Our present strengths are not guaranteed. Our greatest powers may be lost. To decay. To change. To misuse.
It happens to professional athletes. I still can’t shake the image of a late-career Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, trailing well behind “show time” fast breaks. The swooping hook shots were nearly gone. He no longer dominated the rim or intimidated shooters. Bent and toddling, he was not himself—not the towering Kareem who struck awe in opponents and fans. His great prowess faded nearly to nothing.
It happens to churches, too. Churches once vibrant and strong can and do lose their strength. Once the rafters were filled and the church’s name was synonymous with dynamism. But that was long ago, recalled only by grandmothers and community griots who “remember when.” Great churches can become as feeble as an aging Kareem shuffling up the court.
The secret to regaining strengths is remembering what they were. Here’s where most churches in decline fail. They tend to think the way back is forward into new strategies and programs. But, biblically and historically, the way back requires returning to and reviving the old. Churches recover strength; they don’t reinvent it.
“Remember. Repent. Return.”
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:2-5)
Remember. Repent. Return. That’s the formula our Lord gives the church at Ephesus. Remember the heights from where you have fallen—the glory days, the days of strength and zeal. Repent for abandoning your first love, for neglecting those works you did at first and that worship you once rendered. Return to those works; seek them afresh or what’s the use of your continued existence. Remember. Repent. Return.
In this series of posts, I want to call attention to some things the Black Church once did with excellence. I want to call to remembrance some strengths that have been lost in far too many churches. I want to point us back so that we might return to some of those things that made the church great, strong, and mighty in the works of God.
Today I want us to consider the almost completely lost practice of church discipline. Sometimes things can be so long forgotten it seems new when mentioned. Many churches cannot remember the last time the congregation excommunicated an unrepentant sinner. They cannot remember pursuing someone with such intentional love and faithfulness to Christ that they dis-membered someone from the body of Christ so that their souls might be saved on the Day of Christ. So it sounds new.
But it’s not new. The practice of discipline was an early strength of the Black church. Greg Wills, church history professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes this of African-American Baptist churches and their practice of discipline in the late 1800s:
“The picture that emerged is clear: African-American Baptists filled the dockets of their ecclesiastical tribunals well into the twentieth century. In the antebellum period, the sample churches prosecuted 4 percent of their members annually, a rate 39 percent higher than white-controlled churches attained. They excommunicated members at a rate 65 percent higher than whites, nearly 2.5 percent of members each year. Between 1861 and 1900, when the white churches were relaxing their discipline, the African-American churches maintained most of their rigor. They still prosecuted 3.5 percent and excluded 2.3 percent of their membership annually. Defendants in the black churches received excommunication more frequently than in the white churches. Both before and after the Civil War, black churches excluded more than 60 percent of those accused.” (Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion, p. 68)
From the early days of her founding into the early 20th century, African-American churches excelled at this command of the Lord. As their church covenants stated, they endeavored to “walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian Church, exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require.”
Loving correction made the church strong and contributed to its growth. The abandonment of discipline has slowly blurred the lines between the church and the world, sapping the bride of Christ of her beauty and power.
Today, many leaders could hardly imagine growing the church by reducing her membership. They want to woo members at all costs, hardly addressing how they live out the faith. But for much of the black church’s history, local churches heard discipline cases for 4 percent of its membership each year. They removed 2.5 percent of their members for unrepentant sin each year. Yet they grew in both strength and number.
Could it be that the key to the church’s power is not found in numbers but in holiness?
If we who love the Black church would see her strong and prosper, we need to remember the strengths we’ve lost. That includes a healthy practice of church discipline. Remember. Repent. Return.
More Reading for Pastors and Leaders:
More Reading for Church Members: