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Whenever I have an opportunity to talk about the Church, Christ’s Bride, I always get very passionate. Even with all its flaws and weaknesses, I still believe the Church is the only organization that can really transform the world. It was God’s plan from the beginning that through the church, His eternal purposes in Christ would be accomplished (Eph 3:10-11).
This is why I was so excited when I shared about the Church in our ”Jesus Loves” Sunday sermon series. I will always love the Church because Jesus gave His life for her. I will always stick up for the Church because it is Jesus’ girl. I will always help build up the Church because it pleases Jesus. I will always be a part of Jesus’ mission through the Church because this was His plan from the beginning.
Dr. Joe McKeever who is a preacher and cartoonist wrote an article called, “20 Essential Things to Tell People About the Church.” Some of the things McKeever wrote in the article are great insights from all his years of wisdom and experiences. I thought I would share a partial list. McKeever wrote,
Some of us can remember the so-called ‘Jesus Movement’ of the 1960-1970s when the beaded, bearded, flower children carried signs announcing ‘Jesus Yes; Church No.’
No one will be surprised that we who have given our lives to serving God through His church believe in the church. We believe in it passionately even though quite a high percentage of us bear scars from our years of service.
Believers in the church’s essential role in God’s plan are not the ‘establishment.’ We were not brain-washed and are not duped or deluded. We are not mouthpieces of some denominational hierarchy somewhere. Neither are we defenders of the status quo. (No one who ever sat under my ministry even once accused me of defending the status quo. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many have wished I could be satisfied to leave well enough alone.)
Most of us have had a love-hate affair with the Lord’s church. We have loved it when it did well, been blessed by it when it was faithful, grieved for it when it got off-track, and sometimes suffered from our proximity to cancerous members.
Our convictions are not shallow or lightly held. They have been through the fires and come through stronger than ever. Each of us has our burden for the church. Here are mine. Twenty things I wish we could say to every church, and repeat them at regular intervals until they take hold.
1. The church has always been under attack. So, when people criticize it, Christian, don’t panic. How does that line go? ‘There is no such things as ‘news.’ There are only old things happening to new people.’ Like all those fake petitions in cyberspace we can’t seem to be rid of, the same ‘news’ about people’s religious views keep recirculating every few years. Someone discovers that Christians get divorced at a high rate – oh, horrors! That early Christians decided some so-called epistles were spurious and discarded them – oh, no, ‘Banned by the church!’ And that people who do not want to have anyone telling them how to live decide they can please God without the church. Ho-hum. Any day now someone will come out with ‘revolutionary’ evidence that Jesus did not bodily rise from the dead, there was no Virgin Birth, there never was a historical person named Jesus, and/or that His grave has been found in a cemetery in Milwaukee. Yawn.
2. That the church has survived the attacks from its enemies and the failings of its own members for two thousand years and is still going strong stands as a remarkable testimony of God’s plan for her. God’s people were told to expect attacks from the outside – Paul called these people ‘savage wolves’ – and divisive sneak attacks from the inside in Acts 20:29-30. The one constant of ecclesiastical history has been those two disruptive forces. Expect it, Christian. And remember this elementary lesson from your high school physics class: A fire under pressure will burn brighter. Since the devil never took physics, he doesn’t understand this, so he keeps persecuting the Lord’s people and attacking the Church and slandering Jesus. What he cannot figure, though, is why all such efforts only spreads the Gospel.
3. The apparent weakness of a particular church is generally deceptive. God delights in using weak things, ordinary people, and unlikely prospects. He can take a young child’s simple lunch and feed thousands. So, the next time you look at your church service and decide that you are tragically out-of-date in the hymns and technology and that you need a younger pastor because the one you have is too boring, bite your tongue. You are in the kind of church where God delights in showing up and doing something remarkable. Drop to your knees and start asking Him to do one of His patented God-things among your group.
