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RETHINKING THE CHURCH: A Challenge to Traditional Ministry Methods Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   



Many churches in America are finding themselves with little power and joy, but with a growing amount of sin and brokenness. And for many, it is not because they are reaching non-Christians who bring their problems into the church, something we would expect. People who have been in the church for decades are struggling with the same sins as the non-Christians in their neighborhoods. Why are so many churches, especially churches in the Bible belt, riddled with the same problems of divorce and adultery and hopelessness just like the lost world around them? In "Rethinking the Church," I try to answer this question and others.


As I have worshipped and worked among different churches around the U.S., and overseas, I have been learning a few things about ministry and church leadership. I wrote this article with church leaders in mind and tried to keep it brief, knowing you are busy. 


In many of our churches, it seems that church culture and traditionalism have replaced God himself. If you doubt this, change the order of worship some Sunday morning. Take an offering at the end of service instead of in the middle and see how people react. (Or do not take it at all.) Ritual has become deity.  


I am not too enthralled with the Emerging Church Movement, but I resonate with their creativity and desire for honesty as we approach God and others. I invite you to only accept my views here if they are Scriptural. I pray you will find encouragement, challenge, inspiration, and a passion for God's glory in this essay. May your heart be enraptured with overwhelming joy for Christ's glory.




What could be more wonderful than worshipping Yahweh, the God of all creation? What could be better than declaring the infinite worth of Christ, his Son? We as believers can enjoy Christ now, and throughout eternity. Unfortunately, most of the people on the earth don't know the joy of worshipping the God of the Bible, and many professing Christians in the U.S. don't actually know the joy of worshipping the God of the Bible either. Why are so many professing Christians in the U.S. spiritually struggling to get by from week to week? Why no lasting joy or power?


Many churches in America want to honor Christ in how they minister. And there are some exciting things going on around the world, not just in the U.S. Yet, with all of the good things going on in some churches in America, many churches could be more effective than they are. But how can churches actually minister more effectively than they already do?


Church leaders are busy and overworked, and often criticized. Although I've written some things here that may seem like more of a jab than an uplifting word, I have striven to write in the spirit of love. I write this recognizing that many of you have more ministry experience than I have. You serve your people night and day, laboring for them to know God more fully. I commend you for your efforts and am aware of my own limited experience in ministry.


Hopefully, you are teachable. Nonetheless, some of the contents of this paper could be tough for many to hear. And here's one challenge-Because God is bigger than our preconceptions of the church, we need to rethink our idea of the church.


What is the church? In short, the church is a body of redeemed, baptized, Spirit-filled believers who gather regularly to hold each other accountable and to worship Christ through the Word, prayer, singing, and the Lord's Supper. The sad truth is that many churches, especially churches in the Bible belt, are about surviving, trying to keep the doors open just one more week. They have long since lost a passion for worshipping God through his Son Christ. If all a "church" is going to do is just survive, then closing its doors is probably a good thing. God wants his church to delight in him and to spread his fame to all nations, not just grope along trying to guilt people into service.


I'll be talking a lot about the traditional church, so let me define it. The traditional church, sometimes called the institutional or community church, typically meets in a church building and follows a set pattern that they've observed for many years, decades, or centuries (e.g., altar calls, hymns, Sunday school). Traditional, institutional, or community church mean what many people usually have in mind when thinking of a church-a local group of believers that meet in a church building.


Let's consider a few traits of a healthy church. The following six traits don't necessarily cover every aspect of a healthy church, but hopefully they highlight some of the most important aspects of a healthy church.




1. A healthy church delights in the Word of God. A church that delights in God's Word will also delight in God himself. Or we could flip it around and say, a church that delights in God will also delight in his Word. There is a distinction between God and his Word, but the two are closely linked. We come to God's Word to get to know him better.


Among other things, the Word of God helps us remain pure, peaceful, and truthful. Psalm 119:9-11 teaches us that God's Word is the cure for a hot passionate young man's lust. God's Word guides us down the path of peace (Ps 119:165) and his Word proclaims truth to us. Jesus said to the Father, "Your Word is truth" (Jn 17:17).


A healthy church is going to make much of the Word of God. The Word of God reminds us of how God thinks, and keeps us from slipping into our own selfish ways. This is why it's important for church leaders, especially those in a traditional church setting, to teach and preach expository sermons or lessons as much as possible. An expository sermon could be defined as a sermon which follows the structure and original context of a given passage of Scripture. Many churches are weak because the leaders teach from Scripture as though the context doesn't matter. They select a passage and read into it whatever they think the congregation or class needs to hear without consideration for what the biblical author had in mind. For these kinds of teachers, Scripture serves as a springboard for their own thoughts. We ought to take our preaching and teaching times seriously. We must, therefore, take our preparation time seriously because God will hold us accountable for how we handle his Word. (A couple of useful books in this area are: Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all it's Worth, and Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching.)


