Rarely a week goes by when I don’t read some article bemoaning the decline of the church. Some are growing. Many are declining. And even in growing churches members attend with less and less frequency, choosing sports or sleeping in or going to the lake over being in the church house to worship God.
And can I just go on record by saying that I treasure the church—the church in general and the church I serve in particular. The church has always been part of my life. My earliest memories include stopping by the church library on my way from Sunday School to the sanctuary to pick up a book that would get me through the worship at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. I still the remember the smell of Dottie Hilton’s stale perfume on those Wednesdays after school when she led our little children’s choir at First Presbyterian Church in Branson. I remember so many things: Bible School, pot-luck suppers, Young Life, college group, camps and retreats. As a kid I didn’t always find church interesting and I haven’t always loved every minute I’ve been involved, but I always knew I was loved, I knew I belonged there among that particular group of people at that particular time. It was … family.
I treasure the church. It was the church that introduced me to the exploits of these larger than life characters named Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Samson and David and Elijah and Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the singing group but the Bible folks). They told me that they were in my family tree. It was the church that taught me that I was part of something larger than myself and my town and my country; I was a citizen in the kingdom of God that stretches around the whole wide world and from here to eternity.
I treasure the church. That’s where I first saw a cross and learned about a Savior who loved me and died for me and rose from the dead for me too. That’s the one place I could be assured that even if I hadn’t given God much thought on Monday through Saturday, my attention would be brought back to Him on Sunday with words as simple as “Let’s pray … open your Bible … hear the Word of the Lord.”
I treasure the church. It was the church that gave me my song and taught me to sing it:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound /
that saved a wretch like me.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty /
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
A mighty fortress is our God /
a bulwark never failing.
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature /
Son of God and Son of Man.
All the way my Savior leads me /
What have I to ask beside? /
Can I doubt His tender mercy /
Who through life has been my guide?
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord /
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light.
Up from the grave He arose! /
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.
When we all get to heaven /
what a day of rejoicing that will be.
How many times have the songs I learned from the church given voice to my praise, words to my sorrow, hope to my fear, faith to my doubts, and carried me when I was weak! And now the church is teaching me new songs that only add to the repertoire.
I treasure the church. The church has helped me see the world—not with the eyes of a tourist but with the eyes of God: eyes of compassion and love, eyes of concern for the lost and the poor and the people at the margins. And the church has helped me do my part in reaching out to all nations.
I treasure the church. When I was a child and my family fell apart, the church was there. When I went off to college, the church was there. When my kids were born, the church was there. When there’s been sickness or surgery, the church was there. When we had a crisis with our son, the church was there. When my parents died, the church was there. In good times and bad, in times of rejoicing and times of grief, the church has been there for me. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything and a season for everything under the sun, and the church has been there for me in every time and every season.
I treasure the church. That’s not to say that the church hasn’t broken my heart along the way, that the church has never let me down, or that the church has always lived up to my expectations. But that’s okay: I don’t love a perfect church and never have. I don’t love the church as I wish her to be; I love the church as she is—with her warts and her wrinkles, with her saints and her sinners, with her allies and her critics. I love the church when she’s gone down swinging and when she’s knocked it out of the park, when she’s soared like an eagle and when she’s limped like a three-legged dog. Someone once likened the church to Noah’s ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within. But in spite of the fact that the church stinks it up from time to time, I treasure the church.
I treasure the church because the church has always loved me and because Christ has loved me through His church. Christ has always loved me enough to challenge me and forgive me and encourage me and stick with me no matter what. And Christ does just that through His church. I treasure the church, and I value this treasure.
When I was a kid I collected baseball cards—from the early 60s to the early 70s I collected a lot of cards. I wish I had known they would become valuable. Then, maybe I wouldn’t have clothes-pinned Carl Yaztremski to the back tire on my bike so Carl could slap my spokes and make me sound like a motorcycle. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so free to trade some extra Brooks Robinsons or Mickey Mantles or Bob Gibsons or Ernie Banks or Hank Aarons or Willie Mayses or Sandy Koufaxes for some guy I didn’t know but didn’t have his card. Maybe I would have held on to rookie cards of people like Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt. At one point, somebody gave my brothers and I a bunch of baseball cards from the 40s and 50s—cards of people like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra and Bob Feller and Ted Williams and Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. They weren’t in mint condition, some carried a bit of a mildew smell, but they were loaded with some great players. When we went off to college, my mom started cleaning out closets. She told us she gave all our cards to a young cousin of ours. Didn’t think much of it at the time—just a little sting of nostalgia.
But when the mid-80s rolled around and people started opening up shops to sell classic baseball cards to serious collectors—my little brother and I often shook our heads and said, “We could have been rich.” Here was this treasure in our laps. We didn’t realize it. And we certainly didn’t value it.
Christ’s church is a treasure. Don’t trade it. Don’t lose it. Don’t give it away. Value it. It shows us Christ. It shapes our lives. It provides opportunities to impact eternity. It stirs us to love and good works. It encourages us when we need it most. It gets us ready for heaven. It makes us rich in ways that money can’t buy, in ways that last forever. And guess what: you get to be part of it.