The Joy-Filled Church

Joseph did whistle and Mary did sing,
Mary did sing, Mary did sing,
And all the bells on earth did ring
For joy our Lord was born.

— ANONYMOUS

*    *    *    *    *

   The church of Jesus Christ is the most exciting, the most spectacular, the most beautiful body of good people in the world. If you are a Christian, these are your people. For two millennia these "saints" have been "marching" and "turning the world upside down," and now they are entering their third millennium.

   The Christian community was founded by Jesus Christ Himself. The New Testament church was a church militant, and it still is the church militant, while on its way to becoming the church triumphant in the kingdom of God. Today it is "as visible and as bodily," says Reginald Fuller, "as the individual Christian."

   Each time a new congregation is formed in prayer and seeks and receives the blessing the God, that new band of believers becomes a part of the church universal. As you probably already know, it is not unusual for one part of the church to claim to be

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"the only true church." We need not be unsettled by such claims. Jesus is the Head of the church, His Holy Spirit runs the church, and the Spirit is as free as the wind. No one individual and no church has ever captured, boxed, commandeered, or expropriated the Holy Spirit, but He knows those who are His.

   Jesus has given His church a joyful message. It is the greatest news that ever came to the human race. No other system of belief in the world can match the Gospel of Christ in its glad assurance of God's love and His provision for our salvation.

   If you want joy, find a church where there are some merry Christians not cultists but ordinary, genuine, down-home Christians and join them in their fun. Find some pastor whose prayer life results Sunday after Sunday in true Bible preaching; who will feed your soul with a Gospel sermon out of the Book and leave you wishing for more; and whose real life matches his ministry.

   Sunday churchgoing can be a magnificent adventure. To see a congregation rise up and cheer a straightforward proclamation of truth is joy at its most exalted. To watch people of all ages respond to an invitation to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, after a presentation of the faith once delivered to the saints, is a thrilling and blessed experience.

   But there is more to joy in church than just listening to superb rhetoric. Many paths of ministry are open to Christians who are willing and able to respond. I'm not talking about ushering and singing, very important as they are. I'm talking now about the deep inner enjoyment that is open to believers who put on the garment of praise and start witnessing for Christ in the marketplace.

   George Gallup, Jr., the well-known pollster, speaking at an urban ministries conference in New Jersey, revealed some unusual statistical data drawn from his recent polls concerning what he called the "high spiritual faith" of certain American Christians today. I quote:

   These people are a breed apart. They are more tolerant of people of diverse backgrounds. They are more

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involved in charitable activities and practical Christianity. They are absolutely committed to prayer. They are far, far happier than the rest of the population. These are the quiet saints in our society who have a disproportionate, powerful impact on our communities.1

   In the light of such glowing reports, why is it that most churches in America have less than 100 members, and seem to have great struggles to meet their bills at the end of each month? These are splendid people, the salt of the earth. Their characters are sound. Their theology is orthodox. Their salvation is sure. Their ministers are dedicated and sincere. What is it that keeps the congregation from natural growth? What is making so many of their leaders confess their discouragement?

   I don't know, but I have a notion. It is only a speculation, and I expect many will disagree with me. They could be right, but I still hold my notion. I think what is lacking in many churches is the joy of the Lord.

   As I see it, the church as a whole has treasured all of this rich golden ore of the Gospel, but doesn't always seem to know how to refine it. Too often it presents the Gospel in what Milton called "a dimm religious light" that obscures the plain teaching of repentance and deliverance.2 We make the way to Jesus seem too steep for the ordinary person. There are too many flights of stairs, too much religious blathering. We transmute the upbeat promises of joy, good cheer, and lightheartedness that are indigenous in the New Testament into something legalistic, heavy, and depressing. Even though people really like and admire Jesus, they don't feel good enough or strong enough to make the spiritual effort to follow Him (yet Jesus said, "My burden is light").

   Let's look again at where we stand. The New Testament has given the church a clear understanding of the biggest problem facing the human race, which is simply how to face a holy God just as we are: sinners. The king, the queen, the president, the lawmaker, the lawbreaker, the bishop, the prostitute, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, and you and I have

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all come short of the glory of God. As we are, He cannot, should not, and will not receive us. We're not worthy of heaven. So who is?

   The church holds the answer, and the answer is Jesus. He came and spanned the gulf between God and sin. The church can proclaim to the world that in Christ our "God problem" has been solved. Even though we are sinners, we can relax. By faith in Jesus we are justified before God. By faith we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. We can now face God in His holiness. The vicarious sacrifice for sin has been made. The Lamb of God has been slain, the price has been paid, the blood has been shed for our redemption. Our sins are absolved by the grace of God and our future is secure. Thanks to the work on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ticket to heaven is already filled out. The Holy Spirit has it waiting for us at the airport.

