It was my privilege and honor to serve at Grace Church in Des Moines for 20 years. These were the formative years of my life, the time when the qualities and values of who I am as a Christian and as a pastor were hammered into me.
In 2001, the church completed its capstone project–a beautiful worship center. It had been a long journey. When I started with the church in 1989, we met in a steel building in an older neighborhood around Drake University. Several hundred people were part of the church at that time, and the building was never intended to accommodate hundreds of people. The hallways and “lobby” were 10-12 feet wide, and when a service ended, those hallways were literally packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder. Parents held on tightly to their children, who could have easily been separated in the sea of people.
When the church moved from the Drake Neighborhood to its current location on the north side of Des Moines, we moved into a new building that was a shell of what was truly needed. With the new building came a large atrium, but there was no classroom space. This was a problem for a church that averaged more than 900 in their Sunday School. The classrooms that did exist were reserved for our children’s ministry and nursery, and the adults spread out over the remainder of the building. Every hallway, office, stairwell, and space was used for “classrooms.” We became masters of taking space and putting up a temporary partition and calling it a classroom. Every week we tore down more than 500 chairs so we could use our auditorium as a gym/fellowship hall, and every Saturday we reset more than 500 chairs for services on Sunday. We did this for almost 10 years.
In 1996, we built an education wing that gave us a lot more classroom space, which eased the problem for our Sunday School, but our worship space was still in the gym with chairs we setup and tore down every week.
Finally, in 2000, we broke ground on a new worship center. It had been more than 16 years of moving, setting up, tearing down, finding temporary locations, shuttling teenagers to and from buildings located off campus, and squeezing in 30 people into a space built for 15.
The worship center was truly a beautiful building. It was more than we had ever known as a church. Now, finally, the worship center was a reality. It was complete.
I remember vividly showing our new worship center to a semi-retired pastor who had stopped by to pick up a piece of equipment he was borrowing. He stood at the entrance to the worship center and beheld the scene in front of him. Reflectively, he started to speak as if he was speaking to himself.
He told of a time when he was part of a local congregation here in Des Moines that was a church with a national reputation. The pastors from this church went on to become the leaders of the church’s denomination, and this church was often referred to as “The Crown Jewell” of its denomination.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, this church was packed with on a weekly basis. The services were exciting, they were sending missionaries out from their church every year, scores of young men and women who grew up at this church surrendered to full-time ministry, either as pastors, teachers, or missionaries.
This older pastor friend of mine continued, “then, at some point, pride entered into the hearts of the people. They started to think they were indispensable to God’s plans, and that they alone were making a difference in this world.
“Over a number of years, a short time really, the church began to stumble and fall. The people started to circle the wagons and their excitement and enthusiasm was slowly replaced with fear and cynicism. Those who were there just for the show and the spectacle quickly fell away, and within 10 years, the church had become a classic example of a declining church heading towards its own demise.”
He paused for a long time.
“God wrote Ichabod across the door of that church. Today, the building still stands, but the glory of the Lord has departed. The people started to believe that all the good that was happening was because of them, because of their faithfulness, their sacrifice, their hard work. It was not. It was because God was working in their midst, and when they no longer acknowledged this, He left and went somewhere else to carry on His mission.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. As I look around Central Iowa, I see many church buildings that were once icons within the Des Moines community. Today, many of these churches are no more. Yes, the buildings may still exist, but now, instead of seeing thousands come on weekends to worship, they have huge facilities with only a small handful of people.
There are so many ways in which we are like Israel at the time of the defeat described in this week’s text (1 Samuel 4). We see our life and work as a co-equal partnership with our Creator. He needs us, we tell ourselves. Oh, what a lie that is. God created us for fellowship. He designed us to recognize Him as our God and Creator, to worship Him and Him alone. Yet, as so often happens, we rise to a place of special importance in our own mind’s eye, and the created becomes a god in his own eyes. This is pride, my friend, plain and simple. It impacts everyone of us.
Lord, keep us humble. Keep us dependent upon you.
This Week’s Core Doctrine
God the Father (Psalm 121:1–2): We believe God is personally involved in and cares about the daily lives of His children.