Last week I had the honor of speaking at the North Bay Church of Christ in Portland, Texas. The topic they asked me to speak on was "What Makes a Healthy Church?" Here are a few of my musings on the subject.
Fundamentally, I believe the church should be a community of people in whom the Spirit of Christ is alive and well. Where the Spirit of Christ is present, certain things should start to occur. There are some general guiding ideas here in Scripture. For example, Paul says:
"For God gave us a spirit, not of fear, but of power and love and self-control." - 2 Timothy 1:7
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law." - Galatians 5:22-23
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." - I John 4:18
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." - John 14:25-26
Many churches get their minds too caught up in the world's methods and options, and will live out of fear, rather than faith. Contrary to this, strong churches will act from the hope and courage that result where the Spirit of Christ is present. In light of these and other concepts, here are some ways I would imagine the contrasts between a fearful church and a healthy church.
Fearful churches feel threatened by people who ask questions, and will look to silence them. Healthy churches welcome honest questions, and aren't afraid to patiently examine and re-examine their beliefs and practices in light of Scripture, especially with those who are young in the faith. Those who are really on the side of truth don't have to be afraid of questions, because the truth should withstand hard questions.
Fearful churches use Scripture mostly as a weapon, and as a method for fault-finding. Healthy churches turn to Scripture as a source of life, allowing it to spark their imaginations for what sort of world God imagines. If we were to really trust that these words are from God, what is God calling us to do more? What does God invite us to see differently?
Fearful churches focus on institutional survival. They don't take risks, don't rock the boat, and don't try anything that could possibly result in failure. As a result, they do very little other than fret about declining numbers. Healthy churches focus on God's mission; to seek and save the lost, redeeming all that is broken within the world. They are willing to experience occasional failure in the pursuit of faithfulness and carrying out the great commission. They don't seek conflict or frustrations, but accept them as a necessary part of growing, because growth can't occur without change. Likewise, while numbers are a part of a church's life and health, they understand that numbers don't tell the whole story about what God might be doing.
Fearful churches stay divided into interest groups; all of whom are suspicious of each other. Most people barely know each other. They may even turn people away if they aren't "our type." Healthy churches promote friendship between groups and between generations, acknowledging that we all need each other, and are better off for the perspectives we gain from those different from ourselves. They know each other well enough, both to mourn and to celebrate as life unfolds together.
Fearful churches have a large distance between those with power and those without. Those with power cling to it tightly. Healthy churches use power to empower. Those with power use it primarily to create space and opportunities for others to use their gifts for honoring God in a variety of ways. They are always looking to create new leaders, open to creative ministries, and inviting ownership in the life and future of the church.
Fearful churches are irrelevant to their community. They spend most of their time thinking and talking about themselves, and seldom think outside of the brick box in which they meet. Healthy churches are a blessing to their community. Were they to suddenly go away, the community would lament their loss, because they had been like salt and light, making the community better and brighter.
Fearful churches chase after trends. When they hear rumor of a big church's technique, they uncritically try to force that mold on their own situation, hoping it will provide a magic solution to church growth. Healthy churches are interested and aware of how God is at work in a variety of other Christian communities, but are not afraid to grow in ways specific to their own setting. Rather than chasing trends, they build on their strengths, taking the time to know what it is that they as a community love to do and share.
No church is perfect, but when we seek God diligently and serve God joyfully, there will be evidence of Who lives among us and works through us.
Today is my 35th birthday. I think it's important to reflect on your life experiences, so here are 35 things I've learned along the way.
There is no more important set of skills you can possess than people skills. Likability opens doors and builds bridges. Many a career has been built on a person’s ability to get along with others. You’ll be your future’s worst enemy if you don’t learn to value people, and to make them feel valued.
Every person is in some way superior to you. If you approach every person in terms of how you could be blessed by their skills and understanding, you’ll find it easier to care for them genuinely, and to overlook their shortcomings.
