Continuing my series of photo blogs on houses of worship, I share a photo that is one of my most recent, but one of my favorites. Providence Baptist Church is an historic congregation that dates back to 1818, yet this church in rural Forrest County, north of the city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has a worship center that blends the classic and contemporary. On the classic side, there is the red brick and columns in front, with a white steeple. But the high pitch of the roof in front that juts forward, and the columns rising to meet it, give just the right contemporary touch. Add to that the curb appeal of a country church standing proudly on a hill, and this church building is an amazing eye-catcher.
Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers
Recently, Outreach magazine published its list of the 100 largest churches in America and the 100 fastest-growing churches in America.
But when we read about the church in the New Testament, we do not find a list of fastest-growing churches. Not many numerical reports are even given, other than the 3,000 baptized at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and the fact that the number had grown to 5,000 a little while later (Acts 4:4). After that, numbers are rarely given. We don’t read Paul reporting to the church that when he left Ephesus they were running 200 in Sunday worship. Instead of talking about numerical growth, he emphasizes spiritual growth. So why don’t we?
It’s time to change our terminology. Instead of so much emphasis on church growth, we should talk about church health. So what makes a church healthy, anyway? Paul gives us a full description in Ephesians 4:11-16.
1. Leaders who equip
“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:11, HCSB)
Healthy churches have leaders who equip their members. The best test of the leader is that he has followers who learn from his teaching and example. Healthy churches have leadership that inspires the overall congregation to follow Christ and serve their community.
In this verse, the last two leadership gifts are indispensable to local church health. In Greek, the terms go together, “pastor-teacher.”
Pastors (translated “shepherds” in the ESV) bring guidance and comfort to the flock of God.
Teachers instruct the church in correct understanding of the Bible and Christian living.
Notice in verse 12 that these leaders have the purpose of training, or equipping, the church to do their work.
If a church is going to be healthy, it must have a pastor/teacher who is feeding the congregation God’s Word on a consistent basis.
2. Members who serve
“… for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:12, HCSB)
Healthy churches have members who serve. Don’t join this church to sit back and be entertained. If that’s what you are looking for, please go somewhere else. We need members who serve.
The “saints” are all the believers. “Saint” means a “holy one,” and every believer is called to be holy and set aside for God’s service.
It says the saints are trained by the leaders so that the saints can do the work of the ministry. So all members are called to serve.
Rick Warren asks, “If you are not involved in service or ministry, what excuse have you been using?
Abraham was old; Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive; Joseph was abused; Moses stuttered. Gideon was poor; Samson was codependent; Rahab was immoral; David had an affair; Elijah was suicidal; Jeremiah was depressed; Jonah was reluctant; Naomi was a widow. John the Baptist was eccentric; Peter was impulsive; Martha worried a lot; the Samaritan woman had five failed marriages; Zacchaeus was unpopular; Thomas had doubts; Paul had poor health; and Timothy was timid. God used each of them in his service. He will use you, too, if you stop making excuses.” (Rick Warren’s Daily Devotional, Day 357)
Healthy churches have members who serve.
3. Unity in the faith
“… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son…” (Ephesians 4:13a, HCSB)
Healthy churches are united. Unhealthy churches are divided. Notice the two ways he says we are to be united: by doctrinal faith (“in the faith”) and by personal faith (“and in the knowledge of God’s Son”). I heard about a pastor who was called to a church with only 51% voting in favor of his call. A year later, they fired him. It was a unanimous. The pastor said, “I finally united the church.” Of course, that’s not the way we want to unify the church, but the church does need to be united.
Remember the lesson from Noah’s Ark. It may stink sometimes, but we have to stay together, because we’re all in the same boat!
4. Growth measured by Christ-likeness
“… growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Ephesians 4:13b, HCSB)
Too often, churches measure themselves by numerical growth. And it is true that healthy churches should have numerical growth. However, there are churches that have numerical growth but they are not healthy. A tumor can grow, but it isn’t healthy. And some churches explode and then die down. Others grow and grow in numbers, but they are attracting people for entertainment or because their standards are lax, and people are not being discipled.
