Rescuing the sick church: Five Principles

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

Once 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.”

Apparently, some meds must not be curtailed abruptly.

While some illnesses 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.

Now, take the sick church…

The ailing 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 ABCs of the Christian faith…. (Hebrews 5:12 paraphrase).

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

Sometimes when trying to assist an unhealthy congregation, we need to enroll everyone in first grade.  (Caution: Don’t tell them you’re doing that. Being unhealthy means most would not welcome such news.)

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 living it out in our daily lives. 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. They’ve been taught to “pray the sinner’s prayer” but not to become disciples. They’ve been told to receive Jesus but without surrendering themselves to Him.

Our church rolls are overflowing with names of absentee members who blindly believe that having prayed a prayer and receiving baptism, but nothing more, their salvation has been settled 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.  James said, I will show you my faith by my works (2:18).  What do your works say of your faith?

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–some of them in leadership–who think because they have seniority or occupy an office or carry the keys or their name is 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–the only valid 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 called to account for what they have put His church through in this world.

A Godly pastor will feel liberated from knowing this is Jesus’ church and He calls the shots.  That takes an incredible burden off him.

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 often do loving things to those who deserve it. But this is not Christian love. In fact, this is the very behavior of the ungodly.  (Look at Matthew 5:43-48).

Luke 6:27-38 covers the same ground as Matthew 5:43-48, but goes into greater detail.  It is the gold standard for Jesus’ teaching on Christian love. The heart of the command is this: 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 do loving things or what we do does not qualify as love. I suggest you pause and let that soak in.

When our Lord spoke of people loving Him, He defined it in terms of obeying Him, of “keeping my commandments.”  See these six times in the Upper Room Discourse:  John 14:15,21,23,24 and 15:10,14.

The loving activities commanded in Luke 6:27-38–do good, bless, pray, give–are the four most basic acts of love. We do these to everyone, whether a sweetheart, a grandchild, a neighbor, or a fellow church member. In most cases, we will do more than these. But toward the enemy–someone who hates us, threatens us, mistreats and curses us–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.

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.

Caution: The immature believer will sometimes say, “Well, if my heart is not in it, it would be hypocritical to do loving things to someone.” Answer: “No, it’s not fake, but faith.  You’re obeying the Lord, not your emotions.”

God’s people must be taught to rescue their spiritual lives, their obedience to Christ, from bondage to their emotions.

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, the spots on leopards and cheetahs, we’re told, are distinctive to each animal. Human fingerprints, voice prints, and hair whorl-patterns are all one of a kind. Snowflakes.

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, and growth 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).

He understands it, but He does not give in to it.  Neither should church leaders.

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 repetition, the lyrics tend to lose their force.

Traditionalists say they don’t like choruses and only want hymns. INow, I understand that, and I love 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.

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. to another. 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.

Don’t miss that.  Only the strong can give in. The weak one will dig his heels in and refuse to budge.  It takes strength to humble oneself and great strength to submit to one weaker than himself.

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 sets His servants apart.)

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 during the years I’d served there, answered, “I will, so long as I agree with the direction he’s taking us.”

Study that a moment.  He would follow the man’s leadership so long as he were already going that way.

But put himself under the authority of someone with whom he might disagree? He would not bring himself to that. (That man and his family did not remain with us, but bounced around in several other churches, apparently in search of the perfect minister, one with whom he was always in agreement.)

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.

Keep in mind…

You’ll not rescue that ailing 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.  That will happen one person at a time, not everyone at once. So, encourage those who are awakening and beginning to grow.  Stay with it long enough and you will have a good corps of faithful believers on which to build a healthy church.

In the meantime, steady as she goes.

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