Saturday, April 10, 2010

When 'church' goes wrong... part 1

In July 2006, I left a beautiful group of people in Bellingham, Washington in order to follow a call to teach theology, ethics and Bible at a small university in Brownwood, Texas. In the years following my appointment to Howard Payne University, I have become an interested observer of churches in terms of life and health. As a professor, I want to know what makes a good church good, a healthy church healthy and a growing church grow. I also want to know why a good church loses its way, a healthy church becomes unhealthy, and a why a growing church stops growing and begins to die. In the intervening four years since I left the full-time pastoral ministry I have witnessed the structural and ministry collapse of several churches. It has been frustrating and sad as I have watched the destruction of fellowship, the ineffectiveness of ministry, the loss of membership and ultimately the damage to the witness of Christ everywhere.

The apostle Paul draws an analogy between the church and the human body, when trying to describe how the church functions. Its a useful analogy in understanding what happens when "church goes wrong." So this week I want to highlight this analogy:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,

so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Romans 12:4-5 (NASB95)

¶ For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

¶ For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

¶ Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (NASB95)

So what can we draw from these scriptures about church health?

1) The church is Christ's body today. It is a living organism that breathes (Holy Spirit), walks and talks (ministry, witness and worship).

2) The church - as an organic body - has members. The term 'members', literally means appendages, organs or parts. Each member has a role to play, a purpose or function that is important to the life of the body. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 12:21f.

3) The church as a body, needs exercise. If the church does not walk and talk consistently, regularly and according to function, it will atrophy and become ineffective. Just like the middle-aged person who does not pursue some type of physical and mental exercise and becomes over weight and unhealthy, the church as the Body of Christ must do what it is called to do. Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 10:27...

If this is how we are to understand the church and its function, why do churches "go wrong?"

1) People today do not view the church as a body. The 'church' is a building we meet in or a group of people that share a common interest. "Church" is an activity that we do for a couple of hours during the week in order to pay homage to God. Church, like so many other things in a our materialist culture is something we 'consume'...To view church as a body though is something that is foreign to people living in Western culture.

2) A body can get sick. If the different parts or members of a body do not function correctly, the body become sick and unable to fulfill its function. When it becomes 'dysfunctional' it becomes focused on the internal problems and ceases to do what it was created to do - walk and talk - ministry, witness and worship. Slowly but surely, it ceases to engage in healthy ministry and passionate worship. As these two aspects begin to fail, the church's witness becomes feeble or weak until it becomes non-existent. Eventually, when the body fails to address its illness, it becomes so weak that it dies.

What are some of the illnesses that the Body of Christ can experience?

1) Cardio-Vascular Disease. The body does not get enough exercise because it is focused on a sedate life style - it focuses on the place instead of the people, the style instead of the substance and the inward instead of the outward. It prioritizes a style of preaching and worship over actual ministry and mission. It focuses on making the members happy, rather than making them healthy. After a while, actually being the church becomes too difficult, so it begins to wither, hoping that someone can come into transform it with a miraculous pill, without actually performing open heart surgery and a life-style change.

2) Ocular Diseases: myopia and presbyopia. The body neglects the value of its vision. It becomes near-sighted over time, looking only at its present situation and failing to look far enough ahead to see future problems or opportunities. Over time this myopia turns into presbyopia, which is far-sightedness: the church focuses so much on future redemption that it fails to see the ministry opportunities right in front of them. Either disease, either focus can contribute to a collapse of function.

3) Cancer. Cancer occurs when malignant cells begin to grow within the members of the body, eventually causing members to become dysfunctional or to cease function totally. What does cancer look like in the Body of Christ? Just like in the human body, cancer takes different forms and can attack different members:

a) Benign - this is not 'cancer' per se, but rather a tumor that may grow, but stays in the same place. It is a part of the body that does not function; it simply takes up space yet it may keep other members from functioning by degree.

b) Malignant - this is cancer. It is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within a body. It causes massive dysfunction in the member organ causing function shut down and ultimately could spread to other members causing death of the body.

In the church, cancer takes the form of a member with either a poor attitude or a poor theology caused by individual sin or undiscerning discipleship. This attitude or theology at some point becomes viral, infecting other members and causing strife within the whole church. Poor or weak leadership allows the attitude or theology to go unchallenged until it is too late and the church hemorrhages members or simply splits and dies. No cancer is ever good... My personal opinion is that "lung cancer" can be the worst however in a church. It is the cancer that destroys the work of the Holy Spirit in a congregation until it can no longer breathe.

4) Dementia. Dementia in a church is caused by the teaching of unorthodox theology at best or heretical theology at worst by a leader. It causes an inappropriate understanding of the church, usually manifest in exclusivism or radical liberalism and fundamentalism. When a church is experiencing dementia, it will hold its own for a while and even experience modest growth, but ultimately, it begins to die, hemorrhaging members slowly at first, but quicker and quicker as time passes until their is only a remnant left.

Does your church manifest these symptoms or diseases? I hope not. In any case, it is best to pursue a healthy body life by staying faithful to the teachings of Christ, the guidelines of scripture and always manifesting "the joy of the Lord."

1 comment:

  1. I read your post with great interest. Those particular words of Paul have always interested me. It's not that I don't understand them. I do. It's not that I don't believe them. I do. It's just that I don't see God's people living them out very often.

    They don't see it in themselves most of the time; that they are self-focused. But they often are. Their role in the church or their particular ministry becomes the most important. People forget that they or their ministry is just ONE part of the body. I have to remind myself of this, too, quite often. :)

    Oh, God's church could be SO much more if God's people could just do as Jesus did; humble themselves, pick up their cross and do as he said, which was FOLLOW Him!