Does Church Have A Future?
What can the Christians of the Baptist churches in our land do now in order to help to shape the Baptist churches of the future? How can those Christians in Baptist churches help to shape the future of Christianity in our land?
In writing about the Christians in Baptist churches I am not being parochial or exclusive, for I believe that the situation that our churches are in is similar to that experienced by other churches and denominations across the land. Decline is almost an accepted part of church life, and it seems that morale declines along with the numbers.
I want to make some practical suggestions for the way ahead; suggestions that I believe will help to lift church out of the depression that seems to pervade it so extensively at this time. Why does God not appear to be at work in our land? He is quite clearly at work in other countries where Christianity is growing rapidly.
I will consider how our love for God impacts every area of our lives, of which the visible church is but a part. I will address the issue of loving God with all that we are and have, and I will highlight how I believe that the loss of this whole love has damaged the credibility of Christianity in our land today.
The compartmentalisation of life into specific and separate areas is an enemy of a whole love for God, and it is an enemy of the church that is very common. Ministers and their sermons are often seen as irrelevant to modern life, and belonging to a by-gone era that now exists only inside the churches that still appear to be living in a previous century, or two.
I will consider what I believe to be the urgent need to reshape discipleship and Christian education so that people engage their lives with their faith and together work through the difficult issues that they frequently face in today’s world. I will call for a holistic love for God and for his church and world, which includes every area of life and all of the creation.
This is a love that begins from the point that everything and everyone is included, and that a big vision is needed to fully engage with God and our world. The Christian faith calls to everyone to come and be a part of the church, and a holistic faith in Christ does not begin from the viewpoint of the excluded, but from the invitation to all who will come to receive from God, and to receive God himself.
I will also look at leadership – one of the key areas of church life – and consider how the kind of leadership that we have in our churches and denominations is critical. not only for survival in the future but also for prospering in the future.
This discussion will also involve the question of what church actually is, and the relationship between essence and actions. I will consider the context and relevance of church growth, the Missio Dei, authority, and the central role of godly character and integrity in the life of the leader.
In my conclusion I will make my closing remarks and state my hope for the church of today as it looks towards tomorrow; that it might have the kind of positive future that has been doubted and dismissed by many people who think that Christianity is in terminal decline in the United Kingdom. The epitaph may be written and the tombstone in position, but the body is still breathing! God’s love cannot, and will not, die; and it is with the nature of loving God that we begin.
Among the commandments that Moses received from God was the instruction to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Hundreds of years later, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
What does it mean for us, the people of God, to love God with all that we are and all that we have and all that we do? What Jesus is commanding is a love that gives entirely of itself, holding nothing back; in the same way that God gave of himself to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Such a love is holistic, for it considers everything as sacred because everything comes from God. The whole of life is to be God-centred and the life of the individual is a part of the life of the community of God, in which there is fullness of expression. Such a holistic love is the love of the organised and integrated whole community that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Our love for God is to flow from the very centre of our being, springing from our values, our commitments, our treasure; flowing out from his people as they express the deliberate love for their God and show that love in the way that they love and care for one another. This love is not only to be the love of the individual for Christ; it is to be the love of the whole believing community, the church, for Christ, who is the head of the church.
The church is a people who together are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that they may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called them out of darkness into his marvellous light. Peter’s declaration sets the church apart from being merely a collection of individuals and sees a big vision for the community of believers with big purposes in mind. Peter goes on to address many areas of life as he enlarges on the significance of what it means to be God’s people.
Likewise the apostle Paul saw beyond a collection of individuals as he wrote to the churches for which he cared so deeply. For example, ‘to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.’
This is a holistic view of God’s people, the church, and the vastness of Paul’s vision is breathtaking. The apostle does not write to the church at Corinth (for example) and say that certain areas are sacred while others are secular; rather he addresses every area that needs to be addressed and he excludes nothing from his attention.
Likewise as closes his first letter to Corinth, he includes many other individuals and churches in his final greetings, and in doing so he lifts the vision of the church at Corinth to see the big picture of which they are a part.
I believe that church in the twenty-first century has lost this holistic view, this big vision. Life in Scotland (as elsewhere) has become greatly compartmentalised into areas such as work, play, family and so on. One such area is church, and it is an area that has been isolated and reduced to being of no importance in the ‘real world’.
This compartmentalisation of life has deeply impacted the church, and it has also deeply impacted the way that we relate to God through Jesus. Thus, we speak of God being in control of some areas of our lives, but not of others. This has the effect of compartmentalizing our love for God, and has us only seeking to express that love in areas that we consider to be sacred.
We think that God is too big and too busy to bother with the little details of our lives, and especially so in secular areas where he has no interest. This kind of thinking is, I believe, widespread amongst God’s people.
The result is that the church’s love for God is no longer holistic, an organised and integrated whole, but it, too, has been broken up into areas and each area somehow treated as if it were a whole. Thus, we speak of receiving Jesus as Saviour or receiving Jesus as Lord, as if Jesus himself were divided or compartmentalised.
Therefore, we behave quite differently in church on a Sunday than we do on any other day of the week. We have lost the big vision of God and of his church, and we no longer love God with a holistic love that gives entirely of self, but our love is a fragmented and faded shadow of what it should be and perhaps once was.
The apostle Paul was well used to dealing with churches whose love and vision were in a state of disintegration, and his letter to the church at Galatia is a good example. ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.’ ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?’
If we as a believing community do not whole-heartedly love God, then we can hardly be surprised when he appears distant and detached from us. This does not mean that we earn his presence by how much we love him, but it does mean that God will be manifest in the midst of his people where they are close to his heart.
If the church in our land has lost its whole-hearted love for God, we can hardly be surprised if the church is powerless, presence-less and purposeless; and that, by and large, is what the church is like in our land. The church’s holistic love for God lies shattered and broken, and the visible evidence of this is that we do not fulfil the mandate that God has given to us. God’s love for the nation cannot get out from the church, and so Jesus is not proclaimed as Lord by word and deed, and disciples are not being made.
