What Does a Healthy Church Look Like?

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Some time ago, I received a question via private Facebook message that made me stop and ponder.  The person said something like, “I think I might be in an unhealthy church environment right now.  But before I leave, how am I supposed to know what a ‘healthy’ church looks like?”  I answered her question the best I could at the time.  However, I still found myself pondering that important question.  I even threw it out at our local pastor’s prayer group.  I dare say that their response was very similar to my own.  As I was, they were caught a bit off guard by such a simple but direct question.

I think the hesitance of a seasoned pastor to quickly answer this question is caused by the need to reflect on past experiences and current situations.  As we reflect and evaluate, we find ourselves asking more questions like: What is the Biblical definition of a healthy church?  What does “healthy” look like? And probably the most important question for each of us, “Is my church healthy?”

I will be the very first to say that I certainly do not have all the answers.  However, I am willing to ask the hard questions and I am willing to wrestle with answering them.  I think there is definite value in the wrestling and reflecting.  So… in my wrestling and reflecting this is what I have come up with so far.  I have tried to keep my thoughts as simple and concise as possible.

Here are my reflections on what a healthy church looks like:

  • A healthy church is centered around authentic relationships that have real depth. These relationships extend beyond Sunday mornings.  Authentic relationships require time, trust, love, communication and grace.
  • A healthy church practices discipleship and realizes that discipleship is much more than a sermon, class, or a program. Authentic discipleship requires authentic relationships.  I like to say, real discipleship happens when “life rubs up against life.”  This is how Jesus did discipleship.
  • A healthy church experiences organic evangelism.  Organic evangelism happens because the Christians who make up the church are maturing and are naturally reaching out to those around them.  This is not because of a top notch evangelism campaign or a flashy church sign, it is simply natural.  Keep in mind, this growth does not need to be explosive -and it is probably better if it is not.  Some of the best church growth is… s-l-o-w.  That large oak tree in your back yard did not get there over night, -but the weeds around it may have.  Think about that.
  • A healthy church has a plurality of New Testament leadership.  Call them elders, deacons, or just “the leadership team.”  The label that is used does not matter.  What matters is: there is more than one or two of them, they are clearly biblically qualified, are gifted to be elders, take the role very seriously, are in authentic relationship with each other and are accountable to each other.  BTW, you cannot be accountable to someone you are not in authentic transparent relationship with.
  • A healthy church is diverse.  Diverse in its people. Diverse in age.  Diverse in opinions.  Diverse in experience. Diverse in it’s creativity.  And diverse in the expressions of the people who form the church.  God made us all different; if he wanted us all to be the same, he would have made us robots.  I believe a healthy church celebrates the diversity of its people rather than forcing everyone to be the same.
  • A healthy church is governed by Grace AND Truth.  If all we focus on is the grace of God, then “anything goes” and our sin nature reigns. If all we focus on is the law and rules, we become legalistic pharisees who are constantly casting stones at each other. I have seen both extremes and neither one is healthy or God honoring.  However, if we allow the Holy Spirit to govern us by grace AND truth a beautiful thing happens.  -We begin to be transformed into who God created us to be. The theological termed used to describe this process is called “sanctification.”  Sanctification naturally happens in healthy churches as well as healthy people.
  • And obviously, a healthy church is a group of people who are in relationship with God.  Meaning than that prayer, the Word and worship are practical parts of their everyday lives and continuously steer them along the journey of following Jesus.

 

What Does God Look Like?

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I can remember being asked “What does God look like?” as a child in Sunday School.  Glimpses of the pictures we drew as children come to mind: an old man with a beard, crayon rays of light zig-zagging out of the clouds, lopsided crosses -and then a simple stick figure of Jesus.

So what does God actually look like??? -These question marks punctuate a profound theological question. As Christians, if we allow ourselves the freedom to respond with the simple child-like faith that God calls us to, we find the answer.  Our God looks like Jesus. Whenever we have a question about God’s character or His posture towards humanity, all we need to do is look to Jesus as our divine reference point. Famous preachers, our own religious preferences and even trusted denominational doctrines are not reliable points of reference for what God looks like; only His Son is qualified to show us the Father.

As St. John said in John 1:17-18:

“For the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

Jesus has made God (the Father) “known” to us. In other words, we KNOW exactly what God looks like; He looks just like Jesus.

