4 Posts from October 2009

In a Rut? Start Climbing!

The church can get slick. Its ministers can become perfunctory in their tasks. I guess that’s why I love Pastor John Piper’s excellent volume, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (great title!). Read his words carefully.
We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt. 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph. 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1). . . .

Our business is . . . to deny ourselves and take up the blood-splattered cross daily (Luke 9:23). How do you carry a cross professionally? We have been crucified with Christ; yet now we live by faith in the one who loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20). What is professional faith?

We are to be filled not with wine but with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). We are God-besotted lovers of Christ. How can you be drunk with Jesus professionally? Then, wonder of wonders, we were given the gospel treasure to carry in clay pots to show that the transcendent power belongs to God (2 Cor. 4:7). Is there a way to be a professional clay pot?1
The church was NEVER meant to be a “professional organization.” We’ll let the world have all of those. The church is not a slick, efficient corporation with a cross stuck on its roof. It is a ministry. We do not look to the government for support or to the state for direction. We don’t seek the counsel of Wall Street for financial suggestions. We have one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not rely on any earthly organization or some rich individual to sustain the ministry. The church is a spiritual entity, built up and supported by its Founder, Jesus—who promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18).

Not long ago, I spent some time with a pastor who serves in a church that’s more than 100 years old. As we sat down to have lunch together, I couldn’t help but notice his slumping shoulders and frequent sighs. He seemed weary and burdened. I asked him to describe the church where he has served for many years. After a pause and another deep sigh, he looked me in the eyes: “Chuck, I can sum it up in one word—dysfunctional.” He continued, “The ruts that have been formed are so deep and so long, it’s hard to imagine I could have any influence in pulling the church out . . . and getting it back on track.” As I listened to his words, I found myself nodding in sympathy. “How tragic,” I responded. His joy was gone. His hope was fading. His exciting dreams of yesteryear had turned into boring and predictable reruns.

That conversation reminds me of Ray Stedman’s words regarding the moment he crossed the border into Alaska: “I saw a hand-painted sign on the side of the road that read, ‘Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.’” The same can be said of many a church. Obviously, the preference is to avoid the ruts altogether. But what if you find yourself stuck in one, as my pastor friend did? You need to take the difficult but necessary steps to begin climbing out. Climb alone, if necessary.

But climb!

—Chuck

1 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: B&H, 2002), 1–2.

The Church’s Foundation

Whenever we want to understand a topic or term, such as church, we should begin at the passage of primary reference. It helps to ask: Where did the word first appear, and in what context was it used? Surprisingly, the first mention in the New Testament of the word church wasn’t from the pen of the apostle Paul. Peter didn’t coin the term—nor did any of the other apostles. It was Jesus.

“I will build My church,” Jesus promised (Matthew 16:18). Let’s examine the implications of those five, monosyllable words in this “primary reference.”

First, I—Jesus made it clear from the beginning that the church as God intended it would have Christ as its architect. Make no mistake about it, He is the Originator of the church. It was His idea. He protects it. He leads it. He alone is its Head. Second, the word will looks to the future. Jesus didn’t say, “I have built,” or even, “I am building,” but “I will build.” The church had yet to begin when Jesus made this statement; it was a promise for the future—for the very near future. But at the time He spoke these words, Peter and the other disciples had no clue what “church” meant. Third, the term build suggests not only a beginning but an ongoing process. If you read music, think of a crescendo mark over Jesus’s statement. Try to imagine the excitement and energy in the Master’s voice, as He communicated the future to these disciples. The church would begin at a certain point, and then it would grow and grow . . . and keep on growing. Why? Because Christ will construct it. He will enlarge it and shape it as He pleases. Fourth, the word My affirms ownership and authority. Not only is Christ the Originator of the church and the Builder of it . . . He is also its Head (see Colossians 1:15–18).

It’s essential to keep asking ourselves, as I try to do, Is Christ the Head of our local church? Does He have first place in our ministry? Is what we do all about Jesus—or have we drifted from that singular focus? To guard against erosion, we must keep Jesus as the Head of the church. It is His church. Never forget that.

When Matthew recorded Jesus’s word for “church”—the first mention of that term in the Bible—he chose the Greek word ekklesia. It’s a compound word, from ek, meaning “out, from,” and kaleo, meaning, “to call.” It refers to those who have been “called out from among” others. The term more accurately reflects an assembly of people defined by a distinct purpose. The word was in use hundreds of years before Jesus, but by adding the word “My” to the term, Jesus revealed that He would build His own ekklesia—a people defined by faith in the truth that Peter had just revealed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). We now call this unique assembly over which Jesus serves as Head, “the church.” How valuable it is to return to the origin of this term and make a serious examination of its purpose!

