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.