Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

The Ultimate Answer

I don’t watch much television, but when I do, I really enjoy the game show “Jeopardy!”  The show has been around for close to 60 years, and the late host, Alex Trebek, stumped contestants for well over 7,000 episodes during 36 years on the show.[1]  For those who can’t get enough “Jeopardy!” or want to be part of the action without leaving home, there are board games and video games based on the show. 

“Jeopardy!” is a quiz show, but with a twist.  In this game, contestants receive the answers and are required to provide the question.  Quiz shows like “Jeopardy!”—and more recently, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” which I also love, are a bit more intellectual than many other types of game shows.  In fact, a smart friend of mine once lamented that he was a “Jeopardy!” person living in a “Wheel of Fortune” world.

When I see people who don’t do so well on “Jeopardy!” the first thing I think is, “That’s how I’d do on this show.” And the second thing I think is that sometimes we receive answers, but we really don’t recognize what the question is.

In the ending of Matthew’s Gospel, we witness both Jesus’ followers and His enemies at His tomb, discovering the ultimate answer— “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.”  He is risen.  That’s the ultimate answer.  We will see, based on our text, that the witness of His followers and of His enemies proves the truth of it. 

Jesus Christ is risen. 

That is the ultimate answer.  It is an indisputable fact.  It is an answer to many questions—questions far beyond whether the physical body of Jesus Christ is alive or dead.  It is an answer to questions about the very nature and power of God.  An answer that speaks to the surety of salvation in Jesus Christ.  An answer that speaks to all the problems of this world—war and peace, failing families, crime, personal brokenness, and every other societal ill.

In Matthew 28:1-20, we read this:

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 

5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!”  And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.  10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”  15 So they took the money and did as they were directed.  And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That morning on the first day of the week, just three days after their Master’s brutal death, the disciples sat defeated and scared.  Things had gone nothing like they had imagined.  Wasn’t Jesus the long-promised Messiah?  Wasn’t He supposed to usher in the Kingdom of God, to defeat the Romans, and set things right?  Instead, He was dead, executed on a cross—like a common criminal. 

Now the disciples feared that if the authorities got their hands on him, they’d share their master’s fate.  But that morning, the two Marys would bring the surprising news, and the ultimate answer, “He is risen.”  Before we unpack the implications of this ultimate answer, we will first satisfy ourselves that it is a sure, reliable, and indisputably true answer.

The first observation we ought to make is this:

The witness of Jesus’ followers indisputably prove “He is Risen.”

The first of Jesus’ followers to come upon the scene are the two Marys.  Can you imagine the shock they must have felt to see the angel there?  The text says his appearance was like lightning.  You ever notice, the first thing angels say in encounters with humans is, “Do not be afraid!”  That’s for good reason!

The angel declares the good news, “He is risen,” and shows him where Jesus’ body once laid.  John’s gospel tells us the grave clothes just laid there, folded.  It’s as if the body had just passed right through them.  “Go quickly,” the angel commands and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  Believe me, seeing something like that I’d go, and the women did.  Now—imagine the real shock and surprise here—Jesus himself met them. He, too, says, “Do not afraid.”  If I met someone who rose from the dead, I’m sure you’d have to tell me the same thing.  They worshipped him and he reiterated, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

The two Marys were unlikely witnesses; in fact, in those days, women’s testimony wasn’t even admissible in court.[3]

I tell a lot of Navy stories.  You go with what you know, right?  I once had the chance to testify in a military court.  A young Sailor for whom I’d been an instructor was in trouble for some misbehavior and he wanted his instructors to witness for his character.  I assume that, as we were more seasoned naval personnel, he and his attorney figured that our word was credible.  They didn’t ask the fellow’s Sailor buddies to testify to his character—those men and women were just as new to the Navy, and likely just as immature.  Presumably, the young witnesses wouldn’t have been as credible in court as us older (me being a whole 29 years old at the time!), more experienced Sailors.

So, if we’ve just admitted that women in the first century weren’t valued witnesses, how does that prove Jesus rose again?  That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  First, the writers of all four gospels—all of whom were interested that their readers would believe Jesus had risen—record the women as discovering the empty tomb.  If the resurrection of Jesus was one big hoax, it seems far more likely the writers of the gospels would have elected to find witnesses that were more credible in their story. But I think the sheer honesty of the biblical account adds to its credibility.

