Why Won’t You Listen?
When I was a teenager, we had a man in our church named Bill. He was short, with a small rectangular face and wore something like a flat top haircut. In todayâ€™s more precise and kinder language, he would be described as having Downs Syndrome. Bill could not talk. He grunted, whistled and used his hands to communicate.
A lot of church members where not happy with Bill being in church. His kind tends to subvert the dignity of more normal people. But they tolerated him. Like every small town, there was a kind of competition as to who is more important. Family names, income, size of home, the kind of car and how one dressed all played a role in determining the imaginary pecking order. Bill was at the bottom of the pecking order. His whole being subverted the system because with Bill, wealth, name, cars, homes, or clothes were of little value. You could not impress someone like Bill.
Bill had one habit that irritated everyone. I have to admit that I was as bad as the others. I did not see the value that Bill had then. His one habit caused us teens to roll our eyes and laugh and make fun, much the same way many of the adults did. Bill would come down the isle during the invitation. He came for every invitation, every Sunday. The pastor would make his appeal to the lost and the saved who needed to repent. Bill would get this look on his face. It was sadness and loneliness and compassion all combined. He would slip out and go up front and take the pastorâ€™s hand, whispering and whistling as he did. No one else would come down the isle. But if the pastor wanted to brag about something at the pastorâ€™s meeting, there was always one â€œdecisionâ€ that he could count on.
Something changed in Bill, he began to dress differently. He started to wear a fine blue polyester suit with red stitching. It was like our pastorâ€™s suit. Most of us country people knew, even in the polyester 70s, that polyester suits were not cool. However, we did wear those silk shirts with prints on them. You know the ones with flying geese, sunsets, Luaus, etc. Therefore, no one really had room to criticize the pastorâ€™s clothes, or Billâ€™s.
Bill, now wearing his blue polyester preacher suit, still came down the isle every Sunday. But now he stood with the pastor and helped him offer the invitation. Eyes rolled, people moaned. And they asked quietly, â€œwhat are we going to do with Bill?â€ I never knew how the problem was resolved because I moved away to go to seminary. But several years ago he died and I guess the problem was solved then.
Since those days, my home church has declined significantly. They may never be able to have a full time pastor again. Bluntly, it is their own fault. I know this is brutal but it is the truth and every church needs to examine itself and see what road they travel. Members of my home church, as did I, wanted a comfortable religion. We did not want to be challenged too much. Church was part of our social life. In a small town the size of mine, about 300 people, church was one of the few places where you can flex your social status. But above all, they did not want any kind of change, personal change or congregational change.
They really made no effort to reach the community. The pastor did. I and a few others would go and visit with him and I know that he tried. But as it is true in all churches, the pastor cannot make a church grow. He cannot visit enough people and witness to enough of the lost by himself to make that much difference. It takes a whole witnessing church to reach a community. My home church refused to do that because often that meant reaching the wrong kind of people. I remember when one of my friends came to church. He had taken some side roads in his young life. He was a hippy, had long hair, wore hippy clothes. And the church responded to him like he had leprosy. I remember it quite well. I was in college. Even I knew that in order to love others as Christ loved, you have to get down and dirty sometimes. You have to love people where they are and you have to love people you donâ€™t like. A nineteen-year-old kid with long hair needed to know Christ, just not in my home church.
Thirty years later, my home church has been through many pastors and they have severely declined. It is sad. When I see my home church, I want to cry. Hypocrisy (and we are all guilty), materialism, shallowness of faith, refusal to repent, arrogance, lack of real love have all lead to their decline. Their decline was the result of deliberate choices made by the church through the years. The choices avoided the commitment of faith, not making necessary changes, and avoiding taking responsibility for the life of the church. Each choice would lead them further from the biblical ideals and set them up for future decline. They would blame their decline on the pastor or on circumstances. Now they are old people who love their comfortable worship and lifestyle. They would not change even if it meant their grand children coming to know Christ, even if it meant sustaining the church for one more generation. I hear things and it sounds like the death rattles of a once great church now creeping toward extinction.
These are not evil people. In fact, they are good people. Many of the men had a powerful influence on my development as a person and as a Christian. But like most of us, it was too easy for them to shape their faith in such a way that they were able to avoid the major challenges of their day.
It grieves me that my home church and so many other churches in my former rural community are dying. And it is not for the lack of people. The population has grown considerably. It is in this context that I started thinking about Bill. It was as if a carbide lamp flashed its hot, bright light on me and caused me to see. I know who Bill was, he was a prophet. God was using him to call his people to himself.
Isnâ€™t that just like God? He chooses the lowest guy in the pecking order, the most humble, the simplest man there to be his prophet. Why, if a man like Bill understood the need to repent and turn to God, surely the town fathers were wise enough to do the same. But we laughed at him. We rejected the hippy and we were unfriendly to the dirt poor family who might attend ever so often. In the congregation, Bill had the least need of all to repent. But each week he repented before us as a public example. He joined the pastor in extending the invitation, much like the prophets of old who called and cajoled and begged and demanded until their souls were empty trying to get the people to repent. But they, me, we were too stupid, too dense, too dull minded to hear God in the actions of this simple man. Remember what the Apostle Paul said:
But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, NASB)
We were too smart for our own good. We simply missed it. If Bill could understand the call of God why did not the rest of us? Why did it take me over 30 years to figure it out? I hope I can stand in heaven and apologize to Bill one day.
What concerns me is that the situation does not seem to be any better today. We do not hear the voice of God. Maybe it is because the world is getting old and tired and running down. Whatever the reason, the church is in a major decline. Denominational leaders push programs and lament that churches are â€œplateauedâ€ or declining. They pick out some pastor who was â€œsuccessfulâ€ over the last couple of years and put him on display, the latest hero. The denominational leaders will try to embarrass the rest of us while the hero tells us how he did it. â€œFollow my plan and you can be great like me.â€ But it seems he was just doing what the rest of us were doing. It never dawns on folk that perhaps it was God doing the great things, not the pastor.
However, denominational leaders always seem to point us to various mega churches and comment on how much the church grows. We need to be more like them, they tell us. But if you will look carefully, those mega churches grow by siphoning members off of smaller churches. Smaller churches become the feeder church. The baptismal ratios (the ratio of members to the number baptized converts) of most mega churches are no better than the smaller church. All the while, hundreds and thousands of churches, Godâ€™s precious Bride, are dying and shrinking and will soon close their doors. Yet, the majority of pastors go to bed every night feeling like failures. They tried all the programs and it did not work.
No doubt, there are all kinds of Bills, prophets simple and small, who are calling Godâ€™s churches to repentance. Jeremiah the prophet once wrote, â€œAnd I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not listen.’â€ (Jer. 6:17) I am afraid this is most of us. We are not hearing God. All the programs in the world will do no good if we are unwilling to hear God and do things Godâ€™s way. His way is simple, we repent of our sin, he heals our broken souls and we serve him with a fresh faith. Then the church becomes real and authentic and it grows.
Nevertheless, will anyone hear the simple message? The poor prophet, will he be heard? Have our years of sin and refusal to repent caused us not to hear? Jeremiah was called the weeping prophet for a reason. He recorded Godâ€™s word to him : “You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you; and you shall call to them, but they will not answer you.â€ (Jer. 7:27) I pray it is not too late.
Let us weep for each other. Even to this day, God is calling us to repent, to turn from our self centeredness, from our materialism, from our lack of love and grace. He still speaks. My prayer for us all is that we will listen.