No wonder, then, that the church in our land is declining numerically, and also in its influence upon the nation and the people of the nation. The solution to this situation does not lie in PowerPoint presentations, subtle lighting or new hymn books. I do not in any way criticise these things or imply that they are unimportant; by all means let the church be up to date and use up-to-date technology; but these are all methods, and the issue is not methodology, but our identity in Christ as the church and expressing that identity through deeds.
How we love God and express that love to other people lies at the heart of our identity as (a part of) the church, and this involves the whole of our lives. To rediscover who and what we are in Christ and to rediscover a total love for God will impact the land in which we live, and will cause the people in our land to once again know that there is something uniquely special about the church that is in their midst.
The issue here is not at all about activity but rather identity, and this involves all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do. We are called as God’s people to love God with all of our being first, and then with all our doing, and such a holistic love will certainly deeply impact the people around us.
The church has suffered deeply from the effects of compartmentalisation, and one way that this has been manifested is in the way that the majority of people in our churches have all but dispensed with the mind and no longer give it any importance in the life of faith. They have been conditioned to come to church and be spoon fed from the pulpit with propositional sermons that very often do not relate to their real lives outside church, and therefore the sermons neither challenge nor encourage them. People who have to think deeply on a daily basis in their business lives will soon be bored and perhaps insulted with the simple fare that they receive in church.
All too often the sermons do not appear relevant or helpful to the day-to-day lives of the people who hear them, and frequently they centre around ‘being good’ in one form or another; but people need words of life such as the disciples heard from Jesus. What is said from the pulpit needs to be practical so that the people can see the application and go and do it. In the Scriptures from which I have already made reference, Peter and Paul addressed very practical issues and made clear what their application was and how the hearer could implement what was being read to them.
I believe that we need to re-evaluate discipleship and Christian education and bring the preaching and teaching that we give to our people back into the realms of being relevant and helpful for them in their everyday lives. God’s people need their faith to be constantly growing and they need their faith to be continually seeking fresh understanding.
They need to know what they believe and why they believe it, and they need always to be growing in their knowing of God. Truthing in this context needs to be a real experience of discipleship as people learn day by day what it means to be in a love relationship with Jesus Christ, and how to live in the reality of that relationship.
Forums need to be created within church where Christians can explore issues, ask hard questions, have doubts and test their foundations. The Psalms, for example, are full of hard questions, bitter complaints and appeals for justice, and we need to re-evaluate our church services and meetings so that they reflect the width and depth of Christian experience rather than making a church either an occasion that only a ‘happy, clappy Bappy’ can appreciate or that only the dead would feel comfortable in.
Small groups can give God’s people a valuable opportunity to get to know a few people in depth and find those with whom they can share their lives. The theology and doctrines that we give to our people need to address their difficulties and struggles so that they can see them and respond to them in the context of a loving community and a loving God.
One major difficulty is that today’s propositional preaching at spectator congregations leaves no room for people to ask questions or raise doubts; indeed, they are all-too-often considered as sub-Christian if they dare to admit to having questions or doubts, let alone want to talk about them.
Yet, those people who come to church with their hurts, fears, doubts, struggles and sufferings are sometimes screaming inwardly as they desperately seek answers and the help that they need to cope with and come through their situation. But church does not allow them to be anything but ‘fine’ and demands that they act as if they were strong, and we constantly proposition them to this effect.
In the Scriptures already referred to, both Peter and Paul are addressing the real issues that are affecting people’s lives and giving their direction for resolving those issues. The people that they wrote to were not perfect, they were not strong, they did not have it all together.
Likewise people today urgently need to be able to think through and work through their crises of life, but church does not allow them to do so; church does not allow them to talk through issues or to work through tribulations. If church does not help them, who or what can?
Sometimes the message has been that people should come to church by all means, but leave the world behind them as they come. Therefore, we now have a generation of Christians who do not believe that thinking is a part of God’s design for them and who believe that doubting is for weak Christians. The result of this is that many Christians feel great pressure to be ‘fine’ in and around church, and this causes a painful isolation at the very time that the help of the believing community is most needed. The outcome is that, in our relationships with God and one another, we do not think, or have forgotten how to do so.
The divorced, the separated, the bereaved, the hurt, the broken; such people will not cope with a thoughtless church, and they will stay away. The pressure on people to be ‘fine’ in church is immense, and I contend that it is hypocrisy. Jesus never treated people that way in his days on earth, and he doesn’t today.
Jesus called things as he saw them, and he wanted honesty from anyone who wanted anything to do with him. It is clear to me that Jesus valued honesty far above politeness, and he treated needy people with great tenderness without compromising his words or deeds. We need to think about how we treat people, we need to think about the expectations and pressures that we put on them, we need to think about how we can best allow them to be human beings with dignity. We need to think.
The abandonment of thinking is not, of course, true of Christian scholars; just the opposite. Many scholars today are thinking around the kind of issues that most church members haven’t even thought of yet. It is equally true, though, that many important theological and doctrinal issues are debated by scholars but are unknown and therefore untouched by the church at large. These discussions and debates never make it into the day to day lives of Christians, but rather they remain at the academic level.
It is sad that such scholars find themselves separated from church in many ways, precisely because many people regard the mind and intellect as superfluous for Christian living. Thus, there is a wedge driven between church and the scholar, between experience and thinking, as if those who experience God and those who think about God are different kinds of beings who do not belong together. The danger here is that the two sides begin to envision different ‘gods’ who are merely the embodiment of their own theology, or lack of theology. The gulf between experience and thinking needs to be closed and a holistic Christianity resurrected that has to do with all that we are and say and do.