   Wow! If that isn't good news, I don't know what is. Don't say to me, "Yes, but . . ." I'm not listening. I won't argue. No soul was ever saved by a "yes, but." There is not "yes, but" about our sins. They are real. The Gospel tells us what to do about them. Either the Gospel is true or it isn't. Either a church is preaching the Gospel or it isn't.

   I love to think about a train, for I grew up in the age of trains. The church is a Gospel train, heading out from the depot for a straight run to heaven. It's a fun ride. It's a free ride if you have your ticket. It's a clean ride, a beautiful ride, a joyful ride. The devil despises the Gospel train and is intent on derailing it, but God has His church crew working on the railroad right-of-way. That train is going through. All we have to do is climb aboard, keep our seats, and don't lean out the window.

   Samuel Porter Jones, one of the South's greatest preachers, had a classic way of inviting people into the kingdom of God who don't think they're ready for it. His humor drew huge crowds of people. His early life was sodden with drink, but the joy of his salvation was so exhilarating that it made him a preacher in demand everywhere.

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   Mr. Jones approached one man with an invitation to come to Jesus and the man told him, "No, sir, I ain't fitten."

   Mr. Jones said to him, "Come up here and get fitten."

   Jones said, "Let me tell you that the very fact that you don't feel fit is the thing that commends you to God. I have never felt worthy of membership in the church of Jesus Christ."3

   It is because the church is such a blessing to humanity, and because I was once nurtured in it and love it today more than ever, that I suggest that as the Gospel is proclaimed today there is often an omission in its message. For years I didn't see the omission, though I felt the lack. Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, the current honorable chaplain of the United States Senate, put his finger on it:

  Joy is the missing ingredient in contemporary Christianity. The problem is our powerless piousness and grim religiosity.

   The missing ingredient! Jesus came bringing a message of joy to the world, and where has it gone? When will all the churches begin smiling and singing with fervor and loving each other, and otherwise behaving so that the world learns what it really means to know Jesus Christ? The Bible says there is a time to laugh and a time to dance. I would say that the time has come; we've had enough reprimands from strait-laced church officials about respecting their own dignity.

   Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), a Dominican monk who spent 26 years in a Naples prison for his political and religious views, wrote a sonnet, "On the Resurrection," that registered an early protest. Here it is, translated from the Italian:

If Christ remained but six hours on the cross
after a few years of sorrow and affliction,
which He suffered willingly for humankind
that Heaven might be purchased forever,
why is He everywhere to be seen

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painted and preached only in torments
which were light compared with the joy that followed
when the wicked world's cruel blows were finished?

Why not talk and write about the majestic Kingdom
He enjoys in Heaven and soon will bring to earth
to the glory and praise of His worthy Name?
O foolish crowd, because you are so earthbound
and have eyes only for the day of His ordeal,
you see His high triumph shorn of its true worth.4

   People who talk about the need to take a less serious look at our common faith are often accused of levity. Yet I know of no sincere believer who wants to make jokes about the holiest things in life. That is the devil's work. Of course veneration and respect are always due to the Blessed Trinity. We are told to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; but that does not necessarily require a minor key. God told His prophet Isaiah, "I will . . . give them joy in my house of prayer."5 Let's find it! The Psalms tell us to make a joyful noise to the Lord, to praise Him with all manner of instruments.

   Some of the responsibility for the lack of joy in the church can be laid to the Bible translators. Over the centuries they have taken it upon themselves to render the original texts in subdued and "religious" language, which, while fairly accurate, nevertheless conceals some bright phrases and fresh, strong expressions in the Hebrew and Greek originals. For example, they will translate spermologos (seed-picking bird) as "babbler" and skandalon (offense, scandal) as "stumbling block."

   When we examine the original manuscripts, we find that in small and subtle ways the hilarious atmosphere of Jesus and His followers has been quietly reduced in translation to something like sanctimony. John Ellington, translation consultant for the United Bible Societies, writes, "The Bible is replete with examples of [humor] that must have made the original readers smile or chuckle." He admits that "humor is notoriously difficult to translate,"

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but adds that "many Bible translators are reluctant to convey humor even after it has been pointed out to them."6

   Piety is not a wet blanket to extinguish joy. True piety is joy spiritual joy, wonderful joy. Gladys Collins of Green Mountain, North Carolina, writes, "I am a member of a church. The area I live in is known as the Bible Belt. I believe you will find more churches here than anywhere in the world, yet when you attend a worship service in most places, you leave depressed. I believe we should leave joyful and full of the Holy Spirit." She is correct. Joy is probably the most underworked word in the Christian lexicon, yet the New Testament uses it lavishly.