  • So… Jesus eating a meal at a DESPISED tax collector’s house, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus taking the time to speak to that MESSED UP half-breed woman at the well, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus confronting and REBUKING legalistic religious leaders, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus attending a wedding CELEBRATION and turning water into wine, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus WEEPING over Israel’s rebellion, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus chasing the MONEY CHANGERS out of the temple, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus REFUSING to stone the woman caught in the “very act” of adultery, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus being CONCERNED about the practical needs of people and feeding the five thousand, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus distancing Himself from FICKLE crowds seeking a sign, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus not being afraid to speak the TRUTH (in love,) was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus FORGIVING the Roman soldiers while they were crucifying Him, was Jesus making God known to us.
  • Jesus pursuing the disciples who DESERTED Him (at the cross) would also be, Jesus making the Father’s heart known to us.
  • And finally… “the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” would be, EMMANUEL declaring God the Father and making His Kingdom known to us -by way of a baby in a manger.

Jesus is what God looks like. Do not make the tragic mistake of cherry picking versus from the Bible and then saying, “God said!”  NO; that is simply incorrect.  JESUS is what the entire Bible has to say, in perfect context with human history. The Bible tells us a vivid story of humanity desperately in need of a Savior. The sole purpose of the Bible is to point us to God’s Son; the True Infallible Word of God.  If we cannot reconcile a religious teaching directly to Jesus, caution flags should fly up in our hearts and minds.  There is no biblical character or contemporary religious figure with the authority to critique or tweak Jesus’ teachings and actions.

We must learn to reconcile ourselves back to Jesus and His teachings.  Jesus is what God looks like -and Jesus is what God has to say to us as we prepare to celebrate His birth.  Merry Christmas!

What does “Real Freedom” look like?

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“You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  -Jesus

While Jesus has never let me down on this “journey to freedom,” He has led me down some unplanned paths over mountains, through valleys and across rivers that I thought were absolutely impassable. And so, I have discovered this elusive thing called “freedom” to a greater extent -in the most unexpected places.  I am often pleasantly surprised when I catch a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the hill I have been climbing.  You think you are “free,” and then He takes you to that new place that He has never shown you because you were not ready to see it yet.  -Before “that moment,” you could not yet handle the experience and you did not have the capacity to truly appreciate it.  Just a few years before you would have sped over the crest of that hilltop -not fully appreciating the view and perspective He wanted you to see at that beautiful summit.

But now, you stop at the top of the hill and you inhale a deep breath. You take in God’s wonderful scenery and you appreciate the majesty of it all.  You savor all of the new insights that you gain from that view. -And then, from this view you are reminded that there are countless others who are struggling down their own paths to freedom and you feel a great sense of responsibility to help them.  So it is with the Kingdom of God.

So what does true freedom look like? Freedom from child abuse, alcohol & drug abuse, spousal abuse, divorce, obesity, a traumatic health event, a soured romantic relationship, sexual abuse, dysfunctional family relationships, spiritual abuse, abandonment… and I know I have to be leaving dozens of others off this list.  Freedom has many perspectives; it all depends on the chains that are binding us…

All of these wounding agents have at least two commonalities that link every single one of us together. -Regardless of where our place is in society, we all get wounded and we all need healing.  The “sickness of sin” has infected us all.  We all need freedom.

So what does freedom look like???  Well, I can tell you this: it is NOT a magic pill, a magic prayer to Jesus or a single session with a counselor, therapist or even your pastor.  IT’S JUST NOT THAT! And if someone tells you that, even with a well-meaning heart, they are simply wrong. Freedom is not found in those places. -At least not in those places alone.

To my wife and I, freedom has been a process. Though at times I desperately searched for the fast forward button to speed up that process, it simply was not there.  Real freedom is a godly phenomenon that takes place over time. Freedom has been a process of time and relationships for us.  And when I say relationships, I mean with common everyday people that God put in our lives. Some relationships are very short lived, -and some are long.  But regardless, as we follow Jesus on this search for freedom, He will lead us down paths that intersect with just the right people.  And sometimes we have no clue what is actually happening. -While we are busy focusing on the ordinary, the Spirit of God is working on the extraordinary the entire time.  You see, God knows that we need each other.

Then… that moment comes when we realize that we are indeed becoming more -and more free… We find ourselves experiencing a level of freedom that we never even knew existed.  We smile, a few tears roll down our checks and we think to ourselves, “This must be what ‘Real Freedom’ looks like.”

Why Should I Forgive?

Forgiveness is much more about YOU -than whoever hurt you.

The act of forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent. I have witnessed countless people refuse to forgive. In turn, I have watched those same people repeatedly tear their own wounds open, time and again.  Forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent and allows the healing process to begin and continue. It is the well medicated bandage that is placed on a wound that has been properly cleaned and dressed.