While the charismatic movement brought a new breath of life to the church it has also in some ways surely contributed to this gulf, and the lack of thinking Christians in church has merely seemed to confirm the rightness of the gulf. There is a tragic disconnectedness between thinking and experience, as if the mind and deeds were somehow not in harmony with each other. A criticism frequently levelled at ‘charismatics’ is that they all experience and no doctrine, while the ‘charismatics’ often regard ‘traditional’ Christians as having all doctrine and no experience.
The reality is that we all need to be Christians who think and experience, and our minds should inform, direct and evaluate our actions, for theology is relevant to everyday life and doctrine has a useful purpose. In this way, life consists in the outworking of relationships with our God in and through other people. We need to be people who use all of our faculties and not discard any part of our being. Truth is to be lived out every day in and through our lives.
Tozer has said that truth is relational and ‘no one can know the truth except those who obey truth.’ I wholeheartedly agree, and I would further say that you can obey a person without understanding the reasons for the instruction that they give to you. You may not understand the full implications of the instruction either, but your obedience rests in the integrity of the person giving the instruction, rather than in your understanding of the issues. The saving of lives can hinge on the immediate carrying out of an instruction, the reasons for which are not apparent until afterwards. The key here lies in the character of the one who gives the instruction.
Therefore, while I agree that it is important to comprehend the message of the Scriptures, I believe that it is much more important to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and obey everything that he commands us. Jesus’ instruction was to ‘teach them to obey’, not merely to teach them. Life was itself the most important examination ever undertaken by Jesus’ disciples.
Faith seeks understanding, but faith does not begin with understanding. The holistic nature of the Christian faith is seen in the fact that we need to follow and obey Jesus Christ because of his revelation to us of who he is, and we need to understand the truth of God whether it is spoken or written; for obedience and understanding belong together.
Let faith seek understanding by all means, but do not let understanding try to reduce faith to understanding. Those who would truly know God will know him in their intellect as well as they do so in their experience. For that is how we were created, as whole people who are to wholly know God through a whole faith engaged by the whole person.
In the church we need to have people who model Christ to others, and who are both an example and a resource to those who are younger in the faith. Therefore, while it may be true that the minister is one theological resource for the church, it does not necessarily follow that the minister is the only theological resource available to the church.
People can be encouraged to read and thereby widen their understanding through, for example, church libraries and discussion groups; but more than anything there needs to be a systematic approach to teaching the Scriptures so that a real foundation is built into people’s lives; one or two sermons on a Sunday simply will not do. The example and lifestyle of mature Christians is so important in church if those who are younger in the faith are to grow up into Christ, and these mature people need to be valued and used.
For example, I believe that the older people in our churches have a great deal to offer in respect of discipleship, and every church ought to seriously examine how their older people can best be used in ‘parenting’ and ‘grand-parenting’ the spiritually young and needy in our congregations. Just because someone has ‘retired’ does not mean that they cannot contribute to church life.
Indeed, foolish is the church that turns its back on the wealth of knowledge and experience that the older generation possess, and poorer is the church that does so. The diversity of the people in the church is a great part of the church’s strength as Petersen said, for ‘diversity allows God’s people to cut a broader swath through the world with the gospel.’ Thus, God’s love for the world will be seen and known in and through the lives of those people who love God with their whole being.
I am convinced that God wants us to love him with a passion, to have a love for him that is willing to pay a real cost in order to develop that holistic love relationship with him; a love that treasures the unlovely and will do whatever is required to know the one who is altogether lovely.
A holistic love for God has a beating heart of love that courses with God’s presence, and this heart should be seen in the midst of God’s community of faith and should be flowing out to the wider community around. As Jesus said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
What saddens me is that, whatever accusations may rightfully be hurled at the church in our day (and doubtless there are many that we deserve), we really cannot be accused of loving God with everything that we are and have and do. Neither can we be said to be loving one another as Jesus loves us, and the world does not see that we are Christ’s disciples because of the manifest love that we have for one another.
As a consequence, theology and doctrine have been divorced from daily life and have become the property of the scholar; revelation and vision has become the property of the lunatic fringe and the cult; and passion has become the property of our favourite pop idol or a football team. If we want to be taken seriously and plausibly, we need to relate and be relevant.
The issue here is not one of truth and the holding or otherwise of that truth. The issue here is that the Christians of today are simply not plausible to people who see a church that does not care for them or about them. The world sees a church that cares far more about its ‘pure doctrine’ and ‘precious theology’ than it does about the people of the world among whom it lives. The world sees a church that constantly raises money to fix its roof but which will not cross the street to give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person. The world sees a church that is manifestly detached from the issues of real life, and is therefore manifestly detached from the people of real life.
We need to rediscover the holistic nature of our love for Jesus Christ, and, in doing so, we will rediscover the wholeness that is ours as the people of God. We need to love Jesus Christ with all that we are, all that we have and all that we do, so that our love for him will be a whole love that is seen by all those around no matter in which sphere of life that they relate to us.
This love will make the people of God one in such a way that the world will notice and wonder. Then what the church does will be driven and motivated by a holistic love for Jesus Christ and the participation in his holistic love for his world in which we live. Then we will be the church in the world and do the things that show us to be church; then we will know our purpose and fulfil our purpose in being.
The issue of the church’s identity is intimately linked to its purpose and function under God, so that deeds and actions flow from its identity. A church that knows what it is and what it is for, will discover (or rediscover) its purpose without which it will either die, or become a sacred social club.
The church needs to be holistic in the sense that it has a wholeness and an integration that is greater than the collection of individuals that it may appear to be. If the church is to have a future, then one of the most important keys to that future is its leadership, and it is to the subject of leadership that I now turn.
CALLED TO LEAD?
The whole area of leadership is crucial to every community and congregation, to every church, and to every denomination. To show the people of God how to live a life of knowing Jesus and making him known in the midst of the world in which we live is our highest calling, that we, like Peter, should feed the sheep and lambs and care for the sheep.
