Monday, March 21, 2005

Healthy Churches

I first heard Bob Russell speak during a North American Christian Convention. Since that day, I have followed his ministry with interest and admiration. No "ifs," "ands," or "buts," God has used him to build a great church. Over the years I've stolen sermon ideas from Bob. His tapes and written pieces instruct me and help me in my own ministry. I've had the opportunity to know him personally and I've always found him gracious and insightful.

With that in mind, Bob has an article entitled "A Healthy Church" in the March 27 "Lookout." As usual, he is right on target. He says, "A healthy church puts a proper emphasis on both evangelism and edification. When the pendulum swings too far to one side or the other the church loses its equilibrium and becomes unbalanced and unhealthy." As the article progresses, Bob notes that large churches are accused of being "a mile wide an and inch deep." (I can't for the life of me think of anyone who said such a thing! Sarcasm noted!)

For all of the centuries of its existence, there has been tension over the question, Is the church for the many or the few? One form of the question focuses on the tension between reaching the lost and teaching the saved. It is a natural tension stemming from the Great Commission itself. After all, Jesus told his followers to "go make disciples" and "teach them...." Over the centuries, one can see a cycle of expansion and contraction. During the times of expansion, the church is effectively reaching the lost. Times of contraction are usually times when the church is solidifying its gains through teaching. I will admit, too, that contraction also occurs when the church is under duress, but the careful observer will see the pendulum swinging between outreach and teaching.

What I have called for is a balancing of the pendulum -- stopping the swing. A healthy church will see both outreach and edification. In my view, however, the emphasis for the last score of years has been and remains outreach. Is that bad? Not at all, but if there is little or no effective teaching of both content and application there is the danger of making Christians who are every bit as worldly as those added during the Middle Ages by conquest or people movements. Charlemagne "won" thousands with a sword at their throat who were told, "Convert or die!" At that point those defeated foes replied, "No one ever explained the Gospel to me so clearly!" The difference today is that instead of incorporating people by force, we win too many to a kind of "culture Christianity" that makes few demands, provides little discipline, and certainly downplays discipleship.

I'm not sure how you measure balance in a church. Southeast Christian Church regularly counts 18,000 in weekend worship but fewer than 5,000 are in weekend Bible classes (according to the last statistics I saw). I'm not being critical, I'm just stating a fact. Perhaps another thousand or more are in small groups, but as I've maintained before, you rarely teach biblical content in a small group. SECC is not unusual. Most of our mega-churches have less than 40% in a weekend Bible class. Many have no Bible classes for adults at all! Where is the balance in that?

It is sad to see congregations where "the unbeliever has no entry point and the church goes for months without anyone being born again." Bob is right when he says "the result [of that] is not a body of spiritually mature Christians but a bunch of disgruntled, borning, self-righteous, bickering old coots." (Now that I minister in Sun City, I'm a bit sensitive to any identification of "old coots.")

It is just as sad to see huge congregations of worldly Christians where excitement is king but the message of transformation and discipleship makes little impact. From my experience, that does not happen at Southeast but it does happen elsewhere. When references to the gathering for worship are casually clled "the show" and performance is key you have to ask what is going on. Is this time set aside for genuine worship or is it merely another attraction for seekers?

Bob wrote, "A church without any baby Christians lacks joy and fervor. It's boring! The long-time members aren't deepening -- they're often stagnating and instinctively sense something is wrong. New believers make church work thrilling and refreshing." Right on! I would agree with that. Here, however, there is a "but." If a church focuses on "the show" and makes little provision for "deepening the life" they can become like the Corinthians to whom Paul said, "I could not write unto you as spiritual but as to worldly -- mere infants in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1).

My point is that we have come to a place in our history where we no longer believe biblical content is important. Few of us can preach the "meaty" messages a Bob Russell preaches. Most of the time, mega-church preachers focus on the "practical" and the "self-help" message. As congregations build their new superstructures to house the mega-church, they are investing thousands upon thousands of dollars in theatrical lighting, sound, and high-tech special effects with comparative little on facilities for Christian education and discipleship. How a church spends its money demonstrates its commitment. In years gone by, churches spent most of their money on themselves for their own comfort and upon facilities where effective teaching could take place (not that it always did). Now the pendulum has swing. When Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute built its new facility it made no provision for adult education space and it released the minister responsible for that program. A congregation in Evansville, Indiana, made no provision for adult education in its new facility intending to depend on small groups. First Christian Church in Canton, a church built to greatness through the Sunday School, is reducing the availability of meeting rooms for adult classes and plans to consolidate classes. These examples are just the "tip of the iceberg."

We are at a place in our history where the church may be swallowed by culture if we are not careful. In my view, a healthy church is a growing church but it is also a feeding church. When I look at the growing list of mega-churches, I rejoice! But I also tremble at the tremendous responsibility these churches have to truly "make disciples" of all those reached. It is not an "either, or" but a "both, and" responsibility Christ gave to his followers. Let's never quit focusing on winning new people, but let's never forget that Jesus didn't tell us just to go "baptize heathens" but to "make disciples" and making disciples requires a lot more than spinning turnstiles, splashing water, and people streaming down the aisle! It will require an investment in time, talent, and treasure to get the job done!


Anonymous said...

I just wanted you to know, I with you on this. --Hawkeye Gold

Anonymous said...

The bad news're right.

The good news is...I'm glad you're not leading the charge with your solutions. From what I've read here, you've proved in Canton you had no answers either.

Oh I get it, that's why you're allowed to teach at Bible Colleges and haven't actually done anything, you just have cynical thoughts and ideas. Sorry, it all makes sense now.

BTW, bring Hawkeye down to AZ with ya. He needs a job and obviously knows how to kill a church as well.

Anonymous said...

You may want to check Southeasts Wed home group numbers which are over 5000 also - I would say any church who has more than 50% of their body in bible studies is very healthy!

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