They wore their Christianity like an old shirt. When a shirt is new, it is kept cleaned, starched and pressed. As time goes on, it becomes something of a comfortable convenience; for an old shirt is put on and taken off with ease; no care as to where it is thrown. It becomes an object taken for granted. No matter the condition it is left in it can always be picked up and put on. This to them was their cloak of Christianity.
When it was uncomfortable to wear, or at a time when no one could see, off came the sacred mantle to be left discarded, crumpled, and uncared for until it was time to throw it on again. I call it Shirt Sleeve Christianity; Paul said they were wolves to be watched out for (Cf. Acts 20:28).
A noted pastor once said to me:
If you have not had any experience of God breaking your heart, its coming.
The quote hung in the closet of my mind for years, so when the wolves attacked my flock I was not completely caught off guard, but when wolves do what wolves do they leave pain, destruction, and questions behind. Questions such as: How could people you loved, prayed with, and broke bread with around the table of fellowship turn out to be predators of the dark? The number of churches that have experienced similar destructive acts from within caught me off guard.
I was asked to pastor a small church that was broken. I first preached to the remnants of the congregation as a guest pastor at a ranch located north of Phoenix. The congregation had gone through a series of pastors. One left because of infidelity and their interim pastor had just resigned. To make matters worse they had been evicted from their church building.
Those that showed up on that first Sunday were cowboys, and they had a sincere desire not to lose their church. As the months past I was asked to speak a few more times and there was good news; the dispute was settled over the church building and the new landlord was willing to rent the building to them again. I accepted their call to knit the church back together, and after two years the church was growing.
On that first Sunday I met with them, it was in an eight-sided family room made out of hay-bales with up to fifteen members present. Two years later the congregation was around sixty. Financially we were sound and operating in the black, the church finances replenished, and we had begun a building fund. New members and visitors came every week. The outreach to the community had also grown with three additional ministries. Previously the youngest person in the church was a single thirty-year old man; we now had five teenagers attending weekly and two pre-teens. Along with our community outreach of supporting Teen Challenge, and a homeless mission in the heart of Phoenix, our music director and my wife started a women’s Praise and Coffee outreach and a yearly ladies retreat. We also had added special services at Christmas, Easter, and the 4th of July. During one of the Christmas’ specials, over two hundred and fifty people attended; it was standing room only.
Almost two years into the ministry and we seemed to be on our way. Then at a specially called meeting with the church’s board of directors at a Denny’s restaurant, the board informed me that five of the six board members were resigning and they were going to close the church; the one board member who was staying resigned a week later without giving me any reason.
I surveyed the board members as to why they would do such a thing, and each gave a different reason. I detected a slight smile of satisfaction when the board president delivered their gambit move, “We are disbursing the church’s assets to another charity and leaving you with a goose egg.” Then, with a sense of satisfaction asked, “What are you going to do?” The smile and the question revealed their devilish plan: They hoped I would throw my hands into the air, resign and storm out of the meeting.
My response called their bluff, “I will not desert my flock.”
The next day, one month before Christmas, the board emailed the congregation informing them their church was closed effective immediately. The board forbade the congregation to meet in the building, and to ensure they did not meet, informed the church they were changing the locks on the door and hiring a sheriff’s deputy to turn the congregation away if they showed up to meet. The building landlord, upon hearing this, nixed both ideas.
I contacted our landlord and he offered to let the congregation use a nearby building at no charge. The congregation was informed and we met anyway. We thought it interesting that, as the congregation showed up to worship that first Sunday, the board sat in their cars about two-hundred yards away from the entrance to the building to watch us come and worship. Before the service, some from the congregation went and talked with the board, and returned to say, “They each have given me a different reason for their actions, and they don’t make any sense.”
After our service that Sunday, the congregation met and voted to remain as a congregation. On January, 2013, we opened in a new location with the same landlord, under a new name, and a new set of bylaws. The board had taken all of the church’s money and equipment, but they did not take our heart, our spirit, or our Jesus. It has been six months since the wolves attacked and we are still going, and growing, but more importantly, still preaching the Word.
What I Have Learned
It still pains me to cover this ground, but as I said, these attacks go back to the first century with Paul’s warning. And if it happened in Paul’s day and it happened in my church it may happen in yours. I learned that this was not at all unusual, for churches are frequently attacked from within.
Even though people will let you down, God does not. Yes, everything was taken from us, but God was not. He supplied us with everything we needed in order to continue. In fact, one of the charities that the board gave our physical assets to, when they heard the circumstances of the board’s actions, returned all of our property to us, including the church’s cargo trailer, speaker systems, and projector.
I have learned that our church was not alone. When the chips our down, the denominational labels fall away. Pastors from five local churches came forward to give our new church emotional support and promised to help in anyway they could, including money.
