How to be a perfect church (and yes, it’s possible)

Finding a perfect church is hard.

Being a perfect church is even harder. 

You know all the things everyone is looking for in a church:

  • Incredible worship gatherings
  • Awesome community
  • Insightful and inspiring teaching
  • Fantastic programming for every niche, age and inclination
  • Deep Biblical study, combined with laughter, love and care
  • Discipleship happening everywhere, with no one left behind
  • New people coming to faith in Jesus every week
  • Ample finances, with very little pressure to give
  • Pastors who are theological geniuses, caring counselors, compelling communicators, excellent fund-raisers, phenomenal parents, and wonderful visionaries, all the while maintaining a healthy work-life balance as an example for everyone else
  • And all this as a church which asks only just enough to keep everyone engaged but not overworked and burning out

Well, you know what they say about a perfect church. If you ever do find one, don’t join it–you might ruin it! 🙂

But what if a perfect church was possible? And what if being perfect was measured by a different standard?

I’ve got a surprise for you: Jesus himself told us to be perfect–perfect kids of our perfect Father, which by my definition, means being a perfect church.

Where did he say that? Right here, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:43-48‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Yep. Jesus told us to be perfect. And he’s not looking for a certain quality of worship music or a community of super-saints.

How Jesus qualifies perfection challenges our cultural or religious definitions. Because being a perfect church has little do with looking great or doing everything right.

How can we be perfect? Well, Jesus said it: By loving the people we most want NOT to love. Loving people we dislike or disregard–or worse, loving people who dislike us and disregard us, who even hurt us or despise us–that, my friends, is the MOST VIVID sign that we are being the perfect kids of our perfect Father.

To these early followers of Jesus, this meant loving people who overtly persecuted, ridiculed and rejected them because they have decided to follow Jesus. For us, it may mean loving people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t like us, or who are really difficult to be around.

But that’s a very different way of thinking about perfection, isn’t it? 

We’ve often thought of perfection as meeting some external standard of achievement, about staying out of trouble, keeping our noses clean and our shoes shined up.

We’ve defined perfection as not messing up. But that’s not what Jesus said. Being perfect is not about never having a family issue or never struggling with relationships.  And it’s certainly not about no nasty feedback from the sound system (or parishioner) on a Sunday–not about no misprinted lyrics, no screaming kids and no weak coffee. Perfect doesn’t mean we’re always smiling, never awkward, and super comfortable.

That’s not how Jesus defined perfection for us. No. Being perfect kids of our perfect Father is about LOVING difficult people in the same generous ways our Father loves everyone. In fact, as we can see, being perfect involves getting into the mess. In this teaching, we can’t actually be perfect without difficult people to love. We can’t demonstrate our perfect Father’s “rain and shine” love without the folks in our lives who are a struggle to care for.  The Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  God is indiscriminate with his grace, and Jesus calls us to be the same. We are to love generously, to love like the sun and the rain–without discrimination, without reservation, without judgment on who will use the “rain” properly or really appreciate the “sun” for the gift it is.

A “rain and shine” kind of love, indiscriminate in grace.

When we love across the lines, when we include those who are frequently ignored (by us and others), when we reach out a hand to someone who’s hard to help–that’s perfection.

When we open up our mouths to invite someone to sit down, when welcome new people into our cozy friendship circles, when we overcome prejudice toward others through hospitality, we are being perfect as our Father is perfect.

Jesus applies this two ways within this passage:

First, To Generously Provide Care for those who might actively seek our harm.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” To his first followers (and for many followers of Jesus today), this is a sacrificial call. Love those who are hurting you. This is Egyptian Coptic Christians offering forgiveness to terrorists.

For most of us reading this, Jesus is calling us to generously provide care, seeking the benefit of people we might deem an “enemy” of our faith or a person we don’t agree with. But the implication is clear: Jesus calls us to mirror the grace of our perfect Father in our love for others most unlike us.

