21 battle-tested truths I’ve learned about the Church

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15). 

Church was always a part of our family’s life, starting with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, four years later back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia.  Then, at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate.  When I left West End, it was to pastor God’s churches.

The Southern Baptist Churches I was privileged to serve have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, so wonderful–

–Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

–Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964, then off to seminary in New Orleans)

–Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67 My seminary pastorate. We lived in the back of the building.)

–Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

–FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

–FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

–FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

–FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

–And finally, as a member (once again) of the great FBC of Jackson, MS, where Bertha and I are members in retirement.

Here is what I have learned–my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I send these forth not because they are new, but in the hope that those reading them will see something they’ve not thought of, encouraging them to look deeper into that aspect of the Kingdom and thus have a greater appreciation for the Mind and Heart of God..

1. It’s the Lord’s Church. He died for it; it’s His alone.

“Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). And this one I prize so dearly, “…shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

I tell pastors they’d be surprised how liberating it is to give the church back to Jesus. Some of us, sad to say, act as if it depends on us to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. But that is a burden far beyond our poor abilities.

2. Since the Church is Jesus’ Body, His Bride, his household of faith, He takes personally whatever we do to it.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) And this one: “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have shown toward His name in having ministered to the saints and in still ministering” (Hebrews 6:10).

If you oppose the church, as Saul did, or bless the church, as Paul did, in both cases the Lord treats that as something done to Him. To the murderous Saul, Jesus said, “Why do you persecute me?”

3. God has ordained the pastor as the church’s overseer. Even if we vote on calling him, we didn’t do it; God did.

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Lord has made you overseers….” (Acts 20:28)

The pastor is overseer for the Lord, a steward of His people. Like Moses of old, the pastor is God’s representative and the person who attacks Him is attacking the Lord. In Matthew 22, the king took personally how his servants were mistreated.   See the accounts in Numbers 12 and Numbers 16 of people who thought otherwise and learned valuable lessons from their error.

4. The church is guaranteed ultimate success.

“….and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

“…and they shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).  And, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

5. Pastors are sent, not to make the congregation happy, but to make them healthy and holy, and to make the Lord happy.

“It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith….” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

I submit there is not more than one Southern Baptist (my denomination) in ten who know this principle, to our great detriment. We’ve made such an icon of voting on pastors that we have left the impression these people serve at our pleasure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They serve to please the Lord. Paul said, “We preach…ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5)

6. The church is not static, but ever-changing, always in motion, in a state of flux.

Every time a member leaves or someone joins, the church changes. When a member begins to grow or when one backslides, the church changes. Death and rebirth are constantly at work within a church at every moment of every day.

7. Each church is unique; no two are alike.

We might conclude that the Almighty must be easily bored since He rarely does the same thing twice–not in fingerprints, voice prints, hair follicles, the stripes on a tiger or zebra, not in persons, and certainly not in churches. It is evidence of our carnal nature that on moving to a new city, we immediately begin to search for a church like the one we just left. Such a hunt is always fruitless and frustrating.

Not only are no two churches alike, but the one you belong to today is not the same church it was last year or even last week. It’s always changing. (See #6)

8. The best prayer for your church–as well as your life, you family, your own part of the world–is, “Lord, what will you have us to do?”

This was the Apostle Paul’s first prayer after meeting Jesus (Acts 22:10), the simplest prayer he ever sent heavenward, and the best one any of us can ever pray.

The best thing my arms and limbs can do is to ask the head, “What’s the plan for this moment?” and then obey. The best thing a finance committee or a pastor search committee or a Sunday School teacher can do is constantly ask the Lord Jesus in prayer, “What would please you today?”

9. The leadership of the church must protect its unity.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Leaders must constantly be on guard for anything threatening to divide the congregation and pull the church off course. Throughout the New Testament, the apostles keep warning leaders to guard against opposition from outside and imitation from inside. (See Acts 20:29)

10. The most underrated quality concerning the inner life of a congregation is its fellowship.

After the day of Pentecost, the thousands of new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The picture of the ideal relationship of believers with each other is shown in Romans 12:9-21. In such a church, the believers love the Lord, love one another, and welcome the newcomer into their midst.