When we let the outline of Scripture dictate what we'll preach, then we aren't as likely to preach our thoughts or favorite topics. We'll have to preach God's whole counsel, and that will bring balance to our lives and to the lives of the congregation.           


We need to make sure God remains supreme in our lives. One way to do this is to make sure God is supreme in our teaching and preaching (Ps 50:21; Is 42:5-9).


Also, when people hear the Word preached or taught, it builds their faith as Rom 10:14 says, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." If we want the people we serve to truly trust Christ in all of their lives, we will have to give them biblical sermons and lessons. Some pastors think the key to preaching is yelling at people. "The louder, the better," is their motto. Too often prophetic-like preachers rant and rave, yet never really preach what the text before them says. They share biblical principles but never get into the biblical text itself. What a shame! Good preaching is more than saying biblical things passionately; it's more than raising our voices. It's accurately declaring what Scripture says from the biblical text, not spring-boarding onto our favorite soapboxes.


Teaching the Word in its context helps us understand that teaching isn't just for preachers and pastors, it's for all believers. Mt 28:18-20 shows us that all believers, not just ordained preachers or teachers, should be making disciples by teaching others. All believers should contribute to the task of discipleship. But they never will if we as church leaders don't do serious Bible study that renders heartfelt, solid biblical sermons and lessons. (If we're doing a Bible study with a small group, we don't have to dominate the group. We can still facilitate in such a way that helps others contribute, while letting the passage guide the study.)


Expository sermons will also continually remind the church what the gospel is. I wonder if the people at our churches know what the gospel is? If we gave them a quiz, and asked them to define the gospel, would they be able to? First Corinthians 15:3-4 says that the gospel is the good news that Christ has died and risen again, that he brings life to all who call upon him in faith. Do our people really know what the gospel is, that it continues to be relevant to them even as believers? The gospel isn't just something we present to non-Christians, it's the power of God unto salvation, even for believers. We as believers need to know how each passage of Scripture relates to the gospel itself. O the benefits if preachers and teachers spent some time at the end of each sermon or lesson explaining how the passage they just taught ties into the gospel itself! Explaining the gospel will not only helps those listening, but it forces the teacher to think more biblically too.


(I used to attend a mega-church that rarely preached expository sermons, but the teaching was biblically based. I would consider that church healthy. It's possible for a church to be healthy without a steady diet of expository sermons, but more expository sermons couldn't hurt.)


2. A healthy church exemplifies holiness. Although there are many passages of Scripture we could turn to, let's go to Mt 18:15-20. If a body of believers is going to function as a church, they will need to hold each other accountable, by spurring each other on to good works. Matthew 18 is about that very thing. The larger context concerns forgiveness. In verses 15-20, Jesus says that if a believer sins, then another believer should go and correct him. If the offender doesn't repent, then two should confront him. If that doesn't work, they bring the matter before the church body. If he still refuses to repent, the church declares him to be a non-believer.  (Click here sermon outline for sermon outline.)


I'm surprised at the number of churches who claim to be Bible-believing God-fearing people, but who wouldn't dare practice this passage. Their failure to obey is one of the reasons why we have so many "churches" that are in essence a social gatherings rather than real churches. The church is a holy community gathered because they are followers of Christ. They aren't free-spirited individuals who can just do their own thing. The community of faith is interlinked, and when one person sins, it has ramifications on the whole body. If a church body is not willing to practice Mt 18:15-20, then they really should pack up and go home.


Too often we misunderstand what Mt 18 is teaching. Among other things, it's teaching the beauty of accountability and restoration. Church discipline isn't for the purpose of shaming people, although that may happen if they don't repent. It's about being linked in community and seeking to forgive and restore. But restoration must be preceded by repentance. This passage draws attention to the seriousness of sin.


We are accountable to each other for what we do, and Christ gives his church the right to declare someone out of fellowship. This is no small matter. Christ has authorized the church to pronounce blessing and cursing upon its members. That's exactly what verses 18-20 say. I've been a part of several churches that practiced what Mt 18 teaches, and although it was hard to discipline the offending person, there was joy in knowing we were following Scripture. Discipline communicated a strong message about the seriousness of sin.


One important truth to remember is that church discipline and the teaching of Mt 18 call all of us to repent of gossip, lust, materialism, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, racism, pride, drunkenness, etc. We all need the grace Christ gives. That's the gospel message. No one is exempt from the need to humble himself before God.


Too often traditional churches have moved away from confessing their sins to one another, as Jam 5:16 teaches. As Americans, we don't like to be vulnerable, but we need to be. (Unfortunately, many "churches" can't cultivate a culture of vulnerability because of the gossiping people dwelling there.) Are we as church leaders living a vulnerable life, meeting with someone on a regular basis to confess our sins? The teachings of Pro 27:17 and 28:13 encourage us to forsake our comfortable American mindset and speak to other believers about our sins. Maybe fewer leaders would wind up in serious moral sins if we regularly confessed to other believers. Henri Nouwen says of church leaders, "We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for" (In the Name of Jesus, 43-44). It's too bad that we're usually the least likely to confess our sins to someone else.


