Leading a church that has been in decline for many years can be a very difficult thing. Over the years the people in the church come to understand Christianity very differently from what is actually presented in scripture.
I was reading through the book of Luke this morning when I was reminded of a significant truth. Jesus seldom attempted to reform the Pharisees. He warned them, but did not spend much time with them. In many ways they are the equivalent of what we see in many of our churches today. They were raised in an environment where true Biblical doctrine was obscured by cultural manifestations of their faith.
The same has happened today. And just as the Pharisees became the gate-keepers of the “faith,” there are people in the church who see themselves in the same role. Over the years they have developed unhealthy expectations of what the church is, what the church should be doing, and what the pastor should be doing as well. When their expectations are not met, they become upset.
Not all such people get belligerent or angry. Some simply withdraw and believe that the church is going in the wrong direction. The result is that the church’s unity slowly becomes fractured. It’s not a compound fracture where the bone is visibly broken, and which renders a person incapacitated. It’s more like a slowly developed stress fracture. Stress fractures may not incapacitate a person, but they can cause a dull pain that slowly gets worse. As the pain of unfulfilled expectations grows, so grows the subtle disunity of the church.
Jesus warned about disunity when He said that a house divided cannot stand. Unfortunately, this type of disunity can be hard to detect. However, there are symptoms. The most subtle symptom is distrust within the leadership ranks. The gate-keepers begin to look at the pastor and/or staff with a squinted eye. The pastor and/or staff members notice the disgruntled attitude and they too begin to look with suspicion at the old guard. This can persist for some time. It is usually hidden just beneath the surface; each party believing they are cleverly concealing their growing doubts. Sometimes churches persist in this stage for years. In the most benign form of this disunity, the staff member usually begins looking for God to “call” him someplace else, and the disgruntled gate-keepers of the church are usually very relieved when that “call” finally comes.
But the consequence of such disunity comes at a great cost. First, God does not honor distrust. As such I believe he removes His blessing from such a church. Instead of reaping a harvest, the church persists in a state of stagnation. New people may visit, but sensing the absence of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing attractive to draw them in. And as the distrust grows in the church, visitors can sometimes sense the tension. Second, because the Holy Spirit cannot bless such a situation the church fails to obey the great commission. Every attempt to “reach out” to the community only ends in frustration. Evangelism can take place; mission projects can be planned and implemented; but at the end of the day everybody has worked hard, but there is no pay off. Third, because there are no results the members of the church become discouraged. When the discouragement gets bad enough, then the gate-keepers step in and begin to lay the blame at someone’s feet – usually the pastor or a staff member.
Once again, in their minds, the best solution is to replace the person(s) who are at “fault.” There is only one problem with this scheme. The root cause is never identified. Because of that, the church hires a new person, and over time they see the exact same results.
If you walk into the foyer of your average church, they will have a wall where all the pastors who served there have their pictures on display. Sometimes the display is shockingly large. Unfortunately Churches fail to see the pattern and keep doing the same thing over, and over, and over again. Churches who keep having to hire a new pastor or staff member every five years or so, should seriously seek outside help. They should commit to a time to repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the true aliment of the church.
Having pastored such churches I do not believe that the people who contribute to the rapid turnover are evil people. But they need to open their eyes, and seek to understand God’s Word. When that happens they may begin to see where their expectations are not the same as God’s expectations.
It is a scary thing to wake up one day and realize that what we have done with God’s church is very different from what He expects from His church! There was one Pharisee whom Jesus did pay attention to. His name was Saul, and on the road to Damascus his eyes were graciously blinded by the Lord. Only in a state of physical blindness was he able to “see” his spiritual blindness. But the Lord blinded Saul only so that he would be able to see clearly once his eyes were opened. Once that happened, Saul became Paul and discovered the true blessings of serving the Lord on His terms. Immediately Paul abandoned his old, unbiblical expectations, and adopted the Lord’s. As a result, he reaped a great harvest for Jesus.
I believe that our churches can once again reap a great harvest. May the Lord shut our eyes to what we think is right, so that we can begin to see our churches through His eyes, and then do what is right! When that happens in our churches, we too will discover that the best is yet to come!