According to the Spring edition of “OnMission” magazine, published by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, 90 percent of unchurched 20-29 year olds believe, “I can have a good relationship with God without being involved in a church.”
That sounds new. But it’s as old as Methuselah.
Some of us can remember the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the 1960-1970s when the beaded, bearded, flower children carried signs announcing “Jesus Yes; Church No.”
No one will be surprised that we who have given our lives to serving God through His church believe in the church. We believe in it passionately even though quite a high percentage of us bear scars from our years of service.
Believers in the church’s essential role in God’s plan are not the “establishment.” We were not brain-washed and are not duped or deluded. We are not mouthpieces of some denominational hierarchy somewhere. Neither are we defenders of the status quo. (No one who ever sat under my ministry even once accused me of defending the status quo. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many have wished I could be satisfied to leave well enough alone.)
Most of us have had a love-hate affair with the Lord’s church. We have loved it when it did well, been blessed by it when it was faithful, grieved for it when it got off-track, and sometimes suffered from our proximity to cancerous members.
Our convictions are not shallow or lightly held. They have been through the fires and come through stronger than ever.
Each of us has our burden for the church. Here are mine. Twenty things I wish we could say to every church, and repeat them at regular intervals until they take hold.
1. The church has always been under attack. So, when people criticize it, Christian, don’t panic.
How does that line go? “There is no such things as ‘news.’ There are only old things happening to new people.”
Like all those fake petitions in cyberspace we can’t seem to be rid of, the same “news” about people’s religious views keep recirculating every few years. Someone discovers that Christians get divorced at a high rate–oh, horrors! That early Christians decided some so-called epistles were spurious and discarded them–oh, no, “Banned by the church!” And that people who do not want to have anyone telling them how to live decide they can please God without the church. Ho-hum.
Any day now someone will come out with “revolutionary” evidence that Jesus did not bodily rise from the dead, there was no Virgin Birth, there never was a historical person named Jesus, and/or that His grave has been found in a cemetery in Milwaukee. Yawn.
2. That the church has survived the attacks from its enemies and the failings of its own members for two thousand years and is still going strong stands as a remarkable testimony of God’s plan for her.
God’s people were told to expect attacks from the outside–Paul called these people “savage wolves”–and divisive sneak attacks from the inside in Acts 20:29-30. The one constant of ecclesiastical history has been those two disruptive forces.
Expect it, Christian. And remember this elementary lesson from your high school physics class: A fire under pressure will burn brighter. Since the devil never took physics, he doesn’t understand this, so he keeps persecuting the Lord’s people and attacking the Church and slandering Jesus. What he cannot figure, though, is why all such efforts only spreads the Gospel.
3. The apparent weakness of a particular church is generally deceptive.
God delights in using weak things, ordinary people, and unlikely prospects. He can take a young child’s simple lunch and feed thousands. So, the next time you look at your church service and decide that you are tragically out-of-date in the hymns and technology and that you need a younger pastor because the one you have is too boring, bite your tongue. You are in the kind of church where God delights in showing up and doing something remarkable. Drop to your knees and start asking Him to do one of His patented God-things among your group.
4. The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.
According to Matthew 16:18, it’s Jesus’ church. According to Acts 20:28, it’s God’s. Same difference.
Pastor, I know your name is on the sign out front. Thank you for your faithful work, but it’s not your church.
Deacons, thank you for your years of sacrificial effort and service. But it’s not your church.
Church members with seniority, thank you for hanging in there through good times and bad, but it’s not your church.
Those who have given the most money, thank you for your generosity and sacrifices, but it’s not your church.
And church polity aside, congregation, thank you for coming and working and giving and praying, but it’s not your church.
It’s His Church. And the only question on our lips every time we meet to do His business should be “What would you have us do?”
5. Whatever we do to the church, Jesus takes personally.
Scary thought, isn’t it?
Jesus told Saul of Tarsus that when he touched one of “the least of these my brethren” to harm them, he was “persecuting me.” (Acts 9, 22, 26)
The New Testament calls the church the “Bride of Christ,” the “Body of Christ,” and other names such as the household of faith, the family of God, a holy priesthood, and so forth.