3. A healthy church loves to serve and fellowship with all of its people. One way we can tell if a church is healthy is whether its members serve one another (Phip 2:2-4). The church, the body of Christ, should be a grace place (Jn 13:35; 1 Cor 8:1; 13:1-8). If we can't offer love and humble service, then who will? But love goes beyond serving those who look like us. Are all races and ethnic groups welcome in our church? When's the last time we invited someone of another race to worship with us, or else went to worship with them?


Another way we can tell if a church is healthy is to observe how it responds when its official time of worship ends. Do people charge for the door or linger to fellowship? The church is a community and a family, not just a group of people. What's the point in getting together once or twice a week if we just sit there by ourselves, lost in our own world, isolated from others? Happy is the church that has learned the art of fellowshipping.


The Lord's Supper is one key way that believers can fellowship with one another. A church should maximize the importance of the Lord's Supper. If done correctly, it's a wonderfully bonding event that believers can share. Although there is no biblical command for how often a church should administer the Lord's Supper, I encourage churches to do it at least once a month, maybe more. One truth the Lord's Supper teaches us is how to continually come to God individually and corporately. We don't bring him anything. We come at his invitation with open mouths and empty hands. We come completely needy, receiving his goodness. We don't come to give back to him; we come to receive. It's not selfish to think of worship as receiving; it's the only way we can come to God (Ps 50:12). We are helpless.


Of course, this doesn't mean that believers always have to eat together. Fellowship can take place in other settings besides a table. But congregations have to be taught how to love and fellowship with each other (Acts 2:46). Just because our people shake hands with each other doesn't mean they really know how to fellowship.


A loving congregation will also be an actively forgiving congregation. Why are so many angry bitter people sitting in our church buildings? Why so much animosity and gossip? Are we preaching about the need to forgive? Have people forgotten what Scripture really says about those who gossip and harbor bitterness? Do people know they are in danger of hell fire when they don't forgive (Mt 5:44-48; 6:15; 18:21-35; Rom 1:28-32; Eph 4:31-32; Col 3:12-14; Rev 21:8)? A healthy church has an abundance of forgiveness and compassion for others.


4. A healthy church overflows with a life-giving passion for Christ. We've all worshipped with some groups where smiles and joy no longer existed. We need to beware of routine worship. This was the warning Jesus gave his disciples in Mt 6:7: "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." Sometimes we're just wordy and repetitive out of routine. Routine isn't necessarily sinful, but it can breed a lazy spirit. Are our prayers worn-out clichés that need to die? I've heard some people pray the exact same prayer year after year before they eat. This might be an indication that their prayer life is stagnant. They'd might as well bow their head and say, "God, remember the prayer I've prayed for the last 20 years? Ditto!" There's nothing wrong with bringing the same request before the Lord year after year, but to say our prayers in the same old ways, all the time, most likely indicates the sad condition of our hearts. We, as the Pharisees of old, must not forget to think about what we are saying when we pray to our heavenly Father.


When the church gathers to worship, are our songs and prayers truly life-giving or just routine? I've been in some churches where their sluggish demeanor and gloomy attitude took life from me. So many churches have sung the same old hymns for 20 or more years without learning any new songs. What a disgrace to the great God of the universe! Isn't he awesome enough to provoke a few new songs every once in a while? Are we so trapped by tradition that God could never make his way into our services? Are we convinced that only our style of music is acceptable to God? Consider what Scripture teaches on singing praise unto the Lord: Ps 5:11-12; 98:1-9; 100:1-2; 150:1-6; Acts 4:31; Eph 5:19-20. Some of our churches desperately need some new songs! If Christians don't enjoy God, non-believers will never want anything to do with him.


Any church that is going to make a difference in the world also must be a church that expresses its faith in Christ through prayer. The church is his bride, and must passionately commune with him in prayer. If you read through the book of Acts and circle all words related to prayer, you'll see that the early church prayed and then saw God do amazing things. We do well to follow their example in prayer (Phip 4:6; 1 Thes 4:17; 1 Tim 2:1-3; Heb 4:14-16; 11:6).


We need to stop praying measly little prayers that count for little in eternity. Are we praying anything that actually requires a real God to answer? Too often we pray only what we think is possible. We don't ask for the miraculous. Small prayers are fine, but we must not stop there. "Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God," as William Carey said so long ago.


Some churches have refused to get involved in missions because they said they weren't sure they could do that right now. In other words, they didn't have the finances or manpower. Another way to put it is, they didn't have faith. But isn't that the perfect God-sized problem we need to ask the Lord to overcome?


When's the last time we asked God to open a door so that we could share the gospel with the Blacks in our area? The Hispanics? Asians? What about the homeless or those in jail? Are we afraid? Good, then maybe that would be a God-sized prayer to pray.


