Christianity is a ‘team sport’. Certainly one can, in a certain sense, live out the Christian life as an isolated individual without necessarily belonging to a local community of like-minded believers. But it is hard, it is lonely, it puts one at risk of spiritual ‘burn out’ and also makes a person more at risk of false teachings and wrong ideas. It also severely limits opportunities for growth, mentoring and effective service.
From its early beginnings, historic biblical Christianity has always been best lived out as individuals who each have a personal relationship with Christ, but who live, worship, learn, grow and socialise within a mutually supportive community of like-minded Christian believers (that is the local church). It is within a local church that Christians grow, mature, mentor others, are mentored themselves, serve each other and the community. It is also within the local church that Christians are taught and discipled by gifted individuals called to the position of pastors, ministers and teachers. Like it or not, the local church is a vital and indispensible part of everyday life for a Christians.
Healthy, vibrant local churches are vitally important for the broader ‘big C’ Church of Christ to be able to grow and effectively carry out it’s function as outlined by The Great Commission. Unfortunately, many local churches fail to function properly and fail in their call to support and participate within the broader Church in this important undertaking. There are many reasons why local churches fail, but there are three things in particular that come to my mind – superficiality, lazy & ineffectual preaching and disunity.
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere human beings?” 1 Corinthians 3:1-3
It has been said in recent times that North American Christianity is ‘one mile wide, but only one inch thick’. I would go further in saying that this charge is true of much of modern Christianity in Australia, and the rest of the Western world for that matter. Every local church will have a proportion of its congregation who are spiritually immature (every believer has to start somewhere), worldly in the sense of still holding to unhealthy attitudes, priorities and behaviours that come from the unregenerate human mind, and lazy or nominal Christians. By this I mean people who identify themselves as Christians, but aren’t all that interested in digging deeper into what exactly living a Christian life means or allowing themselves to be transformed in the mind, soul and spirit by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. But when the proportion of a church’s congregation who are immature, wordly, lazy and/or nominal Christians reaches a ‘critical mass’, then the local church is in trouble.
The causes of spiritual and doctrinal superficiality comes from both the individuals themselves (disinterest, distractions, unwillingness to address certain lifestyle issues, unrepented sin) and also from the local church (superficial teaching, disinterested or out-of-touch leadership, poor or non-existant teaching and discipleship of both new and more established Christians). Churches that fail to recognise and address high levels of superficiality in their congregation are doomed to fail, sometimes by a slow and painful attrition and sometimes by a specular supernova disintegration.
“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…” Hebrews 5:11-6:1
2. Lazy and ineffectual preaching
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” 2 Cor 11:3-5
The rise of superficiality in local churches is closely linked to the lack of thoughtful, in-depth and challenging preaching by the pastors of the local church. Pastors and preachers who are unable to provide good Bible-centred preaching and teaching are destined to grow a congregation of Christians who are spiritually immature, worldly, lazy and self-centred. From a medical perspective, I liken this to parents who are too frightened to start feeding their baby food that has some lumps in it, for fear that the child may choke. As a consequence, the baby continues to be fed safe, smooth, sloppy, highly pureed food much longer than necessary. This stunts the growth and development of the child and makes it much harder to move onto to anything more challenging or anything that requires more effort.
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” 1 Cor 3:1-2
The metaphor can clearly be applied to churches of lazy preachers – the congregation is fed the basic ‘spiritual milk’ for much longer than is necessary (the easy, basic and inoffensive teachings of the Christian faith) and the more lumpy and challenging ‘spiritual meat’ is delayed or avoided (for fear of consequences from challenged and uncomfortable parishioners), resulting in a congregation that is spiritually stunted into perpetual immaturity and superficiality. In a church that is stunted in this immature stage, the only option for those in the church who want to move on in their spiritual growth and development is either to stay in that church and get fed somewhere else (internet, DVDs, CDs, conferences, parachurch organisations), or to uproot and leave that church althogether and move on to a church where they can grow and mature under more challenging teaching.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people [a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3: 14-17
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4
So what is lazy preaching? Lazy preaching includes, but is not limited to, sermons that are disproportionately:
* aimed at the ‘felt needs’ of the congregation, rather than teaching what they really need to hear.
* of the prepackaged, off-the-shelf, ‘one size fits all’ type, rather than constructed from scratch by the preacher and tailored specifically for that particular congregation.
* easy listening, comfortable and general in nature so as not to offend or make hearers feel uncomfortable.
* of a basic ‘seeker sensitive’ nature suitable only for non-believers or fledgling Christians.
* ‘self-help’ types of sermons that concentrate on day-to-day interactions, without delving deeping into Scripture.
* aimed at helping listeners discover inner happiness, success, financial security and good mental health, while ignoring issues such as sin. need for repentance and the need for God’s grace.
Lazy preaching and teaching in the local church leaves the members of that church vulnerable to false teaching, incorrect doctrine and ineffective Christian service. A church that persists in lazy, superficial and unchallenging teaching is doomed to implode and slide into irrelevance.
3. Lack of unity within the church
Causes of disunity in the local church is multifactorial, but I see three factors that spell disaster for the internal unity and long term viability of any church:
i) Head-Body disconnect
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.” 1 Cor 12:21-24a
By this I mean that the leadership of the local church is out of touch with the mood, morale and needs of the bulk of the members. Effective leadership always manages to walk the line between governing for the majority, while making the minority feel as though they have still be heard and considered in a fair and equitable manner. Bad leadership is governing for the preference of a few and requiring others to fall in line or risk alienation. Sometimes the only option for members of a local church who feel ignored or alienated is to leave, or worse, to stay and cause trouble and strife. This disconnect between leadership and body is a stake through the heart for unity within the church and leads to low morale, resentment and ineffective service. Leadership of churches need to ensure that they are representing the vision and direction of the whole church, not just their own vision.
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the one who is poor, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts… But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” James 2:1-4, 9
Nepotism occurs when those in power (in this case the leadership of the local church) show favouritism and special treatment to certain members of the church membership based on familial relationship, close friendship or personal preference. This favouritism is selective and exclusive and is not applied evenly throughout the whole membership. This can be subtle or overt. This is an example of bad leadership and foments bad feeling, disenchantment and disunity with churches.
iii) Cliquishness or ‘Small Group Syndrome’
With the rise of large churches, the resultant dynamics of churches have changed. It is obviously impossible to foster coherence and unity in large churches in the same way as in smaller gatherings. As a result, large churches institute internal structures such as small groups or ‘home groups’ to give opportunity for interpersonal relationships to develop and grow. Thus, in effect, large churches become a body of small groups. In some churches this structure works very well. Unfortunately, in other situations this leads to what I call ‘small group syndrome’, where these small groups become self-sufficient social support groups for members and can insulate these groups from the rest of the church membership. Human nature can take over and these groups can become exclusive and cliquish, and this in turn inhibits wider interaction within the church and adversely affects unity. There is always a proportion of a church membership who are unwilling or unable to commit to small groups and these people can sometimes ‘fall between the cracks’ and be lost.
Cliquishness can also be a symptom and outcome of the head-body disconnect mentioned previously where the leadership of the local church becomes disconnected from the wider body of the church. In this scenario, cliquishness occurs within the inner circle of the leadership, their families and close associates, to the exclusion of the majority of the wider church body. This obviously results in the potential for serious disunity.