Jeff and Amy Jo Akin are good friends who moved from Burlington to Louisville, Ky. ten years ago. Jeff is a leader in the Trane Corporation, but he is also a church planter. After leading a small church for several years, Jeff heard from the Southern Baptist Convention about their emphasis on church revitalization. The more he heard, the more excited he got about it. That led to a conversation with one of the men in the SBC who is leading the charge for church revitalization, and from him, Jeff got a contact name and number. The pastor that Jeff called wanted to meet immediately, and the two men spent several hours together. Dan was pastoring an aging congregation that in its heyday had 600 people coming through the doors, and now were down to 50. Jeff and Dan met together numerous times, and then got their leaders together to plan a merger. Jeff took his fifty people and joined with Dan and his fifty, the old with the young, and now they are one year into the new work. One elderly woman told Jeff not long after the new work began, “I’ve been praying for you for 20 years.” Jeff looked surprised, since this was the first time they had met. The dear saint explained that she had been praying for two decades that God would revive her church and breathe new life into it.
Jeff shared with Antioch last Sunday the sobering statistics from the SBC. 15% of the churches report themselves to be healthy. 70% of the churches say they are in decline, and headed for death. 15% of the churches are dead, and don’t know it. 900 Southern Baptist churches die every year. The average church size in the U.S. is 50 people, so that means somewhere around 45,000 people every year lose their church home. Jeff has told me stories of churches in the Louisville area that are near death, with less than a dozen members, but who refuse to join with another church. This is not just the case with Southern Baptist churches, but with every denomination, and with non-denominational churches like Antioch. Jeff preached here last Sunday and used Revelation 3:1-6 as his text, which is a strong word on the need for church revitalization. Jesus spoke this exhortation: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.”
Some churches are dying simply because their members are elderly and no new families are coming in behind them. Many churches are dying because they have rejected the truth of God’s Word and have replaced it with their own agendas. Jeff said on Sunday, “Churches are dying because God demands glory, and they are not giving it to him. And time runs out.”
How can a church give glory to God?
God is glorified when a church believes and lives the truth of his word. He is glorified when a church does the work of transforming culture one person at a time, through the power that is only found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is glorified when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. He is glorified when churches “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and (are) patient with all.” He is also glorified when churches that are dying humble themselves and welcome another church into the fellowship.
Audubon Baptist is doing well, and experiencing the grace of God that attends any work done in obedience to the Lord. The challenges have been met with courage, and the people have risen to the call to make one out of two. They are taking seriously the command of Christ, to “strengthen what remains.”
Cindy and I got to spend one night last week with our good friends, Larry and Mary, in a beach house at Emerald Isle. They live in Tennessee, and we only get to see them once a year, if that. But our friendship goes back to when we were still young parents, trying to figure it all out. I remember our last time together at the beach. It was 25 years ago, or so, and we encouraged them to try something different in the way they were disciplining their firstborn. The son was not real happy about the suggestion, but Larry and Mary were thrilled with the results. Fast forward a quarter-century, and their four sons are all making a difference for Christ with their lives. Credit that to good parenting and the grace of God.
A few years after that beach trip, we spent some time together at a conference. After the evening session, Larry and I went to the gym, and played one-on-one basketball for more than two hours. We both remember that we played until one of us got to 100. Neither of us remembers who won. We have played golf together a number of times. Last week when we arrived at the beach house, Larry told me he had a basketball, a new football, and tennis equipment we could use. Hey, we both like to play, and we are both competitive! The next morning we played tennis for two hours. I won’t tell you who won, because it’s too painful.
I remember sitting in a restaurant with Larry in 1992, as he was preparing to take his family to Africa. He challenged me with questions about the call Jesus gave each of us, to make disciples of the nations. Since that year, Larry’s ministry has trained tens of thousands of pastors in Africa, and I have had the privilege to share in that training with him on occasion. I have led pastors’ seminars in four African countries, mostly because of Larry’s influence, and have traveled with Larry on a number of occasions. He invited me in January of 2006 to go to Kenya and South Africa with him and a few wealthy businessmen from Tennessee. That trip stands out in my mind for a few reasons. It is stuck in my memory because my father was dying with cancer. I asked Dad if it was OK for me to leave, and he gave me his blessing.
