Dwindling churches are a common sight in our day. It is almost a contradiction in terms; the gathering of those who have found true life – dying. In some cases it is understandable; a group has come to the end of the work to which it felt called, or perhaps the Lord has removed the lamp stand (Rev. 2,3) But the norm is: as long as there are lost people to win and believers to equip, a local church should be moving ahead in dependence on the Lord. New life is essential to this process.
Elders, being older and more mature in the faith, are examples to the flock. Some are dynamic witnesses for the Lord, but nothing in Scripture limits soul winning to them. In actual fact, many times it is the young people who have business contacts in the world or friends in the neighborhood through children, etc.
However, there is one area in church life where elders have a unique opportunity to make a substantial impact on this matter of new life for the assembly, and that is the subject of this article.
“Loose Him, and Let Him Go.”
In the well known account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11), it is clear from the text that Lazarus was completely dead. Wrapped in grave clothes according to the custom of the time, sealed in the tomb, the odor of decay after four days was expected.
At the bidding of the Lord Jesus the stone was rolled back, the command given, and the inevitable result of the coming of the Word of Life to one dead: “He that was dead came forth” (vs.44 KJV). What a thrilling, yet shocking sight for all those who stood by! Death reversed; new life instead of decay and corruption. The mourning could cease, and people could go back home. Regular activities could resume.
Not so fast; the record goes on. Not only was Lazarus alive, but he was “bound hand and foot with grave clothes…” Now it is interesting that the Lord did not instruct Lazarus to “wiggle free of the grave clothes.” With arms bound against the body, that would have been difficult. Rather, he tells those nearby to “Loose him and let him go.” In other words, “He is alive but he still needs some help, and that part you can do.” This help could not be rendered from a distance. One would have to get close to the “dead man” and possibly get his hands dirty. As often observed, this provides an interesting application in spiritual things.
Present Day Application
Scripture describes the new birth of a person as “passing from death to life.” (John 5:24). This miracle occurs when the Word of God does in the spiritual realm what it did that day in the physical body of Lazarus; suddenly death gives place to life. Take another look at Lazarus walking out from the place of death. There he stands, hard to see the man for all the evidences of death draped over him. But under all those bandages (interesting similarity between the words “bandage” and “bondage”) there was real life. It was undeniable because of the evidence. Dead men don’t walk. How his sisters wanted to hear his voice, see his face, and embrace him! What an incentive to lay aside mourning, and do what the Lord commanded: “Loose him and let him go.”
And this raises a question. Is the assembly where we meet actively involved in helping to free young believers who have crippling evidences of death and the grave still clinging to them? Later we read of Lazarus enjoying fellow- ship at the table with the Lord. Imagine him sitting there still wrapped in half of the grave clothes, because those close to him were too busy with other concerns to finish the job.
Elders should remember that the assembly is a place where this work goes on continually, and that herein is one of the best motivators for people to speak of their faith to friends and neighbors. We might paraphrase the words of the blind man in John 9: “I don’t know all the theological answers as to what has taken place; but I can tell you that I used to be blind, and now I see, and you cannot argue with that.”
The Joy of New Life
There is nothing like the coming of a baby to encourage a family, and there is nothing quite like the presence of brand new believers to bring joy and excitement into the church. As the baby grows and becomes a child and then a productive young person, new blessings will follow.
Ordinary people in the fellowship can derive a quiet confidence from witnessing this process. The reasoning goes: “If I share the Lord with friends and see them come to Christ, I have a spiritual family to bring them to, where they will be nurtured and loved and accepted in spite of whatever may be clinging to them from the old past. The thought of working together with others to free that new believer from things which limit the enjoyment of fellowship, is truly exciting.”
A Spiritual Nursery
One of the priorities of leadership is to evaluate the preparedness of our spiritual nursery. More important than any program or material item, there must be a family spirit and a loving atmosphere. Saints must be taught that all true children are dear to the Father, and should be cherished by us. Regardless of degree of maturity, they have a place at His table where milk from the Word will be available to them (I Pet. 2:2). Older believers will care for them, train them, and protect them from complex questions that could choke them (Rom. 14:1).
How, realistically, is all this going to happen? In the first place, elders must hold these values as convictions and model them before all. But that is not enough. Every area of the life of the assembly needs to be evaluated in the light of this question: Can a baby Christian grow well here? This is one important part of shepherding.
Both spiritual and temporal provisions should be checked with questions like: Is some part of the public teaching of the Word simple and clear for them to understand? Are there opportunities to learn to pray, to ask questions? Will correction come gently, giving them sufficient time to learn from what they are discovering for themselves in the Bible? Are there simple tasks in which they can participate to serve the Lord side by side with older believers, sensing family acceptance? All these and many other questions are the rightful domain of those who lead in the assembly.
Don’t leave out the tough questions about loving those who still have many grave clothes. Positionally, sanctification is complete, but patience is needed while practices change.
If we discover failure in all this, we can re- member that special promises from the Lord Himself are given to those who are humble. And it can be a humbling experience to admit that we have wandered away from important priorities in caring for people. We have fallen into a rut of empty tradition, just keeping the meetings going endlessly while people who struggle with sins and all sorts of grave clothes drift away, unable to become the spiritual stars that we had been hoping for.
Incidentally, this whole subject would make for serious discussion in the elders meetings. Many lament that more are not being saved, but it is a question worth asking as to how we are handing those who already have been. In many cases their testimony to the lost is our best outreach.