God calls for reform and renewal of churches in exile
By Terry Hiebert, Ph.D.
It started with a Bible study. Young families sensed God moving in revival. The good news of salvation in Jesus transformed their lives. Bible studies formed to discover the meaning of new life in Christ. Still, their church remained traditional and legalistic. Ministers resisted these new gospel songs and “born again” sermons. Eventually the young leaders started a church to proclaim Jesus for lost friends and family.
This small enthusiastic group called a pastor and the church grew. God was moving as believers discovered a personal relationship with Christ. The church saw the need to reach new people with the gospel. They moved to a larger town with a central location and changed their name to reflect their mission. Worship services, Sunday Schools, Bible studies, children’s and youth programs followed. Young adults went to Bible schools and missionaries were sent around the world. The church was now experiencing a golden age led by a well-loved pastor.
And then, almost without notice, the church lost it. Whatever it was, the members found difficult to describe. But the church kept going, maintaining their programs, hoping that it would return. They invited guest speakers for deeper life services. The leaders read and listened to famous preachers who had it. But it did not return.
The church hired pastors who left frustrated and discouraged after short stays. Without pastoral leadership, strong voices within the church shared opinions of what it really was. Well-meaning voices promoted the latest podcasts and songs from charismatics to Reformed theology, social justice to apologetics, and from mega-church successes to recovering liturgical traditions.
Competing visions of it caused division and good people drifted from the church. Attendance dwindled. Newcomers could sense that it had left the building and so did they. But a remnant continued believing that they were the faithful They were called by God to keep it alive, whatever it meant any more. After years on life support the church finally closed. The remnant left bitter and disillusioned.
This lifecycle story represents many churches and Christian organizations, including the ones I serve. We believe that “unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). But we also continue to pray, plan and work to bring about renewal in the churches and ministries we love.
Tony Morgan in The Unstuck Church (2018) guides readers through the church lifecycle as I described. Experience shows that church lifespans average 70 years plus or minus. Much like our human lifespans, the need for renewal increases with age. My 99-year-old aunt Helen is a great example of physical and spiritual renewal as a secret for longevity.
Craig Groeschel in It: How Churches and Leaders can Get It and Keep It (2011) admits how notoriously difficult it is to describe church health. Leading churches believe they know the secret to renewal and invite people from around the world to drink from their fountain of life. However, when we are asked to describe the meaning of renewal, there is awkward silence.
Historian James D. Smith III reviews the paths believers take in making their spiritual life more genuine and vibrant. These pathways involve reform as intentional efforts toward restored ideals and renewal as a more spontaneous revitalization of faith.
An example of reform and renewal is found in the story of Ezekiel. The book opens with a priest living among the exiles by the Kebar River. He encounters God in four dramatic visions calling for reform and promising renewal (1:1; 8:4; 37:2; 40:2).
God’s visions for Ezekiel begin with reform. The first vision reveals the glory of God and calls Ezekiel to prophesy. “This is what the Sovereign Lord says,” is a refrain throughout the book. God tells the prophet to keep speaking to the exiles even if they refuse to listen (2:4–5). The second vision of Jerusalem’s wall reveals the sin and idolatry of the people that drives God away from the sanctuary (8:6). The word of the Lord has been lost and the sanctuary needs cleansing.
God’s visions for Ezekiel continue with renewal. The third vision reveals the valley of dry bones (37:1–14). The Lord asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Wisely the prophet answers, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (v. 3). Then in a mysterious collaboration, the Sovereign Lord commands Ezekiel to call the dry bones to hear the word of the Lord. And as the prophet speaks, the breath of God enters the bones and they come to life (cf. Genesis 2:7).
The Spirit’s renewal of the exiles culminates in Ezekiel’s fourth vision on a mountain top. The prophet sees a renewed temple and the glory of the Lord that filled the temple (43:5). God promises a restored priesthood and people restored to the land. Then Ezekiel sees water from the temple flowing to refresh the land like rivers in the garden of Eden (47:12). And the name of the city is “the Lord is there” (48:35).
