1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother: 2 To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters. Grace to you and peace from God our Father. 3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints 5 because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and came to truly appreciate God’s grace.7 You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has told us about your love in the Spirit.— Colossians 1:1–8
What really strikes me about these words of Paul’s in the opening of Colossians is that he did not plant this congregation. In fact, he had never been to Colosse. He didn’t know the believers in that city personally. Yet he is clearly overjoyed about how God is at work in their midst. Not only that, but he also makes a practice of praying for them. Underlying the attitude of his heart is a love for the church and for the good news of Jesus.
And these words strike me because although I live in a time when we still often identify churches by geography, you could argue that there is an over-abundance of individual congregations within a relatively small geographical area — all trying to survive and be active in ministry on their own. These individual congregations usually have very little contact with one another and rarely partner in ministry in significant ways. In a number of examples, you have small, declining, older congregations struggling to maintain their aging building, discouraged and perhaps even experiencing feelings of failure because they can’t seem to attract new people to their pews.
Here’s what I think. I think there’s a profound sense in which we are trying (or wanting) to do the right thing but in the wrong way. Assuming we want to see God at work among us, and that our desire is to experience the reality of his kingdom, why do we also assume that each individual, struggling congregation needs to see this happen in isolation from other congregations? Why does church A need to maintain a ministry all on their own when church B is in the same situation? In other words, why can’t they partner together? Can two or three smaller churches not share a Sunday school ministry, a VBS, or some other aspect of ministry or outreach?
I mean, really, what’s the point of several small, struggling churches trying to survive on their own? Is it to be able to keep our buildings? Is it because we can hardly get along or fathom becoming closer with our fellow congregation members, much less those of another congregation?
Perhaps God has something else in mind. Perhaps there is holy purpose at work in the current situation our churches face. Perhaps our Lord wants us to realize that coming back to life means dying to some things that we tend to cling to but are actually peripheral to his kingdom work.
Is it not possible to honor our history but move forward in new directions? Isn’t it possible for people of all ages and experiences to work together in the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus for the sake of loving one another and our neighbors?
I don’t like the feeling that somehow my church has to compete with other churches. Not that local churches necessarily have a competitive spirit, but by virtue of tackling ministry as individual congregations isn’t this the position we’ve placed ourselves in?
That’s why I appreciate Paul’s heart. All he wants is to see people respond to the gospel. All he wants is to see people come to Jesus, to witness and celebrate the new life that the Spirit can bring. And when you have churches consumed with individual survival, maintaining a focus on the good news can become very difficult. Especially when we insist, even implicitly, that our sharing of the good news depends on the survival and growth of our individual congregations.
We will always have broken church systems. I take that as a given. But we can learn to work more effectively and gracefully within those systems. The question is whether or not we are able and willing to see beyond our sometimes myopic perspective to see the bigger picture that I think God wants us to see.
So, like Paul, let us pray for the church — our church, your church, all the other churches in our communities — that their focus would be the good news of Jesus, the new life made possible by the Spirit, and the reconciliation to the Father that we all need. And as a church, may we do whatever we can, whatever it takes, to maintain that focus.
And let us also pray brave, courageous, unexpected prayers. Prayers that ask God to be at work bringing together churches, pastors, and believers for the greater purposes of his kingdom. Prayers that celebrate and praise God for what he is doing in churches even if it’s not our own. Prayers that God would grant us the vision to discern his will for his church when and where we are.
And so rather than being discouraged that church life is no longer as it once was, let us instead be encouraged by what it can be — by what God can lead us to be if we would but open our hearts and lives to him.