Knowing God and being like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit are at the heart of what God wants to do in and through each of us who are called leaders. The issues of how we lead God’s people and the kind of model that we give to them is linked to the kind of people that we are as seen through our character and integrity. To feed and care for God’s people demands that we are sacrificial and give our lives for others; this is not about our own agendas or getting our own way.
The Scripture says that love does not insist on its own way, but, all too often, we who lead the people of God do insist on our own way. And sometimes we say that we do it in the name of Jesus and for his sake, but the reality is that our churches are shot through with personality conflicts, power struggles and the like. Hidden agendas are the order of the day, and the focus of church leadership is all-too-often not the glory of God and the extension of his kingdom, but rather the clinging to power, status and position of those in leadership roles.
Is it any wonder that the glory of the presence of God is gone from us? If the church, and that means you and me, are going to love God with all of our being, having and doing, then the church needs a radical shake-up; this can best be achieved through a radical shake-up of its leaders.
Now, I am considering leadership issues here precisely because I want to contend that, generally speaking, we have made a basic error by believing that leadership is all about what people do, when, in fact, it is much more about who and what people are. This is not to dismiss deeds and actions, neither is it to consider them as unimportant; rather it is to say that character and integrity form the starting point of considering a leader, not deeds.
Moses was the leader that he was precisely because he was Moses, the person of humility that he was being of greater importance than because of the things that he did. Jesus was the leader that he was precisely because he was Jesus, rather than because of the things that he did. Indeed, many of the things that Jesus did would attract criticism from us except for the fact that it was he who did them.
Stephen was chosen by the apostles to wait on tables because he was full of the Holy Spirit and faith, not because he had the best waiter’s outfit. His character and integrity were clearly of greatest importance to the apostles in making this choice since his actions and deeds to this point are not mentioned.
The difficulty for leaders is that, as soon as someone begins to be recognised as being of leadership material, the church system crushes them back into place and forces them to operate within the semi-democratic context that is church. But God’s anointed leaders cannot operate properly within that environment, and the church that then attributes failure to those leaders has itself actually caused the failure.
The trouble is that our worldview has us doing church, not being church. Our worldview has the people serving the systems instead of the systems serving the people. We simply don’t recognise, acknowledge or even allow for the existence of apostles and prophets (etc). Yes, we may stretch as far as pastors/teachers provided they are made and behave in our preconceived image; but, in doing so, we restrict those pastors and teachers to pleasing us and fulfilling our own agendas.
Our whole view of ministry and leadership needs to be completely renewed, and we need to be prepared to learn from anyone who can teach us what we need to learn. We need to be ready and willing for leadership teams to support others right across the denominations – from church to church and from denomination to denomination.
Ultimately, we should be ready and willing to support others outside the denomination and even beyond this country – can we have a vision that big? Yet, all too often as John Greenshields observed, ‘we cling to independence when the Spirit is speaking to us of interdependence.’ If churches are to grow, a large part of the responsibility lies with the leaders. It is of critical importance that congregations enable leaders to lead, and support them in their leadership.
To know from God what church is, and what church is for, is the foundation of Christian leadership. The church is a living organism, and as Aldrich observed, ‘it is the nature of a living organism to grow. If it is not growing, something is wrong.’ This issue of church health is very important and needs to be taken seriously, for it is certainly true as Malphurs said that ‘quality churches don’t stay small for very long.’ But does this mean that growth is the only indicator of a healthy church? Actually, I believe that it means exactly that, but I must first qualify my statement so that it can be fully understood.
When the phrase ‘church growth’ is used today, it is almost inevitable that people think in terms of numerical growth and only in terms of numerical growth, and this is a serious error. I contend that numerical growth is not the only indicator of a healthy and growing church. Indeed, I would go even further and say that numerical growth in and of itself is not necessarily any indicator at all of a healthy church.
Churches who gain numbers by transfer growth or because of another church’s split can take no comfort from their numerical growth, and they are actually storing up trouble for later. Church growth must be given a much wider definition if we are to fully grasp the significance of books such as ‘The Purpose Driven Church’ and ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ and if we are to understand the importance of churches like Willow Creek.
Stephen Macchia, Christian A Swartz, Dann Spader and Gary Mayes have all suggested a number of indicators that show a healthy church looks like, and I have here compiled them into one list:
- God-exalting worship that inspires
- God’s empowering presence
- A Godward focus
- Servant-leadership development
- Commitment to loving/caring relationships and a relational ministry
- Learning and growing in community
- Personal disciplines and a passionate spirituality
- Stewardship and generosity
- Wise administration and accountability
- Networking with the regional church
- Empowering leadership
- Gift-oriented ministry
- Functional structure
- Holistic small groups
- Need-oriented evangelism
- An atmosphere of love
- Clear communication
- Healthy ministry image
- A mobilised prayer base
- Scriptures properly taught
Not once did they mention numerical growth there, and I believe that there is a very good reason for that: Numerical growth is not an indicator of a healthy church; rather it is one result of a healthy church. All the factors listed above speak about growth in terms of maturity, and it is that continual growth in maturity that is surely the clearest sign of a healthy church, although healthy churches will certainly grow numerically, too. If growth in maturity is what we want to see in our churches, then we need to have a clear vision focused into a specific purpose and expressed in function. The responsibility for that lies with the leaders.
Rick Warren is at the forefront of the ‘Purpose Driven’ ministry, and we can learn some helpful things from Saddleback Community Church, for Wright says that ‘true openness, combined with an eagerness to honour the Holy Spirit as Lord and God with the Father and the Son, is a prelude to the coming of the Spirit in fresh grace and power.’ Let us not criticise people like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, they are part of the church and they can and do make a good contribution to the life of the church. I have, unfortunately, heard it said by some ministers that they do not need ‘these Americans’ telling them what to do and how to run churches, but are wise leaders not open to learning from anyone who has something to teach us?
