Once when I had trouble in one of my ears, my ENT prescribed, among other things, a bottle of pills with unusual directions: “Take six a day for the first four days, five on the fifth day, four on the sixth day, three on the seventh day, two on the eighth day, and one on the ninth day.”
While some illnesses respond to simple, one-step treatments, others require weeks, months, even years of medications and applications. In those, regular repetition over extended periods is needed for healing.
Now, take the sick church.
The ailing church did not get that way overnight. Often, anemic, struggling churches result from the unhealthy teachings of warped leaders. In many cases, teachers have gone to seed on a pet doctrine and omitted altogether the basic principles of solid Christian living as unworthy of them.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the ABCs of the Christian faith … (Hebrews 5:12, paraphrase).
The elementary principles. Basic Christianity. The kind of stuff we should have been taught in a new members’ class. Here are five:
Jesus is Lord.
It doesn’t get any more basic than this. “Confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus” (Romans 10:9). “God has made this same Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
So, what’s the problem? The people in the pews will nod their heads and agree, even slipping in a soft “amen.”
It’s not confessing Jesus as Lord that is the problem; it’s living it out in our daily lives. “Jesus said, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I command?” (Luke 6:46).
We call Him ‘Lord” and go our own ways, then have the audacity to say we are Christians.
Misguided leaders have done this to our people. They’ve been taught to “pray the sinner’s prayer” but not to become disciples. They’ve been told to receive Jesus but without surrendering themselves to Him.
The Church belongs to Jesus.
I told you this was basic. Scriptures like Matthew 16:18 and Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25 drive this point home.
So, what’s the problem?
Many unhealthy churches are afflicted by members – some of them in leadership – who think because they have seniority or occupy an office or carry the keys or their name is on the sign out front that the church belongs to them.
“My granddaddy started this church.” “My family has been here for generations. We stuck with it when everyone else left.” “We have paid the price, we ought to be the ones to decide.” “Preachers come and go, but we are the church.”
It’s Jesus’ church and He wants it back. Our only question – the only valid question! – is “Lord, what do you want us to do with your church?”
I’ll tell you a secret: Whatever you do for the church (or “to” it), Jesus takes personally. That is a stunner. Bless the church and you are blessing Jesus. Hurt the church, and you have hurt the Lord Himself. (See Matthew 25:40, 45; Hebrews 6:10 and particularly Acts 22:7-8.)
Love is something you do.
In our flesh – and stunted, immature church members are nothing if not fleshly – we love the people who are lovely, and often do loving things to those who deserve it. But this is not Christian love. In fact, this is the very behavior of the ungodly (Matthew 5:43-48).
Luke 6:27-38 covers the same ground as Matthew 5:43-48, but goes into greater detail. It is the gold standard for Jesus’ teaching on Christian love. The heart of the command is this: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies. Do good … bless … pray … and give.”
Biblically, love is not an emotion but an action. In every case in scripture, where we are commanded to love (God, our neighbor, one another, etc.), what the Lord is requiring is not a feeling but action. We either do loving things or what we do does not qualify as love. Pause and let that soak in.
When our Lord spoke of people loving Him, He defined it in terms of obeying Him, of “keeping my commandments.” See these six times in the Upper Room Discourse: John 14:15, 21, 23, 24 and 15:10, 14.
The loving activities commanded in Luke 6:27-38 – do good, bless, pray, give – are the four most basic acts of love. We do these to everyone, whether a sweetheart, a grandchild, a neighbor, or a fellow church member. In most cases, we will do more than these. But even toward the enemy we are to act in this way.
When we love the unlovely in this way, many surprising results follow: the perpetrator is stunned by what we do, the Lord is glorified, the devil is infuriated and we are blessed. The watching world gets a chance to see Christianity in action, other believers are encouraged and the church’s witness is enhanced.
Caution: The immature believer will sometimes say, “Well, if my heart is not in it, it would be hypocritical to do loving things to someone.” Answer: “No, it’s not fake, but faith. You’re obeying the Lord, not your emotions.”
If you do not like change, you are going to have trouble with Jesus.
The living God seems to have a low threshold for boredom. He does nothing the same way twice. The stripes on zebras and tigers, the spots on leopards and cheetahs, we’re told, are distinct to each animal. Human fingerprints, voice prints, and hair patterns are all one-of-a-kind. Snowflakes.
And yet, in our small-mindedness, we demand that the Lord freeze-frame today and keep it as it is because we like it this way.
He will not play that game.
“Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
The problem is we like things the way they’ve always been. The Lord understands this facet of the human personality. “No one who has drunk old wine immediately desires new, Jesus said. For he says, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39).
He understands it, but He does not give in to it. Neither should church leaders.
God doesn’t like to keep doing what He did yesterday. His mercies are new every morning, and so, it would seem, are His creative instincts.
The secret to Christian strength and unity is found in submission.
“...submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21).
To submit means to give in to another. You and I have a disagreement on some issue, and unless the issue is a major deal-breaker with key issues at stake, the stronger gives in to the weaker.
Don’t miss that. Only the strong can give in. The weak one will dig his heels in and refuse to budge. It takes strength to humble oneself and great strength to submit to someone weaker.
That’s the reverse of human strategies, to be sure. Nothing new about that; 99% of what the Lord requires of us is exactly the opposite of what the world would do. We gain our life by losing it; we become great by serving; we live by dying.
“For I say through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).
“In lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).
The world is not going to believe in Jesus by the testimony of a divided church.
The key to the unity is loving, obeying disciples who gladly give up their rights to their way for the good of the Lord’s work.
You’ll not rescue that ailing church by nightfall. Be steadfast and faithful. Keep the basic principles of Christ-following in front of people. Preach that Jesus is Lord and we are to obey and honor Him.
Tell them over and over again, until it sticks. That will happen one person at a time, not everyone at once. So, encourage those who are awakening and beginning to grow. Stay with it long enough, and you will have a good corps of faithful believers on which to build a healthy church.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joe McKeever, joemckeever.com, pastored six Southern Baptist churches in a 42-year career. He writes a column on “My Favorite Deacon” for each issue of Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine.)