Forgiveness is also the antidote for the infection of bitterness. I have witnessed bitterness eat people up like a vicious emotional and spiritual infection, causing even more damage than the initial wound. We have all heard stories where a person would get a small cut on a finger or toe and not treat it properly. Then infection set in. As a result, death and decay set in. The tissue around the “small” wound begins to rot away. If the infection is never properly addressed and treated, limb or life can be lost. Forgiveness is the much needed antiseptic treatment for deeply infected emotional wounds. While unthinkable to some victims, forgiveness is the ONLY way the pain will ever begin to subside.

In addition, forgiveness protects relationships. Some of the most miserable people I have met are bitter people who refuse to forgive. They become hard, calloused and simply difficult to be around. While they remain steadfast in the reasoning that justifies their bitterness, the fruit that it bears makes it very difficult for them to actively participate in healthy relationships. No one wants to be around them. Bitterness hinders and corrupts healthy relationships.

Forgiveness is NOT simply giving the offender a “pass” on their misbehavior and looking the other way. Forgiveness is God’s blueprint for enabling us to heal and begin the path towards emotional, spiritual and even physical health and happiness.  This is exactly why Jesus responded “seventy times seven,” when he was asked how often we should be willing to forgive each other.

Healthy living is impossible without forgiveness.

What Some Christians Have in Common with the Ancient Greeks and Trojans

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Am I writing a blog post that compares modern day christians to the pagan Greeks and Trojans who worshiped false mythological gods?  Why yes, I sure am.

Last night, my wife and I watched the movie “Troy” for the fist time.   For various reasons, we are not typically drawn to movies like this, but due to boredom, sleeplessness and curiosity we decided to watch it.  I found it intriguing when I noticed a few similarities between some of today’s christians and the ancient Greeks and Trojans -as portrayed in the movie.  Here is what I observed:

-Buildings, statues and other objects were held in very high regard and often worshiped as the gods themselves.

-There was no concept of “personal relationship” with the pagan gods; therefore determining the “god’s will” was simply a guess made by the priests, often with catastrophic consequences.

-The rulers used the gods to manipulate the armies and people in order to get what they wanted; more power, treasure and territory.

-When something bad happened because of the leader’s own stupidity, selfishness or poor leadership abilities, it was explained by saying, “It was the will of the gods.”

-Terrible things occurred, -and was justified in the gods’ name.

I am sure I am missing a few other similarities.  I was not actively looking for them while watching the movie. These are just the glaring ones that I remember as I reflect for a few moments.

If this post unsettles you a bit, good.  Maybe it will cause you to think about how people in today’s culture view Christians.  Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  This means that His Kingdom looks nothing like our pagan worldly kingdoms.  If what we sometimes call “God’s Kingdom” can be so easily compared to “pagan kingdoms,” perhaps we need to stop, reflect and ask God to search our hearts in order to make a few adjustments.  -After all, we are called to be DIFFERENT.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

Why I Almost… left the Church

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I almost left the church, the “established” church that is….  And sometimes, I still feel like leaving the church.  There, I said it.  Yes, Eric Starkey: husband, father, devout Christian and maybe most relevant to this post, “pastor” has seriously considered leaving the church, or at least “the church” as we know it.

Why???

I guess the answers to that question are both simple and complicated.  I am hesitant to publicly share many of my thoughts on this subject because I fear that I will offend friends.  Nevertheless, I feel this post might be a valuable exercise for me to write -and for you to read.  Perhaps if we wrestle with a few of these “reasons” you and I both might be better for it.  And perhaps, the Church could be better for it.  With that being said, I want to make it clear that my goal is not to insult or take cheap shots at anyone or any local church. My goal is to transparently share why I sometimes find myself nearing that point where I want to say, “Enough is enough!”

