How can I help my church to be more healthy?

Health Alert

It is surprising how often we talk about what God wants our churches to do. Every leadership meeting, every regional council, every Synod – we all discuss what God would have us do.

Implementation is where we tend to fall down. That may be true, but the question of your own personal resolve and desire is more basic. So, let me ask: Do you really want your church to be a more healthy place? Do you really want to grow? If so, the question really becomes one of how to bring growth and health about.

There are no easy answers here. No pat formulas.

When it comes to personal health there are some basic rules to follow: don’t smoke, maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, don’t barrack for Collingwood, etc. When it comes to specifics, however, what I need to do to become healthy might be very different to what you need to do.

It’s the same with church growth and health. There are general things every church should be mindful of. Here, tools like NCD can be really helpful, and Jack de Vries can help you with all of that. But once we get past that general picture, specific strategies will vary a lot.

Some think you can just copy what has worked well in some other context into their own. I am not convinced. For a start, I am not ‘him’. My church is not their church. Their local community is not mine. Maybe that other church would even do it differently now. So, be careful about bolting someone else’s program or strategy onto your own context. This rarely works.

So, back to the question: what are some of the general things to keep in mind about growing disciples and church health? First: God brings his church to health one life at a time. One personal context of change and transformation after another. Programs and things have their place, but the better strategies always focus on people. Nothing changes until people start to change. 

 

God brings his church to health one life at a time

 

Which brings us to a second question: how do people change? How will Gospel transformation start to be seen more and more? Answer: one decision at a time. Obviously, this needs to start in our own heart. There’s no point in expecting other people to change, to grow, to follow and obey if I am not interested in doing that myself. 

Some think this focus on personal decision and desire displaces God’s sovereignty. I think this is crazy logic. Here’s why: when it comes to obedience and growing as a Christian, God’s sovereignty rarely operates outside of human responsibility.

What I mean is that you can pray for growth and to be more like Christ all you like, but if you do not get out off the couch and do something, you will never change. People who are always waiting for God to make them grow or to change them on the inside, who are not prepared to do anything about it, are just being lazy. Lazy Christians and lukewarm churches do nothing to show the glorious wonder of God’s transforming grace before his watching world. The light of his word, and his recreative work through his Son is too often hidden under the bucket of human indifference.

So your response, your obedience, your desire for your church to be more healthy is critical. Every time you decide to do something to honour Jesus, every time you decide to turn you back on sin and its chaos, every time you decide to respond with compassion, every time you obey God’s word and follow his call, every time you put the needs of others before your own, Gospel transformation becomes more visible. People see it. The church sees it. The watching world sees it. And in the end it brings glory to God (see 1 Pet 2:12).

This last thought has enormous implications for churches and individual Christians, but I’ll have to leave that for another time.

For now, I want us to embrace that thought that change and growth is not only God’s expectation, the normal way he brings people to growth is though his Spirit drawing people to change their behaviour and their attitudes one person, one decision at a time.

The Call to Growth: Business Method or God’s Desire?

Is the call growth a selling out to secular business method?

When discussions revolve around encouraging growth in Christians, or setting goals around church health, or setting any goals at all, some people will suggest the bible has been exchanged for the methods of Harvard Business School. I have never been convinced by those criticisms.

Leadership writer Ken Blanchard become a follower of Jesus following a career as a top level management expert. Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager has sold over 13 million copies since its release in 1982. The interesting thing is that after Blanchard become a Christian, he was surprised to find many of the basic principles he had written about were found in the Scriptures. That doesn’t mean the bible is a textbook on management or leadership. It probably just means that there is not much new under the sun. It might also mean that thinking about leadership and goal setting is not a bad thing after all. 

In reality, Scripture calls us to growth, and to be purposeful about it. On the night before he went to the Cross, Jesus had this prayer for his followers: 

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:25–26, NIV)

Did you know that? Even Jesus prayed that the love between the Father and himself would be fully expressed in his people. No doubt, Jesus’ heavenly prayer ministry (see Heb 7:25) also focuses on drawing us deeper into his life and likeness. It is hard to imagine Jesus’ prayers not flowing out of his divine desire to save us completely. 

