The Paper Pulpit
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, lived on one of the Greek islands. Near where he lived is an old olive tree that supposedly was planted around the time that he lived. If this is so, this tree would be approximately 2,400 years old. Its trunk is very large, but completely hollow. It is little more than thick bark. It has a few long, straggling branches, but they are supported by sturdy wooden poles every few feet. It has an occasional leaf here and there, but it produces very few olives.
In the fields around, however, olive groves can be seen in all directions. The strong, young trees with narrow trunks are covered with a thick canopy of leaves, under which masses of olives can be found each year. The tree of Hippocrates is still an olive tree in that it still shows the essential unique characteristics, but it has long since ceased to fulfill an olive tree’s function. Tourists come in droves to inspect this ancient relic, having a link to ancient history, but it long ago ceased to do what it was designed to do.
The tree of Hippocrates is an accurate description of what has happened to many American churches. The form is there, but the function is not. They have some of the characteristics of being a church, but they have stopped reproducing. Some are satisfied with just being big. Others take pride in the fact that they have a noble history. A church begins to stagnate when its members begin to say the following seven things:
We’ve never done it that way before. These words are called “The Seven Last Words of a Dying Church.” Churches are unwilling to try new ideas and methods because they are satisfied with the status quo. They have gotten into a rut. A rut has been described as “a grave with both ends knocked out.”
We’re not ready for that. This is just another way of saying, “We like the way we are. We will perhaps be willing to try something new in the future, but not now. It could possibly work, but we aren’t ready!”
We’re doing all right without it. When churches reach out to their community and bring in new people, they would very likely not think the same way we do. The current power structure would be diluted.
We tried that once before. If it didn’t work then, it is likely that the people who oppose it now are the very ones who made it impossible for it to work when it was tried.
It costs too much. These words have been spoken countless times in an attempt to stymie excellent ideas that would empower a church to fulfill its mission. “Is it God’s will?” is the question a church should ask, not “How much does it cost?” God never asks a church to do more than it is able to do. He enables His followers to accomplish the goals He assigns. We only have to be willing; God supplies the power.
That’s not our responsibility. Saying this is just another way of maintaining the status quo, of saying, “We’re willing to attend church every now and then, but much more than that we are not willing to do. Perhaps what is being proposed can be done by another church, but not our church!”
It won’t work. You never know whether or not anything will work until you try it for the first time. Pessimism doesn’t get anything done. It never did. It never will.
These statements might well be called “The Seven Steps of Church Stagnation.” They inhibit, limit, damage and stagnate! Is your church like the tree of Hippocrates? Or is it alive with enthusiasm? Is it making a positive impact on its community? Are people being born again? If your church is not alive and moving forward, it is moving in the direction of stagnation. The success of your church in fulfilling its divinely assigned mission depends to a large degree upon you.
Dr. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Sanford.