Remind them of these things…. (II Timothy 2:14)
If you have pastored for more than four or five years, or if you are in your second (or more) pastorate, you have learned the hard way that saying something one time to your people does not suffice. Some lessons–the most important ones, particularly–have to be said again and again.
Some of the most foundational messages–such as salvation by faith in Christ, the adequacy of the Word, and the importance of the cross–we continually work into sermons and lessons. These cannot be over-stressed.
Other lessons have to do with how the Christian faith is applied in our daily lives or in the operation of the Lord’s church. These too need to be iterated and re-iterated.
Each minister will have his/her own list. Here are my top ten principles to stress to your congregation again and again.
I suggest that we run these in the church bulletin, figure out how to get the gist of them onto the sign in front of the campus, print them on posters and post around the church, and speak them repeatedly in committees and classes and sermons.
Eventually, if you say them often enough and strong enough, people will begin to remember them. They might even tease you a little, as though you made these up and no one else in the Lord’s work says this. When they tease you, take pride. You’re finally getting through.
1. If you have a problem with change, you are not going to get along with Jesus very well and you are going to be unhappy in this church.
Jesus Christ is all about “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). He seems not to care much how we did things in the past or how the previous generation did them. He wants people to grow into Christlikeness and that means radical change.
If we are wed to yesterday’s methods and last year’s lessons, we will quickly find ourselves resisting the Holy Spirit.
The church that never changes, that refuses to allow a new song to be introduced, that believes the 1950s were the golden age of ministry, is dying right before your eyes.
Change or die. It’s a law of humans, it’s a basic principle of all life on this planet, and it’s a bedrock tenet of the spiritual life.
2. How you treat the church, good or bad, Jesus takes personally.
Our Lord said to the murderous Saul of Tarsus, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) That day, the apostle-in-the-making learned a valuable lesson: what he did to the church, Jesus took personally.
By “church,” we mean the Lord’s people collectively or any one congregation or any member of the church on mission for Him. (Normally, we would not speak of an individual as “the church,” but for our purposes here we will.)
When one blesses the church, Jesus is honored (Hebrews 6:10). A gift to the church is treated as though it were handed to Jesus Himself (see Matthew 25:40). (Also, notice Matthew 10:40-42.)
When one attacks the church or any member of it, Jesus feels the pain and becomes intimately involved (see Acts 7:56).
When the early church was persecuted (Acts 8:1), the Lord went into action and used this mightily to spread the gospel (see Acts 11:19ff).
This theme is found all through the Old Testament as well, as God emphasizes that His Name is on Israel. How they are treated by others, God takes personally. When Israel herself neglected to bring tithes and offerings into God’s House, the Lord indicted them for “robbing God” (Malachi 3:8). When the widow dropped her tiny coins into the temple treasury, Jesus implies that God in Heaven is honored by her faith (Mark 12:43-44).
3. The church belongs to Jesus and Him alone. He died for it; we didn’t.
No fact is more liberating for a minister than this: You are not on your own out here. The church belongs to Jesus and so do you. You may faithfully hand it back to Him and continue with your work while looking to Him for all resources, guidance, protection, and blessing.
Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
Paul told the Ephesian pastors to “shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
If your church is hurting financially, tell Jesus. It’s His problem. If your church needs to relocate or is dying or is bursting at the seams and you are faced with critical decisions, tell Jesus. It’s His church and He knows what He wants to do.
It’s not your church, pastor, even if your name is on the sign out front. Deacons, thank you for your faithful service, but it’s not your church. Church leaders, we depend on you so much, but this is not your church. Members with seniority, thank you for your faithfulness through the years, but it’s not your church. Members who have given the most money, thank you for your generosity, but it’s not your church. And, Southern Baptist polity aside, congregation, even though you make the decisions and can do anything you please by a vote of the members, this is not your church.
It’s the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you lose sight of this, nothing else matters; you are on your way to major problems in the congregation.
4. The Lord sends the pastor (and other leaders) not to make the congregation happy, but to make them healthy and holy and to make Himself happy.
Unless the membership understands this, the church is in big trouble and the pastor(s) will soon be under fire for failing to live up to the congregation’s expectations.
Many a pastor has been handed his walking papers by a delegation who deemed his service a failure since the members were unhappy with him. So far have we strayed from the Scripture’s teachings for the Lord’s people.
Yesterday, a pastor’s wife told me a disgruntled church leader pounded on their door early one morning. “Did you know you left that porch light on all night long?!” he demanded. He was concerned about the church’s electricity bill.