Even more amazing was the actions of Jesus’ disciples following this incident.  They were scared and in hiding.  They had run from Jesus upon his arrest.  Peter denied knowing him.  None of them wanted to be nailed up on a cross, too.

Yet after this, they claimed to see Jesus, and changed from a bunch of scaredy-cats to a group who fearlessly proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ.  In Acts, Peter even confronted the very Jewish leaders who tried Jesus and demanded Pilate crucify him.  In fact, church tradition records that all of the apostles, save for John, died a martyr’s death for boldly declaring the gospel. 

Do these seem like the actions of men who stole Jesus’ body and made up the resurrection story?  Who would die for what they knew, for fact, was a lie?  That doesn’t make sense to me.

To any reasonable person, the acts of Jesus’ followers prove, without a doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that they saw him in person.  After he rose, the Apostle Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive, until he saw him in person, and touched the nail scars and the sword wound.  In John 20:29, Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”   Today, we don’t need to see the nail scares, because the proof of Jesus’ resurrection is clear enough, based on the witness of Jesus’ followers.  And because Jesus rose again, our faith is alive, too, and active and has the power to transform our hearts and our lives—and when that happens in your life, that’s all the proof you need.

He is risen.  That’s the ultimate answer.  If there is any doubt that the disciples’ actions prove this truth, then we will see that…

The witness of Jesus’ enemies indisputably prove “He is Risen.”

The guards were terrified of the angel, and who could blame them?  Matthew 28:4 says that, “for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”  The guards ran straight to the other group of people who really had something to lose if Jesus had risen from the dead.  They went to the chief priests, the religious authorities—the people who wanted Jesus dead, and to make sure he stayed dead.  The guards told the chief priests what really happened—and we don’t see the chief priests accusing them of making something up.  Instead, they paid them to make something up—the disciples stole Jesus’ body—lay low, and promised to cover for them with the Roman governor.  The chief priests seem like they put the guards in almost some sort of first century witness protection program.

You’ve heard of the witness protection, right?  Actually, its formal name is the Witness Security Program.  Someone inside the mafia gets caught and, in return for protection by U.S. Marshals, a new life and a new identity somewhere far away, and maybe some money to live on while they get back on their feet, they testify against the mobsters?  The U.S. Marshalls website boasts it has protected over 8,600 witnesses and their families.  It further says, “No Witness Security Program participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service.”[4]  Shut up and do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine.  That’s what the Marshals tell people in the witness protection program, and that’s what the chief priests told the guards of Jesus’ tomb.

It seems certain the chief priests believed the account of the guards.  Surely, if they thought the guards were making the whole thing up, they’d have said, “An angel came and opened the tomb, and Jesus just walked out?  That’s ridiculous.  You’re lying.”  Surely, they’d have turned the guards over to Pilate to be punished for their failure.  Surely, the chief priests would have insisted on a manhunt for those who stole Jesus body.  The actions of Jesus’ enemies lend credence to the biblical account—that Jesus indisputably rose from the dead.

You know, many people—supposedly knowledgeable scholars, in particular—say the same things about Jesus today.  Many say that the resurrection story is a myth or that Jesus was a myth Himself.  Many skeptics have to admit that Jesus did exist and did die on the cross—because contemporary secular sources like Josephus and Tacitus testify to His life and death.  But they say that the Marys went to the wrong tomb, or that Jesus’ body was thrown in the dump for dogs to eat.  Or, even more incredibly, they say that Jesus somehow survived crucifixion, and that’s why people saw him afterwards.  Not only are such stories blasphemous, but given the evidence, they are more unbelievable than the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. 

Of the unrighteous, Paul says in Romans 1:19,For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”  God shows people the truth—and unbelievers choose to reject it.  The vehemence with which the so-called skeptics deny the resurrection seems to prove they know in their hearts that it really happened.  Maybe, unbelievers today are much like the guards and the chief priests—they think they have much to lose if the resurrection is true.  But the truth is, there is nothing to lose by submitting to Christ as Lord and savior—except sin, and self-centeredness—and there’s an eternity to gain.