Power struggles, politics, personality clashes, issues of control; all these and the like need to be thoroughly repented of and cast behind us, and such repentance must begin with the leaders. It is sheer hypocrisy for leaders who will not repent to call church members to do so. I also dare to suggest that we need to repent of denominationalism, though I am not suggesting that we attempt to abandon denominations, rather that we simply carefully examine all of our prejudices.
Like Wright, I believe that, ‘in essence, the breaking down of denominational barriers must surely be welcomed as a good and enriching thing.’ He wrote Challenge to Change ‘out of the conviction that Baptist churches as they presently exist need to be transformed.’ I am certain that he is correct in this, but there is a price to be paid for transformation, and it is a difficult road that is fraught with many dangers. Surely it must be worth the journey if the alternative is for churches (and denominations) to slowly die.
In speaking of church growth, we need to acknowledge that, while a healthy church is the natural result of being properly purpose-driven, it is God who gives the growth in the power of the Holy Spirit. We have turned a blind eye to this fact for a long time, and justified our position because of the excesses of the charismatic movement; but I state plainly that no-one except God is able to change the heart of a person, and no-one except God is able to change the heart of a nation. If the Holy Spirit is not working in power in our midst, then we are beating the air, chasing shadows and wasting our time.
Moltmann said ‘Because of its foundation in Christ and its existence for the future of the kingdom of God, the church is what it truly is and what it can do, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.’ Surely he is right in this, and this has been said again and again down through the centuries. We evangelise, hold campaigns, preach and pray in an attempt to get God to work in our midst, and it is all futile if the Holy Spirit is not at work.
If we look around the church and our land and conclude that God is not really at work in our midst it is because of the leaders and the people that they are. It is the church that is the problem, not the world. We need to depend upon God wholly, and be led by people who are seeking to know him with their whole lives. It is we who are entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit, not the Holy Spirit who is dependent on us.
Until we learn that lesson in reality in our daily lives both individually and together, we are quite literally hopeless and helpless. As Cymbala said, ‘The answer is not in any human methodology. The answer is in the power of the Holy Spirit.’ We must acknowledge this honestly, and seek God for himself. Leaders shoulder a big responsibility in this, for it is they who are charged with caring for the sheep.
I can understand why J. B. Phillips said that ‘the chief cause of the degeneration of Christianity into churchiness is the worship of an inadequate god.’ I not only understand it, but I also believe it to be true. God will not change in order to be conformed to what we think he should be like. God is God, and we are not; the sooner that we learn this in the depths of our being, the better it will be for church.
As Tozer put it, ‘When the Holy Spirit ceases to be incidental and again becomes fundamental the power of the Spirit will be asserted once more among the people called Christians.’ The church is centred around Christ, who is the head of the church, and the church is God’s creation, not man’s invention.
If the church has a mission in the world in which we live, then the church needs to realise that mission (and that word means so many things to so many people) begins and ends with God himself. Newbigin speaks of mission as God’s mission not ours; as the work of God where the church is, not the work of the church where God is. He says, ‘It is God who acts in the power of his Spirit, doing mighty works, creating signs of a new age, working secretly in the hearts of men and women to draw them to Christ.’ A simple analysis of our present powerlessness and bankruptcy of the presence of God should have us on our knees in repentance, and have us seek God afresh that we might rightly care for and feed his sheep.
Murray declares that, ‘Mission is not the invention, responsibility or programme of human beings, but flows from the character and purposes of God.’ It truly is the Missio Dei, and not the Missio Ecclesia. Therefore, we need to very carefully re-evaluate what evangelism is, and consider the ways in which we have tried to do evangelism. Does God pour his Spirit out on people because of evangelism, or is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the opportunity for evangelism? Is the church the means of salvation at work among human beings, or is the church the result of salvation at work among human beings? Or is it both?
I believe that it is God’s Missio Dei alone to make converts, and that it is our comission to make disciples; but we have turned this completely around and tried to do God’s work for him. Our evangelism ought to be the response to the work of the Holy Spirit, not an attempt to get the Holy Spirit to work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince, convict and convert, and we need to let him do his work. Where we see the Spirit working in someone’s life, evangelism may well be the appropriate response. God and his people working side by side, each doing what complements the other.
He who began a good work in you and me will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ. That is God’s Missio Dei, too, not mine, not yours. God’s anointed leaders need to grasp this with their whole being so that they may work hand in hand with God, and not try to work for God. Our church leaders have the authority from God to do this, and they will need our authority to do it, too; not to mention the courage and boldness to achieve it.
Therefore, I believe that it is critical that leadership is given the authority to lead alongside a willingness to follow that leadership – even if it is going a direction that we may not like or agree with. This is an issue that needs to be resolved and urgently, or many of our churches will simply cease to exist in the years that lie ahead.
Many of our churches operate by thinly concealed power struggles expressed through a semi-democratic veneer of respectability in which leaders struggle to lead congregations who think they are in charge, and in which churches remain the same from year to year, and decade to decade. There has to be a better way.
I believe that we must therefore consider carefully and prayerfully what leadership is and how it should be accountable, for what we have today is virtual paralysis by democratic consent. As Joyner expressed, “Democracy is not only the most inefficient form of government, it is also the slowest form of government.”
The more I reflect on this, the more I believe that the current system of elected leadership is a burden on any church and will cause indecision and paralysis, at least to some extent. I contend that the way that many Baptist churches are governed owes far more to the world of ‘Yes Minister’ than it does to the world of the New Testament. Politics drive many decisions and personalities drive many conflicts. And we wonder why God is not with us.
