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 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.

The Basic Elements of the Church: Discipleship

So I get home from work yesterday and we all take our seats in the dining room as we prepare to eat dinner together; this is our daily routine.  During the course of eating our simple meal, sandwiches,  my 13-year-old daughter asked a question; I am not sure of the exact question but it was something like, “Why is it wrong for a man and a woman to live together before they get married?” She then quickly followed that question up with “What if they are not ‘doing anything’ though?” I could have easily gotten angry at my daughter for asking a question that challenged my Christian values.  Believe me, she knows my position on that issue.  I could have told my wife, “That’s it, we’re home schooling our children or sending them to a Christian school!”  This question coming from my 13-year-old daughter should have threatened my wife and I, right?  -But, it didn’t.  We have carefully constructed an environment in our home where questions can be asked.  What occurred after my daughter’s question was a meaningful 30 minute discussion as we ate our meal.  We discussed boundaries, healthy relationships, why my wife and I instituted certain rules in our home and even why Amy and I have set certain limits for ourselves in relationships with others from the opposite sex in order to protect our marriage.  It gave us a relevent opportunity to share God’s plan in marriage, why husbands and wives are to cling to each other and unfortunately, what happens when they don’t.  While the initial conversation only lasted 30 minutes during dinner, there were follow-up questions that lasted until we went to bed.  You see, my daughter’s question presented the perfect opportunity to explain our Christian values and to express to her and our other two children why God’s plan for our lives is best.  -This is called parenting; it could also be called “Discipleship.”  And no matter what you call it, it requires time, it requires patience, it requires grace, it requires Truth and it requires relationship.  There are no shortcuts.

“Our pastor has decided that discipleship is not his ‘thing.’  We have just decided to focus on having a great Sunday morning service with a large crowd; this is what we are good at.”  -This comment was made by the senior associate pastor of the largest church in our two state conference of the denomination that had sponsored me to plant a church.  His church was a ten-year old church plant that served as “the model” for the other churches in the conference.  The conference leadership saw potential in me and offered to help mold me and my church plant into a “successful church.”  But, comments like the one quoted above caused me to pull away and question their recipe for “success.”  Before long, we realized that we were not on the same page and we parted ways.

Discipleship… the great failure in the modern American Church.  Why do we have such a hard time with this?  Sometimes when I think about it, it absolutely blows my mind.  How can someone go to church their entire life, sit under thousands of hours of preaching and teaching -and still be a baby Christian?  Why do so many Christians stumble in regards to the basic principles of the faith?  If Jesus really is the answer, why do most church people live no differently than those who are still “of this world?”  I want to be very clear here; I am NOT talking about being legalistic, religious or churchy.  I am simply talking about living a life where it is clear to those around us that we are not “of this world” and that our Father is not “of this world.”  If we would get brutally honest with ourselves we would have to admit that much of American christianity puts a “churchy” facade in front of a worldly life.  This is why people are leaving the church in droves.  They are simply not getting anything out of it and do not feel compelled to “play our game.”

So how does effective discipleship play in with all of this?  First off, I would be an extremely arrogant guy if I thought I had all the answers.  -I know I do not have all the answers, but I do feel like I have discovered a few clues to effective discipleship over the years.  The words of St John echo in my ears, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” and “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  So do Jesus’ last verbal instructions to us: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”

If we were to write a mathematical equation for effective discipleship, I think it would look something like this:

(“Relationship with God” + “Relationships with Each Other”) X (Grace + Truth) = DISCIPLESHIP.

Healthy relationships are the foundation for discipleship.  No relationships, no discipleship.  How many healthy disciples have you met who were “not” in relationships with others?  I would venture to say, “zero.”  We were designed for relationship, we were created for relationship; calling yourself a mature disciple without being in relationship is like calling yourself a parent when you do not have any children.  The statement is simply absurd and foolish.  Jesus calls us to be in relationship with Him as we follow Him AND He does not call us to follow Him “alone.”  However, healthy relationships do need boundaries.