4. The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. According to Matthew 16:18, it’s Jesus’ church. According to Acts 20:28, it’s God’s. Same difference. Pastor, I know your name is on the sign out front. Thank you for your faithful work, but it’s not your church. Deacons, thank you for your years of sacrificial effort and service. But it’s not your church. Church members with seniority, thank you for hanging in there through good times and bad, but it’s not your church. Those who have given the most money, thank you for your generosity and sacrifices, but it’s not your church. And church polity aside, congregation, thank you for coming and working and giving and praying, but it’s not your church. It’s His Church. And the only question on our lips every time we meet to do His business should be ‘What would you have us do?’
5. Whatever we do to the church, Jesus takes personally. Scary thought, isn’t it? Jesus told Saul of Tarsus that when he touched one of “the least of these my brethren” to harm them, he was ‘persecuting me.’ (Acts 9, 22, 26) The New Testament calls the church the “Bride of Christ,” the “Body of Christ,” and other names such as the household of faith, the family of God, a holy priesthood, and so forth. Jesus taught that when we helped even one who believed in Him, He took it personally (Matthew 25:40) Likewise, when we failed to minister to such a one–or even when we brought harm to that one–He took that personally also (Matthew 25:45). This is consistent with the Old Testament where God put His reputation and Honor upon the Jews. However the outside world treated them, God repaid them in kind. However, the Lord went one step further and told His own people that whatever they did for “the House of the Lord,” they were doing for Him. In Malachi 3:8, God told the Jews that by withholding their tithes and offerings, they were ‘robbing God.’ Serious, serious stuff. Just today, a friend quoted Dr. Adrian Rogers who said concerning the Church and the Lord Jesus: ‘They’re not identical – but they’re inseparable!’
6. God sends pastors, not to make the church members happy, but to make them healthy and holy and Himself happy. At least one pastor out of ten – I don’t care what denomination – has been ousted from a church because the members were unhappy with him. (That’s just my number; nothing scientific about it, so don’t quote it as authoritative, please.) ‘Well,’ one church honcho says, ‘My understanding is that if the people are not pleased with him, it shows the preacher is failing at his job.’ I am not saying that every pastor whose people want him to leave is automatically doing a lousy job. He might be. Or maybe not. Show me one place in all the Scripture where the pastor (or any other leader) is sent to please the people, and I’ll show you ten where the people rose up in arms against a faithful leader who was serving God well. We’ll start with Moses and go to Jeremiah and on to Paul. You will notice we skipped the best example of all, the Lord Jesus. May I suggest the best response when someone suggests the pastor ought to leave because some of the members are unhappy with him? Laugh at them. That’s all. Laugh out loud. And then add, ‘Are you serious? Read your Bible, man.’ And then walk away.
7. The toughest part of belonging to a church is the requirement for submission. That’s why we rarely hear about it. Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21) To submit means to give in to the other. Two men disagree; one gives in. Two women disagree; one gives in to the other. Only in matters involving life-or-death issues (the inspiration of Scripture, the efficacy of the cross, the Virgin Birth, etc) do we dig in our heels and say with Luther, ‘God help me; I can do nothing else.’ To give in to another is to practice the command of Philippians 2:3. In humility, consider others as more important than yourselves. Two motorists met on a one-lane bridge. The first one leaned out and yelled, ‘I never back up for fools.’ The second throws his car into reverse and calls, ‘I always do.’ Which of the two men is the stronger? Practicing submission could stop 90 percent of church divisions in their tracks.
8. If you do not like change in your church or your personal life, you will want to avoid Jesus. He’s all about change and growth. The Lord Jesus said believers were to be like ‘new wineskins,’ a reference to their flexibility, their adaptability to change, their skill at making adjustments to fluid situations. (See Matthew 9:17) The image of Christians as defenders of the status quo, of resisting every new idea, of reacting against anything foreign – that is anathema to the spirit of Jesus Christ. The seven last words of the church, it has been said, are ‘We never did it that way before.’ Jesus knows this and understands it. In fact, we could make a case for our having been created this way so we will not too easily trash the best things of our past. The Lord said, ‘No one, after drinking old wine, wants new. For he says, ‘The old is better.’ (Luke 5:39) So, we have to work against our innate resistance to change and growth. I once heard Rick Warren say at his church, they are continually introducing new ideas and innovations. The idea – one of them, at any rate – is not to let his people get too comfortable with any one way of doing things.
