Rescuing a Sick Church: 5 Principles to Keep Applying

Sometimes we have to enroll the entire school in the first grade and start all over.

Recently, when I had trouble in one of my ears, the E-N-T doctor prescribed, among other things, a bottle of pills with unusual directions: “Take 6 a day for the first 4 days, 5 on the 5th day, 4 on the 6th day, 3 on the 7th day, 2 on the 8th day, and 1 on the 9th day.”

It worked, I’m happy to report.

My wife, who seems to know as much as most pharmacists, says some meds must not be curtailed abruptly.

Certain illnesses and conditions respond to simple, one-step treatments. Others require weeks, months, even years of medications and applications. In those, regular repetition over extended periods is needed for healing.

The sick church did not get that way overnight. Often, anemic, struggling churches result from the unhealthy teachings of warped leaders. In many cases, teachers have gone to seed on a pet doctrine and omitted altogether the basic principles of solid Christian living as unworthy of them.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the sayings of God…. (Hebrews 5:12).

The elementary principles. Basic Christianity. The kind of stuff we should have been taught in a new members’ class.

Sometimes we have to backtrack with an unhealthy congregation and re-enroll everyone in first grade.

1. Jesus is Lord.

It doesn’t get any more basic than this. Confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus (Romans 10:9). God has made this same Jesus…both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).

So, what’s the problem? The people in the pews will nod their heads and agree, even slipping in a soft “amen.”

It’s not confessing Jesus as Lord that is the problem; it’s the profession. Jesus said, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I command? (Luke 6:46).

We call Him ‘Lord” and go our own ways, then have the audacity to say we are Christians.

Misguided leaders have done this to our people. We have encouraged them to “pray the sinner’s prayer” without calling them to become disciples. We have invited them to receive Jesus without giving themselves to Him. (Check out Matthew 28:18-10 once again for our assignment. Do not skim over the “make disciples” part.)

Our church rolls are overflowing with names of absentee members who believe that praying a prayer and receiving baptism and nothing more has secured their salvation for all time.

At Judgment, some mighty surprised church members are going to be furious at the spiritual leaders who misled them.

Obedience is everything.

Jesus said, If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:17). The blessing comes from obeying, not even from believing the Word. Obeying and “doing” God’s Word brings the blessing, not knowing or loving or learning or memorizing or sharing or preaching it alone.

Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21).

Just do it.

Paul told the Corinthian believers, For this purpose I wrote to you, that I might know the proof of you, whether you are obedient in all things (II Corinthians 2:9).

Anyone can profess faith in Jesus; it’s in the demonstration that we show whose side we’re on.

2. The Church belongs to Jesus.

I told you this was basic. Scriptures like Matthew 16:18 and Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25 drive this point home.

So, what’s the problem?

Many unhealthy churches are afflicted by members–particularly leaders–who think because they have seniority or an office or the keys or their name on the sign out front that the church belongs to them.

“My granddaddy started this church.” “My family has been here for generations. We stuck with it when everyone else left.” “We have paid the price, we ought to be the ones to decide.” “Preachers come and go, but we are the church.”

“I’m not a dictator, I’m the only tater,” I heard one pastor say.

It’s Jesus’ church and He wants it back. Our only question–our only question!–is “Lord, what do you want us to do with your church?”

I’ll tell you a secret: Whatever you do for the church (or “to” it), Jesus takes personally. That is a stunner. Bless the church and you are blessing Jesus. Hurt the church–attack it, divide it, weaken it, withdraw from it–and you have hurt the Lord Himself. (See Matthew 25:40,45; Hebrews 6:10; and particularly Acts 22:7-8.)

Some who will go to heaven will nonetheless be in trouble for the trouble they have caused the Lord by what they put His church through in this world.

3. Love is something you do.

In our flesh–and stunted, immature church members are nothing if not fleshly–we love the people who are lovely, and do loving things to do those who do them for us. But this is not Christian love. In fact, this is the very behavior of the ungodly.

Luke 6:27-38 is the gold standard for Jesus’ teaching on Christian love. But I say to you who hear, love your enemies. Do good….bless…pray…and give.

Biblically, love is not an emotion but an action. In every case in Scripture, where we are commanded to love (God, our neighbor, one another, etc), what the Lord is requiring is not a feeling but action. We are to do loving things or what we do does not qualify as love.

What loving things? The activities commanded in this passage (do good, bless, pray, give) are the four most basic acts of love. We do these to everyone, whether a sweetheart, a grandchild, or a fellow church member. In most cases, we will do more than these four acts. But toward the enemy, the one who hates us, threatens us, mistreats and curses us (again, see the text), we are to act in this way.

When we love the unlovely in this way, many surprising results follow: the perpetrator is stunned by what we do, the Lord is glorified, the devil is infuriated, and we are blessed. The watching world gets a chance to see Christianity in action, other believers are encouraged, and the church’s witness is enhanced.

One of the finest things that can happen to a disciple of Jesus is to be slandered or attacked unjustly. We are handed a golden (and rare) opportunity on a silver platter. Here is our moment to prove our discipleship, to bear the strongest possible witness for Christ, to speak to the lost like nothing else.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the immature Christian loves the way lost people do. Jesus said, But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. (Luke 6:32. See the rest of that passage, too.)

God’s people must be taught and retaught that people inside the church and outside of it will often act in unChristian ways, and we must react to them in love. They must be taught to expect the occasional mistreatment as part of God’s plan to demonstrate to the world the difference Christ makes.