Imagine a church board meeting with Jesus. Pete calls the meeting to order, and says, “Jesus, we’ve been following you around for some time, and we are getting concerned about the attendance figures. Tom, how many were on the hill yesterday?”
Tom answers, “Thirty-seven.”
Pete says, “It’s getting ridiculous. You’re going to have to pep things up.”
John says, “I’d like to suggest you pull off more miracles, but more people need to see it so our crowds will get bigger.”
Pete agrees, and adds, “Publicity is essential, and you tell half the people you cure to keep it quiet. Let the word get around.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Judas adds, “I’d like tos ay that if we are going to continue to meet in this upper room, we ought to do something about the carpet…” (Adapted from Richard K. Wallarab, Christianity Today, January 17, 1979.)
Notice that verse 13 gives the correct measurement of real growth: “a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” That is our measurement of growth: are we like Christ? If our budget grows but we spend our budget on a bowling alley for church members instead of helping the hurting and sharing the gospel, we may be growing in numbers but not in Christ-likeness.
Healthy churches measure growth by being more like Christ.
5. Teaching that provides stability
“Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.” (Ephesians 5:14, HCSB)
Another great sign of a healthy church is that the Bible is so consistently taught, that the members aren’t tricked by heresy and false teaching. If some clever teacher comes into the church and tries to lead people astray, a healthy church recognizes it right away and puts a stop to it.
A decade ago, we had a powerful wind storm blow an oak tree on our youth building. The tree had shallow roots, and when the winds came, it fell. A healthy church that teaches the Bible is like a healthy tree with deep roots. It doesn’t fall under the pressure of false teaching.
6. Honest and loving relationships
“But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head– Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15, HCSB)
Healthy churches have honest and loving relationships. “Speaking the truth in love” means that we are honest with each other, we speak the truth, but we are also loving when we do it. We don’t just try to please each other. If something’s wrong, we deal with it, but we always seek to deal with it in love. That’s challenging, but it’s vital to having a healthy church.
Years ago, The Betty Ford Story aired on television. It was a movie that told the story of the addiction and recovery of Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald Ford. At one point in the film, there is an emotional scene where the family is sitting together confronting Betty Ford. Her son says, “Mother, you are destroying yourself; you are destroying this family, and you are killing yourself. Mother, you are a drunk; you are an addict.” His mother was infuriated. She told her son he was being very disrespectful and said, “How can you say these things to me? I am your mother!” Her son said, “Mother, I can say it because it is the truth.” As hard as it was, this confrontation was the catalyst for the establishment of the Betty Ford Clinic. (Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 333-334)
A healthy church is a place where people speak the truth in love. Relationships are honest and loving. We don’t play games or try to please people, but we go out of our way to love people.
7. An environment that encourages involvement
“From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” (Ephesians 4:16, HCSB)
Healthy churches create an environment that encourages involvement. “From Him (Jesus) the whole body, fitted and knit together… promotes the growth of the body…”
Many people think that it doesn’t matter if they are involved in the church or not, that the church won’t miss them if they are gone. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into flight. The whole nation was shocked. An investigation revealed that it happened because of one inexpensive O-ring. There were one million components in the space shuttle, but that one part destroyed the whole. Like the seemingly insignificant O-ring, one person failing to take his place in the church keeps the whole from being healthy. (Richard Swenson, Margin, 1992, p. 48)
A healthy church is a church where misfits can fit in. A healthy church is a place where the displaced can find a place.
This world is in desperate need of healthy churches in every community. Christian, are you allowing God’s Spirit to work through you to make and keep your church healthy?
I recently attended the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, where we elected our first African-American SBC president: Dr. Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans. Dr. Luter is an outstanding pastor, preacher and Southern Baptist leader. He took a congregation of 65 people and built it to thousands of members, only to see the membership decimated by Hurricane Katrina. He returned to rebuild the membership to over 4,500 in weekly attendance today. His church is a leading supporter of Southern Baptist missions. I am very excited that we have elected Dr. Luter, and I hope you will join me in praying for God to bless his leadership of our convention.