In Paul’s writings, however, our understanding of the purposeful nature of God moves to an entirely different level. In almost every letter Paul wrote he expresses his desire for people to grow, and keep growing. Christians believe the Scriptures are more than Paul’s words. They are God-breathed, so when we hear Paul speaking, we hear God speaking. So Paul’s prayers reveal the heart of God for his people.

Here are some examples:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. (Ephesians 1:17, NIV) 

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious richese he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:14-19)

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight… (Philippians 1:9, NIV) 

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12, NIV) 

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,… (Colossians 1:9–10, NIV) 

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)

The big question is whether the things that matter to God matter to us

See how these prayers reveal Paul’s strategy? His deepest desire was for Christians to grow to maturity. He agonised over the growth of the churches he pastored. This was not just because he was a passionate apostle. It was because the Spirit of Jesus drove his heart and mind into the very heart of God for the the church. 

It mattered to Paul that churches would grow. It mattered to Jesus that he would be fully revealed in his followers. It matters to God that Jesus’ followers grew to full maturity in his Son. The big question is whether the things that matter to God matter to us. If God is purposeful about his work in us, we better be purposeful in the work we do for him. 

The more we reflect Christ’s purposes and the more churches move toward the kind of maturity Jesus desires for them, the more healthy this churches will be. They will be places of grace, love, forgiveness, joy, restored community, deepening relationships, and loving, compassionate, transformational mission. 

A powerful, motivating, stimulating vision isn’t it?

I love Jesus, but do I have to be radical?

My opening post reminded us that growth is natural and normal. It also openened up the thought that health is desirable. Whether we are talking about growing vegetables, human beings, organisations, or the church – it is a normal expectation to want them to be healthy.

As we worked through these concepts at Gateway, we began to think that God actually wants us to be radical followers of Jesus. But we knew the word using ‘radical’ would be a little risky. We hear how people become extremists by being taken in by a militant leader and radicalised over a period of time. Normally, the consequences of such actions are terrible.

At other times, when we hear the word ‘radical’ we think of those rent-a-crowd protesters we see on TV. People who don’t wash their hair, don’t eat meat, and don’t use deodorant. A caricature, I know, but you get the drift.

‘Radical’ may have some negative overtones in our culture, so we need to understand the word well. To be ‘radical’ is to go right to the core, right to the heart, right to the root. So, when we’re talking about being ‘radical disciples’ we’re talking about people who not only accept the teaching of their Master Jesus, who not only accept Jesus at an intellectual level. We are really talking about people who take his transforming grace right to the core of their lives, right to the heart of their values, right to the root of everything they seek to do and to become. To be a ‘radical disciple’ is to be as totally transformed by the grace of the Gospel as we possibly can be.

when we’re talking about being ‘radical disciples’ we’re talking about people who take his transforming grace right to the core of their lives

If this is what being a radical disciple is, then it is hard to imagine anything better than everyone being exactly that: a radical follower of Jesus.

Here’s the challenge: the call to be radical disciples pushes us away form some of the negative expressions of the church and Christians today.

Radical disciples are not people who keep their Christianity for Sunday, and who forget about Jesus’ claim on their lives as leave their palace of worship.

Radical disciples are not people who have an occasional thought about Jesus, or who restrict their ‘time with Jesus’ to 10 or 20 minutes every day. They don’t divide their time into ‘time for God’ and whatever the rest is: time without God? Who knows.

They are not people who worship every now and then. They don’t just put in an appearance at weekly gatherings, or who tilt at doing a ‘church job’ every now and then.

Here’s what radical disciples are: They want their entire life, everything they do, everything they think, to be an expression of the new life they have received in Jesus.

Every hour of every day they want to breathe the new heavens and the new earth, to be living, walking, talking, loving expressions of life the way God created it to be.

Radical disciples live in the profound privilege of bringing Jesus’ new creation to expression.

More and more they live and breathe this desire to honour God in everything: their family, their work, their sex life, their relationships, their leisure choices, their spending habits. Everything.

Radical disciples display something similar to my overzealous gardening habits: they check themselves out regularly to see whether they are growing. They know that growth is normal, growth is natural, and health is desirable.

Q: Do you think the call to be radical is helpful? Do you think we can make it a positive value in today’s cultural climate?

Next: Is the focus on growth something God calls us to in His word?

Being a disciple: Growth is normal and natural

I’ve been working on material which outlines some of the big picture responsibilities of the church today. I thought this material might be of interest to a wider audience, so here it is.