9. Healthy churches have conflicts. It’s not all bad. My friend George Bullard has written a book and conducts conferences with the title, ‘Every Church Needs a Little Conflict.’ The way to build a muscle is to apply stress to it. The way to strengthen a congregation is to send conflict in healthy-sized doses. Working their way through the problems develops muscles for the bigger issues when they arrive. But woe to the congregation that gets hit by a major problem when it has not had to deal with one of any size in ages.
10. You know that wonderful church you left behind and would like to find one like it? There’s not one. In fact, that one is not like that any more. It changed the moment you moved away and someone stepped into your place (see the next point). God’s churches are like His children: no two are alike. Think of the varieties He has established in creation. No two humans alike, no two fingerprints, hair-patterns on the head, voice prints. It would seem that the Creator has an innate dislike to repeating Himself.
11. Churches are always in a state of flux. Every time a member moves away, that church changes. When someone joins, it changes. When a member begins reading his Bible or tithing or witnessing, the church grows. When someone backslides, it grows weaker at that moment. People speak of wanting the church to be ‘a New Testament church.’ However, the congregations in the New Testament are as different as the ones in your city. The Corinthian church seems to have been as carnal as any we could find today. And five of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) had serious defects. As with our physical bodies, every church is in a constant state of change – growing, expanding, deflating, weakening, moving out, pulling in.
12. The most reliable indicator of the faith of a congregation is whether the people pray. Nothing we do speaks of faith so eloquently or forcefully as does our praying. Most of the prayers we utter, we never see the answer. We pray for the president and other rulers of our country, but we have no way of knowing the difference our intercessions made. We were not in the Oval Office when the president had a sudden flash of inspiration and did something brilliant. We are not alongside the missionaries across the globe who are protected or empowered or guided as a result of our prayers. If we are foolish, we quit praying. If we believe the Lord’s promises concerning praying, we keep on praying.
13. Far more important than the growth of a church is its health. We’re indebted to Pastor Rick Warren for the quote that the chief issue of the 21st century church will not be growth but health. A healthy church will grow in a natural way, he said, and will not require gimmicks. I recall in one of my first pastorates looking out at the congregation and seeing scattered here and there unsaved people who were close to stepping out in faith, and unchurched believers who had promised they were going to join our church. And yet, day after day, when we preached and offered the invitation, no one responded. One Sunday, I told the church about this state of affairs. To the shock of the members, I said, ‘I don’t blame them for not joining this church. I wouldn’t join this church either. This is a sickness in this congregation and God is not going to bless us with growth until we get our hearts and lives right with Him.’ It was the truth, and when, in the next service, people began repenting and confessing, we saw how true it was.
14. The church is always radiating something which outsiders can sense quicker than the family members can. The person standing outside our sphere often sees our condition before we do. He may see our hypocrisy when we still think we’re getting it right. He may pick up on the dissension in the congregation by the gossip throughout the community. He hears our talk of faith and sees that we are begging the banker to lend up money. He hears our promises to love and sees the groups we exclude from our membership and/or leadership. He senses the joy before he knows its source, and as soon as he finds it’s the real thing, he wants in on it. Churches radiate faith, but they also emit fear. They give off beams of light, but if darkness is calling the shots, the outside community will see that in a heartbeat. Churches radiate grace and love, but they can also give off prejudice and bias. We in the church may fool ourselves from time to time. But we never fool the outside world. Not ever.
15. There are two scary aspects to the church’s assignment: submitting to the leaders (the members) and giving account before God for the members (the leaders). Obey your leaders and submit to those who have the rule over you in the Lord, as those who will give account for your souls. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for that would not be profitable to you. (Hebrews 13:17) Get that? Church members are expected to obey their leaders and submit to them. But the leaders will some day stand before the Almighty and account for each of those church members. Both are frightening prospects.