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest upon Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
[2 Kings 2:9-15]
Paul, in his charge to Timothy: “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust…Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” [1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 2:1-2].
And so, the Puritan dream—my dream—that there be no interruption, no cessation, no hiatus in this ministry before the Lord, in the work of the Lord, in this growth of the church. In God’s time, and in God’s way, and in God’s wisdom, let us pray and seek for and wait for and believe for that Joshua, that Solomon, that Elisha, that Timothy to come and work with us in this pastoral preaching ministry: God’s man, in God’s time, in God’s choosing. Where and who is that man? He is known but to God. God’s Holy Spirit must direct us to him in God’s way and in God’s time. The Holy Spirit must direct and choose.
The Holy Spirit is not the author of darkness, and confusion, and contention, and cacophony. He does not say one thing to one of us, then contradict what He has said to another of us. He says the same thing to all of us. God’s way must be our way. God’s time is our time. It is God’s will and wisdom that we seek. In Acts 1, the disciples by lot chose Matthias to be with the [eleven] [Acts 1:26]. It’d be Peter, James, John, and the naming of the apostles, and Matthias—but in Acts 9, God chose Saul of Tarsus, Paul, to be the twelfth apostle [Acts 9:13-15]. It was Peter, James, John, those men, and Paul. We seek God’s direction and God’s man.
My Puritan dream: that man of God, that Paul, of God’s own choosing, to come to be with us, to work with us, to go in and out before us, to preach with us; that there be no interruption, no lessening, no cessation in this work of the Lord, but rather, that it go on in increasing power, all of us working together, praying together, serving together in the name of the Lord.
To summarize it all: that in God’s time and in God’s way, that we bring a fellow minister here, a fellow pastor here, to work with me, and then without any cessation, any interruption, any lacuna, any gap in this ministry of the Lord, that it go right on. Now I must close.
May I speak of our immediate program and an appeal for this moment and this day? With the coming of this young man who is going to guide us in all of our activities ministry, with the coming of this young man, we believe that we can ask great things from the hands of God today, and that God will answer that prayer; ask, ask! Said a man of God to a man of the world:
If you had been living when Christ was on earth
And had met the Savior kind,
What would you have asked Him to do for you,
Supposing you were blind?
The man considered and then replied,
I suppose that, without doubt,
I’d have asked for a dog, with a collar and chain,
To lead me daily about.
How often thus, in our faithless prayers,
We acknowledge with shamed surprise:
We have only asked for a dog and a chain,
When we might have had opened eyes.
[author and work unknown]
God is complimented, I think, with a great faith and a great asking.
We have our evangel group—and I wanted to speak of them and haven’t time—we have our twenty-five chapels, our outreach ministries, and they are growing throughout this city. We have our two schools, the First Baptist Academy and our Center of Biblical Studies. We are beginning now a performing arts center. We are situated in the arts district of Dallas, and we’re going to have a great Christian performing arts center in the heart of our church. Our Sanctuary Choir is going to Israel this June, and they are being asked to be a part of the National Israeli Music Festival—an amazing invitation. We have our Criswell Foundation that is marvelously blessed of God: endowments are being built in it for the support of the many-faceted ministries of our church. Our Sunday school is to reach in visitation and teaching and soulwinning thousands of others for our Lord Jesus. We shall be in the midst of our Youth Building program this spring. I am praying that our deacons will set a day in the spring when all of us can respond to that appeal and make that Salvation Army building a Youth building. And someday, in these future days and in these future years, we will build our Sanctuary Center, in God’s time and in God’s day.
Our soulwinning services, every time we meet here, praying for, visiting for, expecting God to give us His soul-saving presence, that the lost be added to the family of God. Andrew and John said to Simon Peter, “Come and see” [John 1:40-42]. Philip invited Nathanael: “Come and see” [John 1:45-46]. We invite the whole world. There is no one like our Lord Jesus. He is the incomparable Son of God. Just look at Him! Just see Him! Just open your heart to His meaning to you and your life.
There is a man here, a wonderful man, here in this church. He said to me in the last few days, “The last thing I ever thought I would ever be is a Christian, much less a Baptist, and much less a member of that First Baptist Church. But at the urging of a friend,” he said, “I came to the services. My heart was strangely moved. And in time, I found myself standing at the front of the congregation, giving my life to Christ.” And he said, “Since then, it has been the infinite joy of my soul to pour the energy of my life into that dear church.”
That’s what we seek, that’s what we pray for: that people shall find the power and presence of the Lord in our midst; and just coming here, just being here will be an experience of grace in their souls, and they find themselves standing before the angels of heaven confessing their faith and commitment to our wonderful Lord.
And that is our invitation to you this beautiful first Lord’s Day of the new year. “Pastor, today I stand here confessing my faith in Jesus as my Lord, and I want to be numbered with the people of God, and to be a fellow member of this wonderful congregation.” Or to answer any other call of the Spirit in your heart, in this moment when we stand and sing our hymn of appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, answer with your life; and God bless you in the way, while we stand and while we sing.