Renewing Our Faith

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10

"A long-time member of St. John’s church scolded the new pastor for his radical new ideas and changes: “Reverend, if God were alive today, He would be shocked at the changes in this church."

While that sounds funny, I've been at a church where it was a real concern for someone and carried real consequences for that church in terms of lost funding. It makes a young pastor like myself think twice. Trying to grow a church for our denomination can be scary for us, but we have to focus on the fact it is also very scary for our congregations. Congregations face change, face new faces, and ultimately have to face some tough questions.

"Are we too far gone?"

"Are we too old?"

"Do we really need to change the worship service?"

As a Pastor, the primary goal of the church is always to grow and shepherd the flock through the spread of the gospel. That can clash with the fact that sometimes the sheep don’t want other sheep around.

Many of our congregants were alive when their churches had larger attendance. We look at those as the good old days, even though Solomon told us not to in Ecclesiastes. Some congregations have dwindled by more than half inside a few decades. As we look back and then look around, the natural thing to do is ask, "What happened?"

Often, it was many factors and a few explosive situations in some cases. Complacency set in. Internal problems set in. Everything that was wrong was within, but we didn't see it until we got where we are now. Churches grow slowly, and they wither slowly as well. Don't get me wrong, though, they don’t have to die. We still have a choice to reach those outside. To be clear, I'm not talking about people already attending a church. We weren't called to seek and re-save the saved. I'm talking about the lost sheep, the people who need our love.

Before we can do that, we have to renew what’s inside. It's critical to start there because if we don't, those lost sheep will never really catch on in our congregations.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.


Breaking down the broke-down king

As a pastor, I am required to exegete the entire scripture before I preach. Exegesis is just a fancy Pastor word for the work done in researching a passage, knowing where it fits in the Bible, where the people in the passage were in their lives and even what the individual words mean in full. It helps us to interpret the scripture and it’s  relevance to us today, by knowing the reasons it was relevant when it was written.

In this passage from David, I found an interesting and compelling parallel between David's psalm of penitence as his newborn son lay dying and the situation in which many modern churches find ourselves. "Hey now, Pastor Roland, we're faithful givers, and we're here in our pews every Sunday. Exactly what is it that requires our repentance?"

I'm glad you asked.

Maybe it's not reaching out enough? Maybe it's the fact that, while we are in our pews and I’m in my pulpit, our brothers and sisters aren't. Where is the guy at the gas station gassing up his fishing boat on Sunday morning? Or the lady at the fast-food drive-through with three rowdy kids in tow that simply doesn't look to be headed for a meaningful worship time. That stings me a lot. God once told me during a service that he was thrilled that I was there, and that He was happy to feed my spirit, but ... where were my brothers and sisters?

Ouch. As I said, it stings.

To be fair, we do have to offer ourselves a little grace. Honestly, we don’t know how to reach them in many instances. What you don't know is often scary, and it will keep you living in your perception of doing good enough without living into the promises placed before us. 

At the same time, there’s still hope for renewal here, as I mentioned previously. In the overall view of the psalm, David was spiritually bankrupt and desperate. That desperation drove him to seek divine help and intervention. Our churches may not have been involved in a literal affair with deadly collateral consequences, but our straying from our call to make disciples of all nations is leading to the death of God's other children. Our spiritual need is equally as desperate as that of the broke-down King of Israel. David humbled himself, asking for a new heart and a renewed spirit, not on a whim, but because it was available for him. Otherwise, why would he bother God? That same newly created heart and renewed spirit is available for the modern church as well.

Allow me to elaborate.

When I examine the text, I also define each word in its original language via 4-5 different lexicons. I have to do this because I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek and this gives me a pretty good assurance my interpretation is right. Some of the words are very basic in nature, but a few of the ancient Hebrew lexicons actually go back to the pictograms associated with the words, giving some fairly unique insights into the meanings of each word. What I do is write down the words of the passage on one side, and then write out the different notes, meanings, and insights on the other side. Here's what I found.