Jesus taught that when we helped even one who believed in Him, He took it personally (Matthew 25:40) Likewise, when we failed to minister to such a one–or even when we brought harm to that one–He took that personally also (Matthew 25:45).
This is consistent with the Old Testament where God put His reputation and Honor upon the Jews. However the outside world treated them, God repaid them in kind. However, the Lord went one step further and told His own people that whatever they did for “the House of the Lord,” they were doing for Him. In Malachi 3:8, God told the Jews that by withholding their tithes and offerings, they were “robbing God.”
Serious, serious stuff.
Just today, a friend quoted Dr. Adrian Rogers who said concerning the Church and the Lord Jesus: “They’re not identical–but they’re inseparable!”
6. God sends pastors, not to make the church members happy, but to make them healthy and holy and Himself happy.
At least one pastor out of ten–I don’t care what denomination–has been ousted from a church because the members were unhappy with him. (That’s just my number; nothing scientific about it, so don’t quote it as authoritative, please.)
“Well,” one church honcho says, “My understanding is that if the people are not pleased with him, it shows the preacher is failing at his job.”
I am not saying that every pastor whose people want him to leave is automatically doing a lousy job. He might be. Or maybe not.
Show me one place in all the Scripture where the pastor (or any other leader) is sent to please the people, and I’ll show you ten where the people rose up in arms against a faithful leader who was serving God well. We’ll start with Moses and go to Jeremiah and on to Paul. You will notice we skipped the best example of all, the Lord Jesus.
May I suggest the best response when someone suggests the pastor ought to leave because some of the members are unhappy with him? Laugh at them. That’s all. Laugh out loud. And then add, “Are you serious? Read your Bible, man.” And then walk away.
7. The best thing your church has to offer Christians is fellowship.
Now, the best thing the church has to offer the world is the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be sure. However, once they are in the kingdom, fellowship with other believers is the greatest need of believers. By that, we mean they need regular, close contact with people like themselves who are also serving Jesus. They need time to visit, to talk, to argue, to pray together, and laugh and work and serve.
In the typical church there is planned fellowship and unplanned fellowship. The planned kind takes place at assigned times in a Sunday School class or on a mission trip. The spontaneous kind involves hallways and parking lots and coffee shops and living rooms.
Your television set brings in some good preachers every Sunday morning. You can sit in front of the set and worship God, study the Word, pray, sing, and even make an offering. I suppose you can even find a way to minister without leaving home. But the one thing you cannot do watching Charles Stanley or David Jeremiah on the screen is to fellowship. For that, you will require other believers. You will need to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).
8. The toughest part of belonging to a church is the requirement for submission. That’s why we rarely hear about it.
Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
To submit means to give in to the other. Two men disagree; one gives in. Two women disagree; one gives in to the other. Only in matters involving life-or-death issues (the inspiration of Scripture, the efficacy of the cross, the Virgin Birth, etc) do we dig in our heels and say with Luther, “God help me; I can do nothing else.”
To give in to another is to practice the command of Philippians 2:3. In humility, consider others as more important than yourselves.
Two motorists met on a one-lane bridge. The first one leaned out and yelled, “I never back up for fools.” The second throws his car into reverse and calls, “I always do.” Which of the two men is the stronger?
Practicing submission could stop 90 percent of church divisions in their tracks.
9. God created the deacons because He needed servants willing to do the dirty work.
Jesus gave us the ultimate picture of servanthood when He stooped and washed the disciples’ feet (John 13). The Jerusalem incident of Acts 6–commonly believed to be the origin of the diaconate, even though they’re never called deacons there–confirms that these godly men are to serve the Lord’s people in the lowliest tasks in order to free up the leaders for the ministry of the Word and prayer.
In the Old West, during cattle drives, there was a division of labor. Someone rode point in front of the herd, others rode the flanks to keep the cattle together, and some poor soul had to ride drag. Usually, this dirty job went to the newest hire or youngest cowboy or the one in trouble with the boss. His task was to see that no animal was left behind.
