In the Lord’s work as in anything else in life, there are essentials and non-essentials. There are the loadbearing features and cosmetic for-appearance-only aspects.
If we don’t know which is which, we’re in big trouble.
In the late 16th century, the City of Windsor engaged architect Sir Christopher Wren to design and oversee the building of a town hall. When it was completed, the mayor refused to pay the bill, insisting that it needed more than the few columns Wren had designed. No matter that the columns were holding up the building just fine. He wanted more columns and would not pay until they were installed.
Christopher Wren had four more columns added to the building, each identical to the first but with one exception: they lacked one inch reaching the ceiling. They were not holding up anything!
We say that some of those columns were load-bearing and the others cosmetic. (The building stands today. It’s called Guild Hall, I read somewhere.)
It’s a wise church leader who knows which structures in the Lord’s work are loadbearing and which are cosmetic and not structural.
Here is my list of “seven load-bearers,” essentials which we must get right in the Lord’s work or it’s all over.
1. MUTUAL SUBMISSION.
“…be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
“…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account….” (Hebrews 13:17)
Yes, followers are to submit to leaders. But–and pastors should not miss this–leaders are frequently to submit to their constituents. In fact, if Ephesians 5:21 means anything, it means we are all to humble ourselves before one another and do the loving things.
When you and I disagree, to “submit” means one of us willingly and freely gives in to the other. No coercion, no pulling of rank, no holier-than-thou lording it over the other. The stronger, Scripture teaches, gives in to the weaker.
When some member is in need and helping him/her is not convenient, other members “submit” when they interrupt their own plans to help a brother/sister.
A pastor submits when the phone rings in the middle of the night and he gets out of bed, dresses, and drives across town to minister to a family in crisis.
A pastor submits to his members when he has been severely hurt by something a member does, but when that person is in crisis, he shepherds and nurtures him/her as though he would rather do this than anything in the world.
A pastor submits to his members when he has a grand vision but can see that they are not ready for this, and drops back and scales down his approach.
A pastor submits to his members when he puts his personal plans on hold in order to act in the best interest of the Lord’s people.
2. GODLY UNITY.
“…being diligent to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
In the Garden, Jesus asked the Father, “That they all may be one….that the world may believe that Thou didst send me” (John 17:21). Don’t rush over that lightly. Jesus repeated it two verses later. The church must be unified if we expect the outside world to believe in Jesus.
When a church or denominational body is not unified, everything grinds to a halt. Evangelism is forgotten, nothing gets done, members spend their time bickering and fighting, the godly among them are exasperated, the hurting and needy are neglected, the enemy rejoices, the devil has a field day, and the name of Jesus is blasphemed among the heathen.
When a church is unified and everything else is in order, the work goes more smoothly, people are ministered to, Christ is honored, God is exalted, and the enemy is defeated.
I remind church leaders that one of their prime functions is to preserve the unity of the congregation. That means staying on the alert and dealing with dissension and rebellion when it occurs.
This principle–of nipping rebellion in the bud–can be abused, of course. There is a proper time and place for everything. Wise and mature leaders will know what time it is.
3. FAITHFUL LEADERSHIP.
“That the leaders led in Israel, and that the people volunteered, O bless the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)
Someone has to stand out front and say, “This is the way.”
When Joshua led Israel’s multitudes across the Jordan River, the priests led the way carrying the ark of the Lord. They were instructed to stay 3,000 feet ahead of the people, thus allowing every man, woman, and child to have a clear view of them. The people were not told to follow whoever was in front of them, like lemmings dropping off a cliff, but each was to keep his eyes on the leaders, to follow them.
As the priests approached the waters of the Jordan, they might have had a minor crisis of faith. The waters had not receded! Only when their feet hit the water, did the Jordan divide. (Joshua 3:4,15)
That’s the problem with being a leader: decision-making may require great faith and courage.
Show me a church where the pastor is a follower, where he refuses to exercise courage and stand before the congregation and declare, “This is what God wants us to do,” and I will show you a church that is doing nothing. Let the pastors and leadership be people of boldness and courage.