5. A healthy church equips all members for ministry. Some American churches fail miserably at this point. Instead of equipping their membership to serve and minister, it teaches them that only the leadership has to minister. We further propagate this when we use the word "minister" interchangeably with the word "pastor." It conveys the idea that ministry is the pastor's job, not anyone else's. It's sad to say, but many Christians think that the pastor alone is the minister. And yet pastors, and other church leaders, are usually the ones to blame for this misconception because everything rises and falls on leadership.


We want to convince believers, especially new believers, that they are ready to minister starting at day one. Sure, they have a lot of growing to do, and a lot of training to receive, but they can start ministering to others from the get-go. Scripture teaches that church leadership functions to train the body for ministry (Eph 4:11-12). We're training them to train others. First Corinthians 12:1-31, Rom 12:4-8, and 1 Pet 4:10-11 teach that the Spirit equips all believers with gifts, and that all believers have a ministry.


How can we help our folks rely less on us, the trained "professional" ministers and teachers?


Too often we think that good leadership means we have to be involved in everything, starting and continuing every ministry in the church. And, yet, we get mad at our people when they will not do anything. But I wonder how much of their mentality falls back on us, the leaders, because we have not properly taught them that they are ministers just as we are?


Many pastors in the States grow frustrated because they feel that Christians are just too lazy. Yet many of those same pastors want to be involved in every decision the church makes, want to be at every funeral and beside every sick bed, rather than allowing the people to minister to each other. Too often we've forgotten what it means to equip our people. We have become more content with having our people rely on us because it makes us feel good.


But it's not up to us to do all of the ministry. By God's grace, we are equippers, preparing others to equip others.


Have we ever thought about training our people to be church planters? If our first thought is, "My folks could never plant a church," then our thinking is too small. The kind of church I'm talking about isn't a traditional service in a living room. There's no choir, and no one stands in front to preach. Rather, it's simple (See Tony and Felicity Dale, Simply Church). Its leaders facilitate Bible study rather than dominate the discussion. And it's easily reproducible. It is more like a family gathering than a service. Church planters don't need degrees, money, preaching abilities, a building, or a piano. If they possess a desire to grow in Christ, they can plant a church. Too many times we're worried about how to keep our people in front of us, so our crowd stays big (along with our egos), rather than how we can equip them to reach people with the gospel. (See Charles Brock's book, Indigenousness Church Planting for a good place to start learning about church planting.)


One way to help start small groups is by training our people to do Chronological Bible Storying. We'd be surprised how God uses something as simple as retelling his Word. Missionaries and nationals use this method extensively overseas with effectiveness, and it can serve as a useful tool here in the States. We'd be surprised at how ignorant people are of the Bible. Telling Bible stories is a simple way to reach lost people and start a small church. (See http://www.chronologicalbiblestorying.com/).


Many pastors in the States need to stop thinking of the church as a building. At some point we've got to stop inviting people to our buildings, and go to them via home groups and Bible studies. This will take people away from our congregations, but it will reach more people with the gospel.


We need to free people to minister, free them to see the glory of God working in their lives and in the lives of those around them. Ministry involves more than evangelism. Ministry involves more than "church" as we know it. Ministry involves believers joyfully serving and reaching out, to believers and non-believers, in a manner that spreads the fame of Christ. It may be as simple as cooking a meal for someone, or sending someone an encouraging letter. It might be visiting someone for an hour. Ministry is being the hands of Christ extended to the needy. Ministry is where Christians will find their niche in life, using the gifts God has given them.


How much effort do we put into teaching our people to minister? That's why we feel like the only ones doing ministry. How much time do we spend asking God to raise up workers? Are we really asking God to do great things? How many people are we pulling along side of us to train, so that they too understand how to make disciples? How willing are we to cut people loose and let them minister, even if this means they fail and embarrass us?


If there is a litmus test for whether our people know they are ministers, it's this-our people are ministering. They step forward to minister without guilt from their leaders. How many people have we seen in the last few months, or years, step forward with ministry ideas, wanting to try a new approach? To start something risky? Did we encourage and equip them, or say, "We can't do that because we've never done it that way before"? If we never see people come forward with ideas for ministry, if we never have people committing themselves to missions, or if we are involved with every ministry in our church, then maybe we haven't taught our people properly about ministry.


Why not ask God to raise up someone who'd take it upon himself to organize a yearly mission trip? Why not pray that God raise up church planters from our congregation? Why not ask God to raise up leaders among our congregation so that if we died tomorrow, our church would keep right on ministering?


In the States we are fascinated with the big and flashy. But when it comes to church, smaller is sometimes better. House settings could be a great way to go. We all have preconceptions of what the church is: we must meet in a specific building, we must meet twice every Sunday, we must meet once in the middle of the week, we must have a paid pastor. But none of those things are biblical mandates. We are free to meet in a field or in a house. We are free to meet only once a week. We are free to do away with Sunday school and meet in homes on another day. What if we stopped meeting on Sunday night and Wednesday, and instead encouraged our people to meet in smaller groups scattered throughout the city once a week? This may sound unbiblical to some, but what does Scripture teach? Some people might not like these ideas, but these ideas align with the Bible.