That’s the deacons. They are not the point people, setting the vision for the congregation; God has His “called” pastors for that. They are the background workers who spend their time and energy to see that everyone is cared for, that the headstrong stray is corraled and brought back, and that stragglers are dealt with.
The Greek word translated deacon, diakonos, literally means “through the dust.” That has to mean something.
At a concert in your favorite public arena, workers wearing t-shirts with “Event Staff” across the back are scurrying around. They are not performing on stage, they are not the highest paid, but the concert would not happen without their faithful labor. That’s you, deacon.
Thank God for you.
10. If you do not like change in your church or your personal life, you will want to avoid Jesus. He’s all about change and growth.
The Lord Jesus said believers were to be like “new wineskins,” a reference to their flexibility, their adaptability to change, their skill at making adjustments to fluid situations. (See Matthew 9:17)
The image of Christians as defenders of the status quo, of resisting every new idea, of reacting against anything foreign–that is anathema to the spirit of Jesus Christ. The seven last words of the church, it has been said, are “We never did it that way before.”
Jesus knows this and understands it. In fact, we could make a case for our having been created this way so we will not too easily trash the best things of our past. The Lord said, “No one, after drinking old wine, wants new. For he says, ‘The old is better.'” (Luke 5:39)
So, we have to work against our innate resistance to change and growth. I once heard Rick Warren say at his church, they are continually introducing new ideas and innovations. The idea–one of them, at any rate–is not to let his people get too comfortable with any one way of doing things.
11. Healthy churches have conflicts. That’s not all bad.
My friend George Bullard has written a book and conducts conferences under the title, “Every Church Needs a Little Conflict.”
The way to build a muscle is to apply stress to it. One way to strengthen a congregation is to send conflict in healthy-sized doses. Working their way through the problems develops muscles for the bigger, scarier issues when they arise.
Woe to the congregation that gets hit by a major problem when it has not had to deal with one of any size in ages.
An old pastor once told some of us about the little church he was serving. “There’s always something going on at Shiloh,” he said. “But that’s all right. After all, where there’s no friction, there’s no traction.”
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes. (Psalm 119:71)
12. You know that wonderful church you left behind and would like to find another just like it? There’s not one.
God’s churches are like His children: no two are alike. Think of the variety He has established in creation. No two humans alike, no two fingerprints, hair-patterns on the head, voice prints. Snowflakes. We’re told the stripes of zebras and tigers are all unique.
It would seem that the Creator has an innate dislike to repeating Himself. And, it would appear He’s not alone in that.
Somewhere I heard of a tourist bartering with a craftsman concerning a chair the man had just made. The chairmaker quoted a price of $100. The tourist said, “Fine. Now, what if I order six chairs? What will your price be?” The craftsman said, “One thousand dollars.” “What?” said the visitor. “I expected the price to be lower since I’m buying six.” The craftsman said, “Making six chairs all alike is very difficult and extremely boring. For that, I expect to be paid more.”
13. Churches are always in a state of flux.
Every time a member moves away, that church changes. When someone joins, it changes. When a member begins reading his Bible or tithing or witnessing, the church grows. When someone backslides, it grows weaker from that moment.
People speak of wanting “a New Testament church.” However, the congregations in the New Testament are as different as the ones in your city. The Corinthian church seems to have been as carnal as any we could find today. Five of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) had serious defects.
As with our physical bodies, every church exists in a constant state of change–growing, expanding, deflating, weakening, moving out, pulling in. No church is static.
Your church is growing or it is dying.
14. The most reliable indicator of the faith of a congregation is prayer.
Nothing believers do speaks of faith so eloquently or forcefully as does our praying.
Most of the prayers we utter, we never see the answer. We pray for the president and other leaders of our country, but we have no way of knowing the difference our intercessions made. We were not in the Oval Office when the president had a sudden flash of inspiration and did something brilliant. We are not alongside the missionaries across the globe who are protected or empowered or guided as a result of our prayers.
We pray for our minister, but since we are unable to accompany him in his study or on his rounds, it becomes a faith thing. God and he alone know the difference our prayers made.