Second, To Openly Include Others who we’d rather not associate with

“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” To give a greeting in a public place, back in the first century, was an act of association and friendship. You were willing to be seen as somehow connected. Here Jesus is calling his followers to be like him, willing to associate with people they might otherwise ignore. Like Jesus who hung out with sinners, we are to associate with people far away from the Father, in order to show them his love.

In our day, the application of this is astonishingly easy to understand, though it can be hard to do. We must overcome our cozy cliques and reach across the social, ethnic, religious and ideological lines to befriend people who are very different than us. We need to stick out our hands, and welcome people into friendship who others may deem beyond hope or interest.

That’s how we can be a perfect church. And you know what? It’s just us doing for others what the Father has already done for us in Jesus. Our perfect Father loved us when we were his enemies, generously providing care for us when we had no interest in relationship. Jesus, as I already mentioned, was constantly associating with “sinners”, so much so that religious people rejected him.  He ruined his reputation to love us. Will we ruin our reputations to love others?

If you are looking for sinless humans and flawless communities, then you will continue to search for a perfect church and will never find it.

But if you are willing to be part of Jesus’ mission, loving others who are easier to reject, welcoming into friendship people far away from God and far away from us, then you just might find you’ve discovered a perfect church after all. In fact, you might already be part of one. 


This post was adapted from an unrecorded message I gave at our Erickson Covenant Church Father’s Day BBQ on June 18, 2017. 

What’s choking you? 3 reasons Christians don’t grow, and what can be done about it

How can some Christians go years without growing spiritually?

I mean, isn’t that equivalent of getting married, and then ignoring your spouse? You thought an inked marriage contract was all you needed, rather than the flourishing love relationship the contract was designed to protect.

Yes, I follow Jesus, they say. I believe in him, but I’m not growing. I don’t pray. I don’t study Scripture. I don’t serve in the body of Christ. I’m not accountable to Christian brothers and sisters. And I’m not any stronger in faith or deeper in spirit than I was five years ago.

How is that even possible? Jesus gave one answer to that: kingdom life can be choked by lesser priorities.

In his famous parable of the seeds, Jesus pointed out four broad responses to his kingdom message. In his third example, he pointed to people who, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19 NIV)

Lesser priorities choke out the kingdom growth Jesus desired. Worries, wealth and wishes for “other things” are the classic signs of a choked out life. 

How do these three priorities choke our spiritual life? And what can we do?

First, worries choke our minds.

What is worry? Worry is inverted prayer, where our minds comb through, again and again, the areas of our lives we feel in least control. Worry indicates our primary concerns–it’s what we fix our minds upon, what we wake each day thinking about. And worry is powerful, for under its power, it is difficult to experience the peace and power of God in our lives.

What’s the remedy? We combat worry by praying the truth of Scripture. (You can read more about one way to do that here.) Recognizing all our concerns, we express them to God by receiving his truth into our minds, and speaking the truth back to God about our situation. Worry, turned to prayer, produces growth in our own lives.

Second, wealth chokes our hearts.

There’s a reason Jesus calls it “the deceitfulness of wealth,” for it is exactly that: a sneaky slit that leaks away the life Jesus wants for us. It’s not that wealth itself is bad, but we usually have no idea how powerful it is, and how easily we can be won over by our wealth without ever realizing our loyalty has shifted. Jesus warned, over and over again, that we can’t serve God and money. When we try, it’s our relationship with God that withers.

Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities is the only way we can get wealth right.

What’s the antidote? Only one thing: generosity. Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities–the poor, the church, missions–is the only way we can get wealth right. Don’t think so? Listen to Paul’s challenge: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV)

Giving generously releases the choke-hold of wealth on our spiritual lives. You can take that to the bank. 

Third, wishes choke our passions.

