By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
In the last chapter, we ended by describing what we hope your church is—a church that, even during problems, remains led by God through his Spirit. Those churches come in all sizes: large, small, and in-between. We can find them in big, small, and medium-sized communities. The leaders of those churches have a grade school, high school, trade school, college, or graduate school education. They all love God, and it shows.
Unfortunately, only a minority of churches are fully Spirit driven. The remaining majority of churches are in plateau or decline. These churches vary in size, location, and pastoral education just like the Spirit-led churches. Some of them even have a great love for God. Others want their love for God to be their controlling passion, but unfortunately, are putting their affections on their houses, cars, hobbies, Internet, or televisions. And some leaders of struggling churches have not yet even recognized there is a problem.
Most leaders know that God wants to do a work in their hearts and the heart of their churches. And they know that someday they need to get more serious about it. However, Paul says that God wants leaders to get serious about letting him do his transforming work NOW. Paul says that God is serious about doing a major surgery on our minds.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:1–2)
Society, including much of the contemporary church society, dilutes the scope and depth to which Paul calls Christ’s followers. Many Christians, including leaders, relegate “living sacrifice” to a segment of their life, not all of it. Harry Blamires, in his book The Christian Mind, addresses this tendency to segment our lives. We can receive a truth from God and somehow are able to put that truth into our spiritual segment and not necessarily apply it to every part of who we are.
In the above Scripture, Paul not only addresses God’s call for us to be “living sacrifices” and to be sacrifices that are holy (set aside for God) and pleasing to God, he also provides an understanding of how God makes that happen. Paul teaches that first the Christian must come to understand what “the pattern of this world” is and what God’s pattern is. Then Paul explains the process God uses is transformation—transformation of our minds. God is in the transforming business and he does it throughout the entire journey of our lives.
To begin this journey of transformation, we must begin taking some steps. And probably the most difficult part of any journey is the first steps. In fact, the first steps in this discovery time are not really steps at all. They are more like stops than steps. They mean getting off the carousel of life and just stopping. They mean gathering the leadership of your church and spending two or three months or more in regular prayer and study—study of God’s love letter and manual for living, the Bible. These should be focused prayer and study times of rediscovering intimacy with Jesus Christ.
A NOTE TO LEADERS AND PASTORS: Please do not shortcut this process of “stops” by just teaching or preaching a study. All the leaders need to go through hours of study and prayer time together. As we study Scripture together, discussing what it is saying to us, we will want to pour out our hearts to God in praise, confession, commitment, and love. And we will want to do that many times. We will want to ask God to make us receptive to what he has to reveal to us.
The church needs to open itself up to God’s leading, with an ear ready to listen and a heart freed from the influence of personal agendas. We may discover the leadership of our church chooses to make this a permanent part of their lives together.
In this first “stop” toward transformation, we may focus on discovering or rediscovering what God’s passions are. What is God’s highest and second highest concern or command? Or we may examine God’s criticism of Israel and Judah that drove him to send his people into captivity. We might study Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. What can we infer he wants from the church and us?
We may evaluate God’s call of his children to a life given over to him—one that will include risk. We may find yourself asking some questions. Are the persecuted churches and Christians just victims, or is persecution part of God’s love plan? What does God want done with his good news? What is biblical worship?
We will come up with many more questions that we will want to find answers to through our study, discussion, and prayer. One section of Scripture will lead to another and another. Our discussions will lead to still more places in Scripture we will rediscover. During prayer, the Holy Spirit will lead us to verses we had not considered.
In this process, what we are doing is stopping long enough to take a new, fresh, and deep look at who God is and what pleases him. And we are doing it as a body of church leaders. It is amazing how little church leadership examines Scripture and their own hearts together. The hardest part of this first stop is to approach the process without our personal fears, agendas, or extra-biblical church traditions influencing the outcome. (We will be examining church traditions in a later chapter.)
Because fear, personal agendas, and extra-biblical traditions are so deeply entrenched in our lives and church cultures, it is difficult to recognize their influence. For churches, this tendency has caused many of the problems they are facing. God has called us to a life given over to him and he is serious about it. It is a life-and-death war with long-term implications. We need to take a serious look at who God is and what he wants from his children and his churches.
When our study is well underway, we will discover at a much deeper and more inclusive level that God is sovereign, that he loves us, and that he is committed to his good news. His number one concern or command is that we love him and that our lives show it. We are to teach the importance of this love of God to those we have influence over. We do this by the way we act, talk, and live out the Christian life. God is concerned about our affections. And he wants to be the focus of our affections.
His second concern or command is that we allow his love to flow through us to those around us, including our enemies and other difficult people. God is a pursuing lover, whose heart’s desire is that we love him in return. Thus, our love for him expresses itself in our service, flowing from a heart of love rather than from duty or guilt.
We will probably discover the number one work he wants from us is to believe in him (that is to commit our lives and possibly deaths to him) and to be in such a deep, loving, committed, and dependent relationship with him that any suffering we meet will seem a joy to us because it is for him.
