October 11, 2006

Disappointed With “Miracle Churches”

2006 1528 page30 caprom time to time we have reported to us, through various first-, second-, and thirdhand accounts, the apparent growth and flourishing of one or another church somewhere in the world, perhaps in our division or in our conference. As topics for reporting and discussion, these “miracle churches” come and go, but they seem to be an ever-present phenomenon.
We seem to like having a miracle church or area happening within a reasonable distance of our church. It seems to somehow alleviate our frustrations relative to the apparent stagnation of our own congregation; sometimes these stories give us a little hope for ourselves. However, this is probably not the only effect. Such reports raise many questions. Why does so little seem to happen in our church? is a question that must leap into many of our minds. Along with, What can we do about it?
Generally, my experiences with “miracle churches” have been disappointments. The reported numbers often do not add up, despite the apparent obsession with statistics. Put simply, the reality often does not match the reporting.
2006 1528 page30This disappointment leads to further questions: If even our apparent bright spots are dull (though I am sure that not all are), what hope is there for any of our churches? However, as I continued to consider this, I remembered many Sabbath mornings that have found me in various churches and, in each church, one can look around and be amazed.
C. S. Lewis suggested a similar feeling in his early days as a Christian:
“I thought that I could do it on my own by retiring to my room and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to churches. . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. . . . I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nonetheless, being sung with such devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”1
In short, every church is a miracle church. One has to only look around at the strange assortment of worshippers and one can appreciate the miracle that brings together these different personalities and histories. I am often amazed and humbled in observing older members who have spent lifetimes in their commitment to their faith and their church.
The story of the New Testament after Jesus’ ascension is the story of the development of the Christian church; and the many letters that constitute the remainder of the New Testament are addressed to many individual churches. By way of example, the letters to the seven churches of Revelation present these distinct church groups at the time of writing, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. All of these New Testament churches and Christians have a special place as part of the burgeoning kingdom of God—they are all vital parts of the vast miracle unfolding in the first-century world.
The miracle continues! By the grace of God, we are a part of that miracle. Our individual experiences of church will involve the amazing and the disappointing. However, our involvement in the church—as a part of the body of Christ—will always be a miracle. If we were to focus more on the miracle of our own belonging, our respective church experience would have to seem more of a miracle than a disappointment.
In relation to worship in church, C. S. Lewis also wrote: “As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. . . . The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”2 An invisible church would not necessarily be a good thing but, if we were able to pay less attention to trying to create another “miracle church,” we might direct more attention to the real purpose of the church as part of the kingdom of God in our respective corners of the world.
All churches are miracle churches. Let us work in our own churches; and with God’s love and power the miracle will continue to grow.
1C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 61, 62.
2C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Fount, p. 2.
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.