Building a Healthy Church

The books on how to build a healthy church are flying off the printing presses these days. Seminaries are holding conferences and consultants are finding fertile fields for their congregational therapies.

I do not have a set program–and precious little expertise, probably–on restoring the health of a church so much as I have a heavy burden for it.

I’ve served all kinds of churches and been used of the Lord to restore the health of at least two. As you surely know, the Lord never likes to waste experience.

I’ve seen the damage sick churches can inflict in a community and want no more of it ever again. An unhealthy church can destroy the reputation of Jesus Christ throughout its area of influence. An unhealthy church perpetuates itself by bringing up a new generation of wrong-headed members who spread their poisons to other congregations.

An unhealthy church turns people against the truth and inoculates them against the overtures and ministries of a healthy, normal church.

An unhealthy church sucks the life out of missions by cutting off its support of missionaries in order to keep themselves afloat to the bitter end.

Recently, a pastorless church asked me to come for a “renewal weekend.” Now, that term can mean anything, but the leadership was clear on what they had in mind.

They said, “We are not inviting the community to this. They’re certainly welcome, but we’re not ready to have a harvest time. We need to get ourselves straight.”

They sent me a number of subjects such as unity, health, effective evangelism, and leadership in order to guide my prayers and planning.

Rather than the sanctuary, we would hold all but the Sunday morning session around tables in the fellowship hall. They would serve lunch at noon and refreshments in the evening. The attire and the approach would be strictly informal.

We met twice a day, at noon and at 6:30 pm, for three days, Thursday through Saturday, and concluded with the Sunday morning service.

I’m not going to try to encapsulate here what we covered in seven sessions, except to lay out the general plan. My heart’s desire, you will not be surprised to learn, is for three or four more churches to invite me to do something similar. I’d like to do this until I get the hang of it, working the rough edges off the material, and then turn it into something of lasting benefit to other churches.

Here is the layout of the seven sessions.

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The Worst Command? (I Peter 1:14-16)

If there is a command in Scripture guaranteed to offend the “modern mind of man” and set off a stubborn inner resistance that is determined to hold its ground and cede nothing, it’s this: Be holy.

“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.

“But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do,

“For it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (I Peter 1:14-16)

The apostle is clearly quoting Scripture. Somewhere in the Old Testament, God tells us to be holy .

He does, in many places, actually. Leviticus chapter 11, for example.

“I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (11:44)

“I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy for I am holy.” (11:45)

What is the most important principle of Bible interpretation, class? Right. “Establish the context.”

The context makes it clear that the Lord has in mind His people shall be “a cut above” the surrounding population. They are to be “otherwise,” “the great exception,” what the KJV calls “a peculiar people.” Different from the rest. Standing out from the clutter.

Verses that surround Leviticus 11:44-45 make this clear. The Lord’s people were not to eat certain animals. “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of them or be made unclean by them.” (11:43)

We are to be clean.

Yesterday, I walked into the ICU at Tulane Medical Center to see a friend who had had a stroke this weekend. I would not have been surprised to see him sedated and with tubes everywhere. Instead, he was sitting up in the bed and on the phone. He greeted me heartily and said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “That’s my line. You’re clearly not sick.” He said, “The only thing wrong with me right now is I need a bath.” He had been 4 days without one.

The small blood clot that had attacked his brain, shutting down the use of the left side of his body, had dissolved, he said. The medical staff planned to release him later in the day.

Before we prayed, I asked, “What can I get for you–other than a bath?”

Not everyone misses cleanliness. In ignoring their unwashed state, they reveal a great deal about themselves.

Here’s a paragraph from John Steinbeck’s “Once There Was a War,” a collection of his war correspondent dispatches.

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Words to Avoid in the Ministry

I stood in front of the class of seminary students and said, “Here are two words which I’d like to suggest you completely remove from your vocabulary. Do not ever, ever use them in conversations with people or in sermons.”

“People who do not know these words will misunderstand them and the result will not be good.”

I could almost have saved my breath. It turned out most had never heard of these words. So, perhaps I did them no favor by a) introducing them to these words and b) then suggesting they never use them.

Isn’t this like telling someone not to think about pink elephants for the next 10 minutes?

The forbidden words are “succor” and “niggardly.”

