By Daryl Crouch
Does the congregation like your church? Do you like your church?
Does your child like the student ministry? Are people connecting to the music and preaching ministries? Does the schedule work for everyone? I hope you can answer all of these questions with a resounding “Absolutely!”
But if you’re like most of us—whether a congregation member or church leader—there’s often a gap between our preferences, dreams, and goals and what is actually happening day to day in our church family. Just as in every family, there’s always good and bad, and sometimes there’s ugly.
So what are we to do about that gap? Consider these seven responses when things at church aren’t exactly right.
1. Take it to the Lord.
Anxiety and anger aren’t fruit of the Spirit. Instead, the gaps in our ministry are an invitation to turn to the Lord, to ask, seek, and knock, and to trust him to show us that His grace is made perfect in our weaknesses.
So while the limitations of our church are annoying and sometimes hurtful, it seems God uses limitations to call us to Himself.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about the reality of spiritual warfare, he said, “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
That person who isn’t living up to his commitment deserves our prayer before he needs our criticism.
That leader who isn’t meeting our needs is the leader we should pray for the most.
That ministry that isn’t taking off like we expected is the ministry staffed by people who are engaging in a fight for the souls of men, women, boys, and girls who need to be reconciled to God.
Pray without ceasing like eternity hangs in the balance.
2. Clarify your ecclesiology.
Recently, I called a person who had just visited our church. She told me that she and her husband had been active in their last church in another state, but since they had moved to our community, they were really busy.
Although they like a lot of things about our church, they wouldn’t be participating regularly. She remarked, “Your kind of church expects people to participate, and we’ll be too busy for that.”
The word “ecclesiology” means the “study of the church” or the “study of the called out ones.” Many believers, like this woman, view the church as an organization they join, an activity they perform, or an event they attend. They very much view the church from the perspective of a consumer who is looking for a good product.
But the Bible defines it differently. One term the apostle Paul used to describe the local church is a body.
“Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, 25 so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:24-27).
Notice the personal interconnectedness and interdependence Paul described here. The church gathers on Sunday for activities. We do things together. But most basically we are one body depending on one another as we depend on Jesus as Lord and Savior.
3. Hold on to the essentials.
We all have preferences. As a pastor, I have preferences about everything from how the grounds look to how the lighting works to how the Scripture is read during worship to how we follow up with guests. Many of my preferences are important, but they aren’t essential.
The essentials for fellowship are a relatively short list.
For our church, the essentials are found in a doctrinal statement known as The Baptist Faith and Message (2000). This describes in historic terms our core biblical convictions.
While biblical subjects such as the age of the earth, the timeline of Jesus’ Second Coming, as well as more peripheral matters such as music style and schedule of activities are all very important, they don’t rise to the primary position that discourage our fellowship with one another.
For example, just because I don’t love what we’re having for supper at home tonight does not mean I skip supper. The fellowship I share with my family around the dinner table is more important than what’s served on the dinner table. Food is important, but it’s less important than loving my family well.
So it is with a church family. Whenever secondary issues are moved into the primary position, religious consumers will emerge and divisions will grow.
But when we’re clear and immovable on the essentials, we then learn to love one another deeply, we pursue unity as we prefer one another more than ourselves, and we show humility and grace as we find common ground on the non-essentials.
4. Avoid divisive speech.
James said the tongue is like a fire (James 3:6), and a “restless evil full of deadly poison” (verse 8). He went on with some amazement about how difficult it is to tame the tongue, and then he wrote:
“With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).
It’s a destructive thing when we sing God’s praises with one breath, and then gossip about our brothers and sisters created in the image of God with the next. Things shouldn’t be this way (verse 10).
Although love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), sometimes offenses should be addressed, but always with the offender first. In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us clear instructions on this.
If we can’t talk directly to the person with whom we have a problem, we should talk to the Lord about it until we can or until we no longer need to.
5. Deepen relationally.
Rarely does a person who is engaged in deepening, meaningful friendships within the church become so disillusioned with programming, preaching, or ministry priorities that they leave.
Being deeply connected relationally does not mean we ignore problems, it just means we love one another enough to overlook annoying issues and to work through significant problems toward a better solution.
These “iron on iron” friendships also create awareness that other people or secondary issues may not be the biggest problem in our church.
Instead, these loving, accountable relationships call us to look in the mirror for the improvements we long to see in our church. They pose the possibility that we are the bigger gap in the ministry, and they invite us to repent of our sin, to change our attitudes or priorities, and to grow in grace with one another.
6. Engage in the mission.
Over the years, I’ve listened to church members share their frustrations with the church. Many of those frustrations have been legitimate issues that needed attention. I’ve often been relieved that these church members care so deeply about the health of the church.
But I’ve noticed major problems in the church pale when followers of Jesus faithfully share the gospel and make disciples of Jesus, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything He commanded.
So before we get too frustrated with the glaring gaps in our church, we may first consider these questions:
- What lost person am I regularly praying for?
- Who am I engaging in multiple gospel conversations?
- Who am I pouring my life into in order to develop into a faithful follower of Jesus?
- Who has been baptized lately because of my personal devotion to the Great Commission?
- Who am I equipping to live on mission with Jesus?
We all have different gifts, but we all have the same calling to make disciples of Jesus who live for His kingdom wherever we live, work, and play. That’s not a program. That’s not an event. That’s a way of life.
And when believers walk in this way of life, Jesus grows a vibrant, life-giving, grace-filled, multiplying, disciple-making culture in our church.
7. Weather the seasons.
Sometimes I want to quit. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any impact at all. Sometimes I doubt whether God is doing anything through my church or me. But I’m not the first person to struggle with those feelings, so Paul wrote:
“Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10)
Faithfulness does not mean we settle for mediocrity, but it does mean we learn to trust God through the seasons of life.
My kids don’t always get it right, but I don’t quit on them. My marriage will go through dry seasons, but I don’t quit on my wife. My friendships will ebb and flow, but I endure through the seasons.
Church is a family, and as we keep planting, nurturing, loving, and investing without giving up, God will grow something greater than we can imagine in us personally and through our faith family.
DARYL CROUCH (@darylcrouch) is senior pastor of Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.