We pray for an unsaved friend or family member. But seeing no change, we gradually cease to mention them to the Lord. Only by eyes of faith can we be assured that God is at work in their hearts at this moment as a result of our loving intercession.
If we are foolish, we will quit praying. After all, why should we continually pray about something day in and day out, year after year, when we do not see the fruit?
If we believe the Lord’s promises concerning praying, we keep on praying.
…we ought always to pray and not to faint. (Luke 18:1)
15. Far more important than the growth of a church is its health.
We’re indebted to Pastor Rick Warren for the quote that the chief issue of the 21st century church will not be growth but health. A healthy church will grow in a natural way, he said, and will not require gimmicks.
I recall in one of my first pastorates looking out at the congregation and seeing scattered here and there unsaved people who were close to stepping out in faith, and unchurched believers who had promised they were going to join our church. And yet, day after day, when we preached and offered the invitation, no one responded.
One Sunday, I told the church about this sad state of affairs. To their shock, I said to the members, “I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t join this church either. This is a sickness in this congregation. God is not going to bless us with new members until we get our hearts and lives right with Him.”
It was the truth, and when, over the next few weeks, people began repenting and confessing, we saw how true it was.
16. The church has always struggled to get its mission right and to stay on course.
Alongside narrow pathways, chasms drop off on each side. The road that is the “strait and the narrow” has always had to beware of the abyss on the one side that is all the work of man and on the other that is so much the work of God that man has no role in anything.
On one side, all God and the other, all man. On one side, Calvinism; the other, Arminianism. On one side, men wrote the Bible themselves; on the other, God dropped it out of the skies fully inspired.
At times over the centuries, the church joined the world and became so much like the people it was trying to reach, it had nothing to offer. At other times, the pendulum swung so far in the opposite direction that the church withdrew from the world altogether and no longer had a voice that could be heard or a witness to be seen.
Like a rocket ship headed to the moon, the church is forever needing mid-course corrections. Without the needed adjustments at regular intervals, the church gets off course and eventually loses her way altogether.
I am the way, the truth, and the life. (Jesus in John 14:6)
As one of my uncles used to call out, “Hold ’em in the road!”
17. The church is always radiating something which outsiders can sense quicker than the family members can.
Sometimes we who are on the inside of the house have adjusted to the cracks in the wall, the strange odor coming from the pantry, or the odd color of the kid’s room. It takes a newcomer to make us aware.
The person standing outside our sphere often sees our condition before we do. He may see our hypocrisy when we still think we’re getting it right. He may pick up on the dissension in the congregation by the gossip throughout the community. He hears our talk of faith and sees that we are begging the banker to lend us money. He hears our promises to love and sees the groups we exclude from our membership and/or leadership.
He senses the joy before he knows its source, and as soon as he finds it’s the real thing, he wants in on it.
Churches radiate faith, but they can just as easily emit fear. They may give off beams of light, but if darkness is calling the shots, the outside community will see that in a heartbeat. Churches may radiate grace and love, but they can also give off prejudice and bias.
We in the church may fool ourselves from time to time. But we never fool the outside world. Not ever.
A church I know ran the pastor off alongwith the people who supported him. The story is too long to tell here, but take my word that the ones who left were precious and Christlike. Some joined my church and became great strengths to us. Meanwhile, the remaining members then called a new pastor–you can always find a pastor!–who took a look at all the empty pews and decided to have an evangelistic ingathering to fill them. They printed up flyers announcing a meeting dedicated to the love of God and the peace of Christ. But the community wasn’t buying it. They had seen the shriveled souls of those members and wanted none of whatever they were exporting.
After the church fight of Acts 6:1-6 turned into a love fest, we read: Then the Word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests were obedient to the faith. That’s the plan!
18. The best way to find a good church in your community is to ask the Holy Spirit.
There are too many churches in your neighborhood for you to visit them all and learn everything about their workings. You could call the pastors and interview them, read their promotional materials and draw up a graph of their doctrines. You could poll their members and sample their services. But at the end, you would be far more confused than before you started.
Best approach: ask the Holy Spirit. He knows you and He knows the churches. He’s the best matchmaker there has ever been.