Visions of reform and renewal
Recently, I interviewed conference leaders to discover their understanding of church renewal. They graciously provided insights, concerns and plans for renewal in their churches. I also interviewed my SBC Ministry Formation Group—eleven young adult leaders meeting every week to discuss life, ministry, and everything. I wondered how their responses would fit with the pattern of renewal found in Ezekiel’s visions.
River of Exile. Leaders observed that some churches are attempting to live off a golden age from the last revival. Many churches report increasing difficulty in calling leaders, Sunday School teachers and mission workers. Vitality in churches is waning as some have stopped singing altogether.
Students were concerned about going into their world and not knowing what they believe. They were looking for biblical foundations and understanding how to engage their culture. Some felt so overwhelmed by the challenges of churches that prayer was their best hope.
City Walls. Leaders indicated that people have become very ideological and are self-appointed experts in politics, medicine and gender. Churches are becoming so increasingly polarized that the main message gets upstaged. Church programs are multiplying and need careful pruning. People express less need for church, but have more concerns for possessions and financial security, revealing a distrust in God.
Students noted that pastors are preaching the comfortable parts of the Bible and neglecting some difficult messages. People are coming to church to listen to the songs and sermons. But attendance can be mostly an expression of status and peer approval. Prayer also plays a marginal role in many churches, revealing the self-sufficiency of busy people.
Valley of Bones. Leaders mentioned the need to help pastors stay focused on their roles of preaching the Word, praying, and having spiritual conversations. Conference leaders see their role as encouraging their leaders and churches to stay on the mission Jesus gave his disciples. A recurring theme is motivating the next generation of leaders to take ownership of the church.
Students agreed that taking up leadership and serving in the church is a next step for young adult leaders. They exhort pastors to preach truth because the pulpit has an important role in calling for renewal. Students see the opportunity of raising up the next generation of children to know and love God and the Word. This task is one for the whole church and not just for a few volunteers.
Mountain of God. Leaders reflected on the goal of renewal. Perhaps the goal “is the renewed capacity to know, feel, think, worship, pray and live in lively, creative imitation of Jesus. This is the work of the Spirit, and comes about by repentance, attention to the Scriptures, fasting and prayer.” Or the goal may be that, “Jesus has called his disciples and his church to be about the mission of proclaiming the gospel and encouraging and equipping one another in the faith in order that we might make more disciples.” Another way of expressing the goal is to “get back to the gospel and helping people deal with the reality of life which includes a lot of trauma and the need for need for redemption.”
Students considered the goal of renewal. Perhaps renewal is not doing something new, but rather a retrieving what is old or lost (re-olding?). Or consider if there is trickle down from preaching and leadership and also a bottom-up renewal. “It’s almost as each individual person becomes renewed, then the body becomes renewed. And if someone in the body is suffering, or is not being renewed, that affects the whole body. So now there’s an individual responsibility to seek the Lord and know him.”
Can these bones live?
Since March 2020, many churches have experienced a form of exile that raises concerns for renewal. These God-moments come along only once in a long while. Like Ezekiel with the exiles on the banks of a river, God may be calling this generation to reform and renewal.
Reform may occur as today’s prophets speak the truth of God’s Word and identify where the church needs to repent. Renewal may occur as prophets realize that it’s only by God’s Spirit that dead bones come alive. This prophetic hope can see visions of God’s river flowing out of renewed sanctuaries and into the city streets so that people will proclaim, “the Lord is there.”
Terry Hiebert (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Academic Dean at Steinbach Bible College where he has taught theology, ethics, and history for the past 26 years. His wife Luann is an assistant professor of English Literature at Providence University College. He serves as church board chair and together with Luann leads a worship team at Gospel Fellowship Church (EMMC), Steinbach, Man. They have three adult children, in-laws, four grandchildren, and a dog named after a theologian-literary figure.