Four essentials of a church: gifting

Once, my wife and I volunteered to organize a church dinner. We exhausted ourselves, weathered much grumbling, and left hungry. Next time we will host a potluck! It’s great sport to make fun of potlucks, but they tell a good story. Everyone brings a favorite dish, all get fed, and no one gets burned out.

The idea of church is reflected in the potluck concept. Each follower of Christ is endowed with a gift — a “favorite dish” that others need. From faith to mercy to discernment to teaching to encouragement to service to wisdom to giving (and many more), each of us brings something necessary to the group. Exercised together, our combined gifts make every member healthy and mature.

This imagery flows through the Epistles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7), but is best captured in Ephesians 4:11-16, where the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

The trouble is, not every gift is relevant to a Sunday service. Many lend themselves to interpersonal application throughout the week in the context of community. This creates an important tension for church leaders since the majority of churchgoers only show up on Sunday morning. For them, attending church is no more interactive than attending a movie. Slip in, face forward, listen, and leave. While such a model is efficient for group instruction, it’s largely impersonal and deprives everyone the benefit of each other’s gifting.

This is why I would look for a church that prioritizes the shared investment of spiritual gifts.

There are plenty of good examples out there. Many “Sunday service” churches invest heavily in classes, community groups, gift training, prayer teams, service projects, and various other “throughout the week” interactions. Some Brethren churches (assemblies) also do this well. They champion shared ownership, investment, accountability, and weekday involvement. I’ve also seen larger churches that retain a Sunday gathering for singing and Scripture reading, but push everything else (e.g., Ephesians 4:11-16) into scores of homes throughout the community. That’s where the people meet for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the exercise of all their gifts. Leaders (e.g., elders and deacons) are centrally trained but serve locally. No one is unknown in these groups, and all share their gifts.

Many smaller churches naturally function this way. They live close, know each other, and depend on one another. Being the fragrance of Christ in small communities isn’t easy, so it takes everyone to make it work.

But it is the shepherds who train the group to exercise their gifts (vv. 11-12). Sunday services rely on the gifts of a few dedicated members, but it’s the everyday contribution of every member that raises the level of “Christlikeness” for the entire group. And since Scripture doesn’t prescribe a method for being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, it takes intentionality to make it happen. To create a shared worldview that reveals no other way to thrive than to thrive together. This is why the third element I’d look for in a church is intentional discipleship.

Four essentials of a church: shepherding

Thriving is usually traced to nurture. Whether it’s through healthy parenting, husbandry, or guardianship, things well-cared-for tend to flourish.

This is especially true of spiritual development. Since it is personal, less tangible, and takes greater determination to cultivate, spiritual well-being can’t be homogenized or mass-produced. People need to be personally invested in.

Which sets up a consequential challenge for the determined church. Skillful shepherding is a central reason why followers of Jesus gather, and anonymity doesn’t breed thriving.

The Apostle Paul signals this in his letter to the church at Colossae, where he describes toiling with all his energy to present everyone mature in Christ. The Apostle John also reveals such an interest in his third letter: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Jesus, preparing Peter for his future work with the church, repeated it three times.  Feed  my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

The writer of Hebrews adds the element of accountability to church leaders for the well-being of those under their care: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Accountability to a higher authority lends weight to any endeavor, and it makes sense here. God loves His children and wants them to thrive. So, He entrusts them to us.

What does it look like to “shepherd” each of God’s children? The two best biblical descriptions come from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The first boasts of God’s shepherding, and the second describes healthy shepherding inversely by citing its absence. Here are highlights:

A good shepherd looks after the flock, meets their needs, provides rest and good pasture, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds the wounds of the injured, searches for the lost, rescues the strays when they scatter during dark times, deals with bullies and abusers, protects them from predators, and blesses them. (Click here for a more complete list.)

The idea of shepherding is central to “church.” It’s how we love one another toward thriving, which is why Jesus felt compassion for those who were missing out.

The obvious tension here is how one person (or three or eight . . . ) can possibly shepherd a church full of people. I don’t believe it’s possible, and especially not when the only gathering point is a group meeting. That’s why the second element I’d look for in a church is a shared investment in the group.

Attending a hundred churches

I’ve attended over a hundred churches. Most were visits while searching for “home.” Some were on trips spanning a weekend. And a few were simply to see what goes on in there.

Of the “home” churches, there were Christian Reformed, Brethren, Baptist, nondenominational, and Evangelical Free. The circle of “visited” churches stretches to include Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Church of Christ, and megachurch. We even visited a Unitarian church when I was young. As we left, my dad asked me what the sermon was about. “I couldn’t tell,” I confessed. “Exactly,” he replied.

