What I’ve Learned About the Church

In this the Red Zone of my life–I turn 70 in two months, but don’t let on like you know it; I’m trying to ignore it–I’m becoming more and more settled in certain aspects of the Kingdom of God. One that is becoming clearer and clearer is the prominence in the Lord’s plan of His Church.

As one who began this journey–I received the kickoff a long way back, deep in the End Zone, to push the football metaphor to the brink!–loving the church but seeing no real strategic importance for it, this has been quite a trip.

Church was always a part of our family’s life, beginning with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia, West End Baptist Church in Birmingham where God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate, and thereafter, on to the churches I have served.

Here’s the list of the Southern Baptist Churches that have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, as to bring me to labor among their leadership, in chronological order:

Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964)

Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67)

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

Still a member of the Kenner church, although following my retirement last June 1 from the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, I’m in a different church almost every weekend.

So, here they are, my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I send them forth not because they are new, but in the hope that God’s people who read them will come across one or two of them they’ve not thought of, causing them look deeper into that aspect of the Kingdom and thus have a greater appreciation for the Mind and Heart of God.

This list is not exhaustive (although some might find it exhausting!), but I can’t wait for that. Let’s get started….

1. It’s the Lord’s Church. He died for it; it’s His alone.

“Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). And this one I prize so dearly, “…shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

I tell pastors they’d be surprised how liberating it is to give the church back to Jesus. Some of us, sad to say, act as if it depends on us to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. But that is a burden far beyond our poor abilities.

2. The Church is Jesus’ Body, His Bride, his household of faith, and He takes personally whatever you do to it.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) And this one: “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have shown toward His name in having ministered to the saints and in still ministering” (Hebrews 6:10).

If you oppose the church, as Saul did, or bless the church, as Paul did, in both cases the Lord treats that as something done to Him. To the murderous Saul, Jesus said, “Why do you persecute me?”

3. God puts the pastor in the church as His overseer. Even if we vote on calling him, we didn’t do it; God did.

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Lord has made you overseers….” (Acts 20:28)

The pastor is (or, the pastors are) overseer for the Lord, a steward of His people. Like Moses of old, the pastor is God’s representative and the person who attacks Him is attacking the Lord. See the two accounts in Numbers 12 and Numbers 16 of people who thought otherwise and learned valuable lessons from their error.

4. The church is guaranteed ultimate success.

“….and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

“…and they shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

5. The pastors are sent, not to make the congregation happy, but to make them healthy and the Lord happy.

“It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith….” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

I submit there is not more than 1 Southern Baptist in 10 who know this principle, to our great detriment. We’ve made such an icon of voting on pastors that we have left the impression these people serve at our pleasure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They serve to please the Lord. Paul said, “We preach…ourselves your servants FOR JESUS’ SAKE” (II Corinthians 4:5)

6. The church is ever-changing, always in motion, in a state of flux.

Every time a member leaves or someone joins, the church changes. When a member begins to grow or when one backslides, the church changes. Death and rebirth are constantly at work within a church at every moment of every day.

7. No two churches are alike.

We get the impression that the Almighty must be easily bored since He clearly does not like to do the same thing twice–not in fingerprints, voice prints, the stripes on a tiger or zebra, not in persons, and definitely not in churches. It is evidence of our fallen nature that we move to a new city and begin to search for a church like the beloved one we just left. Our hunt is always fruitless and frustrating.

Not only are no two churches alike, the one you belong to today is not the same church it was last year or even last week. It’s always changing. (See #6)

8. The best prayer for your church–as well as your life, you family, your own part of the world–is, “Lord, what will you have us to do?”

This was the Apostle Paul’s first prayer after meeting Jesus (Acts 22:10), the simplest prayer he ever sent heavenward, and the best one any of us can ever pray.

The best thing my arms and limbs can do is to ask the head, “What’s the plan for this moment?” and then obey. The best thing a finance committee or a pastor search committee or a Sunday School teacher can do is constantly ask the Lord Jesus in prayer, “What would please you today?”

9. The leadership of the church must protect its unity.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Leaders must constantly be on guard for anything threatening to divide the congregation and pull the church off course. Throughout the New Testament, the apostles keep warning leaders to guard against opposition from outside and imitation from inside.

10. The single most important quality concerning the inner life of a congregation is its fellowship.

On the day of Pentecost and thereafter, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The picture of the ideal relationship of believers with each other is shown in Romans 12:9-21. In such a church, the believers love the Lord, like one another, and welcome the newcomer into their midst.