So… as we follow Jesus, and enter into a relationship with Him and each other, God’s Word gives us basic relational principles to follow.  God basically says, “If you want to be in relationship with Me and your fellow-man, here are the spiritual principles (-or the Truth) you must practice.”  Please note, Truth is not “the law,” John made a definite differentiation between the two. God’s Truth has the power to literally transform us; it is not a rule, but a gateway to life.  God also knows that we are incapable receiving Truth, yielding to it and following it on our own, so He graciously extended His grace towards us in Jesus.  As a result, Grace and Truth come through Jesus -as we commune with Him.  The transfer of Truth takes place via relationship, through our relationships with God -and each other.  It is a heavenly transaction that perpetually takes place as we all follow Jesus.

Jesus taught in the synagogues and to the masses, but most of His time was spent in smaller groups and in one on one atmospheres.  Thus, He gave of Himself more relationally than corporately. In addition, the example that Jesus set for us was just as much about the model as it is the actually words that came out of His mouth.  You will never catch Jesus saying, “Do what I say, but not what I do.”  No just the opposite, He served as a model for every single one of His teachings. He never asked us to do a single thing that He had not already done Himself.  He served, He gave, He trusted the Father, He sacrificed and He took the time for authentic relationship with His disciples.  He Knew them -and they knew Him.  This was the discipleship model that Jesus used.  It was not a program; it was a way of life.  Discipleship is just as much about modeling the Truth as it is about teaching the Truth.  We fail at discipleship because we do not follow Jesus’ model.

Therefore, our journey of discipleship unfolds as we commune with Jesus and each other & follow His teachings together.  Discipleship does not happen by sitting in a corporate service and listening to hours and hours of teaching and preaching.  I have nothing against the preaching and teaching of God’s word.  In fact, I like listening to God’s word preached and taught when it is done well -and I am actually pretty good at doing that myself.  However, I have realized that our best preaching and teaching is insufficient for discipleship when it is isolated from healthy relationships.  Relationships are key to discipleship, relationships in the home, relationships in the Church and relationships outside of the four walls of the local church building.

So then, why is the American church failing so miserably at discipleship?  I think the main reason is because we have believed the lie that we can make discipleship happen on Sunday mornings -in a crowd.  If the music is good enough, if the preaching is good enough, if the facilities are good enough, if the programs are tweaked enough, if the atmosphere is “just right” then discipleship will “magically” happen.  We can have our cake, eat it too and make it taste very good.  The problem is: discipleship is not happening.  The American church is shrinking and the people who call themselves “Christians” are less and less mature disciples.  Our mindset of, “If we can just get Sally to church on Sunday, she will be OK.” is flawed.  Most of the time, Sally is not affected by our church service alone.  Sure, she might get excited every now and then, but the excitement and emotionalism wears off.  What Sally really needs is Christian relationship; Sally needs to be discipled.  Furthermore, after experiencing what we have to offer on Sunday morning, Sally does not feel compelled to buy in to our churchy facade and “play the game” with us.  Sally has better things to do.  -I talk to people like “Sally” almost everyday.  Most of them are polite, but in a nutshell this is what they are saying.

If I really thought having a great Sunday service was the answer, I would drop everything I am doing, recruit a core group of talented people and plant an attractional church as soon as possible.  I would recruit, plug away and build.  We would have the best music, the best preaching, and the best children and youth programs; then we would build the best facility in town.  People would come, it is a proven model.  If done right, you can have yourself a mini megachurch in about ten years.  –Been there, done that, know how to do it -but walked away from it all.  Why, you ask?  Because I have seen the fruits of it first hand, in multiple environments.  I have become convinced that a Sunday morning performance in front of hundreds of people is not the answer to making disciples.  And Jesus called me to make disciples not build “c”hurches.  “Sally” will not be helped by this -and the hard statistics prove it.  Do we get that?  WHAT WE ARE DOING IS NOT WORKING!!! Can we get that through our thick skulls???  If we want different results, if we want disciples, if we want authentic Christianity as it was designed by God to be, if we really want to help people, we must do something different.

