What Does a Healthy Church Look Like?

oaktree

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.

 

IT IS REALLY NOT ABOUT “THEM,” IT’S ABOUT YOU!

It's all about you

It is really not about “them,” it is about “you.

When you choose to return evil for the evil that was done to you, it is about you.

When you choose to slander because you were slandered, it is about you.

When you choose to hold on to bitterness and refuse to forgive, it is about you.

When you choose to commit petty theft because others are thieves, it is about you.

When you choose to hate entire groups of people because of the murderous actions of a few, it is about you.

When you choose to take unethical shortcuts because others are taking shortcuts, it is about you.

When you choose to judge -and show no mercy, it is about you.

When you choose prejudice, it is about you.

When you choose to remain ignorant, it is about you.

When you pass by an open door because of fear, it is about you.

When you choose to follow the crowd even though deep down inside you know the crowd is wrong, it is about you.

When you refuse to say, “I was wrong.” even when you know you were wrong, it is about you.

When you allow yourself to be negative because everyone else is being negative, it is about you.

When you refuse to show any compassion to “strangers,” it is about you.

When you walk away from an opportunity to make the world a better place -because others are walking away, it is about you.

When you say, “It is just too hard.” because others are saying the same, it is about you.

When you choose to not love your neighbor, it is about you.

When you make excuses -even very good ones, it is about you.

When you refuse to love the “unlovable,” it is about you.

When your children, loved ones and others with whom you may have influence watch you do the above things; it is about them.

And when I do these things, it is about me -and my loved ones.

The moment by moment choices we all make, make us who we are.  And the ripple effects from those choices make infinite impacts on those around us.

-May we choose to be wise, gracious people who truly embrace God’s Kingdom.

What Does God Look Like?

Christmas_JesusIsTheReasonForTheSeason

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!

A Few Thoughts from the Wilderness

Hero Tweet

Above is a tweet I posted a few days ago. I really appreciate those people who are bold in speaking the Truth, but also humble and vulnerable in sharing their experiences, lessons learned and the mistakes they have made.

Wisdom, patience, the future and calculating the risks have been the elements of my contemplation for sometime now.  And just about the time I think I am dragging my feet in making an important decision, God sends a messenger my way to reinforce the reality that true wisdom is the fruit of patience; a lot of patience…

Here is what I am learning in this season: true wisdom, good decisions and God’s will often do not come quickly. Sometimes they do, and I praise God for those times. But often Godly wisdom is the fruit of patience.  Sometimes God will lead you into the wilderness… -And yes, while you might very well be in the wilderness, GOD is the one who led you there. He wants you there. Any attempt made to leave this foreign, uncomfortable place “early” negates the wisdom that He is imparting in you.

So we are back to patience… -and then contemplation. You see, being in the wilderness gives you time to think, time to wrestle… You find yourself at the feet of Jesus asking questions like, “Jesus, what is this following you thing supposed to look like anyway?”

“And what is ‘a call to ministry’ and ‘the pastor thing’ supposed to look like?”

“Jesus, what does it mean to practically love you and my neighbor? -And just exactly who is my neighbor??? -because I am starting to get the feeling that You might want me to love some people that I might not want to love…”

Patience… contemplation… wrestling… in the wilderness… And before you know it, you begin to see things differently. Your appetite begins to change… You begin to sense God’s heart and your prayers even change…

I am learning that I must lay all those “God Dreams” that I had at the foot of the cross -rather than chasing after them.  By “God Dreams,” I mean the dreams that I was absolutely convinced that God planted in my heart. For me, right now wisdom is the willingness to lay everything down -and to allow those dreams to die. -Then trust Jesus to resurrect what dreams were truly from Him. if any…

But this means I must take my hands off! No scheming, no planning, no “making things happen! No plan B.” Eric must stand in the back of his own end zone and punt the ball…

And I’m not even a good punter…

My intellect and emotions protest, “Who wants to be a punter anyway? I want to be the quarterback, a middle linebacker or free safety! Heck, I’d even be the fullback or an offensive lineman! Jesus, do you really want me to just stand here and hand the ball over to the other team?”

