Thursday, November 01, 2007

Restoring Health to an Unhealthy Church: Why Attempt It?

Many pastors and church leaders think that any effort to lead a church back to more radically biblical health is a fool's errand and should only be attempted by...well, by fools. Sometimes this sentiment is fueled by pastoral and ecclesiological naivete. There is no perfect church and even the healthiest must constantly pursue greater spiritual health. It is, as the reformers said, "the church reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God."

For others, antipathy toward working for radical reformation in a local church arises from painful experiences. More than a few good men have seen their efforts lead a church to more spiritually healthy pathways blow up in their faces. The stories from some of those situations seem more fitting for a Stephen King novel than for ecclesiastical history.

Physical attacks, financial threats, lawsuits, newspaper articles, denominational intimidators, emotional and verbal abuse are only some of the methods that have been marshaled against efforts to lead a church to spiritual health. At this point I suppose it is necessary to give the obligatory notice that pastors and other church leaders have also inflicted some serious harm on churches by unwise and un-Christlike attitudes and actions in the name of reformation. That has happened. It does happen and it is shameful and indefensible.

Nevertheless, what I have witnessed leads me to conclude that the great majority of the difficulties that come from efforts to pursue biblical renewal churches arise primarily from the entrenched carnality that permeates the ethos of many congregations today. If, as has been repeatedly argued here, the majority of our churches are filled with unregenerate members, then it only stands to reason that when biblical and spiritual course corrections are proposed in a church that a sizeable number of the members will not like it. If carnal, Christless appetites and inclinations have been made to feel at home in a church by giving them a religious veneer, then when that veneer is removed by the true Gospel the godlessness underneath gets exposed. Often that exposure resembles the reaction of smoldering embers to an influx of oxygen. The results can be pyrotechnic.

Given all of this, why in the world should a pastor attempt to lead his church toward renewed spiritual health? Why not just shake the dust from your feet of established churches and give yourself exclusively to planting new churches? Or why not limit your sense of calling to serve churches that already display encouraging signs of real spiritual life and health? Why attempt the work of biblical re-formation in a local church?

I have addressed this in broader terms a few years ago in an article entitled, "Why Work for Reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention?" Much of what I wrote there pertains to the more narrowly focused question of this post. Beyond a doubt, the greatest reason is found in the attitude, teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ deserves to have the churches that bear His Name to walk worthy of His honor. His agenda for the local church ought to be carried out at any and all costs. Where that agenda has been forsaken, for whatever reason, those who love Christ should seek to have it restored.

In our day of quick fixes and instant gratification it can be a challenge to develop and maintain a long-term perspective on church life. Patience may still be a virtue but it tends to be a bothersome one that we would just as soon not have to cultivate in our efforts to do what we judge to be important. In this regard the late James Boice was correct when he noted that we tend to overestimate what God will do in 1 year and underestimate what He will do in twenty.

But that is not the perspective of our Lord. Jesus demonstrates incredible patience with His people, both individually and corporately. After all, He did not kill me before I completed this post (or you before you read down to this line) though there is enough sin remaining in me to justify such swift judgment. He is similarly patient with His churches.

We tend to give up on churches too quickly and write them off as beyond recovery. Some, undoubtedly, are. But probably not as many as we would like to think. Serious problems in a church are no reason to abandon it. Think about this for a moment.

Would you be willing to pastor a church that nauseates Jesus? Would you even be willing to remain a member of such a church? What about one that is self-deceived? Or what if it is spiritually lukewarm, or has a prominent member who is a known adulterer and promotes fornication and adultery? Would you consider a call to a congregation that is blatantly hypocritical, or is spiritually dead? Most of us would probably cringe at the thought of trying to minister in churches like these.

Yet, these are the very kinds of churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3. Some of them were simply wicked. Our Lord speaks plainly about the sinfulness of five of them. The charges He brings against them are incredible. Yet, He comes to them to warn them and call them to repent. He has not yet given up on them, though He does indeed threaten to remove the lamp stand from among them (2:5) unless they repent. Nevertheless, before He takes the step of unchurching them He calls them to biblical renewal. By His letters He works for the recovery of their spiritual health.