Never stop cultivating yourself as a person. Try new things, especially when they are hard. Spend your life preparing yourself so that some of the best things you’ll ever do will be when you’re in your 60s and 70s as culminations of the person you have spent your life becoming. People who reach for superstardom in their 20s and 30s can easily exhaust their wells of wisdom and experience.
Remember that you’re going to die. Don’t be found anywhere doing anything that you wouldn’t want to be remembered for, in case you make an earlier-than-expected departure.
There is no greater peace you can leave behind to your loved ones than their ability to genuinely say of you, “They loved God with all of their heart, and it really showed in the way they lived."
Everyone understands that change is necessary, but almost no one enjoys it. If you are the one implementing a change, don’t take it personally at first when people react. Much of what they’re doing is just acknowledging that a difference exists. If you’ve been patient with them, have listened to them, and are clear in your reasons and your motives, a lot of them will extend to you the same courtesy. Of course, this won’t always be the case; particularly if you haven’t put effort into #1 on this list.
In dealing with people whose age or health has largely confined them to their home, never make an off-handed promise about something you intend to do for them unless you are absolutely going to follow through quickly. They often have nothing better to do than to sit around remembering what you said you were going to do, and they’ll think less of you for failing to follow through.
The best question for getting to know a new person is: “How do you like to spend your time?” To ask a person about their job or career can make a stay-at-home parent feel you are belittling them, an unemployed person feel embarrassed, or an independently wealthy person feel awkward for having to explain why it isn’t necessary for them to work. Asking how they like to spend their time allows them to tell you what they care about most, or at least what they are comfortable revealing about themselves.
Being fluent in sarcasm is not something you should value. Having a refined ability to cut people with your words does not make you a wise person, and it seldom makes any situation better.
If you are making a speech, it is better to say a bit less than you know, making people wish that you would have spoken longer, rather than to say all that you know, making people hope they will never have to hear another word on your subject; especially from you.
As you get to know someone, there will be scripts that show up in their conversations. Especially when seeking a spouse, pay attention to how they talk to people behind counters and serving at tables. Pay even more attention how they speak to their family. Eventually, every way they speak to other people, they’ll speak to you once they feel like you aren’t going to go away. Everyone can put a good foot forward when they want to make an impression, but what’s more important is that a person you’re committed to shows genuine kindness and patience with everyone, because they’ll be more likely to show it to you.
Telling someone the truth with a spirit of love and gentleness might not always be received well, but it is never the wrong thing to do.
Don’t allow your critics to take away your joy or your resolve to work with excellence. At the same time, there is usually some grain of truth to what your critics say. If you know someone to be your critic, make a deliberate effort to get to know them better, not for a counter-attack, but to learn what’s driving their concern. They might be giving you a valuable gift, just presented in ugly packaging. Former critics can make some of the best allies if you are able to win them over.
When a person is tense about their life and they come to you as someone to talk to, the best thing you can give them is your non-anxious presence. Take slow breaths, look them in the eye, listen to them without reacting strongly to the things they’re worried about expressing and without interrupting with quick solutions. Just look at them, listen, and be truly present. A person can solve a majority of their own problems when they have a safe space to verbalize and process what they are experiencing.
If you are married, make it your daily goal to invest in your relationship with your spouse. They’ve given up a lot to dedicate themselves exclusively to you and deserve your best efforts to know and love them. One day your children will move on, and one day your career will end. But aside from unfortunate circumstances, as long as you’re both living, your spouse will be with you. No investment will pay you greater dividends than the efforts you make to build your marriage.
Most of the best ideas you’ll encounter in life won’t come from your head. Make wise and talented companions, and form a habit of asking questions and listening well.
If you desire to strengthen your moral character, it is better to attempt a difficult path than to walk without a path. If you buy into the belief that morality is always subjective, you undermine the possibility of moral growth. Growth requires a steady target toward which you are moving. This is a harder way to live, but choosing to submit yourself to time-tested moral standards will guide you to a much better life than just doing what feels good, or trimming your conscience down to whatever is currently fashionable.
