Recently I had a conversation with a dear friend in which he tried his best to convince me that I should NOT plant a church. He loves me and he knows me well so he came to our conversation with a remarkable grasp of the pertinent statistics and he had clearly systematized his argument. He pounded the table emphatically as he rehearsed the results of his research. He even went so far as to prepare a handwritten manuscript from which he read carefully. I recall three of his nine points because I had heard them before and they were the most memorable:
- In America, 3500 — 4000 churches close their doors each year.
- Every month 1,400 pastors leave the ministry due to moral failure or burnout.
- 10,000 churches in America disappeared in the last five-years.
I must admit that I had to bring myself back into the conversation because I was thrown by the fact that a scholarly statistician sincerely described the fate of churches by using the word “disappeared.” I have no idea what that means. It teased the dreamer in me and sent me on a mental rabbit trail that included everything from “The Rapture” to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” After a few moments on the trail I came back into the conversation to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” His response was serious, loving, and passionate. “Don’t plant a church Brandon. This is a bad season for such a venture. The economy has tanked and your family will suffer senselessly.” His impassioned plea snapped me out of my jovial mood. Up to this moment I was only partially engaged in the conversation because I was mentally organizing an “all points bulletin” for those churches that have “disappeared.” Recognizing the need to engage him according to his serious tone I shelved my mental rabbit trail and responded to him appropriately. I said, “You need to understand what we are dealing with here. I don’t just WANT to plant a church; I HAVE to plant it. It is a matter of calling. The core value, rhythms, and distinctives of The Embassy Church have been placed on my heart. I love you brother, but to follow your impassioned advice would be an act of rebellion against my God.”
Then the nature of our conversation shifted to a more comfortable point. He asked, “If you are going to do this, then how do you handle the likelihood of failure?” My answer was simple, “It will not fail.” For fear of sounding arrogant I will take this moment to deflect attention to the authoritative originator of this idea. I sincerely believe that it will not fail because Jesus said, “And I tell you…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). The passage screams certainty! When you assess it closely you notice that it becomes even more worthy of celebration. The three questions that jump out at me are:
1) Whose church is it?
2) Who is the builder?
3) What is his promise regarding the church?
1) The Church belongs to Christ. I am not erecting a building, starting a legacy, or striving toward my fame. Instead, it is my hope and prayer that I, along with my Embassy teammates, am being used as a tool in his hands to plant HIS church. A gathering of people that love, celebrate, adore, and worship Him. We are Christ-centered because Christ is Christ-centered. It is our desire to join him in the mission of planting churches that make God famous! I am his and the church is his. Now the question we must answer is simple. If the church belongs to the Living God, then who can take it away? Hopefully you can now understand how I stumbled over the use of the word “disappeared.” God’s church is not comprised of buildings and programs. It is comprised of people that recognize him as supreme in all things. And those people joyfully strive toward having his image and kingdom permeate all of creation. They do so by making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Yes, buildings may be closing. But the gathering of believers that comprise the church cannot and will not “disappear.”
2) Christ is the builder. The Cross is the epicenter of all that must be done to build the Church. It gives meaning to words like justification and sanctification. He died so that we may have him, and he died so that we may live surrendered lives for him. Because of the cross we have significance and mission. Our lives can and should reflect this. As the sacrificial “Lamb of God,” Jesus is the architect, carpenter, engineer, and artist that designs, builds, and ornaments his church. This all came out of the Cross. Why is this significant? By dying on the cross, Jesus has done the heavy lifting. We are simply the messengers. We are not the builders of churches; Jesus is! Which presents a question. If Jesus is the builder of the Church, then who can stop him? Don’t waste your time processing the answer. There is no one that can stop him. He has no peer; there is no one who can oppose his plan (Isaiah 40:12-31). Rest assured, God is the builder, so it will most certainly be built.
3) He has promised that the Church will never die. He assured us that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against her. Some Bibles translate the word Hades as “Hell.” But I wholeheartedly affirm the teaching that Hades and Hell are not one and the same. Hades simply refers to the place of the departed dead. It is a symbol of death. Essentially, Jesus is saying that the Church will never be found in death’s abode. The Church will always be a living, impactful, tool in the hands of Christ. Christ is the only hope for the redemption of souls. He is the only means toward healthy schools, homes, marriages, businesses, etc. And he has chosen to use the Church to accomplish this. Because the Church is his ordained means of redeeming the world and making himself famous, I rest assured of the fact that she will never die.
This passage is not referring to the local church. It is referring to the universal church; the body of Christ that is represented all over the world. So how is it appropriate for me to use it as my confidence that our local body will not fail? Well, I will be an Embassador (2nd Cor. 5:20) for the rest of my life. If The Embassy Church implodes, I am still a representative of his Kingdom. I take joy in the fact that my hope is not found in the existence of a local church. Instead my hope is found in what he is going to accomplish through His worldwide church. If our local mission is simply the contextualized version of his worldwide mission, then I have no concerns about failure. We have not been commissioned to make attenders and fill buildings. That may fail. No matter what name is on the sign outside the building, I am charged with making disciples. And that will not fail!!!
Striving toward Kingdom Community and Discipleship,
 Marvin Vincent in his classic work “Word Studies in the New Testament” says, “The classical Hades embraced both good and bad men, though divided into Elysium, the abode of the virtuous, and Tartarus, the abode of the wicked. In these particulars it corresponds substantially with Sheol; both the godly and the wicked being represented as gathered into the latter.”