One of my favorite things to do for vacation is visit lighthouses. This has been a tradition since my childhood and it is one my wife and I have continued in our family. Seeing a lighthouse today still takes me back to those childhood days where one day I might dream of being a pirate on the open sea and the next I would imagine being the keeper of a lighthouse. I appreciate their historical significance as monuments to a simpler time as well as reminders of technological and societal progress. They also hold a sort of spiritual significance in my mind as they represent Jesus as the light shining in darkness or even my own responsibility to be the light of the world.
There’s just something about a lighthouse that I’ve always loved! My favorites are the island lights of the Outer Banks – primarily because they were my first. In more recent years we have become acquainted with some of the inland lights on Lake Michigan and though they will never replace “my” lighthouses, they still possess a beauty and majesty of their own. On our most recent excursion into Michigan, I saw something new – as far as the eye could see, the water was frozen and covered in snow. My first thought was just how awesome it looked. There was something truly beautiful about the stark contrast of the lighthouses against the white backdrop. (My second thought was that our youngest child had already lost a boot and our oldest had disappeared out onto the ice and, for the moment, all thoughts of any depth were swept away by the immediate needs of the moment.)
As the hours and days went by, these lighthouses kept calling out to me as if there was something about the imagery that I still needed to consider. I thought of them often and finally it hit me – they were cool to look at, but not that useful. The conditions around them had changed so much that they were no longer serving the purpose for which they were created. Though this is certainly not the fault of an inanimate lighthouse, for me this observation held a frightening parallel to many American churches.
Buildings that once housed lively gospel lights that ministered to the community now serve as monuments to themselves. Where once Christ’s love was lived out in the community, we now find people only interested in serving themselves and meeting their own needs. And just like with the frozen lighthouses, the problem isn’t necessarily with the light. The problem is the ice all around them that has rendered them useless. The light is still shining in the sense that they have not compromised their biblical beliefs or foundational teachings. They still believe and even proclaim the gospel. They probably even pride themselves on their traditional version of religion. However, they have surrounded themselves with so many barriers that anyone who might need the light they are offering can’t even see the door. Though still shining a light, it has become useless because they are only shining it for themselves.
Jesus spoke to this problem many times as He said things like “healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do (Mark 2:17)” and that “no one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket (Matthew 5:15).” The church is meant to be a light in the darkness. Both elements of this statement are important. We must faithfully hold to the truth and proclaim it, but we must also be in the community so that we can reach it with our light. If we make church all about us and insulate ourselves from the community then we become like those frozen lighthouses – nice to look at, but otherwise not good for much. Let’s be lights that actually shine in the darkness and reach others with the wonderful truth of God’s love.