I read a Living Waters newsletter the other day which strummed a few chords within me. It describes the troubles and trials they have confronted while trying to print a book and organize an effort to distribute it; freight company failures, equipment breakdowns, website servers crashing. You can read more at this link.
This kind of occurrence may be happenstance, normal life impinging on our efforts, or it may be the enemy trying to inhibit us. We at Amazing Grace have faced a similar situation. Let me explain.
We became situated in the north end of Tacoma about four years ago. We literally had no place else to go when the local seminary stepped forward and asked if we would like to worship in their chapel in the afternoons. Praise God for this! Another church was using the morning slot.
Within about two months, however, the other church closed its doors for the last time. This after 17 or so years. Let me add, this should have been a warning to us. We still had not found another place to worship so we took up the morning slot. We have been there since.
Even though we came across town with about twenty to twenty-five congregants we have seen a decline in attendance. People have left the church for all the normal reasons; moving, school, life, etc. Visitors are few and far between.
This is so odd because the grounds are lavish, the mansion next door adds style, we have a huge fellowship hall, the view from the back veranda is of about thirty miles of Puget Sound in all directions. On any given Sunday morning while I am preaching I can see from two to twelve people wander through the campus just to sightsee. But few church visitors.
This had been going on for some time when a visitor to a Christmas Eve service told me, "I didn't even know there was a church here." This woman had lived four blocks away for twenty odd years.
I was stunned. We had been there for a couple of years already, putting our signs out each Sunday morning, taking them up Sunday afternoon. We had gone door-to-door making cold calls (some of my folk would rather have a root canal than go door-to-door!) and inviting our neighbors to church. We had a couple of summer VBS sessions behind us already. How could she not know we were here?
This prompted me to start asking visitors, "How did you find us?" Many found us through our website, but more were driving by on a Sunday morning and saw our little sandwich-board signs. I eventually determined, through prayer and through investigation, that we needed a permanent sign in place. Thus began a two-plus year odyssey.
I talked with several signs folk, people who do signs for a living, but interestingly enough each one "faded away". What does "faded away" look like? I would talk with them, give them my ideas on what the sign should look like, they would tell me that they would get right on it, and I would never hear from them again. I waited for one person for over a year.
All through this I kept praying about the situation, I eventually came to realize that we have had barriers tossed up around us. More on this later. But late last year I got the go-ahead from God to pursue the project on our own. So I began to draft up ideas and toss them out to the congregation. We went through several shapes, sizes and messages before we narrowed the field down. This process was surprisingly easy.
But this is also where the barriers became more apparent. We were met with mixed signals from our landlord about erecting a sign, I had to insist that our lease allows a sign. We had several mis-starts in obtaining the necessary material to fabricate the sign. It is a sandblasted wood sign and the "resist" material is fairly exotic. The city permitting process should take ten work days . . ten days turned into thirty. Forgive me, I became a pest in the city planning department for the last two weeks of the process. Volunteer work crews evaporated. The city almost did not let us dig the two post holes because we were not a licensed contractor. There was so much more than this.
Did I mention prayer? With every hurdle I became even more aware of the barriers and I would give it over to God. When the barriers piled up, when it seemed like I was overwhelmed, when all I could do was push back, I did so with God's strength and assurance behind me. This is the right thing to do. God is behind us on this. Work through the problem. He will give us the strength. And so I continued to pray.
It's been over two years to get here but we now have a sign in the ground. Praise God and His providence in our lives! Praise Him for the strength that He gives us day to day! Praise Him for His everlasting lovingkindness!
As a post-script, both signs have been set in place and each week folks are starting to wander in. Our small, invisible church is no longer invisible. Praise God and His providence for this!
Barriers can come in different forms.
The buildings are early 50's (or earlier) structures. Handicapped access is makeshift and difficult to maneuver. Amazing Grace had to fund and construct upgrades to allow handicapped restroom access. At what point, as a new visitor, would you be put off?
Physical barriers are relatively easy to address and correct.
We have had church members (who were coming to meet with me) accosted on campus, "What are you doing here?" They were told to sit and wait in the Deli when I could not be found (in reality the entrance to my building had been locked by someone, not knowing that I was in the building).
One church member was escorted off campus, she uses a walker to get around. What does this communicate?
Emotional barriers can last a lifetime if not addressed properly.
More and more I run into various forms of "my own gods". Wealth and status come to mind . . but these two do not account for the variety and texture of present day belief sets.
My family began to dub things "weird theology" whenever we would run across a strange belief set, usually in a movie (see April 15, 2009 Newsletter). Popular misconceptions, new age, wicken, eastern beliefs, animism are but a few, however we usually find a synthesis of all the above. "My own gods" forms a huge barrier to access to Jesus Christ.
Spiritual barriers are eternal.
The apostle Paul outlined this for us, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." (NASB -- Eph. 6:12)
The struggle is larger than any of us, we are mostly powerless against it, and this brings me to my next point.
The context into which He spoke was that of the rich young prince who would not give up his possessions, the possessions had become "his own god".
Without God backing us up and giving us strength then we are apt to give in to the forces of this world, to submit to them rather than push back.
What we have, what has been planted within us, what has grown and matured, is all for nought unless we persevere.
We need to "hold fast" and bear the good fruit.
And keeping with this agri-metaphor, doesn't growing any good crop involve removing the rocks, and the brambles and the weeds? Can we see these as barriers to faith?