What do we really want? It’s a powerful question. A happier family, a more comfortable job, a better body, a kinder climate? The answers will be as varied as we are. And under this final caption, Jesus catches everything else which shifts our passions away from him and on to “other things.” Rather than seeking first the kingdom of God, we passionately pursue lesser things. We wish for __________ (you fill in the blank), rather than wishing for a stronger church, a more effective witness, an opportunity to show love to a neighbour, a breakthrough in our relationship with our son, or a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

How can we combat lesser wishes? By utilizing our gifts to strengthen the body of Christ. We can realign our passions by actively realigning our service, for employing the spiritual gifts God gave us for the purpose of building up the church (the only reason he gave them to us) leads us to greater wishes, deeper desires, an increase in passions for the same things Jesus is passionate about: lost people finding him, broken people being restored, hurt people healed, and a people of God more vibrant and alive to him than ever. That’s what it means to seek first the kingdom of God–we desire what Jesus wants more than anything else. And when we do that, growth is inevitable.

So what about you?

Which of these three–worry, wealth or wishes–have been choking your growth the most?

And what will you do about it? Jesus wants you to grow in relationship with him, and he’s doing everything possible to help you do that. But you’ve got to choose to grow: to pray God’s truth into your situation, to give generously from your wealth, and to serve passionately the kingdom priorities of Jesus. Get that choke-hold off your neck, and grow.

What’s one thing you will do this week to respond to stop the choking and start the growing?

Does the Church Matter? 3 reasons it does, with links to past posts

What’s the big deal about the Church, anyway?

Does it matter?

Is it relevant?

Should I care? 

In some form or another, these are questions I get asked almost weekly. So, I thought I’d offer you three posts from my past writing, specifically on the topic of the Church.

I encourage you to read the one that intrigues you the most. Let me know what you think by commenting below, or on the original post.

1st Post: We Gather AS the Church, not AT the Church.

The first post gets at the way we speak, and therefore think, of ourselves, arguing that when we gather, we gather AS the church, not AT the church (read post here). By rethinking our language, it can help us be the church wherever we are–gathered together or scattered throughout the week.

2nd Post: When we say we love Jesus, but don’t care for his Church.

It’s always struck me that Christians don’t get the deep connection Jesus has with his church. If they did, they might speak more carefully about his bride. Rather, we will say we love Jesus, and then proceed to insult, berate and disregard the one he loves most. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I love you, Jesus, but I can’t stand your wife.” (read post here)

3rd Post: Why I haven’t quit church (and you shouldn’t either)

The church is a mess. There’s no denying it. But where is Jesus? Right in the middle of that mess. In a reflection from Revelation, I was challenged by this picture of where Jesus was standing, and where we need to be standing as well. (read post here)


The Church of Jesus Christ is broken yet beautiful, filled with the Spirit of God and desperately in need of grace. I’m thankful to be counted among them, because of what Jesus did for me. And I’m excited to be in on Jesus’ plan to heal the world through us! (Here’s a bonus link to one more post about that!)

Question for comment below: How has your understanding of the Church changed over the last few years? Why?

Day 21 of the Pray-May Challenge: Praying for all those who pass by the church

It’s Sunday: what about those we’re missing altogether? That question drives my heart and mind as a pastor. I care deeply for those who gather with us whenever we meet as the church, but I’m more haunted by the many who don’t. 

On any average Sunday morning, millions pass by buildings in which people gather to praise God, care for each other, receive healing and forgiveness, listen to God’s Word and be sent back into their week re-ordered around God’s kingdom come.

And they pass by because they don’t know the gathering is for them. They are either unaware, uninterested, or uninvited. “Church”, they think (if it crosses their mind at all), is “for other people, not for me.”

But I’m convinced that’s not true. In fact, I’m absolutely committed to helping people who think God is irrelevant and church is outdated move toward meaningful engagement in this life-giving community of faith. To put more of a point on it, I’m committed to helping Christians eliminate many barriers preventing others from gathering with the church, so that they can really hear about Jesus. Those barriers could be unhelpful traditions, unwelcoming practices, inaccessible language or inward-focused programs.  Or it could be that they’ve never been invited by Christians who care. In the words of Craig Groeschel, we should be willing to do whatever it takes, short of sin, to help people find Jesus.

