I wrote this column sitting in my car under a huge shade tree in the gravel parking lot of a century-plus-old country church down a county road.
I showed up unannounced Sunday to worship with them and found no one there. I spent a few minutes walking around the little church building and the cemetery beside it where loved ones have been laid to rest for what seems to be close to 200 years.
I suspect that many of the funeral services have taken place in this little church house. I suspect that many of the folks buried here were faithful members of this congregation at some time in generations past.
As I walked, I spent some time praying and recognizing that I am praying to the same God to which so many of these faithful saints prayed during their earthly journeys. It is quiet and peaceful … and without signs of life.
I am not saying that this little church has died. I don’t know whether that is true or not. Every congregation, just like every human body, has a life cycle. The only thing that keeps a congregation going beyond its current generation is a constant influx of new life and vitality.
For this church to have survived for this long, that influx happened in previous generations.
A passage of scripture came to mind during my prayer time here. “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.'” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)
Only God knows the answer to some questions. I don’t know if this little church building will ever be filled again with joyful worshipers who are learning and growing together. I don’t know if these “bones” will live again.
But I do know this: a church is not a building. A church is a congregation of individuals gathered for the purpose of becoming more like Jesus and extending His mission to the world.
Buildings deteriorate and decay and sometimes pass out of use. Sometimes there are even “activities” going on inside those buildings, but if those gathered have forgotten their purpose of becoming more like Jesus and extending His mission, then the “bones” are no more alive than those of this empty one.
Our lives matter to God. Our buildings matter to us. Our buildings are tools to be used in equipping us for ministry. Our lives are where ministry happens. Our buildings may touch us with feelings of nostalgia. God wants to touch our lives with a sense of destiny.
Can you feel Him in your bones?
Dr. Gerry Lewis, author, blogger, church consultant and leadership coach, serves as executive director of the Harvest Baptist Association headquartered in Decatur.