Healthy Churches


There is a sure and simple way to tell if your church is in poor health.
It is ‘better’ than the more common methods because it can indicate
trouble ahead, while the church still appears to be thriving. It is an
‘early warning system’. If taken seriously and acted upon, it can be used
to save your church from continued decline and fatal illness.

The traditional ‘signs of decline’ – falling numbers, aging membership,
missing young people, diminishing incomes – are merely symptoms, not the
cause of a church’s sickness. And by the time they are evident it is
almost too late to restore the church to health. At best, it will be a
difficult and painful road to recovery.

What is the most accurate indicator to your church’s life expectancy? It
is the extent to which your church is dependent on its minister. If your
minister’s or pastor’s presence and involvement are virtually essential to
its worship, teaching, leadership and administration your church’s days
are numbered. This is the primary cause of sickness and even death in
twenty first century churches. All over this country such churches are
dying. And the tragedy is this – most of these churches are dying at their
own hands.

All over Australia churches are being killed by ‘good ministers’. How
could this be? Because what church members mean by ‘good ministers’ is a
world away from what the Scriptures say about ‘good ministers’.
Essentially, this situation is not the fault of our ministers themselves.
For many of them, their understanding of their role, and their day to day
practice, has been deeply shaped by church members’ wishes, preferences,
expectations, and quite often, demands.

Within Protestant churches this process has been at work for over 400
years, since the Reformation. That landmark event, brought immense
benefits, especially access to the Scriptures for ‘ordinary people’. But
unfortunately, it did not bring much more than lip service to the Biblical
truth of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ i.e. that all Christians are
gifted for ministries which God intends them to fulfill.

Consequently, in today’s typical church the members assist the minister to
conduct the church, instead of ministers assisting members to be the
church.

A typical church may have 100 members and one minister. Biblically
understood, it should have 100 ministers and one ‘enabler’, or several
enablers.

The reason why minister-dependency is fatal for a church is that it means,
in effect, that the church is in ‘maintenance mode’. This should never
have been acceptable, but in the past the serious consequences of being in
maintenance mode were not so obvious.

During post-reformation Christendom, churches in the western world were
generally regarded as part of the community furniture – essential
institutions, like schools, hospitals, courthouses and banks. Every
respectable community should have one! Most members of those communities
wanted to be christened, married and buried by a church. In such a climate
it was easy to believe that in the church the role of the minister was the
role of primary importance.

But that era is gone. Not just going, but gone. Gone thirty years ago,
gone last century! Most of our churches today are products of an era that
is well and truly past! This is very sobering, and it is crucial that we
ponder carefully what that means. But even more deadly is the fact that
many churches continue, in this new era, to function as though the best
thing that can happen to them is to have a ‘good minister’. Such churches
are writing their own death warrants!

Unprecedented social change, and much more vigorous competition from other
faiths and philosophies mean that if a church is in maintenance mode it is
terminally ill. The end, as in all such cases, is only a matter of time.
To thrive and to grow and, much more importantly, to fulfill God’s
purposes for us, we must no longer be chaplains to Christendom but
missionaries to paganism. And by the way, paganism is not necessarily
savagery or witchcraft. The essence of paganism is idolatry. By this
definition Australia is a pagan country.

But to be minister-dependent, or to see the minister’s role as more
important than the members’ lives and giftedness, is not to be in
missionary mode at all. For a church to be in missionary mode means that
the crucial agenda is to discover, develop, and fully employ the gifts of
every member, both within and outside the organised life of the church.

It means understanding that the ministry of a church is not primarily what
the minister does but what the members do and say in every situation in
which they find themselves on every day of every week. It means
recognising the significance of our members’ daily lives and equipping
them to honour God and share His love in their everyday situations. It
means commissioning them, in our services, to their spheres of daily
involvement and influence, just as we would commission missionaries going
overseas.

And it means recognising that potentially, (but so often unrecognised),
there are already within our congregations the evangelists, church
planters, prophets, teachers, disciple-makers, intercessors and helpers of
all kinds crucial to a church being in missionary mode. To believe in the
face of all this, and in view of the world in which we now live, that the
role of the minister is the only role we should take seriously is to
ensure the quick demise of our churches.

Churches in missionary-mode must make the utmost use of every gift and
ministry of every member God has given them. To do this, a major change of
thinking and practice will be necessary on the part of members and
ministers alike.

It is not possible, within this article, to consider all that this would
mean; but a few recent practical observations highlight the need.

For example, forty percent of the one third of the Australian population
who believe in God, Jesus and the Bible but don’t go to church, are former
church members.

Traditionally (and still) we have felt that if people did not attend
church it was because they were not believers. But the reality today is
that a significant proportion of non-attenders who are spiritually minded
were once with us. Are these people hard to please, rebellious, fickle,
disobeying God? Some perhaps. But increasingly faced with a church on
Sunday that has nothing to do with life on Monday they are quietly
withdrawing.

Forty years ago such a response, which is a protest, would have been
unthinkable. But faced with the daily pressures of attempting to honour
the Lord in pagan workplaces and neighbourhoods they are realising that
‘going to church’, per se, is not enough. Whether it is enough depends not
on whether they go but on what happens when they get there.

God has not asked us simply to ‘hold services’ or to ‘go to church’. He
wants us to meet frequently in order to please him, share our news,
encourage one another, learn from him together, develop friendships, play
and perhaps eat together, pray for one another, ask questions of our
preachers, share our experiences, and anything else that will better
enable each of us to honour the Lord day by day for another week (see
Hebrews 10:23-25).

God intends us not to be actively involved in ‘attending church’ but in
furthering His Kingdom. Our gatherings are to be to that end. We who have
been attending church all our lives must ask ourselves the question ‘what
does God intend His people to do when they meet?’

God is not very interested, I believe, in our ‘service of worship’ but in
our ‘worship of service’, ie, the way we honour him in our daily lives. If
we do not meet to equip each other for this, and those who attend are
little more than passive observers, we have not achieved much more than to
hold a sacred concert.

Being overly dependent on our minister includes wanting him or her to be
our teacher, worship leader, celebrant, convenor, conductor and religious
official. This is a major cause of the failure of our services and
meetings to meet the needs or to develop the gifts of Christians who
genuinely want to further God’s Kingdom. Eventually, in quiet desperation,
they leave us, and our church takes another step closer to it’s grave.

Meanwhile these people look, often in vain, for a church that takes them,
their gifts, ministries and their desire to serve the Kingdom seriously.
They look for a church that won’t just ‘use’ them but will support and
enable them in pursuing the causes and concerns God has placed in their
hearts. Some attempt to create such churches themselves. Others just give
up, and join the growing number of ex-church refugees. What a tragedy all
this is when we consider that well established churches are in a better
position than any others, in terms of resources, to invest, even to risk,
some of their money, property and people-power to launch new, alternative,
unconventional forms of church which today are so desperately needed.

No superficial innovation will prevent the decline of a minister-dependent
church. No new liturgy, different music, new songs, decor, venue or order
of service will suffice. If church members continue to place unbiblical
expectations on their minister, and if the minister takes such a role upon
him or herself, such ministry will be a fatal distortion of what church is
all about, and today, more quickly than ever, will lead to that church’s
death.

Many Christians today are realising they are not simply spectators,
supporters or preacher fodder. They see that in God’s economy, they are in
fact his ministers. Consequently, even in large churches regarded as
successful, the number of people going out the back door often almost
equals the number coming in the front.

Don’t wait for all the symptoms of sickness to appear. You can tell if
your church is dying, even while it appears to be well. Better to take
it’s pulse now, and if necessary, trust God to help you and your fellow
members take life-saving action.

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