Why study its origin? Because there we see God’s intention. Our understanding and application of what church should be will erode if we don’t examine and keep in mind its Founder and its foundation.

—Chuck

Principles All Churches Should Examine and Apply-- Part Two

Last week, I shared with you the first two of three principles all churches should examine and apply. Here they are again, in summary:

  • Clear, biblical thinking must override secular planning and a corporate mentality. Think spiritually!
  • Studied, accurate decisions must originate from God’s Word, not human opinions. Stay biblical!

As promised, here’s the third principle and imperative: wise, essential changes must occur to counteract any sign of erosion. Please notice I did not use the word “easy.” Change is not easy when erosion has occurred—but it is essential. The imperative? Be flexible! Be ready and willing to make some changes—essential changes—especially if you hope to arrest the slow, silent, subtle slide of erosion. And stand alone through those changes, if necessary. The poet and artist E. E. Cummings wrote: “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”1

As a pastor, you may find yourself standing alone against erosion in your church. If so, I commend you. And believe me, that isn’t an easy place to be. When I realized the erosion that had already begun to occur in our church years ago . . . when I realized how far we had drifted from God’s original, simple plan, I prayed: “Almighty God, give us that original vision again. Give me the courage to lead this flock back to the essentials. Make it happen again!” And He has begun to do so. It’s been marvelous!

But it has not been easy.

Course correction requires changes. It demands a devotion to the essentials of a church as modeled by the early church. Here they are:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

It isn’t enough simply to have the essentials in our churches. We must continually devote ourselves to them. In the original language, that phrase translates a single Greek term that means: “to continue to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of [doing so] despite difficulty.”

Will there be difficulty? Absolutely! Open your New Testament and revisit the early church. Just look at any church! The Adversary will stop at nothing to overcome the work of Christ. You can count on it.

—Chuck

1 E. E. Cummings, as quoted by Ted Goodman in The Forbes Book of Business Quotations: 10,000 Thoughts on the Business of Life (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007), 553.

Principles All Churches Should Examine and Apply-- Part One

I have discovered three principles and three imperatives I believe all churches should examine and apply. The first principle is this: clear, biblical thinking must override secular planning and a corporate mentality. And the imperative? Think spiritually! However well-organized our churches become, we must give priority to biblical rather than to secular thinking. In the first-century church, there were no secular organizational structures or church politics. There was no guru of authority or “chairman” of anything. There were no power grabs from control freaks. There were no personal maneuverings, infightings, financial squabbles, or turf protection. Instead, it was a place where a spiritual emphasis took precedence over the world’s way of doing things.

What does this look like when applied today? For starters, our teaching needs to be biblically based and spiritually inclined. Our Sunday school classes, adult fellowships, and small-group instruction gatherings need to center on the teaching of the Bible and spiritual lessons. Our songs and our hymns should have spiritual content. Our counseling ministry needs to be derived from the Spirit’s revelation in the Scriptures. Our relationships with one another need to have spiritual priorities—intimate fellowship where people can trust one another. The church ought to be the one place where spiritual thinking overrides everything else—all those battles we fight within the marketplace. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. The church is a spiritual entity.

Second, studied, accurate decisions must originate from God’s Word, not human opinions. A true, spiritual mind-set comes from meditation on the Scriptures. So the imperative would be: stay biblical! The Word of God ought to be central to every worship service on Sunday. Furthermore, every elders meeting and every staff meeting should have the Scriptures as the basis of the decisions that are made. God’s Word is to be the church’s guide; it shapes our current thinking and future planning by giving us principles we can understand, believe, and apply.

I love the words of A. W. Tozer: “The world is waiting to hear an authentic voice, a voice from God—not an echo of what others are doing and saying, but an authentic voice.”1 As those in the church who follow Christ as our Head, our words must come from the Living God and not be an echo of human words or works . . . certainly not the words from our culture! As wise and intelligent as human opinions are, the church isn’t guided by the thinking of any fallen human being. (By the way, that includes the pastor!) Christ is the Head. Our thinking is shaped by a study of Scriptures—by God’s thinking. This is about building the church God’s way—and God’s way is found in God’s Word. Nowhere else can we find such an authentic voice.

A church that is working is a church that is growing. I believe that. But be careful of the order of that statement, because a church that is growing is not necessarily a church that is working.

—Chuck

PS. I’ll share the third principle and imperative with you next week.

1 A.  W. Tozer, Rut, Rot or Revival: The Condition of the Church (Camp Hill, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1992), 178.