Greatness and fame can overlap, but are not the same thing. If you have to pick one, strive for greatness. Striving for popularity will always leave you raw and hungry, dependent on people’s approval to have personal validity.
Everyone is a jerk some of the time, including you. Fortunately, God still loves and accomplishes great things through people who have acted like jerks. If God can value and work through me in spite of myself, I should extend the same grace to others.
You’ll solve most arguments in life by taking time to understand what people mean by how they use the terminology involved in the discussion. If you don’t mean the same things with the same words, this clarification might reveal that you don’t actually have a disagreement to begin with.
Pain is a powerful teacher if we have a mindset to learn from it. Don’t assume everything that’s unpleasant is bad for you. When difficulties come, the right question to ask is, “How might God be trying to shape me through allowing me to experience this?"
Be sure that when you praise people, what you are praising is what you are actually wanting to see them value. Telling a young person they are pretty or handsome or smart is a nice thought, but when you see an opportunity, a better compliment is, “I’m really proud of you because I saw you make an effort to do this when you could have done that instead. It’s great that you’re trying to be this kind of person, and I hope you’ll keep trying."
You can’t really know that you love a person until they’ve wounded or disappointed you, and you’ve chosen to work things out with them. The same seems to be true of how you relate to God, who doesn’t always give you what you want. Genuine love and trust has to be built on the cooperative overcoming of shared difficulties.
You can’t do more for a person than they are willing to do for themselves. Even though it hurts to see them make poor decisions, until their desire or pain is great enough that they’re willing to change, you can’t change them against their will.
The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is apathy.
When making a major life transition or significant move, it’s a good idea to pretend you are preparing for your own funeral. Say all the things to as many people as possible that you’d want them to know. Express as much love and gratitude as you can find time to express. Err on the side of generosity and appreciation.
You don’t control your circumstances or what you’ve been given to work with. You can’t control what others do or how they respond to you. The only thing you fully control is your own actions. Make choices that you can feel peace about, regardless of how people respond to you.
In trying to sort out major life decisions, assuming that you live to see your 70s or 80s, ask yourself, “Which of these things would I be most proud to tell people that I tried to do with my life?” “If I were to develop scars or to wear out my body in some task, what would really be worth the sacrifice?"
We naturally care more about things into which we have poured energy, time, sweat, and blood. If you find yourself apathetic about things which you believe should seem important, examine how much of yourself you’re really investing in these things.
Make sure you are always doing some good things that can’t possibly be traced back to you. It's especially rewarding to do this for your enemies, because it means at some level they are wrong about you, and it helps you to practice loving them anyway.
In a difference of views, it is likely that you misunderstand your opponents as least as much as they misunderstand you. Never portray another person’s position for the purpose of critiquing it until you have first listened to them well enough that you could describe their position and concerns in such a way that they would hear you and say, “Yes, you get where I’m coming from, what I care about, and how I’m understanding this.” Only at the point that you’ve listened sincerely can you really have a productive conversation about your differences.
If you want to become more like Jesus, try treating every person you encounter as if they are Jesus.
Churches spend much time in tension about the value of following rules and principles in opposition to the practice of extending grace and freedom, often using one as an intended antidote for the other. The solution to legalism is not lawlessness, and the solution to lawlessness is not legalism. God has given us both: solid principles upon which to build a meaningful life, and the experience of grace for when we have shortcomings. Both law and grace are gifts to help us grow into the likeness of Christ, and neither should be neglected or devalued. The solution to either lawlessness or legalism is fundamentally a need to know God more deeply, and to become more like Christ.
It is a mistake to assume whatever is new is intrinsically better than what has already been. Likewise, just became an idea has come into popularity does not make it automatically superior to less popular ways of thinking. Chronology and popularity do not always determine value. Things that are true, beautiful, and loving have always been significant, regardless of when or where they have occurred. There is value in knowing about new things, but make time in your life to focus on truly good things. This is part of why God gave us the church; that together we can learn to see what good things transcend time and culture and therefore not waste our lives on lesser things.
