Facing the Foundational Issues of Church Health
My first twelve years, after graduating from college, were spent coaching and teaching. Like most locker rooms, ours was covered with signs for the purpose of motivating our players. Probably, the most profound sign was the shortest. It simply read, “Block and Tackle.” It was a constant reminder that nothing we did, no matter how innovative, would work, if we did not block and tackle. Those two things were essential to the success of everything we attempted.
Like the sport of football, every endeavor in life has certain fundamental things that must be accomplished before success will happen. This concept is true with church building. During my thirty-plus years of ministry, there have been many new and innovative ideas put forward about how to build churches. There is no doubt many have worked diligently to see the church grow. Yet, most of what we hear today is discouraging in regards to the health of the church in America. Could it be we have lost sight of the foundational issues that must be settled before a church can be healthy?
I suggest there are three foundational issues that must be resolved before the church can be healthy. First, we must deal with the issue of proprietorship. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Proprietorship implies ownership but it also implies authority. Paul made this clear, when he wrote to the Colossians. He wrote, “He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the first born from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18 HCSB).
Despite this clear word from scripture, many of our churches find themselves stymied in their growth, because they have not settled this issue. If our churches are to remain relevant in our world, we must settle it. We must wholeheartedly accept that the church does not belong to the pastor, the deacons, the founding fathers or any other group. Jesus must be recognized as the sole proprietor.
The second foundational issue is one of purpose. Once again, scripture speaks loudly and clearly to this issue. The Great Commission commands us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a HCSB). If we are to accomplish this purpose, we must first understand what a disciple is. We can’t make something if we do not know what it is to look like when it is completed. On the foreign field we usually equate discipleship with evangelism and at home we measure it by how many courses our church offers each year. Both of these are admirable goals, but by themselves, they do not complete the making of a disciple.
When this command was given, there was a clear understanding about the relationship between a teacher and his disciples. A disciple’s ultimate goal was not only to know what the teacher taught but to become like the teacher. Evangelism and teaching are obviously necessary in the building of disciples, but they are not enough. True discipleship is not measured by what you know but by how you live. If we are to be successful in fulfilling this purpose, we must realize our ultimate goal is to assist believers in becoming like Jesus.
The third issue is one of practice. It is often in this area we run into problems. Generally, the problems result from the inability to distinguish between principles and preferences. A principle is written in stone. It can’t be changed. For example, John 14:6 is a principle. It reads, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (HCSB). This is an eternal principle. It was true when it was written; it is true today; and it will be true until Jesus comes. Any attempt to water it down erodes the foundation upon which our entire faith is built. On the other hand, a preference has to do with a personal choice. For example, one only needs to go to the Book of Psalms to see that the Word allows for a wide variety of worship practices.
When it comes to principle, we should maintain the steadfastness of Paul, when he wrote, “For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:22, 23 (HCSB). When it comes to preference, we should have the humility of Paul, when he wrote, “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others: (Philippians 2:3, 4 HCSB).
As we approach the close of another year, my prayer is that we will give God thanks for all the marvelous teaching tools He has made available to us, and that we would be honest with ourselves, realizing these tools will not provide long lasting results until we deal with the issues of proprietorship, purpose and practice. Once we have dealt with these in a God honoring manner, there are no limits to what He will do through us.