If leaders will put aside their own agendas and seek God together, then they can quickly become a leadership team that gains the respect and love of the people in the church. If such leaders will be accountable to one another, it would reduce significantly the number of matters that have to be brought to a church meeting. A leadership team that consists of people of character and integrity would gain the trust of the people, and would therefore be enabled to lead in a meaningful way and to a large extent. I do not believe that the actual structure of the leadership team is of great importance, but the character and integrity of the leaders in the team is of paramount importance. True leaders are God-anointed because of who and what they are before him.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke spoke of the search for people who were filled with faith, wisdom and the Holy Spirit. When Paul speaks in Ephesians about being filled with the Holy Spirit, he enlarges this thought by constantly using such words as ‘submit’ and ‘obey’ and does so largely in the context of the home.
If leaders are to be filled with faith and wisdom, they will need to be people who live close to the heartbeat of God and experience an ongoing intimate relationship with him. Such people are sought by others for their wisdom and their faith, and they are sought by others because they ooze the Spirit of God. God uses such people to change and transform people’s lives in the power of the Holy Spirit, and brings the needy and broken to them for care and healing. All of this, however, often takes place quietly and in the background.
A willing accountability to other leaders, both within the same church and outside, will help these people to remain close to the heart of God and to submit themselves to the pastoral care and discipline of the leaders around and near them. A leadership team should be caring for and responsible for every member of its own team, and those who will not submit to other leaders should not be part of the team. With great privilege comes great responsibility. There is a risk here, and it is a risk that we must take. The church today needs God-anointed leaders in a way and to a degree that it has not done so before if the church, before God, is to have a meaningful future.
This is not primarily about function, but it certainly involves the recognition of a person as being of leadership material by virtue of their godly wisdom, integrity and character. This recognition of God-anointed leaders is vital if our churches are to tackle the issues that need to be faced head-on in the days that lie ahead. Of course deeds and actions are important, but it is the character and integrity of the person from whom deeds and actions flow that is of greater importance.
People who respect their leaders will follow their leaders, though this is most certainly not about blind obedience. When Jesus was walking on the water, Peter said, ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.’ God-anointed leaders will lead secure in the knowledge that, when everything else is said and done, their God will back them up. It is he who defends them, it is he who justifies them, it is he who rescues them. The church that trusts its God-anointed leaders of character and integrity will move with confidence into the future that God has for them and will be able to adapt and change as that future makes it necessary.
The church must rediscover true leadership if it is to get out of the cul-de-sac that it has been in for a long time and forge a future for itself. I personally believe that God is going to do a new thing in Scotland in the coming years, but many churches are in danger of being spectators of, rather than participators in, that new thing. Many churches will have ceased to exist by then if present trends continue and the serious issues of leadership are not tackled by our churches.
The quality of leaders is crucial for any church or organisation because, as White said, ‘people do not follow programs, but leaders who inspire them,’ and this means leaders staying envisioned and anointed for the ongoing task of leading God’s people. With a willing and effective submission and accountability to other leaders, those who lead God’s people can be protected from the serious danger of believing more in themselves than they do in Christ. Then their deeds and actions will flow from a godly life and those deeds and actions will be reflection of the quality of the leader.
Deeds are important, of course they are, for deeds are the way that many people will see us at work in leadership. But I do contend that the church in our land has been infected by carnal wisdom and has taught that carnal wisdom as if it were godly wisdom. We have believed and we teach as the world does, that what you do is what you are.
Advertising, business, television and books bombard us with this carnal wisdom, but it is ungodly wisdom that will lead us into serious error; indeed, it has already done so. Such wisdom begins from the starting point that activity determines what you are; that the things you do determine the person you are, that what you do is what you are.
Any leader should realise that they are to be people of Christ-like character and integrity whose lives are made manifest through our deeds and actions. The left hand of character and integrity belong with the right hand of deeds and actions. ‘But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.’
Character and integrity will always find expression in deeds and actions. This warns leaders not to give advice without commitment, not to gain knowledge without involvement, not to practise correction without encouragement, and not to criticise without understanding. From the leader’s character and integrity flow the deeds and actions of love.
However, I contend that much of church today has lost its identity in Christ because it has lost its identification with Christ. It has tried to compensate by multiplying activity upon activity in an effort to find itself again, but deeds and actions that are not rooted in character and integrity are of little value.
If we do not know Christ, we cannot follow him; but Jesus’ constitution for everyone is the very simple, ‘Follow me.’ Leaders of the church need to direct God’s people back to this truth and demonstrate to God’s people the reality of a holistic love relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not a sacred social club; we are the earthly representation of Jesus Christ; we are the body of Christ.
Church is about the community of believers who are the people of God wherever they are and whoever they are. Church is much, much more than the people of God gathered together, it is the people themselves that are the church, not the gathered meeting. This is about the life, presence and power of God made manifest in the midst of his community.
Our Father in heaven is in the business of changing and transforming people’s lives in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we need to be in our father’s business. This has a radical impact on how we see and practise ministry in the church, for ministry is for every believer and every believer is for ministry.
If every single one of us has an important role to play in the life and mission of the church, then we are recognising the necessity for team ministry – body ministry – and we are turning away from ‘one-man ministry’. I believe that it is crucial that all traces of a ‘one-man ministry’ are demolished, but also that everyone is recognised, enabled and released into creative ministry; for breaking the mould of the “one man ministry” eases isolation and releases a synergy of creativity. (And it usually is one man ministry.) It is not enough only to do away with the old, the new must come.
The ‘Church Without Walls’ report of the Church of Scotland recommends that ‘congregations work towards breaking the isolation of the “one person ministry” by forming ministry teams according to their needs and resources.’ But, they point out, churches and denominations first need to lift their eyes to recognise ‘the pioneering gifts of the apostle, the building and dismantling gifts of the prophets, and the frontier-friendly gifts of the evangelist.’ Perhaps some denominations and churches cannot, or will not, take that step because of fear.
Furthermore, it is very difficult for many churches to get away from the idea that only the ordained ministers are leaders, that the leaders are all ministers, and that the rest are second-class citizens; but get away from it they must. A radical response is needed if we are not to allow churches to suffocate and die.