Whatever the reason, I long for the day when churches provide welcoming atmospheres of exploration, even as they sing songs of praise to Jesus, receive life-transforming truth from Scripture, and offer pathways to follow Jesus, wherever people are at spiritually.

Day 21: Praying For All Those Who Pass By The Church

So, would you pray with me today, on yet another average Sunday, for all those who would pass by unknowingly? Our prayer is not that they simply “come to church.” We have a much bigger vision than that!  Our prayer is that those who are far away from the life-giving love of Jesus would receive the Spirit’s invitation, offered through his people, into the grace-and-truth body of Christ. And that in that community, they would discover the Father who loves them, the Son who died for them, and the Spirit who wants to bring them to life. Let’s pray for those who don’t know that we are for them.

And we need to pray for ourselves, too–for Christian churches. Let’s pray that we become relentlessly committed to doing whatever it takes to make the gospel available and the church accessible to people, wherever they are at. Lord, help us see people with your eyes,  and do whatever we have to do, short of sin, to help them find you. Give us the courage to give up comfort and convenience and safety for the sake of others.

That’s my prayer for today, and I invite you to pray along with me. May we, God’s people, make room in our lives, in our gathered communities, in our hearts and minds, for all those God is drawing to himself, by his Spirit. 

 

Christmas: It’s the most generous time of the year

Generosity is a beautiful thing.

And at Christmas, generosity shines brightly in the Creston Valley. Over the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat to the stunning heart of my community as gifts were given, money was donated, time was offered and energy was expended, all in the name of sharing the joy of Christmas. Through the Creston Valley Ministerial Association Christmas Hamper program, over 400 families received a joyful boost of Christmas cheer–all of it bubbling up and overflowing from the generous hearts and hands of Creston’s amazing people, churches and businesses. And that’s not all–numerous other programs also received incredible generosity this time of year, alleviating burdens and elevating joy during a season that can be very difficult for many.

Wrapping gifts and offering soup — it’s all part of the Christmas Hamper tradition!

Seeing this generosity makes me thankful to be here, to be a member of this community and a pastor in this great valley. In a corner of the world known for its abundance, its people abundantly share.

At Christmas, generosity flows. Some might say it’s just a seasonal thing, when hearts are warmer than normal, or perhaps have grown a size or two throughout the year. Perhaps there’s something in the air during this time of little light, something that makes us want to give back–we who have received so much.

Young and old, everyone gets involved in spreading Christmas joy!

But I also think generosity comes more easily during a season when we celebrate the greatest act of generosity the world has ever known: when the Father sent his Son to make the world right again, overturning darkness with the dawning of light. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”–not because he had to or was forced to or didn’t have any other choice, but because the Father, in his generous love, is a Giver, giving. Whether fully acknowledged or not, Christmas time is a celebration of the ultimate gift given, from the most generous being ever.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” And into the world of darkness, generosity shone. And it continues to shine, year after year, day after day, season through cycling season.

An amazing army of ready volunteers fill the hampers each year.

So thank you, Creston. Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for being people of abundance who share abundantly. And thank you for giving in a way that reflects the generosity of our Creator and our Giver. Christmas is a most generous time of year–may you both give generously and receive generosity in the true spirit of Christmas this year, and may we all know the ultimate gift given, on that silent night, for the peace of this world and the good of all humankind.

 

10 Reasons People Turn Away From Faith in Jesus

I find stories of faith-change fascinating. What leads a Muslim to forsake his family’s faith? How does an Orthodox Jewish girl move away from the only belief she’s ever known? Why does a devout Mormon family switch allegiances? It is so amazing to witness their struggle, to feel the tearing of their hearts, and to see (in some) the dawning of a new faith.