Given the indisputable evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, let’s start to unpack what that means.  In what ways is “He is risen,” the Ultimate Answer?  First, it means that…

Jesus has all authority.

The disciples go to Galilee, just as the angel and Jesus himself directed the two Marys to tell them.  There, on a mountain, they saw Jesus in the flesh.  In Matthew 28:18, Jesus say to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  It’s a very short statement, but one more powerful, almost, than we can humanly grasp.  Jesus is claiming for himself the very authority of God, for He is God himself—though distinct from the Father, and the Father has given him everything.  Here, Jesus is no longer bound by the limits of His incarnation.  He manifests Himself as the God of all power.

I learned in the Navy what it was like to be given someone else’s authority.  When I was a junior officer on a destroyer, in port, I would be left in charge of the ship every fourth day when the captain left for the night.  I was the “duty officer” and I ran everything on the ship, with the authority of the captain behind me.  It was far less challenging than operating a warship on the high seas or in a combat zone.  However, if the situation got exceptionally dire—some sort of extreme emergency—and we had to put to sea, and the captain could not make it back to the ship, I had the authority to act in his stead and get the ship underway without him…not that I ever had to use that authority.  But that authority was gone the next morning when the captain came in, and a new duty officer took over from me.  Jesus’ authority is full and permanent over so much more than a mere ship.

If Jesus has the full authority of God, we see that He has authority over death, authority over the creation—he is empowered to save to the utmost.

Paul says it this way in Philippians 2:8-11:And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Colossians 1:16 tells us, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth.”  That Jesus is our Lord and savior is a staggering thought, but he’s much more than that, even.  He is God and Creator!

As an ultimate answer, “He is Risen,” carries great impact in our lives.  It would be difficult to unpack, in one sermon, all of the implications the resurrection of Christ has for our lives, but here’s a few.  His resurrection proves He has God’s authority, and if he has God’s authority, then He has resurrection power, and that ought to give us, as His followers, a resurrection perspective, a resurrection purpose, and a deep faith in His resurrection power.  We serve a living, risen Savior, and we can confidently obey what He commands of us.  We can live a life sold out to Christ with a sure knowledge of a settled future, an eternal future, a future in His presence for eternity!

If the ultimate answer means Jesus has all authority, if he allows us to live with resurrection power, and resurrection purpose, then we can follow Him.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus gave His followers many commandments.  The resurrected Christ now gives them a new commandment.  If “He is Risen,” is the ultimate answer, then:

It is an answer that Jesus compels us to share.

Let’s look now at Matthew 28:19-20, “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  This is the Great Commission.  This is the mission of the church in a nutshell.  Go and make disciples.  Go to all the nations, share the good news. 

And when Jesus tells the disciples that to teach others to observe all His commandments, that speaks to the kind of evangelistic mission that we have in front of us.  Jesus is talking about the whole package—preaching about the lost state of man, preaching about sin and repentance, and showing what a life transformed by Jesus Christ looks like. 

It’s a tall order, but Jesus shows the disciples it is an order they can carry out because, as he says at the end of verse 20, in the very last words of Matthew’s gospel, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Adoniram Judson was one of the greatest missionaries in history.  At 25, he went to Burma to preach the gospel.  In his early years there, he lost his wife and two children.  It took six years for him to win his first convert to Christ.  By his twelfth year, he had seen a mere 18 converts.  Yet, he stayed faithful to Jesus’ command—go and make disciples—and remained encouraged by Jesus’ promise—I am with you always.  Judson hoped that before he died, he to have translated the Bible into Burmese and to found a church that grew to 100 members.  God blessed Judson’s obedience, using him to help found a hundred churches, and to win over 8,000 converts to Christ.  As for his Bible translation, it remains in use today as the favored Burmese translation.[5]  Adoniram Judson followed Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, and the Holy Spirit was, indeed with him throughout his ministry.

Jesus gave His disciples a difficult task.  It’s an undertaking that church history cost nearly every one of these men—and many who followed after them—their lives.  They faced persecution, but in Acts, we see that the church rapidly spread because Jesus was indeed with them.  He had send the Holy Spirit to empower them.  And the early church grew rapidly.  The power of Jesus Christ turned Saul the Persecutor into Paul, the greatest missionary in the history of the church.

