One dark stormy night, I dreamed God placed me in a church preparing for Sunday worship. 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.” (From Ezekiel 37)
You may recognize my creative translation from the prophet Ezekiel: better known as the Valley of the Dry Bones. Ezekiel asks: “Can these dead people live?” Or, “Can today’s church make a difference? Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. For Lent, can our church make a difference? Can we live?
There are several important trends shaping our church and society.
1. Our nation is divided: politically, culturally, ethically, and financially. Rather than participate in respectful discussion we are inundated with venom-filled arguments and accusations.
2. Interest in spirituality remains high. Web sites and book sales on spirituality are still popular. We seem to be interested in renewing our relationship with God but…
3. Church and denominational influence is at an all-time low: declining attendance combined with higher costs make it difficult for churches to pay their bills or develop meaningful ministry.
Our nation is bitterly divided, yet the church no longer plays a significant role. Interest in spiritual growth is increasing yet our churches are experiencing steady decline. Surveys suggest many Americans are saying: “I believe in God but don’t need to be involved with a church.”
Then God said, “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 God’s answers?
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.”
So what can we do? We start with the basics.
• Pray: Everything begins with prayer. First, pray for God to breathe new life into you. Then, you could start a group dedicated to praying for your church, community and our nation.
• Listen: Listen to the spoken and unspoken needs of your community. Example: Do you live in a neighborhood of single parents and children? How can your church help?
• Worship: Worship should be relevant and passionate. Churches are forming worship teams to help their pastor explore creative ideas and better utilize talent 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.
• Be 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 in the midst of a painful marital separation shouted, “God healed me!”
• 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 but it’s a great start.
• 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 start 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)
My prayer for Lent 2017 is for all of us to be challenged by God 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!