The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

So says Jesus in Matthew 16:18, speaking about His church, built on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Of course, I believe that Jesus was speaking the truth. However, I also believe that His words don’t necessarily apply to any particular local church fellowship.

Granted, I don’t have all the specifics on this, but there was a lot of lamenting on Facebook this afternoon regarding a church in Fort Worth whose building is about to be demolished to make room for new condos. An auction was held today to dispose of the contents. Another is planned for a later date. Many former members speak of the fond memories of growing up in the church.

The last I understood of the situation, this church had sold its building to a larger Fort Worth church for its homeschool Fine Arts Co-op to use and that as long as the church continued to meet as a church, it could continue to meet in the building. Yesterday, someone said that the building had been sold by the Co-op’s host church to a developer who plans to develop the property commercially.

This is the church I attended and served in when I was in Seminary.

This is the church where I met Amy.

This is the church where I married her.

This is the church where I was ordained.

This is the church where I first served in pastoral ministry.

This is a church that averaged around 1500 in attendance in the early 1970s.

This is a church that had almost 500 present on “High Attendance Sunday” in 1985 (my first semester in Seminary).

At some point in their history, Riverside Baptist Church lost its way. I remember people saying that the problem was that the neighborhood changed and the church didn’t; Riverside’s decline was blamed on “white flight”.

Many seminary students wrote research papers on the church for their Church Growth Evangelism class. They suggested how they would reverse the church’s decline and lead the church back to health and growth, if given the opportunity to implement their plans.

I attended a funeral several years ago. It was a funeral for the head of the church’s Women’s Missionary Union. Over the years, Rosemary had encouraged the church to give to state, national and international missions. As I watched the members struggle to their feet and manipulate walkers and canes to make their way past the open casket, I was taken aback at how the spiritual condition of the church was reflected in the physical realm. Unfortunately, the church members were unaware of how unhealthy the church had grown.

Tom Rainer has written books about churches in plateau and decline. One in particular is Autopsy of a Deceased Church. In the book, he presents a post-mortem of churches who had closed their doors. The deciding factor in those churches is that they had become inwardly focused. And Riverside had too.

I remember a church business meeting when we were to vote on letting a Spanish-speaking mission church use one of the buildings on the property. One of our members voiced her opposition with, “Those people are going to rob us blind.”

I remember another church business meeting when we were discussing our plans for renovating the church sanctuary. I was shocked at how much concern people had for theater-style seats as opposed to traditional pews. And then there were discussions about the color of the carpet and upholstery.

This afternoon, I read the comments of former members of the church on Facebook. They talked about how sad the situation was. One recalled being brought to the church by her grandfather a day after she was born. Others talked about being baptized in the church. Others talked about their relationship with the Youth Pastor twenty-five years ago. It was striking that all of the comments were about what happened in the past. Not the recent past, but the long ago past.

Sad indeed.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. However, sometimes an individual church may need to close its doors. The first church I pastored did just that … five years ago this month. And we felt God’s leading in doing so. The doors remained closed for a few months until our local Association reopened the doors with a new sign out front that reflected its purpose: Missions and Training Center.

Another local church had sold its property to a developer and its new building was still under construction. They brought their used AC units with them and replaced the dead AC units that we were unable to replace before we closed the doors. Meanwhile a ministry from Fort Worth used the building as an outreach to the families of prison inmates.

I served as Interim Pastor in some other churches for a couple of years before being called to pastor another church in the local Association. A few months later, I learned that a new church plant needed a permanent home and our local Association was going to vote to lease-to-own the property to this new church. They needed twenty Executive Board members present to form a Quorum to vote. As a church pastor, I was automatically on the Association’s Executive Board. I arrived for the vote and I signed in with the twentieth signature on the sign-in sheet. It was another confirmation that God had led us to close our doors. This new church would be able to use the property in ways that we could not. This week, our Association’s Director of Missions weekly newsletter included an announcement of an upcoming missions conference hosted by the church that had purchased our old church building.

Indeed, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. Please join me in praying that God will raise up a new church in the Riverside neighborhood of Fort Worth: a church that will minister in ways that Riverside Baptist Church could not.