A rope of three strands is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
The last church I pastored had gone through a massive breakdown when the new pastor quickly announced a moral indiscretion in his background. Two groups exiting the church began new congregations, a third bunch spread into the community and joined other churches, a fourth group went home and haven’t been to church since, and, a year after the pastor was dealt with, I became the pastor of those who remained.
That’s not a church split; explosion is more like it.
In analyzing the reasons for a great church’s near-complete self-destruction, one thing became clear: the members were united by one thing only, the pulpit. And when the pulpit failed, they abandoned ship because there was nothing tying them to that location.
The line from Ecclesiastes assuring us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” gives us a clue on locking in our members so that a failure of one “cord” will not break the rope and destroy the whole system.
It’s all about redundancy–safeguarding the membership of the church in multiple ways.
Redundancy means building in numerous systems as backup to each other. If the power goes off, a generator kicks in. If the generator fails, something else takes over. And so forth.
God has built in a redundancy to the Christian life. To make sure His children are cared for and taught, He gives us the Holy Spirit to indwell us, His promises to inspire us, His Word to teach us, and His people (the church) to nurture us. He overshadows us, undergirds us, seals us, indwells us, goes before us as our Leader, and comes behind as our Rear Guard.
Using that as our model, we should do all in our power to seal in our members in order to keep the church strong, our ministries going forward, the name of Christ honored, and each believer faithful.
1. Lock Your People in With the Pulpit.
They need a confidence in the pastor and the teaching ministries of this church.
Unfortunately, in many of our churches this is as far as we go. We invite people to church to “hear our preacher.” They join the church because “we like that preacher.” And they move their membership when “we didn’t care for the new preacher” or “we liked this preacher better.”
While stating unequivocally that confidence in your minister is a biggie and should be present in believers, we reluctantly admit that it is a stain upon the Body of Christ today the way members float from church to church out of disdain for this preacher or a preference for that one.
Two questions present themselves:
1) “What is proper confidence in the pastor?”
Church members will always feel a tension between respect for the divine role of the preacher on the one hand, and an understanding of his humanity and fallibility on the other.
Paul said he did not preach himself, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and “ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The key is “for Jesus’ sake.” I will respect and honor my pastor “for Jesus’ sake.” The Lord is honored when I honor those He sends as the church’s overseers (Acts 20:28) and as our shepherd. Scripturally, these two things–honor for God and honor for the man He sends–are tied up together so often. On Carmel, Elijah prayed, “Lord, let these people know You are God in Israel and that I am your servant” (I Kings 18:36).
2) “How do we nurture that confidence in healthy ways?”
By letting our children hear us speak of our pastors only in positive terms.
By praying for our ministers publicly and privately.
By speaking up quickly when we hear someone speak disparagingly of the pastor.
By teaching the scriptural roles and mandates of God’s ministers.
By encouraging our pastors to be transparent, human, and faithful.
2. Lock Your People in With a Purpose.
They need a ministry of their own, a place of service that is uniquely their own.
This came home to me some years back when a lady from Texas involved in multi-plex ministries (apartments, condos, housing projects, etc) traveled to New Orleans to share insights from her work. She told how their church had recently come through a crisis of the pulpit when some did not like the new preacher and jumped ship. “However,” she said, “not a single person involved in our housing ministry left the church.”
The second and third strands held. Those with friends and a ministry in the church stayed in place. Those attracted to that church only for the pulpit were the first ones to scatter.
One question: “How do we help people to find their place of ministry?”
Some churches I know are designating staff members (or lay leaders) as “ministers of connections” for this very purpose. They work with new believers and recent church members to teach the church’s ministries, convey the scripture’s message about spiritual gifts, and to match people up with appropriate places of service.
Even if your church has no person in that role per se, a good church leader will always be aware of the gifts and abilities and callings of others in the congregation and will be inviting them to “try this out and see if it fits.”
Barnabas saw that Saul of Tarsus had been called by God as a minister to the Gentiles. When a revival among the Gentiles broke out in Antioch of Syria, he remembered Saul. According to Acts 11:25, Barnabas traveled to Tarsus and brought Saul to Antioch where he found his true ministry.
That’s one of the greatest ministries in the church today, helping the Lord’s disciples find their places of service.
Caution #1: we should never ever put someone in a place for which they are ill-equipped. The long-term damage to them and those with whom they are working could be enormous.
Caution #2: we must always be in prayer that the Holy Spirit will lead in these matters. He is the Ultimate Director of Human Resources.
Caution #3: until the Holy Spirit supplies the right person for a key slot, we must practice “holy vacancies.” Wait on the Lord.
3. Lock Your People in With Their Peers.
They need friends within the fellowship.
In small churches, the entire congregation may be one friendship group. In huge churches, Sunday School classes or sports teams or mission groups may provide the basis for members drawing close to others and befriending them in the deepest manner.
Clearly, we are not talking about Facebook freinds. We’re talking about “a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” as Proverbs 18:24 puts it. The kind who “lays down his life for a friend,” as our Lord expressed it in John 15:13.
Two questions loom large here:
1) “How does one go about finding such friends within a church?”
Answer: do lots of things. Go on mission trips, sit in Sunday School classes and engage in discussions, attend class backyard cookouts and small-group prayer meetings, coach children’s teams, and such. As your sphere enlarges, you will meet more and more members and find your spirit drawn to several in particular. Assuming this is the Lord at work, they will be drawn to you also.
Once you find individuals or other couples you feel drawn toward, make arrangements to meet them briefly for coffee or have them over for dessert after church. Take it slowly and do not push. See what God hath done.
2) “How do we keep from such friendships being exclusive?”
Answer: do not limit your activities to the small group of special friends you’ve chosen. Love everyone, work with any and all in your groups, be friends with the highest and the least.
An exclusive friendship we call a clique; an open friendship is a fellowship.
A man who has friends must himself be friendly (Proverbs 18:24).
The result of this is a strong and stable church.
And that is the point after all.
From all we know of the work of the Holy Spirit, He sends testing times upon individual disciples to test us, to cut away the barnacles and blow away the chaff, to deepen us, and so forth. And, He does the same thing to churches.
The Holy Spirit will send testing times and trials to churches to see just how seriously we intend to obey Him, how completely we are committed to His call and His work, and how fully we are willing to obey Him when the going gets rough.
The church that comes through an attack intact is the kind the Lord can use to accomplish mighty things.
An untested believer is like an untested church: not ready for prime time.