While some folks say, things aren’t what they used to be, I say, yes, but they never were what they are now.
I am a historian by nature. When I visited the Litchfield Congregational church, built in Connecticut in 1721, I tried to imagine all the sin-weary souls who had come to hear the Gospel preached for over three centuries inside those consecrated walls.
Later, when I went to see the Rays and Red Sox play at old Fenway Park, it was not enough to watch the game. I had to picture what it must have been like for a father taking his son out of school to attend a game back in 1912. Millions of people with memories of that old ball park, and my mind wanted to capture them all. I walk by an old high school building built in 1927 in Tampa, and I have to stop and try to imagine all the scenes that may have taken place. All the loves and relationships that began on that campus. I stand on the sidewalk, looking at an old glass window. I ask myself, on the last day of school in 1942 did a young man stand where I stand now, and glance for the last time at a young girl he had a crush on standing in the window, before leaving to join the war, never to return?
In 1991 I drove to a remote little town in extreme western Oklahoma, to preach. When I arrived at the church, I went downstairs to get water. While downstairs I saw several Sabbath School classrooms, all totally vacant and abandoned. The elderly couple who invited me home for lunch explained that all those rooms were packed with children back in the day. But they all grew up and moved away to find jobs. The husband was the school master back in the day, but had since retired for decades, and, with no children around any more, the only traces of the school were distant memories. I remember a feeling of sadness coming over me as I thought of the hollow classrooms once full of life. I can’t say if it was the evangelist or the historian in me that made me wish there was a way to fill those classrooms with lively children again.
Over the years those hollow classrooms occasionally haunt my mind. Of course in my lifetime, I have seen changes in my own childhood church. It still has a thriving church school and Sabbath School department, but when my friends and I go home to visit, we remember days gone by when the church was much fuller. But I have to keep in mind that when we were kids our church was The Adventist Church in the area. Today there are several Adventist churches in the area, and there really is no “The” Church now. This is where the evangelist in me wars with the historian in me. The historian in me wants to re-create the church I grew up in. I want to go home again. The evangelist in me rejoices that there are new churches, and the gospel is being preached all over the area now, instead of in just one place. I understand my childhood church is slightly smaller now because people are spreading out to other churches to share the gospel beyond my little neighborhood.
Now my mind looks back to those empty Sabbath School classrooms in the middle of nowhere in Western Oklahoma. Is it really sad that the kids grew up and moved on to bigger places where they could find jobs? Not if moving gave them more opportunities to share Jesus with those in need! Now I look back at those empty classrooms in a different way. Maybe the primary Sabbath School teacher did not realize it at the time, but she was doing a lot more than teaching the children in her small town about Jesus. She was training them to be missionaries and take the Gospel from those little rooms and spread it all over the world! The historian in me looks into those vacant rooms and sees a church that died. The evangelist in me looks into those hollow rooms and sees scores of children leaving those sacred halls to share the Gospel in new places, meeting people around the world who need Jesus.
The church is a movement, not a history museum. The church is a people and not an old building standing out in a field where there used to be a town. While reality tells me that many of the kids probably left the church, I am sure many stayed in the church. Many of the children who filled those old Sabbath School classrooms in western Oklahoma took the church with them when they moved away! The Sabbath School class did not die in those classrooms in western Oklahoma; the class just outgrew its walls! They grew all over the world! I look back now and realize children with whom I sat in Primary Sabbath School class in my home church are now scattered from the South Pacific Islands to New England and beyond. And you know what’s cool? We left four walls we used to meet in, but we never left the church. We took it with us! Just as importantly, we never left each other. We are in touch on Facebook and Sabbath School Net, where we still share ideas from theology to evangelism strategies. And of course we still get together personally when we can. A couple years ago, a former classmate, now a teacher, helped me put my Bible curriculum together while living 1200 miles away. You see, our little Sabbath School classroom did not die. Just the opposite. We grew so big we exceeded the boundaries of our four little walls.
I believe it to be the same with the little classrooms in a small town in Western Oklahoma. If I ever get a chance to return, and I hope I do, I will go downstairs and look into those empty classrooms again. This time instead of trying to imagine a class that once was, I will see a class that still is and even more. I will see a classroom that has grown into something much bigger and greater than it ever was. I won’t see a class that died in a little room. I will see a class that grew all over the world to help people all over the world who need Jesus.
When I think of my experience in the church, I realize in one sense, I can never go home again. The building I worshiped in as a child will never be what it was. That’s just fine. It was never meant to stay what it was. It was meant to grow. It was meant to grow beyond those walls into the rest of the world where people need Jesus. My church is now all over the word. So in one sense, I can never go back to my home church again. In an even more real sense, my home church is all over the world now and is everywhere I go. And the even greater reality is, that I’ve never been home and never will be until Jesus comes. While the historian in me wants to reminisce about the way the church used to be, the evangelist in me says to keep growing the church. It’s not finished yet!