Our corporate worship services create the problem for us.  We want to use them as a foundation in the Church and stack everything else on top of them.  Our corporate services are supposed to be the big thing that attracts people to our churches.  We use them as the “connecting point.”  Therefore the majority of our energy and resources are directed towards this weekly event.  Do you see the problem? Discipleship comes with authentic relationships; discipleship happens in smaller groups.  You don’t get that in the corporate service.  If you attend a church that has more than 100 people, stop and ask yourself a question, “When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with your pastor?” -Stop and think about it.  Not a quick question about an issue or detail in the church, not just shaking a hand at the back door with a few short comments, but a meaningful conversation about something in your life or theirs.  Then think about this, “the Kingdom of God is built on relationships.”  Does your pastor even “know” you?  Do the people at your church really “know” you? If the Church is supposed to be your spiritual family, shouldn’t more than a few people in your church really “know” you?  Do even a few people “know” you?

In addition, huge problems are caused by the money, power and personalities that are involved in most large churches.  I will save that discussion for a later post, if needed.  Just please notice, Jesus refused to accumulate power and money in His earthly ministry.  He refused to involve Himself in politics.  He knew the problems these foreign elements would bring to His Kingdom. Remember He said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  Money, power, politics and egos often create large religious institutional machines where the value of the individual person is lost and authentic relationships are under valued. It is very easy to “throw people away” in these systems. The institution is valued more than the individual person.

The symptoms of the real problem are all over the place, pastors throwing away church people, churches throwing away pastors.  Pastors throwing away other pastors. Church hopping is rampant.  Why???  I thought these people were family? The lack of accountability of pastors, church leaders and church members, failing marriages, corrupt leadership, secret agendas, positioning for power, begging and manipulating God’s people for money to pay salaries and build large elaborate buildings that we think we need because we compete with the world -all symptoms of weak dysfunctional relationships and shallow discipleship:  –Just because these dysfunctional elements have become “normal”does not mean they are right -or justified.  Christian relationship in the church has been replaced with politics; then we wonder why the unchurched are not interested in what we have to offer them.  Do you actually blame them?  Seriously, do you really???  Honestly I don’t; frankly, I am embarrassed for us. -And a good performance on Sunday morning does not make any of this ok.  WE NEED TO REPENT!

The current system does not promote discipleship; it promotes… -well, it promotes what we have now.  Call it whatever you like.  Relationship and discipleship go hand in hand and are the first two of the three core elements of the church; they are the elemental glue that holds a healthy church together.  If we are not getting them right, then we must stop and ask ourselves some hard questions -and then seek answers.  This is exactly what I am doing right now in my own life and on this blog.

-Again, constructive comments are welcomed and appreciated.

The Basic Elements of the Church: Relationships

We were created by God to know and to be known, -by Him and each other.

Matthew 22:34-40 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Our Relationship with God:

“Legalism is not your answer, correct doctrine or politics is not your answer, a euphoric feeling is not your answer, a man on a stage -or a TV screen is not your answer, the answer you are looking for will only be found in having a relationship with God through His Son Jesus.”

Why did God create us anyway? If you haven’t, please stop and think about that. -Go ahead, I’ll wait………

Did God create us just to be His servants? or robots? or His pets??? I believe the whole of scripture tells us the love story of a God who “created us in His image” so that He could “know us.” -So that we could we could know Him. After all, Jesus once defined eternal life as “knowing God.” Yes! The God of the universe wants us to know Him. God created us. God loves us. Despite our sin, God has been very patience with us. God humbled Himself and became a man for us. Jesus died for us -to redeem us. The Holy Spirit pursues us. The Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us. And Jesus is coming back for us.

I think just about any Christian with good spiritual common sense and an elementary understanding of the Bible would agree with those Truths. All of these Truths point to a very simple theological fact: God wants an intimate relationship with us. And as Keith Green would say, “He wants more than Sundays and Wednesday nights.” God wants to be a vital part of our everyday lives. He wants His presence to be “real” in our lives, just as real as the presence of our spouses, children, parents and close friends. The foundational element of the Church should be our relationship with Him; this is exactly why Jesus calls the Church His “Bride.” Our Groom is passionate about His relationship with us. -And He wants us to be passionate about our relationship with Him.

Furthermore in regards to worship, authentic worship is born out of authentic relationship. How could we ever worship a God that we simply did not know? How could we ever fully give ourselves in authentic worship to a God who we refused to trust as our Anchor, -for everything in our lives? Music -and talented worship leaders can certainly facilitate a worship experience, but authentic worship demands the depth of a relationship. Therefore, as our relationship with God matures, how could we ever “not” worship Him? As a believer matures, worship should be an almost automatic response to God working in their lives. Authentic worship is a natural fruit of an authentic relationship with God. I fear we are, at times, attempting to “induce” worship in our church services -rather than facilitating it. My concern is that there is often a stronger connection to the music and those leading it, than there is to God.