In the midst of my fear, rebellion and wrestling Jesus softly whispers, “Yes… Trust Me.”

I sense His loving soothing voice, so I submit. Yet, I am still fearful.

Patience… Contemplation… Wrestling… Wisdom… Trust… Faith… in the wilderness. I am learning that this is what it looks like for me to follow Jesus.

…I thank God for the wilderness.

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.

How to Make a Tough Decision

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God gave you a free will and the ability to make choices for yourself.  Do not believe the lie that “things just happen” and everything in your life is completely out of your control.  That is a stupid theology/philosophy to live your life by.  -I am just being honest…

People often surrender their lives to others by surrendering their ability to make good decisions.  Sometimes we freely do this because making tough decisions is hard. We would rather someone else make the decision for us than make it for ourselves.  I find this very sad.

I had a tough life altering decision that I wrestled with recently and used the principles below to help navigate the decision process.  I am sharing this list with the hope of helping someone else.  Here are the steps I followed in making my tough decision:

 -Research the situation and subject matter that is involved with the tough decision.  Gather as much information as possible.  Do not be lazy, do research and ask questions.  Lazy people make wrong choices.

-Quick decisions are often bad decisions.  If it is a good decision today, it will be a good decision tomorrow.  If it is God’s will today, it will be God’s will tomorrow.  If I am being pressured to make the decision today, it is very likely that I am being pressured to make a bad decision.

 -Reconcile the situation with scripture.  Will my actions line up with the whole of scripture and the teachings of Jesus? This is a very simple but profound question. (DO NOT pull one verse of scripture out of context; use the “whole” of scripture.)

-Reconcile your choices with “commonsense.”  Will my actions make sense? In the long term, will the fruits of my decision be positive or negative? Force yourself to be honest.

 -Reconcile your thoughts with your spouse.  What does my wife/husband think? If we are not in agreement, I NEED TO STOP.  God made you “one flesh.”  You should be on the same page. Take time to talk the big decisions out, and do not move forward until you are on the same page.

-Reconcile your decision with personal, professional and family goals.  Will my decision line up with my personal, family and professional goals?  Will this decision require me to sacrifice one of these goals?  In the long term, will it be worth it?  -Beware of immediate gratification; it usually comes with a long term price.  Again, force yourself to be honest. Will my decision ultimately bring me closer, -or further away from my predetermined goals?  (BTW, you should have some goals you are working towards.)

-Reconcile your thoughts with a few close trusted friends.  What do my close trusted friends think?  Am I tempted to hide this decision from them? Why? If I disagree with the counsel of my friends, do I have a commonsense valid reason? Is it a difference of opinion or something deeper?  It is obviously okay to disagree with trusted friends, but be honest with yourself and know the reasons why.

-Reconcile your decision with your “gut.” After my emotions settle, what do I feel in my gut?  I find when I am thinking clearly -and not rushed, my “gut” is normally right.

-Reconcile your decision with prayer. How I am praying about this decision?  Am I begging God to open a door, or am I genuinely asking God for His will to be done in my life.  Am I truly neutral enough to seek God’s will?  If God’s spirit prompted me with direction, am I being sensitive enough to hear Him?  If I realize that God’s prompting is different than my desire, am I okay with that?

-“Make” the tough decision. Examine the “decision” from all angles, then make a decision. -You must make a decision.  If you do not make the decision yourself, someone else will likely make it for you and it might not be the right one.  Do not lose control of your life to “indecision.”  Be wary if you sensed any red flags from any items above, especially if it is more than one.

 -“Rest” in knowing that you made the best decision possible. You took your time and asked all the right and “hard” questions.  “Rest” in knowing that you did your best to make the right choice.  Rely on God grace and His spirit to lead you to good places.  Trust Him. The God of the universe is perfectly capable of leading us through the maze of life, -if we seek Him and trust Him.