Having said that, forsaking faith sends shock waves through those left behind. When the famed evangelist (and associate of Billy Graham) Charles Templeton forsook Christianity and embraced atheism, Christians reeled. Whether it’s on a larger stage or within our own friendships and families, people leaving faith creates a struggle for understanding. How could this happen?

Why do people who’ve have faithfully followed Jesus sometimes turn away? 

Walking AwayIn a recent message I shared with the Erickson Covenant Church, I explored 10 reasons people have walked away from Jesus. They were either the primary reasons, or they created the conditions which resulted in them walking away.

10 Reasons People Turn Away From Jesus

  1. Disgust in other Christians. People who have been hurt by other Christians will often pull back, feeling betrayed and stung by the hypocrisy they’ve experienced. Whether through church division or personal conflicts, people can question the validity of the Christian faith when Jesus followers seem less Christian than those outside the church.
  2. Disappointment with God. When God doesn’t seem to be hearing me or answering my prayers, disappointment can set in. Often this is due to unrealistic and untrue expectations of what God was going to do in the first place, but it also can happen when God seems silent and unresponsive. Are you even there, God?
  3. Difficulties. Related to disappointment, we can experience difficulties in life that can drive us away from God. Following Jesus can make life worse, blowing up relationships, inviting persecution, the rejection of family, and hard times. Or, quite simply, the ongoing call to take up our cross and follow Jesus can become more than we signed up for.
  4. Distractions.  We live in a hyper-busy world, and our attention can jump from one thing to another. I’ve seen people who used to be really fired up but now have other priorities. Now I’m on to a new business venture and I don’t really have time to invest in spiritual growth. I signed the kids up for hockey and we just can’t make it to worship anymore. I’ve got this new hobby, etc. And distraction from faith leads to the destruction of faith.
  5. Discouragement. I’ve heard it many times, when people feel like they have been trying so hard and getting nowhere. Discouraged with themselves, discouraged with their lack of experience with God, discouraged by some recurring sin, they give up.
  6. Doubt. Of course, there are those who struggle with doubt. Maybe their aren’t so sure about the resurrection or that Jesus really is the Son of God. Perhaps they’ve got doubts about the Bible. This could be honest doubt, and that needs to be expressed in an open community. Doubt can be a great pathway to growth and learning.   Doubt could also indicate a lack of discipleship–they’ve never really been taught or lead to grapple with the basics of faith. But doubt can also be a smoke screen for sin (next point).
  7. Desires. The truth is, some people leave the faith because they don’t want to live under Jesus’ authority.  I want to sleep with her. I want to serve myself. I  want to rip them off. I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it.  And they walk away from Jesus. Often when people voice concerns about the uniqueness of Jesus, it’s covering over a desire to do something that contradicts his Lordship. By ditching Jesus’ leadership, they feel free to live how they want.
  8. Distance. Distance often comes as a result of other things–we feel disappointed or disgusted, we are distracted or have doubts, and we pull away. We isolate ourselves from other followers of Jesus and before too long we just don’t feel a part of things anymore. Sometimes distance is chosen, and other times is comes due to mental or physical illness, difficult family situations or a change in lifestyle. But make no mistake, distance isolates and leads people away from faith.
  9. Drift. I’ve noticed that people who never put any intentionality into their spiritual growth simply drift. Like a boat with no oars, no sail and no motor, they end up somewhere far away. Perhaps they had embraced a basic faith in Jesus, but without intentional community, without incorporating spiritual practices, without choosing to follow Jesus, they ended up drifting away.
  10. Deceit. And finally, we can be deceived. We believe a lie about who Jesus is and what life is all about;  we come under spiritual influences that cloud our minds. We listen to a buddy at work or a brother we respect, and our faith is quelled; we read a compelling book or watch a viral video, and the argument presented seems so persuasive. Without ever exploring valid alternatives, we accept a lie and faith is dislodged. There is an enemy, and he seeks to deceive and devour.
  • Have you seen any of these 10 reasons turn people away from faith in Jesus?