   So what are we church people really looking for? Why do we keep coming to church year after year? Is it to get religion? Or is it for spiritual insurance we are fearful of something terrible happening? When I interviewed C.S. Lewis in Cambridge, England, in 1963 he told me, "I find it difficult to keep from laughing when I find people worrying about future destruction of some kind or other. Didn't they know they were going to die anyway? Apparently not."7

   It is just possible that what we are looking for is that elusive, wonderful thing the Bible calls the Joy of the Lord. The truth is that joy has been an attribute of God ever since the beginning of creation. We have seen that in the book of Isaiah the Lord tells His prophet, "Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create."8 [Is. 65:18] He uses two verbs, saying it twice for emphasis! Yet generation after generation of faithful believers have apparently been misled into thinking that joy does not exist in the Christian faith. Much of the problem is created not by our lack of awareness of the Divine Presence, but by the wholly unnecessary gravity with which our leadership protects its own dignity, and the unnatural churchly posturing that so easily passes into overbearing arrogance and conceit.

   An Episcopal clergyman, Dudly Zuver, has observed, "One of the quickest and, on the whole, the most effective ways of getting rid of God is to reverence Him out of existence."9 Add to the mix the seemingly endless protocol that ties our ecclesiastical

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proceedings into knots and proves an enormous waste of time, and we have the church of today.

   Dorothy Sayers has pointed out that while "the Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man," we today have managed to "show the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore and this in the Name of One who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through the world like a flame."10

   Where did we churchfolk lose out? How did we drift so far from the joy of the Lord? Does it not seem strange that we should be cut off amputated from the hope of the very thing that attracted us to church in the first place?

   Some think it not at all strange. Either for theological or sociological reasons, they think Christians should spend their days sorrowing and weeping either over their own sins or the sins of the body politic. But the response of Hendrik Kraemer, the Dutch Christian leader whom the Nazis tortured in a concentration camp, was a passionate "NO!" In Edinburgh in 1951 I heard him say, "We Christians must get the joy of Christ back into our religion. We are denying Christ by losing it!" Elton Trueblood wrote in 1964, "The Christian is joyful, not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convinced that these, in the light of the divine sovereignty, are never ultimate. The Christian can be sad, and often is perplexed, but he is never really worried, because he knows that the purpose of God is to bring all things in Heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ."11

   Finally, let us close with a quiet vow to do something to liven up our church. How? With a single word: evangelism! Here is the way William Tyndale, martyr and Bible translator, rendered that word so dear to our hearts in the prologue to his English translation of the New Testament, which was published in 1525:

Evangelio (that we cal gospel) is a greke word, and signyfyth good, mery, glad and joyful tydings, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce, and leepe for ioye.12

   May God bless His church and fill it with "evangelio"!

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1. From an address at a Southern Baptist conference in Newark, New Jersey, reported by Baptist Press and subsequently carried by the Evangelical News Service, May 24, 1991.

2. John Milton, Il Penseroso

3. Samuel P. Jones, "Waiting and Hoping," in Sermons and Sayings by the Rev. Sam P. Jones (Nashville: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1885).

4. Tommaso Campanella's sonnet "On the Resurrection" appeared in English translation in Country of the Risen King, an anthology of Christian poetry compiled by Merle Meeter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 289.

5. Isaiah 56:7 NIV

6. John Ellington, "Wit and Humor in the Bible," in The Bible Translator (New York: United Bible Societies, July 1991).

7. "Heaven, Earth and Outer Space," interview in Decision magazine, October 1963, p. 4.

8. Isaiah 65:18 NIV. In his brilliant study of Isaiah, Alec Motyer points out that "the doubling of the imperatives (take joy and exult) is itself a guarantee of total joy, as if saying it two ways encompassed every possible joyful feeling." See J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 529.

9. Dudley Zuver, Salvation by Laughter (New York: Harper, 1933), p. 260.

10. Dorothy Sayers in Topical Encyclopedia of Living Quotations (Minneapolis, Bethany House, 1982), no. 261.

11. D. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 32.

12. William Tyndale (1494?-1536), evangelical scholar, was driven from England in 1524 and never returned. His first New Testament translation was forbidden in England but because of its vigor and other superb qualities it eventually became the basis of both the King James Bible and today's New King James Bible. Tyndale died as a martyr in Vilverde, Belgium, where he was arrested for defending the Gospel, condemned, tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and burned.

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