There’s great equity in a “churched” history. You learn that Jesus Christ is the way to God. You get to know the Bible. And the community supports you with much prayer, good books, real-life examples of saintliness, and guardrails bounding the swerves of life.

Which isn’t to say it’s not bumpy. Hypocrisy, division, cynicism, and self-righteousness are ever present, and so are casualties. Families break apart, people drift away, pastors come undone, and loneliness is not uncommon. After all, churches are comprised of broken people beset by self-interest. But not overcome by it. Church is a community of those who know grace and forgiveness, and never stop praying for one another. It’s the presence of Christ through His followers.

A churched history is a rich inheritance every generation deserves to receive — and it doesn’t take a hundred churches to receive it. As I’ve reviewed my journey, I’ve identified four themes* that wielded the greatest good in my life. If we were to move to a new city, these are the elements I’d look for in our next church. I’ll tackle one each for the next four posts.

*Matters of praxis, not doctrinal distinctives. 

Setting examples

I work with two men who are weeks from turning eighty. They travel the world, zealous for a cause, influencing millions.

Both are humble, friendly, sincere, and generous. They live in the present, tell the truth,  love their enemies, and view challenges as opportunities.

Both attended Moody Bible Institute back in the day, follow Jesus Christ today, and live to meet Him some day soon.

But not too soon. There’s much yet to be done.

What’s their secret? One told me, “God keeps opening doors and I keep walking through them.” The other quoted a verse from the Bible. That I may finish my course well.

Giants in the land. Serving others. Like their Lord.

Invasive technology vs. humans

Many of the recent classics feature invasive technology. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver come to mind. The speaker on the wall, the camera in the room, the eye in the sky, always watching.

Today, we live with all of these things. We’re living the classics. The only difference is who’s watching, and why. In the right hands, invasive technology is a welcome convenience. But not all are right handed.

The threat isn’t with the technology, but with the humans who use it. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. Which means the question of our time (and of every time) is not how to use technology, but how to redeem humans.

Here are a few words describing what “redeemed” looks like in day-to-day life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Dig deeply into any of these qualities and they grow even more appealing (e.g., love).

These are all descriptions of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is marked by Christmas. He was born to redeem humans, and December is a good month to read about Him.

Taking root and bearing fruit.

People leave. They leave marriages, families, churches, communities, and companies.

Leaving can be innate, as when birds leave nests. It can be natural, as in leaving town for a new job elsewhere. It can even be necessary. Dangers, deprivations, and emergencies insist.

But just as often, leaving reveals brokenness. Something isn’t working, so we leave.

Such departures seem mandatory in the moment, but there are reasons to reconsider. One such reason was featured in a New Yorker piece on Orange City, a multi-generational town in Iowa. It’s about being with the same people at the same stores, schools, churches, and coffee shops, every day, always. Consider this excerpt:

In his 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit — stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice — complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically — it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

There’s much to be said for the deepening of relationships (communities, churches, workplaces) through “voice” and faithfulness. There’s love in this. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And it’s reciprocal. It sees beyond.

As the third and fourth generations flourish.

Seven signs of a productive meeting.

Meetings will make or break your project. Don’t hesitate to shake up or decommission teams that aren’t working out. Here are seven ideals to shoot for.

1. The only people in the room are stakeholders and gatekeepers. They care about the outcome.

2. Everyone knows why they’re in the room. They also know what’s being decided, solved, or accomplished.

3. Preparations happen beforehand. “I don’t know — I’ll need to look it up,” should never be said in a meeting. That’s a pre-meeting commitment. If someone doesn’t prepare, it means they don’t care, which means they don’t belong in the room.

4. Establish mutual respect. Each member’s interests or expertise should be understood by the others. Politics, conflict, sensitivity, assumptions — resolve them beforehand. When four people tiptoe around a fifth, nothing gets done.

5. Focus on the customer. Begin by knowing the customer, and keep returning to the customer’s interests. Never assume customer behavior that serves the product. That’s backwards (and unlikely).

6. Squelch dieseling. Encourage participants to ask questions or make statements without extended explanations. Crisp comments yield clarity which fuels progress. Run-on remarks suffocate engagement as others grow weary of waiting.

7. Critical assessment is crucial to progress. If it didn’t work the first time, discover why not. If the solution is vague, clarify what’s fuzzy. Ask questions. Push into the uncomfortable. This may take time, but it yields spectacular fruit.