If our people had to choose between going to dinner on Sunday night with a lost couple to share Christ with them or showing up at our church service, which would we rather them do? Many pastors would say, bring the lost family to the church and then go eat with them afterwards. But this is a selfish (y'all come) mentality not a biblical (go to them) mentality. If we, the people of God, are truly the church, then we can go to the lost without requiring that they come to our church buildings. After all, the kingdom of God is within us, not confined to the church buildings we meet in.


Often times, we don't like change because we're afraid of what people will think. We fear men not God. We fear rejection from our peers. And, sometimes, we're just prideful and feel that such will take some of the spotlight off of us. We must never lose sight that we as leaders are part of a larger whole, the church body. The closeness and personal nature of meeting in people's homes has some great advantages. Of the small groups I've been a part of:  1). We actually had more time to do in-depth Bible study. 2). There was a closer bond between us. 3). We spent more time praying for each other. 4). It was more enjoyable than the large-group setting in a church building.


And let's face it, the Sunday school approach isn't always the best method for teaching Scripture. There is something artificial about the Sunday school format that I have never felt in the home setting. If we are truly interested in glorifying God and helping our people love their Creator, does it matter if we aren't doing church as it has traditionally been done? So what if some people say we're being too radical? Do we want to please God or man?


God wants the local church to have a global vision for his glory. We must consider how we can go into the ethnic groups around us (Mexicans, Blacks, Eastern Indians). Don't accept the mentality that says, "They have their own way of worship and don't need our interference." Often that is just a cover up for our own fear and prejudice.


We've become comfortable with thinking of the church as a building. We think that starting a new church requires a church building, a paid staff and full-time pastor. But that's not necessarily a biblical model. The church consists of redeemed people not brick buildings.


6. A healthy church joyfully spreads the gospel at any cost. If the church doesn't have joy, then no one will believe the message we're spreading. And if we don't have joy, we're not going to spread the gospel message. So joy is a must in fulfilling the great command of Mt 28. But mainly I want to focus on spreading the gospel at any cost (Mt 5:11-12; Mk 10:29-30; Acts 5:40-41; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 3:12; Jam 5:11; Rev 12:10-11).


Many American churches have gotten sidetracked in their vision for spreading the fame of Christ. To follow Christ is to follow the path of suffering and death (Lk 9:23). There's joy, but there's also heartache and pain, not just everyday pain, but persecution-suffering for the sake of Christ. What price are we paying for being a Christian? Do we drive the same automobile, have the same friends, live in the same neighborhoods that we would were we not a Christian? Is it easy for us to give our own possessions away to people who could never return the favor?


The life we're called to live is one of risk and danger. But the risk and danger are overshadowed by the joy of knowing Christ now, and the reward of heaven later. The truth of Mt 28:18-20 is that all authority has been given to Christ and he will never forsake us. Do our people know that truth? Do they see it in our lives as we give up things of this world for a greater good? Do the people we teach know we really believe Christ will never forsake us? Or, by all the riches we're collecting, do they see that we could never give up those things for something more daring and risky, like overseas missions?


The method of Acts 1:8 isn't that we first take care of our hometowns and then move out to the world. Actually, Jerusalem wasn't the hometown of the first disciples. Rather, Acts 1 teaches us that we should evangelize both in the present local places where we are, and develop a global focus at the same time. Too many churches think that they can't reach out to the world until they have first reached all of their city. The solution is both-and, not either-or.


Revelation 12:10-11 says, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." This passage, along with 1 Tim 3:12, says something very disturbing about the Christian life: If we are going to spread the fame of Christ so all nations and people groups can know the wonder and splendor of worshipping Christ, some of us must die for the cause. Did we get that? Some of us must die for our faith. Are we helping to raise a generation who knows that, or are we breeding more greedy people pursuing the American Dream?


Christ calls all of us to die. Paul says in Acts 20:24, "But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God." Would we cheer and rejoice if our own sons and daughters stepped forward to go overseas as missionaries, or would we think of 20 reasons why they should stay in the States? Are we actively participating in missions in a way more than throwing our money at it once a year? Are we willing to go?


John Piper, in his book Desiring God, p. 237, gives a quote from Brother Andrew about the hard-to-reach places of the world:



There's not one door in the world closed where you want to witness for Jesus.... Show me a closed door and I will tell you how you can get in. I won't however, promise you a way to get out....


Jesus didn't say, "Go if the doors are open," because they weren't. He didn't say, "Go if you have an invitation or a red carpet treatment." He said, "Go," because people needed his Word....


We need a new approach to missions-an aggressive, experimental, evangelical, no-holds-barred approach...a pioneering spirit....


I'm afraid we'll have to go through a deep valley of need and threatening situations, blood baths; but we'll get there.


God will take away what hinders us if we mean business. If we say, "Lord, at any cost..."-and people should never pray that unless they truly want God to take them at their word-he will answer. Which is scary. But we have to go through the process. This is how it has worked in the Bible for the last two thousand years.


