The Day I took Jesus out of the Church.
Taking Jesus out of the church Is not something that I would have ever expected I would do.
After all, I loved Jesus, or at least thought I did.
I came to know Him as a teenager, followed Him to Bible College and Seminary, and desired to serve Him. I’m told that some things creep up on you and then hit you hard out of nowhere. Others may look at what happened at our church and say I was on a slippery slope.
I have always feared that one day I would wake up and ask myself, “what have I done? Where am I? Who am I? Who would do this?”
Nonetheless, I took Jesus out of the church.
To be honest, seminary did not prepare me for the day I had to make this decision. I was a young twenty-five-year-old pastor at a new ministry, trying to revitalize an old church. The church had a lot of issues.
One of my mentors accompanied me on the first Sunday I preached at the church. They followed the service with an hour-long business meeting with 8 people, debating on voting me in as their pastor (that’s another story for another time.)
They did eventually vote me in with an underwhelming 4 to 3 vote. When my mentor, a retired pastor friend, David Green, walked out after the service, he said two times with his Texas-sized and Texas-style voice, “snakes in the grass, there are snakes in the grass.”
Yep, it was that obvious from a first-time visitor that there were problems. Another pastor and mentor, Mike Reid, sent over his Deacons to speak each Sunday until my family could arrive and begin the work. He commented, “We just tried to keep it dead until you got here.”
The problems with the building were just as obvious. While the original church was built in the mid-1800s, it burned down sometime after the civil war. The current building was believed to be built in the late 1800s. Let’s see; there was red carpet from the ’70s, wood paneling covering the old plaster walls, a nasty sagging drop ceiling installed, cables that ran from one wall to another keeping the building together, a deck out front (seriously, who builds a deck on the front of a church?), handmade pews to small to sit in, an outhouse out back (yes, an actual outhouse), overcrowded and awkwardly designed royal furniture on the platform and grandma styled figurines everywhere.
The crown jewel was a 1970’s styled photo of Jesus with blue eyes and flowing hair, looking off into the distance.
As you would expect in an old Southern Baptist Church, Jesus took the place of prominence. He hung front and center in a larger-than-life-like picture above the pulpit. After all, Jesus should be prominent in His Church…..right? That’s definitely what the few senior citizens in our church thought. It wasn’t just a thought for one lady, in particular; it seemed to be the bedrock belief in her life.
We had slowly begun to clean up and remodel the church to bring it from its strange mix of the 1800s and 1970s into the 21st century; it was 2005. We got rid of spiritual figurines or graven images as I thought of them. We took the 97 boxes of tissues and consolidated them. We removed the open rat poison boxes that probably sat undisturbed for 20 or more years. We did this in preparation for our new nursery and our expected daughter to arrive in just a few months.
It wasn’t going well, but it was going…..until I did the unthinkable.
I took Jesus out of the church. Yes, literally. I grabbed a ladder, climbed up and took Him off of His prominent position, and set Him in the office. I don’t know if I was possessed as some people claimed or if I skipped my devotions that day, but it happened.
I still remember the call that I received from the former pastor. You know it’s terrible when a member calls the former pastor to rat you out. I could tell it was awkward for him, but I did something even he was unwilling to do. I told him there was a new sheriff in town, and we never spoke again. I’m kidding, but it was strange.
Next, I received a call and a request to meet with the local representative from our Southern Baptist regional association. I got a free breakfast from McDonald’s out of it, but even he said it was a little awkward that a lady in our church called him and made him promise to do something about this. She was persuasive and pressured others to return Jesus to his rightful place in the church.
I’ll change just one letter in her name to protect me and call this….person Lola. Lola had been in the church for over 50 years. She told me how she moved to the area when the church was boarded up and closed. Her father came and fixed it up, and they found a pastor and reopened the church. That’s pretty fantastic stuff. However, she came to feel a sense of ownership over the place. At one point, she told me,
“When you’re gone, I’m turning this place into a museum.”
In my quest to figure out where Lola was coming from, I stumbled across some old church minutes where she had single-handedly run off a few other pastors that attempted to threaten her control. She called her business meetings, rounded up the troops, and voted them out. I then realized I wasn’t just dealing with a grandma-like figure.
Most of the pastors at the church over the years were retired or bi-vocational. When aggression was made towards them, they usually left, probably thinking, “this is not worth the headache.” But I was young and stubborn and realized that Lola didn’t have the backing she used to. She tried.
She called all the former people and family members, but somehow they had lost interest like the good old days.’ For a few Sunday’s Lola and a family member or two, whom she convinced to come with her, came and tried to stir up controversy. But by this time, there were a few dozen new people. She told visitors, “this pastor is destroying the church,” and “he took Jesus out of the church.” She wrote messages in the hymnals, “pastor Flanders leave this church.” I even got anonymous phone calls, I believe, from a family member telling me “to go back to Florida.” We considered it.
I felt Lola needed Jesus, so I extended the olive branch. I offered to give her this incredible gift. She gladly received Jesus; I wondered in arrogance, “is this the first time this has happened.”
I’d love to say that picture changed her life, but we continued to deal with challenges from Lola until she eventually grew tired and departed. Strangely, even after leaving, she would drive by the church every Thursday morning to see what was changing.
Generally, with a story like this, I would try to weave in some life lesson, spiritual application, or leadership principle. This time, it’s just about self-therapy. This was Therapeutic. But there is one major lesson I am reminded of.
We must take Jesus out of the church to give Him to others!
Oh, and if you have a similar story on church revitalization, I’d love to hear it. Misery loves company!