  • I got burned out.  I entered the ministry at age eighteen; I preached for the first time on Sunday morning at nineteen and experienced early “success.”  Sometimes I believe that early “success” was actually a “curse.” From that point forward, it was full speed ahead and no looking back.  I put the Church and ministry before everything –and I mean everything.  After doing that for over fifteen years, the inevitable finally… happened: I burned out.  I am surprised I lasted as long as I did.  I often wonder why someone did not stop me earlier.  Many people in many different churches had opportunities to grab me and put their arm around me and say, “Eric, slow down.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  Slow down and enjoy your college years.  Slow down and enjoy your young family.  Slow down and enjoy life.”  Very few people offered me that wise caution and still fewer leaders ever did.  Honestly, I cannot think of any other pastors who ever advised me to slow my pace.  It was not until “I” put on the brakes (at God’s prompting) that I finally got that message –independent of anyone within the Church.
  • I got incredibly frustrated with many of the people in the Church.  Religious people, legalistic people, “super-spiritual” people, mean people, hypocrites, needy people, manipulative people, leaders who worry more about themselves than the people who they are leading, highly educated people who are illiterate to the simplest Biblical Truths, insecure people, etc.  Everywhere I turned (in the Church) there seemed to always be someone who met one or more of the aforementioned descriptions.  These people sucked the passion, energy and life right out of me.
  • I began to notice the lack of authentic relationships in the church.  There is so much that could be said here but I want to keep this post short.  Let me just say that most churches that I have been a part of have shallow relationships with various undercurrents running through them.  Church leadership is more about politics than shepherding.  If you doubt my observation, just watch what happens when controversy or disagreements arise. Church relationships often (not always, but often) have little depth and are disposable   *This is not a loose accusation that I am making. I make it after eighteen years of being heavily involved in various local churches.
  • I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends to church.  Approximately four years ago, my wife and I made a commitment to purposely start living our lives OUTSIDE the walls of church buildings.  Part of this commitment was to begin building relationships with people who did not attend a church.  As we have slowly made this transition, we have realized that we are not comfortable inviting our un-churched friends to church with us.
  • Much of the contemporary Church is “dumbing down” the Gospel. In our efforts to grow and attract people to our churches, we have watered down and “dumbed down” the Gospel to where “following Jesus” is not following Jesus. We have forgotten what it means to “take up our crosses.”  We have made it too easy. We have made it too simple.  Sometimes I think we may even insult the intelligence of un-churched people when they attend our churches. Don’t talk to un-churched people like they are stupid. Share Truth! Challenge people! Preach the Gospel!  Teach the Word! That is what the people are there for; that is what they desperately need. Challenge them; that is what will cause them to see their need for Christ and authentic Christian community.
  • I have not gotten anything out of many of the church services I have attended.  Sorry, I am just being honest.  When we extricate authentic relationships and dumb down the Gospel, what do you think is going to happen? Church should be more meaningful than checking a box off on our weekly Christian “to do list.” And please do not try to attract me with just music, I can always find better on Pandora.
  • Most churches look nothing like the Church in the New Testament.  I am just being honest –again.  Why should I force myself to attend a weekly meeting that calls itself one thing and then has the characteristics of something completely different?  Most churches “Major on the minors” and “minor on the Majors” of the things that are important to New Testament Church culture. We invest our time and treasure in buildings and programs rather than people –and then we wonder why we are losing “people.”  Hello…..?
  • I was never good at “Playing the Game” –nor did I ever want to play.  I have no passion for the “the game.”  I have no energy for “the game.”  I find no life in “the game.”  Honestly, when I sense that “the game” is being played, I run fast and far from it. “The game” disgusts me now.  I am so tired of political games.  I am so tired of people games.  I am so tired of church games.  I just want to be a part of something real.  I am not looking for perfect, (I know it is not out there) but I am looking for “real.”
  • Because of the above characteristics, I find many of our churches to be full of under discipled, under utilized, immature, lethargic Christians.  I think that is the real fruit that our church marketing, flashy programs and flowery sermons have produced for us.  Frankly, this reality absolutely disturbs me.
  • I got tired of excuses.  You can come up with an excuse for anything, -if you try hard enough.  And we have become very astute at making good excuses in the Church.  Our excuses disgust me.

Why should I attend a weekly “celebration service” that has no real depth and screams “fake,” with other people in a community almost completely divorced of authentic relationships, where a watered down weak (and/or twisted) gospel is preached, in an atmosphere where I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends, with “church people” who often incredibly frustrate me?

 These are the reasons why I have had serious thoughts about leaving the established church.  *For the record, my family and I have not left the Church nor do we plan to; we still faithfully attend.  But, I have to wonder how many people have already abandoned the Church for these same reasons.  I would bet all of my earthly possessions that the numbers are far more than just a few…

Perhaps we should all take a step back, stop making our ridiculous excuses and wrestle with some of these areas of dysfunction while there is still time.  -Because the era of “going to church just because you are supposed to” is over.

I invite you to comment with “your reasons” below -or feel free to offer a rebuttal to mine.  Let’s please keep our comments as positive and productive as possible.   -Just an FYI, I plan to write a post next week entitled, “Why I did not leave the Church.”

