On Facebook I posted an invitation for people to say, in one word each, their concept of church, sermons, and church music. To no one’s surprise but mine, I suppose, the responses were all over the map. With so benign a request, I had unearthed acres of pain and anger about the Lord’s people and His churches. Many of the church’s severest critics are faithful brethren who carry scars from mistreatment by the Lord’s own people, the very ones they had been trusting.
Write a book on “Why I’m Through with the Church Forever,” and you will make money. Even those of us who love the church and have devoted our lives in her service will feel a need to hear what you have to say. But write a book on “Why I Love the Church,” and you’ll end up with a garage full of your efforts. Those who already love the church will “Amen” you, and critics on the outside will mark you off as deluded.
Whether we are a critic or a lover of the church—or for some of us, both—it’s important to remain balanced. Let’s acknowledge that there are both kinds of churches in the world today: good and bad. Strong and weak. Churches that ought to be cloned and some that should be euthanized. And for these moments, let’s focus on the churches which are healthy and strong, faithful and loving, redemptive and full of grace.
There are cases in Scripture of churches getting it right. An incident in Acts 6, comprising only seven verses, is a wonderful illustration of a congregation that faced up to a crisis in a healthy, Christ-honoring way and bore great fruit as a result. Let’s use that Jerusalem church as an object lesson. Here are ten things healthy churches do well, particularly when it comes to dealing with problems.
1. They expect to have problems.
Any growing body will have its share of aches and pains. The Jerusalem church had been basking in the sunshine. All was well. God had sent miracles, new believers were arriving daily, and a sense of contentment settled in upon the leadership. Suddenly, from inside the family, a groan went up. Then it swelled into a chorus of complaints. In the distribution of food for the congregation, the widows received priority. But for some reason, Hebrew widows were getting the lion’s share to the neglect of the Grecian widows. Did someone there say, “Oh no! We have a problem! What are we doing wrong?” Did they panic? Did anyone jump ship because the presence of a problem must indicate they were failing God? Not that we can tell.
Any church will have the occasional problem. Like a growing child, a lively family, or a thriving business, challenges arise within growing enterprises that have to be dealt with. Not only is it not bad, it could be an indication you’re doing something right.
2. They handle criticism well.
The healthiest family will run into a problem from time to time that results in unhappy campers needing to speak up. People who gripe do not think of what they are doing as undercutting their leadership and demoralizing the troops. They are just registering their displeasure at the way something is being done in the church. There is, of course, a healthy way to complain, and there is a type of complaining that is like a cancer in its deadliness, a knife in the cuts and wounds it inflicts, and a slap in the face for the abrupt wake-up it administers.
The pastor of a megachurch in Texas, a man who had led that church from near death to become a powerhouse in the Lord’s work, told me one day that he had a deacon who had fought him on everything he had tried to do. I was stunned. Surely, I thought such a strong pastor would have dealt with that character in short order. But he hadn’t. He never told me why he had left that guy in place, but I think I know. Sometimes unfair criticism can perform a useful function. Others hear it and do not want to be associated with that position. They shrink away from the naysayer and rush to the support and defense of their leaders.
A wise pastor will not panic when he learns someone is criticizing. “Consider the source” is always good advice. The “fix-it” mindset in me wants to say that if we incorporate structures into the church organization so people can register their complaints and suggestions, we will not have the murmuring and bellyaching which drive the leadership nuts.
3. They deal with problems promptly.
One of the differences in healthy and sick bodies is in their promptness in responding to an infection. Some critics can be left alone safely, since the body has walled them off and they will do no harm—and can actually do some good indirectly. Most problems that arise, however, should be dealt with by specific action. A healthy church will either already have a way to deal with problems, criticism, and trouble-makers, or it will find a method quickly when the need arises.
Some years ago, the church I was pastoring received a letter on a Monday morning from a medical doctor and his wife. They had visited our services the previous day, they said, but would not be back. He said we had failed to provide security in the nursery area of the church. The father said, “After church, I walked up to the window and pointed out my child and said, ‘That one,’ and the lady handed her to me.” He said, “Anyone could have done that. She would have given that child to anyone who pointed out my baby.”
That same day, I called a meeting of our leadership to deal with that letter. We all agreed the couple had identified a serious need. We did not leave that room until we came up with a plan for instituting safeguards and a parental-identification system for the nursery. Then I called on the young family and assured them of our appreciation for their letter. They joined our church and became valuable members of our family.
4. They depend on their lay leadership.
Acts 6:3. The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said…“Seek out from among you seven men...”
Preachers do not have to handle every issue themselves. In an unhealthy church, they may have to. “That’s what we pay them for,” I can hear someone saying. No, sir. You do not.
Some ministers are unable to turn over jobs and feel their authority is being undercut if they ask someone else to do anything. This is not authority but a sickness. God does not send His pastoral servants to do everything themselves, but to assist others in finding their spiritual gifts, their calling, their place of service. Problems that arise can provide ideal opportunities for such ministry.
