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?

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.

Forgiveness is being honest with people

Forgiveness, by its very nature, always involves people. It is people who get hurt. It is people who do the hurting. Forgiveness is always relational.

There are some terrible things that have happened to people, but they don’t need to be forgiven. In January 2011 an intense storm cell hovered over the Queensland city of Toowoomba. On any other day, Toowoomba hardly has a creek to its name, but that day it flooded so badly that cars were washed down the main street. The waters rushed down the range, and obliterated several small towns in the valley below. Lives were lost and livelihoods were dashed. Who was to blame? Who did this? No one did it. It was no one’s fault. No one was to blame. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, if there’s no one to blame, there’s nothing to forgive (The Art of Forgiving, p.77).

Forgiveness is only relevant when others are involved. In some ways this makes sense. It may be easy to remember hurts that others have done to us. At other times, who those ‘others’ are will sometimes catch us off guard. We’re not always ready to admit that sometimes the hurt has come from our own actions. So sometimes we have to forgive ourselves. On other occasions, hurt comes from a group of people. Truth is, forgiving is always messy. And you can be sure the more people are involved, the messier it gets.

people are always in the mix

So, when it comes to forgiveness, people are always in the mix. Real people. Real lives. Real pain and real grief. It’s easy to lose sight of this, and it’s often convenient to avoid it. It’s easier, if we have hurt someone, to just think about ‘issues’ and ‘events’ and ‘what went wrong’. When we avoid the people in the equation, though, we dehumanise the pain. This is sin on three counts:

We sin against them, because we are not willing to see their hurt, or recognise our part in it.

We sin against ourselves: when we refuse to see the pain we have brought to others we deny ourselves the grace of being forgiven.

And we sin against God. It’s not just that he wants us to forgive. It’s more that his plan in Jesus is to raise us to a new life and a better way. God wants our lives, through Jesus, to express his better grace. He deeply wants his ‘giveness‘ to come to expression in our lives. Paul says as much when he writes “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:32ff)

We have to be honest about the impact of our actions on people, and their impact on us. If we fail to see the people in the equation, sin, wrongdoing, and guilt will have its way with us. And guilt is such a tireless tormentor.

Which is easier, to just focus on the issues, or to recognise the people involved and the pain they are going through? Which is better?

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…

The God Who Implores: Can we contemplate worshipping a God who would beg for anything?

Read 2 Cor 5:11-21

Try and remember the last time you begged for anything. I mean, seriously pleaded and entreated anyone for something. After we get past the trivialities of begging as a child for a puppy, or pleading with an adolescent son to get out of bed and go to school, we start to struggle. Perhaps the more common examples of serious begging are in situations of life change: a cancer, unemployment, relationship breakdown. No doubt, we’ll find a few examples of serious begging there.

As I read 2 Cor 5:16-21, I find myself challenged by the images in v.20

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Or as it read in the Authorised Version

“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, AV)

Can we conceive of God as a begging God? As a God who implores?

Some time ago I tweeted the same thought: If God would beg for anything, what would it be?

My fiend Wid responded: I find it so difficult just to imagine how God can beg for anything…

Me too.

But that does not change the fact that this passage opens our eyes to the God who begs. We read of God ‘making his appeal through us’ (v.20).

I think we get that: God as paraclete. God who comes beside to encourage. God who urges us forward. God who draws us close, and into his own grace. We can live with that.

But God begging? A mendicant God? An imploring God?

Luke tells us of a man, covered with leprosy, who fell with his face to the ground and begged Jesus to cleanse him (Luke 5:12). He tells is of a father, desperate for his son to be relieved of his demonic oppression, begging Jesus intervene (Luke 9:38). And he tells us of a demon possessed man in a graveyard, begging Jesus not to torture him (Luke 8:28)

This is the word, the image, Paul uses in our passage: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures? The creator God, the Sovereign Lord, the everlasting father, the omnipotent one … imploring, begging, entreating people to be reconciled to him?

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures?

John Calvin says:

[this passage is] an unparalleled commendation of the grace of Christ, inasmuch as He stoops so low, that he does not disdain to entreat us

Think of a few other Scripture passages:

In Luke 15, the parable of the prodigal god, the younger son has returned, there is a glorious reunion with the father, there’s a celebration, but the elder brother is so angry that he refused to go in and join the party. But the father went out and … pleaded with him (15:28).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), making his way to his own death, he looks on that city, the geo-spiritual heart of Israel. This is the city where he will die. It is full of people who will bay for his blood. They will prefer Jesus Barabbas to Jesus, Son of the Father. He pictures the thorns, and the nails, and his own disgusting death. And he weeps for that city, beseeching them, that they may still change.

Even in the OT we hear this gracious Lord pleading with wayward, rebellious, adulterous Israel:

““Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! ” (Ezekiel 18:30–32, NIV)

Are these words of anger? Or do they reveal such a depth of grief that has our Covenant God imploring his hard hearted people toward grace, forgiveness and life? Isn’t this the heart of our gracious Saviour, our loving Lord, for the lost? The rebellious? The broken? Those far from him?

And could there be a more poignant illustration of the God who begs for people to find life than the Cross, upon which the Prince of glory absorbs, for all eternity, the sin and punishment of his people?

See how much God loves us? O how he loves us!

Thinking about my ministry, and yours, the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ God has entrusted to us, would we say the priorities, behaviours and actions of our ministry reflects the heart of this imploring God?

Does my congregation image this God, and beg for the life of sinners?

Is it a place where God implores people, through us, where we implore people, for God?

Is our denomination an imploring denomination?

Can our communities hear God imploring them in our words?

Can they see, and feel, this God imploring them in our actions and our ministry priorities?

Perhaps the more challenging question is this: Are God and I actually interested in the same things?Do we really share the same heart for the lost?

Despite the strength of these words, it is not hard for us to think these thoughts as we read them now. It is harder to act on them beyond this moment. And to keep on acting on them. And to lead from them, and to serve into them.

Around one year from now, the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia will be meeting in Synod. God forbid that all our discussion, planning, and decision making be reduced to one or the other theory, or view, or approach, or process.

Think of all the discussions we have had and are yet to have about
Mission. Whether fourfold task, or some other strategy, whether we should lean more into church planting or not.

Think of our discussions about developing leaders: What leadership models should we be looking at? How can we build an ethos that develops leaders and trains others?

Think about all the discussions we have had about worship: should we be progressive? Traditional? Conservative? Ancient? Emerging?

I sometimes wonder if all our discussions about such things amount to little more than an annoying squeak in the ears of this God whose passion is to implore people to be reconciled to himself, through us.

These few verses put all our efforts into stark perspective.

And I am challenged to lean more into this mendicant mission and ministry, into the heart of the God who begs.

Prayer: God, let us be deeply moved by how you implore rebellious humanity to be reconciled to yourself.

May we reflect this same divine passion as we gladly embrace this ministry of reconciliation!

Q: Identify one thing that would change in your church as a result of God’s passion to implore people to be reconciled to himself. What will you do to better reflect the ‘God who begs’ in your own life and ministry?