The pastors that stood with us gave me emotional support and advice. What they told me was an eye opener. One said, “I have found that in every church there are always two or three people who feel it is their main goal is to destroy the pastor.” In fact he said, “I went through this last year and later this week, I’m meeting with some in my congregation to head off another attack.” What surprised me further was two other pastors who stated that they too had personal attacks against their ministry in the last two years.
The Reason For The Attack
I would have to be a mind reader to know exactly why this happened to a church that was moving in the right direction, but I have some good guesses that I would like to share. The first guess as to why this happened came from Rich, a pastor from a nearby church that took some time to talk with me over what had happened.
He asked, “Kirby, I understand that you were preaching the Bible at your church.”
“Yes,” I replied, “Every week, verse by verse, chapter by chapter we are going through a book of the Bible. First, the gospel of Luke, and now the book of Acts”
“That explains what happened.” Pastor Rich went on, “Kirby, when you preach the Bible the congregation has three choices: they must either repent, strike back, or leave.”
I responded, “Well the board struck back and left.”
Shortly after taking the reins of the church, I realized the church had been operating more as a social organization then a church. We met in a cute century-old, white building situated in the desert. Many came to church dressed like pioneers. The women wore long print dresses with ruffles, and the men wore big hats, leather vests and tall boots.
Over my two-year tenure I had relayed the foundation of the church based on the Bible, not on costumes or customs. As a biblical foundation was laid in those two years, the congregation began to respond and build structures to that foundation with community outreaches mentioned above, and we began to attract new people who did not know who the board was anymore. The costumes were being replaced by the cloak of Christ. Each week the excitement was growing in the church, and each week the board began showing less interest.
The fighting began with small complaints such as, “What you said in the sermon last week offended me,” and,“I don’t like you referring to the Greek so much in your sermons.” There was an unsigned letter that attacked my wife and the music director saying they were un-Christian. Whispering went on between the board members, and I later learned of secret meetings. Their leaving was the final attack; their whole intent was, if they could not have it their way, then, they would destroy the church.
The Church That’s a Social Club
When a church is a social club expect it to act like the world when confronted with Christ. Our church, Christ’s Church, was at cross-roads: Would we become a real church or remain a social club? The board decided it was more important to maintain their roles as pioneers, cowboys, and ranchers than to follow Christ. When the board, resigned they notified the congregation by email saying that they would have to, “Find another church to meet at.” They broke the congregation’s hearts and didn’t bat an eye. Fortunately the congregation replied, “No, we have a church.”
After the email that dissolved the church, the congregation decided to continue to meet, and I’m proud to say we did not miss a Sunday. With the six board members sitting in their cars in the parking lot that first Sunday watching from two-hundred yards away, I asked that the church doors be left open. I did this for two reasons: First, to let them know the church was still open to them. Secondly, so they could hear us sing our opening hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Jesus Prunes His Church
In Jesus’ farewell discourse of John 15, he talked about the theme of a grape vine bearing fruit and the hatred of the world. Jesus used an allegory of the grape vine, a plant very familiar to in Israel, to convey truths to his followers. In the first verses of the allegory, Jesus talked about four elements: the branches, the gardener, the fruit, and the vinedresser.
Concerning the branches, the vinedressers must cut back the vine at the end of the growing season and there are two reasons for the pruning. The branch that is not bearing much fruit, or any at all, must be cut away so another branch can bear more fruit. These branches that are cut off are of no value; to be of value they must remain attached to the vine. They are of no value because they cannot be used for anything; one cannot build with them. Therefore, they are thrown into a fire and burned up. At times two or more branches are competing for the same nourishment, one branch is dissipating another, and one live branch must be pruned away. When this living wood gets cut away it appears that it will hurt the plant, but in truth, it causes it to produce more fruit.
The echoing words in this allegory that Jesus spoke to his followers is, “Remain in me.” Like the branches in the allegory, they had to remain attached to the vine to produce; you cannot produce fruit any other way. The obvious lesson is to remain in Jesus and you will bear fruit. If you do remain attached you will not be thrown away, you won’t wither, and you won’t be burned up.
Two final points on Jesus pruning his church: The farmer is concerned about one thing: the fruit. We should be interested in what Jesus is interested in, so we should be interested in bearing fruit for Jesus. Second, the fruit when harvested is used to feed others and not the workers.
A Stronger Church Remains
The noted pastor was right. Eventually, I experienced God breaking my heart, or should I say, I allowed it to happen. In my church’s case, the attack came from within and it broke many hearts.
Jesus often used the phrase, remain in me, and another word for remain is, abide. The weeks and months have already begun to roll by and it won’t belong before a year has past since the wolves devastated our church. As time rolls by, the word, abide, is what we will do in order to get by. That is what we will have to do if we are to benefit from the pruning God has allowed. We will abide in His Word, meditating on it, praying about it, and acting on it with service and sacrifice. We believe God has greater plans for our new church. We, therefore, look past the pain of his pruning, and realize that God is simply preparing us for a greater harvest for His glory.