I always loved it when my pastor would say to me, “Joe, such-and-such has arisen and we need to jump on this. Can you get with the teachers in that department and deal with this?” Absolutely. He’s trusting me. He’s doing what he should do—find the right person and delegate the responsibility. Later, it was fun to write a report to him on what we did and how the problem was resolved.
5. The pastoral leadership stays with its divinely-given priorities.
Acts 6:2, 4. “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables... We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
In a healthy body, the head (not the divine “Head,” but the overseer—episcopos) does not stop its activity of receiving information, of thinking and studying, or of learning and analyzing in order to pull another part of the body out of trouble. It stays with its priorities. After all, some other part of the body—an arm, a hand, fingers—is better equipped for rescue work than the head.
One reason so many pastors meet themselves coming and going is that they have misplaced their priorities. They end up printing the bulletin, contacting nursery workers, and filling in for absent teachers. And we wonder why they burn out.
6. The congregation chooses good and godly leaders.
Acts 6:3. “…seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom…”
Nothing speaks to the health of a church like the quality of the people it chooses as its leaders. Take deacons. I’ve seen churches choose able-bodied, mature men of integrity for this work (and more than a few great women, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). And I’ve seen churches—alas, I’ve pastored them—where the congregation chose men on a popularity basis and ended up with well-liked but weak men with no biblical foundation. Pity the pastor who is sentenced to work with leaders who see themselves as big-shots sent to rule over the members and order the ministers but who don’t have a clue as to what the Bible says about anything.
In a typical church, the people will know who the godly men and women are and who does not qualify. As a rule, the pastor will not need to give guidance in the selection of such. What he may need to do, I hasten to add, is to ensure that the process of selecting such leaders is not a popularity contest.
My point is very simple:
7. The congregation supports their leaders and trusts them to do the job.
Once good leaders are chosen, the congregation should get out of their way and let them do the work they were assigned. Invariably, they’ll come in for criticism at some point—it’s the nature of the leadership beast—and will need two things: their pastor to defend them and the congregation to reaffirm their trust.
Even when we do not agree with a decision our leaders have made, affirming that they did their best is still wise. The injunction of Ephesians 5:21 to “submit to one another” has to mean something: Even when we disagree with each other, we are still going to be supportive.
The church which insists on making every decision, great or small, in its monthly business meeting is sentencing itself to dwarfism and its leadership to misery. This is one element in what Ken Hemphill has called “the bonsai theory of church growth” (in his excellent book of the same name).
8. Solutions model Christlikeness.
Acts 6:5–6. And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles....
In his commentary on this passage, John MacArthur writes, “The seven men chosen by the church all had Greek names, implying they were all Hellenists. The church, in a display of love and unity, may have chosen them to rectify the apparent imbalance involving the Hellenistic widows.” I think I’d have said it even more strongly: They chose them for that very purpose!
Sometimes in churches where I’m teaching this text (and it’s almost always a majority-white congregation here in the deep South), I’ll tell them it’s as though the African-American members of the church were complaining that their widows were being neglected in favor of the Anglo widows. So the congregation chose seven black men—all godly and mature—to take charge of the distribution of food. Think of the statement that would make to the church’s own members as well as to the world!
The next time a group of people in your church cry that they are being neglected in ministry, ask yourself what would happen if a representative group of them were put in charge of the work. We need to emphasize that if this is to work, the group must be mature and godly; otherwise it’s a disaster in the making.
9. Problems are dealt with so well that the world is impressed.
Acts 6:7. Then the word spread and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
The outside world was watching. When a problem arose within the membership, some held their breath. This would tell the tale on the Christians. Would they panic and self-destruct? Would the leadership impose a cult-like autocratic rule over the membership? Or would they handle this legitimate issue in the love which they preached?
They got it right. They did it so well that the outside world—lay and priest alike—said, “We like what we see. We want what you have.” No problem which results in this kind of harvest is bad. Any problem which causes the church’s leadership to forget who they are (and Whose they are) and to adopt the world’s way of problem-solving is no friend.
10. Twelve other things happen immediately.
Whenever God’s people do the hard thing in the Lord’s way—when we love the unlovely, when we forgive our attackers, when we love our enemy, when we soldier on in the face of adversity, when we maintain our joy in the midst of disaster and retaliate with love—twelve things begin to happen from that moment.
- God is glorified.
- Jesus is pleased.
- The Holy Spirit is freed to do whatever He had planned.
- The devil is infuriated. This is not going according to plan.
- The enemies are puzzled. You are behaving differently from what they had expected.
- The critics of the church are silenced.
- The church itself is edified and strengthened.
- Church members going through hard times are encouraged and instructed.
- Outsiders are impressed and want some of what they see in you.
- You yourself are blessed.
- Your reward in Heaven is great (Luke 6:35a).
- Your reputation goes through the roof (Luke 6:35b).
Anything that can achieve all of this in one motion has to be considered a blessing indeed!
Most of us have learned to look behind us and thank God for what appeared an insoluble problem but which He turned into a major blessing. The trick is to give thanks in advance, the moment the problem arises. After all, experience has now taught you that these are opportunities for the Lord to do something special. Aren’t we blessed to have such a sovereign, active, blessing-oriented God!