Show mercy and forgiveness to people in your life, not only because they need it, but because you need the experience of giving it. Life is too hard to continue shoving stones in your bag of bitterness. Forgiveness must work as a process, acknowledging the painful realities of your experiences while simultaneously reaching for peace and healing. Commit yourself to the process, because in trying to forgive, you become more like God, and it will lighten your soul.
I'm ready to stop talking about Millennials. I couldn't even tell you how long it's lasted, but for years now, every week, I see at least one blog post with "6 Reasons The Young People Are Leaving Your Church" or something like that. Everyone shares it, and we ministers read it and wonder whether we need to start scrambling to adjust our church culture/worship style/social media strategy to the winning approach that is supposedly going to fix this problem, and get younger people filling our buildings.
I'm beginning to wonder if the the big problem with Millennials is not that they haven't accepted our values, but precisely that they have. At least, they've accepted the implicit ones. With our words we said God is important, while our actions often taught otherwise. The message has come through loud and clear that when it comes to personal fulfillment/success/achievement/acceptance, these are essentials without which your life won't mean anything. God is good, but God can wait. In walking away from church, the next generation has simply done what many of the previous generation implied they ought to. But enough about Millennials. Really.
I want us to think about the actual directions these conversations have tended to move churches. When we are in a constant state of pandering to any people group, we are operating from a position of scarcity, and our primary goal is the survival of our institutions. We talk about gloom and doom. We despair over how the church can survive at all if it isn't the majority, controlling the economy and politics of our nation, and we forget Jesus' own language about the church being a narrow path that only a few would find. When churches are caught up in a panic about institutional survival, they hoard money and resources, they make desperate pleas for people to stick around (though they are unable to verbalize why anyone ought to), and above all, they don't take risks. The focus turns totally inward, and it can easily become a hotbed for accusations and tensions, because it eases our consciences if we can find someone to be at fault for what threatens us. We have far too many conversations about who we are trying to attract and hang on to, and far too few conversations about why it is we need them in the first place.
In general, I think we would do well to get away from using language about God "establishing the church." Before the church, there first came the mission, and the commissioning of the church was to fulfill that mission. Wherever the people of God are, because of their willingness to be available to God and God's purposes, good things should start to happen. In the way that salt seasons and preserves, Christians enhance and solidify the best parts of a community. In a way that light shines in the darkness, Christians live so passionately into God's mission that their loving presence is conspicuous. Christ's promise was that we would have abundant life, and the scope of that promise is as much about the present as it is about the future. We are in the work of saving souls, but we are just as interested in redeeming lives. In fact, the two concepts are really inseparable. We prepare best for the next life when we embody in this life the values and ideals by which we intend to live in the presence of God. In other words, "On earth as it is in heaven."
Rather than get caught up in counting our attendance, or fretting so much about what is going to "get more young people in here," what if we started making note of places within our communities, schools, and occupations where there is brokenness, hopelessness, or injustice? Who near your church building is working a dead-end, minimum-wage job, with no options? What if you got to know them, and tried to really understand what life is like for them? What if we committed ourselves to serious efforts to help the lost find hope and better life, regardless of whether they gave us some sort of allegiance in return? What if we undertook such large efforts to partner with God in redeeming what is broken in our world that the only way we could fulfill this mission would be to invite others to help us in the endeavor? What if we started including people to help us in our efforts who don't even know the Lord yet, so that they can learn through their experiences along side us what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Would they finally start to think about eternity when they can see it living within our hearts and overflowing into our actions?