I also remember one of the team, also named Mark, was a very wealthy businessman. He invented a turbo football that I am sure many of my readers own. Mark and I sat next to each other on a bumpy flight to Masai Mara. He told me about his work, and about his family, and he asked me lots of questions about my life. I have never gotten sick on an airplane, but this is another reason I remember that trip so well. The plane bucked and wobbled as we went through heavy storms for an hour, and by the time we landed, I was green and my airsickness bag was full. My new friend, the multi-millionaire inventor, took it from me so he could throw it away.
Larry and Mary spent 7 years living in Africa, and saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. The bad and ugly include being robbed at gunpoint in Kenya. It includes being part of a church that was attacked by terrorists in South Africa. It includes a near miss, as one of their sons was headed to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 when masked gunmen attacked it. The good includes having children born in Africa; Larry calls them his “African-Americans.” The good includes making friends everywhere they lived, and partnering in ministry with hundreds of missionaries and church leaders. Today, Larry and Mary continue to serve the African church from their home in Nashville. You can read more about their ministry at http://www.leadershipintl.org/. If you have a chance to hear Larry speak sometime, do it. He is an excellent storyteller, and his stories will move your heart and may end up moving your place of residence to where a people-group in the world needs you.
Cindy and I love Larry and Mary, and have been privileged to learn from them over the years, to laugh and to pray together, and to share this past year in their battle with cancer. We are so blessed to walk together, even if only once a year, with them. They illustrate what the Bible says: “a friend loves at all times, and a brother (or sister) is born for adversity.”
One of the bedrock principles of the Bible is that God doesn’t need your ability; he works through your availability. We see it over and over again in Scripture. Gideon was chosen by God to lead the nation of Israel into battle against their oppressors, the Midianites. When God spoke to Gideon about doing this great thing, Gideon said, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest…and I am the least in my father’s house.” Moses said the same thing when God commanded that he speak to the Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Do you recognize the mistake both men made? God told them to go and they said they could not go because they were not able to do this great thing the Lord was telling them to do. God could have said, “Who asked you to do it? I just told you to go. Believe me when I tell you that I know full well, much better than you could possibly know, that you cannot do what I am telling you to do.” But what God said to both Gideon and Moses instead was, “I will be with you.”
I remember being targeted by a certain boy in elementary school when I was around 10 years old. We didn’t call it “being bullied” back then. We called it, “the normal way bigger boys behave when they are around smaller boys.” Anyway, I would always walk the half-mile from my house to the school, and every day this boy named Chuck would try to pick a fight with me. I finally told my older brother about it and he said, “Tell little Chuckie the next time he even opens his mouth to you that I am your brother, and that if he lays a hand on you, he will answer to me.” Now, why didn’t I think of that? The next day I relayed the message to my friendly neighborhood bully. He said something like, “Keith Fox is your brother? OK, man, sorry about that, man, let’s just be friends, OK?” I took his lunch money and said, “Bring me your favorite baseball cards tomorrow, and we have a deal.” (That last part didn’t happen) The point is, in that situation, I didn’t need to rely on my own ability. In fact, if I had, Chuck would have stomped me into the ground. I relied on my elder brother’s ability; all I had to do was show up and speak what I had been given.
In the case of Gideon, all he had to do was obey God’s commands and his little band of 300 men routed an army of 145,000. In the story of Moses, all he had to do was obey God and the most powerful nation on earth voluntarily released its three million Israelite slaves, and allowed them to take away much of the wealth of Egypt when they left. Impossible? Absolutely. If you were making up such a story, that ending would be utterly ridiculous. But not with God. That is one of the most exciting truths about following the one true God. He wants us to live in such a way that there is absolutely no explanation for our lives except God. It is called “living by faith, not by sight,” and when you live that way, God gets the credit for your life. He alone deserves it.
God is not limited by your limitations. He is not surprised by your weakness. He is not upset with your imperfections. He does not need your abilities at all. He is God, after all. He only requires your availability as you place your life into his hands by faith. He can and will take care of the rest.