  1. Create -The word used here for "create" is only present in the Bible when speaking of God and the act of creation. The reason for this is that it is the act of making a brand new creation, from literally out of nothing pre-existing. It refers to filling something up to fatten it, make it full with God and life, in the way the universe was filled with stars and planets, and the way the earth was filled with plants, animals, and the like.
  2. In me -As I read it, the Hebrew here is indicative of a transformative motion.
  3. A pure - Ethically clean, and unblemished. Purged of all that came before it.
  4. Heart - The concept of the heart in the Hebrew language and culture is vastly different than the concept of the heart in modern western culture. The pictogram for this word is a shepherd’s staff and a tent representing what is inside. “Authority Inside.” To the Hebrew writer and reader and certainly to David, this is an inner person’s emotional as well as mental/thinking center. The idea of this section of the passage is that the author is asking for a brand new mind and thought pattern as well as emotional content center, the seat of the passion that drives him. This encompasses the will of the author being made more like God's instead of his own, changing just whose authority is inside him.
  5. O God, and - Elohim - plural but inclusive of the entire trinity.
  6. Renew a - The Hebrew word used here is rooted in chadash. Chadash is part of the Jewish dietary regulations of Kashrut, referring to grain that is new. This had to do with the idea that the new grain is to be set apart and made holy. In a way, it doubles down on the idea of first fruits and offering back to God with regards to the psalmist's spirit.
  7. Steadfast - We all know what this means, upright, firm, faithful, fitted, fixed and established. But one of the words that jumped out for me was "prepared." The idea here is that steadfastness is in preparation for active ministry for God.
  8. Spirit - Here the word is "ruach," a feminine noun for “breath/wind/spirit.” Feminine connotations in Hebrew culture (as in many cultures) are that of nurturing among other things, but we must also take into account that it is balanced in the masculine identity as well. Ruach is a forceful exhale of breath requiring muscle and focused energy. Compare this to the Hebrew name for God (YHWH), which is literally only pronounced as barely audible breaths. In order to even remotely speak the word YHWH as an audible sound, one must use forceful breaths so any sound can be heard. The spirit of the psalmist needs to be strengthened in order to return to his calling.
  9. Within me - Literally translated as in the center of one’s being at the seat of thought and emotion, where we feel our "gut instinct." This means to remove everything that was at the core of the writer’s being and replace it with a newly created spirit.

So how does this compare with our church today? That part is simple once you know what I just lined out.

Our church needs God to create from nothing a transformative movement inside it that is completely unblemished of thought and previous misconceptions. This needs to result in an unprecedented authority inside it that offers a new emotional center and a mindset that is devoted solely to God's will and nothing else. It must set apart the very center of the life of the church as a holy thing in an unwavering and immovable manner that is prepared for whatever may come in God’s purpose.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside in this manner.


More than just a recapture

The answer is not to just recapture the excitement and energy of our church’s forefathers, but to actually experience the same thing they had in a fresh, new way. The excitement the church had when it first began was rooted in a deeply powerful and precious understanding of grace, and we do need that kind of understanding of grace. We don't need theirs, though, it has to be uniquely ours. We have to treat this day and age like it’s a whole new church, globally, nationally and locally. My church may still be called Brimfield United Methodist Church, but keeping the name on the outside of the building doesn’t mean we cannot have a new heart on the inside. 

When we were kids we played Capture the Flag, and after you played that game on the same lot a number of times, it got old. But when you moved the game to a new location, it was exciting again. It felt brand new, and the ground was not played on before, so you had to really grow in strategy and skill in order to play the game well in a new environment. Growth was one of the benefits of this desire to experience the game from a never-before seen perspective. Our renewal happened simply by changing how we saw the ground on which we played.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.

What does the promise say?

Throughout this passage of scripture, there's a lot of foreboding, but the basis of the scripture is David's dependence on the steadfast nature of God. He promised to never leave us or forsake us. God also did not call us to be a people that stood still. He called us to be a people of action.

James 1:25 tells us, "But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."

We need to actively step into renewal with both feet. We need to learn about our past, but not try to relive it, and instead let it spark the fire of renewal inside us. We approach our spiritual disciplines to grow, enhance and expand our spiritual formation individually, which will do the same thing in our church body collectively. I spoke recently about the need to step out of our perception and into God's promise so we can get to his purpose. The purpose of the church is the same as Christ's, to seek and save the lost. I addressed this through Jesus saying "Blessed are the poor," and a very truthful internet meme that said the poor hold a blessing for us. I believe it is the same blessing of which James was speaking.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside ... so we can get the blessing God already has in place for us.


Embrace the change, embrace the blessing

God has a new creation waiting for us, just as he has provided a grace that draws us all along the way to our salvation. He didn't stop and stand still at any point. We may not have been able to perceive His movement in our lives, but rest assured it was there. God is also not interested in doing all the work for us. We have to actively move into this new creation God has for our church. 

The fact is, we may find that we need new worship services and new curtains, and new carpet and new music. However, change cannot be made simply for the sake of change. We could change all of the things about our churches, but if the hearts inside are not renewed, none of it matters. If our changes are founded in the desire to step into God's purpose through His promise though, those changes may be upsetting, but they are also necessary for the purpose.

If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.

Roland Millington

Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.

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