So we face potentially hard times, and we have to go through that.... We play church and we play Christianity. And we aren't even aware we are lukewarm.... We should have to pay a price for our faith. Read 2 Timothy 3:12: "Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." The church has been much purified in countries where there was a lot of pressure.... All I can say is to be ready.


If we are going to have truly effective ministries, ones that value Christ more than our own lives, then we must change our thinking with the Word of God. We also must change the way we do ministry. Our message never changes, but our methods will need to. We need to branch out and open ourselves up to some non-traditional ways.




I once heard a preacher say that you might be a Pharisee if, when you hear the word Pharisee, you always think of someone other than yourself. Ouch! Up until he said that, I was mulling over a list of a few people I thought were Pharisees. It certainly is tempting to think of someone else rather than myself.


What the preacher said got me to thinking about some of things we Christians hold dear, sometimes to the point of becoming Pharisees who follow the traditions of men rather than God. Jesus warned the Pharisees about some of the beliefs they held dearly (Mt 9:13; 15:1-14; 23:1-15). He said they loved the praise from men more than the praise from God (Jn 12:43).


But Jesus showed in Mt 15 that good intentioned religious people are capable of being led astray and of leading others astray. Many of these folks meant well, and were conservative people wanting to protect the Scripture. So they erected laws around God's Word.  But Jesus condemned them for it.


Below, I've listed a few controversial statements that sometimes have been accepted as biblical standards in some of our American churches. (Some teachings will be more prevalent in certain regions.) Here they are, in no particular order:


1. Any Bible but the King James Version is liberal.

2. Women should wear dresses and men should wear suits in church.

3. It's sinful eat out on Sunday.

4. Only hymns should be sung in church (Praise choruses are for the Charismatics).

5. Churches must meet in a building that looks like a church (None of this home-group stuff!).

6. Really committed Christians must go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.

7. Every church worth its stuff has a Sunday school program.

8. Only one pastor must lead the church.

9. A church must have altars and give altar calls.

10. The Bible says drinking alcohol is wrong.

11. Only people who have been to seminary are ministers.

12. The Lord's Supper must be done [x] number of times a year.

13. Every sermon must be expository.

14. New believers can't be baptized until they pass a theology course.

15. Attending movies is wrong.

16. The pre-tribulation rapture is the only conservative option.

17. Only Calvinists (Or Arminians) are going to heaven.

18. Listening to secular music is wrong.

19. Unless you're verbally witnessing every week, you're not saved.

20. Speaking in tongues means you're off the deep end (Or, if you've never done it, then you're not very spiritual).

21. Non-believers shouldn't be present when the Lord's Supper is served.

22. Dating is wrong.

23. Christians must have a daily quite time.

24. Being the man of the house means your wife always has to serve you.

25. Believers must give at least 10 percent of their income to the church.

26. Christians must vote Republican.


We could list more, but the point remains clear. If we're honest, we have to admit that Scripture doesn't teach any of these things explicitly.


All of us should look at the traditions we hold dear and ask ourselves if we're holding too tightly to those things rather than honoring God.


Traditions aren't necessarily wrong, but exalting these things to a biblical level is wrong, because God wants us focused on him not these outward things. God desires mercy not sacrifice (Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13). Consider the warning that Paul issued to believers confronted with people trying to entrap them in vain traditions: "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings" (Col 2:20-22).


Sometimes, especially as leaders, we're tempted to force people into our molds. But don't we want to free people to minister rather than entrap them in our own traditions? Roland Allen, a missionary of past generations, speaks to legalists by saying, "When we teach a law which is less than Christ's law, when we set up a standard of morality which is lower than Christ's standard, we often fail to attain even that standard which we set up..." (The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, 75).


Christ has come to give you and me abundant life (Jn 10:10). God loves us based on Christ's work on the cross. Christ has come to set us free to worship and enjoy him. He also wants us to set others free to worship him. (See APPENDIX for more on legalism.)




1. Healthy churches savor God's Word and carefully teach it to the congregation.


2. Healthy churches practice holiness even when it hurts (No explaining away Mt 18:15-20.)


3. Healthy churches love to serve and fellowship with all of its people. They delight in each others' company, regularly participate in the Lord's Supper together, and forgive readily.


4. Healthy churches bubble over with a life-giving passion for Christ. They don't get stuck in ruts but always seek creative ways to express their love to God.


5. Healthy churches equip all members for ministry so the body understands each member has a responsibility to use his or her gifts to serve each other.


6. Healthy churches joyfully take the good news around the world, at any cost. They don't consider their lives too precious to lay down for the cause of making known the good news of Jesus to those who haven't yet heard about him.


7. We can easily become Pharisees is we don't make sure our hearts focus on God rather than on our own pet beliefs. Jesus came to set people free, not to bind them to rules.




