It has been our custom for many years to have a “state of the church” message at an early point in the year. This year we have an opportunity to have that message pretty early. Now sometimes the message concerns the state of the church nationally, and sometimes it pertains just to our congregation. This year the message is largely going to be about this congregation, and it is going to be more exhortation and encouragement than it will be exposition.
“Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds. For riches are not for ever: and doth the crown endure to every generation?” (Prov. 27:23–24).
Summary of the Text:
Information is gold. Information is wealth. Know the state of your flocks. Do not assume you know how your herds are doing. Check it out. Look well to your herds. Go look.
The reason the exhortation is necessary is that when you are not looking, all kinds of things are happening. They don’t cease their activity simply because the overseer is being a slouch. Unwatched weeds grow. Unwatched sheep wander off. Unwatched ledgers get into a horrible mess. So the reason given for being diligent and looking well to your herds is that riches are not forever, and the legacy of a crown is not automatic.
But when you have wealth—any amount of it, any form of it—the easiest thing in the world to do is to take its continued existence for granted. All of us tend to think that whatever happened to us last year, provided it was good, is an everlasting birthright. It will continue on, automatically. No, it won’t. Be diligent. Look well.
The principles apply whether we are talking about farming, or business, or education, or the arts. The principles—precisely because they are principles—always apply. And they apply to us as a congregation.
I would describe this congregation as being extraordinarily generous, hard-working, diligent, doctrinally sound, hospitable, and particularly devout. The context of all my exhortations here are assuming this. But this does not mean that as a congregation you have grown past the point of temptation, and have somehow “arrived.” Not a bit of it. You will be tempted where you are. The church at Ephesus had certain strengths, and so their temptations took those strengths into account. The tempter is not stupid.
So then, what are the temptations of a healthy church? I think I can tell you.
Programs for the People, Not the Other Way Around
It is possible to drown in a river that has an average depth of two feet. That is not how deep it is where the person drowned, but that is the true average.
How is it possible to be lonely in a room full of hundreds of people? That is often where the loneliness is the worst. Look around the room. Are there cracks here where someone can fall through? There certainly are. Change the metaphor. After the services, there are happy islands of friends visiting and fellowshipping all over the room—as they are supposed to. But is there nowhere to drown between the islands?
You can be informally diligent with your flock when you only have ten sheep. But when you have a congregation of hundreds, you have to have a system. Your bookkeeping system that you used for your paper route doesn’t work when you have three retail outlets. This is why we have parishes. This is why the elder board prays for a segment of the congregation every week. This is why we have parish discipleship groups.
Gregarious people can be thoughtless, and there are sins that come with friendliness. Friends come easily. Getting in with an ingrown group of friends is one of the temptations. But there are sins that afflict the lonesome also. Evading all the mechanisms that were developed in order to keep people from falling through the cracks is an example. And both kinds of people tend to invert the whole needs/wants thing.
When Fruit Condemns:
If we continue to be gospel-centered, as is our hope, and as the gospel continues to be powerful to transform, as it is, we will find ourselves dealing with people who feel condemned by the presence of all the love, joy, peace, patience, etc. I guess broken, screwed-up people don’t belong here, right? No. What this mental trick does is turn gospel fruitfulness into a new uber-law, one that condemns us much better than the old one ever could.
Christ saves. Looking like you belong on the cover of a homeschool magazine does not save. Christ saves. Latin doesn’t save. Christ saves. Matching pitch doesn’t. Christ saves. Liturgical correctness does not save, and frequently damns. Christ saves. Doctrinal precision does not save, and frequently damns. Christ saves. Refined taste does not. Christ saves. Poverty work does not. That point can never be emphasized too much. The sinful heart of man always wants something other than Christ, or wants some version of Christ plus. But we are saved by Christ alone.
At the same time, remember that many times the bitter former devotee of a fallen idol is the same one who wants to blame those who did not fall into that same confusion. Remember that in a gnarled-up sin tangle, every bit of string contributes.
Healthy Churches Are Slandered Churches:
When the slanders come, as they periodically do, we like to cite the encouraging words that the Lord left us. When they heave all the dead cats your direction, what are our marching orders (Matt. 5:11-12)? Rejoice and be exceedingly glad. And to this the response often is, “Look how holy you think you are, swanking around with two halos.” Oh, no—we know that if God were to mark iniquities, none of us could stand. We know that through the law no flesh will be justified. We know what our temptations and failings are. We just know that the accusations of bank robbery are false. We do not have to deny that we are sinners just because we have realized that our adversaries are bad shots.
The Church is No Utopia:
We are a people. That means we have seen it all. Every sin in the book is represented here, is gathered in this room. But we are a redeemed people, which means that Christ is dealing with it all. What is He dealing with in us and in our lives? Legal troubles. Perverted temptations. Financial trials. Health struggles. Harsh families. Marriage struggles. Child rearing challenges. Emotional weakness. Manipulative motives. A critical spirit. Business blunders. Petulant self-righteousness. Lust. Pride. Envy.
And every week when God Almighty sees us straggling in through those doors, what does He do? In the power of the Spirit, because of the blood of the Son, He looks down on us and says welcome.