By David R. Ferguson
As a small child growing up in rural central Illinois, one of my favorite memories was of those Sunday mornings when our family of seven children loaded up in our father's station wagon and he would drive us and our mother to visit one of our sister congregations in the area. Lower Ash Grove Church of Christ was one of those congregations we visited. While driving through the countryside enjoying the beautiful fall colors one recent afternoon, I found myself at the lane leading to Lower Ash Grove Cemetery. I pulled into the lane and I have to admit, I was quite saddened at the spectacle of the old abandoned church building which I saw greet me so forlornly as it stood under the shadows of the trees.
I know the church isn't the building. The Bible makes it quite clear that the church is comprised of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:24), which is made up of individuals who are immersed, obedient believers (Acts 2:38) whom God adds to His church (Acts 2:47). But I was saddened, nonetheless, by seeing this abandoned building where a once vibrant congregation of the Lord's people used to assemble.
I wish I could say that what has happened with the Lower Ash Grove Church of Christ is the exception for those congregations we used to attend, but unfortunately, it has become the rule. Even the congregation we attended as members when I was a small child long ago abandoned "the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 1:3 [NAS]), and has gone the way of apostasy.
I wish I knew why this happened here in central Illinois, but maybe the answer is found in what Jesus says to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:3-5 [NAS]: "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent."
Maybe the reason so many of those congregations from my youth are now gone is because they got so caught up in "marking" those whom they felt were false teachers that they lost their first love, like Ephesus, and never repented.
It is true we need to keep the church pure, but as Jesus pointed out to the church at Ephesus, it becomes dangerous if that becomes our primary goal. When our focus is on the deeds of evil men, rather than on our first love, we tend to forget to evangelize the lost around us, which is what our first love, Jesus Christ, demands.
If I had but one wish, I think it would be to be able to go back in time to the 1960s and 1970s and show these photos of what has become of those once thriving congregations in central Illinois to those brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe then they would have repented of their ways, and returned again to their first love. But since that isn't going to happen, I pray tp God that I will not become so focused on the evil men of today that I, too, forget my first love to the point that the Lord will have to remove His lampstand yet again.
- David R. Ferguson preaches for the Lakeland Church of Christ in Mattoon, IL. He may be contacted through the congregation's website.