Friday, 17 February 2012

Good To Great Churches

What makes a church "good"? For veteran believers the answer is not going to be as simple as what happens on a Sunday. Church Consultants are amazingly in agreement over the answer to question unlike other fields where the aficionados differ wildly. Unwittingly unaware of this expert common knowledge is the average person who looks for a "good" church based on their own ideas. 

At the risk of asking another question before we've settled the original one: What makes a good church "great"? The answer to these sister questions are the "secrets" that many successful business people have used to build their empires but few care to admit are borrowed from what we know about good and great churches.

From my trainee-pastor experience I am learning that people looking for a church usually say they are looking for the same thing. Sure, they use different words to express it. Acceptance, mateship, caring, loving, new friends, community. Sometimes they don't even use these words although they mean them (French church goers realise this and use the expression 'Je ne sais qua' instead). People wrap them with such spiritual gift-paper as: Biblical, Anointed, Powerful, Free (+teaching/worship).

Church Consultants know this too. Perhaps to maintain the mystique of their profession they of course don't list "loving relationships" straight up. Pretending they know something the rest of us don't their list starts with such traits as "Empowering Leadership", "Holistic Small Groups", "Gift-Matched Ministry", and after a few more, eventually what most church-goers never need a Consultant to tell them about what constitutes a good church - "Loving Relationships".

We all know that a "good" church is at least a church where there is an accepting, caring, community where you feel wanted and needed. It doesn't take long to detect whether a church has this or not. It's intertwined in it's culture. And culture is obvious. You can see it in the way people worship together. If they don't "enter in" because they are self-conscious about what the others around them are thinking of them if they expressed their worship (resulting in cold, lifeless, inhibited, drab singing) it says more about that church's love culture than it does about its worship culture. Some clever churches have figured this out and more-or-less get the tail to wag the dog by working on having their music artificially geared toward being highly expressive so that it gives the impression they are "on fire" or "anointed". The same cultural observations can be made about doctrine when we see people within a church fighting between each other over such weighty matters as whose interpretation of the Bible about how many long it took God to create the universe is correct. It looks like a doctrinal issue when in fact it is a love issue. (Doctrinal disputes are rarely primarily about doctrine.)

It is universally acknowledged that good churches are loving. But that's not all they are. They do care about doctrine, direction, discipline and development. They take both the front and the back ends of the Great Commission very seriously. They don't just evangelise. They assemble. When good churches assemble something magical happens. The act of assembling brings a church to order. Assembling is like a Roll Call. It invites submission. Submission requires humility. Humility attracts God's grace. Good churches are drenched in God's grace but few believers realise the role that sacred assembling plays in receiving God's grace. The Apostle James tried to tell us this when they spoke of the assembling of a church in love, submission, order and care (James 2:2-9; 4:6-7). The Apostle Peter tried to tell us as well. He wants believers to realise that there is an almost undetected magical transaction of God's grace toward each other when believers assemble.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace [First Peter 4:10]

Good churches are easily detected by their love for the Lord and His Word. They talk about God. They draw on His Word. They pray passionately for Christ to have His way in them and through them. When it comes to obeying Jesus: they walk the talk. They clearly look like they fear and respect the Lord, because they do. Their leaders are leading because they are called and gifted to do so. When someone is struggling they offer help. When that help is abused or rejected they keep loving anyway although it may not look like it to their critics. And good churches have their critics. In fact, it is criticism that makes a good church great.

Good churches get criticised. They remain good if they misappropriate the criticism. They become great if they grow from the criticism. (Sometimes the greatest lessons come not from the criticism itself but from learning how to respond to it.) Good-to-Great churches do not shun criticism.

Good churches risk become mere churches if they lose the courage of their convictions when criticised (especially by those outside of their church community) and dilute their message or mission. Instead of citing the Bible, they summarise the Bible without being too true to the actual Text (" the Bible says..." but they never actually say what the Bible actually says or invite people to look with them at the Bible). The Bible gets reduced to a footnote in their message, rather their message.

Great churches not only love, not only match people to ministries they have God-given gifts for, not only have small-groups where discipleship and care happens, not only have leaders who are called and gifted to do so, not only work hard to provide an inspirational worship experience -- they stand up under the criticism from the Enemies of our Risen Lord, and persevere in doing the right thing. Great churches are not for the faint-hearted. They must possess the qualities of courage and faithfulness that Christ said was necessary for anyone who would truly follow Him. As a result of this costly way of being the church, great churches are not always large churches.

All Great churches are "big" churches.  They have a big heart for God. They have a big heart for people. They have a big problem with the way the world is. They know that sin is a big problem. They know that God is a big God. They know that Bible addresses the big issues of life and they aren't afraid to make a big deal about it! They know that God has big plans for them. And they know that when they were a good church, they had their critics and problems. Now they are a great church they have bigger critics and bigger problems. And it is perhaps for this costly reason that too few churches go on to become great.

If you want to be part of good church becoming a great church you must become more critical. But unlike the criticism of the Sanballats of this world (Nehemiah 2:19) your criticism must be constructive, submissive and humble. And sorry to interrupt your Amening at this point but you must also learn to handle criticism positively as well as learning to positively criticise. Successful business leaders will now be wondering why I am hesitating to divulge this truth. In order to build and grow their businesses from good to great they have had to learn this church lesson. "It works!" they are telling us as they wonder why so few believers in good churches make the transition to "greatness". These successful business people, like successful husbands and wives within a marriage, all regard criticism as a gift to help the good become great. They almost welcome criticism and as a result they transform their critics into coaches, evaluators, testers, and advisers who then feel like they are contributors not merely customers.  

Curiously though, although they practice it a lot, Church Consultants never list "criticism" and its facets as one of the defining characteristics of either a good church or a great church. But maybe that just goes to show Consultants don't always know what trainee pastors have learned from successful marriages, businesses and churches.

Pastor Andrew Corbett
17th February 2012, Legana Tasmania

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