This is not a game or a merry-go-round ride. As we stop to consider God’s character and pursue his passion, along with our church we will fall deeper and deeper in love with our sovereign Christ. We may find ourselves increasingly weeping when we are praying and increasingly aware of how little we know him, yet want more and more to know him deeper.
The second stop is also a discovery process. In this stop, we will be examining ourselves as individual leaders, our staff as a body of leaders, and the church as a whole. Again, the most difficult part of this stop is to be as open to God as we can. We will ask God to show us where we are consistent or inconsistent with what we discovered from our prayer and study time with Christ.
It is so easy to fool ourselves here. We throw out clichés and phrases that we have learned in order to look and sound good. Even in our corporate church structure, we have bylaws and brochures that say what our bylaws and brochures are supposed to say. Christians, including church leaders, are good at putting on masks or being imposters in front of others—and maybe even themselves. We may already be aware of that in our own lives and the lives of other leaders. In our hearts, we may be struggling with this tension. If we are not already struggling with the tension, we may begin to struggle after God reveals a pride issue to us.
In this second stop, we will be letting the Holy Spirit examine us as leaders based on the reality of what is happening in our lives and in the church, not just what we say. We will be using the works of our lives and the life of our congregations to reveal our faith and affections.
In many churches, the primary concern leaders have with new Christians (and for that matter their own people) is that they look, talk, and behave in a predetermined way. That is not, however, the way God intends for his church to be.
Throughout the world, wonderful followers of Christ dress differently, behave differently, sing different music to different types of instruments, and worship differently. However, there is one characteristic common to all who have given themselves to God: the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There seems to be a culture, perhaps we could call it a “kingdom of God culture,” for those who love God with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength. This means that their affection for God is the driving affection for their life. To them, this kingdom culture is bigger than world cultures, bigger than Western rationalism, bigger than Eastern mysticism, bigger than modernism or postmodernism, and bigger than any church-ism that exists anywhere in the world.
In Matthew 22:36–40, Jesus said that loving God is his primary concern for us. He wants his children to love him. We cannot command people to love God. We cannot teach them to love God with just words. People catch love for God from God through exposure to someone who loves God, someone whose love for him is obvious both verbally and nonverbally.
As a leader of our family and church, we rely heavily on words. But words are the least effective communication tool when face-to-face with somebody—especially someone close to you.
Picture a young couple that has just gotten married and is at the beach on their honeymoon. They are so much in love. They have eyes only for each other. They are running around the shallow surf with their pant legs rolled up, laughing and giggling together. The groom reaches down and teasingly splashes water on his bride. Giggling back at him, she says, “Oh, I hate you. Take that,” as she splashes water back on him.
What did she say? Her words were, “I hate you.” Given the facts, no one would conclude her real message was “I hate you.” It was “I love you.” She loved him and was simply enjoying a playful moment with her husband. Our nonverbal communication can sometimes say exactly the opposite of the words coming out of our mouths.
When Jesus said God’s first commandment is that his children love him, Jesus was drawing from the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 6:5–9. In that passage, God directs his children to pass on the love for God to others.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The word, “children” in the passage can be a broad word covering just about anybody.
“Impress” comes from a word that means whet or sharpen. A synonym for “whet” could be “arouse or kindle.” Either sharpening or whetting involves a great deal more than the use of just words. It involves all of who we are, including our values and affections. Here lies much of the problem.
The problem is that many church leaders, like other people, are caught up in houses, cars, jobs, looking good, being respected or liked, or being in control. Much of the time, we would have to infer that what they value most is not God.
Love takes time. Love takes communication, communication takes involvement, and involvement takes a lot of time. We praise God for the leaders who do take the time to love God and to display that love in their lives.
Most effort in churches is spent keeping programs going, yet God’s heart is for a love relationship. This is a great discussion point and point of prayer, is it not? How do we as leaders keep “the main thing the main thing”? Of course, the first thing is that we, as a leader or body of leaders, personally make God the most important thing in our lives.
Once we have a clearer picture of our loving God, what pleases him (what he wants from you), and how he is leading us to approach life and ministry differently, we will find increasing tension. That tension is between what we are learning that God wants from us and our strong habits or addictions to make life work on our own—managing the church but in our strength and our wisdom.
In the previous chapter, we already read about the flesh and its hold on us. And earlier in this chapter, we read about the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, Paul draws a picture of the flesh and the Spirit in conflict—a conflict that does not resolve during this lifetime. This is a real tension. This is not just theology. It is a real, practical problem, yet many leaders today miss the point of the problem.
