On Saturday, I attended the 350th anniversary of First Baptist Boston. I left with a broken heart. It is the 3rd church founded in Boston, the 5th Baptist church ever planted in America, and one of the most historically important churches in the nation, and it is literally falling in on itself. The experience of visiting the church was absolutely heartbreaking. When you walk in you are immediately captured with the grandeur of the front of the sanctuary. It’s amazing. The organ towers upward and you are transfixed with awe. The stage is amazing, beautiful, and everything you’d expect in a great, historic church that has faithfully proclaimed the gospel and stood for century upon century.
But then you look around. The woodwork has not been maintained and is decaying. The stained glass is coming apart in places. There is evidence of water damage everywhere you look. At least one of the pillars is massively decaying. The ceiling shows signs of leaking in dozens of places and the sections of the ceiling are gone, exposing bare wood. The walls are all wracked with water damage, and you can see the lathes behind the plaster in many places. Nowhere is this more evident than when you stand in the pulpit and look out and see a gaping hole where the plaster is peeling back. The floor is no better. The carpet is decaying and threadbare, and the marble under the pews is cracked and broken. All around, there are signs of decay. Historic paintings have been damaged by water. The side chapel reveals more peeling paint and decaying plaster. On and on it went. I’d estimate that the damage I saw is in the 10’s of millions. In short order, you feel like you are standing in the presence of death, while the (paid) choir sings on.
But, by and large, that’s secondary to the true problem. When you look around, you realize that the building is a reflection of the state of the congregation. There are not many people there. There were less than 50 people there for the 350th anniversary of one of the moist historically important churches in the country. The membership has dwindled, and so has the impact of the church on the community, and the American Baptist Church of Massachusetts.
What I left thinking is that "this is what happens when a church loses sight of its mission. Its mission is to make disciples. Its mission is to proclaim the gospel and bring people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and lead them to live for His glory. And when it doesn’t do its mission everything else rots. What I saw at First Baptist Boston is a great love of the church. There is something laudable in their love for their church. One gentleman lived in Florida and still comes back every other Sunday because of his deep love of the church. I truly enjoyed my conversations with the members of the church But there is also real decline. It is clear that the church has become inwardly focused. They are not making disciples right now. Everything that I heard was about the history, what we have done rather than what we are doing. It sees itself in light of its history, rather than who it currently is. Like the church in Sardis, which lived in a city that loved its history but did not see that it is already dead, and reflected the heart of the city in its thinking, FBC Boston is shaped more by the past than the present. This was illustrated when someone quietly told me that “they don’t call pastors, they hire them”. The difference is everything. One is calling someone to lead them to be a church faithfully proclaims the gospel and glorifies God. The other is hiring someone to do what you tell them. When people insinuate that this is your approach, and when the stories they whisper about you are about power plays and the church being like a non-profit you’re in trouble, because you’ve lost sight of your task to be a gospel centered, disciple making, God glorifying church.
But, just as in Sardis, that is not the last word. I left heartbroken. I also left hopeful. The president of the ABC, Donald NG, spoke on two passages. He spoke on Ezekiel 37 where Ezekiel sees the valley of the dry bones and is commanded to prophecy to it. He also spoke on 1 Peter 2, and how we are living stones, living stones that can be built up once more. And as I look at it, therein lies hope. The hope of the gospel. Because the church is living stones, built up, with Christ, the living Stone, rejected by men as its corner and capstone. We are built up in Christ.
As I was reflecting on Doctor NG’s sermon, I couldn’t help but think about what Jesus says to the church in Sardis. After delivering blistering news that they were dead, that they needed to "wake up and strengthen what remains, remember what you have heard and keep it, and repent”. He also says, “You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels”. What Jesus is saying is that some in Sardis needed to repent. They are Christians (that is the implication of the fact that they “have not soiled their garments) but they need to repent. But some are not. They have soiled their garments. To them He says, become Christians. “He who overcomes will, like them (the unsoiled), be dressed in white”. He makes them an offer to come to Him. For all those reasons, I am hopeful. I am hoping that God can and will move.
The church has atrophied. I don’t know the spiritual state of those there. It may be that God has been pruning it, and is preparing it to be led by the current interim to reset and reach out in a new way, and that God uses the membership is there to reach the city with the gospel. It may be that He is bringing them to a point where they will turn and ask a young replanter to come serve, and invite that pastor to go to plant, replant, and revitalization minded churches, and ask for them to help by sending people to be part of a core team to that begins to rebuild the church, much in the way that the exiles had to gather a group to go and rebuild Jerusalem. It may be that they will not follow their pastor’s wisdom (and their current pastor is very wise- of course I'm biased, he was a professor of mine), continue to decline, and spiral to death. I don't know what God is going to do or will do in the future. But I do know that when God says to the church in Sardis, and to all of our churches, that He has not found their deeds "complete in the sight of my God", He is giving us all a powerful impetus to look at our church and ask, "What is decaying", "What is dying" And "how can we strengthen what remains in our churches, so that real whole life disciples who connect to the gospel and live out of the gospel in all of life are nurtured?" "How can we glorify God in our Church?" May we ask these questions, so that in the end, we will be living stones who are built up in Christ for the glory of God.