Why are many believers' lives no different than the average pagan? Maybe it's partly because of the way we "do" church. Many well-intentioned church leaders have inadvertently promoted the idea that the church is a social club, something we do, something we attend, a building we meet in, rather than something we are. Our churches can be more. Methodology alone won't do it, but some of our traditionally held methods may actually be hindering God's Spirit in our lives and congregations.


Some churches have seemingly changed Paul's words, in 1 Cor 9:22, from "I have become all things to all men," to "I have made all men into what I have become." Our goal isn't to reproduce people that look like us or replicas of our church culture. We want to produce holy believers with a fiery heart for God and his glory. Only by his grace will we see such happen.


The danger in what I've said here is that I might think I've got it all figured out or assume churches will run smoothly if they just change their methods. The truth is, none of us minister perfectly. We must continually fall back on God's Word, letting it challenge the things we hold dear, including our ministry methods.




Because legalism is rampant in many churches, especially in many Independent and Baptist churches, I want to spend extra time delving deeper into this issue. Legalism is any system of works that we think will bring us into right standing with God.


Many of us don't want to be challenged on the things that we hold dear. Yet that is exactly what Jesus did to the Pharisees. How can we challenge our people to follow God wholeheartedly if we aren't willing to be challenged in the things we hold dear?


Let's look closer at our own list of traditions. Here we'll see things that are a part of our silent creed, yet not taught in Scripture.


1. Some people think we must use the KJV only. We must understand that language changes and so must translations. Translations are tools. Shouldn't we use as many translations as we can to better understand Scripture? None of us talk in 1600 Elizabethan English, yet many insist that everyone read from this text. Why are we so arrogant to think that this particular English version supersedes all the other versions in the world? If anyone is going to be dogmatic about knowing Scripture, then he had best study Greek and Hebrew rather than insisting that the KJV is the only good translation. How many young Christians get discouraged because they have trouble reading the KJV, feeling like a substandard Christian? They need to understand what Scripture teaches not wrestle with 400-year-old English. If we are going to reach people whose first language isn't English, then we're going to have to move away from such a rigid standard. Besides, the current emphasis that some churches put on the KJV goes against the very mindset the translators expressed in the original preface to the 1611 KJV, not usually printed in modern KJVs. (It essentially says that they're translating their version because language changes, and that eventually other translations will need to be produced because language is dynamic not stagnant).


Any time a person preaches, or teaches, or explains a passage of Scripture, interpretation is taking place. That's what we have to do to explain Scripture. The truth is, all translations are interpretations. We can't translate without interpreting. So why should we think that antiquated English is the best way to communicate with people today? (For an evangelical approach to this topic, see Don A. Carson, The King James Version Debate).


2. Some people think women should wear a dress during worship rather than pants. Is a godly Christian lady any less virtuous when she wears a modest pair of pants throughout the week or during worship? The same goes for how some people expect men to wear suits when they "go to meeting." Do we somehow think that God will better understand our prayers if we wear suits? Maybe it makes us feel better when people put on their nicest clothes, but God doesn't require this.


3. Some people think only hymns (or traditional Southern Gospel music) should be sung when we meet. Praise choruses are for the Charismatic or liberal, so some think. Yet this mindset teaches people that only one type of music works when worshipping God. We need to ask ourselves how meaningful it is to those worshipping when they're still singing a song that they've sung for 40 years. Could it possibly have lost some of its meaning to them, becoming only a cultural song, rather than true worship? There's nothing wrong with holding on to some of the hymns, but there's also nothing wrong with learning some new praise songs. I wonder about churches that are still singing the same old songs that they have sung for the last 20, 30, 40 years. Why can't congregations put forth a little effort to learn some new songs for their great King? Doesn't Christ deserve some creativity on our part? Some of the songs by Passion, Hillsong, Maranatha, and Vineyard are truly God-honoring music. Our churches are missing out by not knowing these songs.        


4. Some people think the church must meet in a traditional building that looks like an official church. I wonder how much damage we've done to our people by convincing them that the building is the church. Yes, we tell them that they are really the church, but our elaborate buildings convey what we really mean-the church is a building, a place where we meet. No wonder we can't get the people out of the pews to truly minister. They think that church and ministry only take place when they meet in the special, slick, holy-looking building. "When a church is not encumbered with endless building programs, and yet more staff, it is amazing what can be released to missions, or to care for the poor and needy" (Tony and Felicity Dale, Simply Church, 50).


5. Some people think the church must meet on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. Nowhere does the Bible teach us how frequently we should meet. The first century church met often, possibly every day for a while. Yet the New Testament doesn't mandate how often we should assemble. Is the habit of meeting at the church building three times a week the best for honoring God and helping our people worship him? I know it's what some of us have done all of our lives. But is it the best way? Maybe there are better times to meet. Maybe meeting once a week is enough. Maybe the congregation would be better off in a small home group throughout the week.


