We have been thinking about the great subject of vision in church leadership. The previous article pointed out the importance, nature and source of vision in Christian work. An example from the Old Testament – David‘s desire to build the temple – provided some spiritual lessons, such as the importance of taking time to contemplate needs and opportunities, so that people can grow and God can be glorified. One essential element in this is to understand the relationship between timeless principles and the methods by which they are presented to the people. In this article, we want to explore that 3rd point which we might describe as the “packaging” or context in which the body life of the church operates. The doctrines of the faith must be contended for and preserved, but they must be lived out in a way that is flexible and relevant to people.
An Important Caveat
A warning is in order here. There is a danger of thinking that men of vision deal only in lofty matters, such as fundamental doctrines or great missions and ministries. Actually, size or outward importance has little to do with it. Good leaders are alert to opportunities and hindrances in the church of any magnitude that will materially affect the health of the work.
As an example, the failure of certain small and inexpensive parts in a car can stop it just as fully as the loss of the engine!. It does not take much skill to discover that the engine is missing, but it does take skill to discover a small part that has the potential to cripple the entire vehicle. It is no different in the church. Elders might assume that because doctrines are orthodox and meetings are Scriptural, details don‘t matter, but this is a mistake.
The Importance of Packaging
In grandfather‘s day, if you wanted to buy flour, you went to the store and scooped some out of a barrel. Today, everything is packaged and warnings are common that if the package has been tampered with, the consumer should reject the contents for safety‘s sake.
Packaging can be important. In the church, we must not think only of the content of our provision for the believers, but also of the means or “package” in which we present it. For example, a Bible message may be sound and scriptural, but if the saints can‘t hear it because of its lack of relevance, there‘s not much profit.
This matter of the practical relevance to people often means the difference between a growing church and one that struggles. For the sake of discussion, let‘s think about this subject in three closely related categories which together describe how a local church connects with its people. Remember we are not now talking about Bible doctrines or church meetings, but only how we make important things accessible to the people.
I will use the expressions “Physical Environment,” “Spiritual Climate,” and “Administrative Function.” Space limits us to a brief description of each, and a few examples, but this should provide enough to help elders apply the ideas to their own local work. Keep in mind how this relates to vision. We can follow King David‘s example of contemplating the needs of the Lord‘s people and the building of the temple (see the last issue of ESN Vol. 11 No. 2), and then ask in our assemblies for wisdom to identify and replace things which make it difficult for people to grow, with things that better serve them.
All of the material resources we use in the assembly need to be evaluated periodically to make sure they are working well, and that they are appropriate to meet the needs for which we employ them. This would include items related to our meeting space such as heating, seating, lighting, sound system, parking, rest rooms etc., and accessories like hymn books, musical instruments, kitchen and nursery furnishings, library materials, etc.
But don‘t limit the list to the obvious! Think of the needs of young people, older saints, single moms and growing Christians. Would a photo copier made available to students be useful? Is there a well stocked first aid kit? Can older folks find a quiet place to sit and rest? Can a visitor find the rest room or get a glass of water? Of what quality are food provisions when used? Some groups have asked that when refreshments are needed, they be home made rather than “store bought” if possible. Of course there are financial and space limitations to consider, and the idea is not ease and affluence, but simply being alert to ways to encourage Christians by providing an environment that encourages learning, growing and fellowship.
One helpful idea is to consider the four items listed in Acts 2:42 which give the basic functions of the assembly, and ask if each is carried out in the best possible environment within our means. The secret is to not allow anything to be off limits for evaluation. I remember years ago holding Bible studies in a lovely home which before long could not be used, as the owner would not stop the family cat from wandering among the people.
The physical environment in which we gather may be of modest means, especially in some mission fields, but we can remember David‘s desire that the Lord‘s house be at least as nice as his own. Obviously, even the most excellent temporal amenities cannot compensate for faulty doctrine or spiritual apathy, but environment is important, nonetheless.
If physical surroundings are important, spiritual ones are more so. This term describes the prevailing attitude or “spirit” which people sense in any group gathering. True, personalities differ, but those in leadership must be sure that a sweet spirit of loving acceptance and forbearance is the norm.
Once again. it helps to think through the various assembly activities one by one. Is there freedom for young men to participate at the Lord‘s Supper without getting a stern “word” from an older person? Are the older men sensitive to how lengthy prayers and flowery orations might discourage younger folks from participating? Are people free to learn at their own pace? Are some informal settings available when they can learn to pray or serve? Do the elders teach the believers how to accept ministry of the Word from younger men?
Obviously, the intent here is not a lackadaisical “anything goes” attitude on the part of the elders. Rather, it is a constant reminder that the assembly is a family and, as such, is a place for people at all levels of maturity. In the home, babies drink from bottles and sit in high chairs but are still cherished members at the table. Kindness, thankfulness and forbearance are not products of the natural man!
This is really an immense subject and one which must be much on the heart of elders. Any bitter or unforgiving spirit, or harsh, judgmental attitude tolerated will absolutely poison the climate for spiritual growth. Churches that have orthodox doctrine and scriptural church order yet fail in this area, will dwindle and die. A careful study of such passages as Phil 2:1 -16 and Eph 4:1-16 can be invaluable.
The third part of the package by which assembly life is made relevant to the people can be described by this term. It simply refers to the manner in which leaders communicate with those who are led. It is too easy to assume that people know what we think or mean or have decided, but in many cases they do not. How clear are the routine communications and policies of your assembly?
All the various functions of what we call “body life” can either be clear and understandable or vague and confusing. Why do we do what we do? How should problems be handled? How are decisions made? What about record keeping?
Leaders should practice a voluntary accountability to the church. Good communication is essential to fellowship. Simple steps of openness foster a sense of security and ownership.
As an example, consider the problem of marital disharmony in an assembly family that becomes known by a few. In the effort to preserve privacy, elders can forget that rumors often travel faster than truth. A simple statement that “the elders are aware of the situation with the Smith family, and value prayer” provides no real detail, yet lets the people know that their shepherds are involved.
Years ago I was meeting with a group of elders who were concerned about the rapid decline of their assembly. Ideas including some of the above material were suggested, and happily the assembly prospered through the mercy of the Lord, good leadership and hard work by the remaining people. But during that initial meeting I remember one elder crossing his arms and retorting with a scowl, “Sounds like big business to me.” Not true!
The fact is, every virtue of order, wisdom, skill belonged first to the Lord, all of Whose ways are perfect. If any business or industry has prospered, it is probably because it has borrowed God‘s principles of orderliness, timeliness, honesty and so forth. The church must never imagine that the Spirit of God is quenched by attention to detail!
David‘s desire was that people might be helped in every possible way to seek the Lord, and he went to great personal expense to make that vision a reality. Our blessings far exceed his. Should we not give highest priority to the Lord‘s work, not just in doctrines and church order, but in the important matter of how the flock is helped to appropriate these blessings?