This lesson will not take with the carnal, pastor. But keep at it. Those who love Jesus (He called them “you who hear’) will eventually see.

One final word on this. The immature believer will say, even sincerely, “Well, if my heart is not in it, it would be hypocritical to do loving things to someone.” They are completely wrong. They must be taught to rescue their spiritual lives, their obedience to Christ, from bondage to their emotions.

How we “feel” has nothing to do with anything. Just do it, and the emotions will often–but not always–follow.

The just shall live by faith. Not by feelings.

4. If you do not like change, you are going to have trouble with Jesus.

The living God seems to have a low threshold for boredom. He does nothing the same way twice. The stripes on zebras and tigers, we’re told, are distinctive to each animal. Human fingerprints, voice prints, and hair whorl-patterns are all one of a kind. Snowflakes. What else?

And yet, in our small-mindedness, we demand that the Lord freeze-frame today and keep it as it is because we like it this way.

He will not play that game.

Behold, I make all things new (Revelation 21:5).

To live is to grow. To grow is all about change. But we all…beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (II Corinthians 3:18).

The problem is we like things the way they’ve always been. The Lord understands this facet of the human personality. No one who has drunk old wine immediately desires new, Jesus said. For he says, ‘The old is better.’ (Luke 5:39).

That’s the human condition. And it’s our problem.

God doesn’t like to keep doing what He did yesterday. His mercies are new every morning, and so, it would seem, are His creative instincts.

Over and over in scripture we are told to “sing unto the Lord a new song.” So much for all the golden oldies. Evidently, He gets tired of them. I know I do. After the twentieth repeition, the words tend to become meaningless.

Traditionalists tell me they don’t like choruses and only want hymns. I love some of the grand old hymns. But many of today’s newest choruses are as rich in biblical truth as anything Martin Luther or Isaac Watts ever penned.

Rick Warren said two things on the subject of change I love to pass along. “We don’t use the word ‘change,'” he told some of us in a seminar. “We say we’re going to experiment with this. It’s not as threatening. And it implies that if this doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else.”

He added, “We are forever tweaking things around here. That way, the members don’t settle down into a rut.”

The wise pastor of a sick church will move slowly in this area, particularly until he knows the people are responding to his teaching and are ready to be more responsive to the Holy Spirit’s lead.

5. The secret to Christian strength and unity is found in submission.

Submitting to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21).

To submit means to give in. You and I have a disagreement on some issue, and–unless the issue is a major deal-breaker with key issues at stake–the stronger gives in to the weaker.

That’s the reverse of human strategies, to be sure. (Nothing new about that; 99 percent of what the Lord requires of us is exactly the opposite of what the world would do. We gain our life by losing it; we become great by serving; we live by dying.)

For I say through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith (Romans 12:3).

In lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself (Philippians 2:3).

This is what servants do. Anyone want to be a servant?

Our Lord emphasized repeatedly that the way to greatness in the kingdom is by servanthood. See Matthew 20:25-28. (My favorite on this subject, Luke 17:7-10, is unique to Luke’s gospel. Its conclusion–“we are unprofitable servants; we have only done what we should”–is the attitude that distinguishes Jesus’ Facebook friends from His choice servants.)

Once when our church was in the process of bringing in a new minister to lead the discipleship and education work, I asked members if they would commit to support him and follow his leadership. One man who had given me nothing but trouble since my arrival some years previously, answered, “I will, so long as I agree with the direction he’s taking us.”

He would follow the man’s leadership so long as he were already walking that way.

But put himself under the authority of someone with whom he might disagree? Oh no, he would not bring himself to that. (That member did not remain in our church, and at last report has belonged to several other local congregations over these two decades. Apparently, he’s still in search of the perfect minister, one with whom he always agrees.)

Our individualism may be our strength, church member. But it’s also our weakness. We have “turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6), and it has severely weakened the Lord’s work in our world.

Unity is a major factor in the effectiveness of any program or ministry. Disunity halts a work in its tracks.

Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is how Paul expressed our challenge (Ephesians 4:3).

Before His arrest and crucifixion, our Lord said to the Father, I pray…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that You sent Me (John 17:20-21).

The world is not going to believe on Jesus by the testimony of a divided church.

The key to the unity is loving obeying disciples who gladly give up their rights to their way for the good of the Lord’s work.

That’s submission.

You’ll not rescue that church by nightfall, pastor. Be steadfast and faithful. Keep on keeping on, as the old-timers used to say.

Keep the basic principles of Christ-following in front of your people. Preach that Jesus is Lord and we are to obey and honor Him.

Tell them over and over again, until it sticks.

Steady as she goes.

3 thoughts on “Rescuing a Sick Church: 5 Principles to Keep Applying

  1. Jesus’ words are the sweetest ointment for the hurting soul.

    Revenge, running, plotting, planning, raging, as tempting as they may be, don’t ever soothe in the same way submission and serving can.

    I can testify.

  2. A phrase what JFK said in the 60’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It has always reminded me of what Christians should say ” Ask not what Jesus Christ and the Church can do for you but what you can do for Jesus Christ and the Church.” I am not talking about works to earn salvation but evidence of that we have been and are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. Last Sunday morning our adult Sunday School teacher said that contentment with Church comes from serving our Lord. Well said. Too many people “church date” because of this or that or the church or the pastor or teachers did not meet their need. “Didn’t get anything out of it” but what did they give? The Church is Jesus Christ’s representative on earth. Individual Christians make up the Church; equal representatives on earth, no one more important than another.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.