I get it. This is not a very nice or appropriate title for an article. It’s a bit pejorative and judgmental and doesn’t sound very much like Jesus. However, I’m quoting a pastor who called recently to seek counsel about a congregation he has been called to as a transitional pastor. He is seeking to guide them from an extremely dysfunctional way of doing church toward a healthier and more hopeful model.
The exact quote was: “What I’ve discovered is that for many years, this church has been catering to the crazies and allowing the lowest common denominator to be their rule.”
Regardless how you choose to say it, he has diagnosed an illness that is at the heart of this congregation and many, many others. Too often, we allow the least mature, least differentiated, and least Christ-like individuals to set the emotional climate of a congregation.
In order to appease and be seen as “gentle in spirit,” churches are prone to get emotionally hijacked by bullies, narcissists and the self-absorbed. Our efforts to be sensitive and responsive to the loudest voices can easily become a willingness to cater to their whims, preferences and idiosyncrasies. We slow down or derail healthy initiatives to try and bring aboard every single person or group. In doing so, we allow them to dictate the agenda and thus to lower everyone else to their distorted way of doing ministry, business or personal interactions.
While that is certainly an oversimplification of a complex issue, I hope it does scratch the surface of a phenomena we see unfolding far too often in congregations. In these post-COVID days, when every faith community is trying to find their way through a very confusing season of life, it seems to be erupting all around us. Churches are being pulled asunder by competing ideologies, personal preferences, politics disguised as faith, and uncertain leadership.
“We neuter the gospel as we cater to the whims and predilections of infant Christians.”
Rather than shaping ourselves around the person, life and message of Jesus Christ, we are blown here and there by a wide array of false teaching and deceitful practices, and the result is we neuter the gospel as we cater to the whims and predilections of infant Christians. There must be a better way.
Thankfully, Ephesians 4 provides some of the richest Scripture we have regarding how to establish a healthy church. Verses 15-16 specifically offer us a strategy to reverse the death spiral too many churches are currently experiencing. If we dare read it and follow its guidance, here are at least six things we will do.
- Speak the truth in love
There are three instructions in these five words. Speak, even when it is easier to stay silent. Speak the truth, not your opinion or preference. Speak that truth in a loving way, which may or may not make others happy. Actually living out these five words would dramatically alter the emotional and spiritual landscape of innumerable congregations.
- Grow toward maturity
Please, let’s grow toward something that increasingly resembles Jesus. Our infatuation with theologies, hierarchal leadership, doctrinal purity, power and prestige masks the many ways we have allowed the false gods of our age to divert us from Jesus. Our arrested development must make Jesus cringe.
- Acknowledge whose church it is
I understand that our language of “my church” is normative, but it is heresy. The head of our church is Jesus Christ, not the top donor, longest-tenured member, best preacher or most charismatic Bible study leader. Unless you can show me the holes in your palms and the wound in your side, this isn’t your church. We all serve Jesus.
- Foster a collaborative community
Paul reminds us that healthy bodies grow, are held together, support one another and build each other up rather than tear each other apart. One of the primary reasons the “nones” cite for leaving their church is the corrosive effect it is has on their spiritual life. Is your church life-giving to people or life-draining?
- Establish love as a guiding principle
If the underlying ethos of your church is not agape love, then you are following a false gospel. Judgment culture, human-made theologies, self-serving leaders and politically inspired agendas violate the core teachings of Jesus.
- Do our part
In a healthy church, there are no non-participants. Everyone must do our part. That means all body parts matter, and our responsibility is to encourage and discover each person’s giftedness and invite them to take their place in the life of the church. The amazing things we accomplish when the whole body works in concert and harmony are a testimony to the power of the Spirit to magnify our individual gifts into a force that can “turn our world upside down” as in the first century.
Rather than adopt a lowest common denominator rule for community, what if we agreed to lift up Jesus as our highest calling and the motivation for all our actions?
Let’s inspire our constituents to live up to Jesus, rather than down to our basest instincts. I can only imagine the force for the gospel that such a community might become in our culture. What not give it a try?
Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
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