Church Health & the Challenge for Leaders

Striving for church health has some very challenging implications. In future posts I’ll look at the implications for the church as the body of Christ, and following that how striving for how we engage with the world around us. Make no mistake: the call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is as demanding and unrelenting as it is a path toward maturity and spiritual formation.

What I want to mention now is the implication for leadership. There are lots of things that work toward church health, but if leadership is not fully supportive of and engaged in the pursuit of Scripture’s call to church health, nothing else the church does will be sustainable.

At this point the sobering reality is that for churches in my own denomination, NCD results show the area we consistently struggle in is this very area: leadership and discipleship. Is it that we don’t want to do it? Or we are not interested? Or we just don’t know how? Unsure. Maybe it’s more something that we’ve never really been skilled to do. Some will look back with longing eyes to the good old days of full on catechism process, where children commenced catechism classes at age 12 or 13 and finished at about age 18, hopefully with a profession of faith. I acknowledge that this system created some reasonable depth in understanding our confessional perspective. I also acknowledge that where this is no longer practised there has been little else to grow an appreciation for our reformed confessional heritage. An additional and more serious complication is there have been few systematic examples of intentional, coherent and effective discipleship processes.

The call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is demanding and unrelenting

There is little sense in belting ourselves around the head because of this. What we need to do is recognise how we pull up short, and then do better. Fellow elders and pastors: this is where we must shoulder God’s call. Paul expresses it this way: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

Paul was consumed with the goal of bringing the church to maturity in Christ. He placed this call before the leaders of the church in Collosse. Presenting everyone mature in Christ was the focus of every proclamation, admonition and teaching. This was the ‘heavy lifting’ ministry of heavy lifting which consumed all his energy.

Big question: is this the focus of your ministry? Are these the goals you are striving for as a pastor or as an elder? Is this the focus of your church council? Is this what the people in your church would say is the priority of your leadership?

This is such a humbling call, friends. I am so far from this goal, and the shortcomings I mentioned above are clearly there in the congregation I serve. What we are doing is making some changes this coming year. It might seem a cop out to just talk about ‘plans’ at this point. We all know what really matters is whether plans get implemented, and whether that implementation yields desired outcomes. In the next post I’ll go through some of our specific plans for 2014. For now, I’m praying our ongoing discussion and collaboration will help us become better builders of discipling culture. It would be tremendous if we could do this work together.

Q: what are your suggestions for building a better discipling culture? Leave a comment and become part of the discussion.

Why your church needs effective structures

Night watch

In my last post I spoke of the need for church health, and how God changes churches one life, one decision at a time. It would be nice if all that growth would happen automatically.

Problem: growth and health are never automatic. If we go back to my vegetable garden analogy, we’re reminded how you have to do a lot of work to get good growth – especially in Perth. We had to turn 10 square metres of sand into arable land. We added all sorts of stuff: Organic matter. All round fertiliser. Bentonite clay to help the sand clump into something like loam. Bags of sheep manure (apologies to my neighbours). On the top we mulched with nitrogen rich lucerne hay. Add to that more water than our rainwater tank could hold, and we were starting to head in the right direction.

We did this because (A) we looked at what we had, and (B) we knew what it needed to be. Once we knew those things, we could work out (C) what we had to do to our garden to get to where we wanted to be. Through it all our goal was to create the best environment for growth.

We can use a similar process when we’re thinking about bringing our churches to health. It is the task of the church, and in particular the leaders of the church, to set the best environment for growth. So leaders need to (A) take a realistic look at how things are, and (B) listen to God’s word to determine where they should be. Once they know these things they can (C) develop strategies to reach their goal.

I actually think this method is pretty helpful. (A) – where are we? (B) – where do we need to be? (C) – what do we need to do to get there? Sure, there are lots of little things to complicate the picture: what factors have led us to this point? What barriers might we encounter in the future? What limitations do we face? But the basic method is still helpful.

And just so we’re clear, moving toward health is more than a matter of method. The questions of A, B & C are best addressed in a spirit of humble dependence on God, of prayerful searching of God’s will, and a deep desire to honour Jesus and bring his new creation to expression. So we need pastors, elders and leaders with more than a smart methodology. They need to be people with a Gospel heart, who are rich in the Word, and filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. People who can honestly assess their current situation, and interpret relevant factors and influences.

When leaders like this seek to move a church toward health, they will be wrestling with the need to have the most effective structures, systems and ministries. They will be seeking to create the best context they can for growth and health. They will be working for a church that embraces change.

The church needs leaders who seek the best context for growth and health

We all know change like this is hard. We will need to let go of some things we love. Things that make us comfortable. Mostly it is hard work, but if these are the changes God calls us to, they are right and they are good.

‘The Night Watch’ is a colossal painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. Measuring around 3.5 x 4.4 metres it dominates an entire room in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The painting was completed in 1642 – the height of the Dutch golden age. Over the next 300 years, the painting was lovingly preserved and maintained. The custodians of the painting no doubt had the best intentions, but all those coats of lacquer darkened to tones of the painting so much that people thought it was a night scene, hence the popular title. After Word War II, however, the painting was restored to reveal its well lit early morning hues.

Here’s my point: for the first 300 years the restorers had the absolute best intentions. They were the experts in their day. No one better for the job, and no better methods than the ones they employed. But in time more effective preservation methods were discovered, and the old methods were dispensed with. See, the method was not the important thing. What really mattered was the end result, and the beauty of the work.

Sometimes Churches focus on the wrong thing. And the methods, the well worn practices become the focus. These things might not be wrong in themselves, but when they become the focus, the beauty of what needs to be seen can be so easily obscured. What started as clear as day might end up dark as night. And then we need the courage to undergo a work of restoration and transformation. Hard work. And those focused primarily on the traditional methods and practices may find this an uncomfortable and disturbing process. But at the end of the day, our prayer is that the work of the Master will be seen for what it really is, and that he will receive the praise which rightfully belongs to him.

Q: Are you aware of methods and practices in your church which obscure the Master’s work? What might you do to address this?