The convention also voted on changing the name of our denomination. By a 54-46% vote, messengers approved the proposal to keep the legal name Southern Baptist Convention, while at the same time encouraging anybody who wants to use a different name to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists.” I voted against this. The name “Southern Baptist” has come to stand for who we are. Changing actions is more important than changing our name. I felt that it was an unnecessary proposal, since churches do not have to use the name “Southern Baptist” in their local church name anyway to be affiliated with us, and even though the other name is just an alternative option, I feel that it will be confusing for us to be using two different names to refer to our denomination.
The convention passed nine resolutions and declined to bring forward some proposed resolutions. Resolution #3 was a hotly debated resolution affirming the use of a “sinner’s prayer” to express repentance and faith. Some people, such as David Platt, have criticized the use of a “sinner’s prayer” to give people a false hope that they are saved simply by saying a prayer, even when they have not repented of sin. The resolution affirmed that the Bible often speaks of crying out to God in faith, and that there is nothing wrong with asking people to repeat a “sinner’s prayer” of faith, as long as it is not used as manipulation or an incantation that does not include a full explanation of the gospel and expression of repentance. Makes sense, right? However, two amendments were proposed to this resolution, both of which failed. One amendment tried to completely delete the term “a sinner’s prayer.” This amendment was defeated. The other amendment tried to add specific language saying that salvation is available to all who hear and all may respond. This amendment was also defeated, since the resolution already said the gospel is offered to anyone who repents and trusts in Christ. Then the overall resolution was adopted. Apparently, the two amendments that were offered came from opposite camps in the debate over Calvinism. Some Calvinists have criticized the use of a “sinner’s prayer,” since they feel it is manipulative, and cannot bring salvation to a person unless that person is first chosen and called to faith by God. The other amendment, which stressed the availability of the gospel to all to hear and respond, seemed to be a direct attack on the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (the belief that Christ only died for the elect), since it was stressing a general appeal to all to believe. It is very interesting that both amendments were defeated; despite the controversy, the convention and most convention speakers seemed to desire to steer a middle course that is inclusive to both Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
Resolution #5 spoke out against the Obama administration’s violations and potential violations of religious liberty on several issues, such as the health care mandate for that violates the consciences of the Catholic church and other religious groups that do not wish to pay for contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs, and the threat to the ministry of military chaplains who do not believe in homosexuality, now that homosexuality is being approved by the military.
One resolution was of particular interest because it was not brought up for a vote. Dwight McKissic, an African-American pastor in Texas, had proposed a resolution against the racist statements in Mormon source documents. He was concerned that Mormons have been evangelizing people of color, without those people knowing that passages in the Book of Mormon such as 2 Nephi 5:21, Alma 3:6, 14 say that people with dark skin are cursed by God. An African-American member of the Resolutions Committee (I failed to get his name), said that the SBC has not been in the habit of speaking against specific religions, and implied that we didn’t want to set that precedent. He also said that since the Mormon church now allows people of color to be elders, we want to make sure we get our facts right before speaking on this issue. McKissic insisted that he still wanted the resolution to be brought up for a vote, because he said the Mormon church has never repented of these passages in their books, and the racist implications remain in Mormon “scripture.” However, the convention defeated Rev. McKissic’s motion to bring up his resolution.
Overall, it was a lively convention, attended by a little less than 8,000 registered messengers, full of inspirational reports from our International Mission Board and North American Misssion Board, great preaching and music. And of course, since it was a Baptist business meeting, there were as many different opinions as there were people in the room.
In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was organized in Augusta, Georgia, just a couple hours’ drive north of where I now live. However, we’ve come a long way since then, not just in miles or time.
In 1845, one of the main reasons why Southern Baptists split from the North was that the SBC wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Today, many SBC churches are integrated, including my own, African-American pastor Fred Luter is our vice-president, and Luter will probably be elected president this year at the convention meeting in New Orleans.
In 1845, all of our churches were in the South. Today, we are still concentrated in the South, but we have churches in all 50 states. One of our largest churches is in California.
The idea of changing the name, particularly dropping the word “Southern” in favor of something else, has come up many times in the past century, and has always been voted down. Now the Executive Committee of the SBC is passing along the following recommendation to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention: to keep the legal name Southern Baptist, while at the same time encouraging churches that do not wish to use that name to adopt the informal name “Great Commission Baptists.”
