“Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.” Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.
(Haggai 1:2-6 ESV)
I know this happened in 521 BC, but… does this sound weirdly like today to anyone but me? I won’t get into all the numbers, but nation-wide (one could perhaps make a case to say western world-wide), the house of the Lord has fallen on hard times. Sure there are mega-churches out there we can point to where vast numbers of believers meet week-to-week, and many of those are solid both in doctrine and in reproduction. But those are by far the exception. Here in America, only about 25% of us goes to church with any regularity (across all denominational lines, including Roman Catholic). Thousands of pastors are leaving the ministry every month because of the collapse of the church and the finger-pointing that invariably tends in their direction. I see advertisements on church employment sites all the time now saying the church is looking for their first part-time pastor, having backed down, in some cases from a multi-staff model. And I recently read about a church you can have if you are a pastor willing to come and preach twice and be voted in by the remnant. This church is for sale. They’re not looking to hire someone. They’re hoping someone might just want to plant a new church in the building of an old one.
And what has happened to all the people who used to inhabit these churches? Yes, I know there’s a recession on. Yes, I know unemployment is around 10% (heh… I’m only 25% employed myself). Yes, I know foreclosures are at an all-time high. But having said that, we in America still enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. We do live in paneled houses. And here, especially we eat, but you never have enough (woo hoo! The McRib Sandwich is back!); you drink, but you never have your fill (drinking games aren’t just for college kids any more). You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm (just gotta have next year’s fashion now). And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes (seems like everyone has their hand in the pot).
What happened to all the people who used to inhabit churches? They’ve been thoroughly secularized. They have come to believe that God is irrelevant and the church is corrupt. But really, what has happened in most places is simply that the passionate young evangelicals simply aged out and died. We neglected the deepest things of God: mercy, justice, love. And so we didn’t replace ourselves. The Word of the Lord has not gone out with effect in over a generation. And now the house of God is in ruins (or about to be), and the only ones left to take care of it are getting pretty grey.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good.
Then Zerubbabel…and Joshua…, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God.... And the people feared the LORD.
(Haggai 1:12 ESV)
There are four vital words the church always needs to know. Reformation. Revival. Rebuilding. Reproduction. Every generation of the church needs to know and use these words. If we don’t reform the church in every generation, the church will die. If we don’t pray for revival at every point, the church will die. If we don’t take serious steps to rebuild the church (not the buildings – the church), it will die. And if we do not reproduce the church it will die. The normal state of any healthy church should always be that it is in the process of reproducing itself. The idea isn’t to build the biggest body you can. The idea is to build healthy bodies that then spawn new bodies, no matter what the size.
Zerubbabel and Joshua didn’t fix the temple. They rebuilt. They also reformed (read the history to get a better idea of what they accomplished). They were responsible for a great revival in Israel. Around the same time it was decided that the Jews couldn’t depend on the Temple always being functional, and so they began a process of reproduction that ultimately resulted in the Synagogue system.
We can learn a lot from the reforms under Zerubbabel. If your church building has become an albatross; if the form your church has taken needs to be rethought; if it has been a long time since you last baptized anyone; if the age of your average member is over 50, don’t despair! Reform. Pray for Revival. Rebuild. Reproduce.