The flesh is real and crippling, destroying churches and the lives of Christians. We are seeing it in church battles, church splits, leadership and congregational anger, conflict, and long-term hatred between congregational members. We see the flesh in the growing number of leaders and members of congregations falling into sexual affairs, sexual addiction, pornography, and divorce. We see the flesh in addiction to possessions, the idolatry of materialism, and selfish ambition. Sometimes church leadership even applauds our addiction to success when we perform well in ministry. We see the flesh in the rage that occurs at times in meetings or between people in conflict. We see the flesh in the various groups that fight with one another. We see the flesh in the homes of Christians as they invite strangers into their homes to do immoral acts in front of their family (also known as today’s average television program).
We are beginning to see some churches attacking these issues. They are taking up support groups for the abused and the abusers. There is help for those suffering from addiction. Organizations like Crown Ministries are attacking materialism by helping people understand God’s ownership. The organization Peacemakers is helping churches to learn how to mediate conflict. All of these battles against the symptoms of the flesh are good and need to happen. However, it is still missing the point. Dealing with the symptoms without dealing with the cause will simply result in the flesh sprouting up again in the same area or in some new area. Church leaders must deal with the root cause—the flesh itself. The flesh is that part of us that tries to make life work for us, to be autonomous or independent of God in the practical segments of our lives.
Leaders, how do we fight against the flesh? Paul says it is by walking or living by the Spirit. So again, we are back to God’s main concern—that we love him with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength. His concern is that we are in a deep, dependent, obedient love relationship with our Lord. His concern is that we have him as our primary affection—that he is the center of and sovereign over our lives, not us. We need to let God lead the church and the members of the congregation that make up that church.
The flesh is an enemy of Christians and the church. To fight against that enemy we need our relationship with Christ to encompass all areas of our lives, our church leaders’ lives, the congregation members’ lives, and the corporate life of the church. It is walking and living in the Spirit.
The symptoms of the flesh that Paul outlines in his letter to the Galatians are like a thermometer. A thermometer tells us information about a current condition and may reveal the need to look for a deeper problem.
We notice that our child has a fever. Using a thermometer, we discover that his or her temperature is 105 degrees. We now know several facts. We know our child has an excessively high fever. We know from experience that we need to get the fever down to prevent bigger problems. We also know there is something causing our child to have the fever. And so we know that we must find out what it is that is causing the fever.
What do we do? We get the fever down using medication and cold water. Of course, we would never consider just stopping there. We would take further steps to find the cause of the fever like getting help from someone trained in medicine. We would deal with both the symptom and the cause of the fever.
The same principle applies to church leadership. We examine our own lives and the life of our congregation to find symptoms of the flesh, as discussed above. As we discover a symptom or symptoms (and we will, many times—they will be right in our faces) we know two facts. First, we know we have a symptom of the flesh that we must deal with. Second, we know there is an underlying cause—the flesh.
Of course, we must deal with the symptoms of the flesh—and do it God’s way. Dealing with symptoms of the flesh is an enormously complex and sensitive process, one in which we need great care, prayer, and preparation. This cannot be overstated. Confronting issues of immorality, anger, discord, gossip, addictions, factions, rage, and the other symptoms of the flesh is risky. It carries the potential for great damage, pain, broken hearts, defeated lives, lawsuits, etc.
Even better than dealing with the symptoms of the flesh, don’t we wish that we could stop the symptoms before they appeared? What if there was an immunization shot for the flesh? According to Paul, there is. His solution to the flesh is walking and living in a Spirit-directed, deeply dependent, love relationship with our sovereign God. Therefore, the primary focus of all that happens in the church should be to point people in that direction—to bring the focus on Christ.
Would it not be best for church leadership to make the depth of their love for God the priority? In terms of the overall health of the congregation, is there anything more important than leadership itself building and preserving that Spirit-directed relationship with God and then passing that on to the congregation? Jesus says that this is God’s priority. Shouldn’t leadership have the same priority as God? It must begin with us as leaders.
We have been in many churches, and yet we can count on one hand the number of leadership groups (boards, etc.) that actively and practically make the growth and maintenance of their love relationship with God their priority. It is tragic. They must either assume that there is no battle and Paul is mistaken, or they must believe that they are so deeply mature in Christ that they are above risk. It sounds a lot like pride, doesn’t it? Maybe this is the real reason that so many churches are in decline. Maybe church leadership is spending too much time wrestling with what they think is urgent, instead of what God calls the number one priority.
Be careful here. Our priority is falling deeper and deeper in love with God—for God himself. Our priority is not a deeper relationship with God for what we get out of it.
In the devotional My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers summarizes this priority in the devotion for March 12:
Our motive for surrender should not be for any personal gain at all. We have become so self-centered that we go to God only for something from him, and not for God himself. It is like saying, “No, Lord, I don’t want you; I want myself. But I do want You to clean me and fill me with Your Holy Spirit. I want to be on display in Your showcase so I can say, ‘This is what God has done for me.’” Gaining heaven, being delivered from sin, and being made useful to God are things that should never even be a consideration in real surrender. Genuine total surrender is a personal sovereign preference for Jesus Christ himself.