  • Have you struggled with any of them yourself, and what did you do about it?

We Need More Noticers

We need more noticers in the church.

“Noticers.”

The red squiggle is declaring this a new word . . . 🙂 so I’m breaking ground today. We need more noticers!

As a pastor, I am keenly aware of how much I miss–miss people, miss cues, miss opportunities, miss seeing who is right there in front of me. I miss people who desperately need to be noticed.

Oh, I don’t miss all the time (thankfully!). But still, I miss more than I catch. Which is okay. Why? Because I’m not supposed to catch everything.

We are. 

Become a noticer!
One of the things we admire about Sherlock is his uncanny ability to notice what everyone else fails to see. We can develop that ability, and together see much more!

That’s right–as the church, we need to be noticing what is often ignored. Which is why we need to be developing the spiritual gift of noticing as a community. Noticing the ignored, noticing the ones who are hurting, noticing the confused, the awkward, the numb. Noticing the new, the uninvited, the tentative.

To be people who catch more than miss, we need to turn up our commitment of notice. This spiritual gift must be employed whenever we gather as a church, as well as when we scatter into the community. It will make a huge difference in people’s lives.

I know that becoming a better noticer is challenging, so here’s a few suggestions to get us started.

In order to develop the spiritual gift of noticing, we need to:
  1. Ask God to give us his ability to notice what we normally miss, and the courage to respond to what he shows us. This really is a God-thing, and he will lead us to notice who he want us to see. We’ll find that he’s given us what we need to meet that person where they are at. Ask him.
  2. Slow down enough to see. You know how the faster we travel, the less we enjoy the scenery? The same is true here: The faster we move, the less we notice. We’ve got to slow ourselves down so that we can notice and respond to the people we would normally race past.
  3. Don’t just go to who we know. We all love our friends, and we gravitate toward those who are familiar and safe. I get it. But if we are to notice those no one else is seeing, we need to discipline ourselves to walk past our own comfort zones and into the unfamiliar and the new (and sometimes awkward!). In the context of a worship gathering, where someone could think you are ignoring them (!), talk about it with your friends–tell them that immediately following the benediction, you are going to focus on people who are on the fringes and are not being included, and that you will catch up with them later. They will understand! And hopefully they will join you in the challenge.
  4. Remember: You can’t notice everyone! Neither can I. But together, with God’s help, we can notice many more than we’ll miss–people who need to know God sees them, that they are loved, that they are welcomed and included and valued. More noticers = more noticed.

Are you up for the challenge? We need this more than ever–in our workplaces, schools, coffee shops and restaurants. We need this when we gather for worship and when we scatter for witness. The unnoticed are everywhere–but so are we!

Take action: This week, with God’s help, notice someone you would normally have missed. Ask the Spirit to give you guidance, and then do what he says. Pray for them, say hi, chat it up, serve them, just be chill–whatever seems right.  By noticing those we would normally have ignored, we’ll show and receive love in ways that really count.

Be noticers!

 

 

We gather AS the church, not AT the church.

  • Let’s meet at the church.
  • Welcome to the house of the Lord this morning.
  • Are you going to church this weekend?

What’s the problem with these three statements? The assumption that “church” is a location for gathering rather than the gathering itself.

The fact is, we never gather AT the church–we only gather AS the church. 

Let me confess something to you: I don’t like it when people call the church’s building “the house of God.” In fact, I despise it. I know–it’s an ole’ school way to refer to the church’s building, but by externalizing the “house” we lose something essential. The “house of God” is not made of brick or wood–it’s the people in which God lives by his Spirit. 

The actual house of God (the people) may own a building, or we may meet in a rented storefront.  The house of God may meet in a living room, or gather in a school gym. God’s house is mobile, gathering wherever we can fit.

Where we gather isn’t the point: that we gather is. Streaming in from our stressful weeks and our demanding work, often unfocused and frazzled, to re-connect with each other and worship Jesus together–that is what it means to gather as the church.

