One dark stormy night, I dreamed God placed me in a church preparing for their Sunday worship service. God had me walk up and down the aisle among hundreds of people. They all looked… gulp… they all looked dead! There were all kinds of people: children with crayons in their hands, teenagers sitting among friends, mothers cradling babies and choir members holding music. They seemed normal enough… for dead folks. God asked me: “Preacher, can these dead people live?”
I said: “Lord, you are the only one who knows.” (Ezekiel 37)
Welcome to my feeble attempt at a modern translation of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel from chapter 37… better known as the Valley of the Dry Bones. The question asked by Ezekiel is… “Can these dead people live?” In other words: can today’s church still make a difference in the world?
To answer the question, we need to face several important trends shaping our church and society.
Our nation is in severe crisis… ethically, morally and financially. The newspapers are filled with stories of corruption, corporate collapse and scandals of all kinds.
September 11, 2001 changed our nation… rise in patriotism and national pride. We thought there would be an increase in church attendance and there was, at first… but not for long.
Interest in spiritual growth is increasing… Christian web sites, increased Christian book sales and media attention on spirituality has shown we are a nation interested in discovering God.
Church morale is low… declining attendance combined with higher costs have made it almost impossible for many churches to pay their own bills. There is little left over to help others.
The first two trends are somewhat obvious but three and four seem to contradict: Interest in spiritual growth is increasing yet the traditional source of our spiritual growth, namely our churches are experiencing steady decline? Why is that? Surveys and opinion polls quote many typical Americans saying: “I believe in God but I don’t need to be in a church.”
There are many reasons given why those who seek deepened spirituality are not necessarily utilizing the resources offered by the church? Comments like these are heard frequently:
“Worship services are boring and irrelevant.”
“Churches are always asking for money.”
“I need to do more than serve on a committee to be involved.”
“Churches don’t seem to do much to serve our community.”
“Church people are too quick to judge and exclude… Moslems, Gays, Abortion.”
“Church people are just a bunch of well-dressed hypocrites.”
“Churches are always trying to tell me what is right and wrong.”
Are these statements true? No… well, sometimes but if those outside the church believe it then we as the church obviously need to do a better job of communicating the passion and the daily excitement of serving Christ. We must work to change the world’s image of us and preach God’s truth.
The prophet Ezekiel goes on to say: Then God said to me, “Preach to these dead people and say to them, ‘Dead people, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Lord says to you. I will breathe into your dead bodies and you will come to life. You will begin to smile at one another and offer a hug. You will welcome the strangers, visit the sick and volunteer to help those who are helpless. I will put breath into you and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37)
Can God still breathe life into the church? Of course… but are we ready to receive it?
Ezekiel continues: So I preached to the dead people as God commanded. First one person began to smile and then another moved his head to look at me. One woman began to fold her hands together as if in prayer… but there was still no twinkle of light in any of their eyes or color in their cheeks.
Good leaders never accept ‘the way it is…’ They dream of what could be and work to make it a reality. Last week, Ezekiel asked, “Preacher, can these dead people live?” (Ezekiel 37) In other words: “Can God still breathe life into our church?” The answer is a resounding… “Yes!”
“So I preached to the dead people as God commanded. First one person began to smile and then another moved his head to look at me. One woman began to fold her hands together as if in prayer… but there was still no twinkle of light in any of their eyes or color in their cheeks.” (Ezekiel 37)
So what can we do to enable our church to truly live? We start with the basics.
– Pray… Everything begins with prayer. Pray for God to breathe new life into you. Start a small group dedicated to praying for your church. Emphasize prayer time during worship services.
– Listen…Listen to the spoken and unspoken needs of your community. Do you live in a neighborhood full of single parents and children? How can your church offer help?
– Worship… Worship should be relevant and exciting. Churches are forming worship teams to help their pastor explore creative ideas and better utilize the talents within their congregation.
– Teach… Teaching in small groups offers new life. Many new ministries begin because someone within a Bible study or small group feels called by God to become more involved.
– Open… Be open to new ideas and people. As your church grows new people will feel inspired to offer suggestions. Will you listen with respect and be open to change?
Then God said to me, “Keep preaching to the dead and say this: ‘Holy Spirit, come from the four corners of the globe and breathe life into their dead bodies.’” So I did as God commanded and there were strange noises throughout the congregation as people began first to breathe, then to sing, not like dead people, but with the excitement of folks possessed by God’s living spirit. (Ezekiel 37)
· One man shouted saying God had healed him of the pain caused by a painful marital separation.
· Another left the church to seek a former friend and reconcile their differences.
· One elderly woman walked over to the youth and began to hug each of them.
· A businesswoman was led to donate a portion of her profits toward a homeless shelter.
· A teenager felt called to begin a Bible study at school.
Is that all there is to it? No! Now it’s time for God to breathe life into the church.
– Discover… Churches like individuals need to discover their mission. No church can do everything but every church can do something. What would God have your church do?
– Start… Set an example by starting a ministry within your church which suits your particular gifts such as a Bible study within your home or volunteer your time at a local literacy group.
– Evangelize… Evangelism begins when you look for someone as a friend. Pray for them by name. Ask God to use you. Tell your story and even admit your struggles. Watch God work.
– Involve… Ministry means matching needs with the talents of members. A church consolidated thirty committees into four teams and challenged each team to design a new ministry.
– Celebrate…Every church has events to celebrate and accomplishments to lift up. Ministries and people should be congratulated frequently. Celebrated success is contagious.
As the holy breath of God entered the dead bodies throughout the church they each came to life and jumped to their feet — a vast army. Then God said: “These dead bodies represent my beloved church who feel cut off from Me and whose hope for living is gone. Therefore, preach to them and say: ‘God promises to open your graves and give you life. Then you will know that I am God. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live!” (Ezekiel 37)
As a new year begins, may we be challenged to live again. For all our shortcomings, the church is still the best place to find God’s eternal healing and comfort. May God breathe life into our dead bodies and help us rise up again to become a mighty army… the church! “Then you will know that I am God. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live!” Wow! What a wonder to behold!