My father had two older relatives that he would sometimes visit as a child. The husband and wife lived on an old farm in the hills of Kentucky – in a place called Possum Holler. The buildings were old; the farm was small and muddy. The couple did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They did not have a car, and they did their cooking on a wood stove. Most people assumed that the couple was poor. My dad certainly did. He once asked his father after a visit, “How can people live so poor?” His dad replied, “You must not be very smart. These people are rich.” Now Dad thought that Grandpa meant they were metaphorically rich. But this was a mistake. It turned out that Grandpa meant that they were actually rich – sitting on top of a half million dollars at least in the bank. They had spent their whole lives working – farming and mining – and storing away money while they lived cheaply and provided for themselves. The outward appearance of their farm and the assumptions that it caused others to make were not accurate reflections of the true wealth of these old Kentucky farmers. In a similar manner, it is sometimes easy to make assumptions about the true state and condition of the church. The doomsday prophets of religious decline have been bellowing out verdicts about the church for decades. And, of course, some of the things stated are accurate analyses in the case of established mainline congregations. Biblical and theological knowledge have severely declined. Deaths have outpaced conversions. Congregations have dissolved. It can be at times a rather bleak portrait. But the doomsday prophets – even when they are right – do not tell the whole story. Sometimes the truth about the church is hard to see from the outside. But when one has ears to hear and eyes to see, it is possible to see surprising shimmers of life and vitality even among the wreckage.
At what moments and in what ministries have you felt the life and vitality that flows from Jesus to his people, even as life flows from the vine to the branches? When have you experienced the true wealth of the church?