 After making your decision, in the weeks after, take some time to reflect on the decision you made, the outcome you are experiencing and what you could have done differently in your decision making process.  Life is a series of choices and every choice leads us somewhere.  We need to continually develop the skill of learning to choose wisely and decisively; I have found this life skill to be priceless.

My Greatest Fears!

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In the past few years, I have embarked on the journey of getting to know “myself.”  In key moments I have stopped and asked myself questions like, “Why did I respond that way?” and “What makes me do that?”  In other words, I have tried to figure out what makes me tick.  It has been a worth while endeavor; I have learned a lot about myself and have grown in the process.

Now for those of you who might be tempted to say something like, “Now Eric there is a lot of my, me, I and myself in this post.”  My response is simple.  In order to serve, help and invest relationally in others you must “know” yourself.  -If you ever conquer the beast of “self,” all those other beasts that you are fighting out in the world become a lot smaller.  Trust me.

During my journey of discovery I have learned that many of my actions are dictated by fear.  “Fear?” you might ask.  -Yes, I know.  I was a bit surprised when I discovered this about myself as well.  I have never considered myself to be a fearful person.  However as I unraveled the motives that play into my everyday life, I found fear to be a central motivator.  I would imagine that this would be no surprise to a well trained, well seasoned psychologist.  (If one ever happens to read this post, please chime in and let us know.)

Anyway, I find great liberty in understanding the fears that motivate me.  Understanding them allows me to understand how I “tick.”  In addition, understanding my fears enables me to make good choices, the “right” choices for me.  Furthermore, understanding my fears empowers me to be aware of the wrong choices that I can potentially make.  Because, as we all know, fear can be a negative motivator just as much as a positive one.

I have listed my greatest fears below with short descriptions.  I find writing about them to be a good exercise in understanding them.  Also, I cannot help but think that my transparent thoughts might encourage some of you to take some time for personal reflection so that you can discover something new about your own self.

Two more quick thoughts before I share: Except for the first fear, they are in no particular order.  Also, just because I do not have a very important thing listed as a fear, that does not mean it is not important to me.  It just means that fear is not a motivator in that aspect of my life.  (For example: I am convinced that God loves me unconditionally and I “rest” in His love, therefore “fear” is not a part of that relationship.)

-I am afraid of failing my children -as a parent.  I find myself making many decisions based out of this fear.  Overall, I think this is a very positive motivator.  (Notice I said, “a fear of failing,” not “a fear that they will not love me.”  There is a HUGE difference between the two.

-I am afraid of the direction that I see our society tracking: morally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, etc. Because of this fear and my love for mankind, I am compelled to invest in others and to do what I can to make a positive difference in society.

-I am afraid of being alone.  I understand that God designed mankind for relationship. Understanding this Truth drives me to cultivate relationships.  I am aware that my purpose and any meaningful contributions that I might make to society revolve around relationships with others.  In addition, I understand that I will only find true happiness in relationships with others. (This concept is a good one to wrestle with, but I firmly believe the teachings of Jesus support it.)  “Our purpose” is intertwined with “others.”

-I am afraid of living a mediocre life.  One of my biggest fears is to be sitting on my front porch, in a rocking chair, when I am 85 years old, -with the regrets of a mediocre “safe” life.  When I say mediocre, I do not mean mediocre in income, station, or worldly influence.  I mean mediocre in that I did not invest my life anywhere.  I mean mediocre that I buried my life rather than risking it all.  I mean mediocre in that I look back and encounter memories of a selfish, fearful person.  I mean mediocre in that all I am left with in my old age is “could have been’s”  No amount of wealth, no level of station and no measure of worldly influence could satisfy “that man.” -The picture of “that man” scares me to death.  And it motivates me to positively respond to all of these fears.

So… if you want to know what makes Eric Starkey “tick.”  There you have it, or at least a big part of it.

 *What are you afraid of?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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