My conviction is that the fellowship of most churches is taken for granted today, and assumed to be there with no effort from the leadership to build it, nurture it, protect it.

11. There is a foolproof way to oppose your church’s leadership when they come to the congregation with a recommendation, and to carry the day.

Why would this be one of our 20 features of the church? Because individual members of the church are key to its vitality and their voice must be heard if they are to be team players. Once in a while–rarely, but importantly–someone must stand up in the congregation and stop the runaway train barreling down the tracks.

Here’s how to do that.

Build such a reputation as a positive supporter of your pastor and other leaders that when you speak, they listen and when you oppose, everything grinds to a halt. Building such a reputation takes time, usually years, of faithful working and giving and speaking out in support. Any pastor can point you to several men and women of his congregation who, even if they do not occupy an actual position of leadership in the church, are such strategic players that he is going to listen to them, particularly when they rise in opposition.

12. Pastors ride point, the staff and a few others ride flank, and the deacons–bless them!–ride drag.

You will recognize the imagery as from the Old West when the cowhands were moving a herd. Someone rode point, setting the direction, staying far enough ahead that all could see him. Several rode the flanks where they labored to keep the herd from straying too far to the right or left. And a few poor souls had to bring up the rear, riding drag it was called, where they made sure no animal was left behind, and ended up eating everyone’s dust.

We need all the officers and leaders of the church. But even though all do not have the same assignment, this is not to minimize the importance of any. Each is essential.

After our local NFL team won the NFC championship at the end of the 2009 season, one player in particular was celebrated as the hero since it was his field goal kick that won the game in overtime. And yet, while that was the case, it’s not the whole story. We could replay that game and isolate play after play that made the difference–a catch here, a block there, a run, a pass, a snap, a hold. In the same way, each part of the body is important to the functioning of the rest.

13. Every church needs little conflict now and then.

Paul said, “No doubt there have to be differences among you (“heresies” – KJV) to show which of you have God’s approval” (I Corinthians 11:19).

The heresies and conflicts in the first century church drove Paul and the other apostles to write epistles to spell out the truth in order to put an end to the problem. In so doing, they gave us our Scriptures. So, in that sense, we are grateful for their conflicts.

To build a muscle, we put stress on it. To build the faith of an individual or a congregation, God lets them endure hardship from time to time. “Count it all joy,” James said, “when you face trials…because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2).

14. The best way to find new workers for our church is through prayer and negligence.

“Pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into His harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).

Christian leader Bill Taylor says the church should pray for the Lord’s leadership, then create a “holy vacancy,” leaving the office unfilled until the Lord answers the prayer. That’s what we mean by “prayer and negligence.”

15. The Lord intends to get glory for Himself and Him alone in the church.

“…to Him be the glory in the church….” (Ephesians 3:21)

In one city where I pastored, they told this story as happening there, but I’ve heard it attributed to other towns too, so it’s probably apocryphal. A fellow got off a train and asked a porter, “Can you direct me to the Church of Christ.” The man scratched his head and said, “Well, sir, let me see. Over there is Mr. Puckett’s church. That one is Mr. Laws’ church.” He went on like that a moment, then said, “I don’t believe Christ has a church in this town, sir.”

The Lord plans to get the glory in His body, His bride, His people. That must mean a hundred things, a few of which we understand, but I can tell you one thing it most certainly says: His glory must not be given to man. No pastor should get the glory for the church. Honor him for his dedicated service and leadership, yes, but the glory is the Lord Jesus’ and His alone.

16. The best way to recruit a new worker for your church is to pray for the Lord’s leadership (see #14 above), leave the slot unfilled, and then take one more step: expose certain people to the work where they are needed.

Exposure. That’s what Barnabas did with Paul when he found him in Tarsus and brought to Antioch where God was sending a great evangelistic harvest among the Gentiles. As far as we can see, Barnabas did not ask Paul to do anything, but merely brought him to the work and the Holy Spirit took matters from there. (See Acts 11)

If you are teaching a class of 9th grade boys and looking for your replacement, ask the Lord’s leadership for whom to invite to sit in the class one day. Then call him. “Bob, would you do me a favor. Would you sit in my class next Sunday and then tell me what you think we should do.”That’s all you’re asking, nothing more.