I don't doubt I'll continue to be mindful of how churches can best connect with Millennials, or whatever generation it is that we are supposed to panic about next. I don't pretend that I'll quit noticing things like attendance and contribution at church. But I really hope that first and foremost, we will get completely caught up in the things that God can do if we make ourselves available for his use. If that results in new Christians--and I know it can--then terrific! But let's stop doing things simply because of a desire to placate a certain type of person or to save our institutions. God isn't going away, nor is the mission for which he created his church. God will finish what he has started, and we glorify him best when we do our part to help bring his work into fruition. If we're going to attract anyone to our churches, let's let it be because we have such a large vision for the good of the people around us that we need the extra help. Let's let it be that God's love in our lives is too evident to ignore, and they can't help but wonder what's making us the way that we are. Let's be so committed to the mission that we continue to pursue it, whether or not they show up. We love people because God has loved us, and not because of what we hope to get in return from them.
My friend David Srygley has a new book out on spiritual disciplines. As one committed to the importance of these practices, I was excited to read it, and I'd like to review it here.
Srygley, David. From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the No-So-Monastic Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press, 2014. 161 pages.
Dr. David Srygley is the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. His book, From Cloisters to Cubicles (hereafter CtoC) developed as a result of his doctoral research for his Doctor of Educational Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Some doctoral dissertations, when developed into books, can be too technical for an average reader to be able to read with much benefit. I was pleased that Srygley avoided this pitfall. He has included two appendices at the end of the book that contain more of the theological and pedagogical paradigms he is trying to underscore in his project. So for leaders and thinkers, the brainier stuff is still there, but he made a good decision by putting these resources in the back, rather than making them the introduction.
CtoC contains a helpful introduction to the study, and is followed by thirteen chapters that describe different spiritual disciplines. With each chapter, his goal is to bring a practice from merely an activity in isolation--as if within a monastic cloister--to the regular, daily activities of the person implementing the practice--more like a workplace cubicle. The disciplines he covers are: prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, solitude and silence, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
What makes Srygley's approach unique is that he takes a decidedly missional slant on the role and purpose of the spiritual disciplines. He states in his first chapter, "Spiritual disciplines are not for escaping the world; they are for engaging it!" (emphasis his.) I was pleased that Srygley never steps outside of this framework from chapter to chapter, consistently urging the practice of the disciplines in ways that can be integrated into one's daily routines, balancing internal and external focuses.
Srygley's material draws from a series of classes he presented at Arlington Heights as part of his research, and is written in a way that is intended to be used by the average church member. All chapters end with both discussion questions and journaling suggestions, which is an interesting way to integrate the ideas. Srygley acknowledges his indebtedness to Foster and Willard in particular for the "toolbox" and "textbook" on spiritual disciplines from which he draws. He engages their ideas, but CtoC is not merely a regurgitation of what Foster, Willard, and others have already done. Srygley makes a valuable contribution by encouraging a holistic use of the disciplines that, while interested in helping Christians connect with the divine, does not lose sight of our engagement with the world around us.
The book has few shortcomings, but there are a couple of areas I would humbly suggest. The chapters are all well-written, but fairly brief, and some leave the reader wishing for a bit more. Having said that, because his goal is to engage people who are new to the disciplines, it was important to keep things simple and digestible, even if a bit too brief at points. The book will make a fine starting point, but someone wanting to go further will need to continue seeking more resources. Also, one small point on style: Srygley is an enthusiastic public presenter. Sometimes for energetic speakers, in their effort to write enthusiastically they overuse exclamation points, which I felt occurred a few times. (My own tendency to do this makes me aware of it.) Happily, neither of these things is significant enough to diminish the book's usefulness.
In the future, I would like to see Srygley share more about his experiences in trying to help his congregation implement these practices. He has a passion for the importance of living an intentionally Christ-centered life, with a heart both for bringing the lost into the fold, and helping Christians to mature. I'm excited about what he's already done, and I believe he will continue contributing to this valuable conversation.
In summary, From Cloisters to Cubicles is a great first step for someone who (1) is completely new to spiritual disciplines and wants to have them explained in simple terms, (2) has some working knowledge of the disciplines and is looking for ways to integrate spiritual disciplines into daily routines, or (3) is looking for material to use about spiritual disciplines in a church class setting. I'm grateful to David both for his friendship, and for the good resource he has created in writing this book.