The Basic Elements of the Church: Evangelism

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So I hear there is a big stink going on down in Sullivan, Indiana; “big stink” is my southern slang for a fight. Apparently, there are a few high school kids, who call themselves “gay,” that plan to attend prom as practicing homosexuals.  I’ll let my readers gathers the facts for themselves regarding all the details, but obviously when the public expression of homosexuality goes to the high school prom in small town Midwestern America there will be a few fireworks in the community.   -And many of the “sparks” will be made by my fellow conservative Christian friends.  I am sure that most Christians in Sullivan have already been asking tough questions like:

  • How did we lose our Christian influence on the culture in “our” town? 
  • What can we do to reach those who are continuing to drift away from the church and our Christian values?
  • How can we make Christianity and church life “relevant” to people in Sullivan, Indiana –especially the younger generations?
  • What can we do to take back the ground that we have already lost?

I have been waiting for some time to finish up my latest series, “The Basic Elements of the Church.”  I had previously shared that from my study of scripture and personal experience, I believe that there are three basic elements that make up the Church.  The first element is Relationships: our authentic relationships with God and each other.  The second element that I identified was Discipleship: our embracing of and learning to live out the teachings of Christ -and helping others to do the same.  Pretty simple so far, right?  Well, the third element is the tough one.  To be completely honest, it is the element that I have struggled with for my entire adult life. (I will share why in a later post.)  The third element of the church is, “Evangelism.”

Evangelism is our sharing of the Gospel message, or the Good News.  When we attempt to evangelize others, we are “sharing Christ” with them and inviting them into our churches.  We are extending an invitation for them to become a part of the Family and to be “like us.” We are compelling them to repent of their sins, ask Christ for forgiveness and come follow Jesus with us.  We are in essence, making the argument that “our way of life is better.”  We are rightly stating that it is much better to willingly follow Jesus than to be swept along in life by the undercurrents of this world.

So why is it so hard for us to make our argument?  Why are we losing ground in our culture? Why is the Church in America shrinking?  I believe these are the questions that we should be wrestling with.  In addition, I think that if we would be completely honest with ourselves and each other we would have to admit that fear, manipulation and entertainment are often used in today’s Christian culture to compel people into the Church. -Not always, but often.  My earliest memories as a child in church services are of the preacher speaking about hell and God’s wrath waiting for those who had not repented of their sins and given their hearts to Christ.  In my adult church experiences, spanning across multiple denominations and geographical areas, I have observed various forms of slight, mild and even strong manipulation used to convert a “lost person” to Christianity.  I am sure I have even been guilty of doing this myself, unknowingly of course with a very sincere heart.  And then there is the “entertainment value” of our modern church culture.  I’ll save you the rant, but we all know that “church” needs to be entertaining nowadays. We use our talents, technology and treasure to bring the “Wow Factor” to our church services, all so that we can “win someone to Christ.” BUT, what happens to “our” converts when the fear factor is lost, when they become wise to or grow tired of the manipulation, or when the entertainment of the world trumps that of our church services?  We lose them, that is what happens.  We lose them because our “evangelism” and flavor of Christianity did not present them with the “substance” that they so desperately needed to become well grounded followers of Christ.

So let’s stop and think about this for a second.  God is good.  He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die on a cross for our sins.  He rose from the grave on the third day, conquering death, hell and the grave -and redeeming us.  God has given us His Word and His Holy Spirit to lead and guide us.  He gave birth to the Church so that we could have a family filled with others just like us who follow Him and who love and support us.  AND He promises to return for His Bride one day soon. – Not a bad deal when you stop and think about it.

So if the above statement is true, -and I believe it is.  Why do we have to use “Fear,” “Manipulation” and “The Wow Factor” to win people to Christ?  And why are we failing to effectively communicate the Gospel Message?  WHY???  I strongly believe that this is a question worth asking and a question worth wrestling with.

I also believe that the answer to this question will go a long way towards answering the questions that some of my friends and colleagues are asking in Sullivan, Indiana.  Furthermore, I simply cannot stop myself from asking this question:  “What would Jesus do if he was living in Sullivan Indiana and a few spiritually, emotionally and sexually confused kids were planning to attend the high school prom?”  How big of a deal would He make out of?  How many fireworks would He set off? How many bridges would He burn?  How many relationships would He sacrifice?

Well, this post has grown long enough.  I will finish discussing Evangelism and make an attempt at answering my tough questions in my next post.  However, I would love to hear your comments and thoughts below.