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.

 

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?

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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.”

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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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.