The past four months for me have been a hard-core, throw-you-in-the-deep-end-and-see-if-you-can-swim schooling in ministry and teaching the Gospel. I feel like it is God's version of an "internship" for me and just like the internship I had to do when I got my math degree, I'm learning things in this internship that no book could ever teach me (except maybe the "Good Book"!). And one of those things is how God views church and what makes a church acceptable in His eyes.
Much of the teaching and books out there about how to do church focus on two areas: how to do events and how to get more people in the door. There is tons of information about the "right" way to do baptism, the "right" way to preach a sermon, the "right" way to take communion and how often to do it. Then there are scores of books about how to be seeker sensitive, how to keep people that do come in the door, and how to market your church so more people are interested in coming. They are more concerned about getting random people off the street to show up instead of creating a place where the Holy Spirit can show up. And they neglect the idea that we are all one Church body, each individual congregation being a part of that body. Just like not every part of the body is meant to be a hand or a foot, not every church is meant to be huge or have contemporary music or be seeker sensitive.
The problem with these approaches to church is they are focused on what pleases man instead of what pleases God. I know that statement will trouble some, especially those who have been invested in growing churches, but every day, God shows me the truth of that statement more and more. Getting away from the typical church we all think of when we think of church and spending time preaching in nursing homes and a tiny rural church with little resources has shown me what about church God really blesses and what is simply there to fulfill us as consumers.
1. Hungry people want Jesus.
There are times when I begin to feel like a broken record. No matter what passage my message is on that week, the logical core of the message is "we are small, God is big" or "we are sinners, Jesus is our Savior". I've done sermons on how to find your identity in Christ, how the Beatitudes are our guide for finding joy, the healing ministry of Jesus, and other topics, but what people respond to deeply, over and over again, is the reminder that there is a Father in Heaven that loves us enough to send His son to earth to be the one perfect sacrifice that will redeem us, once and for all, and that nothing we can do will make Him love us more or less. It is by faith, through grace, that you have been saved. The oldest person I preach to regularly, who is 101, still lights up every time I preach the gospel, even though she has heard it ever since she was a small girl. If they are really hungry, give them the Bread of Life.
2. The flashier the sermon and music need to be to keep a person interested in church, the shallower their relationship with Christ.
A sermon really doesn't need to be anything more than the reading of God's word. Worship can be led by one singer, and they don't even need to sing anything more complicated than "Jesus Loves Me". Anything more than that, and you should only be doing it for an audience of One: God. Now, the Holy Spirit will guide those who are charged with preaching and leading worship to do more than that, but those are the bare essentials. Anyone who really has a relationship with Christ should be so thrilled to have undivided time to spend hearing God's words and worshipping Him that the means is no more important than the color of the walls or whether they have chairs or pews. If you can't worship the same to old standard church hymns than you can with contemporary Christian pop music, that is a problem with your heart, not with the church.
3. The people make or break a church.
People are what brings new believers in the door, not billboards, radio spots or big events. People are what keep them coming back. If your people don't have the right heart, everything else about the church is meaningless. If people in a church aren't connecting, church is little more than a Jesus entertainment center where every once in a while Jesus talks to someone. The lifeblood of a church are the relationships that are built between their people and their common devotion to Jesus Christ. If bitterness, broken relationships, gossip, and non-acceptance are allowed to weave their way through a church body, all power is lost. Churches need to focus on biblical relationships, biblical conflict resolution and a sense of love, grace and acceptance among its people. And all a church needs to be is a group of people that meet regularly in the name of Jesus Christ.
4. If a church is not first and foremost filled with grace, then they may as well be worshipping Mohammed, Buddha or any other false God.
Christianity without grace is false religion. It is presenting a Jesus other than the real Jesus. The essence of Jesus Christ is grace. It is what sets Christianity apart from all other religions. If churches begin placing rules, expectations and mandates on people, you are slowly choking out grace. Now, that does not mean that we don't hold ourselves to a Godly standard or that we turn a blind eye to sin. Jesus, still full of grace, reprimanded people and called out ungodly, unbiblical behavior. But every bit of it was done in love and with the purpose of restoring the person to a place of walking with God again. We are not our sins. We are children of Almighty God. Treat others at least as well as you would want others to treat your own children and know that God expects His children to be treated even better than that.
5. All the more a Christian needs to know is that they are a sinner and Jesus is a great Savior.
I recently came across a very similar quote from John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace. He said this as he was nearing the end of his life and his memory was beginning to fail him. It made me think of the people I serve in the nursing home. Some of them still have quick, agile minds and can remember week to week what we are studying. Some of them forget where they are and what they are doing half way through the sermon and I can introduce myself to them three times in a half hour period and they can't remember who I am or what I'm there to do. But they do remember one thing...Jesus Christ is God and they need Him. Sometimes we overcomplicate Christianity with discussion on doctrines and dogma and feel like if people can't recite the books of the Bible in order that they don't have enough knowledge in order to be a Christian. And while that stuff is all well and good, all we need to know is God is big; I am little. God is perfect; I am not. Jesus is my Savior; I am a sinner.
So, my charge to us as Christians is to stop making church so complicated. Stop putting pressure on ourselves to preach better, play better, have better special effects and more exciting events. Leave some room for the Holy Spirit to sweep in and create something more meaningful and relationship building than anything we could ever put together. Being excellent is great and we should give our best to God, but don't forget that your definition of excellent and God's definition of excellent can be two very different things.