“What do you do?” I get asked that a lot. Here’s an answer. Kathy and I seek to strengthen that which remains. What we seek to discern is exactly what remains?
“Strengthen that which remains” is found in Revelation 3. It’s Jesus’ prophetic word to the church in Sardis. Sardis means “that which remains.” The city was situated 1000 feet up on the side of a mountain and was thought to be impregnable. But it did fall to enemies—twice. Both times the enemy sneaked in while the people slept.
Jesus sought to strengthen what remained of the church in Sardis. In the Greek, strengthen means “reestablish.” Jesus’ hope was to reestablish the Sardis church on solid ground with followers who recognized reality. They constituted that which remains. Never happened. Church leaders thought their church was alive, impregnable. It wasn’t.
A similar situation unfolded in Europe after World II. Churches were in decline. In 1948, Francis Schaeffer traveled throughout Europe as a representative of the Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The mission board decided to send Francis and his wife, Edith, to Europe “to help strengthen the things that remain.” The Schaeffer family moved from the U.S. to Lausanne, Switzerland to begin the work.
Francis initially worked with his contemporaries, pastors, hoping they constituted that which remains. Didn’t happen. Most ignored the changes sweeping Europe. For a while it looked like the Schaeffer’s work was going to be a bust.
Then, in 1955, Francis resigned from the mission board and began L’Abri (French for “the shelter”). Within a few years, Francis and Edith discovered the remainder—those who recognized the times—was the younger generation. They came to L’Abri as atheists, agnostics, and believers—working, reading, arguing, dining together, learning.
L’Abri sheltered young leaders from the standard Christian fare of that day. The Schaeffer’s home provided a sanctuary for spirited conversations where participants often used foul language and occasionally came to faith. They talked about sex, work, politics, the environment. Francis and Edith guided the conversations. They filled L’Abri with love. But Francis was also prophetic. He saw the post-Christian world coming and would, on occasion, in angry frustration, ask Edith why his contemporaries didn’t.
I launched Clapham Institute in 2002. Kathy and I see the post-Christian world coming, driving the church into exile. We seek to strengthen that which remains. For years, we assumed that was our contemporaries. We’re Boomers. We love our Boomer and Gen-X friends. We’ve invested in them. But now I’m not so sure they represent that which remains. Most Boomers and Gen-Xers feel their church is alive, impregnable. Few seem to recognize the rise of religious “nones” and the church being in exile.
That’s why Kathy and I downshifted to younger leaders. In 2015 we opened the doors of Clapham House, a large home in the historic district of Annapolis, Maryland. We’ve since had over 4,000 guests. And like L’Abri, we’ve discovering that which remains. It’s mainly younger leaders. Entrepreneurs. Church planters. Mostly millennials.
In our day, strengthening means reestablishing the ancient gospel best told in our physical bodies, in our sexuality as male and female. This is unknown to most young believers, so their sex life is a mess. They confide to me they struggle with porn yet confess they have no place to talk about it. We do at Clapham House.
Over the course of the past three years, this has made for some frank conversations. I sense that some of my contemporaries would be a bit uncomfortable with them. And with religious “nones,” the f-bomb is pretty much the word de rigueur. I’m not saying that’s good. I’m saying people seek a sanctuary for spirited conversations.
Of course, Kathy and I are but a pale imitation of the Schaeffers. We don’t know where our work will take us, but we’re heeding Jesus’ warning, how churches can claim to be alive but actually be dead. We believe the church is in exile. Not dead perhaps, but disregarded in the wider world. We hope to make a dent in that. If you’re in the neighborhood, come and see how we seek to strengthen that which remains.