The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Why the Church is not Growing

Okay, I hope the above title is not just click bait. I really do have an idea. It may not be the most pleasant of ideas, but until someone else has a better one, I’m sticking with it.

My proposed answer as to why the church is not growing: the preachers. There are two halves to that indictment – the pressure put on preachers, and the self-inflicted wounds made by preachers.

First, a little back story. Every church wants an evangelistic preacher. Just check out the “preacher wanted” lists on any college, university, or associated web site. Way up at the top of the list you will see evangelism or “proven evangelistic success” as a major requirement.

I only have one question: where are these evangelistic success stories?

Read any survey, take note of church growth reports in virtually any report and the answer is the same: the church is shrinking. In my own experience the only congregations I know of that are growing are the recipients of members who are leaving other congregations for a variety of reasons. I am aware of congregations who list a number of baptisms, but these are all too frequently just “family” baptisms in which children or relatives of members are being baptized. These are wonderful events, and should not be downplayed – but they do not speak of the kingdom growing.

So – once again – where are the congregations growing that would produce the “proven evangelistic success” that every congregation is searching for?

Which leads me to point number one of my answer. Congregations do not want to participate in evangelism, they want to watch it. Hire the right man and sit back and watch the converts come streaming in. “We pay the preacher to evangelize, so get out and evangelize.” I think I have tipped my hand, but I just do not see this happening much, so I wonder where these blossoming evangelists really are. But, regardless, this is an illegitimate model. It puts (a) too much pressure on the preacher/minister and (b) it puts him in a position to pat himself on the back with far more enthusiasm should he be successful. What was it that the apostle Paul said regarding this very question? Oh, yea, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17)

But, second, in perhaps a more nefarious situation, preachers promote this “I’m the professional evangelist, so get out of my way” mentality much more to the detriment of the church. The goal of ministry is not to make people think like the preacher, or even to act like the preacher. The goal of ministry is to draw people to Christ, and therefore to believe and to act as Christ has empowered them to believe and to act.

I do not want people to follow in my footsteps. They are too small and too frequently fall off of the path. I want people to follow in the footsteps of Christ. If the goal of preaching (and therefore evangelism in every sense) is to lead people to Christ, then the proof of that preaching (and therefore evangelism) is that those who are converted then become participants in the congregation’s further evangelistic efforts. They may not become personal evangelists, but each member supports those efforts to the extent they are gifted/empowered. (See Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Cor. 12:4-11, Romans 12:3-8)

So, why is the church not growing? Because individual congregations have placed an unbiblical and impossible burden upon a “paid professional evangelist;” and because all too frequently the “paid professionals” are too condescending to expect, and believe in, the members to whom they preach to actually want and be capable of sharing their faith.

I believe there are congregations that are healthy and growing – even though I may not know where they are located. But it is NOT because of some evangelistic “wunderkind.” It is because the congregation has accepted, and promotes, the New Testament pattern of congregational responsibility in evangelism and overall congregational health.

Congregations will grow when they ascend lower – when they seek to serve and count others better than themselves, and to lift up Jesus so he can draw people to himself. That should be our goal in evangelism.

The Measure of Greatness

Kinda, sorta, following up on my thoughts yesterday (all of this got all jumbled up in my mind and so if it seems disjointed, it probably is).

When I think of the truly gigantic people in my life, and when I think of what makes them truly gigantic, a number of qualities come to mind. Most are brilliant – although not a few of them have no formal or higher education. “Brilliant” is relative, and some of the most brilliant people in my life have either never attended college, or have little college education. A number of my heroes are acclaimed theologians and church historians, as that is the field where I have spent most of my life, but I could also share the names of a couple of pilots, a book store owner, a couple of preachers, and a number of Bible school teachers.

But the one quality that all of these individuals share (well, almost all) is one that cannot be bought, studied, or manipulated. It is the quality of humility. What strikes me about the list of my “great cloud of witnesses” is the fact that almost to a person, they would be embarrassed to be included on such a list.

I can illustrate this best by highlighting those who would be considered by a majority of people as being at the top of their respective fields. These are men who are scholars among scholars. The list of books and articles in peer-reviewed journals they have published is astounding. They command respect from their peers, and even (if not especially) from those who disagree with them. You can disrespect a pusillanimous little poseur, but when a scholar is singled out by an opponent as having an argument that seriously challenges his view and must then be addressed, you know the aforementioned scholar is worthy of his stripes.

I have studied under a number of these scholar/saints, and beyond the information and training they provided, they demonstrated a grasp of humility that defies description. They chose their words from an infinite vault of silence – the silence that comes from the mastery of a subject and the wisdom to know how much of that mastery to share at any given time. Their measured sentences revealed not only the breadth and depth of their study, but also the realization that what they did not know was just as broad and just as deep. To hear such a scholar admit, “I do not know” was perhaps as provocative as hearing him expound on a subject of which he was well versed. You do not just learn from such individuals, as much as you absorb from them.

Conversely, I have been in the presence of intellectual Lilliputians; small-minded, yappy little urchins whose self-worth was measured entirely by the volume of verbal effluvia he could spew. It is for good reason that it is said “quiet waters run deep” while babbling little brooks are shallow and quickly disappear in the heat of summer.

I would much rather spend 10 minutes in the presence of a scholar who can admit error or ignorance, as to spend a day in the presence of someone who proclaims to know everything about everything. I would much rather sit in the presence of a person who remains silent and yet teaches the wisdom of the ages, as to have to bear the presence of a person who cannot shut up yet says nothing.