These are good words with solid meanings and excellent pedigrees, but they can get you in a ton of trouble.

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Once They Had This Super Bowl and…

(Tweaked for second time Monday afternoon 5 pm)

We are about to see just how bad New Orleans parties when it really tries.

All that Mardi Gras stuff they can do with one hand. But winning the NFC conference, going to the Super Bowl, and then winning the thing–that is worth celebrating.

Being a Baptist, I’ll not be celebrating, of course. But I do plan to smile twice, one this morning and once Tuesday at the team’s parade.

I hope you know better than that. No one is enjoying this team, this victory, and this phenomenon for the city more than God’s people–all of them, across the board, of whatever church or denomination. It has brought everyone together (except for the Mannings, and I expect they will make a stab at enjoying the celebration; they’re a classy bunch.), black and white and otherwise, old and young and of indeterminate age, Christians and Jews and all them others, longtimers and newcomers and sometimers.

No one asks for your credentials. If you share our joy, you’re invited to our party.

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Who Dat Indeed!

I must be dreaming. I sometimes take these afternoon naps and wake up wondering what day it is. Today I rubbed my eyes and thought I had just watched the Saints defeat the great Indianapolis Colts in the Miami Super Bowl.

Oh? I did? It really happened?

Incredible. Wonderful. Mind-stunning.

This one will take weeks to soak in.

What do the experts know?

All week long I got so tired of hearing the wonderful Peyton Manning lauded as the greatest ever, Drew Brees as “good but unproven,” and–this one really got me–the Saints not having a chance because “they haven’t been here before.”

Think of that.

If going to a Super Bowl would automatically entitle you to an advantage the next time, the Buffalo Bills should have won the second, third, and fourth ones they were in. Instead, they lost all four.

The Saints won. The experts–and there were plenty of them–did not give our team a chance.

Saints won by 2 touchdowns, 14 points.

I am thrilled.

At this moment, the neighbors are out in the streets dancing to Fats Domino blaring from someone’s speakers. Fireworks are exploding in every direction. And I don’t mean firecrackers. These are massive, light-up-the-sky shatter-your-eardrums boomers.


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Why I’m Angry At Some Preachers

You’ve heard them, I’m sure. Some well-intentioned but thoughtless man of God stands before a gathering of the Lord’s people and in urging us to evangelize our communities will overstate the case.

“Jesus told us to become fishers of men! He did not tell us to be keepers of the aquarium!”

Invariably, especially if the audience is made up almost exclusively of preachers, the statement will be met with a chorus of ‘amen’s.’

The only problem with that is it sounds good, but it is not so.

Jesus did not send His disciples just to reach lost sheep–He certainly did that–but commanded that we are to “feed my sheep.” In John 20, He gave that command to Simon Peter three times.

In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the pastors of Ephesus that they are to “shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.”

And here’s another one, the one that set me off this morning.

In trying to motivate church members to get into the community with the gospel, the WIBT preacher* will say, “The Bible in no places commands the people of the world to come to church. It does, however, command us to go into all the world with the gospel.” (*Well-intentioned but thoughtless)

That’s so true, it’s almost totally true. But it lacks something critical.

Think of all the parables Jesus told in which the king or a father instructs his servants to go into the highways and hedges and “bring them in.” If that is not a word for the servants of Jesus, it is meaningless.

When we go to outsiders with the love of the Lord and the word of the gospel, we are to “bring them in.”

Clearly, the people of the world are indeed to come to church. Our assignment is to bring them in.

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The Old and the New: Striking a Balance

I stood at the front of the church and watched as the congregation was led in a full slate of old hymns and familiar gospel songs. Nothing that ascended from us that morning had been composed since the 1950s. My grandparents would have been right at home there.

It was the menu we are told grey-haired people (like myself) say they want from a worship leader.

That was one boring service.

I grew up on those hymns, and like most veteran church-goers in that church, knew them “by heart.” I sang as lustily as I could manage while endeavoring to save voice enough to preach. But in no way did I find that song service meaningful, worshipful, or enjoyable.

The problem was the familiarity of it all. I could sing those hymns in my sleep (and probably have). My mind went on vacation while my mouth sang them. And that is precisely why singing them regularly is a bad idea.