In the end, the above Truth must escape our doctrinal statements, church website verbiage & blogs and be driven as an anchor to tether our church culture. Our churches should not be anchored with talented ministers, beautiful buildings, emotional worship experiences, the traditions of man, financial wealth, innovative programs or even well established “correct doctrine.” While all these things are “good,” we begin to worship them (rather than God) when they are used to anchor the Church. When our relationships with God are not anchoring the foundations of our churches, all types of perversions are possible -from extreme legalism, to ultra liberalism and almost any perversion in between; “balance” is lost. Unfortunately, this point can be easily proven by running a Google search on “church scandals.” Please note that these scandals are not limited to any particular denomination or doctrinal group; they are equal opportunity byproducts that appear across all veins of Christianity. Our churches must be anchored by living, breathing, authentic relationships with God through His Son Jesus. –Absolutely nothing else can replace this.

Our Relationships with One Another:

“How much visiting do you have to do?” and “I just want to preach.” -These are two phrases that I have often heard from other pastors over the years. I restate these quotes here because I think they illustrate our problem with relationships between each other in the Church. The Church in our culture has been reduced to sitting in large rooms and auditoriums, participating in corporate worship and listening to teaching/preaching for a few hours per week. I love to preach and I love hearing good preaching and teaching. I love to worship God corporately and I don’t mind listening to talented worshipers, worship God. I am even OK with there being somewhat of an “entertainment value” in a worship service; I do not think God wants church services to be boring. BUT, if we call a group of people seated in a building with worship music and preaching: “having church,” we have got major problems. Please pardon my bluntness, but calling that the Church is like calling a man and a women lying in bed together “a marriage.” While we should like and enjoy what happens in the bedroom, it does not make a healthy marriage by itself; -divorce statistics clearly demonstrate that sex is not enough to make a healthy marriage. I would never settle for a wife that just showed up at my house a few hours per week. Frankly, I am looking for something deeper; I want to share my life with someone. Jesus expects nothing less from His Bride. The Church is the people; the Church is people loving each other and participating in relationship. I am sorry friends, but that does not happen during a Sunday morning worship service in a large room or auditorium in the midst of a crowd.

Christian relationship happens when love, time, grace, truth, sacrifice and people intersect. When “life” rubs up against “life;” in other words, when we get to know each other. -And we make a decision to put up with each other, -even though we “know” each other! Another word could almost be used here, “family.” Seems like we may have heard that word used in the Bible a few times when God’s people are described. No matter how elaborate the building, how good the music or how entertaining the teaching and preaching is, it simply cannot serve as an adequate substitute for relationship. As messy as the process might be, there is no substitute for “life rubbing up against life.” Jesus modeled this principle HImself by sharing His earthly life with His disciples and spending much less time with the crowds. He could have catered to the crowds, but He knew better. Who are we to think that our strategy is better than His? Jesus focused on authentic relationships that had true depth. Therein lays the beauty of the Church; and therein lays Her power –when we learn to love each other as God’s love is revealed to us.

In addition, our pursuits for numerical growth and “success” in our churches often overshadow our pursuit of “relationship” with God and each other. Then when we become successful, we no longer “need” God or each other. Often times, we sacrifice these relationships in the process of becoming “successful.” As a result, at a certain point we belittle God to His place in our doctrinal statement, written core values and Sunday rhetoric and we throw each other away. (Please note my use of the word “we.” I include myself in these allegations.) I have been in the ministry for 17 years and I have personally watched this scenario play out multiple times, in multiple groups and in multiple denominations; it is simply the nature of “the system.” *This would not happen if “relationships” were the core element and deeply driven anchor of the local church. We do not “belittle” or “throw away” those who we dearly love and authentically care about. Do Jesus’ Words in Matthew 22 make better sense now?

And He said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Relationship is not everything; but everything hangs on relationship. Without proper relationships, the Church predestines itself to be much, much less than what God designed Her to be.

We were created by God to know and to be known, -by Him and each other…