Where the Erickson Covenant Church gathers.
Is this a church? No, but it is where our church meets.

So go ahead and steward the church’s building, make beautiful and functional spaces, maximize the resources for the kingdom, honor the gifts given–but don’t make the mistake of referring to a location or a building or a space as “the church.” And furthermore, don’t let the physical space distract us from the real building God is concerned about–let’s make sure we are putting our biggest investment, our greatest concern, the bulk of our energy and priority on the actual house of God–the men and women and children in whom God lives and to whom God is calling us to go.

On Monday morning, Jesus-followers are out there, working and witnessing and serving in their communities, families, schools and work, loving others in the mix of life. And throughout the week, Jesus-followers look forward to the privilege and necessity of gathering again as the church to worship Jesus, to serve one another, to hear God’s Word, to be reoriented around the purpose of the Father for us, and to be sent back out into our world for another week of witness.

Being built up by the Holy Spirit into God’s living house AS we gather is what matters–where we gather was never the point.

On Church Critique: How I Respond to Criticism of the Church Depends Largely on Who’s Talking

As you can imagine, I hear my fair share of criticism about the church.

I get emails, Facebook messages, phone calls, even the rare face-to-face conversation (as we Canadians tend to avoid that sort of thing), outlining concerns about the state and practice of “the church.”

CritiqueI don’t have a problem with critique. I want to hear what people say, to listen to their concerns, which are often based on past hurts and prevent people from fully engaging in God’s family. I also want to respond to justified judgement and insightful ideas, learning from others in humility and grace. By being open, we can all grow. 

But, as you know, not all criticism is worth taking to heart. Not all critique is actionable. Some is based on a faulty perspective, a partial understanding or a hidden agenda. Other concerns are smoke-screens for deeper issues. Some times things are said just to see how we will respond. And, sadly, there are those who just like to complain.

So how do I respond to criticism, particularly with respect to the church? How I respond is based largely on who the person is and where they are coming from. Here’s how I process criticism.

First, is this person a follower of Jesus or not? Right off the bat, if this person is not a follower of Jesus, and they’ve got something to say about the church, I want to hear it. I want to be the kind of Christian (and pastor) who is genuinely interested in what those “outside” the church think and say about “us.” That’s a perspective we don’t often hear. I’m all ears. They can rant and rake, and I’ll pretty much take it. Why? Because I want to hear them, as people, and I hope by hearing them I might help us (as in, all of us) move closer to Jesus himself. Does that mean everything said will be valid or actionable? No, but I will listen and I will respond with grace and respect.

Okay, so that’s if they are not claiming to follow Jesus. But what if they do? If this person is a follower of Jesus, then I want to know if they love the church. This is a big deal for me. How seriously I take critique from a Christian depends on how much this person wants to see the church of Jesus grow, expand, reach out, deepen and flourish. No, don’t get me wrong: I know there are many who love the church who have been very hurt by the church, and as such have either become hesitant to get involved, estranged from local fellowship or jaded regarding certain ways of being the church. But if, underneath it all, they still love the church, then I really want to lean in and hear their heart, responding to their concerns as best I can. Knowing how difficult it can be to even bring this stuff up, I want to honor their bravery. Similar to those who don’t follow Jesus, it’s important that they feel heard. But (and yes, there is a “but”) if I sense that this follower of Jesus is just dissing on the church, giving it up as something wrong and corrupt and beyond hope, I become less open to their critique. I tend to push back and ask questions about their understanding of the family of God. I try to provoke a little self-reflection. If they don’t love the church, and yet claim to follow Jesus, then there’s a problem in their whole understanding of God and what he’s doing in the world. And critique flowing from that well is going to be less helpful. Doesn’t mean I won’t listen–I will. But I’m going to be less open to their critique.

