Ok, so there's no such thing as a perfect church.
What can we do to make our congregation a Christ-honoring, people-strengthening local assembly?
Christian thinkers and ecclesiastical leaders and ordinary church members would do well to consider the idea of balance as a pathway toward spiritual maturity and congregational effectiveness. Some examples follow.
For instance, maybe church health should be emphasized just as much as church growth. Over the past 50 years the big push has been on getting more and more people into our buildings and onto our membership rolls. That's a good thing(unless we're just swapping members) because Jesus mandated that we share the Gospel and win others to him. The entire New Testament pulsates with the call and challenge of evangelism. Local assemblies should never be content without consistently reaching out to new individuals with the life-transforming message of Christ and accepting them into the fellowship.
But numbers and swelling attendances alone never tell the whole story about a church's success. Sometimes growing and exciting congregations can be dysfunctional and unhealthy on the inside, just like some families. Converts must become disciples who are steadily moving toward greater Christlikeness, which is the true standard of measure. When that is the case there will be increasing trust, intimacy, joy, unity and peace. There will be fewer secrets and less strife. More spiritual fruit will show up, like gentleness and patience and faithfulness. There will be less running away and off to some other church when conflicts or misunderstandings or disagreements arise and more staying with it and working through to cooperation and harmony. Maybe one reason why so many congregations are splitting and declining is that we bought into some American cultural idea that success is evaluated solely on the basis of competition and productivity and expansion and we neglected to pay attention to the inner quality of life in our churches.That is,spiritual depth that only come from intense prayer, wrestling with temptation, working to really grasp the scriptures, and being accountable to one another in the body of Christ.
Perhaps that's why the tandem relationship of truth and grace is so crucial. Jesus modeled that for us according to John 1:17. Paul encouraged it as a tool of ministry in Ephesians 4:15. Some folks are good at telling you the truth but do so without much tenderness or compassion. It comes across as arrogance or condescension and leaves you cold. Others are sweet and humble but are afraid to tell you what you really need to hear. They actually shortchange you by their reluctance to confront and be honest with you. Both sides of the coin are desperately needed in our local assemblies and in the larger Christian community. On one hand we're shouting at one another on the cultural scene. On the other hand we're often afraid to stand up for our convictions and raise a prophetic voice on critical societal issues. We can learn from the example of Jesus in John 8:1-11 how to dispense both truth and mercy. He gave an adulterous woman a strong dose of truth when he told her to "go and sin no more." He offered her sensitivity and understanding and kindness when,in the same sentence, he refused to condemn her. Imagine what it would be like for our congregations to become laboratories where truth and grace freely mix and bring release from old habits and sin patterns and flaws in a loving atmosphere of patience and acceptance in which individuals are constantly challenged to stretch and grow but where the very air breathed is not harsh legalism but prayerful compassion.
Let's not forget, either, that the balance of both inward and outward focus is significant.
Churches must take care of their own. That means developing programs that will build believers up in their faith. It also means attending to the needs of those within the fellowship who are sick, grieving, doubting, lonely, and struggling. It's essential that fellow church members enjoy times of fun and laughter and social outings among themselves that strengthen ties and closeness,too.
But if we ignore those on the outside we fail in our mission. If everything we plan and do is for those already there we miss the point. We can get so comfortable in the trappings of congregational life and so enmeshed in the goings-on of our particular assembly that we don't even see people on the other side of our walls. We can actually become religious country clubs. We have our own verbiage, our own systems and policies and traditions and we can get to the place where we don't want any of that disturbed by having to make intentional, concerted efforts to reach out in various ways to attract outsiders who are not like us. Congregations should instead be wired to be constantly brainstorming about fresh, innovative projects and ministries to impact lives(whether they end up at our church or not!) and mobilizing teams to take initiative and go out to people and extend loving hearts and helping hands. The personal mission statement of Jesus in Luke 19:10 ought to become ours.
One other thing. We simply must, in our preaching, teaching, and faith-sharing, find a way to balance saying the hard stuff along with the bright, positive stuff. There's no doubt that we've got a lot of joyful ideas to pass on. The very word "gospel' means good news. We must talk about how Christ can change sinners by his death on the cross which provides forgiveness and freedom from guilt and the fear of death. We need to speak about how day-to-day living can be abundant and victorious because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us to comfort, empower, motivate, and guide. The joyful expectation of eternal life in a new heaven and new earth should be frequently discussed as well as the miraculous and sometimes just ordinary ways that God intervenes in our lives now.
But we've got to be real and transparent, too. We've got to jettison plastic smiles and fake hallelujahs and often glib answers and sometimes present the more unpleasant realities that the scriptures reveal. That'll mean talking more about sin. About God's wrath. About judgement, and, yes, Hell. If we're honest, it'll include talking about suffering, and sacrifice, and serving. About how God doesn't always heal or keep us from pain or make us materially prosperous.Even about how sometimes we may experience those "dark nights of the soul" when we can't feel the presence of God at all or go through those seasons where we struggle with problems and wonder where in the world God is. John 16:33 is very helpful here. It certainly doesn't sugarcoat things. It gives us the hope we crave, though. Many Christian commentators are saying that we need to do a better job of preparing believers for hardship that may be coming. I tend to agree.
So, your church isn't going to be perfect.Ain't gonna happen. But with some delicate balancing acts in the Spirit, it can be a soul-nourishing congregation. Perhaps we need the jarring words of 1 Peter 4:12-19 to shake us out of lethargy and selfish desire to use Christ and the Church to just get our own needs met and rather step out into a whole new dimension of Christian living and churchmanship.