By David Schnittger
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same period. The novel begins with the opening sentence which introduces the universal approach of the book: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I would like to take that theme and apply it to the church in America today. It is my view that, for some churches, the challenging environment in American culture represents the “best of times.” For other churches, it represents the “worst of times.”
Let me illustrate that by analyzing two churches I visited recently. I should interject at this juncture, that normally I am quite busy on Sunday morning, as I teach the Senior Adult class at Metropolitan Baptist Church. This is the largest class at Metropolitan, made up of about 70 godly and spiritually hungry saints, who love to be taught the Word of God. As much as I enjoy teaching them, I am afforded a brief sabbatical each summer. As a former pastor, I enjoy visiting other churches in the area, to observe different approaches to worship and ministry. This summer, I decided to visit two historic (old) churches in the Oklahoma City area. Without giving their names, I would like to describe each church.
The first church is part of a theologically liberal denomination. Their current building was completed in 1960 and is a landmark in OKC because of its unusual architecture. Located on 20 acres, in its heyday it boasted tennis courts, a bowling alley, an amphitheater and an indoor theater. It was a busy, bustling church of over 2,000 congregants in the 1960s. Since then, it has declined dramatically. There were approximately 50 in attendance the Sunday my wife and I visited, and there was a “FOR SALE” sign on the property. The message was moralistic but not evangelistic. They were still involved in some community events such as a Day Care center and providing back to school supplies for neighborhood children. However, there was no indication of gospel outreach as a focus of the church’s efforts.
The second church is part of a theologically conservative denomination. It is also an older facility, located in a neighborhood that has declined in recent decades. It was also apparent that the churches heyday was long past, as the 150 or so attendees were rattling around in a building much larger than currently needed. The message was sound biblically with an evangelistic application. The mostly aged congregation is involved in a variety of gospel outreaches to the community. The pastor is also active in promoting congregational involvement in liberty issues, and his wife is a State Representative.
Both congregations were in older facilities and were obviously well past their prime in terms of numbers. However, that is where the similarity ends. The first church is liberal in its theology and does not emphasize the gospel. Its activities are characteristic of what used to be called, “the social gospel.” The second church is fundamental in its theology and focuses on the gospel both in its message and its ministry. I believe the first church will ultimately fail and be dissolved. I believe the second church, though, while struggling, will prevail and will continue to have an influence for Christ in their community.
In my view, these churches represent, in microcosm, what is happening in established “traditional” churches across the nation. In general, both kinds of churches are struggling in an increasingly secular society and in competition with “seeker-friendly” churches. While liberal theology took over the seminaries and mainline denominations in the early decades of the 20th century, liberal churches cannot stand the test of time and are rapidly dying off. The traditional fundamental churches, if they respond to the changing ethnicity of their neighborhoods and remain gospel focused, can remain viable and have a transforming impact on their communities.
Jesus promised to faithful churches, who maintain sound doctrine and the Lordship of Christ that, “. . . the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Our Lord did not make such a promise to churches that have departed from the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). I trust that you, dear reader, are involved in a church that faithfully teaches the Word of God and seeks to reach the community with the saving message of Christ!