If, as Bill Hybels believes, ‘the local church is the hope of the world and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders,’ then the local church must be led by leaders who are anointed and shaped as leaders by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise the local church will not be relevant in and to the world, and it will certainly be irreverent to God.
If ministry and ministers are to see healthy churches in the future, then our denomination and churches within our (or any) denomination need true God-anointed leaders now like they have never needed them before. This is a challenge to change that needs to be further explored and vision made real into purpose in the coming months, not years. Time is not on our side.
But let us not be too concerned with the state that we perceive church to be in today, but rather focus on the kind of leadership that will make the church into what it ought to be tomorrow. Leaders of the church need to have a vision and a purpose, and they will bring the church to sharpen its vision, to discover its purpose, and to make vision reality. Then the things that we do will be of lasting, eternal value.
True body ministry and the releasing of everyone in church into ministry is hopefully not just my dream, and I am certain that it can be done. It is about releasing people instead of holding onto them. It is about releasing the creativity of people and creating the right environment in which God can exercise his re-creativity.
If members are to be changed into those who minister, then change is inevitable, but many churches, deacons, elders and pastors often have a narrow, blinkered view of the way forward for the church at large. To try and adapt to the ever-changing world so that we are relevant to it without ourselves changing is to stumble blindly into a cul-de-sac and then wonder why God does not guide us out. This is not about tinkering around the edges of church and making fine adjustments here and there, this is a radical challenge to change that goes far beyond anything that has been suggested so far.
The whole accreditation and training process of ministers needs to be radically widened in order to formally recognise many functions of service that are presently occasionally acknowledged, but not recognised. People need to be able to test a call of God under the watchful eye of respected and godly leaders, and the denomination needs to be able to train people in a much wider sphere than it does at present.
We must give urgent consideration to recognising home group leaders, worship leaders, pastoral support leaders, administrators and many more. This would involve the denomination working hand-in-hand with the churches of the denomination, and the denomination using the church leaders to monitor and assess the development of those who are being trained for leadership. This would involve the denomination in placing a great deal of trust in church leaders, and using their assessments as a critical part of the accreditation process, for such church leaders are well placed to evaluate the person’s growth in character and integrity.
Therefore, the formal training for any sphere of ministry needs to have a much greater degree of involvement from church leaders, though not necessarily the ministers. Medium-term placements could take place during the long summer breaks, and placements of one day a week could be a vital part of the training course right from the start.
It would also be of benefit that students had long-term relationships with churches during the training, and this would greatly enhance their likelihood of settlement. Ministerial training would therefore be well known for the high quality of the character and integrity of its graduates as well as for their academic achievement. In this way, churches would see the value of the training course, and the value of the organisation that does the training.
Subsidising the cost of training would be an encouragement to mature students who simply could not otherwise afford to give up their jobs to train for ministry, even though it may be their hearts’ desire. It would still be a real sacrifice for them, but they would see their sacrifice being honoured by the support of the training organisations who are, in turn, being supported by the churches. Such subsidies would also allow churches to see real value for money in the contributions that they make to the training organisation and would also let them see a tangible result of that giving, as students of character, integrity and academic achievement are seen to be released into ministry within the denomination.
Furthermore, the churches would also want to see such leaders working within their own churches, and not unnecessarily lost to the denomination. In this way, we would bring the training process and the students being trained much more into the public eye and make them known throughout the training period.
Such courses of action would, I believe, draw training organisations churches of the denomination much closer together. They would certainly allow the churches to see the value of the union and the college, and would, I think, encourage them to contribute to that value, both in terms of committing leaders to participate in the training of students and in the giving of money to the college and union. When people see added value with a purpose, they are willing to give.
The suggestions that I am making make it clear that the future for Baptist churches in Scotland is not exclusively in the hands of the church leaders, but that the wider leaders in the training organisations also have significant roles to play. Such a partnership would help many Scottish Baptist churches to rediscover their identity, and these are crucial areas in which we need to invest for the future.
A word of warning: if we turn our backs on this issue, the denomination will wither and shrink to a much larger degree than it has done so already, because the churches of the denomination will continue to decline and die. It is crucial to hold in our minds that leaders ought to be recognised for who and what they are as well as for the things that they do, and the training for ministry must reflect this wide view.
Therefore, recognition and accreditation has to be redesigned for it is currently far too narrow, focusing as it does almost exclusively on academic achievement. Spiritual development should not merely be a module taught at the training organisation, it ought to be the beating heart of the life of those people who are called to lead our churches. Training needs first and foremost to produce people who are having a life-changing and ongoing experience of God.
It is unfortunately true as Billheimer declares, that ‘the sands of time are strewn with the wrecks of the broken lives of many who were once mightily used of God, but who suffered shipwreck upon the rocks of spiritual pride.’ Such people forgot that leadership was of God and under God to God’s people, and they lost their true identities and pride took over.
But at least some of these people suffered greatly from a lack of accountability and from the lack of continual monitoring of integrity and godly character. Willow Creek Community Church believe that ‘the quality of leadership in a church is likely to be more important as an issue than such questions as the precise details of the programme, the worship services and the building.’ Therefore, churches without true, godly leadership simply will not survive; or, if they do, they will be irrelevant.
I believe that training organisations need to address these issues together with local church leaders, and do so urgently; or else valuable, gifted leaders will be lost to the denomination and its churches because of our immobility and inflexibility. Every leader lost is potentially another church closed. These issues, and the future that is at stake, are too important to let politics and power struggles win the day. In the days that lie ahead our churches need God-anointed leaders of character and integrity who will address the issues and take whatever action is deemed to be appropriate, radical though it may be.
‘Follow me is a call to change’ as the Church of Scotland recognised. ‘That calling is relational rather than institutional.’ We would do well to hear these words from the Church of Scotland, for Christianity is first and foremost about a love relationship with Jesus Christ, and that relationship grows and develops as we follow him. We do not follow Christ in isolation, but alongside the people of God in the church in which we are based.
