Q&A: Has God's glory departed some churches?

Has God's glory departed some churches?

Question

I’ve observed many churches not helping that much during the pandemic. They are doing very little to help the poor. One church I know of planted several trees on their property. Each tree was approximately $10,000.00 a piece. 10 trees at 10K a piece! People are going hungry and this is how they spend God’s resources? Has the glory of God departed from many churches today?

Answer

Thanks for your question. As of April 2021, the pandemic isn’t over. The pandemic is over a year old now and, unfortunately, the devastation caused by it will be with us a very long time.

The Pandemic’s Poor

Brian Root of Human Rights Watch reports the following for just the United States:

Since the start of the pandemic, 74.7 million people have lost work, with the majority of jobs lost in industries that pay below-average wages. Many of those who lost work and income are running out of money and savings. In January, some 24 million adults reported experiencing hunger and more than six million said they fear being evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months due to their inability to make housing payments. … One-third of adults reported using past stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits to cover normal household expenses in the previous seven days; with 37 percent of them also going into debt by using credit cards and loans for routine expenses. [1]

And that’s not the half of it. The United States is wealthy as compared to most other nations. The struggle with poverty for other countries is even more severe. This is from Akihiko Nishio, World Bank Vice President of Development Finance:

"In just one year, COVID-19 has hit poor and vulnerable countries the hardest, threatening decades of hard-won gains while exacerbating existing inequalities in the poorest countries." [2]

There is a real ongoing need. And people need help today! Yes, they need the Lord, but they need food, clothing, shelter, and medical assistance as well. As James admonishes us, "If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (Jas. 2:16, NIV).

Stepping Up or Stepping Out?

Many churches are doing a lot to help the needy during the pandemic by feeding and clothing the poor. Typically, Saddleback Church feeds 2,000 families per month, but during the first month of COVID, they fed 45,000 families. According to their recent report, more than 13,000 Saddleback volunteers have served over 3.5 million pounds of food to over 300,000 families. [3] This is a lot of mobilization and many families fed. Some churches are stepping up.

However, at one of the greatest times in redemptive history when the world needs the giving nature of the church the most, it’s unfortunate that some have shown a lack of concern for those in need. In one church they began a $12,000,000 building project for a new wing to their church during 2020 but, according to their annual report, they only assisted 95 families in need. Overall their budget for helping the poor was less than 3% of their total building budget. This reminds me of Ezekiel's reference to Sodom: "she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (Ezek. 16:49; cf. Jas. 5:1-6). We know what happened with Sodom – it was destroyed.

While Jesus said we will always have the poor among us (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), he himself also helped many while he lived upon this earth. Jesus and his disciples fed 5,000 men, not counting all the women and children also present. As Christians, we are to share with the poor (Prov. 22:9; cf. Prov. 14:31; 28:27). Moses wrote, "For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’" (Deut. 15:11) and identifies two realities: (1) the poor people will always be in this world, and (2) the church is to open wide its hands to them.

Wars, government oppression, lack of education, lack of work, social injustices, or various handicaps, etc., contribute to the sad reality that there will always be poor in the world no matter what we do. However, within that reality, the church is to step up and help. Sadly, many don’t and so begs your question as to whether God's glory has departed from some churches. "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17).

Ichabod Church

The glory of God may depart from the visible church for many reasons. The phrase "the glory of God" describes the beauty of God’s Spirit and his presence. While we see the glory of God in various forms in the Old Testament (on Moses’ face, pillar of fire and cloud and in the tabernacle, etc.), it may also depart from his people.

Ichabod comes to mind (1 Sam. 4:21 and 14:3). The sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests but did not know the Lord (1 Sam. 2:12). They treated sacrifices to the Lord with contempt (1 Sam. 2:17), and God delivered a message to Eli that his house was rejected by the Lord (1 Sam. 2:27-36). Hophni and Phinehas then died in battle (1 Sam. 4:11). The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam. 4:17), and upon hearing the news, Eli fell off a chair and broke his neck (1 Sam. 4:18) and died. Phinehas’ pregnant wife went into labor and bore a child. "And she named her son Ichabod, saying, 'The glory has departed from Israel!' – because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, 'The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured'" (1 Sam. 4:21-22).

The word ichabod means "inglorious" or "without glory." When the church – whether it be its priests or people – disobeys God, it in some measure becomes Ichabod. It is without God’s glory. As Jesus reproved Israel in Matthew 23:37-38 saying: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate." Notice that Jesus called it your house and not his house. An "ichabod church" is not God’s house. It's desolate, empty, hollow, ineffectual, powerless, fallen. It is without the glory of the Lord. And unless it repents, God will bring it to ruin.

The True Church

The true church is always being renewed by sharing God's glory and praise God that these churches do act, do step up, do take initiative. The COVID-19 pandemic in many ways has fit seamlessly into what such churches were already doing. But the need is great and there is always more that can be done. Individual Christians also should ask, "What more can I do? How can I help?" But it’s not enough to merely ask questions. We must take some initiative! And the true church will.

There are many ways to help during the pandemic, but I’ll mention a few here that come to mind based on what I've heard or seen. Perhaps you can share some others on social media.

  • We can pray and be a calming presence operating by faith and not fear. Calming words in tough times can be encouraging and offer hope.
  • We can keep in touch with those in our communities, particularly the vulnerable, isolated, and disadvantaged and look for ways to be kind to them. Pick up their groceries, give them groceries or simply teach them how to order groceries online. The same for medications and clothing.
  • We can give more to existing programs and pray for them, being sure they are working within limits and care in ways that are sustainable and safe.
  • We can continually point one another to Jesus and his promises to his church. Live and share the comforting message of the gospel. However, at the same time be innovative and assist others.

The world is watching – and so is God. There is much truth to the phrase, "You may be the only Bible some people read." You are an open book. What does the COVID chapter in your life's story say about Christ?

Even after COVID, we need to abound in the work of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 15:58). Perhaps COVID is just a wake-up call to the church that they should have been doing more all along.

Footnotes

[1] Human Rights Watch. "United States: Pandemic Impact on People in Poverty." 2 March 2021. (https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/02/united-states-pandemic-impact-people-poverty). Last Accessed 3 April 2021.

[2] World Bank Blogs. "COVID-19 is hitting poor countries the hardest. Here's how World Bank's IDA is stepping up support." 28 January 2021 (https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/covid-19-hitting-poor-countries-hardest-heres-how-world-banks-ida-stepping-support). Last Accessed 3 April 2021.

[3] Cameron Strang. RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. "Rick Warren On The Year We Had." 21 December 2020. (https://www.relevantmagazine.com/faith/church/rick-warren-on-the-year-we-had/). Last Accessed 3 April 2021.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).