Fellowship in most churches is taken for granted today, and assumed to require no effort from the leadership to build it, nurture it, protect it.

11. There is a healthy way to oppose your church’s leadership when they bring a recommendation to the congregation.

Simply stated, it’s to build such a reputation as a positive supporter of your pastor and leadership that when you rise to oppose a project, you have their undivided attention. Building such a reputation takes time, usually years, of faithful working and giving and speaking out in support. A pastor can point you to men and women who, even if they do not occupy an actual position of leadership, are such strategic workers that he is going to listen to them when they rise in opposition.

12. Pastors ride point, the staff and a few others ride flank, and the deacons ride drag.  

You will recognize the imagery as from the Old West when the cowhands were moving a herd to the railhead. Someone rode point, setting the direction, staying far enough ahead that all could see him. Several worked the flanks to prevent the herd from spreading out too far. Others had to bring up the rear, riding drag it was called, to make sure no animal was left behind.  These ended up eating everyone’s dust and required hardy workers to do it well.

We need all the officers and leaders of the church. But even though all do not have the same assignment, each is essential.

After a football team wins the Super Bowl, various players are singled out for honors.  Some caught strategic passes, made key plays, did extraordinary things. And yet, that is not the whole story. By replaying that game, one could isolate play after play that made the difference–a catch here, a block there, a run, a pass, a snap, a hold. In the same way, each part of the body is important to the functioning of the rest.

13. Every church needs little conflict now and then.

Paul said, “No doubt there have to be differences among you (heresies – KJV) to show which of you have God’s approval” (I Corinthians 11:19).

The heresies and conflicts in the first century church drove Paul and the other apostles to write epistles to spell out the truth in order to deal with the problem. That’s how we happen to have the Holy Scriptures. Thus, we can be grateful for their conflicts.

To build a muscle, we put stress on it. To build the faith of an individual or a congregation, God lets them endure hardship from time to time. “Count it all joy,” James said, “when you face trials…because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2).

14. The best way to find new workers for our church is through prayer and negligence.

“Pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into His harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).

Christian leader Bill Taylor says the church should pray for the Lord’s leadership, then create a “holy vacancy,” leaving the office unfilled until the Lord answers the prayer. That’s what we mean by “prayer and negligence.”

15. The Lord intends to get glory for Himself and Him alone in the church.

“…to Him be the glory in the church….” (Ephesians 3:21)

In one city where I pastored, they told of a fellow who got off a train and asked someone, “Can you direct me to the Church of Christ.” The man scratched his head and said, “Well, sir, let me see. Over there is Mr. Puckett’s church. That one is Mr. Laws’ church.” He went on like that a moment, then said, “I don’t believe Christ has a church in this town, sir.”

The Lord plans to get the glory in His body, His bride, His people. That surely means a hundred things, but one huge thing: His glory must not be given to man. No pastor should get the glory for the church. Honor him for his dedicated service and leadership, yes, but the glory is the Lord Jesus’ and His alone.  In the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

16. In recruiting a new worker for your church, after praying for the Lord’s leadership (see #14 above), and leaving the slot unfilled until He answers, we do one more thing: We expose various people to the work where they are needed.

Exposure is what Barnabas did with Paul when he found him in Tarsus and brought to Antioch where God was sending a great evangelistic harvest among the Gentiles. As far as we can see, Barnabas did not ask Paul to do anything, but merely brought him to the work and the Holy Spirit took matters from there. (See Acts 11)

If you are teaching a class of ninth grade boys and looking for your replacement, ask the Lord whom to invite to sit in the class one day. Then call him. “Bob, would you do me a favor. Would you sit in my class next Sunday and then tell me what you think.” That’s all you’re asking, nothing more.  See what God does.

