Lessons from a blind girl for local churches . . .

Helen Keller ranks among the most famous blind people who ever lived. The movie about her early life, “The Miracle Worker,” captivates me every time I watch it. It’s an epic battle of wills played out with distressing intensity. Helen rages against that which she cannot comprehend. Her instructor, Anne Sullivan, endures her hostility, eventually getting Helen to “see” through the use of signs made with her fingers.  While Sullivan is known for helping Keller overcome her blindness, Satan is far more successful at keeping churches in the dark.

The church in Laodicea ranks among the most famous blind churches that ever existed (Rev. 3:14-22). However, unlike Helen Keller’s life, no movie was made about the congregation. Had it been, the cast would have included well-intentioned believers who failed to realize that Jesus had gone missing from their midst. Jesus hits them straight between the eyes with His assessment, charging the church with blindness!

I don’t believe Jesus’ assessment was limited to a single church in the first century. He wants every church to realize the danger of losing their sight. Shockingly, 80-90 percent of American churches wallow in stagnation or are in decline. Most of those have become blind to the factors that led to their current predicament.

What leads congregations into a state of blindness? After 10 years of consulting with churches, here are a few observations:

  • Blind churches often become blind due to untreated infections. Helen Keller was not born blind. Around the age of 19 months she contracted what some think was meningitis or scarlet fever, which caused her blindness. Most blind churches were not born blind either. Somewhere along the line they picked up an infection of sin or painful injury that impaired their vision. (This “injury” must be revisited, treated and healed to restore their sight.)
  • Blind churches grow accustomed to their blindness. They’re blind and don’t know they’re blind. Like Keller, overcoming their blindness means tackling a lot of change. Often, it’s more than churches want to face. As a result, the slow spiral into depression, weakness and eventual closure continues.
  • Blind churches usually resist those trying to help them. Those who seek to help sightless churches will likely encounter the same hostility Anne Sullivan experienced in the movie. These “instructors” often pay a price for attempting to bring sight! Given enough rejection however, such teachers are not immune to throwing in the towel.
  • God causes the blindness of blind churches! Isaiah 6:9-10 spells it out, “He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed.”

In another epic battle of wills, this time between God and the Israelite congregation, God sends blindness among his own people. Why would He place such a fate on His own people as Isaiah describes and the Laodicean church demonstrates?

By doing so, He tries to get us to “see” through the use of His fingers. He begins communicating through a kind of tactile sign language. He wants us to feel the message. He’s teaching significant corporate lessons through such signs as a church’s dwindling resources, lack of ministry fruitfulness, repetitive church conflict and other painful events that negatively impact a congregation.

If these signs are meant to communicate something, what’s the message? He wants us to realize that we have lost sight of something central to our faith. It’s not our orthodox theology, or our buildings, or our programs, or our fellowship suppers. It’s the life giving power of Jesus in and through our lives and churches. Unless a church recognizes the meaning of the signs He sends, it will continue to stumble and bumble in its sightless condition.

In the closing scene of “The Miracle Worker” young Helen finally connects the sign with its meaning. It’s a joyous ending to a tumultuous story. However, the question remains, does your church need to connect the signs your seeing with their meaning? Have you recognized the significance of corporate pain, responded to the Divine Instructor and overcome corporate visual impairment.

Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries and authored Diagnosing the Heart of Your Church among other works. For more information visit blessingpoint.org or contact mark@blessingpoint.org.

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