This material has already been preached at Gateway Community Church, and while these posts won’t be in the form of entire sermons, you are free to use the material in any way that helps you. Please give credit where credit is due…

IMG 0189

Since moving to Perth a few years ago, I’m developing a new appreciation for the challenges of gardening. We’re trying to grow a few vegetables, and it’s proving to be more difficult than I thought. This is basically because growing things in Perth is like trying to grow things at the beach. The last time I went to the beach, I did not see too many vegetable plots or rose gardens. Our problem is that our suburb used to be an actual sand dune. Actually, it still is a sand dune. It’s just that we have covered the sand dune with places to live.

So, if you want to grow some vegetables you will need to develop some skills in soil improvement. There is a lot to do: Add bentonite to create a loamy consistency. Add organic matter: compost, sheep manure, blood and bone. Keep an eye in the pH balance. Don’t forget to mulch your vegetable garden with lucerne hay.

In addition, I have been trying to become a more biblical gardener.

The prophet Zechariah talks about life in the new heavens and the new earth, and says ‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbour to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.’ (Zechariah 3:10, NIV)

I thought this was good advice, so I planted some a couple of grape vines and two olive trees. I know olive trees are not figs. But being olives, they are biblical enough for me.

Gardening teaches you patience. This is not an easy lesson to learn. So much is instant these days. Entertainment. Power. Hot water. Music. But this does not work with a garden. You plant the seed and wait. Nothing is fast. The fastest result will still be a few weeks away. Most of the time, you’ll be waiting at least two or three months to harvest some produce.

Growth is slow. I go out every other day and see how the plants have grown. I check the vines. Do they need more support? More training? De-budding?

I check the olive trees. I look for the tiny blossoms, sure signs that there will be a harvest. After a few weeks the flowers start setting to fruit, and things are looking positive.

Interestingly, one of our olive trees doesn’t have any flowers on it at all. This is a bit of a mystery. I go every other day, searching for those tell tale buds, but there’s nothing. Nada. Zip. And I think to myself: that’s just not right. It should have blossoms like the other one. It’s the same variety, it’s in the same stage of development, bought from the same old Italian man on the other side of town, propagated with the same arthritic hands, coaxed along in the same broken English. Identical contexts, but different result.

So I am wondering whether there’s something wrong with that second tree. It may have a problem. (You may even suggest that if I am going out there every other day to look for blossoms, maybe I am the one who has the problem!)

The question is: why am I thinking there might be something wrong with that tree?

I am asking that question because it is natural to grow, to be healthy, to be fruitful. Isn’t this the basic direction of life? Vegetables should grow and be fruitful. Olive trees should get buds and produce a delicious crop.

Growth is natural and when it is not happening we have to ask some important questions.

Same with people. We expect little ones to develop and thrive and grow and learn. Parents rejoice when their baby takes that first step, when they utter their first word. This is growth. It is natural. And it is very good.

It’s the same for people who follow Jesus. For Christians. For churches. Growth and development is the most natural thing. I’m not necessarily saying a church which grows in number is automatically healthy. I am pretty sure that a church which offered free beer every Sunday would probably experience some good growth. Doesn’t mean it would be healthy.

It is true, though, that healthy churches and healthy Christians grow.

As far as this post is concerned this is still an unproven statement. The next posts will build a case for growth. I hope they will challenge us into it. For now the lesson of the olive tree is probably enough. Growth is natural, and when it’s not happening, we have to ask some important questions.

Enough… Money & Wealth

Enough

Over the weeks of June I completed a short four week series at Gateway called “Enough… Money & Wealth”. The idea for the series title came from Compassion Australia “The opposite to poverty is not wealth… it is enough.” What does “Enough” mean? And would we be really satisfied if we had “Enough”? I find these troubling questions.

So, the series looked at how wealth and possessions shape our lives, the formation of our values, and consequently, the expression of our faith and the witness of our church.

I found this series challenging to preach. It’s always a challenge to preach, of course. But this series nailed me a little more than normal. More than other times I was aware that my own life was out of step with what God called his people to in his word. So, to keep myself honest, to let this conviction settle into action, I decided to serialise this series in some blog posts. As I rework them, I am praying that God will drive me to live them more determinedly.