4. SWEET FELLOWSHIP.
“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)
Every once in a while, we will read where the members of Congress take a break to go on a retreat. They play games, relax together, and get to know one another–not as opponents but as the human beings they are, as team members even. By establishing such ties, they begin to respect each other more and work together better. At least, that’s the plan.
Fellowship is sometimes called “Body Life.” Members of the congregation get to know one another and learn to work together, both formally and informally. There are scheduled times for fellowship, such as a mission trip when members spend a week or more together on a project. Informal fellowship occurs when they sit in the bleachers and watch the church softball team play or enjoy an ice cream social after church. In the first, they work together, in the second they hang out together. Each is absolutely essential to the health of a church.
If a member of my body hurts, the rest of my body stays up all night out of sympathy. (See I Corinthians 12:12-31)
If disease or infection invades my body, the rest of the body sends resources to fight it.
It isn’t for nothing that Scriptures call the church “the body of Christ” (see Ephesians 1:23).
5. REGULAR ACCOUNTABILITY.
“So then, each one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).
“…and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14).
A healthy church builds into its system a proper accountability, both for the laity and the leadership. Sunday School teachers must be accountable to leaders as to what they teach; otherwise, disaster looms. The teacher who turns the class into their own miniature congregation becomes a trouble for the church as a whole.
Those who deal with the church’s finances must be subject to regular inspection and proper accountability. Without it, no good thing will happen. The books should be open for frequent inspection and such workers should rotate often.
Pastors are accountable generally to every member and specifically to certain leaders in the church. Whether it’s a formal committee or an informal group of the mature, no pastor should be allowed to spend freely and commit the church to projects without the support/agreement of the larger team of leaders. If his preaching begins to be questionable, some group–preferably not an individual–is in place to approach him on behalf of the congregation.
The church that does not have such a plan is asking for trouble.
6. CONSTANT PRAYER.
“And He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to quit” (Luke 18:1)
Pray or quit. Get the church to praying or forget about making any kind of decent impact on this world for Christ. Enlist and train the members in prayer or mark the church off as existing in the flesh and insignificant in the work of the Kingdom.
Our Lord said, It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.… (Quoting Jeremiah 56:7. See Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).
“How is your church doing?” my friend asked a pastor. “We’re on life support,” came the answer.” “Oh? That bad?” The preacher said, “Far from bad, that’s the norm. Every church worth the name is on life support–the ‘life’ being the Holy Spirit. Unplug the church from the power of the Spirit and it dies.”
How’s your church’s life support system?
Being retired from the pastorate, I’m in different churches throughout the year. One of the first things I notice on entering a sanctuary is what we call the altar area. Is it conducive to people coming and kneeling for prayer? Sometimes, that area is so cluttered with tables and chairs that anyone coming to kneel and pray is out of luck.
7. CENTRALITY OF SCRIPTURE
I have two burdens about this. The first is something our Lord said to the Sadducees. “You make two mistakes: You do not know the Scriptures, nor do you know the power of God.” (see Matthew 22:29). Those who do not know God’s word will never see His power. Sadly, I fear many modern churches are demonstrating this.
The second burden is the statement in Hebrews 5:11ff. ….you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary things of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. Tell me if that does not describe half the people in the typical congregation on Sunday.
And who’s fault is it? There is enough blame to go around. Pastors and church leaders share it, the denomination’s leadership shares it, and most of all, the individual members share it. More than anyone else, if I am ignorant of God’s word, I am to blame. And if anything gets done to remedy that, I’ll be the one who decides. I think of the prodigal in the hogpen “coming to himself” and saying, “I will arise and go to my father….” Let each of us decide to come home to the Father and do the right things.
We are all to know God’s word, not so we can be knowledgeable but in order to obey Him. Our Lord said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 17:13). Obedience is the goal, not head knowledge. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the things I have told you?” (Luke 6:46)
That is my seven-fold list of essentials. Many structures in the typical church may be removed and replaced, but there is no replacement for these. They are load-bearing!