Five Prescriptions for Congregational Health
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When a church gets sick, we often cast about for ways to cover up our symptoms, or to feverishly inject the untested trial drugs of our times. And yet we remain ill. But whatever the reasons for unhealth within your church, these five prescriptions will help set the baseline for healing. These medicines are biblical, ancient, and curative. They aren’t partisan or pushy. They aren’t experimental or necessarily flashy, and they require humility. But they bring healing.
1. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ
I hear a lot of sermons as I travel around, and I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my lifetime. Unfortunately, many of the sermons I hear are not Gospel. I heard it said in a church once that “God raised up America to save the world.” On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve heard sermons that seem to say that we have to save the world through systemic social change. Ironically, these things are said in front of a cross and an altar, which signify that God actually raised Jesus to save the world, not America and not social programs.
A common sermon theme is “Why we are smarter and better than unbelievers and should be proud of ourselves” and many could be entitled “Ten Ways to Look and Act Like Everything is Okay So You Can Be Accepted Here.” I’ve heard moral talks, inspirational rhetoric, pharisaical posturing, psuedo-biblical code breaking lectures and scholarly arguments. Sadly, I’ve preached these things myself. But when we do this, the Gospel itself gets lost in all the posturing, rhetoric and moralism.
The Church exists because of the incarnation, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loves Americans (and all peoples) and social programs are important. Our behaviors toward other people and ourself matter. But our message and experience is that we can’t save ourselves. That God saves us, gathers us, forgives and heals us. Our Faith is that the Holy Spirit fills us and empowers us. Our understanding of human nature is that we are made in God’s image, but fallen. We need God. We need each other. We need the Church.
And every human being needs Jesus Christ. He is the savior of the world, he is the Word of God, he is the unique and only God/man. He is Lord. People need salvation, and salvation in Christ is what the whole Bible is ultimately about.
Preach that. Preach it again and again. Preach it in different ways, through a multitude of stories, and in various settings. Preach it, talk about it, meditate on it, and center your church life around it. Keep on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by sermon, by catechesis, and by kind acts and loving service. Trust that preaching the Gospel will begin a process of healing.
2. Tell the truth
Begin to tell the truth. Churches can become places where people are secretly dominated by small cadres (often at odds with other cadres). Churches can become places where abuse or manipulation are covered up, often with what seems like good intentions. Talk about failings and foibles. Become open about struggles and challenges. Tell the people about mistakes the leadership has made, or regrets you may have. Its time to end triumphalism and speak about the fact that we are not yet living in a perfect world, and that we Christians are a part of the brokenness. And yet we have found healing and forgiveness in Christ.
Create small groups or other space where people can talk openly about their lives. Don’t jump in quickly to correct everything people say. Learn to listen to people, and to hear what they are saying as people.
Tell the truth about our mission. Be upfront that our mission is to love our community, to serve people in the name of Jesus Christ, with the hope that everyone might “come within the reach of his saving embrace.” Don’t hide that mission or obscure it. Put it upfront. The people in our communities will appreciate the honesty.
Tell the truth about our limitations. We can’t do everything. We are limited. We are human. And each local church is one part of the worldwide church. Together we are the Church, and each local church has the fullness of the Spirit. And yet we aren’t each called to do everything. We have to trust other faithful Churches, and accept our limits.
Tell the truth to power. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat with the Gospel. Speak the truth to the powerful institutions in the culture.
3. Spend time together
Jesus gathered his disciples, and they spent the next 3 1/2 years together. The Twelve and his discipleship group travelled with him. They talked, they prayed, they ate, they slept. And the early Church continued that pattern of living life together. Not just during worship or in classes. But just time together as people. There is no substitute for people eating together, laughing together, and sometimes crying together.
Often in churches, we think of time together as secondary to teaching times, or working times. Over the years, its been hard to convince people that small groups or social events don’t always have to have a Bible study attached to them in order for them to have meaning.
We are formed into a community by time together, especially free time. Have you ever gone to a conference that had no free time scheduled? People end up resenting the fact that all of their time is programmed, and that they didn’t have a chance to kick back and relax with colleagues or friends. Churches can often make that same mistake.
People need to be able to just be people, and if the church is going to be a true community (not a manufactured one), then people need free space and time.
However, let’s be honest (see prescription #2), we church people have a history of guilting people into being at every single church event, including the free time events! So before adding social programming to the church schedule, please read prescription#4…
4. Set the table
Guilt. Fear. Shame. These are things that Jesus came to heal and deliver us from. And yet we often fall back on them to motivate people to do things. And yet that is how this human world motivates people. Thats not gospel.
Gospel doesn’t force-feed people, or scare them into eating their vegetables, or guilt them into eating all their food by reminding them that other people are starving. Instead, the Gospel sets the table with good, healthy food, and invites people to try some.
“Come to me all you labor, and I will give you rest.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Our programs and community life are not God. God is present there, but he is also present in other places in people’s lives. If a couple is taking care of their elderly grandparents, and so they can’t serve on the church board, that’s not a problem. If a Dad coaches baseball on Saturdays, isn’t it understandable if he misses the volunteer cleaning day? People are often doing good things when they miss church events. Or maybe that particular event isn’t really their thing. Or maybe their work commute has physically exhausted them. Or maybe we aren’t doing a good job of providing helpful events. Could be a lot of reasons. But the point is that we have to be responsive rather than demanding, and inviting rather than pushy.
We need to set the table with healthy food for each other’s spiritual, social, emotional, mental and physical health. We do this with great opportunities for worship and service, counsel and activity, fellowship and prayer, fun and mission. But we don’t need to guilt or force feed people. Our job is to set the table with beautiful, healthful, and tasty opportunities. If the food is good, and if we are becoming healthy because of it, people will partake.
5. Tear down the Us/Them barrier
Jesus came to break down every barrier, through his own person. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation for any person who has faith in Christ and repents. Thats it. Paul said that baptism is for Jew, Greek, Slave, Free, Male and Female. Paul wasn’t suggesting that baptism erases our differences or automatically destroys social inequalities without any effort. But he was showing us that the Church is not based on any one ethnicity or social group. Every person in the world is called to believe in Jesus and follow him.
And the Bible shows us that original sin is universal. We are all fallen creatures. And even after a person becomes a Christian, he still remains a fallen creature.
What does all of this have to do with healthy congregations? Well, if we take original sin and the universal call of salvation seriously, we will see our community differently.
In many churches, we talk about the “culture” or the “community” around us as if we aren’t a part of it. And yet we are supposed to be “in” the world, yet not “of” the world. If we are raised within a culture, and live in a community, we are that community. Along with other people in our towns and cities, we are the people.
Yes, we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, we have the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t turn us into a different class of people or eradicate our cultural formation. And God never intended salvation to destroy our humanity. He intends to redeem it.
So a crucial medicine for healing a congregation is to start seeing our neighbors, co-workers, and friends as people just like us. Break down the barrier of religious pride that forces us to pretend that we have all of the answers. That we are morally superior. That we are “insiders.”
A healthy, gospel centered church will think of itself as a part of the community around it. It will be “in” the community and the culture. It will find ways to communicate with the community, and love the culture that affirm the truth and beauty that are found there. Following our Lord’s example, it is only through incarnation that the the Church can share the “not of this world” Gospel that we believe.
So break down that Us verses Them barrier. Talk to folks. Listen to folks. Share life with folks. And you will bring Jesus with you as you go.
These five simple prescriptions are the path of healing. In our time and in our generation, we need churches to live the Gospel. Our communities (including us) need healing. And only Jesus Christ can give that healing. It takes humility, but our health is worth it and our world needs us to be healthy in Christ.
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