I learned this little lesson as a young pastor who had just arrived at a church. A leader told me how two years earlier he and his wife had visited our church and had found it to be nothing at all like what they wanted or were looking for. “The sermon was poor, the crowd was poor, and the choir was awful.” However, the Lord spoke to their hearts and told them this was their church, that they were to join.
The next week, he said, they visited a thriving church across town. “It was everything this church was not–wonderful crowd, great choir, excellent sermon. But there was no word from God at all about joining.” So, the third Sunday, they returned. Same story: poor choir, poor preaching, poor crowd. But once again, the Holy Spirit left no uncertainty that this was where they were to plant their lives.
He told me, “Within the next two years, three things happened: they made me the Sunday School director, the pastor left for another church, and we’ve called you to be our shepherd.” We had a wonderful, fruitful ministry in that church.
It’s a lesson never to be forgotten. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
19. There are two scary aspects to the church’s assignment: submitting to the leaders (the members) and giving account before God for the members (the leaders).
Obey your leaders and submit to those who have the rule over you in the Lord, as those who will give account for your souls. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for that would not be profitable to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Get that? Church members are expected to obey their leaders and submit to them. But the leaders will some day stand before the Almighty and account for each of those church members. Both are frightening prospects.
Take the first one–this business of church members submitting to their leaders. Isn’t that a bit frightening? What if the leader is unworthy and tries to do bad things with the Lord’s people?
Answer: Congregations should set up a proper accountability for ministers. Every leader must be accountable to someone or some group.
The wrong kind of “accountability group” for the pastor is the entire congregation. So long as that is the plan, there will be either a complete domination of a good man by the controlling, nitpicking members or–other extreme–no guidance at all.
The best plan is for the church to have in place some kind of team–one that is permanent but which rotates in membership–whether from the deacons or church council or a “ruling board.” The team sits down regularly with the pastor to hear his concerns and tell him the concerns they are picking up from the congregation. These members are supportive of the pastor, and strong believers in his ministry, otherwise the meetings deteriorate quickly into dogfights.
Taking the second aspect of this text–the ministers’ accounting to the Lord for their members–everything about this is intimidating. So many members cannot be found, some who can be found do not want to participate, and others are members in name only. Bottom line: the Lord will have to sort all this out. The poor pastor, in the meantime, does the best he can and hopes that the Lord will give him an ‘A’ for good effort.
As for the mega-church which runs in the thousands, the “pastor” hardly knows more than a couple of hundred of his members. Such a leader is a lot of things, but A”shepherd” is hardly the term. Again, we’ll let the Lord sort this out.
20. The best thing you can do for your church is to select good leaders and turn them loose to do their jobs.
Yes, build in some accountability. But more than anything, choose faithful and mature Christians as your leaders. Make sure they have the training and resources to do the work. Then, turn them loose. Get out of their way.
Support them. If your church has monthly business meetings–I do not recommend them; quarterly is sufficient–watch out for members who would undercut and undermine every decision a leader makes. They can dishearten a potentially great leader.
One reason small churches tend to stay small is they install structures to keep the leaders tied to mama’s apron strings. No leader is allowed to think for himself or exercise any kind of initative. He accounts for every dollar spent and can be rebuked for the least failure while all the outstanding accomplishments are taken for granted.
My friend John Armistead told me of the time a small church in Mississippi called him to be their pastor. Since John was a ministerial student at the time and just learning how to lead a congregation, he was pleased with any opportunity to serve.
A leader of the church where he had been supplying for several Sundays asked him to step outside “for a moment.” When he re-entered, John found the little group had just voted on him to become their new pastor. Even though nothing had been mentioned to him about this, he was excited.
“Now, Brother John,” said the old man who ran matters in that church, “we won’t ever tell you what to preach. We want you to know that, that you can preach anything God lays on your heart.”
“But Brother John,” he continued, “Don’t you ever try to tell us how to run our church!”
John said, “I was so green, that was the arrangement. And it worked out.”
The 20 essentials above are quite the opposite, however. They are intended to help some of the Lord’s people take another look at how they are doing church. We hope that some of them will take this as the Holy Spirit sending them a message on “how to run His church.”