I’d be really happy to have your interactions with these posts, and to engage in discussion via the comments. Let’s see if we can deepen our individual and corporate witness through this series.

I hope you find them as challenging as I did, and it’s my prayer that God will change us all through his word. May he depend our desire to follow him radically, and may his name be praised as we live to his glory.

Grace and peace,

– Dave

PS: It may be that occasional posts finish a little abruptly. This will be because I am trying to follow the basic text of my messages, where each point followed the other, instead of being punctuated by several days. So, I’ll try and make the transitions work as best I can for the blog format.

Forgiveness: Let’s Start at the Beginning

Where does forgiveness start? This is an important question if we’re to get forgiveness right and do forgiveness well.

I think forgiveness starts with God and his nature. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. This very act says so much about the God we worship and the forgiveness he calls us into. It reminds us that God is a giver, One who at core seeks to bring life and beauty and joy into being. In the evening of each creation day God said “it is good.” On the sixth day, having created human beings, he said “it is very good”. At a very primary level, we understand that God gives himself, expends himself so that life can abound and people can thrive.

Cornelius Plantinga says “the first act in the world’s drama is God’s act of creation and sustaining ‘all things visible and invisible,’ out of a generous desire to enlarge the realm of being, to bestow life and goodness on others, and to assist others to flourish in the realm created for them.” [Engaging God’s World, p.44]

…forgiveness starts with God and his nature…

This tells us deep things about God: his core disposition is one of love, a desire to bless, to enrich, to cause to flourish, to bring life and beauty. There are a million other implications to pursue here about what the church should focus on, about how Christians should conduct themselves, and what defines the mission of the church.

What I want us to think about are the implications of this for forgiveness. This is very important, because it is easy for us to view forgiveness simply in a pragmatic sense: we want to forgive because it resolves a problem. We do it because it works. That is not bad, but it could be better.

When forgiveness is rooted in the character of God, and defined by his work in creation, we see something else. We wee that forgiveness is about bringing blessing into lives. When we go the full cycle of forgiveness, we don’t just resolve a problem, we bless each other.

That is a challenging thought. You may think of the trouble and grief that is part of your life, and seriously question whether you will ever be able to forgive. You may wonder whether you could ever see your way clear to bless the person or persons that have brought this pain upon you. Sometimes the terrors and evils perpetrated on us are so big and ugly that it seems impossible to contemplate any positive thought toward those who have done them. I agree – but for now, can we agree to leave that tension where it is, and come back to later?

The bottom line is that forgiveness is perhaps the most grace affirming, life enriching work you will ever do. It’s no wonder that if we’re going to do it well, we’ll need the sort of grace and strength and help that we can only get from Jesus.

Can you see forgiveness as ultimately a desire to see the other blessed? How does this challenge you or comfort you?

Why Church? – Good Question…

Recently, I preached a series of sermons called ‘Love My Church’. I was seeking to develop a very positive mindset toward the church, and why we should engage more deeply with it. That got me asking another set of questions, and those questions have grown into a series of posts…

For those who don’t know God…

I wonder where the church fits in the experience and awareness of the general community. Maybe the question is not one of ‘where’ but ‘whether’… I guess we have all heard the cliched responses that in the mind of the general community the church is irrelevant, or invisible, or worse. Church leaders have asked often their congregations “if our church was to disappear overnight, would we be missed?”. The question my be cliched, but the answer often troubles us, and that may be for good reason.

For those who know God…

You might expect that for those who know God and follow His Son, Jesus, there would be a more ringing endorsement. Here, the feedback varies. Some Christian love their church, and dedicate much time and energy to making their local church a really terrific place.

But how many of us would say that they love their church, and that meeting with other Christians ‘at church’ is the highlight of their week? And if their answer is not resoundingly positive, what are the factors there?

what we think about the church has enormous impact on how healthy it is

Maybe how we talk about church exposes something of the issue:

People ‘go to church’

People ‘get fed with the word at church’

People ‘have fellowship at church’

People ‘are blessed by the ministries, programs and services their church provides’

Pastors ‘work at church, serve their church, and prepare for the services to be held at the church’

My thought is that what we think about the church has enormous impact on how healthy it is, and how well it does what God calls it to do in the community and the world.

The next posts will explore these thoughts a little more.

Love to hear your thoughts…