If church is in decline, then we need to be radical in our thinking about church as we plot the way ahead. Tinkering around the edges and making fine adjustments to structures will simply not do at all. We need to reshape and re-present church in whatever ways are suitable for the land and the time in which we live. This is not about novelty, methodology or actions; it is about examining who and what we are as church and how we relate to our God in heaven and to the world in which we live.
We must rediscover the love of God that does not insist on its own way. Joyner said, ‘There are basically two kinds of leaders: those who sacrifice the people for themselves, and those who sacrifice themselves for the people.’ I think that there are basically two kinds of Christians: those who sacrifice themselves for God, and those who sacrifice God for themselves. Yet, God sacrificed his own Son for you and me. Jesus sacrificed himself for you and me. All those who are in any kind of leadership in our churches need to be people who sacrifice themselves for their people.
We need to both teach and demonstrate that our whole lives are Christian, and that they are not compartmentalized into secular and sacred. We need to teach about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, and how our faith should impact the way that we do our jobs and careers. We need to show that worship concerns our whole lives lived before God, and live in such a way that makes clear that worship is not just about singing songs on a Sunday.
It will take time and effort to combat the compartmentalization that has invaded the church, but combat it we must. Our teaching and preaching is one of the most important ways in which we can connect with people in their real lives, and what we share with them should be relevant and helpful. The God-anointed leaders of our churches must find new, interesting and exciting ways to educate and mature the people in our churches and to teach them how to know their God in the midst of their daily lives.
One big challenge is to make it possible for people to share honestly about what is going on inside them because of the issues that they are facing, and to hear and know that they are not alone in this. In this respect, it may be that small groups have a major role to play, but leaders have a major role to play in making sure that small groups fulfil their purpose. People need to be able to be themselves and not play at being ‘fine’, and the security and confidentiality of the small group has to be one of the major ways that this can be made possible. All of this is to reconnect mind and experience, to join together again that which we had separated to our great cost.
The God-anointed leaders of our churches must find new. interesting and exciting ways to touch the hearts of the people in our churches, so that the values and commitments that lie at the centre of who and what we are might find their fullest expression through a joy and excitement in our God. Leaders need to be people who wear their hearts on our sleeves, whose passion for Jesus and his people is both unmistakable and irrepressible. Leaders need to be a people who love as Jesus loved and who demonstrate that love in the way that Jesus did.
This is not so much about a passion for Christianity, as it is about a passion for Christ. This is not so much about a passion for church, as it is about a passion for the Head of the church. It is about a passion for Jesus that overflows to his people and seeks to love them in word and deed. The God-anointed leaders of our churches must find new, interesting and exciting ways to express what it means to be the people of God, to be the church. We need to know exactly who and what we are in Christ, that we might do the things that Jesus did, the very things that he is still doing.
The God-anointed leaders of our churches must acknowledge humbly before God that if he will not, we cannot. Except God moves in us and in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, nothing will change. As Lloyd-Jones said, ‘The ultimate question facing us in these days is whether our faith is in men and their power to organize, or in the truth of God in Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.’
God does not need our help, but he does want our help; not primarily to get things done, but so that in this partnership we would grow and mature into the likeness of God himself. We will be like God, we will be with God; but we will not be God. We are partners with God in his mission, and he is the one who leads and directs that mission.
Davis (quoted by Murray) said that ‘Martyn Lloyd-Jones felt very strongly that a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit was the only answer to the moribund state of the church in his day.’ So do I. But God does not want to work in a way that is detached from his people; on the contrary, he wants to work first in his people and then through his people.
We need to urgently address the critical issues of leadership and we need to dare to be a ‘Courageous Leadership’ who are not afraid to tackle and resolve the issues that are current to life and church. We need faith for the future and courage for the present. All of us in leadership positions hold people’s very lives in our hands, and that truth alone ought to drive us to God to seek him in order that we might be the leaders that God wants us to be.
I believe that the precise structure of a church leadership is not of critical importance, but it is of absolutely vital importance that the structures allow leaders to lead without being questioned or challenged at every step, yet while retaining a willing accountability to one another. Wisdom is proved right by her actions, and leaders need to be given the time and space to let their wisdom be seen.
The problems surrounding leadership in our churches go much deeper than any leadership structure, they are the problems associated with hearts that have an agenda that is not God’s agenda; they are the issues of control and power. To deal with the problems facing church today is to deal with the problems of our own heart. Healing begins in my heart and your heart, one heart at a time.
I believe that the church of today will largely fashion its own future, that it in some senses it will be what it makes it. The leaders of our churches today shape the church of tomorrow. That is a massive responsibility that we must not take lightly. In making some practical suggestions for the way ahead, I am aware that I have raised issues that might be controversial, and to which people’s first response might be that it is not possible.
Now more than ever our love for God needs to be holistic. The whole of our whole being for God and his people, and we who are leaders need to make ourselves vulnerable before our God and our people. Love is vulnerable, and God has made himself very vulnerable to us in Christ. I call us to regain not our first love, but the one who first loved us.
The damage that has been done to the church is not beyond repair; the people are not beyond restoration. Our love for one another and for the world in which we live needs to be a love that loves even as it is vulnerable. We are wounded healers who go on being healed by the wounded healer of heaven.
I have considered leaders and the responsibility that we carry in being open and vulnerable before God as we lead our churches into the future. The days that lie ahead are exciting days, and we need to be leaders who are intimately close to God and leaders who know his heart if we are to shape his church the way that God wants it shaped.
Lord, draw me ever closer to you, so that I may draw your people ever closer to you. May I lead your people in whatever ways you choose to use me, knowing you more and more each day, and may I make a significant contribution to the life, health and strength of your church in the 21st century. Will the 21st-century church have a future and a hope? It can, and it will, and it does. That future and that hope is in Christ who is in his people.
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