Jesus gives the disciples a difficult task, but it is not a task that He said was optional.  “Go,”—it’s an imperative.  And they went.  Beyond the book of Acts, we don’t have much in the line of records for many of the apostles’ going, but they went.  And if church tradition is correct, Doubting Thomas went to Persia, and even as far as India—Christianity has certainly been in India for a very long time, even if it is, by far, a minority religion.  In Chennai, I visited the spot where Indian Christians claim that Thomas was martyred.

“Go and make disciples of all nations.”  That was Jesus’ parting instructions.  It was a command to His original disciples, and a command to His followers today.  I don’t what that looks like in your life.  It might mean you God’s calling you to foreign missions, or maybe it means that, right here in our church, you’d come alongside a new believer and mentor them in the faith.  The truth is, we act too much like the deal is done when someone responds to the altar call.  To be sure, new Christians do have an instruction manual—right here in God’s word—but nothing in the Bible tells us just to have folks pray a sinners pray then tell them, “well, you’ll figure it out.” 

Making disciples is a lifelong process, whether you answer Jesus’ call nearby or in far off places.  How do you know where you are to answer the call? I suggest you bloom where you are planted.  Step out in faith and obey the call to make disciples, right here.  Do it right now.  Remember Jesus’ promise: “I am with you always,” and as you continue to obey in faith, as you continue in prayer, God will open the doors to place you where he wants you.  But whatever you do, go, make disciples.

He is risen. That’s the ultimate answer. 

It’s an indisputable fact, proven by His followers and His enemies.  He is risen, and that means He has all of God’s authority, and it means He compels us to share that ultimate answer.

He is risen.  That’s the ultimate answer to sin, and death, and Hell.  It’s the ultimate answer for a fallen humanity, hungering for something greater than self, and searching desperately for that something in so many places, and never finding it.  He is risen, and that seals salvation for those who place their faith and trust in Him.

Jesus commands us, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  What are you waiting for?  He’s given you more than an invitation.  What would it look like if all believers in Christ actually obeyed His command to make disciples?  How many eternal futures would that change?  How many people would experience life change in Christ?  How many families would be far better off?  How would our entire world change?

He is risen.  That’s the ultimate answer—one we’re called to share. 

And Jesus Himself gives us the power to tell the world.  Christian, will you follow that call, or will you continue to leave it to the “professionals?”

Perhaps you’ve been looking for something.  Maybe you’ve tried to fill your life with possessions, or wealth, or job satisfaction.  Maybe you’ve believed that if you could just find the right spouse, you’d find relief from that longing.  Or maybe you’ve tried to dull that longing with drugs or alcohol, only to wake up with a hangover and the longing still there.  You’ve searched in vain for the answer to fill that longing.  My friend, the ultimate answer is that, “He is risen.”

Jesus Christ, the Son of God came to this earth, was born to the virgin Mary, and lived a sinless life.  He taught and performed many miracles to prove He was who He claimed to be.  He died a criminal’s death on a Roman cross—a horrific form of execution, designed to exact the most pain and humiliation possible on its victims.  He shed his blood, and he died in your place, in my place, if we will but place our faith and trust in Him.

In John 11:25-26, Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Well, do you believe it?  Will you come to the end of your sin and yourself, and realize that in the resurrection of Christ, you’ve found the ultimate answer to everything?  The answer to your longing.  Will you place your faith and trust in Him?

[1] Sony Pictures, “Cast & Crew,” Jeopardy!, 2015, (accessed April 15, 2016).

[2] All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[3] David Platt, Exalting Jesus in Matthew, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary (Nashville, TN:  B&H Publishing Group, 2013):  Kindle Location 6727.

[4] U.S. Marshal Service, “Witness Security Program,” U.S. Marshal Service, n.d.  http://www.usmarshals. gov/witsec/ (Accessed on April 16, 2016).

[5] Nathan A. Finn, “Until All Burma Worships the Eternal God: Adoniram Judson, the Missionary, 1812-50,” Chapter 4 in Adoniram Judson:  Studies in Baptist Life and Thought, edited by Jason G. Duesing (Nashville, TN:  B&H Publishing, 2012):  77-90, Kindle.


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