“O, sing unto the Lord a new song!”

Anyone who has read his Bible much has run across that line before. To make sure we could not miss it, the Lord sprinkled throughout His Word. It can be found in Psalms 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, and in Isaiah 42:10.

In Psalm 40:3, David testifies that after the Lord lifted him from the miry clay and gave him firm footing, “He put a new song in my mouth.”

We’re told in the last book of the Bible, that in Heaven “they sang a new song” (Revelation 5:9 and 14:3).

Anyone see a pattern here?

I stand before you today with a bit of news that worship leaders across the land should take to heart: not every senior member of your church is addicted to “The Old Rugged Cross.” Some of us like “O, the Wonderful Cross.”

We like it because it’s fresh, it forces us to think about what we are singing, and the tune is a good one. It’s singable, worshipful, thought-provoking.

And the second bit of news is that the rest of the congregation can learn to love well-written recent hymns, gospel songs, and choruses.

But give us a steady diet of anything and within a few weeks, we’ll be begging for mercy.

I once heard Rick Warren say that at Saddleback, they had found that after the 17th time a song was used, it ceased to be meaningful to those singing it. (Pretty sure 17 was his number; I’m going by memory here.)

New songs are good, but the old hymns are not bad. The ancient hymns should be taught to the youngsters (hey, they’re new to them!) and used sparingly with the old-timers. And all of us should be introduced to new hymns, gospel songs, and choruses our worship leaders have discovered and like.

There should be no more worship wars. We’re all friends here.

The problem is finding the balance between the old and the new, a constant tension in any entity involving more than two people.

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Motivating the Troops (II)

I’m not quite to the point of suggesting that every pastor ought to subscribe to Sports Illustrated–that swimsuit issue coming to your house might not be a good idea–but almost. Every time I pick one up, it seems, I find a great sermon illustration or idea for a message.

The February 1, 2010, pre-Super Bowl issue carries articles on the Saints and the Colts. I bought it more as a memento, but will keep it for its account of the way Saints Coach Sean Payton inspired his team to win the game that would send them to the Super Bowl.

Football coaches are saddled with one of the toughest assignments possible. In addition to preparing their soldiers for the big battle–one that gets repeated against a new enemy every week during the warring season–they have to come up with a motivational speech or inspirational gimmick for that last minute burst of energy. A few pre-game or half-time speeches are legendary. Every fan knows about Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech to the Notre Dame players.

In high school, it’s hard to do. In college, it gets tougher. But in the pros, the NFL, where every player is a multi-millionaire and many are celebrities with huge followings, the challenge to come up with words to inspire a team before battle is off the charts in difficulty.

We pastors are motivators–or should be. We can learn from the masters of the craft. In Coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints have a leader who has motivaton-of-his-troops down to a fine art.

On Saturday night, January 23, Coach Payton met with the team at their hotel in downtown New Orleans. Twenty-four hours later, the Saints would go head-to-head against the tough Minnesota Vikings for the NFC championship. The winner would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts on February 7.

For their entire 43 year history, the Saints had never won an NFC championship game. In fact, only one other time had they played for the championship, in 2006, a game they lost in a frustrating, frigid, snowy Chicago stadium.

The Saints were in uncharted territory. They had never been here before. Win this game against the Vikings and earn a ticket to the big show.

What would Payton do to motivate the team?

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If I Could Go Back

If you’re a pastor, here’s an interesting game to play. And that’s all it can be, unfortunately–a game.

If you could go back to the churches you have served, what would you do differently?

I’m always intrigued by those who say, “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I think, “What? You never made a mistake? Never really blew it? Never did anything stupid?”

We all did, let’s face it. And surely, if we went back and knew what we know now, we would do many, many things differently.

Here’s my take on this subject.

The first church I served was a tiny congregation 25 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first attempt at preaching and pastoring and I did poorly, I’m afraid. The good folks at Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, were patient with me for the 14 months I served them. At the end of that time, I resigned and for 6 months served as part-time associate pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant, Alabama. We were living in Tarrant and I worked down the street from the church at the cast iron pipe plant as secretary to the production manager.

If I could do the 14 months over at Unity, the one thing I would do is seek out a mentor.

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