The pastor calmly reminded his visitor that he paid his own utility bill. Furthermore, their little dog had gotten out of the house the evening before and they had not found him. “We thought if we left the porch light on, he might find his way back home.”
If you think this is atypical and most pastors do not have to deal with such cantankerous behavior from church members with bad mental health, you would be mistaken. Thankfully, such jerks are a minority in most churches, but almost every church has its share.
The remedy–the cure, the solution, the answer–is for the godly and healthy church members to accurately understand the role of the ministers and to speak that to others who don’t get it.
And that leads us to the next point.
5. Every leader and each member is charged with protecting the unity of the Body of Christ.
…endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
In deacon conferences, I remind these leaders that they more than anyone else in the congregation are charged with keeping the peace. They should move quickly when they observe the congregation’s unity threatened by the actions of one or a few church members. Mature and godly (meaning: humble and faithful) leaders will know what to do to head off trouble.
A member is loudly criticizing the pastor. He makes no secret of his opposition to the man of God. The question before us is how to deal with it and who should do it?
–The pastor should not have to do this. For him to confront the critic puts him in a bad position and appears self-serving.
–The deacons are the best ones to do this. It will require a certain amount of courage, but if they do not have what it takes to protect the church from trouble-makers they have no business being called leaders.
–If the deacons will not act, two or three faithful church members should. They should not make a federal case of this, but simply go together to ask the complainer for his reasons. If they can be addressed, they should be. If he has a case, the deacons and/or pastor or both can be called in. But if they decide he is out of line, they should say so.
A friend told me his mother’s church had run off yet another pastor. “It’s a few self-appointed bosses who do this,” his mother told him. He said, “Mom! Why doesn’t someone stand up to them and put a stop to this?” She said, “Honey, someone has to act like a Christian in all this.”
That passive misunderstanding of Christian leadership has resulted in the enemy having a field day in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
6. The best thing a congregation can do for the church is to choose good and godly leaders, then get out of their way. Support them to do their work.
How does one find “good and godly leaders?” Jesus gave us three tests in Luke 16:10-12: 1) how one handles little assignments? 2) how he handles money? and 3) how he handles what belongs to other people.
The Apostle Paul cautioned us not to “lay hands on anyone suddenly” (I Timothy 5:22). He said leaders were not to be novices (I Timothy 3:6) and were first to be tested (I Timothy 3:10).
Then, once you have chosen the best leaders available, get out of their way and trust them to do their work well. There does need to be accountability, but not second-guessing. They do not need to be subjected to nitpicking and to monthly financial meeting so typical of small churches in which leaders are harassed about every dime spent.
There is a reason small churches tend to stay small. One of the greatest concerns our point: first, they tend to select leaders poorly, and secondly, even when they have good leaders, they do not support them but undercut and second-guess them until they are discouraged and resign in frustration.
The church to which I belong now as a retiree, I pastored for 14 years. Not long ago the congregation was meeting to discuss the new pastor who would be coming the following weekend. The chairman of the search committee explained the process and laid out the schedule. That’s when an unhappy member spoke up.
“That will not give us time to get to know him adequately. How do you expect us to vote on calling him when we have not fully investigated him and gotten to know him?”
My son raised his hand to respond to the man.
“We have chosen good leaders,” Neil told him. “They have worked long and hard at this and have had many visits and discussions with the prospective pastor. We have continually kept them before the Lord in prayer. Now, let’s trust them.”
A friend sidled over to me following that meeting. “Guess who Neil sounded just like?” he teased.
He sounded like his father, I’m happy to report. He heard it from me enough.
7. The one thing our church offers not available when you are sitting at home in front of the television watching the best preachers in the land is fellowship.
The Greek word translated “fellowship” in the New Testament is koinonia, a word having to do with “sharing with each other.” In our culture, the word carries a hundred meanings. In the church, fellowship refers to the loving interaction of the family members with each other, as they worship together, work alongside each other, and–for want of a better term–just hang out together.
Tragically, the typical church sees little or no value in fellowship between its members. If it happens at all, it’s an accident. The average church has its members attending and sitting and listening and then going home. They come back to sit and listen and then go home.
A healthy church will be doing a hundred things right, but one of the primary ingredients will be strong fellowship between the Lord’s people. This has three aspects: 1) they love the Lord, 2) they enjoy each other and spend time together, and 3) they welcome newcomers into their midst.
We’ve all seen churches or classes where the people seemed to get the first two right but not the third. They were spiritual and they loved one another. But they completely ignored the newcomer. Such groups are not fellowships. They are cliques.