I have mixed feelings about this recommendation. Although this is not officially a name change proposal, it could lead to name “erosion” and confusion. Imagine two Baptists who meet and ask about each other’s churches. One says, “I’m a Southern Baptist.” The other says, “I’m a Great Commission Baptist.” They have no idea their churches are affiliated with one another. How does that unify us?
While the name “Southern Baptist” is negative for some, it has positive connotations for others, such as those who received assistance in SBC disaster relief efforts after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and for millions who found faith and Christian nurture in an SBC church.
I am a Southerner, but I grew up an Army chaplain’s son, and lived outside the South, as well. I remember that while attending a Southern Baptist church on Staten Island, New York, that “Southern” was not considered helpful to evangelism. After all, what New Yorker wants to join a “Southern” church? However, the church simply used the name “Baptist,” just as most SBC churches do in the South, including my own. My former youth minister, Jason McNair, who now serves in the Utah-Idaho convention, feels that a name change is a waste of time and energy and doesn’t address the most important issues.
If we earn a good reputation, people don’t care as much about the name. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is the name of a conservative Lutheran denomination. Lutherans looking for a conservative church are glad to find a church by that name, even if they are not in Missouri. It’s not the name that matters; it’s the reputation behind the name. After all, New York Life Insurance sells in Georgia, and Kentucky Fried Chicken sells in California.
Some claim that “Southern” is offensive to African-Americans. I asked this question of my former classmate Cathy McNair, an African-American who graduated with me from Petal High School in Petal, Mississippi. She said, “Well….used to…back in the stone age…it was pretty much understood that Southern Baptist was a synonym for Blacks need not attend….nowadays…not so much.” (By the way, Cathy said about the same thing as Jason, that spending time on a name change was ignoring “weightier matters.”)
Cathy makes an important point about the “used to” and “nowadays” of the Southern Baptist name. Although the name remained the same, the name gained a new reputation over the years, as Southern Baptists repented of the racial sins of the past and many SBC churches opened their doors to all races.
And here is the key: we must be known for what we are for instead of what we are against. Too often we are known as those people who boycott Disney and hate gays. We should be known as the people who love all people (gays included) enough to show them how to change. Our logo says it all. The cross, Bible and globe show what we are for: the gospel of forgiveness by faith in Jesus’ death on the cross, faithfulness to the Bible, and sharing this good news with the whole world. If we are known for these things, we will please our Lord, whatever name we choose to use.
I may vote in favor of the recommendation, since it keeps the legal name and only encourages those who already don’t want to use the SBC name to at least use the same name (“Great Commission Baptist”). But for me, the bottom line is, that it’s far more important for us to change our ways than to change our name.
(The Southern Baptist Convention will hear this proposal at its meeting in New Orleans on June 19-20, 2012.)
To read more on this subject, read these reports and blogs:
Official recommendation from the task force on a name change.
by Ed Stetzer, researcher with LifeWay Christian Resources, favors a name change, but feels changing our actions is more important. Many comments on his blog, many of them with objections to the name change.
by Benjie Potter, feels the name change proposal is silly, and offers a Southern Baptist revision of Shakespeare’s “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
(Below is a photograph of the historical marker in Augusta, Georgia, where the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845.)
Today, Monday, October 24, the church youth group from Centre Evangelique Protestant of Colombes France had a busy day visiting local schools in Rincon, Georgia.
On Monday morning, they visited Effingham Christian School. The French students sang and shared, and the American students asked questions about life and religion in France.
The rest of the morning and in the afternoon, the French students visited Ebenezer Middle School, a public school north of Rincon. They visited many classes and answered many questions about French culture. They also sang Christian songs in French.
At both schools, the French students were able to invite students to visit the youth rally on Wednesday night at First Baptist Church of Rincon.
Pastor Thierry says that they experienced a warm welcome in both schools and were very happy by how friendly everybody was. He also was impressed with the modern equipment and how clean the schools were. He said that he could tell the students showed respect for their school.