Now, following the class period, Bob may walk out and say, “I know just the fellow who ought to be teaching that class!” Or, he may emerge with a burden for those boys himself. In that case, you could invite him to fill in for you sometime. But do not ask him to take the class. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.  Learn to wait on Him to act.

17. In every community, there are people who do not know they would be welcome in your church and are not sure what to do once they arrive. Your task is to find them.

I recommend an open house in which you invite the community. Advertise it broadly, and schedule it for both Friday night and Saturday morning in order to hit the schedule of the most people. Put your best and friendliest people at all places inside and outside the church, to greet and explain. Have refreshments and literature, with stacks of Bibles at various places alongside “Free; take one” signs.  Personally, I don’t think you should even register the people, but allow them to be as anonymous as they please, although there are differences of opinion on this. Some suggest a table where they can register their attendance for a door prize, which would give you some kind of a record of attendees.

In my last church, we collected extra, unused Bibles from church members, then held “Bible giveaways” on the lawn in front of the sanctuary.  We gave away hundreds of Bibles, met a lot of neighbors, and led some people to Christ.

18. The testimony of the newcomer to your church is the best measurement of the love in your congregation.

Once I stood before my church and held up two letters that had arrived that week. The first was from a former member who had moved away and was missing her friends. She had not found such a friendly church in her new city. I said to the congregation, “Do we have a friendly church?” Heads bobbed; we did.

Then I read the other letter: “Dear pastor: I was in your services last Sunday. Not a single person spoke to me. You have an unfriendly church. I will not be back.”

They were stunned. How could this be? I said, “It would appear we are friendly to one another but not to newcomers. And that makes us a clique, a closed-fellowship.”

I suggest to pastors they enlist someone from another congregation to “mystery shop” their church.

19. One of the first things we should tell a new believer is: “Now, go tell your friends.”

Jesus told a new believer, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you and how He had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

For the rest of their life, the new convert will never know as many unsaved people as they do at this moment. From now on, most of their friends will also know and love the Lord. So, this moment is strategic in spreading the word about Jesus.

In Matthew 9, Jesus called a tax collector named Matthew to follow Him. In the next verse, Jesus is sitting down for the evening meal with a large group of tax collectors. The implication–never actually stated–is that Matthew invited his friends to come meet Jesus. It was an ideal pattern, one never improved on.

20. No one likes change, but God’s people should get used to it.

Scripture promises that in Christ we are new creations, given a new name, are to sing a new song, filled with God’s new wine, are called to be new wineskins, and are sent forth as heralds of a new heaven and a new earth.

God clearly doesn’t think much of old songs, since He is forever telling us to “sing unto the Lord a new song.” (Throughout the Psalms and in Revelation.)

The Lord is constantly pushing His people in new directions, showing us new insights from Scripture, giving us new methodologies.

A pastor friend said about his congregation, “If 1955 ever comes back around, my church is ready!”

Clearly, they love the old things too much.

21. Church leaders would do well to keep telling themselves, “It’s not about me; it’s all about Jesus.”

The work is about Jesus. We are to preach Jesus. He is our subject, our resources, our Head, our Judge, our Redeemer, our Lover.

“The reason I asked you to come today,” the elderly woman said to me, “was that I need to confess something.”

She was almost feeble and often sickly and I had thought she asked for a pastoral visit to talk about getting ready to meet the Lord. I was half-right.

“I know I’m saved,” she said. “I was saved as a young person and remember it so clearly. But pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

That caught my attention.

“As a young adult, I grew away from the church and quit going. I raised my son without the church and came to regret it. And now that I’m old and sickly, I can’t even attend any more. And I know now this is so wrong.”

She wanted to join our church and to send a check each month from her pension. She promised to pray for us and asked for our prayers.  We took care of that the following Sunday.

That day, driving back to the church office, I thought about what she had said and asked myself, “Have I done right by the church?”

I ask you that now.

“Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)

To love Jesus is to love His Church.

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