If our Lord is willing to take this kind of attitude toward spirituall sick churches, then so should His servants. In any church that has not completely died, there remain some of Christ's sheep mixed in with the goats and the wolves. They need a shepherd--one who will lead them back to the paths of the Chief Shepherd.

In order to "strengthen the things that remain" one must be willing to engage the work of biblical reformation in local churches. Is this kind of work hard? Of course it is. Is it for everyone? Not necessarily. But it will be for some, whom the Lord equips and providentially guides to enter into churches that are in severe need of a biblical course correction. Such men should be willing to attempt it.


Darby Livingston said...

Spoken like a true ambassador for Christ. As a church planter, I've often heard the line, "It's easier to give birth than raise the dead" as a justification to plant churches. What we tend to forget is that every church began as a plant. As a church planter who has stayed put for seven years (so far) in the same church, striving to plant other churches, I think people are people. If the government of the church is biblical, and the gospel is central, I think any church can be nursed to greater spiritual health.

David Wilson said...

"In this regard the late James Boice was correct when he noted that we tend to overestimate what God will do in 1 year and underestimate what He will do in twenty."

So true, so true.

Broken said...

As a confirmed house church leader, I certainly agree with your sentiments. We ought never to accept simply what is when the Spirit calls to better things.

Brian R. Giaquinto said...

Thank you for this post, and for your efforts to keep the resolution on church integrity to the forefront. In the article, Why Work For Reformation in the SBC?, the opening question rang true for me, "Why stay in the SBC?" Currently, I am a 34 year old Southern Baptist pastor who will be continuing my education at Southern (due to my Reformed beliefs) very soon. As I've made plans to attend, the nagging voice in the back of my head tells me to pick another school because the SBC is too far gone.

Over the past few months, God has placed several materials in my path that have developed a greater love for the SBC. The first was the book Why I Am a Baptist by Tom Nettles and Russell Moore. The other was the aforementioned article. Thanks to your post and article, I have been swayed to stay as long as God allows.

Jim Pemberton said...

The church that develops a "status quo" and seeks to live by it stagnates. It's true that no church is perfect. That's why we should never be quite satisfied, but yearn to make the changes that improve the function, goals, activities and methods for spiritual development in our local congregations. We are to be satisfied with God, but we must be a restless lot as long as we have work to do.

I look forward to this series as a challenge to continue to reform and grow in faith as a church.

Tom said...


We must give ourselves to both church planting and church renewal.


Keep pressing on, brother!


Steve said...

"A fool's errand" just about fits the attempts to repair the church I grew up in. A bold pastor brought the issue to a head, and the resulting coflicts at least served the Kingdom of Christ by moving the young and energetic to more fruitful places of service.

GUNNY said...

darby livingston wrote:
"If the government of the church is biblical, and the gospel is central, I think any church can be nursed to greater spiritual health."

I agree ... BUT those are HUGE ifs!


I think many have experienced that same church, even if it had a different shingle out front.

I've seen firsthand a church with the spiritual gift of reform-resistance. It successfully fought off the efforts of 2 pastors over a combined 14 years of diligence and I understand pastor #3 is having trouble while still on his "honeymoon."

I agree with Tom that both renewal and planting are needed, but it's a delicate issue to know which route to take for the individual pastor.

Both roads have peril and reward along the way. Of course, it's probably not a bad idea for each pastor to try his hand at each at least once in his pastoral lifetime.

If you want to experience the fellowship of the Shepherd's sufferings, trying to be the under-shepherd in both scenarios would really contribute to that end.

Charles said...

In the same way it is worth restoring a sick loved one back to health, the same should go for the church. The problem is, where take our loved one to the doctor, we try to heal the church ourselves. For help in this area, take a look at this website: