Ezekiel 13:8 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you (false prophets of Israel) have uttered falsehood and envisioned lies, I am against you, says the Lord God. 9 My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord God. 10 Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. 11 Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. 12 When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?”
The prophet Ezekiel was writing during the time of exile – after Israel had been defeated by the Babylonians and most of her surviving people removed from their homeland to live in Babylon.
There were prophets living among the exiles who, according to these words from Ezekiel, deceived the people:
10 …because (false prophets) have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.
There were prophets in the early years of the exile who suggested to the people their defeat would be very temporary – that the Lord would quickly restore their fortunes and return them to their homeland. “We’ll be home in no time!”
God’s people would spend 70 years in exile before a portion of them would be allowed to return home. The people, including the prophets, failed to understand the truth – that their plight was a result of their idolotry and unfaithfulness. God wanted them to embrace the discipline being shown to them, repent of their idolatry, and turn from their wicked ways. Instead, what God saw were half measures. Rather than worshipping the true God instead of false idols, they often chose the true God – along with false idols. This “both/and” rather than “either/or” was not acceptable to God.
So what does this have to do with us?
The institutional church is experiencing a time of great difficulty not seen for hundreds of years. Our world is changing so rapidly, particularly in the Western world where culture is moving away from organized religion, the institutional church is often not sure what to do in response.
Some people suggest things aren’t that bad. If we just tweak this or add a dab of that, all will be well. I don’t believe this to be true. The gap between the institutional church as we know it – and the kind of church needed for the future – is monumental. Let me be clear:
The gospel is alive and well. The gathering of Christian believers known as the church continues to thrive in many parts of the world. It’s the “institutional church” that’s in trouble, particularly in the West. The “institutional church” requires lots of resources to maintain (land, buildings, paid staff) and mostly depends on people coming to the church. Open the doors and wait for the Christians to come in. That is not a winning strategy.
The church of the future will be less resource dependent, more nimble, and mostly led by lay people rather than professional clergy. People’s homes, places of work, and neighborhoods will be the primary meeting places. Many existing church buildlings will go away, or get repurposed as something other than a church. There will be far fewer professional clergy earning a living by leading a church.
Much of this is already happening.
And you know what else will happen? The gospel of Jesus Christ will thrive. The transformed lives of ordinary believers will be our sermons. Extended family sized networks of people will be our congregations. And the church will once again learn to “go, make disciples”. It is a death and a birth occurring simultaneously. Embrace it because it’s already here.
Heavenly Father, you are indeed doing a new thing in our world and in our churches. Give us grace to embrace the changes that are already underway, trusting in your faithfulness even as the institutional church we love comes to an end. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.