From the impressive pulpit of my former church in DC I once announced: “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation!”
Because it wasn’t only the pulpit that was impressive: the sanctuary in which it stood was breathtaking, with tall stone columns rising to a vaulted ceiling some sixty feet above and everywhere, all around, gorgeous stained-glass windows letting in rays of sun-drenched, color-saturated light. When the sanctuary was completed in 1955 the membership of the church was nearly 3,000. When I came to the church in the Summer of 2000 the membership was down to 750, with about half that number still living in the area and about half that number making it to worship each Sunday. When I came they talked about how wonderful it would be to fill that 1,000-seat sanctuary again and I agreed. It would be wonderful. What I didn’t realize at the time is that it was, in some ways, necessary. We needed to get people into the pews, and dollars into the offering plates, so we could afford to heat and cool and clean and secure that magnificent building.
It was some time after that realization that I stood in the pulpit and said, “I have no interest in institutional self-preservation.”
What I meant was this: that Jesus didn’t call me to heat and cool and clean and secure magnificent buildings. He called me to preach the gospel, and to move his people to fulfill his mission. As a result, I didn’t always have as much appreciation for the institution as I might have.
Since then I’ve come to believe that while the institution is not our mission, there is an institutional way to fulfill that mission. Having a building, and a budget, and a full-time staff makes some things possible that would be nearly impossible otherwise. Worship is one of those things, but it’s only one: Sunday school classes, showers for the homeless, divorce recovery workshops, volunteer mission trips, ministry to the deaf, marriage enrichment retreats, programs for children and youth, all of these can be ways of “bringing heaven to earth,” but in every case it is people who are the focus and not the institution itself.
I tried to illustrate this for someone only yesterday. I held up one hand and moved the other one toward it, as if it were the mission of Christ moving toward the church. It got at far as my raised palm but no farther. “You see?” I said. “It’s not enough for the mission to come to the church; it has to go through the church.” When that happens—when the mission of Christ swooshes through the building and touches the world—I think you can stop worrying how you will fill the pews or the plates; a church like that will thrive.
Click on this link for First Baptist Church and watch the “swoosh” that moves across the picture at the top of the screen. Then click on the words “spiritual growth” in the green bar and select “Kingdom pictures.” I think as you look at those photos you will begin to get a good idea of all the ways First Baptist is working to fulfill the mission of Christ.