6. Some people think deacons are leaders in the church. So many Baptist churches follow this pattern. Unfortunately, in many churches, deacons actually function as elders. Yet the Bible makes a distinction between elders and deacons. Deacons are nothing more than servants. It's not their job to do all the ministry of the church, but to make sure that others are also ministering and serving the needy. Those leaders who make critical decisions for the congregation are elders not deacons. We do well to follow the biblical model.


7. Some people think only one pastor, as opposed to several pastors ("elders"), must lead the church. Even if we're the Sr. pastor, why not surround ourselves with other men who can also help lead the congregation? This shifts the focus away from the idea that only one man can preach or teach Scripture. It spreads the responsibility of ministering the Word to others in the congregation. It helps others see that more people than the pastor can understand and share Scripture. This would also relieve many pastors of their overwhelming tasks. Whether finances are available for several pastors is irrelevant, a church is wise to have several elders. The team approach is the biblical way.


8. Some people think there must be an altar call during each service. Scripture doesn't mention altar calls. A church may be just as evangelical and God-loving if they don't give an altar call as one that always does. I know of many churches that don't give altar calls, yet they win more people to the Lord than those who always give them.


9. Some people think believers must agree that Christ will come back before the tribulation, or they're liberal. Christ will return, but there should be room for disagreement on the timing of his return. The teachings of the church through the years are varied at this point, but it certainly hasn't always, nor all-inclusively, believed in the pre-tribulation rapture. This view is mostly a modern-American idea that says Christians will not have to suffer for their faith.


10. Some people think the Bible teaches that drinking alcohol is wrong. I don't drink alcohol, but I also realize that Scripture's teachings were against drunkenness not drinking per se. I'm not advocating that we teach our people to drink, but to examine these teachings dear to our hearts but not actually taught in Scripture. We don't have to be more spiritual than God.  (See article, Are Christians Free to Drink in Moderation?)


True Freedom

Many of us preachers pride ourselves in telling our people the straight truth. We call sin sin. But how radical are we? Are we really telling our people the truth? Are we teaching them the vain traditions of men, or are we teaching them how to glorify God? Are we binding them with unnecessary yokes, or are we setting them free to minister?


It's easy to preach against adultery, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality. And we should preach against those sins. But what about the other areas we've overlooked? What about our greed, materialism, legalism, racism, and individualism? Would anyone dare preach against some of our own traditions, like KJV-only or no-alcohol?


None of us can truly live and preach outside of our culture. Culture and tradition aren't always bad. They become bad if we set them as standards by which we must perform to find favor with God. And they become bad if they prevent people from truly experiencing God for who he really is.


God's Heart

Around 600 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah warned Judah of coming captivity. Amidst all of the woes, listen to the heart of God as revealed through the mouth of Jeremiah in 29:11-14: "For I know the plans that I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you. . . ."


God's Word, to his rebelling people, was that he wanted to prosper them and not harm them. Today God's people need to be challenged to lay sin aside, but they also need to be reminded that God is good. The greatest good that he could do for us was to give us his Son, Christ.


If we don't minister in love, we work in vain. Let us not forget the words of the Apostle Paul when he said, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor 13:3).


God sets us free rather than shackles us with bondage. What if we ask God to set us free from those traditions that keep us, and others, from truly knowing him? He would do it. And we'd be better off!




Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1997

[Eerdmans, 1962].

Dale, Tony and Felicity. Simply Church. Austin: Karis, 2002.

Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York:

Crossroads, 1996 [1989].

Piper, John. Desiring God. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1986 [1996 revised ed].





Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.

Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor.

Beale, Greg, ed. The Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts.

Brock, Charles. Indigenousness Church Planting.

Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate

Dale, Tony and Felicity. Simply Church.

Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

Fee, Gordon, and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth.

Foster, Richard. Prayer.

Garrison, David. Church Planting Movements. {Also see Ed Roberts book review of Garrison's Church Planting Movements. 9Marks.org (Retrieved September 27, 2009)}.

Gibbs, Eddie. Church Next: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry.

Gulley, Philip. Home Town Tales.

Hansen, David. The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers.

_______. The Power of Loving Your Church.

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William Willimon. Resident Aliens.

Hughes, Kent and Barbara. Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome.

Johnson, Andy, "Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!" 9Marks.org (Retrieved July, 2009).

Kempis, Thomas A. The Imitation of Christ.

Kenneson, Philip, and James Street. Selling Out the Church.

Kreider, Larry. House Church Networks: A Church for a New Generation.

_______. House to House.

Lovejoy, Grant, ed., et al. Chronological Bible Storying: A Methodology for Presenting

the Gospel to Oral Communicators.

Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

_______. Spiritual Journals.

Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

_______. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

Piper, John. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.

_______. Desiring God.

_______. The Supremacy of God in Preaching.

Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching.

Silvoso, Ed. That None Should Perish: How to Reach Entire Cities for Christ Through Prayer Evangelism.

Spurgeon, Charles. Lectures to My Students.

Vines, Jerry. Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons.

Wells, David. No Place for Truth.



Enabling Church Members to Minister Effectively

What Is So Great About House Church?



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