BuildSo, what if they follow Jesus and claim to love the church? Then I want to know one more thing: are they willing to get in and serve for the sake of the church? In other words, critique is fine, but is there muscle, prayer and will behind the critique? Is this person committed to building the church, or are they just ranting? Have they adopted a “you should change this” attitude, or are they keen on getting their own hands dirty? I’ve been on the receiving end of the negative barrage of saints who claim to love the church, but never get in, never stick it out, never show up, holding themselves back from helping the church address its problems, grow in maturity and fill in the gaps that are always there.  If a person just wants to criticize but not construct, then the validity of their words wanes with the telling.

We need to be open to hearing what others have to say, from all perspectives. We need to be filled with grace, open to receiving challenges we don’t want to hear. And yet, we have to evaluate what we hear and respond with wisdom, so that we can truly become the people God has called us to become.

  • How do you respond to criticism about your local church? 
  • Have you ever offered critique without love or service?
  • How can we hear those “outside” the church more effectively? 

 

 

20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #20: The Church Belongs to Jesus (not to me)

When you really care about something, it’s easy to take too much ownership. Parents do this with their kids, volunteers with their work, and pastors with their churches. We can shift from managing as stewards to ruling as owners. It doesn’t usually go very well.

And this is a lesson I’m still learning–Lesson #20: Jesus owns the church. I don’t.

Zapata-Cattle-DriveWe applaud “having ownership” because a person who feels a sense of “ownership” will take responsibility for what happens, refusing to pass the buck and actively serving together for the good of the community. In that sense, I hope everyone who calls our church home feels a sense of “ownership.” It is their church. They belong!

But the difficulty comes when we move from a sense of “ownership” in the church to acting as the Owner of the church. Or at least that becomes a difficulty for me.

You see, over the years I’ve had to remind myself (and be reminded by others) that the church isn’t actually mine. I’m not the possessive, overly-controlling type, but I am deeply committed the local church and want to see the church flourish and deepen. As a leader, I can envision some of what that could look like, and I work hard to see God’s vision realized.

MineBut in the middle of all that, I can slip from acting as a steward within God’s house to acting as the owner of the ranch. I can start taking too much ownership, taking all failures personally, resenting resistance, imbalancing my daily life and allowing the ebb and flows of regular ministry to define the ebb and flows of my own soul.

With startling regularity, I have to stop and remember: Jesus owns this community. This is his church. He bought and paid for it, in blood. Jesus is the one leading us. Jesus died for this church, not me. Jesus is the one in the middle of this church, not me. Jesus is the one who will see this church through to his intended goal, not me. Not me.

I think that’s why Paul, encouraging his much-loved Philippian friends, expressed confidence “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:9) We often hear these words in reference to our own personal lives. While that’s good application, the primary reference is to the whole church in Philippi, the little gathering of Jesus followers faithfully worshiping, serving and witnessing in that Roman colony.  Few people were more heavily invested in the early churches than Paul; he took responsibility as a founder and apostle within the movement. But at the end of the day, at the end of his life, Paul knew that the church was not his–the church belonged to Jesus, and he would finish what he started. 

This truth makes a practical difference in my ministry leadership, giving me perspective and confidence. You see, as much ownership as I feel for the church, I can serve knowing that, in the end, I’m not the one ultimately responsible for the success and flourishing of the church–Jesus is. As important as pastoral leadership is to a church, Jesus is over all and he will complete what he’s started in us. I am so thankful!

A couple of reflection questions for you:

  • When does “having ownership” inappropriately shift to acting as the owner?

  • How does Jesus’ ownership of the church increase your confidence to take responsibility for your church?


This was my final of 20 ministry lessons. As you might remember, I began my first vocational ministry posting on May 1st of 1996–these posts are retrospective reflections of some of the lessons I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) in ministry. Here are the other 19. Thanks for reading.

If you read through some or all of these 20 lessons, I’d love to hear from you. What was it like to read them? What resonated with you? What didn’t work? How could I have done it differently? I’m eager to learn from you. You can comment below or private message me. Thanks!