Some ask, “How do you want to be remembered.” Perhaps no finer words could be spoken of a preacher than, “He was wise enough to know when to teach through words, and when to remain silent.”

I pray for such wisdom!

Admit It – We ALL Have Presuppositions!

One of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, obstacles to overcome when we approach Scripture is the acceptance of the fact that we come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. HORRORS! “That may be true of you, bub, but my intentions and purposes are as pure as the driven snow!” may be your immediate response. With all due respect to your meteorological observations, that self-proclaimed innocence is just flat out wrong. We ALL, every single one of us, come to Scripture with preconceptions. Only by admitting that fact can we weed out the possible mistakes those preconceptions are prone to create.

 

An oft-used illustration is appropriate here. It is as if when we peer into the pages of the Bible that we look into a deep well to see what is at the bottom. The image that we see, reflected as if we look into a mirror, looks remarkably like our own face! We see our country when we examine the ancient Israelites. We see our cities when we read of Corinth or Rome. We see our happy little church when we pick up a copy of Ephesians or Colossians. Even the aroma of the flesh pots of Egypt share the same comforting smell of our kitchens.

As I said before, so now I say again – this is only how it can be! We never stood toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. We cannot understand what it must have sounded like as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem. We have no way of experiencing a mob riot at the Ephesian amphitheater.

But we CAN, and I dare say that we MUST account for the fact that when we read the Bible we admit our preconceptions. Then, by bringing them out into the open, we can ask whether they augment, or distort, our conclusions.

Here, for example, are just a few of the preconceptions I bring to my study:

  1.  The Bible is the inspired word of God. I do not hold to the concept of “verbal dictation,” but I am constantly amazed at how the accounts related in the Bible can only cohere if there was a single, divine, overseeing presence that both created and preserved this book.
  2. Although written for a specific time period, the Bible was preserved as a record of how God expected his people to believe and act throughout all of history. The Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was written not just for the ancient Israelites – but for us as well. Corinthians was certainly addressed to a congregation in the Mediterranean, but for Christians in the 21st century as well. Note the sequence: to the Corinthians, but for all time.
  3. God never changes, Jesus never changes, and the lessons provided through the stories and codes recorded in Scripture do not change. Murder is still a sin, and elders are still supposed to be husbands of one wife.
  4. God in in heaven, and I am on earth, therefore my words about His word should be few, and those few words should be carefully thought-out and prayerfully delivered.

I could probably come up with many more. The point is, we, as humans, are bounded by time and culture. Some of that culture is positive, some of it is neutral, and some of it is positively perverse. Our culture, however, causes us to view the Bible with a certain lens – a lens of bias. I am a male, American by nationality, relatively well educated (how much of that education has actually stuck is a matter of debate!), and a young baby-boomer by generation. Each of those characteristics flavors how I read the Bible. If I do not take those characteristics into consideration, I can end up with a horrid misinterpretation of the Word of God.

So, let’s face it. We all come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. The critical question, then, becomes whether I can honestly let the Bible correct that bias (or destroy it completely), or whether my bias distorts the meaning of the text.

Is it Elitist to Challenge a Defective Theology?

A discerning eye will notice that I am writing from a clearly announced position: the life of Christian discipleship is an upside-down life. We win by losing, ascend by going lower. Some will agree energetically in regard to only one facet of the Christian life: evaluating the worth of differing, and in some cases diametrically opposed, theological positions. In this view to challenge a conclusion, or to disagree with someone, is wrong-headed. It is impolite and smacks of elitism. Apparently you can only hold a position to be in error if you are a theological stuff-shirt.

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I must plead ignorance here, as I simply do not know how this conclusion can be reached if a person reads the Bible with any kind of open mind. From Genesis 3 until the last echoes of the words of Revelation have died down, God is constantly and directly challenging bad theology. No one, from Adam to the apostle Paul (just to name a couple) is immune from adding 2 + 2 and coming up with some form of heterodoxy (if not outright heresy). Often the correction is gentle, sometimes it is severe, occasionally the correction is ironic or sarcastic. But God, and his inspired speakers/authors, never allow bad theology to go unchallenged and uncorrected.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my undergraduate program came at the conclusion of a rather energetic discussion of some fine point of exegesis. A student (not me, I am not that smart) asked the professor “What do we do when someone teaches something that is clearly not true to the text?” After a moment’s pause, the professor said something like this: “We must be very careful in pointing out the mistakes of others. But bad theology must always be confronted and corrected or the text of the Bible becomes meaningless.”

I have always remembered that moment – and not because I have always followed my professors advice. Far too often I have chosen to remain silent and allowed flawed conclusions to be made, mostly with the excuse that I did not want to offend someone’s dignity. But, sad to say, I just did not want to come off as elitist. I did not want the teacher to think I was “putting him in his place” or that I was somehow superior to him.

No, I have always remembered that comment from my professor as a goad pricking my conscience.

There are times when silence IS truly golden. We do not need to correct every jot and tittle of someone’s class or sermon. We do not need to be the pronunciation police to make sure that every shibboleth is pronounced faultlessly. And, certainly, there is a huge argument to be made that any such correction needs to be done gently, and in private if at all possible.

But, theologically speaking, it is no more elitist to correct bad doctrine than it is to promote good doctrine. In fact, it is one of the main duties that Paul assigned to Timothy and Titus.

The only elitist, the only snob when it comes to preaching or teaching, is the one who will not listen to correction or a well-worded challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge when and where it is necessary – but always remember this –

The path to the heights of glory winds down the depths of service. We ascend by going lower!