"Portrait of a Great Church"
I have been to some great churches in my life. In 1979, I had the privilege to go to the largest church in our denomination at that time, the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. My reason for going to that church was the reputation of the pastor, Dr. W.A. (Wally Amos) Criswell. He was known in our convention for being the champion of conservative theology and belief in the perfect inspiration of the Bible. We went to the early service and I discovered that Dr. Criswell only preached the 11 o'clock service so I didn't even get to hear him that day.
In 1981, I had the privilege to enter into two other great churches around Cincinnati, Ohio. My friend, Johnny Holloway, pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. In that church there were 10 old-time stained glass windows that towered on the walls of the sanctuary 15 feet tall. Each of those beautiful windows depicted some scene in the life of Christ. Johnny told me that the church had insured each of those windows for $100,000 apiece. The First Baptist Church of Dayton, Kentucky was known for its colored crystal worth a million dollars. Johnny was a pretty good preacher too. Johnny took me over into Cincinnati one day to a Catholic church. I stood there that day in that cathedral church admiring the massive ceilings some 200 feet high with all the Romanesque architecture. The windows had wooden doors that closed to keep the light out and those doors on the windows were at least 75 feet tall. That church was known for its building.
In 1997, I had the awesome experience to visit in Adrian Rogers church, Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. I have in my library several books by Rogers and also his predecessor, R.G. Lee. Dr. Lee preached a famous sermon all over this country called "Payday Someday." The sermon was preached over a 1000 times all over the world actually as R.G. Lee traveled 100,000 miles a year in his 18 year post-retirement ministry. You can almost hear him speak the sermon from the grave: "And now with the introduction of these four characters— Naboth, the devout Jezreelite—Ahab, the vile human toad who squatted befoulingly on the throne of the nation— Jezebel, the beautiful adder beside the toad—and Elijah, the prophet of the living God, I bring you the tragedy of 'Pay-day—Someday'." Bellevue Baptist Church has always been considered great because of her preachers. It is a sign of the times for sure that such a church in these days has begun to attack their preacher, Steve Gaines, just like the attack upon Jerry Sutton, at Two Rivers Baptist Church, another church famous for its evangelistic efforts through the years.
Men and women, I fear that the portrait of a great church is crumbling today just like a toddler turns over the massive picture of a 750 piece jigsaw puzzle labored over by someone for weeks to get all the pieces together. Now it lays on the floor in a jumbled mess. What God meant to be his finest portrait of heaven on earth has now become a pile of disjointed intentions only fit to be swept up in the box of time and stored in the closet of nothingness if we do not recover our true reason for existence. I further fear the church has lost her relevance in our world due to two arenas of total defeat: the arena of compromise and the arena of carnality. We have laid our head like Samson in the lap of Delilah flirting with this world's God-defying ways and she has sheared the strands of our power. We stand powerless to turn back the tide of sin's cesspool because we take a bath in it every Friday and Saturday night before we go to church on Sunday.
Someone has rightly said that if you put a ship in the water it will sail fairly well but when you get water in the ship she will sink. Our churches are sinking today, having no influence on sinners who need to get saved, because they see no holiness in our ranks. Furthermore, we have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage.
Aletheia Baptist Fellowship is all about going back to the old-fashioned ways, the unchanging truth of God's Book. The more I live and pastor the more I despise what some churches have become. We've got dance halls that still call themselves churches. We've got theme parks pumping out entertainment with God's money for youth and adults alike that still call themselves churches. The look like "great" churches because they've got big budgets, big buildings, big crowds, and big, I mean really big shows. Ed Sullivan would have been proud. The only thing is the modern day church today is big where the New Testament church was small and small where the New Testament Church was big. Aletheia Baptist Fellowship is all about forsaking the trends of the times and following the Truth of the Ages getting back to what the Bible says is a great church.
David said, "I will give thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise thee among much people." Do we even know what a great congregation is today? Having begun in the Spirit shall we close out this age in the church finishing in the flesh? I hope not. I would hate to face Jesus with that record. I will be found leading a church when Jesus comes in New Testament greatness or be hiding in the woods in shame. What is a great church? When David speaks of the great congregation in this Psalm it is obvious that he means a great number of people since he says that very thing: "I will praise thee among much people." The congregation of Israel numbered in the millions. Yet, David did not mind to be totally different than the crowd. He speaks in this Psalm about those who are fighting him, devising his hurt. David was so strong in his stand for God that the people around him were mocking him and rejoicing when he had adversity. He characterizes himself as a "darling" to be rescued from the lions. I'll tell you today that the church, the true church needs to be rescued from the lions of business, worldliness, emptiness, coldness, and smugness. We need to repent, recharge, resurrect, and revive to the Lord's plan. I tell you I'm sick of humbug churches with tranquilizing preachers. God give us great churches with New Testament greatness. I want to give you six things God describes as a great church today as we take a short and quick journey through the book of Acts. You're going to find these Heavenly definitions of a great church in Acts 4, 5, 8, and 11. I will read the passages for you.
First of all, a great church according to God, (not according to you or me, not according to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, not according to the local newspaper) has great power. Acts 4:33 says, "And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." Folks, the key to New Testament greatness in the church is not in the implementation of programs but in the impartation of power from a mighty God. I've come to a time in my life and ministry where I absolutely do not want to do church at all without the power of God upon us.
Let me tell you how that is going to happen. It will happen the same way it happened in the first century church of the Bible. It will come by tarrying and telling. It will come by waiting and witnessing. It will come by experiencing and expressing. Jesus told His disciples to wait in the upper room until they were endued with power from on high by the Holy Spirit. In most churches today we wouldn't know the difference if the Holy Spirit went into retirement. If God doesn't show up we'll resort to plan B and just get on with the program. That is not greatness. That is foolishness. A great church according to God in the New Testament is a Spirit-filled church. But we don't even know what the term means. You can only be a Spirit-filled church as the believers in that church are Spirit-filled. A Spirit-filled Christian is not to make you a spectacle or an obstacle. It is to make you a miracle. Some folks think if you're Spirit-filled you'll have particular manifestations in your life which will mesmerize the congregation. I'm here to tell you that God doesn't fill you with His Spirit to show you off. God fills you with His Spirit to show off Jesus. You don't get the first-billing and anything that calls attention to you is no evidence of Spirit-given power.
That leads me to the second proof of God's empowerment to the church. I said it will come by tarrying and telling. God doesn't empower you to show you off but to send you out. God doesn't fill you to parade you but to employ you in the gospel witness. Notice what the verse says again. "And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." Acts 1:8 says, "And ye shall receive power... and ye shall be witnesses."
God never promises His power to any church who neglects God's primary business. There is no power for an entertaining church. There is no power for an ear-tickling preacher. There is no power for a social club church who thrives more on their in-house activities rather than out-of-the-house evangelism. We put the plug in the socket of God's power at the point of obedience to the Great Commission of God to go tell the world about Jesus. If we will not do that we're dead and there is no power in us. There is a lot of work in our churches but not much witnessing. You can't expect to have a great church that way. It's good to fix the chicken but its better to fix the soul of a man headed to hell. Its good to set up chairs for a meeting but its better to set up a meeting with an unbeliever so Jesus might become the Chairman of his heart. Are we going to do that at Aletheia or not? You may have a church the size of the Pentagon but if you do not have God's power you might as well be a doghouse, greenhouse, movie house, or madhouse as to claim to be God's house. The church needs to be a force for God not a farce to God. Greatness comes when it is obvious God's power is behind the operation.