God told Israel in the wilderness how life would be conducted once they settled in the Promised Land. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34).
The early church seemed to understand this. And that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers…. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:41, 46-47).
8. Love may have an emotional element. But love is not an emotion; love is something you do.
No teaching of the Bible is more needed today than this. People in the pews tend to think of love as an emotion, a feeling, which is sometimes present and often lacking. To do a thing without that emotion, many say, is hypocritical.
This is entirely backward. To do a loving thing without the emotion of love being present is the very essence of faith.
No one who has ever walked this earth has been able to command his emotions. We cannot force ourselves to feel angry or fearful or loving or hateful.
Therefore, for God to command that we love–as He does from one end of the Word to the other–must mean we are to do something else. Love is something we do. Love is an action, not an emotion.
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies. (Luke 6:27)
The Lord is not requiring us to feel all gooey and sentimental toward those who are fighting us. He is asking us to do loving things toward them which He will then use as a strong and faithful witness to them.
What loving things?
The passage which follows that command contains four actions our Lord wants to see in His people when they are attacked and opposed. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you…. Give to everyone who asks of you. (See the entire passage, Luke 6:27-38)
The four most basic acts of love, whether we are talking about loving our neighbor, other disciples, our mates, our children, or our enemies, are the same: do good works to them, bless them with our words, pray for them with the Father, and give good gifts to them.
My little children, let us not love in word and in tongue (only) but in deed and in truth (I John 3:18).
9. Nothing you will ever do demonstrates faith better than praying.
How many times are we commanded in the Word to pray? It must be in the hundreds. Luke 18:1 is one of my favorites. And He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to faint.
At all times: that’s the imperative of prayer. Fainting: that’s the alternative to praying.
We do a lot of things to demonstrate our faith in the Lord Jesus, but nothing more than to pray. Think of it: we do not see the Lord to whom we pray and we may never see the answers to most of the things for which we pray.
Today, I prayed for a child having brain surgery in a local hospital. The request came over the internet from a mutual friend. I am praying for the president of the United States. I’m praying for missionary friends on the other side of the globe. I’m lifting my children in prayer.
In most cases, I will never know to what degree or in what way my prayer was answered. To persevere in prayer means to demonstrate faith that the Lord in Heaven hears, that my prayer means something to Him, and that my prayers are making a difference in the world.
For most people, that alone is reason to quit praying. When we do not see the One whom we address and never know whether it made a difference, “fainting” becomes the norm.
There is no way to know exactly, but many leaders believe a large percent of people calling themselves Christians no longer pray except in emergencies.
Praying requires faith. “Lord, give us faith to pray consistently and fervently and to continue faithfully!”
10. Every church needs a little conflict now and then.
Churches seem to run to extremes here: either they are constantly in conflict or they never have any and when they do, members panic and feel it’s the end of the world.
It helps us to note that the early church dealt with one kind of conflict or other from its inception. In Acts 3-4, the problem is with the Jewish authorities. In Acts 6, it was members bickering among themselves. In Acts 7-9, it’s persecution from outside.
If to be a New Testament church is our desire, then we should be ready to accept persecution and inner turmoil and to deal with it faithfully.
Not long ago, I moderated a church business meeting in which the congregation voted to terminate the pastor. The reasons, such as they were, were miniscule. The leadership simply did not like the man or the way he did ministry, is my judgment. That night as I left the building, an elderly member said to me, “This is the fourth minister in a row we have run off.”
That is a church that does not know how to handle conflict. It reminds us of marriages in conflict where all the couple knows is to get a divorce. There are other alternatives, far better ones.
A little conflict from time to time is a sign of life for a church. A dead body experiences no conflict; a growing organism knows constant conflict.
A little conflict from time to time keeps the leadership on its toes. It reminds them the enemy is out there, “walking to and fro, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8).
A little conflict gives the church leadership experience in how to deal with the more serious variety which crops up occasionally.
At a pastors conference, the leader asked each person to introduce himself and tell about his work. One old gentleman told us his name and added, “I’m over here at Shiloh. You know there’s always a mess going on at Shiloh. But that’s all right. I’ve learned that without friction, there’s no traction!”
I said, “Whoa! Let me write that down.”
It was worth remembering.
All these principles are worth remembering and reminding your people of again and again. In fact, that’s the only way they will ever learn them.
Do it right, pastor, and long after you have moved on to other fields or to glory, your people will still be practicing principles of healthy church management which you have drilled into them through your faithful service.
I can hear them now. “I used to have an old preacher who told us frequently that….”
You’ll be in heaven. Literally.