Bob might walk out and say, “I know just the fellow who ought to be teaching that class!” Or, he may walk out with a burden for those boys himself. In that case, you could invite him to fill in for you the next week. But do not ask him to take the class. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

17. In every community, there are people who do not know they would be welcome in your church and are not even sure what to do once they come. Your task is to find them.

A good way to bring in the person who is completely in the dark about church is to have an open house in which you invite the community. Advertise it broadly, and schedule it for both Friday night and Saturday morning in order to hit the schedule of the most people. Put your best and friendliest people at all places inside and outside the church, to greet and explain. Have refreshments and literature, place stacks of Bibles at various places with “Free; take one” signs. My own feeling is that you shouldn’t even register the people, but allow them to be as anonymous as they please, but there are differences of opinion on this. Some suggest a table where they can register their attendance for a door prize, and thus you get a record of prospects.

18. The newcomer and first-timer to your church is the best measurement of the love in your congregation.

Once I stood before my church and held up two letters that had arrived that week. The first was from a former member who had moved away and was missing her friends. She had not found such a friendly church in her new city. I said to the congregation, “Do we have a friendly church?” Heads bobbed; we did.

Then I read the other letter: “Dear pastor: I was in your services last Sunday. Not a single person spoke to me. You have an unfriendly church. I will not be back.”

They were stunned. How could this be? I said, “It would appear we are friendly to one another but not to newcomers. And that makes us a clique, a closed-fellowship.”

I suggest to pastors they enlist someone from another congregation to “mystery shop” their church.

19. The best thing we can tell a new believer is: “Now, go tell your friends.”

For the rest of his/her life, the new convert will never know as many unsaved people as they do at this moment. From this time forward, more and more their friends will be people who also know and love the Lord. So, this moment is strategic in spreading the word about Jesus.

In Matthew 9, Jesus called a tax collector named Matthew to follow Him. In the next verse, Jesus is sitting down for the evening meal with a large group of tax collectors. The implication–never actually stated–is that Matthew invited his friends to come meet Jesus. It was an ideal pattern, one never improved on.

20. No one likes change, but God’s people should get used to it.

Scripture promises that in Christ we are new creations, given a new name, are to sing a new song, filled with God’s new wine, are called to be new wineskins, and are sent forth as heralds of a new heaven and a new earth.

God clearly doesn’t think much of old songs, since He is forever telling us to “sing unto the Lord a new song.” (Throughout the Psalms and in Revelation.)

The Lord is constantly pushing His people in new directions, showing us new insights from Scripture, giving us new methodologies.

A pastor friend said about his congregation, “If 1955 ever comes back around, my church is ready!”

Clearly, they love the old things too much.

21. Church leaders would do well to keep telling themselves, “It’s not about me; it’s all about Jesus.”

The work is about Jesus. We are to preach Jesus. He is our subject, our resources, our Head, our Judge, our Redeemer, our Lover.

“The reason I asked you to come today,” the elderly woman said to me, “was that I need to confess something.”

She was almost feeble and often sickly and I had thought she asked for a pastoral visit to talk about getting ready to meet the Lord. I was half-right.

“I know I’m saved,” she said. “I was saved as a young person and remember it so clearly. But pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

That caught my attention.

“As a young adult, I grew away from the church and quit going. I raised my son without the church and came to regret it. And now that I’m old and sickly, I can’t even attend any more. And I know now this is so wrong.”

She wanted to put her membership in with our people and to send a check each month from her pension. She promised to pray for us and asked for our prayers.

That day, on my drive back to the office, I asked myself, “Have I done right by the church?”

I ask you that now.

“Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)

To love Jesus is to love His Church.

7 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About the Church

  1. This was awesome! I need to print it and give it to every member (and guest) who attends FBCJ this coming Sunday!!

  2. Brother Joe,

    May I have your permission to print and distribute this article to our folks in three weekly parts?

    By His grace and for His glory!


  3. Great word, Joe! May I share this with the folks in Metrolina Association? Thanks for staying connected with us – the Lord blesses regularly through you.


  4. Joe, this is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. Thanks for allowing God to use the talent He has given you. I copied it and gave it to all my staff. I would love to give it to every member of my church, but I guess not…

  5. Brother Joe, I thank you for your insight. It has encouraged me to stay the course even when those around me do not understand. God has given us a great plan and the resources to accomplish our assignments.

  6. Both articles blessesd me; Why small churches stay small and What I have learned about the Church. Just the balm I’ve been in need of.

    In Christ,



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